Marx and Soviet Reality. Daniel Norman (1955)

VI: Slaves and Millionaires

The Revolution abolished the right to private property and reduced the difference between highly-paid and ill-paid workers to a decent minimum; but it did not bring equality. This situation was more or less maintained up to 1928, when Stalin started his campaign against the old ‘leftist equalitarianism’, and by 1931 he had decided to ‘throw the old system overboard’ completely.

But the trend was set as early as 1920 when, under Lenin’s personal impulse, ‘collegial direction’ was discarded in favour of the individual manager, appointed from above, and the basis of the new bureaucracy was thus laid. By 1936 the beneficiaries of this economic policy – the civil and military bureaucracy, the intelligentsia, the management personnel – had done so well and the new inequality was so firmly established that the new class considered the time had come to legalise its position.

The ‘Stalinist Constitution’, thus, was the work of ‘the victorious class after a successful battle’, to use Engels’ phrase, concluded with the final extermination of those who made the Revolution. To protect their newly-acquired wealth, it reintroduced the right to private property and the right to inheritance. But, say Stalin & Co, private property in the USSR is ‘acquired through work’: the ‘dachas’ (five-roomed, elegant country cottages) and the ‘Zim’ and ‘Zis’ limousines owned by the Russian moneyed class, are, we are begged to believe, not paid for out of the ‘surplus value’ of the working class, but are the product of the personal labour of the respective millionaires – a sort of Socialist ‘primitive accumulation’.

One cannot help remembering the irony of Marx’s fairy tale on the origins of the so-called primitive accumulation:

In times long gone by there were two sorts of people; one diligent, intelligent, and above all, frugal Úlite; the other, lazy rascals, spending their substance, and more, in riotous living... Never mind! Thus it came to pass that the former sort accumulated wealth, and the latter sort had at last nothing to sell except their own skins. And from this original sin dates the poverty of the great majority that, despite all its labour, has nothing to sell but itself, and the wealth of the few increases constantly although they have long ceased to work. (Capital, Volume 1, Chapter 26)

It is not to be credited that he would have come to any other conclusion faced with the Russian version of this story than he did a century ago – ‘such insipid childishness is every day preached to us in defence of property’ (ibid).

But, says Soviet propaganda, the real wages and the wellbeing of the people of the USSR are ‘systematically’ increasing, which shows the superiority of the Russian ‘Socialist’ system over its capitalist vis-Ó-vis. Marx’s contention is that ‘just as little as better clothing, food and treatment do away with the exploitation of the slave, so little do they set aside that of the wage worker... such an increase only means at best a quantitative diminution of the unpaid labour that the worker has to supply’. And under the ‘most advanced’ form of state capitalism, where the ‘differentia specifica of capitalist production’ is ‘rather pushed to an extreme’, there is no danger that, as in the case of the capitalist system, ‘this diminution can ever reach the point at which it would threaten the system itself’ (Capital, Volume 1, Chapter 25/1).

Nevertheless, the great argument of the pseudo-Marxists in Moscow in favour of Russian society as a Socialist one remains that its economy is ‘balanced’, that there are no crises as in the capitalist system, and that its economy is a ‘planned’ one. It is a very curious balance in which there is a race between the different branches, one over-fulfilling its target, and the other falling short of its, [3] and where crises result in the deportation of millions of people to the remote forced-labour camps where they are used to construct the pyramids of the regime.

How can there even be any question of unemployment where an important part of the working population is permanently behind barbed wire, working for wages far under subsistence level, that is, in worse conditions than a slave of ancient times, for everything is rather pushed to an extreme in the ‘most advanced’ form of state capitalism? Planning, yes, but bad planning, as Stalin himself was obliged to admit, and, in any case, not Socialist planning.

Examining the Soviet experience in his book The Theoretical and Practical Problems of Planning, the French economist, Charles Bettelheim, whose sympathies with the USSR are well-known, writes: ‘It is through the planning of wages that, jointly, the equilibrium between production and consumption and a repartition of the labour forces accordingly to the requirements of the production plan must be achieved.’ (Author’s italics) Indeed, Soviet planning is not the work of the direct producers, nor is it for their benefit. Soviet planning is in the hands of the new category of the rich who, in the name of the state, dispose of the means of production, just as under the ordinary capitalist society where ‘labour of superintendence’ is ‘entirely separated from the ownership of capital’ (Capital, Volume 3, Chapter 23).