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Nigel Harris

Mao and Marx

On Bettleheim’s The Class Struggle in the USSR

(June 1976)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.89, June 1976, pp.16-21.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

In 1964, Mao decided:

‘The Soviet Union today is under the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, a dictatorship of the German fascist type, a dictatorship of the Hitler type’

A clique, he said, had usurped the Communist Party and the Soviet Government, and imposed the rule of a bureaucratic monopoly capitalist class, namely a new type of bourgeoisie’ which pursued ‘social implications abroad’. [1]

The statement ratified an open break with the Soviet Union, just as Stalin’s 1949 description of Yugoslavia as ‘fascist’ implied that no short-term reconciliation was possible; the regime had to be overthrown by force. Mao’s formulation was a theoretical bombshell. The Soviet Union had apparently seen no major social transformation in the ten years following Stalin’s death, no change in the structure of power, no change in the basic lines of domestic and foreign policy. How, then, could a counter-revolution have triumphed in this period without anyone except Mao noticing? The problem apparently troubled few supporters of either the Soviet Union or China. No flood of books from China or elsewhere demonstrated how such a gigantic change could have taken place without apparent signs. The world settled down again with, now, two ‘superpowers’ (USA and USSR), one of them operating ‘social fascism’ at home and ‘social imperialism’ abroad.

Now, ten years after Mao’s statement, some of the foreign supporters of the Chinese government have begun to try and clear up the theoretical mess. Mr Nicolaus’ book [2] is, however, a religious tract, a pecularly sterilized version of Kremlin myths, 1937-vintage, pure ‘ideology’ without any attempt at Marxist analysis; it can be of interest solely to the more slavish devotees of the cult of the Great Helmsman.

Charles Bettleheim’s work [3] is a quite different kettle of fish. Mao has found a theoretician. In pursuit of the origins of the degeneration of the Soviet Union into state capitalism, he has retraced his steps to the October revolution itself and to a detailed examination of Lenin’s writings. It is an extraordinarily difficult exercise. One false step in the analysis of the Soviet Union can lead to the implication that the structure of power – if not the detail of operation – is the same in the People’s Republic of China, and that there China is either already state capitalist or on the road to becoming so.

‘Bourgeois Social Practices’

What is his case? It turns upon a concept vital to Marx’s analysis but now raised to a status that almost eliminates everything else – ‘social relations’. It is possible, Bettleheim argues, for workers to conquer the State, but then fail to transform the basic relations of production – the relationships between workers and managers, workers by hand and by brain, town and country. He cites with approval a 1923 statement by Bukharin:

‘The working class can defeat mechanically its adversary ... it can physically take possession of what exists but it can at the same time be absorbed by adverse cultural forces ... This danger inevitably threatens every working class which takes state power. If that happens, we transform ourselves into a new class, constituted by the new technical intelligentsia, by a party of the new bourgeoisie ... because we are detached without noticing, but completely, from the general proletarian base and we transform ourselves thus into a new social formation.’ [4]

Bettleheim reiterates that

‘Although the process of social reproduction may no longer be dominated by the bourgeoisie, the capitalist character of this process is only partially modified by the existence of the dictatorship of the proletariat; the fundamental structure of this process is still not really broken.’ (p.116)

It takes a long period of social change to overcome the inertia of the old society, and necessitates

a class struggle prolonged and guided by a correct political line, that is to say, a line set at each stage by aims permitting an effective social transformation of the relations of production. The elaboration of such a line assumes the existence of a proletarian party armed with revolutionary theory and playing a directing role.’ (CB stress; p.118)

It follows that the party can know what should be done, independent of the society of which it is a product – it is ‘independent’ of society – and it always has the material power to change ‘social relations’ in a socialist direction, independent of the level of material scarcity (whether this is the Soviet Union of the 1920s or China of the 1950s and 1960s).

In the Soviet Union of the twenties, according to Bettleheim, the Party leadership – both left and right – consistently sacrificed changing ‘social relations’ to expanding the output of the economy. They did this because, apart from Lenin, they shared a common misunderstanding of Marxism; they were all ‘economist’. According to Bettleheim, ‘economism’ arose from the reformist nature of the second International (the prewar association of social democratic parties); Marxism was corrupted by the interests of the privileged ‘labour aristrocracy’ of the industrialised countries. Expanded output, regardless of the relations governing production in the factories, sustained the privileges of the union and labout bosses, whereas changing the relations would jeopardise these privileges. Bolshevik cadres took their Marxism from the Second International.

