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Paul Thompson & Guy Lewis

The Revolution Unfinished?

5. Modern Trotskyism

Problems of Transition

The Chinese have constantly stressed that the class struggle continues in post-revolutionary societies, and that it may continue for many generations. Vestiges of the bourgeois and petty bourgeois classes still remain; new class forces may develop. Without recognition of this and constant vigilance and struggle against it, the dictatorship of the proletariat will inevitably weaken. The revolution, involving the initial transfer of power to the proletariat, provides the precondition for socialism but not the guarantee. Capitalism and communism are separated by a whole historical epoch. The dictatorship strives to establish socialism and thereby pave the way for communism, which is only possible on a world scale. This section will focus on stage of transition to socialism in its full sense which must involve the total transformation of social relations. This will mean:

  1. The abolition of the private ownership of the means of production.
  2. Elimination of competition and production for exchange value and its replacement by democratic planning and production for use.
  3. Workers’ and people’s management of the economy and society.
  4. The institutionalisation of mass forms of democracy, freedom of association and criticism for all progressive classes. A genuine proletarian state not party substitutionism.
  5. Elimination of the power of the old classes and struggle against the growth of new elites in party and state structures.
  6. Progressive elimination of differences between manual and mental labour, town and country, men and women and between different races.
  7. Movement towards egalitarian distribution of rewards and knowledge.

If these tendencies are successful, communism will then be based on:

  1. The abolition of wage labour.
  2. The elimination of classes.
  3. The disappearance of the state.
  4. Full socialist development of the productive forces in the context of world communism.
  5. From each according to their ability, to each according to their needs.

Class and the transition

The above points are intended to be a methodology for judging experiences in different countries. Characterisations of Russia, China and the other post-revolutionary societies can vary enormously, from socialist, state capitalist, to new class societies. All these descriptions involve a particular understanding of the Marxist concept of class.

Lenin defined classes as “large groups of people differing from each other by the place they occupy in a historically determined system of social production, by their role in the social organisation of labour, and, consequently, by the dimension of social wealth which they dispose of and the mode of acquiring it”. The means by which a ruling class holds power, exploits and dominates the subordinate classes varies from society to society, according to the mode of production (feudalism, capitalism, Asiatic mode etc.)

So class society is not specific to capitalism, nor does the abolition of private property necessarily imply the abolition of class society. Too often the left has fallen into the trap of associating the abolition of private ownership and its replacement by a nationalised economy as the key process in establishing socialism. Certainly this step is an absolutely necessary prerequisite of socialism but it is not the final act. The abolition of private ownership only guarantees the abolition of the capitalist social system and the capitalist ruling class. It does not guarantee the abolition of classes per se. The overthrow of capitalism can therefore result in, three options:

  1. The transition to socialism.
  2. The re-introduction of capitalist methods of production.
  3. The development of a new type of class society.

It is the contention of this pamphlet that the Soviet Union has developed into a new form of class society. The new ruling class controls, not through the ownership of property, but rather by virtue of its control over the state apparatus and its ability to determine the production and distribution of the social surplus. This position will be expanded at a later stage.

Productive forces

There are a number of reasons why the analyses of the transition to socialism and the nature of Russia etc. are inadequate. One of the most important is an economistic perspective that sees the “productive forces” as neutral. In the Permanent Revolution Trotsky wrote: “Soviet forms of property on a basis of the most modern achievement of American technique transplanted into all forms of economic life – that indeed would be the first stage of socialism.” Both Stalin and Trotsky stressed the necessity to develop “industrial plant” in the belief that a higher level of productive forces provided the material basis for socialism. For Trotsky, the revolution could only be sustained in societies based on a high level of productive forces. Faced with the defeat of the European revolution and isolation from the more advanced countries the problems became how to extract enough surplus out of the countryside to build industry. This strategy has been traditionally called “primitive socialist accumulation”. It is based not simply on the idea of neutral productive forces, but on a mechanical subordination of the countryside to towns and a fetishisation of large scale production. This model of accumulation is most seriously flawed for its failure to recognise that “capital is not a thing but a relationship between persons” (Marx, Capital, Vol.1). Socialist society can only be built on the transformation of social relations of production. Viewing the productive forces as neutral is to deny the role of the working class itself which Marx identified as “the greatest productive force of all”.

