Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Our views on the Swedish article on the method for studying Soviet history (conclusion)

First Published: The Workers’ Advocate Supplement, Vol. 6, No. 5, June 15, 1990.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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The last issue of the Supplement (May 15) contained the article of Red Dawn (the Marxist-Leninist League of Sweden) entitled "What is state capitalism and why has it arisen?" and the first part of our reply. Below is the concluding section of our reply.

IV. On phrases and philosophy

Instead of analysis of the internal situation, Red Dawn resorts to general phrases about the world market and the accumulation of capital. And they also seek to refute our views through the use of general philosophical arguments about the objective and the subjective, the superstructure and the base, quantitative change and qualitative change, etc.

But neither phrases about the world market nor general philosophical conceptions can replace a careful study of history and of theory. Without such study, phrases and philosophical concepts become empty.

The accumulation of capital

For example, we have just examined Red Dawn’s discussion of slavery. They say that the internal class relations are irrelevant to the analysis of the Southern slave economy of the first half of the 19th century. They concluded that all that matters is the presence of cotton on the world market and alleged competition with other suppliers of cotton. And they apply this lesson to the study of the Soviet economy. They conclude that, all that matters is that "everything is subordinated to the needs of capital accumulation." They hold that one doesn’t determine the capitalist character of revisionist society from the features of its economics and politics, but from the fact of the accumulation of capital for its own sake.

But how does one know that the means of production are capital, and that the country is expanding the means of production simply for the sake of capitalist accumulation, without studying the internal situation? If one already knew the Soviet Union were capitalist, then one could be sure of these things. If the country is capitalist, then the expansion of the means of production is done solely for capitalist reasons. But if the economy is not capitalist, then the expansion of the means of production is being done for other reasons.

Red Dawn sometimes gets around this by simply identifying the means of production with capital. From this point of view, if there is production of more means of production (factories, tools, etc.), this is automatically described as the accumulation of capital for its own sake.

Thus Red Dawn writes that "...the goal of production in the Soviet Union from 1928 on was accumulation, not consumption. The most characteristic feature of capitalism –that the society is dominated by capital accumulation– became an iron-hard, forcing necessity, and even worse than in most other places since the task was to catch up with the tremendous lead of the imperialist countries in a considerably shorter time."

In this passage Red Dawn simply identifies the growth in the productive forces with the growth of capital. Building more factories, for example, is supposed to be identical with accumulating more capital for its own sake.

Yet any economy that is dynamic, that is growing, has to put resources into the production of means of production (such as factories, tools, etc.) This is true of communism as well as capitalism. And–everything else being equal –the more that resources are devoted to the development of the means of production, the faster the economy can grow.

The amount of resources to be devoted to heavy industry and other production of means of production is a real issue in Soviet history. For example, the strain of the tremendous investments during the first five-year plan lay heavily on the country. It had tremendous ramifications on the political situation in the country, and evaluating what was done in the first five-year plan is indeed a serious issue. But it is absurd to answer this question on the basis of declaring that the development of heavy industry, for example, is automatically "the accumulation of capital".

If Red Dawn’s theory were to be taken to its logical conclusion, the implication would be that consumption is socialist, and production is not. The implication would be that the economy can only be developed by capitalism, and socialism simply means consuming the production of an already developed economy. The reality is different. For the working class to be able to take over the direction of the economy, it has to be willing to consciously devote large resources to production of the means of production without being compelled to do so by the lash of capitalist exploiters.

Red Dawn however simply compares some figures from an unnamed source on the percentage of resources devoted to the means of production in the Soviet Union and in capitalist countries. Even if one were simply studying rates of economic development, it is by no means clear how meaningful such figures would be. But these figures certainly say little about whether a country is socialist or not. The implication behind Red Dawn’s use of these figures is that the more resources devoted to means of production, the less a country is socialist. But this is absurd.

A vibrant socialist economy that unleashed economic forces that were cramped by capitalism might also display high rates of development. And it can be noted that only improvement of the means of production can provide for sustained, major increases in consumption.

