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International Socialism, Summer 1968


L.S. Otter

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From International Socialism, No.33, Summer 1968, pp.16-17.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Tony Cliff’s article on bureaucratic collectivism (IS 32) is selective about the authorities he names, selective about the quotations therefrom, and deliberately ignores the tie-up between differing theories.

To start with, there is no simple division, as he claims, between those who have made the State capitalist and those who have made one or other of the New Class analyses. State capitalism can either be interpreted as a belief that capitalism was never overthrown, or only temporarily overthrown, and that State capitalism has grown into the last stage predicted by Marx from the vestigial capitalist concerns left in 1917, reinforced by NEP and so forth, and that such more or less classical capitalism subverted the Bolshevik regime. This is more or less the line of the Socialist Party of Great Britain. Alternatively, State capitalism can be seen as a qualitatively new form of society, which grew out of the five-year plans. This latter position was put forward at the end of the World War II by the Johnson-Forrest faction.

A debate between these two different versions of the State capitalist analysis, between Raya Dunayevskaya and a Luxemburgist, appeared in an issue of News and Letters a year ago, and the lines of division were very clear. By and large, the analysis presented by Cliff in his various books has fallen between these two stools.

The division between the latter theory of State capitalism and the various bureaucratic collectivist, managerialist and similar analyses is not necessarily all that deep. Dunayevskaya, like Rizzi and others, believes that the system visible in the Soviet Union is displacing capitalism on a world level. Cardan uses the terms interchangeably.

Orwell’s analysis, like that of Camus, Dwight Macdonald and Ure, is essentially a variant of the bureaucratic collectivist or managerialist case; the writings of the Retrogressionists added much to the term Industrial Feudalism which De Leon predicted as the alternative to socialism as the society of the future, and constitutes the position of some of the splinters from the Socialist Labour Party. Anyone considering these positions would be advised also to read Longden’s Proletarian Heritage (Strickland Press), to reconsider Scott-Holland and compare Orwell’s 1984 with its origins.

Cliff has quoted little from these sources, rightly has not bothered to mention Burnham, but also has not mentioned the 1947-1950 discussion of managerialism in Common Wealth Review, and elsewhere, notably by Taylor and Bannister, and has failed to mention that the debate started, not with Rizzi, but earlier, when Simone Weill raised the New Class thesis; one of the reasons for Trotsky writing The Revolution Betrayed was in answer to Weill, and this precipitated a second rejoinder from Rizzi.

No doubt all these different theories – including Cardan’s, the latest though possibly not the most complete – leave many gaps. It is possible to ask: if bureaucratic collectivism is a new universal, why has there been no full analysis in terms of motive forces? But fifty years after the French revolution, there was still no full analysis of classical capitalism, and no-one had fully documented the motive forces in the rise of capitalism. However, this does not mean that those who, before Marx, groped towards a socialist theory and saw the bourgeoisie as essentially a new exploiting class were not right.

Cliff is partly hamstrung by his belief that nothing which Marx did not say is history: thus, he talks of feudalism in the Middle Ages, and appears to believe that one undifferentiated system survived from the days of Charlemagne to the French revolution. It is unlikely that, if Marx ever paused for a moment to consider his famous four-fold division of societies (five, with Oriental Despotism), he would have found them to hold water. Feudalism was a system based upon the feodati, and therefore, by definition, was not an hereditary system and did not survive into the second millenium. The various different societies which constitutional historians lump together as Bastard Feudalism range from some with little or no mercantilist trade, through the growth of the wool trade and primitive manufacture, to the age of colonisation and of cartels – all before the technological innovations which laid the basis for entrepreneurial capitalism.

It is absurd to claim that the social relations of the mid-eighteenth century were either those described by Marx, or those of the baron/serf division, as existed in the days of – say – the early Plantaganets. The fact that systems change is no novelty. It is no doubt possible to describe all systems since before the accession of the Tudors as variants of capitalism, provided one does not use the term to denote the entrepreneurial capitalism Marx described. In which case, if one is describing all these as capitalist (and certainly there is an essential unity between all systems in Britain since the development of the native wool trade and economic independence of Flanders), then it would be fair enough to insist on the term State capitalism, insisting too that this is but a form of capitalism. But if this is to be done, then the industrial system which originated with the Spinning Jenny and preceded the invention of the conveyor belt, must be given some other term than capitalism tout court; and it must equally be insisted that mercantilism be called mercantilist capitalism.

Orwell, Schachtman and Longden, among others, gave some insights – beyond those of Rizzi – as to what the subordinate class is under bureaucratic collectivism. Probably Longden’s term, Prole-robot, though clumsy, best describes the victim of automation. Likewise Cardan/Taylor and Dedijer/Djilas illuminated the nature of the managerial-bureaucratic collectivist. But since, by definition, this is a ruling class, still in the process of taking power, and still deluding itself that it represents workers in conflict with the old order, it is not unnatural that it is a broad theory, not a detailed analysis. To say that those who advance the bureaucratic collectivist analysis are not certain whether it is a regime of barbarism (as Trotsky predicted in his testament) or a system which is economically progressive, is not fully an argument. The exploitation of the early days of capitalism (entrepreneur capitalism, as described by Marx) saw far more intense exploitation of the new proletariat than there had been of the earlier artisans (cf. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class, or any other contemporary record not written by capitalist spokesmen) and was truly barbaric. The fact that Marx so described the inhumanities of capitalism did not prevent him calling the system economically progressive, which did not mean that he then turned round and supported it. On one point let us agree: Marxism is not a supra-historical theory, and to be a Marxist so long after Marx, negates Marx.

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