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A. Roland

Political Economy Under Stalin

(November 1944)

From Fourth International, Vol. 5 No. 11, November 1944, pp. 339–342.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

There has finally appeared an honest-to-goodness translation of the document of the Russian economists on the teaching of political economy in the Soviet Union. Poor Russian professors! The GPU sets strict limits to the sphere within which they may theorize. With the richest Marxist literature once at their command in the land of “socialism” and planned economy, they are reduced to timid quotations from the spurious pearls of wisdom found in the drab writings of the autocrat of all the Russians. Their science is commanded to justify the glaring inequalities that have been introduced into Soviet society by the self-interested bureaucracy. They leave it to their petty bourgeois American colleagues to carry on a lively discussion concerning whether it is socialism or capitalism that now exists in the Soviet Union. Academic freedom exists even less than other freedoms in Stalin’s Russia.

The bloody purges in the most prolonged series of political mock trials in all history have not served to encourage lively creation in the field of political economy. This subject is in fact the most touchy of all to the Kremlin. What better proof is needed than the statement in the document of Leontiev that “The teaching of political economy in our institutions of higher learning has been resumed after an interruption of a few years.” It has been reinstated only in the last academic year. It was not the war that caused this lapse. It was the need to purge learning along with everything else, the need to seize and put under lock and key more Marxist (that is, dangerous) literature. But if the economic theories of Marx and Engels are taboo, what then to teach and remain out of the concentration camp? It is truly difficult to be a professor under such conditions, even a Stalinist professor.

The American professors, without any difficulty at all, accept as quite normal the conditions under which their Russian counterparts have to exist. There is Professor Normano, for example, who assures us that nothing new is taking place (only forgetting, by accident, to tell us about the old).

“The characteristic of the post-revolution period in Russia was action and not theorizing, and even theoretical changes took place by way of action—in some cases being later acknowledged by theoretical pronunciamentos.”

The whole function of a science is to guide action by theory, not merely to remain immersed in empirical observations. What is clear is that the professor does not believe in his own science. Or perhaps he is warning his prying fellow-teachers not to throw too much light on what is happening, that the “administrative action” of the Stalinists will in due course restore capitalism in Russia without any prodding from those eagerly awaiting this outcome.

Stalinist “Science”

Leontiev and the others feel their safest course is to justify what is and therefore to give it the proper Stalinist coloration. They base their “science” on Stalin’s formula: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his work.” It would be treason to do less, for this doctrine is actually in the Stalinist Constitution as the basis of socialism, the first stage of communism. It was under this formula that the bureaucracy introduced piecework and the Stakhanovist speed-up in their attempt to increase the woefully low Russian productivity of labor. The appeal to the money incentive and the use of every device of bureaucratic coercion are contained in this formula. It is, as is well known, a perversion of the Marxist description of communist society: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” The two statements have almost nothing in common with each other. To say that Stalin’s crass formulation is the basic tenet of socialism, is to cast utter discredit on socialism.

Is it socialism that exists in the Soviet Union? Only one blissfully ignorant of Marxism, or deliberately falsifying (as does the Kremlin dictator) could say so. The proletarian revolution even when it occurs in the most advanced capitalist country, will not establish socialism at once. It will create rather the possibility of moving towards socialism, and certainly at a far more rapid rate than was possible in backward Russia. Nobody foresaw in advance that the proletarian revolution would succeed first of all in culturally and economically backward Russia. Marx and Engels naturally theorized concerning what socialism would look like in the future. To make clear how socialism would be built, what it would do for humanity, Marx started with the most advanced stage reached by capitalism and thought ahead from that. Not that he considered that the workers must of necessity first take power in an advanced country. He thought at one time, in fact, that the revolution might break out in Russia first of all. Elsewhere, showing his conception of the socialist transformation of society as a world matter, he remarks that the French would begin the revolution, the Germans continue and deepen it, the English—with the most advanced technique in his day—finish it.

Marx’s Position

The seizure of power by the Russian workers placed on their shoulders the tasks performed in other lands by the bourgeoisie. Thus the Russian Revolution illustrated the application of socialist methods to solve capitalist problems. The Soviet state was required to expand the forces of production, not on the base of an advanced technique, but from the ground up. True the Russians could borrow the most advanced techniques, but they could borrow them only at a rate determined by the forces already at their disposal, including an extreme lack of trained labor power in a peasant country, poverty, and a backward economy and culture. The revolution in the forms of property — the nationalizing of the land and the factories, the monopolizing of transport and trade—did not begin to solve the problem of building socialism. All that it did was to place the problem for solution on the order of the day, in life as Trotsky says.