As Mavrakis pointed out, “they (Trotsky and Stalin) did not see that after the abolition of the individual ownership of the means of production the essentials remained to be done: the revolutionising of the relations of production and social relations connected to them”. [p.53] As a result the increasing exclusion of the workers and the peasants from the decision making process could be justified only in terms of the need to build “industrial capital”. But productive forces are not neutral. The working class, as the primary productive force, will determine the productive capacity of society. Machines, technology, raw materials, are all factors in the struggle for production – but not determinants. Technology is no more the base for socialism than the planned economy.

Much of the revolutionary left today remains dogged by their elevation of “capital” (i.e. machines, technology etc) to the status of a primary productive force. For the Socialist Workers Party (IS) the lack of “capital” led inevitably to the degeneration of the Russian revolution – “It is precisely because the Soviet Union was backward and isolated from the goods and skills available in the more advanced countries that the government was compelled, as the condition of its survival to re-create, or to tolerate there-creation of a hierarchy of privileges.” This vulgar materialism leads to a totally fatalistic view of revolutions in backward societies.

We do not try to deny the extreme difficulties facing post-revolutionary societies with a weak industrial base, but rather suggest that there is an alternative model of development. The Chinese have gone a long way towards challenging the traditional notion of primitive socialist accumulation. By reasserting the creativity of the masses and attempting to revolutionise the social relations of production under the slogan, “Make the revolution, promote production”, they have achieved a considerable increase in GNP from an even lower industrial base than the Russia of the 1920s. Bettleheim writes: “What has happened in China demonstrates in effect that the ‘low state of development of the productive forces’ is not an obstacle to the socialist transformation of social relations and does not have the necessary result, arising from the process of primitive accumulation, of aggravating social inequalities.” (Class Struggle in the USSR 1917-23, p.40) The Chinese have put particular stress on encouraging medium and small scale production and an organic link between town and country.

The nature of Soviet society

As we indicated in the earlier part of this pamphlet, the initial seizure of power by the Bolsheviks in 1917 provided the political/legal conditions for the socialist transformation of society. The key failure was not to go further by transforming the social relations of production and society: the process stopping at nationalisation and a planned economy. Because of these limitations and in the difficult material conditions, the power of the workers and their organised expressions (soviets, factory committees etc.) was gradually eroded. After a considerable battle inside the Bolshevik Party a bureaucratic elite consolidated its power. Not only did this elite, focussed around Stalin, fail to advance the early gains of the revolution: it started to erode them. It encouraged an increasing hierarchy of privileges with stress on wage differentials and material incentives. The Party was no longer at the service of the masses, but over their heads. By the 1930s Stalin had come to characterise the ideal of equality as “reactionary, petty-bourgeois absurdity, worthy of a primitive set of ascetics but not a socialist society organised on Marxist lines”. In the fields of women’s rights, education and many others the earlier revolutionary laws and practices were gradually rolled back.

The key aspect of this question is not to frantically search for the date of this degeneration, but to see it as a process inherent in the failure to go beyond the transformation of the ownership of property to all social relations. This is not to conjure up a linear development or political fatalism. In fact, the creation of new class hierarchies needs a specific type of bureaucratic political formation, characterised by Stalinism, that fuses power in the state-party machinery. While Trotsky and the Left Opposition fought and correctly criticised many of the ways Stalinism was shaping Russia, they were limited by a key factor dealt with earlier – the fact that Trotsky saw the basis for socialism as the abolition of private ownership rather than wider changes in social relations. Hence, any degeneration was seen as super-structural in character. This lies at the root of the failure of Trotskyism to break with definitions of Russia as a “workers’ state” (albeit degenerated).

These definitions are not sufficiently distanced from those held by the Communist Parties that Russia is “socialist”. In a recent Communist Party [1] David Purdy asserted that despite many difficulties Russia was socialist because “the mode of production dominant within it is socialist”. (p.22) This only stands if (i) the mode of production is identified solely with nationalised property relations and not wider relations of production and political power. (ii) the party, state and trade unions are collapsed by an institutionalised analysis into an automatic identification with the working class. So Purdy says:

“What is at stake is how decisions about investment are taken by whom, with what criteria, for what purposes and with what social and economic consequences. (p.29)