However, this intellectual source does not explain why this ‘ideological inertia’ persisted in the new Soviet society where there was little or no ‘labour aristocracy’ at the beginning. But, says Bettleheim, the ‘economist’ version of Marxism coincided with the cultural assumptions of workers, trained in the old society in subordination to capitalist control, and, more important, with the material interests of two groups of people – the former Tsarist officials, managers and intelligentsia who were induced to work for the new regime, and some of the Bolsheviks, now in positions of authority in the factories and state. Furthermore, the Party had, mistakenly, made no attempts to lead the class struggle among the peasantry, and therefore, no continuing process of rural revolution came to reinvigorate the workers’ party. The two social groups – bourgeoisie and new Party officials – together could, left to themselves, constitute a ‘new bourgeoisie’. Bettleheim generalises thus:

‘All those who, in the system of production and social reproduction, hold a place corresponding to that of the bourgeoisie who develop bourgeois social practices, despite the existence of the dictatorship of the proletariat, constitute a bourgeoisie.’ (p.120; CB stress)

The criterion is apparently the style with which authority is exercised by the bureaucracy, not the existence of the bureaucracy itself. This certainly conforms with Mao’s observation:

‘We should get rid of the enemy. Rigid bureaucrats should be reformed into creative bureaucrats. If, after a long time, they cannot become creative, then we should get rid of them.’ [5]

Apparently, therefore, style is not the product of a particular structure of class power, but the cause of the creation of a new class. Marx is stood on his head!

Economism and the Intellectuals

What is Bettleheim’s ‘economism’? He claims it is related to Lenin’s conception (p.31), but this is clearly not so. Lenin used the word to describe the strategy of a group of Social Democrats who maintained that the bourgeois revolution in Tsarist Russia would be led by the Tsarist bourgeoisie, and that, therefore, workers must subordinate their political aims to the bourgeoisie; the role of Social Democrats was not to lead workers politically, but only economically, in limited industrial matters. By contrast, Bettleheim defines his ‘economism’ as the reduction of Marxism to an ‘economic’ theory, but he then broadens the notion to cover a whole ragbag of different questions, leaving precious little of precision behind except a vague feeling that ‘economism’ is wrong, selfish, partial.

Yet the concept is extremely important for Bettleheim’s case, and is indeed used in the same loose way on the Left generally. It implies a clear gap between economic questions (‘practice’) and politics (‘theory’) [6], a gap which corresponds, not surprisingly, to a social division between workers and intellectuals. Middle class thought is generally addicted to the dissolution of scientific social categories into moralising and not for accidental reasons. In the big confrontations between capital and labour, the middle classes have no leverage over events other than their ideas, their morality. On the left, the demand for the priority of ‘politics’ over ‘economics’ (indeed, even the myth that the boundary is usually clear) is quite often a demand for the leadership of the intellectuals. It carries the familiar old-fashioned Christian connotation that the middle classes, having no material interest (apparently), are disinterested and unselfish,, in contrast to what, one prominent Communist intellectual once called the ‘belly socialism’ of the workers; unselfish ideological commitment faces mere greed. At the height of the Cultural Revolution in China, the same emphasis on moral questions, on style of exploitation, emerged:

‘The core of the system of ideas on the exploiting classes is egoism, selfishness, a result of thousands of years of existence of the system of private ownership; such egoism has a deep-rooted effect.’ [7]

Compare the Daily Telegraph:

‘Inflation is a moral as well as an economic crisis ... what we are suffering from, as a nation, is greed.’ [8]

Of course, on the left, the possibility of this crude class prejudice masquerading as Marxism depends on Marxism itself being treated as a doctrine of abstract religious principles, applicable at all times and places regardless of circumstances, depends on Marxism having its historical and materialist teeth removed.

