Ernest Mandel

Some comments on H. Ticktin’s Towards a Political Economy of the USSR

(Autumn 1974)

From Critique, No.3, Autumn 1974, pp.23-26.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Several differences between the analysis of the Soviet Union contained in my ten theses, traditionally defended by the Fourth International, and the analysis contained in Ticktin’s paper, are of an essentially semantic nature. Some examples will show this.

Ticktin tries to reject the idea that the bureaucracy is a ruling privileged stratum in the Soviet Union by stating that it is not the case, and has not been for several decades, that “anyone who has a job in an office” is automatically a privileged person in the USSR. [1] He is right. But does it follow from that that the ruling and privileged group in the USSR is only the “elite of the bureaucracy”? Everything depends on the definition of “bureaucracy”. I would agree with Ticktin that a definition which Trotsky sometimes uses (“anyone who has a job in an office”) could lend itself to misunderstandings of the type on which Ticktin bases his argument. I would most strongly deny, however, that only the top layer (“the elite”) of “office workers” is materially privileged.

The correct definition of the bureaucracy, it seems to me, is that of a social layer which comprises all those who exercise management (leadership) functions in any sector of Soviet social life: economy, state, army, science, arts, etc. All these people are materially privileged. Their number is much larger than that of a small “elite”. It probably goes into several millions. This group retains the control and administration of the social surplus product. It has a monopoly of power at every level of society. It cuts off the mass of the workers, the producing peasants, and a large part of the intelligentsia from direct participation in decision making, at least at power level. It reflects, in Marxist terms, and in the broad (“macro-social” and not only “macro-economic”) sense of the word, the division of labour between production and accumulation. From the point of view of Marxist conceptualisation it is, therefore, justified to use that category of bureaucracy as a socially relevant one, much more than that of “technocracy” (what is Brezhnev a “technician” in?).

Whatever may be the sectoral differences of interests which undoubtedly exist in its ranks (of which Ticktin underlines that between those at the centre and those administrating plants), there is a common social interest which binds it together to keep a monopoly of power, because it is the basis of important privileges (in the field of consumption).

Ticktin begins by stating that you can understand the functioning of the Soviet economy neither in terms of planning nor in terms of the market. He then goes on to say that its “central dynamic” is “self contradictory”. “In other words, we find not one central dynamic but one which is compounded of several conflicting laws or tendencies reflecting the social groups in society”. [2] Possibly. But this is just a paraphrase, not a definition in Marxist terms. Am I mistaken when I say that the “self-contradictory central dynamic” is exactly the same thing as the hybrid and self-contradictory combination of the logic of the plan and the logic of maximum private appropriation of consumer goods by the rulers of society, which I indicate as the basic contradiction of the Soviet economy? After all, Ticktin himself states that “the enterprise salaried personnel” is “only interested in maximizing their own personal welfare”. [3]

Ticktin criticises a sentence of mine which states that “the bureaucracy has no political, social or economic means at its disposal to make the defence of its own material interests coincide with the mode of production from which it draws its privileges”. [4] He goes on to say that, insofar as the bureaucrats occupy a certain necessary function in production, they occupy a specific production relation. If they were to be removed, there would be either total collapse or another system. [5] But this is obviously begging the question: Into what production relation does the Soviet plant manager find himself inserted? Evidently not only that of “commanding the workers” (quite incompletely, be it said in passing; one of the merits of Ticktin’s paper is to have brought this out clearly). He also finds himself in a specific relation with other managers: those of the plants or shops which deliver raw materials and machines, and those of the enterprises which take over the finished goods produced in the factory which he manages.

