Isaac Deutscher 1955

Russia in Transition

Source: Dissent, Winter 1955. Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

In the Summer 1954 issue of Dissent there appeared an article by Isaac Deutscher, entitled ‘The Future of Russian Society’, in which he developed his views on the nature of Stalinism. These views were subjected to criticism and comment in the same issue by Lewis Coser and by Henri Rabassière; in the fall 1954 issue by Pierre Tresse; and in the present issue by Paul Willen. As announced at the beginning of this discussion, Mr Deutscher was invited to reply to his critics. His reply follows – The Editors.

* * *

The Editors of Dissent have invited me to wind up the controversy which has gone on in these pages over my views on the present state of Soviet society. Before replying to my critics I would like to make a preliminary remark about the origin of this controversy. My essay which appeared in Dissent under the title ‘The Future of Soviet Society’ was originally published in the French Esprit under the title ‘A Reply to Critics’ [1] – it was not in fact intended to cover a subject as wide as the future of Russian society. The Editors of Dissent introduced the essay with the words that it was ‘perhaps the most systematic and concise exposition’ of my theories. While I appreciate the kind intention which prompted them to make this remark, I cannot claim to have attempted anything like a systematic exposition of a theory. To my mind it is still too early for any serious analyst to develop a systematic theory on the transition period through which the Soviet Union is passing. I have only sketched a highly tentative analysis and a working hypothesis.

In saying this I am not prompted by conventional modesty but by the overwhelming sense of our being placed right in the middle of a deep, confused and fluctuating tide; a position from which it is legitimate and necessary to try and gauge the main direction of the tide, its impetus and its cross-currents, but from which it may well be impossible to measure faultlessly impact, distance, flux and reflux, and to obtain a clear view of the horizon. After the French Revolution at least half a century had to elapse before historians and social analysts had gained enough perspective to be able to see and judge the meaning and the effects of the revolution, to grasp the discrepancy between its objective significance and its subjective reflections in the minds of its contemporaries, and to decipher the conflicting class interests hidden behind universal symbols, ideas and slogans. Yet it took the great French Revolution only a quarter of a century before it had run its full course. The Russian Revolution, for all the diversity of its successive phases, is, towards the end of its fourth decade, still with us; and it will be with us for a long time to come. We are still placed in relation to it in a position much more comparable to that from which people viewed the French Revolution in the early years of the nineteenth century than to that from which Marx or Tocqueville could look back on that revolution. However convinced I may be of the correctness of my views, that conviction is always mingled with an uneasy awareness of a possible or even inevitable discrepancy between the objective aspect of the Russian Revolution and our subjective ideas or illusions about it. No open-minded student of Soviet developments can fail at present to see them in a perspective different from that in which he viewed them ten, fifteen or twenty years ago. And who can say how the image of the revolution will define itself when it is viewed and focused from new vantage points ten or twenty years hence, not to speak of a more remote future?

For the present, however, we must view that image from the vantage point given to us. And even from this we should be able to advance our understanding. What I must reproach my critics with is that they seem to have formed more or less dogmatic views from obsolescent or obsolete vantage points. I am probably not alone in being struck by the extent to which views on the Soviet Union expressed in the West lag behind the times. In the 1930s people were inclined to view Russia through a prism through which it may have been legitimate to view her in the 1920s. Few, very few were then aware of the chasm between the Leninist and the Stalinist phases of the Soviet regime. Similarly the Russia of the 1940s, not to speak of that of the 1950s, is often analysed in terms which might have been appropriate for use in the 1930s. A similar time-lag occurs, of course, in our thinking about any other nation: it is only part of the general lagging of the human mind behind the material changes, open and latent, in social life. But the time-lag is most pronounced in our thinking about Russia, because hardly any contemporary nation changes so significantly from decade to decade as Russia does. I do not intend to deny the element of historic continuity. I myself have tried to trace many features of the early Russian Tsarist Empire in contemporary Russia. But together with continuity there is also the strong and rapid flux of life which threatens to overtake and does overtake the onlooker.

Industrialisation and Social Progress: I have tried to throw into relief the profound effect of Soviet industrialisation on the outlook of Soviet society. My critics do not deny the bare fact of industrialisation or even its effects in general. It is, after all, somewhat difficult to deny these after Russia has so dramatically, and with such unexpected rapidity, broken the American monopoly of atomic power. It is only when the scope of industrialisation and its specific social consequences come under discussion that the time-lag in the critics’ thought becomes so embarrassingly apparent.

‘Will Mr Deutscher tell us precisely what was achieved there beyond rapid increases in the quantities of specific products?’, asks, for instance, Mr Tresse. Is it really necessary to point out that extremely rapid increases in vast quantities of important ‘products’ (increases by which one of the most backward nations has become the world’s second industrial power within the lifetime of a single generation) are bound to produce certain qualitative changes in the life of a country, its standard of living, its self-confidence, its attitude towards its own problems and the problems of the outside world? It might have been right to argue about the Russia of the 1930s in the manner in which my critic does it: then indeed the quantitative changes brought about by industrialisation were not yet important enough to result in qualitative transformation. But the Russia of today is separated from that of twenty or thirty years ago by a gulf in many respects at least as wide as that which separated the United States, say, of 1930 from the States of 1830. Unless we take this fact as the starting point of analysis we are likely to get the perspective out of focus.