Red Dawn goes on to cite a speech of Stalin in February 1931. There are certainly critical things that could be said about this speech. But all Red Dawn brings up is that Stalin talks about a high tempo of growth. They believe that this clinches the case for capitalist restoration. But taken by itself, a high tempo proves nothing about the social system of those years.

What is the overall context?

Nevertheless, Red Dawn is convinced that this type of figure provides the general context that is far more important than the internal class relations of the Soviet Union. They state that "Capitalism is a continuous movement, not a static, unchanging thing. We identify it not by its form or by abstracting each country for itself without its coherence, scrutinizing it with a magnifying class. No, we identify it by connecting it to the totality, looking for its dynamic. That, is why we look to the Soviet Union’s accumulation for accumulation’s sake, based upon competition with western capitalism, as the point of departure from which we define the character of the Soviet system." (emphasis added)

We have seen that Red Dawn insists that we have taken measures out of context. Here we see their idea of context. It is not the overall form of the country’s economics and politics. Instead it is supposed to be wrong to scrutinize the class relations "with a magnifying class". Instead the "totality" is the "accumulation for accumulation’s sake". And we have just seen that Red Dawn holds that the existence of Soviet capitalism can be shown simply by how much resources are devoted to the production of means of production.

This type of "totality" is actually a lack of any concreteness whatever.

Subjective versus objective factors, superstructure versus base

Another theme of Red Dawn’s theorizing is the distinction between subjective and objective factors, and between the superstructure and the base. They claim to defend the objective factor and to oppose basing everything on superficial attention to the subjective factor.

For example, in one passage Red Dawn discuses the question of whether it makes any sense to believe that some state-capitalist measures may be used by the dictatorship of the proletariat. Red Dawn raises the following question: "where is, according to their definitions, the border of when ’state capitalism under the dictatorship of the proletariat’ turns into state capitalism without the dictatorship of the proletariat? Is that decided completely by the subjective factor–the general line of the Party? Does the class character of state capitalism change solely by a simple turn in the political course of the Party leadership?"

In our view, one has to examine the economic and political situation to see whether the dictatorship of the proletariat still exists. This is not just a question of some high-flown political debates over slogans, but of what is going on throughout the economics and politics of the country. The nature of the party–whether it really reflects and organizes the mass initiative of the toilers and is based on them, and what role it actually plays in society–is part of this.

The full answer to Red Dawn’s question about the borderline between the dictatorship of the proletariat and capitalist restoration is, of course, one of the main objects of the investigation of Soviet history. We have a general view, but we aim through this investigation to learn a good deal more. To demand the full answer in advance is to believe that all the questions have already been answered.

But the irony of their philosophical view is that it is Red Dawn which had earlier reduced the idea of working class government to a matter of the policies of the party leadership. They had written earlier that the Soviet government, from 1920, was a working class government without a class basis. We discussed this briefly in our article How to approach the study of capitalist restoration in the Soviet Union. They had put forward the view that the Soviet government had lost its class basis by 1920, but was "still by definition a workers’ state" because its policies represented the interests of the working class.

Who administers the state and the economy

Red Dawn also refers to the difference between subjective and objective as the difference between the superstructure and the base. They write "Or does ’state capitalism under the dictatorship of the proletariat’ mean that there are no fundamental changes, and that the decisive thing is who is administering the state capitalism and for what purpose? Is it the superstructure that is the decisive thing?"

One problem with this is Red Dawn’s narrow view of the questions of administration. They seem to regard the question of who is "administering" the state and economy as simply evaluating the views of some top leaders. In fact, which class administers the country is a fundamental question of working class rule. The dictatorship of the proletariat has to replace the former bourgeois apparatus with a proletarian apparatus. Who administers and how– in the factories, in the courts, in the day-to-day functions of the state, etc.–is a major issue of socialism and of Soviet power.

The ironic thing is that while deprecating "who administers" as a mere question of superstructure, Red Dawn lays great stress on such issues as the slogan of "socialism in a single country". Aren’t the controversies over such slogans clearly a matter of the subjective factor and the superstructure?

