Evaluating the debates about the Soviet Union


Western Marxism and the Soviet Union: Evaluating the debates 1917-2006, by Marcel VAN DER LINDEN (Historical Materialism conference, 12-2006)

[Extract:] Critical theorizing about the Soviet Union in 1917-2005 appears to fall in four clearly different phases:

  • The period 1917-29, in which the classical unilinearism dominated, and postrevolutionary societies were only analyzed in terms of a transition to socialism which was either successful, or historically impossible, or doomed to failure.
  • The period 1929-68, in which – in the wake of the Stalinist transformation – it was generally recognized that a new type of society had emerged in the Soviet Union. Three main variants were offered in these years: (i) the theory of state capitalism and (ii) the theory of the degenerated workers’ state, both of which still adhered rather closely to the unilinear schema, as well as (iii) the theory of bureaucratic collectivism, according to which the bureaucracy operated as a new ruling class. That aside, cautious attempts at a fourth approach (‘theories without label’) emerged in the beginning of the 1940s (Pedrosa, Hilferding) and especially in West Germany in the early 1950s, but these remained relatively isolated, and were forgotten again.
  • The period 1968-85, during which the debate strongly revived, the fourth approach gained much more prominence, and the three old approaches tended to stagnate.
  • The period after 1985, in which the intensity of the debate was reduced and especially the number of new theories of (state) capitalism proliferated.

A posteriori, the first phase (1917-29) appears as no more than a transitional period of orientation, because the terms for all the later debates were fixed in the 1930s, at which time people like Weil, Trotsky, Worrall and others formulated the main perspectives which negatively or positively dominated the discussion.

(…) I would like to defend the thesis, that all “classical” variants conflict in essential respects with Marx’s own theory, and in addition occasionally run counter to the facts or violate logical principles.
To begin with, let us examine the theories of (state-) capitalism. If we disregard for a moment the fact that these theories identified different dates for the establishment of a capitalist formation in the Soviet Union,1 then what is most striking in the first instance is how much they differed in their interpretations about the real essence of (state-) capitalism.

Schematically, we could distinguish between four different perspectives:

  • Most theoreticians emphasized that capitalism is predicated on the existence of a working class which does not rule society. For some, that characteristic was really already sufficient in itself to define a society as capitalist (James, Mattick, Di Leo), but some others added other criteria. Thus, Worrall mentioned as a second condition the production of surplus-value, and Holmberg the fact that means of production were applied for the purpose of exploiting the wage workers.
  • Bordiga, Bettelheim, Chattopadhyay et al. emphasized the separation between individual enterprises, who attempt to realize ‘profit’ and exchange goods among themselves via ‘market contracts’. Bordiga considered this a sufficient condition to speak of capitalism; Bettelheim added the separation between wage-labour and capital.
  • Grandizo spoke of capitalism when wages were minimized, and surplus-value was used for investment and unproductive consumption.
  • Finally, Cliff saw the essence of capitalist society in the competition between capitals motivated by profit maximization.

Grandizo’s description is undoubtedly farthest removed from Marx’s. After all, talk of surplus-value already implies the existence of capitalism, and thus a petitio principii is involved. Definitions based on wage-labour then make an orthodox impression; Marx himself had written in Capital that

The capitalist epoch is therefore characterised by the fact that labour-power, in the eyes of the worker himself, takes on the form of a commodity which is his property; his labour consequently takes on the form of wage-labour.

If however one reduces Marx’s conception to such a passage, he is done an injustice.
Capitalism for him was after all a complex and dynamic system, in which wage-labour was only one important aspect. Thus, Marx also mentioned ‘commodity production and commodity circulation’ as ‘general prerequisites of the capitalist mode of production’.Essential in his opinion was especially the generalization of commodity production (labourpower and labour products) by capitals, in a market ruled by competition.

See the pdf

Professeur à l’Université d’Amsterdam et directeur de recherches à l’IISG, Marcel van der Linden est conseiller éditorial d’Historical Materialism et d’International Review of Social History. On peut aussi lire de lui: Socialisme ou Barbarie: A French Revolutionary Group 1949-1965 (1997).

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Une Réponse to “Evaluating the debates about the Soviet Union”

  1. wikipedia Says:

    ton article esdt interessant, et ta facon de presenter :es choses originale. bravio :)


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