Mr Tresse compares the Stalinist industrialisation with the achievements of the ‘Westernising Tsars’ and concludes that ‘both the Westernising Tsars and Stalinism equipped backwardness rather than did away with it’. (Elsewhere he says that Stalinism has only made Russian backwardness dynamic.) Is Mr Tresse merely playing with words or is he exhibiting a desperate mental resistance against absorbing the vastness of a new phenomenon? In comparison with Stalinist industrialisation the work of the ‘Westernising Tsars’ represented only ephemeral and insignificant episodes. Those Tsars had indeed merely equipped Russian backwardness for certain limited, predominantly military, purposes of local or regional significance. Peter the Great could only break open a ‘window to Europe'; but he left the whole economic edifice of Russia more or less unaltered. Under Stalin that edifice was remade to its foundations, prodigiously expanded and modernised, while its windows to the outside world were slammed, blocked and hermetically sealed. To ‘equip backwardness’ on the scale on which Stalinism has done it means to do away with that backwardness or, at any rate, to produce the essential prerequisites for its abolition.

‘Through its economic developments’, the argument runs further, ‘Stalinism has armed the Russian state with an unprecedented power. But this is far from being matched by social gains for the people.’ Granted. I have argued with a certain emphasis that it is precisely this contradiction between Russia’s new economic power and her low standards of living, between the new wealth of the nation and the old poverty of the people, that is at the root of the post-Stalin crisis. But together with the emergence of that crisis have also appeared the material means for its solution. By themselves these means are not enough; but without them no solution and no real ‘social gains’ would be possible. The Russia of the 1930s, to go back no further, lacked the industrial resources necessary for a substantial and general rise of the standard of living, while the resources of post-Stalinist Russia are vast enough to sustain such a rise, to some extent even while the armament race is on. (It is interesting to find that this seems also to be the view of so orthodox an American economist as Professor JK Galbraith, who wrote in The Reporter in May 1953 that ‘Russian output is growing at a faster rate than our own’ and that ‘both the Soviet Union and the United States may already be at or beyond the point where additional steel capacity can make a decisive contribution to war potential’. In other words, according to Professor Galbraith, further expansion of the Soviet steel industry – and this applies to Soviet heavy industry at large – serves civilian, not military purposes. When it comes to open-minded study of the facts, some writers of the anti-Stalinist Left could still profitably learn a great deal from a good orthodox bourgeois economist.)

Mr Coser writes:

Now Mr Deutscher claims that as Russian society increases its wealth and the general level of living also increases, the differential privileges may no longer be sought after as eagerly in the future. But is he really prepared to argue that the Russian national income will in the foreseeable future rise to such level of abundance that differential access to the pool of wealth will lose its importance? Surely, one cannot believe that so sophisticated an analyst can be that naive. If most of the goods in Russia were ‘free goods’ as, say, water is in the Eastern part of the United States, no competitive struggle over it would be likely to arise, but does one seriously need to discuss this alternative?

It is distressing to find one’s views so conveniently reduced by one’s critic to an absurdity. Of course, I am not prepared to argue that the Russian national income will in the foreseeable future rise to such levels of abundance that ‘differential access to the pool of wealth’ will lose its importance. But there may be – did it not occur to Mr Coser? – some intermediate stages between the present low Soviet standard of living and that millennium in which ‘most of the goods in Russia are “free goods” as, say, water is in the Eastern part of the United States’. For example, Russia may reach a Western European standard of living in the near future, a prospect which is, incidentally, seriously discussed by many economists. But whatever the prospects, the last years have already brought an appreciable improvement. It may be advisable to take sceptically a recent statement by MZ Saburov, head of the State Planning Commission, that real wages and salaries were in 1954 seventy-four per cent higher than in 1940, and nearly 100 per cent higher if social services were included. But suppose the rise was only of the order of forty to fifty per cent – this would still be a remarkable advance.

A rise in the standard of living does not imply that differential wages and salaries (’the differential access to the pool of wealth’) will lose all their importance; but they are sure to lose part of it. Behind the wild, almost zoologically individualistic scramble for means of subsistence which characterised social relations in Stalinist Russia, a scramble to which Stalinism incited the people and which it hailed as ‘socialist competition’, there loomed the grim and oppressive background of Russian poverty. Workers, peasants, bureaucrats and the intelligentsia, and within each social class and group its individual members, fought tooth and nail for their ‘shares’ in the national loaf; and the shares could not be but extremely ‘unfair’ as long as the loaf was so small that it could not meet even the minimum needs of the vast majority. But with the growth of the national loaf the competition for ‘shares’ does tend to become less savage and more civilised; the shares can at last become more ‘fair’. The millennium of equality is far, very far off; but the gross inequality of the Stalin era is no longer rooted in an economic necessity as it had been. The awareness of this is taking hold of peoples’ minds and impels them to react against the privileges of the few and the misery of the many.

