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Dixon Adams & Irving Howe

An Exchange of Letters on the Character of Russian Society

What Is the Historical Perspective
of Bureaucratic Collectivism?

(3 June 1945)

From Labor Action, Vol. 10 No. 22, 3 June 1946, p.  2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The Letter


In your polemics with the SWP over the past nine months, there can be little doubt in the readers’ minds on the question of relative democracy within the two parties. The principle of democratic centralism seems to me to be an attempt to solve the inner contradiction between the necessity for power to meet the opposing power of the reactionaries on the one hand, and the democratic aspirations of socialism on the other. You have published the SWP minority’s testimony as to Cannon’s orientation toward centralism versus the Morrow-Goldman-WP orientation toward democracy. There is a further question, however, which I think lies at the bottom of the SWP-WP differences upon which I would like the WP explanation.

The Marxist justification for the rise of capitalism and for its victory over feudalism is that, at that stage of technical development, only by satisfying the rising capitalists’ selfish material interests could the productive capacity of society as a whole be increased. According to the materialist conception of history, those property forms, which at the given stage of history are capable of raising the general standard of living, are justified and will in the end supersede existing property forms which have reached the limit of their ability to raise the standard of living.

Therefore, if the Stalinist bureaucracy has increased Russia’s industrial capacity (whether or not this has yet appreciably increased production of consumer goods, or has only affected heavy industry so far), it is progressive, in the same way that at one time the selfish interests of the capitalists were progressive. History does not seem to take much stock in subjective motives, but does take stock in objective material progress. How does the theory of bureaucratic collectivism account for Russia’s industrial development under Stalinism, how does this development contradict the materialist conception of history, and how does the bureaucratic collectivist explanation of this differ from that of the degenerated workers’ state theory? How does the bureaucratic collectivist theory deal with this objective situation, quite apart from world revolution versus socialism in one country (upon which the SWP and the WP agree in strategy)?

The answer to this question seems to me to be the key to the SWP’s closer orientation to the CP than that of the WP. That is the reason that this question seems to me to be the most pertinent issue in the SWP-WP differences, and nowhere have I seen it dealt with in your press. Unfortunately, so far I have been unable to get hold of a complete exposition, or even a complete outline, of the theory of bureaucratic collectivism.


Dixon Adams,


The Reply

Dear Friend:

The Editorial Board of Labor Action has asked me to answer your extremely interesting letter. At the outset, I want to emphasize that our differences on Russia in no way precludes unity between the WP and the SWP. That is the Workers Party position. I wish to state that what follows is a personal opinion for which I alone am responsible; our party has not taken a position on many of these questions and I see no reason why, as a party of practical political activity, it needs to take a position, for example, on a problem involved in the materialist conception of history.

(1) Is the Stalinist bureaucracy “progressive” for having “increased Russia’s industrial capacity” in the same way as capitalism was progressive in its early stages because it increased “the productive capacity of society”? The comparison does not seem to me to be a valid one. When capitalism appeared on the historical scene, it resulted in tremendous changes in human society: the rise of the world market, the unparalleled stimulation of technological development, the resultant knitting of the world into one economic unit; in short, the lifting of society from feudal stagnation to the point where the development of capitalism made possible for the first time in history a society of abundance and security.

In that sense, despite its inhumanity, EARLY capitalism was historically progressive. That is, it increased man’s control over nature which was a prerequisite for removing man’s domination over man. Today, however, that great historical task has already been accomplished. The technological, economic and historical prerequisites for socialism on a world scale already exist, and in view of that fact the Stalinist dictatorship cannot be characterized as progressive when one bears in mind that it bears the terrible onus of having been mainly responsible for the many defeats of the world working class in the recent decade. The Marxian conception of progress is not merely a matter of technological index; it is technological index within a social reference.

The development of the productive forces by capitalism on an unprecedented world scale made possible the liberation of humanity from class society; the comparatively puny development of productive forces by Stalinism has come as part of the development of a totalitarian dictatorship which made a mockery of socialism and destroyed the world revolution. If one thinks of the matter only on a narrowly technological basis, then consider how insignificant is the development of Russia’s productive forces by Stalinism as compared with the set-back to the productive forces of the world as a whole which resulted from the Stalinist betrayal of the revolutions during the past twenty years and which resulted in the perpetuation of the economic system that destroys the productive forces today, namely capitalism.