More on subjective and objective, superstructure and base

However, while these concepts of subjective and objective, superstructure and base, play an important role in Red Dawn’s philosophical views on Soviet history, they don’t elaborate on them. What do they regard as the subjective and objective factors, and what role do they play? It would have been better if they had gone into this concretely. This would have led to considering what are the deeper and serious factors that have to be taken account of in the study of Soviet history. It would have led not just to the contrast between objective and subjective, but to contrasts between what is serious in politics and economics and what isn’t. The Marxist view of politics and parties, for example, is quite different from the views of ordinary politicking that permeates bourgeois countries.

But instead Red Dawn seems to believe that the mere reference to philosophical concepts can bypass this process, and knock down all obstacles, just as the walls of Jericho fell at mere trumpet blasts.

Nor is it clear that they have looked deeply into the general Marxist theory of superstructure and base. For example, the forces of production and the relations of production form an economic base, upon which all political matters are a superstructure. Yet the proletariat cannot eliminate the capitalist economic base without making use of social revolution, which requires a political revolution. The preparations for this social revolution requires getting organized, building a proletariat political party, and a number of other "superstructural" and "subjective" acts. After seizing power, the proletariat is faced with building up its own administration, etc. There are serious issues in revolution and minor matters, serious issues in politics and minor issues, but to simply denigrate the subjective factor runs the risk of denigrating revolution altogether.

There are definite conditions for revolution, which are independent of anyone’s will. Without these conditions, it will be impossible to carry out a profound social revolution.

No matter how heroic, "subjective" efforts will not suffice. But when the conditions are ripening for revolution, it amounts to turning one’s back on them to denigrate mere "subjective" and "superstructural" efforts, such as the organization of the proletariat, the ideology guiding it, etc.

Materialism holds that politics reflects the economic base, and the subjective reflects the objective. But dialectical materialism also points out the conditions under which the "subjective" and "superstructural" can react back on the base. And in periods of revolutionary change, this dialectical relation come right to the surface of events in front of everyone’s eyes. To cast aside the "subjective" at such times, is to cast aside the consideration of revolutionary tasks. And it is to cast aside the real question about the "subjective", which is not to belittle it but to ensure that it acts in accordance with the objective conditions facing it.

More on the objective factor for socialist revolution

Indeed, for all their philosophical emphasis on the objective and the base, Red Dawn’s theories can lead them to evade the consideration of the objective preconditions for revolution.

Consider their view of socialist revolution. They believe that it is opportunist to talk of any other stage of revolution but socialism. This is supposed to be true in every country of the world today regardless of its particular conditions.

But what happens then to the question of base and superstructure? Aren’t there definite conditions for revolution? Doesn’t the class-conscious proletariat have to consider this when it considers what is the stage of the struggle to overthrow the old and build a new society, and whether the revolution may have to go through various stages?

This question inadvertently comes to the fore when Red Dawn discusses the issue of Lenin’s idea of transitional measures for the building of socialism. They suggest that Lenin’s ideas are dated and not relevant because "there are strong reasons to believe that much of what might have been correct in Russia then does not necessarily have to be the right way for highly developed countries today." (emphasis added)

Earlier in the article, we pointed out that this throws cold water on the study of Leninist theory and of Soviet history itself. But here we want to raise another issue. What about the less developed countries? Red Dawn, to its credit, has always been eager to render support to the struggle of the masses of the oppressed countries. With their current theories, they have decided to call on these masses, in all countries, to take up socialist revolution directly and to avoid, on principle, any stages in the revolution. How then can they restrict themselves to the consideration of "highly developed countries" when considering the question of the transition to socialism?

Instead of analyzing the different conditions facing these countries, and how this affects their revolutionary struggle, Red Dawn just points to the more developed countries. It appears that Red Dawn has a passive view of the objective factors, and hopes that in the developed countries the objective factor will remove the need to consider the problems of transition to socialism.

It turns out that, in separating the objective and subjective, Red Dawn has not got any closer to an analysis of the objective factors.

How does one establish which measures helped and which hurt?

This also comes up in the consideration of transitional measures. Any time the proletariat or its party is faced with the actual process of socialist revolution, it will have to consider what transitional measures to use. But Red Dawn believes that our emphasis on transitional measures as a faulty approach that "leads nowhere". To nail this down, they ask "How shall one, by using the method of the American comrades, be able to establish exactly which transitional measures promoted the development of proletarian power and which obstructed it and pushed it backwards?"