Politically, the doctrine of the sharp separation of politics and economics provides a justification for the idea that the Party, not the working class, is the decisive force in and after the revolution. The intellectuals provide that mysterious and magical ingredient, ‘the correct Marxist-Leninist’ leadership out of their historical treasure chest, not the working class out of its daily experience of class struggle. Bettleheim’s history is essentially history from the view point of the intellectual elite. His account of the rise of the Bolsheviks places overwhelming stress on Lenin’s What is to be Done?, which taken in isolation is a striking manifesto of the intellectual elite. The problem, for Bettleheim, is entirely how to fashion the intellectual elite, not how the Party relates to the working class. Apparently, once the intellectuals have got themselves sorted out, the workers will automatically flock to their banner. The Lenin of 1905 and of 1917 disappears into insignificance. [9] After the revolution, the ‘class struggle’ is entirely fought out at the level of party purges!

A series of intolerable gaps open up between the masses’ perception of their interests and the party’s ‘correct line’, between the working class itself and those who claim to be the ‘proletarian leadership’, between the real proletariat and the ‘proletarian ideology’ presented by the party. Indeed, who the proletariat is changes alarmingly. Bettleheim says the ‘true proletariat’ does not pursue its class interests, but the abolition of all classes. We are back in the world of the Daily Telegraph, where greedy ‘sectional’ interests like those of the workers stand contrasted with the true interests of the nation, represented by the elected government. In China’s case, that old reformist solution to all social ailments, education – whether in schools, in mass campaigns, in guided ‘Cultural Revolutions’, in sending bureaucrats to dig ditches – can curb the unruly masses and their lower rulers, can wean them away from their obstinate adherence to their own interests. A series of other distinctions disappear – between popular participation and popular control, between mass support and mass initiative, between consultation and democracy, between class collaboration and working class independence, between reformism and revolution. All disappears into a populist fog.

The NEP: A ‘Gigantic Step Forward’?

Bettleheim is too sophisticated not to refer to the peculiar historical conditions of Russia in the 1920s. But he does not seriously test his argument that social relations could have been transformed in an isolated Russia. For him, the history of China seems to demonstrate that it is always possible. Yet the Soviet Union was very backward, emerging from world war, civil war and famine, its working class decimated and its peasantry impoverished. Fighting the civil war had been an overriding priority, in conditions where there was initially no trained army and precious few weapons. Building the army, restoring production to supply the army, and fighting were decisive for the survival of the regime. How were the old Tsarist specialists to be induced not to emigrate but put their skills at disposal of the regime? How were the old Tsarist military experts to be persuaded to work for the new Government and not run away to fight for the White armies? How were skilled workers to be persuaded to return from the villages and start up the factories again?

These problems could only have been avoided if supplies of industrial and agricultural products were abundant or available from abroad, if Communist experts and skilled workers were available to work at the average wage and without other privileges. It is precisely because the Soviet Union was backward and isolated from the goods and skills available in more advanced countries abroad that the government was compelled, as the condition of its survival, to recreate or tolerate the recreation of a hierarchy of privileges. Even then, a surprising degree of equality was maintained throughout much of the 1920s, in contrast to the deliberate state policy of massively increasing inequality in the first Five Year Plan period and subsequent years. Bettleheim’s history is wrong, as also is his illusion that the Party subordinated all to the needs of production in the 1920s. It did not, it subordinated all to the maintenance of the ‘alliance’ with the peasantry, in contrast to what came later in the first Five Year Plan and after.

Bettleheim, despite a wealth of factual detail, dodges the issue to concentrate on ideological questions, the mysterious lurking enemy of ‘economism’. The history of the post revolutionary years becomes a series of fateful mistaken decisions – for example, the restoration of ranks and privileges in the army (p.98 and p.246). But these are only the symptoms, but the sum of the errors does not explain history (as the reformists would have us believe). Only the structure does that.