Now it is my contention that this production relation – to formulate it in a general way: the specific inter-relationship between different economic units – can basically take only two forms: the form of the market or the form of the plan (“a posteriori” adjustment or “a priori” decision). I, therefore, conclude, in conformity with everything which Ticktin writes, that the way in which the bureaucrats operate, in order to maximise their consumption, disorganises the plan. Ticktin replies that this form of production relation is not bureaucratically centralised planning at all. If you replace bureaucratic management by democratic workers management (“social control”), you will get “another system”, namely, “real planning” instead of “bad administration”. The dispute is again evidently semantic. Likewise one could say that under monopoly capitalism there are no longer any “real market forces” at work, but only “monopolistic competition”, which is something “quite different”. You can then change the basic two-fold subdivision of the forms of objective socialisation of labour from two, into four, five, six, etc. At the end of the operation, however, the annoying question will arise, whether the difference between “competitive capitalism” and “monopoly capitalism” in their mutual relation to the market, is not much slighter than the difference between, say, monopoly capitalism and the Soviet economy; whether the difference between a “centrally and wastefully administered economy” and “real socialist planning”, in their mutual relation to planning, is not qualitatively smaller than that between a “centrally and wastefully administered economy” and monopoly capitalism. As the answer to these questions is obvious, we are back where we started, i.e. with the recognition that the Soviet economy is a bureaucratically deformed, degenerate and wasteful variant of a planned economy ... but a variant nonetheless of a planned economy and not of a non-existent “third form” of socialisation of labour, neither spontaneous nor conscious ...

Our main difference with Ticktin, which is not semantic but substantial, relates to “the central economic feature of the USSR today” which he identifies as “waste”. This is a slight exaggeration when it concerns a country which became mysteriously transformed (through pure waste of resources?) from an underdeveloped country into the second industrial power of the world within a generation. It would be much more correct to say that the “central economic feature of the USSR” is growth plus waste, growth in spite of (“growing”) waste, real growth beside growing waste. This is a rather pungent synthesis of the “contradictory central dynamic” to be sure. But it characterises the USSR as something quite different from a stagnant or retrogressive society which is basically wasteful and nothing else (e.g. the Roman Empire in its decadence).

Ticktin’s refusal to admit a contradiction between the logic of central planning and the material self-interest of the bureaucracy leads to paradoxical results. He is forced to formulate rhetorical questions which remain without answers. Why doesn’t the “central administrative elite” admit workers’ control and social control over the planning mechanism, if not because it is afraid of losing its material privileges? Why is there a conflict between the “planners” and the factory managers, if not because the logic of the plan (i.e. the fundamental drive to recognise all labour as immediately social which results from the suppression of private property and private labour) works against management practices which are exclusively attuned to maximising the consumer needs of the managers? Why do the managers hoard (and waste) raw materials, equipment, etc., if not in order to maximise their income? Why would the introduction of a profit-system as the basis for calculating the management’s rewards not operate any basic change in this, as long as planning subsists (i.e. as long as “market forces” and individual plant managers cannot determine prices, wages, and investments)? Answering these questions allows one to understand the basic contradictions of Soviet society much better than through putting a unilateral emphasis on waste, and waste alone.

Ticktin correctly states that the trend towards the strengthening of market forces implies a trend towards restoration of capitalism. He also correctly states that this trend cannot break through qualitatively, without previously disposing of the resistance of the workers (to the re-introduction of a “free labour market”, i.e. right of managers to fire workers among other things. Though this would not be the only aspect of Soviet society which the workers would defend. We have the feeling that they would likewise resist the private appropriation of the plants by foreign or native owners.). This prognosis, which dovetails nicely with our analysis, leads, however, to a striking gap in Ticktin’s definition of Soviet society.

When Trotsky states that the workers in capitalist countries should defend their democratic freedom against a fascist threat, he phrased this as a defence not of the bourgeois state but of the “embryonic elements of proletarian democracy within bourgeois society”. Would Ticktin say that the absence of a labour market and the existence of the proletariat’s right to job security in the USSR are just “embryonic elements of socialised planning” in a “wastefully administered society”? The dispute would at first seem semantic. But the absurdity of such a position soon appears. Permanent job security and the absence of a labour market are just not side issues or some secondary aspects of the social system. They are part of the basic relations of production in the USSR. Together with others, they justify our definition of that society as still being a society in transition between capitalism and socialism (which is synonymous with a workers state), albeit an extremely bureaucratised and wasteful one, where the removal of the bureaucracy’s monopoly of power and of bureaucratic mismanagement through a political revolution, through the establishment of workers democracy and workers management, would open the road to socialism without having to undergo the birthpangs of a new social revolution, and without having to remove a “social system” in favour of a completely new one.



1. All references to H.H. Ticktin: Towards a Political Economy of the USSR, in: Critique, No.1, Spring 1973 - Here p.38.

2. op. cit., p.22.

3. op. cit., p.32.

4. op. cit., p.34.

5. op. cit., p.35.


Last updated on 20.2.2005