In Russia: What Next? I ventured the forecast that the most important development of the post-Stalin era would be a new ‘cry for equality’. That cry, still muffled and timid, is nevertheless quite unmistakably going up. It forces the ruling group to raise the output of articles of mass-consumption above all planned targets. It forces them to launch the drive against privileges illegitimately obtained and corruption in the bureaucracy itself. The cry can be heard in the protests of writers and poets, at the moment the most articulate section of Soviet society, against the demoralising effects of the Stalin Prizes, and of the fantastically high fees and other favours enjoyed by the regime’s minions and laureates. It can be heard in the new Soviet satire which has known some revival since Stalin’s death and tends to become, as of old, a weapon of social criticism. Can one seriously doubt that behind these literary manifestations of a revulsion against Stalinist inequality there is a strong popular feeling which presses and weighs on practical politics?

I am told that in emphasising the progressive implications of Russia’s industrialisation, I am ‘clinging’ to ‘old-fashioned nineteenth-century ideals and illusions’. ‘THERE IS NO REASON TO ASSUME ANY KIND OF AUTOMATIC CORRESPONDENCE BETWEEN A HIGHER LEVEL OF INDUSTRIAL DEVELOPMENT AND “GENERAL CIVILISATION.”’ Mr Coser impresses this on me with all the emphasis of a sentence printed in capital letters. ‘Such an equation of industrial and cultural advances, such an assumption that technological progress must necessarily bring – even if through a few detours of history – greater human progress seems to me to ignore much of the evidence of recent history.’

Again, our controversy would have been much more fruitful if the critic had not – how should I put it? – so oversimplified my views. I have nowhere assumed any ‘automatic correspondence’ between a higher level of industrial development and general cultural advance. The evidence of recent history shows indeed that nations which have reached a very high level of industrial development may plunge into barbarism, if their social and political consciousness and organisation fail to keep pace with technological progress. ‘Old-fashioned’ nineteenth-century Marxism did not have to wait for the evidence of Nazism (or for that matter of McCarthyism) to see that. ‘Socialism or barbarism’ – this was the alternative it had posed precisely before highly industrialised capitalist nations as early as in the middle of the nineteenth century when the alternative still sounded merely like a dramatic figure of speech. But the point is this: technological progress is not enough to secure social and cultural advance; but without it no such advance is possible. Man may master the blind forces of nature and still be a wretched slave to the blind forces of society. But as slave to his natural environment he cannot have even the faintest hope of ever being able to master his destiny in society.

Intellectuals in New York, London or Paris, who would never dream of denying themselves in daily life any of the facilities which modern technology has placed at their disposal, may turn philosophically supercilious noses on the progressive implications of modern technology. But let them try to persuade the Indians or the Chinese that it is a matter of little cultural significance whether Indian, Russian or Chinese villages – in these villages there still lives half of mankind – are lit by electric light; whether they have water and roads; whether they have enough doctors and medical supplies to fight disease and plague; whether they have fertilisers for their farms; and so, and so on. We are not arguing, I suppose, about the metaphysics of progress. We are not considering the somewhat elusive point whether the medieval craftsman, or the Chinese coolie, or the peasant of the obshchina was not in his way ‘happier’ than is the modern industrial worker; or whether it would not be better for the salvation of the Russian peasant’s soul that he should till his land with a wooden plough rather than with a tractor. In the world such as it is, such as it has been formed by industrial revolutions and centuries of capitalism, no social progress at all is possible for the overwhelming majority of mankind without rapid and massive technological and industrial development. Russia’s industrialisation by itself offers no positive guarantee of a rise in ‘general civilisation’, but it does offer a negative guarantee – it removes the decisive obstacle of industrial backwardness from the road of advance.

But what reason have I to assume, I am further asked, that industrialisation and a higher standard of living may help Soviet society to free itself from the fetters of a totalitarian system and foster a democratic evolution? Once again, I assume no ‘automatic correspondence'; and I have repeatedly pointed out that a new brand of authoritarianism, perhaps some sort of a Bonapartist regime, may eventually replace Stalinism. But it is true that I have in my working hypothesis placed a greater emphasis on the prospect of Russia’s departure from totalitarianism and of her gradual democratic evolution. I shall perhaps be excused if I confess that I do not seem to be able to follow Mr Rabassière’s otherwise interesting argument when he speaks about a third possibility, namely the development of a ‘totalitarian democracy’. I fear that he is using political terms without considering their accepted meaning. Democracy, whether bourgeois or proletarian, is government by consent rather than by coercion; it implies a certain freedom of political controversy and criticism and a certain freedom of association. Totalitarianism, a denial of all these freedoms, is ‘monolithic’ coercion. A totalitarian democracy seems to me a contradiction in terms – watery fire or white blackness.