From where do the ‘social relations of production’ come? In advanced capitalism, they are imposed and sustained by a dominant class as the condition for retaining its monopoly of the appropriation of the social surplus. But because society is rich, that function is no longer required for the survival of society; on the contrary, capitalist control is a ‘fetter on production’. However, in an isolated backward society, ‘social relations’ are imposed and sustained by material scarcity, by the ruthless division of labour demanded by the tasks of survival in conditions of backwardness. Scarcity impels the creation of a ruling class capable of maintaining the division of labour. Can such a division of labour be avoided in a backward society? Of course, by getting access to the material abundance of advanced societies. Is it politically feasible to get such access without a workers’ revolution in an advanced society? Of course not. The priorities of the victorious workers’ regime in a backward country must be – as Lenin tirelessly reiterated – to break out of its ghetto, to foster workers’ revolution in an advanced country as a condition of its very survival:

‘We have emphasised in many of our works, in all our speeches, and in our entire press, that the situation in Russia is not the same as in the advanced capitalist countries, that we have in Russia a minority of industrial workers and an overwhelming majority of small farmers. The socialist revolution in such a country can be successful only on two conditions: first, on condition that it is given timely support by the socialist revolution in one or more advancecd countries ... second, that there be an agreement between the proletariat which establishes the dictatorship or holds state power in its hands and the majority of the peasant population ...’ [10]

Bettleheim does not accept that the existence of a world economy is decisive, nor that material backwardness imposes any imperatives:

‘What has happened in China demonstrates in effect that “the low stage 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 inequality, etc.’ (p.40)

Marx, he says, argued that it is the class struggle, not the development of the productive forces, which is the motor of history, a formulation which – in contrasting the two – makes nonsense of Marx. Therefore, everything is in the power of the ‘correct Marxist-Leninist leadership’, regardless of material circumstances. It follows that, if this is true, the materialist conception of history is nonsense.

Bettleheim is compelled to turn everything on its head – the will to change social relations is more powerful than the material reality of which the social relations are the product; consciousness determines social being. Materialism is scrapped (not, of course explicitly) in exchange for a new doctrine of utopian socialism – great minds with access to the great idea (the correct line) is all that is needed.

Lenin is similarly turned on his head. From his last three writings, Bettleheim extracts a national reformist strategy from the New Economic Policy. A cultural revolution, serious propaganda and organising work among the peasantry, and co-operatives, can defeat the logic of backwardness. Organisation and propaganda can make up for scarcity. Yet he omits to notice the strategic aims which these documents assume – the temporary retreat of the workers revolution abroad, and therefore the need to hang on for a longer period than expected in an isolated Soviet Union. Indeed, one of the documents states that the aim is ‘holding on until the socialist revolution is victorious in the more developed countries.’ [11] In the light of the strategic aims and the immediate past (War Communism at home and rising revolutionary movements abroad), then the New Economic Policy was a retreat, embodying concessions to the peasants and small capitalists at home in the same way as concessions were made to foreign capitalist regimes abroad, all to win a temporary breathing space. But Bettleheim cannot admit this because it indicates how Bukharin and Stalin extracted an alternative notion, ‘socialism in one country’, from ‘the temporary exigencies of the New Economic Policy, and thereby scrapped the international perspective. Instead, Bettleheim defies Lenin’s last writing as, albeit with ‘hesitations’ that encouraged misinterpretation, not at all a retreat, but a breakthrough to Mao Tse-tung thought!

‘Unhappily, this gigantic step forward (New Economic Policy) is found presented through the false metaphor of a “retreat”.’ (p.499)

Bettleheim wants to protect Stalin and reject Bukharin but ends up in a position where he cannot but be Bukharinist. Since Bukharin is now being raised in certain circles [12] as the only true prophet of socialist humanism, the only true intellectual, Bettleheim is batting on a fashionable wicket.

The New Utopians

‘Revisionism’ was a perversion of Marxism presented by a number of people at the turn of the century, the best known being Edouard Bernstein. Among other things, they argued that Marxism was a science of economic analysis, showing the inevitability of socialist revolution, but not indicating why anyone should do anything about it. It lacked a moral imperative to inspire workers to revolution. Some of the group then formulated just such an imperative, drawn from the great German bourgeois philosopher, Emanuel Kant, which they tried to graft on to Marxism. It was the ideological entry point for moralizing, for voluntarism, for reaffirming the decisive role of those who could understand what on earth it was all about, the intellectuals. Above all, it reestablished philosophical idealism, the conception that ideas, rather than material conditions govern society.

