Tony Cliff

Marxism at the Millennium

Chapter 5
The Stalinist regime – state capitalism


Nine years ago the Berlin Wall collapsed. Shortly afterwards the Stalinist regimes in Eastern Europe and Russia followed suit.

Fifty-one years ago, in 1947, I came to the conclusion that the Stalinist regime was state capitalist. I wrote a couple of books to develop the theory. But of course one cannot be sure of one’s own ideas unless the test of events confirms them. The collapse of the Stalinist regime made it possible to confirm or refute the theory. If one doctor tells a patient he has cancer and another that he has tuberculosis, when a post-mortem is carried out after his death one can find out who was right.

The collapse of the Stalinist regime makes such a post-mortem possible. If Russia was a socialist country or the Stalinist regime was a workers’ state, even though a degenerated or deformed one, the collapse of Stalinism would have meant that a counter-revolution had taken place. Of course workers would have defended a workers’ state in the same way that workers always defend their unions, how ever right wing and bureaucratic they may be, against those who try to eliminate the union. Workers know from their own experience that the union, however feeble, is a defence organisation of workers, Workers in a unionised workplace earn higher wages and have better conditions than if there are no unions.

Did the workers in Russia and Eastern Europe defend the regime in 1989-91 Of course not. There workers were completely passive. There was less violence at the time than during the miners’ strike in Britain in 1984-85. The only country where the regime was defended, and violently, was Romania. But there it was not defended by workers, but by the Securitate, the secret police.

Secondly, if there was a counter-revolution, the people at the top of society would have been removed. But characteristic to the collapse of the Stalinist regime was that the same personnel, the nomenklatura, who had managed the economy, society and politics under Stalinism, continued to be at the top. The years 1989-91 were not a step backward or a step forward for the people at the top, but simply a step sideways.

Therefore, it is clear that there was not a qualitative change between the Stalinist regime and what exists at present in Russia and Eastern Europe. As at present no one denies that the regime is capitalist – ergo, it was capitalist before.

The birth of state capitalism in Russia

The October Revolution of 1917 brought the working class to power in Russia. The impact of the revolution internationally was absolutely massive. Workers’ revolutions took place in Germany, Austria, Hungary, and mass Communist parties rose in France, Italy and elsewhere. Lenin and Trotsky were absolutely convinced that the fate of the Russian Revolution depended on the victory of the German Revolution. Without it, they repeated again and again, we are doomed.

Tragically, the German Revolution (1918-23) ended in defeat. The lack of a revolutionary party with experienced cadres doomed the revolution. Again and again we see proletarian revolutions that did not end in victory for lack of a revolutionary party: Spain and France 1936; Italy and France 1944-45; Hungary 1956; France 1968; Portugal 1974; Iran 1979; Poland 1980-81.

The defeat of the German Revolution in 1923 led to a swing to wards pessimism and right wing adaptation in Russia. Stalin campaigned openly against Trotsky in 1923. He was aided by the fact that Lenin was on his deathbed and out of circulation for about a year. Trotsky’s explanation of the rise of Stalinism as the product of the isolation of the Russian Revolution and pressure of world capitalism was absolutely correct. Hence his description at that time of the Stalinist regime as a degenerated workers’ state was apt.

However, what happens if the pressure of world capitalism goes on and on. Will the quantity of the pressure change its quality?

If a mad dog attacks me I need to be symmetrical to it. If it uses violence I have to use violence. Of course my teeth are not equal to his, so I have to use a stick. If I kill the mad dog, the symmetry ends. If the mad dog kills me the symmetry likewise ends. But what happens if I am not strong enough to kill the mad dog, he isn’t strong enough to kill me, and we are trapped in the same room for months on end? Nobody will know the difference between the mad dog and me.

The Soviet regime was attacked by the armed forces of Germany, Britain, the United States, France, Italy, Japan, Romania, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, Turkey. These armies, together with the White Russian armies did not manage to beat the Red Army. On the other hand, the revolutionary government of Russia did not manage to beat the capitalist governments of the world. So in the end the pressure of world capitalism forced the Stalinist regime to become more and more similar to that of world capitalism. The laws of motion of the economy and of the Russian army were identical to those of world capitalism.