Marx in viewing the problem as it would arise not in a backward land but in the most advanced, had seen clearly that society would have to go through a long transition period. He even distinguished between the earlier phase of this period and the later. Socialism, the first phase of the transformation, would usher in a period of growth of the forces of production over and beyond anything that had previously been seen in the capitalist countries. The standard of living would rise continually in this period. This period would give way at a time when society was producing extremely cheaply a great abundance of everything, so that all want had disappeared, to the final stage of communism. Work would then be done directly for society; it would be considered normal and necessary; it would be performed voluntarily, each giving the best of his creative ability. Only then would “each give according to his ability and receive according to his needs.”

Socialism is a higher civilization than capitalism in every respect. Yet Marx declared that even under socialism, as it emerges from capitalist society, society would still be filled with much of the content of the old bourgeois structure.

“Bourgeois law ... is inevitable in the first phase of the communist society, in that form in which it issues alfter long labor pains from capitalist society. Law can never be higher than the economic structure and the cultural development of society conditioned by that structure.”

Lenin based his theory of the state on this dictum of Marx. Since society does not yet produce enough of everything for all, the sphere of distribution and consumption must still be regulated in a bourgeois manner. Man has not yet sloughed off his old habits and become a communist by nature. The forces of production will be built to greater heights in the first stage by giving people an incentive in the sphere of consumption. In short money and the law of value will still rule society. This being the case said Lenin:

“Bourgeois law in relation to the distribution of the objects of consumption assumes, of course, inevitably a bourgeois state, for law is nothing without an apparatus capable of compelling observance of its norms. It follows that under communism (Lenin speaks here of the early period) not only will bourgeois law survive for a certain time, but also even a bourgeois state without the bourgeoisie.”

Russia started at the lowest rung of the ladder, where terrible want was and still is prevalent. The planning of economy, proposed first by Trotsky, was intended in the first instance to try to catch up as rapidly as possible to capitalist production. This has not been achieved if we take economy as a whole. The war has now set Russia back by its devastation of town and countryside. The low level of production of consumers’ goods could not be better illustrated than in the warning given to Soviet soldiers invading Rumania not to be “deceived” by the “glitter” of capitalist civilization! This in so frightfully backward a country as Rumania! How, then, can one talk of “socialism” in Russia? But isn’t it true that the industries are nationalized, and isn’t there a monopoly of foreign trade in the Soviet Union, and isn’t this socialism? It has been pointed out that these factors are necessary for socialism but are not yet socialism. Russia is not and never was a socialist society Trotsky calls Russia a transition society between capitalism and socialism. Materially Soviet society remains nearer to capitalism than to socialism. And not only materially!

The Russian workers are still paid wages for their labor power, more especially for piecework. This means that they are subject to bourgeois law, and more especially to the bourgeois law of value. Money and the law of value remain part of civilization up to the final stage of communism. They continue to perform a function after the downfall of capitalism, that this system of society could not carry out; namely, drawing into the main stream of social life and encouraging the development of everything primitive and backward on a world-scale.

Marx pointed out in his Critique of the Gotha Program that the law of wages remains the same after the downfall of capitalism as before.

“Here obviously the same principle prevails as that which regulates the exchange of commodities so far as this exchange is of equal values. Content and form are changed because under the changed conditions no one can contribute anything except his labor and, on the other hand, nothing can pass into the possession of individuals except individual objects of consumption. But, so far as the distribution of the latter among the individual producers is concerned, the same principle prevails as in the exchange of commodity-equivalents; i.e., equal quantities of labor in one form are exchanged for equal quantities of labor in another form.”

There follows a remark which the Stalinist professors dare not quote when they discuss this question:

“The equal right is here still based on the same principle as bourgeois right, although principle and practice are no longer at daggers drawn, while the exchange of equivalents in commodity exchange only exists for the average and not for the individual case. In spite of this advance, this equal right is still continually handicapped by bourgeois limitations ... This equality consists in the fact that everything is measured by an equal measure, labor ... This equal right is an unequal right for unequal work. It recognizes no class differences because every worker ranks as a worker like his fellows, but it tacitly recognizes unequal individual endowment, and thus capacities for production, as natural privileges.”