Quite right, but he then concludes that as decisions are taken centrally (and not by separate competing enterprises as in “capitalism”) then it is socialist. It is different from capitalism, he says, because the worker under capitalism “lacks directive power and control over the process of production”. (p.25) Trotskyism has been able to show that this is simply not the case and that workers’ power is at best a legal fiction. This criticism is part of the excellent super-structural critique that has characterised the Trotskyists’ analysis of Russia and Stalinism. But they too are stuck in condemning the “inadequacies”, rather than a critique of the “economic” base. In effect, the CP and Trotskyist definitions of the basis for a “workers’ state” are quite similar. For instance, Trotsky said that a workers’ state “stands or falls with the planned economy”. (Class Nature of the Soviet State, p.122)

The argument becomes whether or not there has been a political degeneration (including economic decision-making) – as the Trotskyists say – or a few mistakes – as the Western CPs say – or perfect socialism – as the old-style Stalinists say.

State capitalism?

It is the limitations of such analyses that provided the impulse for theories that Russia was “state capitalist”. There are many versions of this from the traditional line of the semi-Trotskyist SWP (IS) [2] to the newer Maoist versions of Bettleheim etc. [3] While we recognise that the theories enabled important breaks to be made with traditional analyses and provided a fresh critique, they are fundamentally mistaken.

Firstly, the theory of state capitalism maintains that the external operation of the predominantly capitalist world economy forces the “law of value” to operate inside Soviet society. This is a complete misunderstanding of the relationship between internal and external factors. External factors may be the condition of change, but internal factors are the basis. To be more precise, the fact that the Russian economy as a whole competes on the world market in no way forces generalised competition, exchange value or any other feature of capitalism to operate internally in Russia. The characteristic features are absent as we will argue in more detail later.

Secondly, Marx defined capitalism as a mode of production based on generalised commodity production. All products and elements in the labour process are commodities. Goods and services are produced for exchange on the market, rather than for their use by the population. The result is that capitalist production is production for surplus value (commodities in relation to exchange value represent more value than that advanced for their production in the form of commodities and money).

Generalised commodity production and surplus values can only exist when regulated by a market economy and competition between capitalist enterprises. As Marx put it:

By definition competition is the internal nature of capital. Its essential characteristic is to appear as the reciprocal action of all capital: it is an internal tendency appearing as imposed from outside. Capitalism does not and cannot exist except divided into innumerable capitals: for this it is conditioned by the action and reaction of one upon the others. (Marx – Grundrisse, p.414)

The fact that modern monopoly capitalism necessitates state intervention, planning (and even nationalisation) to survive and function efficiently is not in itself enough to change the system. For such planning is done precisely to ensure the survival of capitalism within a competitive market structure. [4]

In Russia the elimination of private ownership of the means of production have ended a competitive market economy and exchange value based on generalised commodity production. Advocates of a theory of state capitalism are therefore destroying any consistent Marxist definition of capitalism. There can be state capitalist societies or sectors, but only in the sense specifically identified by. Lenin and Trotsky. Lenin pointed out that in the early 1920s (via the NEP etc) Russia had a partially state capitalist economy because the state needed the existence of an element of private capital and petty bourgeois commodity production to develop the economy. But the precise definition rests on a workers’ state and dictatorship of the proletariat subjecting elements of capitalist enterprise to their control. The theory of state capitalism, therefore, put forward by the SWP etc does not enable us to differentiate between different forms of society. Another example of a genuine form of state capitalism is given by some Third World countries which have state control of capital but have not destroyed the bourgeoisie and installed a dictatorship of the proletariat.

Russia does not fit this picture as the state monopoly progressively eliminated private ownership and competition. Even those residues of private ownership, small units of agricultural production and small artisan production operate within determined limits of the central plan. As Carlo [5] points out: such are the power relations that the kolkhoz must give to the state what it orders it to produce. The prerequisites of even mercantile exchange (passage of property between independent producers) are completely lacking.

Other factors pointed to by state capitalist theorists like the privileges of the ruling bureaucracy, exploitation, alienating work etc. may be enough to differentiate Russian-type societies from socialism, but not enough to identify it with capitalism. Such factors can exist within different class societies. As we have said that we consider Russia to be a new type of class society, we must now turn to looking more closely at its inner mechanisms.

Economy and class

By 1927 the crisis of the proletarian dictatorship had been resolved, but unfortunately in the wrong way. The proletariat was numerically weak and its vanguard decimated and the peasants distrustful of Bolshevism. The Party, increasingly cut off from its roots had a monopoly of politico-economic power. The Left and Right Oppositions had been crushed. Forced and rapid industrialisation (including collectivisation of agriculture) became the centrepiece of economic development under Stalin. The bureaucracy feared that without such rapidity it would lose out to the power of the Kulaks and the remaining entrepreneurs (“NEP-men”), or be crushed by external capitalist forces.