To return to the main argument, there exists a certain (un-automatic, complex) correspondence between a nation’s industrial wealth, standard of living, and the character of the political institutions under which it lives. A prolonged rise in standards of living, whether in capitalist or post-capitalist society, entails a mitigation of class struggles and a softening of social tensions, which makes it possible for rulers to rule by consent, and for society to use its freedoms of expression and association without splitting itself into uncompromisingly hostile camps. It is, after all, not an historic accident that the only countries in which bourgeois-democratic regimes have remained more or less intact and stable over the lifetime of generations are the United States and Great Britain, the two countries with the greatest wealth and the highest standards of living. In all other Western nations bourgeois-democratic regimes have been, as a rule, only interludes between dictatorships. I submit that an analogous interdependence between social wealth and the character of political institutions may manifest itself in post-capitalist society as well.

Totalitarianism can hardly be considered as merely a sinister manifestation of man’s evil nature or of the evil nature of various ruling classes, or as the mysterious bursting of history’s wrath upon our heads, as some writers of the anti-Stalinist Left are inclined to see it. What various ruling classes and groups have found in the totalitarian state is the all-embracing and hermetic instrument for the repression of cataclysmic social tensions. The nature and background of those tensions differ from country to country, and need to be analysed specifically in their own contexts. In Russia those tensions sprang from the contrast between the promise of the new society made by the revolution and the inability of the revolutionary regime to fulfil the promise in conditions of inherited poverty and utter ruin and isolation. Stalinism prevented the main classes of Soviet society, the workers and the peasants, from pursuing their fundamental conflicts to the bitter end; and it prevented both classes from revolting against a bureaucracy which carved out for itself an extremely ‘unfair’ share of the national income and ruthlessly levied from society the heaviest contributions towards ‘primitive socialist accumulation’.

From ‘Primitive’ to Normal ‘Socialist Accumulation’: Stalinism was, in Marxist terms, the political and ideological superstructure which corresponded to ‘primitive socialist accumulation’. That accumulation had been started on an extremely low level of productive forces, a level at which the surplus of the national income was far too small to allow a sufficient rate of accumulation. Decisive contributions towards the fund of accumulation had to be derived from the wages of workers and the incomes of the collectivised peasantry. ‘Primitive socialist accumulation’ (which to pre-Soviet Marxists, including Bolsheviks, would have sounded like a contradiction in terms) [2] was by its nature a violent attack upon the immediate economic interests of all social classes, an attack carried out by the state sponsoring the accumulation. Society could not be expected to submit willingly: it could not but resist the attack and oppose violence to violence. It had therefore to be deprived of all capacity for resistance and of all means for self-expression if primitive socialist accumulation, at the rates fixed under the successive plans, was to succeed.

Primitive socialist accumulation is now either coming to a close or has entered upon a very advanced stage. The accumulation loses or is about to lose its primitive character. The Soviet productive apparatus has grown vast enough to ensure continued large-scale expansion from its own internal resources, from its own surplus product, without heavy contributions levied on wages and peasant incomes. The condition of the Soviet steel industry may be seen as both an illustration and an index of the general situation. With an annual output of four to five million tons that industry was not in a position to ‘finance’ its own rapid expansion from its own resources. It could not, to put it in popular terms, rely for its growth on ploughing back its own profits. Its workers and the workers of other industries and the mass of the peasants were all heavily taxed in one form or another to ‘finance’ the process. But with an annual output of 40 million tons the Soviet steel industry – and the same is true of Soviet industry at large – should be capable of continued and rapid development by means of self-expansion and ‘self-finance’. [3]

The Soviet economy has reached, in other words, the stage of transition from primitive to normal accumulation. For its further progress industrialisation does not need to resort to that depression of wages and to that plunder of the peasantry to which it had in such large measure owed its impetus during a quarter of a century. To be sure, the transition is by no means easy. The inertia of the economic and social habits of primitive accumulation is strong. Further expansion depends not only on an abundance of means of production; it also requires an enlargement of the industries which turn out means of consumption; and the relatively low productivity of farming may be an important limiting factor. But in its heavy industries the Soviet economy possesses the decisive levers for the overcoming of most of these difficulties.

At this momentous change-over from primitive to normal accumulation the Stalinist superstructure outlives its day, because the state’s violent attack upon the immediate interests of all classes of society, the attack which has lasted a quarter of a century, relents and comes to a standstill; and the social tensions, which Stalinism could keep from exploding only by means of monolithic control, slacken and decline.

But – ‘By what means of analysis does Mr Deutscher determine that at precisely this stage of Russian economic development Stalinism is rendered anachronistic?’ I am, of course, not determining this by means of theoretical analysis only. A conflict between the structure and superstructure of society is likely to be a protracted process, running through diverse phases of acute crisis and slow movement; and no theoretical analysis can determine the point at which the conflict may come to the surface. All that analysis can do is to foreshadow the conflict, to investigate it when it materialises, and to consider the factors involved. Whether Stalinism is rendered anachronistic precisely at this stage is a matter not of abstract analysis but of empirical observation. I formulated my analysis some time before Stalin’s death, but events have since increasingly borne it out; and the terms of many of my prognostications are already becoming the commonplaces and clichés of political commentators, even of those who at first described them as products of wishful thought. (Readers may compare, for instance, Mr George Kennan’s criticism of my Russia: What Next? with his latest views expressed in Realities of American Foreign Policy. In his criticism entitled ‘Did Stalin’s Death Change Anything?’ Mr Kennan answered the question in the negative. In his latest work he says that the Russian regime is now evolving from Stalinism into a new and different phase just as it once evolved from Leninism to Stalinism.) That the present regime is breaking, or rather sneaking, away from Stalinism can be seen from a series of innovations in domestic and foreign affairs, innovations which I need hardly summarise here, even if some of my critics have not noticed them.