When in 1928 Stalin declared that within 15 or 20 years Russia would have caught up with the advanced industrial countries, it meant that in the period of one generation Russia would achieve what took Britain over 100 years of the industrial revolution. In Britain it took three centuries for the enclosures to get rid of the peasantry to facilitate the development of capitalism. In Russia the peasantry were expropriated in three years by so-called “collectivisation”.

Tens of millions of peasant families were expropriated and forced into the collective farms to facilitate the squeezing of surplus grain out of them to be sold on the world market to buy machinery, and also to feed the millions of new industrial workers cheaply. Millions were sent into slave camps in Siberia, the gulags. The horrors of Stalin’s collectivisation reminds one of Marx’s description of the enclosures in Capital Volume I. He writes, “Capitalism from its birth to its death is covered in blood and mud.”

Slave labour in Russia reminds one of the role of slavery in the United States in oiling the wheels of American capitalism, and also the role of the slave trade in developing capitalism in Britain: “The walls of Bristol are covered with the blood of the negroes.”

When Stalin built his industrial-military machine he had to start from a much weaker base than the countries he faced, but with ambi tions no smaller than theirs. If Nazi Germany had tanks and aeroplanes, the military machine that Stalin built could not reflect the productive forces of Russia (after all, in 1928 the peasants had no tractors but wooden ploughs, the sokha) but had to reflect those of Germany.

The industrialisation of Russia was very much orientated on building heavy industry as the base for the armaments industry.

One piece of research I did that I found extremely interesting was to compare the production of the different five-year plans. I found the targets of the first, second, third, fourth and fifth five-year plans and compared them. (In Russia under Stalin nobody would have dared to do this.)

When it comes to heavy industry, the target for steel for the first five-year plan was 10.4 million tons; for the second, 17 million, the third 28 million, the fourth (resulting from the war) 25.4 million, and the fifth 44.2 million. It is clear the graph is shooting steeply up wards. The same applies to electricity, coal, pig iron, etc.

When it comes to consumer goods the picture is completely different. For example, cotton goods: the first five-year plan target was 4.7 million metres; the second 5.1; third 4.9; fourth 4.7. Thus over 20 years the target did not rise at all. For woollen goods the picture is even more dismal. The first five-year plan aimed to raise production to 270 million metres; the second to 227; the third to 177; the fourth to 159. The targets cut production over 20 years by nearly 40 percent.

Russia was very successful in producing sputniks, but not in producing shoes.

Capitalism is dominated by the need for capital accumulation. Ford has to invest otherwise he will be beaten by General Motors. Competition between capitalist enterprises forces every one of them to invest more and more, to accumulate more and more capital. Com petition between the capitalists also forces every one of them to in crease the exploitation of the workers. The tyranny of capital over workers is the other side of the coin of competition between capitals.

The same applies to the Stalinist tyranny towards the workers and peasants of Russia. The harsh exploitation, including the gulag, was the by-product of the competition between Russian capitalism and other capitalist powers, above all Nazi Germany.

Since 1947 I have never used the words Soviet Union or USSR. Both are complete lies. There were no soviets in Stalinist Russia. In all elections there was only one candidate standing in each constituency (the same as in elections in Nazi Germany), and he never got less than 99 percent of the vote, and not more than 100 percent, except in one case. In the 1947 election to the Supreme Soviet Stalin got over 140 percent. Pravda the next day explained: people in neighbouring constituencies came to vote for Stalin to show their enthusiastic support. Usually the result of the voting was announced after the poll took place, except in one case: in a 1940 referendum in Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia regarding joining the USSR, TASS, the Moscow news agency, made a mistake and announced the result one day in advance of the vote. The London Times therefore published the results before the vote took place.

We can’t call it union. Union is a voluntary association. There was no more union between Ukraine and Russia than between India and Britain. It was an empire, not a union. The third letter in USSR, the S, stands for socialist. Russia was not socialist, but state capitalist. The last letter, R, stands for republics. They were not republics, i.e. democracy, but totalitarian tyranny.