Such a programme was directed in the context of a rigid centrally-controlled bureaucratic plan. The pre-condition for such a plan was the party/state monopoly of power and economic control and the exclusion of the masses from any aspects of decision making at factory or social level. The powerlessness of the masses was a pre-condition for their mobilisation in total subordination to a plan not of their making. The state could and did control movement of labour, shifting of population etc. This necessitated a reduction in effective legal rights at the same time as the state was producing a model constitution in 1936. Hierarchies of skill, specialisation and authority and income were encouraged as part of this economic development. For instance, income differentials gradually widened so that even on official estimates they had reached 1 to 10 and by unofficial estimates much more. [6] While complete income equality is impossible under socialism the Russian situation compares unfavourably with the 1 to 5/6 spread in China noted by Bettleheim, Blumer and others. This is particularly the case as there is every indication of them widening further. Russian economists (Liberman etc) have admitted that the 1965 reforms widened differentials.

The collectivised state control enabled the economy to develop by excessive concentration on the primary (capital goods) sector. While concentration on the primary sector is characteristic of development, in Russia this reached dangerous proportions (e.g. in 1963, 81% of all industrial resources), which entail a suppression of the needs of the masses. This is not the only crisis-producing contradiction. Such a bureaucratically centralised plan cannot possibly realise its goals and co-ordinate all aspects of development. It simultaneously estranges both managers and workers through non-involvement in fundamental decision making. The consequence is the high proportion of waste and low labour productivity with low quality products that many economists have noted. Such was the hierarchy of centralisation that the local representatives and beneficiaries of the bureaucracy were unable to influence the setting of absurd quotas, wage and price levels etc. The managers, therefore contented themselves with pushing for more privileges for themselves and their enterprises (tax exemptions, investment credits. special subsidies etc.) while accepting their lack of power. In such a situation, backed by bureaucratic terror, workers could only resist in the traditional passive way, by depressing work output. The trade unions had ceased to be anything but conveyor belts for exhortations to work harder. This position of the working class alone indicates the character of the Russian class society. As Carlo observes:

The free, conscious and integrated participation of the masses in the productive process is the productive force absolutely indispensable for building socialism. The high labour productivity and the good quality of the Chinese products (relative to the level of the economy) is as well known as the poor quality of the Russian products. In a typically politicised and participatory Chinese factory, it would be rather difficult for a manager to produce oversized or undersized pans, enormous tractors, glaring light bulbs etc. (p.61, op. cit.)

The point is that the waste, inefficiency and low productivity are neither “abuses” nor deformations as apologists for Russia claim, nor a conflict between a non-capitalist mode of production and a bourgeois mode of distribution, as the Trotskyist Mandel claims. [7] The latter maintains the fiction of a “socialist” economic base in a context where Russia is still claimed to be a society in transition between capitalism and socialism. In fact, as Rakovski shows [8] such factors are generic to a new class system and mode of production. It is clear that under Stalin Russia had evolved to such a system that was neither capitalist nor socialist, nor in a state of transition. Instead it is, as Carlo describes:

A new antagonistic system with its own specific dynamic in which elements similar to other systems acquire a new function. (p.44, op. cit.) [9]

The dynamics and crises of this new mode of production are conditioned by the state monopoly of ownership and decision making. A new ruling class (based on top party, state and managerial strata) dominates and exploits the workers and peasants. Factors characteristic to class societies in general are present in a different form. Workers are both exploited and alienated in the process of production. Exploitation does not necessarily depend on the capitalist wage-relation and the extraction of surplus value. In Russia it emerges in the form of a dominant class appropriating the surplus labour of subordinate classes. The working class has no say in the production and distribution of the surplus. Neither, as we have indicated, does it have any say in production in general. There has been a diminishing struggle to abolish wage labour – the social relation in which workers’ labour power is purely a commodity exchanged for a wage. The following extract from a description of the work process in a Hungarian factory [10] echoes Marx’s classic description of alienation under capitalism.