(2) Just what is meant by saying that Stalinism has developed the productive forces of Russia? If you mean that it has developed more than would have probably have taken place had Russia remained capitalist in 1919, that is correct. But Stalinism arose as an alternative to a genuine working class regime, and not as an alternative to capitalism. Viewed concretely then, does it not seem highly likely that a democratic and genuine workers’ government, giving stimulation to the initiative of the working class rather than ruling it by terror and, above all, helping the workers of the advanced European countries come to power and thereby providing revolutionary assistance to the working class government of backward Russia – does it not seem likely that such a government could have achieved far more even on a narrowly Russian scale in terms of its industrial capacity, not to mention its people?

(3) The development of the productive forces under bureaucratic collectivism in Russia in part may be explained (in accordance, I believe, with the Marxist approach to history) by the following factors:

By virtue of its perpetuation of nationalized economy, bureaucratic collectivism succeeded in overcoming some of the economic contradictions of capitalism. By starving its people, by unprecedented brutality, by siphoning everything into the war machine, by the vicious speed-up it called Stakhanovism, the Russian bureaucracy succeeded in enlarging its industrial plant and gearing it for war. But, let me repeat again, it did so at the expense of the Russian working class and its revolution, as well as at the expense of the world revolution.

The criterion of productive expansion as an index of the progressiveness of a society can be applied only on a world scale and over a long- range period of time. For otherwise, we would be forced into the absurd conclusion that the economic development of Japan during recent years, in the era of capitalism’s world decline, makes Japanese imperialism historically progressive. Despite our difference of sociological characterization of Russia, we would often agree with the SWP on some of the specific factors which permitted of Russian industrial expansion. Only we assign different significance and give different interpretation to those factors.

Historical Quirk on World Society?

(4) I fear that you will not find “a complete exposition” of the theory of bureaucratic collectivism if you mean by that a highly detailed and thorough working out of its “economic laws of motion” such as Marx made of capitalism. If that is what you mean, such an exposition seems to me at present impossible to write, for the following reasons:

  1. Russia is the most thoroughly totalitarianized country in recent history and there is simply not enough information available, such as Marx found about capitalism in the British Museum, with which to attempt such an analysis;
  2. and more important: when Marx wrote Capital, the economic system he described had existed on the world arena for many years and it could be observed in its historical world genesis and in its internal developments from commercial to manufacturing to industrial capitalism, unlike Russian bureaucratic collectivism which has existed in an isolated context for only a few years and which has thus far been merely a kind of historical aberration. Whether it will continue as such an isolated historical quirk or may perhaps become a possible successor to capitalism on a world scale I shall not attempt here to say. The latter possibility can only arise on the basis of a future complete failure of the working class to achieve the socialist revolution; that is, bureaucratic collectivism could arise on a world scale only in a situation where the total decline and disorganization of world capitalism and the failure of the working class to rise to its historical task would produce a sort of social vacuum from which there would follow what Marx called “barbarism.” That is a meaning which can be assigned to Marx’s phrase that humanity will either move forward to socialism or retrogress into barbarism. It is for these reasons – the fact that bureaucratic collectivism’s historical future, if any at all, is still to be determined by the result of the present day class struggle, unlike the situation when Marx wrote, in which capitalism was clearly the dominant world economic system – that one should not expect a detailed economic exposition of the internal laws of bureaucratic collectivism.

However, a number of worthwhile and suggestive statements about the nature and possible perspectives of bureaucratic collectivism have been made by leading members of the Workers Party. In that sense, you may find a “complete exposition” of the theory of bureaucratic collectivism. The articles of Max Shachtman in The New International over a period of years, beginning with his article Why Russia is not a workers’ state in the December 1940 issue; the discussion articles by W. Kent and Joseph Carter in The New International for 1941 and 1942; editorials in recent issues of The New International; and Max Shachtman’s essay, The Struggle for the New Course printed in book form together with The New Course, will provide interesting material for you. That there is much additional theoretical analysis to be done on this problem would be absurd to deny; but we have done the basic preliminary work, I believe.


Irving Howe

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