Arguments against the theory of state capitalism

Three main arguments are brought forward to discount the theory of state capitalism. First, capitalism is identical with private property. In Russia the means of production was state owned, not privately owned.

Secondly, capitalism is not compatible with planning. The Russian economy was a planned economy.

Thirdly, what was necessary in Stalinist Russia was to carry through a political revolution to change the government structure, and that’s all, while under capitalism what is necessary is to carry through also a social, not only a political revolution.

We shall deal with each of the arguments in turn.

In 1847 Proudhon, a muddled French socialist, wrote in his book, The Philosophy of Poverty, that capitalism is equal to private property. Marx, in a scathing critique of Proudhon, entitled The Poverty of Philosophy, wrote, “Private property is a juridical abstraction.” If private property is equal to capitalism, than under slavery we had capitalism because there was private property; under feudalism we had capitalism because there was private property. Proudhon’s ideas are a mish mash. The form of property is only a form, it does not tell you the content. There can be private property with slavery, with serfdom and with wage labour. If someone says, “I’ve a bottle full of stuff,” it doesn’t tell you what the stuff is. It can be wine, it can be water, it can be rubbish. Because the container and the content are not the same, it means the same content can be put into different containers. The water can be put in a bottle, in a glass, in a cup. If private property can contain slavery, serfdom and wage labour, then of course slavery can be with private property and with state property. The pyramids of Egypt were built by slaves. I’m sure no slave said to another slave, “Thank heaven we are not working for a private owner but for the Pharaoh, i.e. the state, that owns us.” In medieval times the dominant relations were between serfs living in villages and the feudal lord of the manor. But there was another kind of serfdom-serfs working on church property. The fact that the church was not owned by individuals did not make the burden of the serfs on church lands any lighter.

About the second argument, that in Stalinist Russia there is a planned economy, while under capitalism there is no plan. Not correct. The characteristic of capitalism is that there is a plan in the individual unit, but no planning between units. In the Ford factory there is a plan. They will not produce one and a half engines per car, nor three wheels per car. There is central command about how many engines, wheels, etc they produce. There is a plan, but there is anarchy between Ford and General Motors. In Stalinist Russia there was a plan for the Russian economy, but there was no plan between the Russian economy, and, let us say, the German economy.

The third argument about differentiation between a political and a social revolution falls flat in a situation where the state is the repository of the wealth. In France in 1830 there was a political revolution. The monarchy was overthrown, the republic established. This did not change the social set-up because the owners of wealth were the capitalists, not the state. Where the state is the repository of wealth, to take the political power from the rulers is to take their economic power. There is no separation between political and social revolution.

Stalinism disoriented and demoralised the international working class movement

Once Stalin took complete control of the Russian government he subordinated the Communist parties everywhere to the needs of Russian foreign policy.

A few examples. On the eve of Hitler’s victory in Germany, when Trotsky called for a united front of all workers’ organisations to stop the Nazis, Stalin called the Social Democratic Party of Germany “social fascists”, and Trotsky also.

When, a couple of years after Hitler’s victory, the right wing French prime minister, came to Moscow and signed an alliance between France and Russia, there was a new tune: Communists should support democratic France. They henceforth voted for the military budget in France, and so forth.

In August 1939, after the Hitler-Stalin pact, the Communist parties took a new turn. When Poland was occupied on the West by Nazi Germany and on the East by Russia, Molotov, foreign minister of Russia, declared, “One blow from the East and one blow from the West and this ugly creature of the Versailles Treaty is no more.” It is true that Poland was an ugly creature. But Molotov could have added, three million Jews were no more, and millions of Poles were no more.

I shall never forget the editorial in Pravda on 1 May 1940, that spoke of the two peace-loving nations, the Soviet and German nations, and that was Hitler’s Germany.

When in June 1941 Germany invaded Russia the line of the Stalinist parties changed radically. Again and again in Pravda appeared the slogan, “The only good German is a dead German.” In 1943 I read a story in Pravda by Ilya Ehrenburg. He described how a German soldier, facing a Soviet soldier, put his hands up and said, “I am the son of a blacksmith.” This was clearly a class statement. What was the reaction of the Russian soldier? Ehrenburg reports that he said, “You are still a bloody German,” and bayoneted him.