Ultimately the only thing that helps is if I turn into a machine myself. The best workers excel at this. Their eyes are veiled whatever the work, as if they wore impenetrable masks on their faces, yet they never miss a thing. Their movements don’t seem to require any effort. They follow the unfailing trajectories of magnetically controlled emotionless bodies. They average the fastest possible pace over the day as a whole, as they do not rush at things when they are still fresh and do not slow down when they are tired. Truly, just like machines.

The Russian work process in no way embodies socialist social relations. All the familiar facets that workers face fragmentation, hierarchy, boredom, de-skilling and repetition. One sad instance is the worship of “American technique” (Taylorism and Fordism) indicated in the building of so-called “modern” plants in Russia like FIAT, with their mass, line method of production.

Under Stalin, this new class system was accompanied by terror and extreme authoritarianism. While this had a certain functional usefulness to the system, it was not inherent in it. In fact, the true functioning of the system was distorted by the fear and waste it produced. Russian society only “normalised” after Stalin’s death. To say such things and to point to a kind of “worsening” of things after Stalin has been sufficient to bring down the rage of Trotskyists and accusations of pro-Stalinist apologetics. [11] It is, however, nothing of the sort. Rather it is a sober assessment of the necessary evolution of the new class system. As Rakovski says of Stalin’s rule:-

When the witch hunt becomes so general and the danger signals so vague, no social group can feel safe, then it only needs a momentary weakness in the system for the fraction in power itself to put an end to the use of mass terror. The death of Stalin led precisely to this situation. Once under way, the ebbing of the terror had just the same cumulative dynamic as its growth. To secure its own safety, the fraction in power had to permit a certain de-centralisation and demobilisation of the whole society. (p.97, op. cit.)

Before we examine whether any of these modern reforms 4 have essentially altered the nature of the system, we must turn to our analysis of classes in Russia to back up our characterisations of the society.

From bureaucratic elite to class

Trotsky and modern Trotskyists (with the exception of state capitalist theorists) have always denied the existence of a new ruling class, preferring the concept of a parasitic bureaucracy. Firstly, let us deal with whether a ruling class is possible in general. The Trotskyist, Isaac Deutscher wrote in The Unfinished Revolution that:

What this so-called new class lacks is property. They own neither the means of production nor land ... they are not able to turn any part of their income into capital, they cannot save, invest or accumulate wealth in the durable and expensive form of industrial stock or large financial assets. They cannot bequeath wealth to their descendants, they cannot, that is, perpetuate themselves as a class. (p.55)

This confuses classes under capitalism with classes in general. Ownership of the means of production should not be seen in such narrow legal terms. The Russian ruling class, through their control of the political-economic apparatus, effectively perform an “ownership” function, determining the production and allocation of the social surplus. Through their monopoly of power they also acquire a disproportionate share of social wealth and means of disposing of it (special privileges – cars, shops, second homes etc.). While these class privileges are not in the capitalist form of stocks and shares, they are nevertheless materially reel and can be used as a means of reproduction and perpetuation of themselves as a class.

While the ruling class is not as durable and self-reproducing as capitalist equivalents, and probably never can be, it is growing in its power to perpetuate itself. It is worth quoting Rakovski in some detail:

There are basically three channels for selecting members of the dominant class: the distribution of opportunities for higher education, activities in the organisations ... (party etc. [our addition]) and the system of informal relations within the dominant class. In Soviet societies the chances of acquiring a higher qualification are determined by a more or less formal system of privileges. In the Stalinist period, these privileges were extended to some layers of the working class. But with steadier industrial development the dominant class has been able to fill management positions by internal reproduction, and this has changed the relations between the three selection mechanisms. Whereas in the Stalinist period it was often sufficient to pass through one of the channels, in the post-Stalinist period, it is generally necessary to pass through all three at once. As a result, mobility between the two classes has been sharply reduced. (p.101, op.cit.) [12]

Other commentators have also noted a decline in the rate of social mobility and the use by the ruling class of its wealth and status to re-produce itself e.g. by buying extra tuition for their children in the fiercely competitive education system.

So the objective basis for a ruling class emerged and developed during Stalin’s rule. It took the stabilisation after his death to allow the various strata to normalise their operations and coalesce into a ruling class, fully conscious of its interests. Before this a bureaucratic elite (as class-in-formation) existed, based more on the party, who could not effectively combine with other strata because of the terror and the lack of solidity of ruling positions. This ruling class has grown generically in relation to the new class system.