The next objection which calls for an answer is:

Mr Deutscher does not seem to expect that a fundamental democratisation of Russian society will come about through a political revolution, through mass-activity; ... he expects the privileged minority, and he will pardon me if I put his expectations in a somewhat crude way, he expects the privileged minority to commit suicide, to abolish its own privileges.

(I readily pardon my critic – but is the ‘somewhat crude way’ really necessary?)

In fact there is no historical precedent known to this writer in which a ruling class has voluntarily given up its privileges, except under the extreme duress of actual or threatening revolutionary development.

It is a welcome change to be for once reminded of so ‘old-fashioned’ a Marxist truism. As a rule, dominant classes do not indeed give up their privileges, except under ‘extreme duress’ of revolution. But there are exceptions to every rule. History does record quite a few cases in which ruling or possessing classes gave up some privileges under the pressure of economic or social necessity, not of ‘revolutionary development’. I have discussed one of these instances, the abolition of serfdom by Tsar Alexander II in 1861; and I have tried to show in what respect this precedent may be relevant to the present situation. The Russian landlords were induced by the Tsar, ‘the First Landlord of the Land’, to give up the ‘privilege’ of owning the peasantry as chattel slaves. They were not compelled to do so by civil war as the slave-owners of the Southern States were. They freed their serfs not under the threat of a revolution, with which no class of Russian society was then able to confront them, but in the interest of a modernisation and rationalisation of the Russian economy and of an incipient capitalism. British ruling groups extended the franchise to their working classes by slow degrees over many decades; and they did this in part under popular but not necessarily revolutionary pressure, and in part for the sake of general social efficiency. The same may be said of Bismarck’s reforms in Germany. Neither the British ruling classes, nor the German Junkers, nor the Russian landlords ‘committed suicide’. I do not see why we should rule out in advance the prospect that the needs for higher economic and social efficiency, to mention for the time being only these, may induce Soviet bureaucracy to give up some of its privileges, which is hardly the same as committing suicide. There are, on the contrary, some good reasons for considering this prospect very seriously.

I have admittedly left open the question how far that bureaucracy may go in promoting reforms. I do not know the answer to this question, and the answer cannot at present be obtained by means of any theoretical analysis – it can only be given by the balance of social forces, by the relative impacts of real pressures and counter-pressures, and by unfolding events.

The Social Character of Soviet Bureaucracy: Soviet bureaucracy is a social phenomenon without precedent. We know about it too little to be able to gauge accurately its strength and outlook, the degree of its social unity, cohesiveness and consolidation, or the extent to which it has or has not crystallised into a distinctive, self-centred, self-disciplined, self-conscious and self-perpetuating social body. We do not even know what portion of the national income it appropriates – the Soviet ruling group conceals the information. The concealment indicates that it has a vested interest in keeping Soviet society unaware of the real cost to society of the ‘services’ of the managerial groups. But the concealment also suggests that to Soviet bureaucracy itself its privileges appear illegitimate and ill-gotten, and that its social conscience is tormented to an extent to which the conscience of the bourgeoisie never was. The ‘managerial class’ may not be inclined to commit suicide; but so far it has not even had the courage to announce its historic birth.

It is a truism, but one which may be usefully repeated, that Soviet bureaucracy derives its benefits and privileges and position in society only from its functions of management and administration performed in a publicly-owned economy, not from any form of ownership of the means of production. The whole outlook of Soviet society has so far prevented the managerial elements from using their functions in order to establish themselves as a propertied class. Their privileges are economically confined to the sphere of consumption, a characteristic which cannot be found in any dominant class of the past, each of whom owed its supremacy to ownership of means of production (or of labour force) and was animated by a fervent and proudly proclaimed conviction of the sanctity of its property. What makes any possessing class in any type of society into an organic entity is the uniformity of the property relationship within which its members live and act vis-à-vis one another and vis-à-vis other classes. However divided against itself any class may be, its unity is inherent in the fixed and enduring framework of that relationship.

No such ties bind Soviet bureaucracy into a distinctive social entity. That bureaucracy has no private or sectional property relationship to defend. Its functions of management and command are in principle acquired by competence, skill and political ‘loyalty’ (whatever the tests by which these are defined); and they are therefore neither enduring, nor hereditary in the sense in which property was. [4] To be sure, the functions of management and command carry with them extraordinary benefits and privileges. But the basis of those benefits is extremely shaky and seems incapable of historic consolidation; and the importance of the benefits, and consequently the tenacity with which they may be defended, depends on the general background of social poverty or wealth. The bureaucracy was probably the only element in Soviet society which was exempt from carrying the economic burden of ‘primitive socialist accumulation’ and free to profit by it. By the same token, the sharp contrast between managerial ‘prosperity’ and general want is bound to be appreciably softened with the transition from primitive to normal accumulation.