Bettleheim also redefines Marxism to make it idealism. He lifts the term ‘social relations’ and makes it into a mystical concept, detached from material reality. The neo-Kantian ethics pop up in the new disguise of the ‘correct Marxist-Leninist leadership’. This is a counterattack by the Utopian Socialists, defending the role of the wise elite. Their power depends on, among other things, the maintenance of existing national frontiers, defining their patch. They must, as a matter of survival, defend themselves against the cause of international self-emanicipation, breaking those boundaries and their independent power. As opposed to ‘workers of the world unite’, we have ‘popular masses of one country unite under the correct (petty-bourgeois) leadership.’ At the moment of crisis, the national disunity of the rebels safeguards their enemy, imperialism.

However, Bettleheim’s roots are in the Marxist tradition, and, as a result, he cannot escale inconsistency. For example, he attacks the Russian Communist Party for making Marxism an incantatory religion that obscures reality and prevents criticial reflection on the history of the Soviet Union (p.45), without batting an eyelid about exactly the same monstrous cult in China. He asserts that social relations of production exist independently of the wishes of the participants, and yet then continues to argue as if this were not true.

Bettleheim is only partly free from the terrible intellectual heritage of Stalinism. While he has rejected one set of myths – for example, that socialism is identical with the State ownership of the means of production – he has restored another, those of Proudhon, St Simon, Owen and even some of the conservative anarchist thinkers. Some of the reviewers see this. Bettleheim defends, even if he distorts, Lenin. Paul Sweezy, reviewing Bettleheim’s book in the American Journal, Monthly Review [13], has no such sentimentality. For Sweezy, Lenin was guilty of economism, as was quite a lot of Engels’ work and even some of Marx’s. What Sweezy calls ‘economism’ is clearly the materialist conception of history! Consistent with his case, Sweezy makes a personal selection of the ‘proletariat’:

‘only “natural” bearers of values espoused by Marx and Mao (which centre on the imperative to eliminate all real inequalities, though not of course, all individual differences) are proletarians who have no privileges or special interests and on whom, therefore, the responsibility falls to carry on the struggle against all privileges and special interests.’ [14]

The case is deeply pessimistic – the masses cannot emanicipate themselves, only the party can. [15] However, Marxism can provide an explanation without these intellectual acrobatics, but only on condition that the appraisal of the Soviet Union (and China) is as ruthless as the method requires. What happens in Russian and Chinese factories and why?

‘Socialism in one Country’

The survival of the USSR as an independent national society demanded industrialisation, demanded that the historic tasks of the bourgeoisie and a capitalist division of labour be accomplished. That process was two-fold – the accumulation of capital, appropriated from the exploitation of workers and peasants; and the socialisation of the labour force, the transfer of labour from low productivity agriculture to high productivity industry.

The state was still capable of contesting for some measure of limited national autonomy against the world centres of capitalism, especially in interwar conditions when the world centres were wracked by crisis. It was only a limited power, but in the conditions of the Soviet Union, it permitted the state to undertake the tasks of the bourgeoisie. The emergence of the state – more markedly in other backward countries in the post second world war period – as the sole available agency for executing the tasks of the bourgeoisie, only threw into sharper relief the essentially parasitic functions of what remained of the private capitalists leeching off the means of production. However, that private capitalist class often remained important in backward countries – that is, the social formations of a past period of the division of labour now come to make more difficult the task of independent national economic development. The world private capitalist class was thus not only a ‘fetter on production’ in the advanced countries; it paralysed the backward dependencies and made the tasks even more difficult. Just as in Russia, there was no possibility of completing the bourgeois revolution in 1917 without overthrowing the private capitalists, in the same way, there was no possibility of industrialising Russia, without overthrowing both Tsarism and the foreign and native private capitalist class.

The Bolsheviks did not come to power to fulfil the tasks demanded by the survival of an independent Russian national society. They saw themselves as taking part in the emancipation of the world working class, not simply its Russian section. That task implied the dissolution, in the long term, of an independent Russian state, its merger in what the Comintern called in its first Manifesto, ‘an international workers’ republic’, not the creation of an independent industrialised state.