There is an inbuilt tension and to some extent conflict of interests between various strata in the hierarchy. Managerial and technocratic layers, because of their position in implementing the central plan, want a loosening of bureaucratic control: normally residing in the hands of Party and state functionaries. [13] This tension existed under Stalin, but managerial/technocratic resistance was limited by Stalin’s methods of administrative or physical elimination.

In the 1950s the managerial/technocratic strata tried to resolve this conflict between the plan and their power within individual enterprises by pushing for “reforms” to give them rights in relation to implementation of the plan. These demands included some power over investment, pricing, labour mobility, distribution of the product and, of course, quota targets. Their scope, however, was limited by their effective exclusion from key aspects of central planning.

Their behaviour (managers’) is conditioned by the fact that they do not own the productive apparatus and are therefore forced to pursue their aims by exploiting whatever cracks appear in the bureaucratic plan. (Carlo, op. cit., p.60)

Nevertheless, a series of economic reforms in the late 1950s and 60s indicated the growing power of these strata and their more effective integration into the ruling class. A chief spokesman for the managerial/technocrats, the economist Liberman, argued in 1962 for significant changes meaning a reduction in central planning and bureaucratic control. These included – business autonomy, profit, self-financing, material incentives, price flexibility – all in the context of introducing competitive “market” elements.

Reforms in 1965 certainly moved in this direction. There was administrative decentralisation, with managers given considerable power concerning the -number of employees, work norms and internal distribution of wages within the total basic wage fund set by the state. Also enterprises have the right to refuse useless and excessive supplies of goods, by giving a ten-day notice to the supplying enterprise. The reforms also allow them to sell products not distributed within the planning framework.

The reforms in Russia and Eastern Europe are not aiding the working class. They are giving more power to managers, corresponding to a decline in certain aspects of bureaucratic control. As Bettleheim indicates: economic planning is:

Characterised by the growing role of enterprise associations and a diminishing number of planned indices. In current Soviet decentralisation power is shifting to the managers rather than the workers. (Cultural Revolution and Industrial Organisation in China, p.50)

So, what are the conclusions of these tendencies for the character of the system and the classes within it?


The reforms made, including the so-called “liberalisation” measures, have tended to reinforce the existing class structure system that we call state collectivism. [14] As Carlo says:- “The reform does not challenge the economically dominant position of the plan.” (p.43, op. cit.) While a collectivised economy exists under state control, managers can only exercise their power in its interests. The elements of controlled competition and enterprise autonomy that have been introduced are not as Bettleheim and others claim, a return to capitalism. There are still none of the essential characteristics of generalised commodity production with a competitive market. Rakovski shows this when he says:- “The market can only regulate enterprise behaviour if the enterprises are not prevented in advance by the form of organisation of the economy from seeking to exploit their market possibilities to an optimal extent. Clearly this condition cannot be met in Soviet economies.” (p.90, op. cit.)

Nevertheless, some movement towards reintroduction is clearly not impossible. This possibility is inherent in the conflict of forces between plan and enterprise, central political bureaucracy and managerial strata that characterises a state collectivist society. At the moment the managerial/technocratic elements are content to fight for reforms within the existing context.

Even within these strata there are differences between those who simply want a more efficient hierarchy within a highly centralised system and more liberal elements who favour political, economic and cultural decentralisation. Both, however, as Rakovski indicates, have learned the lessons of the 1960s reforms that fundamental institutional change is not on the cards. Instead, they pursue practical changes and a further extension of economic and social privileges. These “reforming” elements, although not challenging the state collectivist system, are still usually opposed by the central political bureaucracy (party-state functionaries, elements of the military etc.). Any reforms are interpreted by the latter sector (correctly) as a loosen ins in their power of control over planning and distribution. This explains the superficially greater “anti-capitalist” stance of sections of this stratum in domestic and international issues. The military, of course, have a direct interest in the maintenance of “ideological warfare” with the capitalist world.

No sector of the ruling forces represents any genuine communist tendency. Despite resistance and surviving elements of socialist consciousness, the working class is too powerless and depoliticised to pose a real challenge. State collectivist societies are going to be with us for some time to come [15] and it would help if the left could come to terms with the new type of class system.