Indeed, what is the way that various measures should be judged. This is a fundamental question. What measuring rods should we use?

Red Dawn holds that the study of the results of the measures "gives little, since one and the same result can mean different things in different situations, and since they, moreover, can be observed only for a rather limited period of time, considering that the historical period in question, as a whole, is fairly short and shows fast changes." As well, Red Dawn regards that even correct transitional measures would have failed without a world revolution.

This doesn’t leave much basis to judge these measures.

Red Dawn contrasts concern with transition measures to talk about the world balance of forces, the world market, and "accumulation for accumulation’s sake," and the slogan of "socialism in one country."

But how can one use these "points of departure" to determine "exactly which transitional measures promoted the development of proletarian power and which obstructed it"? How, for example, do these views give a basis to determine whether, for example, one-person management should be used in certain situations? After all, we are all familiar with controversies between comrades who share the same revolutionary goal. It seems that detailed analysis of the particular situations, and not just revolutionary desires, is necessary to determine the correct path forward.

It seems to us that Red Dawn doesn’t provide any answer to their own question about how to judge the transitional measures. In fact, they appear to ask this question to show the alleged futility of paying much attention to the transitional issues.

Quantitative versus qualitative changes

Red Dawn also deals with its differences with us over when capitalist restoration took place in the Soviet Union by raising the general issue of the difference between quantitative and qualitative changes. They suggest that we have difficulty distinguishing between "the quantitative process of degeneration and the qualitative counterrevolutionary leap".

To illustrate their point, Red Dawn compares our views to those of the trotskyist Ernest Mandel. But Mandel holds that the capitalist restoration was never finished in the Soviet Union. He wrote, for example, that "an ultimate historical defeat of the Soviet working class at the social and economic level" had "not yet taken place." (Proletarian Revolution, #25, Winter 1985-6, p.5, excerpting from Mandel’s article "Marx and Engels on Commodity Production and Bureaucracy" in Rethinking Marxism, edited by Resnick and Wolff, 1985, pp 241-2.)

Our Party, on the contrary, has always held that a counterrevolution took place in the Soviet Union restoring capitalism economically and politically. And we oppose the formula, held by most trotskyists, that there need only be a "political" revolution, not a "social revolution", in the Soviet Union. Thus, on the question of whether a "qualitative" counterrevolution took place, there is nothing in common between these views and those of Mandel.

What bothers Red Dawn is therefore something else. It turns out that they are not happy with the idea of a period of corrosion leading up to a counterrevolution. True, their own description of Soviet history apparently also has a period of difficulties and problems prior to the final counterrevolution. But when it comes to considering our views, Red Dawn casts doubt on the very idea of periods of corrosion.

They write that "a counterrevolution can not–if it really is a counterrevolution, carried out after the victory of a revolution–take place in such a way as to, so to say, ’run backwards the film of reformism.’ " It is not at all clear what "running backwards the film of reformism" means, other than being a general expression that a gradual degeneration can’t occur. If Red Dawn had some more particular meaning, it would have been better if they had elaborated it.

They also denounce the idea that "the workers’ state degenerates, then is a ’degenerated workers’ state’ for a longer period of time, [and] finally turns into ’pure’ state capitalism." Here we are not concerned with Red Dawn’s special terminology in this sentence, but with the overall view. They describe the concept that a process of decline takes place prior to a final capitalist counterrevolution, and denounce this view. Yet even Red Dawn’s own description, as we have pointed out, is in accord with this pattern. It is hard to see what philosophical objective there can be to such a pattern.

Red Dawn gives another example of the danger that supposedly comes from the view that a period of decline

may precede certain counterrevolutions. They refer to the errors of the Swedish organization, the KPML(r). A note of theirs to the English translation of their article clarifies to the English language reader that "the theory of KPML(r)... that the revisionists took power in the Soviet Union after the death of Stalin, but without being able to restore capitalism; instead the society remained with a socialist base but a bourgeois-revisionist superstructure, while now ’perestroika’ has fulfilled the counterrevolution,... liquidating the base as socialist." It is indeed wrong to believe that revisionism only came to the Soviet Union after the death of Stalin, or that the economic base was fine up till then. The description of their theory also seems to indicate that KPML(r) may have a mechanical and wrong view of how degeneration takes place. However, there is nothing wrong with the concept that a period of revisionist degeneration can precede the final capitalist restoration. This concept is hardly responsible for KPML(r)’s factual and theoretical errors.

