Duncan Hallas

Eastern European class societies

(Summer 1980)

Notes and Letters, International Socialism 2 : 9, Summer 1980, pp. 128–130.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

I read the article New theories of Eastern European class societies (IS2 : 7) with great interest. It was a most timely and instructive piece of work.

Particularly valuable was the demonstration of the politically indeterminate character of the ‘new form of class society’ analyses. Are these societies more progressive than western capitalism (as Fantham and Machover says they are “in their initial stages”), less progressive or simply equivalent? The answer depends entirely on the current political preoccupations and impressions of the ‘new form of class society’ theorists.

Thus when they had illusions in Mao’s China it, unlike the USSR was ‘progressive’. Now, without any real change in class structure or political superstructure, it is no longer so. In short these theories are not a guide to action. They are merely a smokescreen for the vacillations of impressionists.

This is not a new issue for our tendency. Long ago it was necessary for us to sharply distinguish our ideas from the various ‘bureaucratic collectivist’ trends, in particular that associated with the American group led by Max Shachtman. An article you cite, A critique of the theory of Bureaucratic Collectivism (IS, series 1, No. 32) was actually first published in 1952.

In it Cliff demonstrates that Shachtman and others like him fluctuated between the views that the USSR was “on a historically more progressive plane” (in relation to western capitalism) to “Stalinism is the new barbarism”; all depending on current views amongst the radical petit-bourgeois intellectuals in America. This was an issue of great practical importance, the western CPs were also ‘new barbarians’ during the Cold War for these people.

The present ‘State Collectivist’ trends in the European Left are essentially similar. What they have in common is a lack of any serious grounding in Marxism.

Unfortunately the Binns-Haynes article itself makes unwarranted concessions to these impressionists.

In particular the statement that “labour power cannot be a commodity in the USSR because with only one company (USSR Ltd.) purchasing it there cannot be a genuine labour market there. With this (considered purely on its own) we have no quarrel” (my emphasis – DH).

But we have and must have. What is at issue here is nothing less than whether there is a proletariat (in Marx’s sense) in the USSR or whether there is not.

To concede that there is not is to accept the substance of the ‘exceptionalist’ case and to undermine the fundamental basis of the bureaucratic state capitalist analysis.

If labour power is not a commodity in the USSR, then there is no proletariat. Moreover, if labour power is not a commodity then there can be no wage labour/capital relationship and therefore no capital either. Therefore there can be no capitalism in any shape or form.

Because, to return to basics, capital, for Marx, is “an independent social power, i.e., as the power of part of society it maintains itself and increases by exchange for direct living labour power” (my emphasis – DH).

No exchange, no capital. Exchange requires wages and therefore money (the generalised commodity) and the production of commodities – goods produced for sale.

If it is indeed the case that there is no commodity production in the USSR, and no real money (as Ticktin et al. argue), then the USSR is not capitalist. It must be a new method of extracting surplus product from an exploited class which is not a proletariat.

It simply will not do to brush aside this argument with references to slavery in the USA before 1863 because as every serious student (Marxist, liberal or conservative) agrees, the USA was a bourgeois republic – the product of a bourgeois revolution (1774–83) – and that slavery was never the dominant relation of production at any time.

Again this is not a new issue for us. Shachtman and many others argued that the working people in the USSR were, in effect, slaves. We rejected this.

Of course, the matter has to be decided on empirical grounds. The question of whether or not a particular theoretical analysis is or is not appropriate to a given system is, as Marx himself said, an empirical matter.

This is why Cliff, in the article Binns and Haynes cite and elsewhere, devoted considerable space to demonstrating that Russian workers are in fact ‘free’ in Marx’s sense (free both from control of the means of production and from servitude to a particular enterprise). He proved that, in spite of various legal restriction, the turnover of labour in enterprises even in the period of high Stalinism was greater than anywhere else in the world. And today we have the situation of big wage premiums (20 to 25%) offered to workers who will take jobs in Eastern Siberia.

Slave owners do not have to offer premiums. Of course, slavery, real slavery, existed in the USSR on a considerable scale from the early thirties till the early fifties but it was never the dominant relation of production and it is now economically insignificant.

I will summarise what seems to me to be irrefutable.

First, the majority of the actual producers in the USSR are free wage earners – proletarians.

Second their remuneration is in rouble notes – in money, real money which is a genuine means of exchange.

Third, they spend this money on commodities, on goods produced for sale and not administratively allocated as rations, ‘army issue’ or otherwise.

Fourth, that therefore wage labour and commodity production exist on a large scale in the USSR.

Fifth, that the wage labour/capital relation is the dominant relation of production in the USSR and that, irrespective of causation, constitutes the essential capitalist feature of the regime.

Sixth, that to slur over these facts, or to make concessions to the ‘new form of class society’ impressionists is not only to risk sinking to the level of a Ticktin but, more important, is to lose one’s way politically.

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