The nature of Chinese society

By placing the transformation of the social relations of production at the core of their strategy the Chinese embarked on a very different path of development. In 1966 Mao wrote:

In China, although in the main socialist transformation has been completed with respect to the systems of ownership and although the large-scale and turbulent class struggles of the masses, characteristic of the previous revolutionary periods have in the main come to an end, there are still remnants of the overthrown landlord and comprador class, there is still a bourgeoisie and the remoulding of the petty bourgeoisie has only just started. The class struggle is by no means over ... the proletariat seeks to transform the world according to its own world outlook and so does the bourgeoisie. In this respect, the question of which will win out, socialism or capitalism, is still not really settled.

The continual struggle against the emergence and re-emergence of class formations new and old has been an ever-present feature of Chinese society. The recognitionof the necessity to keep alive the relationship of “masses to party to masses” has ensured a much higher degree of mass participation in decision making than in Russia. The radical shake-up through all levels of the party structure during the Cultural Revolution, through the factory committees and through the commune structure, re-asserted the power of the masses against the stagnating bureaucracy, at least temporarily.

These are some of the reasons why we regard China as in the process of building socialism. However, we stress, as they do, that it is not a linear process. The class struggle will continue for a long time and determine whether a full transformation to socialism happens. The likelihood of a truly socialist society is held back by a number of contradictions that still exist in China.

The current conflicts following the death of Mao indicate a continuing battle over which direction the country should go. While there are substantial forces in the Party, state and society who want a Russian-type model, with more hierarchy and differentials, the problems in China cannot be reduced, as they and some of their apologists do, to “capitalist roaders versus revolutionaries”. There are structural defects in Chinese society.

These arise primarily from a failure to institutionalise mass democracy and decision making at all levels. Because the Party is automatically identified as the means by which proletarian interests are expressed, it retains a monopoly of power and initiative. Although this is far more true at the national level than the local ones. We can see some of these contradictions at work in the economic field. They have embarked on a policy of decentralisation at a local level. Work- en are involved in planning and decision making through “workers management teams”. However, real power appears to rest with the “Revolutionary Committees” which are clearly Party-led. The best then that can be said is that they are accessible to and interact on a real day to day basis with the workers. [16]

Despite contradictions, tremendous achievements have taken place which pose a positive alternative not only to the Russian model, but also to traditional definitions of socialist development. The decentralisation of management of state enterprises to a local level is an important change in power relations which involve the masses in planning. It is also done without the disadvantages of the Russian attempts to give managers more autonomy at the local level, as the Russian version involves a reduction in national planning and a further exclusion of workers from decision making.

Local planning in China takes place in the context of tight central control of prices and other factors within the overall national plan. Distribution of consumer goods is also controlled by state agencies of commerce, with no “market” elements. Surplus from the enterprises is placed at the service of overall economic development. But the policy is not to make a profit on essential goods, which are state subsidised. The main point is that planning and production are based on workers’ initiative with profit not the dominant goal. Social need, i.e. the pursuit of use value, presupposes a radical transformation of social relations.

Some aspects of this include 1) The replacement of material by moral incentives 2) Enterprises being responsible for anti-pollution measures 3) The ending of divisions between administrative and performance tasks, struggling against the power of specialists and mental/manual separateness. The Chinese didn’t make the mistake of the Bolsheviks in admiring and thinking of as neutral capitalist work methods. They have laid great stress on revolutionising the mode of work. This means integrating individual work into collective tasks, going against fragmentation of labour by modifying conditions to enable workers to master wider production processes. Part of this process is the de-mystification of science as neutral and unchangeable.

Machines are no longer viewed as immutable objects, but as subject to modification by the workers themselves (Bettleheim – Cultural Revolution and Industrial Organisation, p.81)

We have already mentioned the encouragement of smaller- scale production. One of the further advantages is that it enables workers to exert a higher degree of control over the labour process and a better integration into the local community.

Such changes in China have necessitated important alterations in the education system. The less hierarchical and specialised occupational structure requires similar processes in education. Two particular aspects include, firstly, the discouragement of ‘intellectualism’ by requiring a compulsory two-years work before university and, once there, particular periods spent working alongside peasants and in factories – with workers and peasants taking on some teaching tasks. Secondly, the allocation of higher education places on a quota (per commune, factory etc.) basis, instead of through competitive selection; again designed to avoid formation of new elites.

Many people reading this will say – yes, but what about Chinese foreign policy? It is true that it’s largely mistaken and on occasions counter-revolutionary, as in Angola etc. But this should not be used to shut our eyes to the many fruitful developments, with all their contradictions, that have happened inside China, as many comrades do. The mistakes of Chinese foreign policy are not a product of the internal social relations, nor even primarily of China’s comparative isolation, though this is a factor. It is based on a wrong notion of the world being divided into equally dangerous imperialisms.

