Chris Harman

Dialectically speaking

Revolt against capital

(January 1990))

From Socialist Worker Review, No.127, January 1990, p.10.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

MARX NOTED long ago that although people make their own history, they are often themselves deluded as to what they are doing. The great upheavals in Eastern Europe bear out both sides of this observation.

History has been reshaped by the crowds taking over the streets of East Berlin, Sofia and Prague. Yet many of those in the crowds have suffered from a great delusion – that their revolts have been directed against socialist regimes.

In fact they have been directed against capital, and not any old sort of capital but capital in its most concentrated form – state capital.

State capitalism was the characteristic form assumed by capitalism for a whole period of the twentieth century. The weaker elements in a world system saw no way to protect themselves against the pressures from stronger rivals other than to merge together into national blocs, protected from the outside and directed from within by the state.

The trend was particularly marked in the less developed parts of the world, where it was seen by sections of indigenous ruling classes and by middle classes anxious to partake in the benefits of “modern” civilisation as the only way to survive in the face of pressures of established capitalisms.

So it was that in most of Eastern Europe there was a marked tendency to statification of the economy as early as the 1930s. It was also the case that virtually all the non-Communist political parties of the area saw no other way of coping with the devastation confronting them after the end of German occupation in 1944 and 1945.

This was an important part of the reason they could not put up resistance to the Stalinisation of their societies in 1945-48. The Stalinists carried to its logical conclusion a policy which the bourgeois and social democratic parties also accepted.

Czechoslovakia in February 1948 was free of Russian troops. Yet all it required was a concentration in Prague of border troops, a series of peaceful demonstrations and a one hour general strike to replace what most people saw as capitalism (with more than 60 per cent nationalisation) with what was claimed to be socialism (with more than 80 per cent nationalisation).

The structure of the ruling class differed from that of West European and North American state monopoly capitalism in that the pressures of the different enterprises were focussed on a highly centralised political machine, which subordinated to itself all other layers in society through the one party system.

But this was not a feature unique to Eastern Europe. It has also occurred to a greater or lesser extent in many other less economically developed capitalisms – witness Taiwan, Syria, Egypt, South Korea and Brazil under military rule. Indeed, there are very few economies, East or West, which have achieved the accumulation rates typical of Eastern Europe without a dictatorial one-party structure.

Such levels of accumulation require that capital stops other social classes organising. And that in turn requires that any symptom of dissidence, even within the ruling class itself, is systematically stamped out.

But state capitals can never quite be absolute masters of their own economies. For, despite the mythology of Stalinists and free marketeers alike, they have always had to cope with external economic competition.

For any capital, its very success in competing in one period can lead to immense problems in a later one. This explains the scale of the crises of the Eastern states. Their economies went further than most others in the direction of state capitalism which at the time permitted an unparalleled direction of resources to capital accumulation.

Today, however, the forces of production have developed to the point where successful enterprises worldwide tend to be those that straddle national boundaries, drawing upon multinational resources and developments in technology. State capitalisms, by definition constrained by national boundaries, are increasingly hindered when it comes to competing with them.

The restructuring towards state capitalism of the late 1940s now has to be replaced by a restructuring away from it under the slogan of the “market” and “privatisation”. What begins to emerge is not, however, the “private” capitalism dreamt of by the Friedmanites, but a system in which capitals intertwine with each other internationally while still using national states to mobilise resources on their behalf.

The restructuring of capital always causes cracks to appear within capitalist classes themselves, as the proponents of old methods of accumulation clash with the proponents of new methods. These cracks in turn provide space for those exploited by the system to mobilise on their own behalf.

This is what we have seen in Eastern Europe in the last months. And what mobilisation! The repressive structures used to sustain accumulation have concentrated the anger of intellectuals, students, lower bureaucrats and workers into a mighty force directed against them.

For the moment, most of those who took to the streets seem content to place their hopes on the proponents of restructuring.

But this is a phase which cannot last indefinitely. The restructurers are as committed to accumulation as the old Stalinists and accumulation is impossible, at the end of the day, without some degree of repression. As nomenklatura capital renegotiates its links with multinational capital both will want order to be restored in the factories and the streets.

How long it takes them to turn to new forms of repression will depend on the scale of the economic crisis in different countries. So too will the intensity of that repression. But some move in that direction is inevitable everywhere. And with it will come an understanding among at least a minority of radical activists that what they saw as a revolution against socialism was in fact a clash with capital.

Last updated on 29 May 2010