The professors would like to forget that Marx designates this not as a socialist, but as a bourgeois law.

Falsification of Marxism

The Stalinists use these quotations from Marx to “justify” not mere inequality in wages, but the tremendous inequalities that the parasitic bureaucracy has introduced into Soviet life. They falsify Marxism. Lenin points out that to Marx this inequality, while unavoidable at first, is still a “defect.” Lenin adds:

“Until the higher phase of communism arrives, the Socialists demand the strictest control, by society and by the state, of the quantity of labor and the quantity of consumption; only this control must start with the expropriation of the capitalists, with the control of the workers over the capitalists, and must be carried out, not by a state of bureaucrats, but by a state of armed workers.”

Lenin followed Marx and Engels on the measures to be taken by the proletariat against the formation of a bureaucracy in the new state. Their desire was to minimize inequality in order to prevent the danger of a return to capitalism. Democracy, complete democracy, in both the economic and the political spheres was necessary for this purpose. That is why Lenin demanded not only regular elections but recall at any time, payment for officials no higher than the wages of a worker, and an immediate transition to a regime in which all will fulfill the functions of control and supervision so that “all may for a time become bureaucrats, and therefore nobody can become a bureaucrat.”

Stalin set the tone for the justification of inequality in an interview with Emil Ludwig (“the court portraitist”) in 1932. Speaking of Marx’s criticism of Stirner for his equalitarianism, the dictator said:

“Equalitarianism arises from the peasant mode of thought, the psychology of dividing up everything equally, the psychology of primitive peasant ‘communism.’ Equalitarianism has nothing in common with Marxist socialism. Only people who have no knowledge of Marxism can think of things in such a primitive way, as if the Russian Bolsheviks wanted to gather all wealth together and then divide it up equally.”

This sounds at first sight as though it had some merit — but everything in its time and place. The real question then concerned not primitive peasants, but the relatively enormous share that the parasitic bureaucracy was bleeding from the national income. And on this score there could be no doubt as to where the Marxists stood.

The professors of political economy—it seems incredible!—take Stalin quite literally and in 1944 speak of the incorrectness of idealizing primitive communism, the primitive communism of ancient times. The “equalitarianism” of that epoch, they tell us without batting an eyelash, was really due to weakness and backwardness. Civilization took progressive steps away from all that. Perhaps the professors feel it may be safe to go back at least that far in their criticism. But in today’s reality even this has its function. It is not too difficult to see here and elsewhere the tendency to cast doubt on the merits of communism. After all it is better to keep one’s face turned in the direction in which one is going, rather than in the opposite direction. There is also the Soviet General in Iran who replied to a correspondent’s question that “Communism—that was something for perhaps a thousand years from now.” Perhaps the General thought that Stalin’s system would last that same thousand years that Hitler so well forecast for his own.

Economic Laws

The analysis thus far permits us to evaluate properly the inevitable diatribe against “enemies of socialism of various brands — bourgeois economist wreckers, restorers of capitalism from the camp of the Trotskyist-Bukharinist agency of fascism” who

“... have tried to extend to socialist economy the laws of capitalist economy. To suit their wrecking, counter-revolutionary purposes they have slanderously perverted the character of the socialist relations that have been introduced among us, falsifying them, repainting them in the colors of capitalist relations—spreading the pitiable fiction that the very same unchanged laws of capitalist economy which prevailed before, operate also under the Soviet power, and any attempt to break these laws can only lead to economic convulsions.”

Too bad that the professors, the self-same ones who invented the theory with Stalin that the ruble no longer needed gold coverage and no longer had the same meaning as in capitalist countries, and who maintained that prices could be administratively set—almost at will—by the bureaucracy, too bad that after some experience with inflationary convulsions they must now conclude precisely with what they claim to be denying. The law of value does apply, they tell us, to “socialist” society. The self-same law that exists under capitalism. Just as the “socialist principle” is seen to be nothing more nor less than the “capitalist principle.” From each according to his ability, to each according to his work. The New York Times will subscribe to that with both hands and precisely because it does, it maintains that socialism has now been abandoned in Russia and capitalism restored. Of course it bases itself on more than the mere formula!