China is neither perfect in itself, nor a model for our type of society, but we have dealt with it because it illustrates not only the problems of a transition to socialism, but a challenge to the mechanical and fatalistic concepts that Trotskyism has been part of.



1. David Purdy – Soviet Union-Socialist or State Capitalist?

2. Mandel’s pamphlet The Inconsistencies of State Capitalism effectively demolishes this argument.

3. The Chinese Communist Party characterise Russia now as a capitalist system. Bettleheim, as one of their most sophisticated interpreters interpreters attempts to give a more polished gloss to this: While much of his empirical material is useful, he nowhere establishes the “theoretical” basis for the existence of capitalism.

4. It does show, however, that capitalism cannot any longer be identified solely as anarchic and anti-planning as some of the left continues to do.

5. Antonio Carlo – The Socio-economic Nature of the USSR in Telos, Nov. 1974)

6. Carlo – ibid., p.5 – He mentions that Soviet ministers can earn a hundred times more (plus routine privileges) than the average manual worker.

7. Mandel – Marxist Economic Theory, Vol.2, p.593

8. Marc Ravovski – Marxism and the Analysis of Soviet Societies in Capital and Class, No.1 ... Rakovski is a leading Eastern European Marxist dissident.

Carlo calls this system “bureaucratic collectivism”. The basic analysis is similar to our own, although we prefer “state collectivism”. (See note note 14)

9. The concept of a new non-transitional society is also supported by Rakovski in the above article. He argues that such a party/state monopoly produces a society that is uniquely characterised by the absence of any formally autonomous institutions. The unity of the single all-embracing hierarchy is maintained through its own dependent relation to the Party.

10. From Piece Rates by Miklos Haraszti – New Left Review 91. He is a Marxist sociologist jailed by the Hungarian regime for publishing a book on alienation based on his experiences of work in a factory from which the above quote was taken.

11. The Chinese Communist Party officially date the revisionist degeneration from this point. In fact, their critique of Stalin and the limitations of the Russian Revolution go deeper, (e.g. in some of Mao’s writings) but for historical and political reasons linked to the relations with Russia before and after the split, they officially maintain the fiction that 1956 was the key date (with Kruschev’s speech etc.).

12. Rakovski believes that classes do not exist in the historical sense (development of conscious interests and means of fighting for them) because of the lack of autonomous institutions. Conflicts of interest do, however, exist, so he maintains they exist in a sociological sense. Our point is that despite a relative lack of solidity, Russian-type societies increasingly provide the structural bash for ruling classes to become more permanent and conscious.

13. This group is called “the central political bureaucracy” by the Polish Marxists Kuron and Modzelowsky. See their Revolutionary Socialist Manifesto. Other studies examining the nature of a new ruling class (particularly stressing the growing power of managers/ technocrats) include Djilas’ The New Class and Burnham’s The Managerial Revolution. Bith books suffer from defects well criticised elsewhere.

14. We are not interested in fetishising one term, or finding a new one. We prefer “state collectivism” because it seems to us that the character of such societies resides in the collective “ownership” and control of economic resources through a fused party/state apparatus. The term “bureaucratic collectivism” does not lay enough emphasis on a new ruling class formed by its monopoly control of state/party power.

15. We have not mentioned other Eastern European societies in any detail. Some of them (Hungary etc.) have taken the “reforms” even further than the Russian changes. Yugoslavia has to be treated as a slightly separate case. Their open use of market elements has laid the basis for a return to capitalism, despite their more interesting political structures (elements of “workers’ control” etc.)

16. Bettleheim reports that an investigation into Shanghai factories showed that 70% of party committee members are also members of revolutionary committees, and that 49% of revolutionary committee members are party members. Bettleheim’s analysis (along with some other pro-Chinese writers) is dangerously blind to the dangers of party power. They attach a great deal of importance to good members of top the party with correct ideas being the basis of the struggle against revisionism and new elites. Bettleheim’s statement that “The dominant apparatus of proletarian state power therefore is the Marxist-Leninist party and not the state apparatus” (from Cultural Revolution and Industrial Organisation in China) is glib and dangerously substitutionist.

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Last updated on 13.11.2002