The zigzags quite often caught local Communist Party leaders out. A couple of months after the beginning of the Second World War I was arrested, and was in the same prison as the general secretary of the Palestinian Communist Party. When the war broke out he thought that it was an anti-fascist war, as he had argued for months before. So he decided to volunteer to join the British army. But government wheels move slowly, and after two months he got a reply to his appeal, saying he could leave prison and join the army. But meanwhile he found out that the war was not an anti-fascist war, so he refused to leave prison and join the army. There were four Trotskyists in the prison, and we used to say we were prisoners, but that Meir Slonim, the general secretary, was a volunteer prisoner. As a matter of fact the zigzags in the Communist Party were demonstrated in one street of Haifa. On one wall appeared the slogan: “Long live the anti-fascist war. PCP [Palestinian Communist Party]”; next to it another slogan: “Down with the imperialist war. PCP”. When Germany invaded Russia in 1941 another slogan appeared, “Down with Hitler and his secret ally, Churchill. PCP”. Shortly afterwards another slogan appeared: “Long live the Red Army and its ally the British army. PCP”. And all these slogans referred to one and the same war.

Towards the end of the war, when the revolutionary upheavals in Europe were massive, the Communist parties carried out the Moscow policy of dousing the fires. In August 1944 the French underground, led by the Communist Party, kicked the German army out of Paris. Maurice Thorez, general secretary of the French Communist Party, flew from Moscow and declared in Paris, “One army, one police, one state.” And so the French underground was disarmed.

In Italy it was again the resistance movement, led by the Communist Party, that managed to break the hold of Mussolini. But Togliatti, general secretary of the Italian Communist Party, rushed from Moscow to declare support for a government of allies of the king, who had collaborated with Mussolini, and the generals, who were friends of Mussolini.

We can go on and on giving more and more examples of the betrayal of the revolution in one country after another by the Stalinist parties. The revolutionary potential at the end of the Second World War was much greater than at the end of the First. The Stalinist par ties played a crucial role in preventing this potential from becoming actual.

The significance of the theory of state capitalism

For over 60 years Stalinism had massive support in the international working class movement. It pushed revolutionary socialism, Trotskyism, to the margins. The appeal of Stalinism as Communist was extremely significant.

Now, with the collapse of the Stalinist regime in Russia things have changed.

In February 1990 Eric Hobsbawm, the guru of the British Communist Party, was asked, “In the Soviet Union, it looks as though the workers are overthrowing the workers’ state.” Hobsbawm replied, “It obviously wasn’t a workers’ state, nobody in the Soviet Union ever believed it was a workers’ state, and the workers knew it wasn’t a workers’ state.” Why hadn’t Hobsbawm told us this 50 years ago or even 20 years ago?

The extreme ideological disorientation of the British Communist Party is clearly demonstrated by the minutes of their Executive Committee meetings in the wake of the collapse. Nina Temple, general secretary of the party, said:

I think the SWP was right, the Trotskyists were right that it was not socialism in Eastern Europe. And I think we should have said so long ago.

Reading Nina Temple’s statement, one need but think what would have happened if the Pope declared that God does not exist. How would the Catholic church survive?

The disarray among the Stalinist parties throughout the world is overwhelming. Those of us who declared Russia to be state capitalist long before the collapse of the Stalinist regime established a bridge head to the future, preserved the authentic tradition of Marxism, of socialism from below.

The Stalinist parties worldwide had massive support. Stalinism affected many socialists who considered themselves to be non-Stalinist or even anti-Stalinist. The Achilles heel was the wrong conception of what Stalinism really was. They considered Stalin to be the heir of the revolution, not its gravedigger. There is as much in common between Stalin and October as between the Catholic church with its wealth and the oppression of the poor and the Inquisition, on the one hand, and the carpenter of Nazareth who overturned the usurers’ table and said, “It is easier for the camel to go through the eye of a needle than for the rich man to go to paradise.”


Last updated on 12.12.2002