Both parts of this formula are false. The masses in Russia are driven to the utmost in their toil. Their labor is forced from them on penalty of starving otherwise, just as under capitalism. The piecework system, as Trotsky says, forces men to strain themselves to the utmost without any visible coercion. To each according to his work. That is the bourgeois law of value which remains for a time even under socialism.

The Stalinist economists state quite correctly that the law of the average rate of profit has lost it significance. But what was this significance? The average rate of profit under capitalism distributed the national surplus value gained in exploitation, in shares to the individual capitalists proportional to the amount invested. Surplus value does not disappear in the transition society or under socialism. The state appropriates all surplus value. Under ideal conditions this would be used for capital investments to build the forces of production and for raising the living standards of the masses, as well as for ordinary administrative expenses of the state. This is still a half-way house insofar as property is concerned. Private property, we know, must pass through the state property stage in order at a later time to really become socialized. When it becomes socialized, the state will no longer be necessary and will wither away. Russian economy is in the state stage, not at all the same as the socialist stage.

The low level of productivity of Russian labor combined with the failure of the proletarian revolution to spread, permitted the bureaucracy to consolidate its totalitarian power in the Soviet Union. It goes without saying that this important fact will not be found in the “theoretic” work of the professors. The bureaucracy has long been the worst menace to the Soviet state and economy. It is not the workers who benefit from the nationalized property, but the Stalinist parasites. The whole structure with all its institutions has long been completely “bourgeoisified.” There remains the form of nationalized factories and the monopoly of foreign trade. The growth in inequality, the gulf between the directors of trusts, the technical personnel and the bureaucracy in general on one side, and the toilers on the other, brought about by the operation of the “socialist principle” as well as usurped privileges, has corroded the entire system. Trotsky says in his book on Stalin, “The Stalinist bureaucracy is nothing else but the first stage of bourgeois restoration.”

The professors cannot help but reveal the breaches that have been made. Deep inroads exist in the nationalized land. The peasants have now used their private plots, separated from the collectivized farms, for many years. They look upon these as private property and secure the larger part of their income from the labor devoted to these plots of land. Then too the produce thus privately raised as well as the supplies of grain, etc. received in kind as their share of the production of the collectives, are sold in the open market existing side by side with the closed government market. The economists cannot help but state that: “Between the organized market, which is in the hands of the Soviet state, and the free market element a struggle goes on.” The free market has grown at an enormous rate during the war. The government had to permit this in order to give the incentive for the greatest possible production. Where two markets exist, one for private trading, with much higher prices in the free market, there can be no doubt that speculation and middlemen spring up and grow apace. What part the bureaucracy itself plays in the way of graft and self-enrichment, not to say through outright robbery, we shall probably learn in due course. Leontiev admits that “two sorts of prices exist in fact in Soviet economy.” He makes no further attempt to explain this.

One can say with utmost assurance that in the tug-of-war between the socialist and the capitalist sectors of Soviet economy, the pull is all in the direction of capitalism at the present time. This despite the fact of war production on the part of the trusts. For even in this sphere, the individual factories have come more and more into touch with each other directly, instead of through central planning bodies. This trend has been encouraged by the bureaucracy. Its tendency is to atomize the economy. Taken in conjunction with the direct effects of the war, and the pressure of world imperialism, the danger of capitalist restoration in the Soviet Union grows more and more acute. The process is not one that occurs all at once. The example of “Soviet” Esthonia may be taken as an illustration of how the process may spread. There the land has not been nationalized, but has been left in the hands of the peasants. No effort is being made (nor could it be made under present conditions) to collectivize them. But in addition all enterprises employing less than ten people are permitted to continue as private ones. Only the bigger plants are being nationalized.

There is some indication of the future trend also in the Gold Conference. Stalin has undertaken to help buttress world capitalism with the aid of Soviet gold and economy. The capitalist countries, meantime, propose to seek to penetrate Soviet economy by economic pressure through this same channel.

Incidentally, by these ties with world capitalism, Stalin has negated the whole theory of “socialism in one country.” For it is clear acknowledgement of the dependence of Soviet economy on world economy.

There is only one great force that can save the Soviet Union from this danger. Without a proletarian revolution in Europe, which will arouse the Soviet masses into action against the reactionary bureaucracy, capitalist restoration is inevitable sooner or later. Stalin’s victories do not at all lessen the danger. They may indeed hasten matters. These are the alternatives facing Russia.

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