There were thus two separate possibilities on the historic ‘order of the day’ – fulfilling the tasks of the national bourgeoisie or of the world proletariat. The Communist Party of the 1920s was not an instrument for the first set of tasks. It required radical transformation, including a massive purge of its old cadres and leadership, in order to eliminate the preoccupation with the second set of tasks, as well as beat back the inertia of a backward society, continuously seeping into the party. The period of Bukharin’s leadership in the party is one of indecision, bouncing between what was required to survive in a backward Russia and what was demanded to break out of Russia. The critical conjunctures of the early twenties stress one (the scissors crisis, the need to expand industry, the threat of war) or the other (the situation in Germany, Bulgaria, Italy, Britain, China etc.).

The key decision came when one section of the Party leadership agreed – or was forced empirically – to undertake the historic tasks of the bourgeoisie. They set themselves to transform Russia as an independent national power and to transform themselves in order to carry out that task. Could they have ‘advanced to socialism’ while executing the tasks of the bourgeoisie? Such an idea is clearly absurd: the accumulation of capital in conditions of national backwardness imposes a division of labour independently of the wishes of the participants, the more so, the more urgent the need to accumulate, to ‘catch up’ with the power of those foreign states threatening the survival of the Soviet Union.

In the 1960s, the world centres of capitalism have grown vastly beyond what they were in the 1920s. To enter the system on terms of equality with the existing dominant powers now requires a much greater accumulation of capital than the Soviet Union needed. Yet China is much more backward than the Soviet Union in the 1920s, so poor it cannot even successfully undertake the Stalinist process of capital accumulation. Indeed, the limited role of State capitalism in breaking through now seems to be exhausted after a much shorter life than that of private capitalism. The political foundations of the world system – the national State – bounce against the world economic division of labour and are now one of Marx’s classical ‘fetters upon production’.

Where does all this place Bettleheim’s ‘social relations’? In the ideology of defending the ruling class of a backward part of the world economy by making a virtue of the conditions of austerity imposed by the survival of a backward China. It is a reactionary position, particularly now, when the struggle of workers around the globe is once more shaking the corrupt local representatives of the ‘international bourgeoisie’.


1. 11 May 1964, cited in joint editorials in People’s Daily, Red Flag, Liberation Army Daily, and Peking Review 17, 1970.

2. Martin Nicolaus, Restoration of capitalism in the USSR, Liberator Press, Chicago, 1975.

3. Charles Bettleheim, Les luttes de classe en URSS, 1ère periode, 1917-1922, Seuil/Maspero, Paris, 1974. Citations used here are translated by me, and therefore far from infallible.

4. Cited by Bettleheim, p.264, from Proletarische Revolution und Kultur, Verlag C. Hoym Nachfolger, L Cahnbley, Kleine Bibliothek der Russischen Korrespondenz, Nos.82-3, Hambourg 1923, pp.63-3.

5. Speech, Ninth Plenum of the 8th Central Committee, Chinese Communist Party, 18th Jan 1961, translated in Miscellany of Mao Tse-Tung Thought 1949-68 (mimeo), Pt.II, Arlington Virginia, 1971, p.240.

6. Some of the practical effects of the misuse of this distinction are discussed by Tony Cliff and Robin Peterson in Portugal: the last three months, IS 87, April 1976, pp.15-16.

7. Red Flag, editorial, 1967.

8. 5 March 1976.

9. Restored in Tony Cliff’s Lenin 1, Building the Party, Pluto, London 1975, chapter 8, pp.168ff.

10. V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, XVIII, pp.139ff. and also p.321; see also XVI, p.102; XV, pp.132 and 187; XXV, pp.733-4 and XXVI, p.465, Russian edition, cited T. Cliff, Stalinist Russia, London 1955, p.124

11. Better fewer, but better, March 2, 1923, Selected Works, 9, p.397.

12. See Stephen E. Cohen’s biography, Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution, A Political Biography, 1888-1938, New York, 1973, and Peter Sedgwick’s review, The return of Bukharin, IS 74, Feb. 1975.

13. The nature of Soviet society, I and II, Monthly Review, Nov. 1974 and Jan. 1975, Vol.26, Nos.6 and 8.

14. China’s economic strategy: its development and some resulting contrasts with capitalism and the USSR, Monthly Review, Jul.-Aug. 1975, 27/3, p.9.

15. The nature of Soviety society, op cit.

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