Red Dawn also denounces the view that there can be "a spectrum with different shading, glidings between different conditions." Here too Red Dawn doesn’t go into much detail about what they mean, so they simply seem uncomfortable with the study of transitional periods.

However, we believe that there is a point to the view that there is no intermediate economic system between capitalism and socialism. But the conclusion from this is that, prior to the complete achievement of socialism, there are still elements of the economy that are within the bounds of capitalism. As we have seen, Red Dawn is uneasy with the idea that there are capitalist or state-capitalist features to the economy under the dictatorship of the proletariat. But there can be no other conclusion, unless one invents a new, intermediate economic system. And if capitalist elements remain, the question of state-capitalist elements becomes more complex, unless one maintains that private capitalism is better than state-capitalism and is the proper form for transition to socialism.

Dialectics and evolution

In contrast to Red Dawn’s denial that a period of decline may proceed certain counterrevolutionary cataclysms, Marxist dialectics has always comprehended this as a possibility.

Consider the well-known example of the collapse of the Second International into social-chauvinism at the outbreak of World War I. This was indeed one of tragic and shocking cataclysms in the working class movement. But in order to analyze this collapse, in order to learn how to strengthen the working class movement against such a collapse, one had to deal with the years of degeneration inside the social-democratic movement that led up to this collapse. In his articles on the collapse of the Second International, Lenin stressed how opportunism had matured into social-chauvinism.

In general, materialist dialectics shows the connection between period of evolution and those of catastrophes and qualitative changes. Such ideas as the "transformation of quantity into quality" are among the best-known maxims of dialectics.

Thus, in dealing with Soviet history, there is no violation of dialectics in the concept that a period of decline proceeded the final capitalist restoration. Of course, whether this is really the way events took place can only be determined by the facts of the matter. But, to rule out the very possibility of periods of decline on general philosophical grounds, seems, to require general principles that are neither dialectical nor Marxist.

Dialectics and revolution

The Swedish comrades don’t seem to have realized that their general views, which appear to emphasize the profound objective base of events, actually cut against the consideration of revolution. Let us review several points of their general views.

–We have seen that they cast doubt on examining the experience of relatively rapid events, including the use of transition events in Soviet history. But revolutions are times of rapid change. Marxism-Leninism stresses that revolutions are the locomotive of history. And during revolutionary periods, more can be revealed than appears in decades of painfully slow ordinary times.

–We have seen that they cast doubt on too close a consideration of "subjective" and "superstructural" factors. They don’t explain their conception in detail. But, taken consistently, this would remove consideration of the tasks of revolution. These tasks are not carried out automatically and spontaneously.

–They have doubts about the value of too close a consideration of transitional periods. Of course, looked out from the point of view of hundreds of years after the world obtains the classless society, the period of transition between capitalism and socialism, and the experience of revolution, may appear simply as a brief period of qualitative change. But while we are in the midst of this period, while we are concerned with how to bring about a revolution, and how to continue it successfully once it begins, the details of this process are of burning concern.

The Swedish comrades want revolution and socialism, but they seem to recoil before the complexities of transition periods, the varying objective conditions facing the revolution in different countries, etc. The philosophical principles they have put forward retard a clear picture of the twists and turns of revolutionary work. These views do not provide an adequate framework for it, and do not help the Swedish comrades to deal either with the complexities of the present moment or those of Soviet history. Instead they substitute generalities for concrete analysis, and generalities for a close study of Leninist theory. These generalities provide the illusion of substance, not real substance.

It is our hope that the Swedish comrades will eventually see that the illusion of substance will not suffice for revolutionary work. Then they will see that Trotskyism is but the shadow of Marxism-Leninism in the light of a particular opportunist trend, whereas the class-conscious workers need not shadows, but actual communist analysis.