The argument may perhaps be put in simpler terms. The bulk of the bureaucracy has enjoyed a standard of living well above that of the unskilled and semi-skilled workers and peasants, but hardly higher than the standard enjoyed by skilled Soviet workers, and certainly not higher than that of the lower middle classes in wealthier capitalist countries. The privileges of the vast majority of bureaucrats consist in their being able to feed, clothe and house themselves and their dependents more or less adequately, to give higher education to their children, and so on. These were important privileges against a background of general want; but they cease to be privileges as adequate food, housing and education come within the reach of the majority. The main division of Stalinist society was not one between slum and mansion, but one which set the slum-dweller and barrack-dweller against the owner or user of a three- or four-roomed flat or of a small-sized house. As long as living in such a flat or house is an unrealisable dream to the average citizen, this social cleavage is and must remain very real indeed. But it cannot be solved by means of class struggle and expropriation as the conflicts between landlord and peasant and worker and capitalist were solved. Because the social antagonism is, in its economic aspect, wholly confined to the sphere of consumption, it can be mitigated and finally resolved only by a greater abundance of means of consumption.

As far as the vast majority of the bureaucracy is concerned (not, however, its upper-most stratum) it is not at all a requirement of social progress that they should ‘abdicate’ their economic privileges. Progress would require not that the mass of the bureaucrats should be levelled down but that the mass of the workers should be levelled up and enjoy at least the still modest standard of living attained by the average bureaucrat; but this is no longer an economic impossibility. As the standards rise the bureaucrat will, of course, strive to get six or seven rooms for himself, and he will insist on getting them even before the worker obtains two or three. The competition for ‘differential access to the pool of wealth’ will go on; but it may be expected to grow milder; and this is of some political consequence. It took the whole terror of the GPU to give the bureaucrat his ‘social security’ in the midst of hungry, half-naked and virtually homeless people. No such terror is needed to protect his ‘prosperity’ from people rising above the borderlines of poverty. The bureaucrat himself who struggled with gruesome cruelty to get his three-roomed accommodation, that is, to satisfy a minimum need, is not likely to show the same sordid savageness in his striving to obtain six rooms and other marginal improvements of his living.

Thus, the privileges enjoyed by the vast majority of the bureaucracy have neither stability nor permanence; they are likely to lose some of their importance with the general rise in well-being; and they are not substantial enough to produce anything like a class antagonism or to impel the bulk of the bureaucracy to cling to the totalitarian terror as to the safeguard of privilege.

But what about that upper stratum whose members surely enjoy privileges and a standard of living comparable to those of the old Russian aristocracy, or of a Western financial oligarchy? Here indeed is the conundrum. It is difficult to answer this question, because we are not in a position to measure the scope and the social significance of the privileges usurped by the upper stratum. In the early phases of primitive socialist accumulation the upkeep of the Stalinist oligarchy represented probably a considerable faux frais [5] in the general balance of national expenditure; but it seems to me doubtful whether this can amount now to more than a marginal item of ‘wasteful consumption’. I may be mistaken about this – unfortunately, the relevant data are not available. But even if those privileges are much larger than I am inclined to assume, they do not form ties of solidarity between the beneficiaries even remotely as solid as those that are formed by a property relationship, consolidated and consecrated by age-old tradition and fetishism.

Mr Coser reminds me that:

Marx once observed that if open access to privileged position would be the only test for the degree of democratisation of a society, the Society of Jesus would have to be considered a most democratic institution. In other words, even if it should be proved that there still exists free access to top positions in Soviet society this would in no way prove its democratic character.

What relevance has this to our controversy? I have nowhere used the argument about ‘free access to the top positions in Soviet society'; and I certainly do not consider Soviet bureaucracy ‘a most democratic institution’. I am nevertheless grateful to the critic for having brought in this point, because it may help to make my argument clearer. Can one imagine a fully-fledged class society without landlords or capitalist entrepreneurs but only with the Society of Jesus as its dominant class? The Society of Jesus, or for that matter the Catholic clergy at large, does not represent a social class based on any specific property relationship. The social predominance of the Church was part of the feudal order. With the transition to capitalism that predominance lapsed; the Counter-Reformation and the Society of Jesus strove to hold the ground against Protestantism by adapting Catholicism to the needs and the mentality of a rising middle class. The clergy played the roles which it did play only within definite social settings formed by the property relationships of the basic social classes, of whom it was not one (except when the Church itself was a feudal landowner, and a section of the clergy was integrated with the landlord class, and acted as its brain and conscience and mouthpiece). The Society of Jesus is certainly not a democratic institution; but, even together with all the other Catholic orders, it could never create around itself and its interests any distinctive social order in the sense in which the feudal landlords and the bourgeoisie did. If Soviet bureaucracy is to be compared with the Society of Jesus, then the question must be asked: is it any more capable than the Jesuitic order would have been of forming a new type of a class society, solely on the basis of the defence of its own privileges, without any propertied class in the background?

A hierarchical organisation of society is not the same as a class structure growing out of a definite form of ownership of means of production. Such a hierarchical organisation without a corresponding property relationship is a spongy, protoplasmic growth, lacking social backbone, fluid and protean, incapable of historic consolidation. Despite all the despotic control which Soviet bureaucracy has exercised over society for several decades, it still seems to me to be sociologically not more than a giant amoeba.

No Socialist Tradition’ In Russia? The basic forces of Soviet society are still the working class and the peasantry; and it is still as the mouthpiece of the one or the other or as the absolutist arbiter over both that bureaucracy exercises its supremacy. How much of that supremacy it can preserve and how much it may yield in the long and in the short run seems to me to depend primarily on the attitude of the basic classes, the state of their political consciousness and organisation and their political energy or apathy.

Precisely [says the critic], the crucial fact about industrialisation in Russia is precisely that it has been accomplished at the price of a complete elimination of socialist organisation. The socialist tradition is practically non-existent in Russia today since the great bulk of the Russian working class, peasants only ten or twenty years ago, has never been allowed to come into contact with it. To the mass of Russian workers socialism simply means the present regime. They are culturally more isolated, more incapable of acquiring political knowledge, more incapable of learning about the socialist tradition than were the Russian workers at the turn of the century.

This is a sweeping generalisation composed of half-truths. It is true that the Russian working class is now less capable of independent organisation and action than it was at the turn of the century. This, incidentally, is not the price it has paid for industrialisation. It had lost its capacity for independent organisation, and all such organisation had been eliminated by the Bolsheviks, almost a decade before Stalin’s industrial drive. It was in the revolution and the civil war that the Russian working class had spent its energy and exhausted itself as a social force. Its exhaustion led directly to the ascendancy of the bureaucracy: it was primarily because of the post-revolutionary torpor of Soviet society that the huge amoeboid growth acquired its stranglehold. Having secured its ascendancy, the bureaucracy then did all it could to keep the working class, as all other classes, in a state of political impotence; and it was assisted in this by the fact that ‘the great bulk of the Russian working class’ were ‘peasants only ten or twenty years ago’, lacking in social consciousness and absorbed in quasi-zoological competition for scarce means of subsistence. In this respect socialism has really been thrown back in Russia a long, a very long way.

But does this justify the critic’s description of the present state of affairs and his pessimistic conclusion? Frederick Engels once wrote about the United States:

The Americans may strain and struggle as much as they like, but they cannot discount their future – colossally great as it is – all at once like a bill of exchange: they must wait for the date on which it falls due; and just because their future is so great, their present must occupy itself mainly with preparatory work for the future, and this work, as in every young country, is of a predominantly material nature and involves a certain backwardness of thought...

In a different context these words can a fortiori be applied to the Soviet Union which has been so engrossed in its material progress that it has paid for it with a ‘certain backwardness of thought’. But once a definite stage of material progress is reached, the advance of thought is sure to begin anew with unprecedented vigour and on a higher level than ever. Even the backwardness is relative only. It is not true that ‘the socialist tradition is practically non-existent in Russia today’, or that the Russian working class has not been ‘allowed to come into contact with it’. Willy-nilly, Stalinism itself persistently instilled essential elements of that tradition into the mind of the working class, although it did so in its own ecclesiastical – bureaucratic manner. (In the Soviet educational curriculum the socialist tradition, after all, still looms larger than in any school curriculum in the world.) But what has instilled that tradition even more effectively than any Agitprop or any educational curriculum is the ‘propaganda’ exercised by the mere existence and continuous expansion of a publicly-owned and planned economy, which forms the habits of life of immense masses of people. No matter what the Russian worker thinks of Stalinism, or of the present ambiguous sequel to it, he has grown to take for granted public ownership of the means of production, and to look upon private ownership as upon a relic of a dark past to which the West seems to cling for unaccountable reasons. It is true that the Russian workers show no sign of that magnificent revolutionary spontaneity with which their grandfathers voiced their social protest and joined clandestine Social-Democratic circles half a century ago. Yet, apathetic and inarticulate as the Soviet working class may still be, its mentality is in a sense more deeply permeated with socialism than was that of its revolutionary forebears. The belief that the future of society lies in freeing itself from the scourges of property and in common ownership is now rooted in its thinking with all the strength of a popular prejudice almost comparable to the American belief in ‘private enterprise’ – and in this lies a triumph of socialism. [6]

It is futile to argue about social consciousness in general, for there are various degrees and types of consciousness. The political awareness of an élite of workers and intellectuals such as was fostered in Russia by the early Marxist propaganda does not exist there today. One sheet of Plekhanov’s and Lenin’s Iskra contained more of that type of awareness than can be found in the whole political literature of the Stalin era. But whether or not a political and literary élite expounds sophisticated ideas is not the only test, important though it is, by which the social consciousness of a nation is judged. The ideas advocated by the Marxist élite half a century ago have since become, in vulgarised form, the property of many millions. Vulgarisation of complex ideas is regrettable; but it has so far been the characteristic accompaniment of any cultural advance of the masses; and only such a broad advance creates a solid and enduring background for the growth, at the next stage, of social consciousness in depth.

‘To the mass of Russian workers socialism simply means the present regime.’ Does it? Why then does the present ruling group go out of its way to create at least the impression that it is bent on reforming and improving the regime? A characteristic phrase which crops up more and more often in Soviet writings is that the work of various Soviet organisations ‘is not up to the demands of the rising social awareness of the masses’. This is probably more than a ritualistic cliché: such words seem to reflect an uneasy feeling in the ruling group itself that to the mass of workers socialism does mean something more and something better than the present regime.

To sum up. My critics seem to me, on the one hand, to exaggerate the bureaucracy’s intrinsic social strength and its ability to obstruct Russia’s progress, and, on the other, to underrate the potential capacity of Soviet society for higher forms of consciousness and independent action. It is on the balance of these factors that the future of the Soviet Union depends: the direction and the tempo of its development, and the question whether reform or revolution (or counter-revolution?) will eventually do away with the totalitarian system. The balance is imponderable. So far we have seen a number of changes and reforms from above, and little or no indication of a revolutionary development.

Yet the same critics who believe that to the mass of Russian workers ‘socialism simply means the present regime’ hold it against me that I do not ‘expect that a fundamental democratisation of Russian society will come about through a political revolution, through mass activity’ and that I ‘count most of all on a reform from above’. How revolution from below is possible while the masses allegedly lack all social consciousness is my critics’ secret. As to myself, I think that the reforms from above can only initiate, but not complete, Russia’s socialist democratisation; and that they can do so only to the extent to which they stimulate the growth and the expression of a new social consciousness and political action ‘from below’. However, I am not convinced that that action will necessarily take on revolutionary forms.

* * *

Now it is my turn to ask the critics to pardon me if I say that the passion with which they argue for revolution in Russia is to me somewhat amusing. They seem to have inherited the passion for a revolution in Russia, though little else besides, from Trotsky who could not help being deeply and personally involved in the Soviet struggle. Yet it is not on our prognostications that the course of events in Russia depends. Russian history will go its way without taking any notice of whether we in London or New York favour reform or revolution in Moscow. When Mr Willen accuses me that I display the ‘utmost callousness’ to the fate of 800 million people suffering under an ‘historic necessity’, which I am supposed to defend, I can only wonder how a theoretical forecast of revolution in Russia can alleviate the fate of those millions.

However, to conclude from my attitude that I place my ‘confidence in the wisdom and essential benevolence of the Soviet ruling class’, that I ‘justify the suppression of efforts from below to alter the Soviet system’, or that my ‘primary allegiance is to the new class of educated Soviet bureaucrats’, is straining the argument much too far. [7] I am surprised to see the habits of ill-famed loyalty investigations brought into this controversy. Of what sort of a Loyalty Board does Mr Willen think himself a member to pry thus into my ‘primary allegiance'? I admit that I prefer the ‘educated Soviet bureaucrat’ to the uneducated, because I believe that the former can play a more progressive role than the latter. My critic may disagree; he may even prefer the uneducated – de gustibus non est disputandum. [8] But my primary allegiance – need I say this? – is not to the bureaucrats, educated or uneducated, of any country, but to the oppressed, the persecuted and the deceived peoples of the world.


1. Isaac Deutscher, ‘A Reply to Critics’, Heretics and Renegades and Other Essays (Hamish and Hamilton, London, 1955), available on the MIA at < > – MIA.

2. The conception is not of Stalinist origin, however – it was first formulated and developed into a positive programme by Trotsky and even more explicitly by Y Preobrazhensky, the most eminent of Soviet anti-Stalinist economists.

3. I am using the terms ‘finance’ and ‘self-finance’ metaphorically only. The money aspect of accumulation has actually been of secondary importance. What I have in mind is that at the present high level of output the real surplus product is or is becoming sufficient for adequate ‘expanded reproduction’.

4. The story of Stalin’s son, Vassili, is a minor yet almost symbolic illustration.

5. Faux frais – additional expenses – MIA.

6. It is enough to talk even with recent refugees from the Soviet Union to realise this. None of the younger refugees will accept otherwise than with utter horror any suggestion of a restoration in Russia of private ownership of the means of production.

7. The best reply to such ‘criticism’ has been given in a long and thoughtful essay on my writings by M Jean Pouillon, a French writer who does not seem to share all my assumptions. M Pouillon writes about my alleged justification of Stalinism: ‘A curious justification it is which affirms the probable disintegration of its object and does it in a manner held by the same critics to be too confident. The critics have the right to reject Deutscher’s thesis but not to project onto it their own incoherence.’ (Les Temps Modernes, June 1954)

8. De gustibus non est disputandum – ‘Of tastes there is nothing to be disputed’, or ‘There is no accounting for taste’ – MIA.