1994 ‘The Marxian Concept of Capital and the Soviet Experience’ (extr.) [Chattopadhyay]




Though the USSR has now passed into history, its impact on the twentieth-century world — judged negatively or positively — is beyond dispute. The present work analyzes the Soviet economic experience in the light of the Marxian concept of capital. The subject of the book is Soviet economy, where economy is understood in its specific Marxian sense of a complex of social relations of production.
Entirely subscribing to the materialist point of view, we hold that it is the
economy, that is, basically the relations between the immediate producers and their conditions of production, that formed the foundation of the Soviet society and ultimately determined its politics and other elements of its edifice.
Correspondingly, our work is an essay in the critique of political economy — in the Marxian sense of the expression — and not in exercise in economics or even in political economy. All the basic categories employed in the book are Marx’s, as they appear in his original texts.

Soviet economy here refers, by and large, to the Soviet economic experience
under the so-called administered economic system that took shape and consolidated itself beginning in the late 1920s. It is this economy which, with no major modification, continued to prevail almost to the end of the regime and was taken everywhere as the standard Soviet model. We study it here as a basically closed economy, abstracted from its international economic relations. The moving forces of the Soviet society, as well as the insoluble contradictions in which it increas ingly got enmeshed, are analyzed, without recourse to the Soviet economy’s relations with the rest of the world, in terms of its own social relations of production and the specific phenomenal forms in which those relations manifested themselves. Here a word of clarification is in order. In our employment of the

term « Soviet » for the old regime, we have simply bowed to the term’s common usage in order not to create any confusion in the readers’ minds. As a matter of fact, the soviets, as the working peoples’ independent organs of power, were systematically destroyed by the Party-State beginning as early as 1918. To maintain the distinction, the term Soviet, with the « S » capitalized, is used in the book with reference to the old post- 1917regime, including its economy.

The debate on the Soviet question — wherever it appears in the book — is basically with the tendencies within the broad spectrum of the left. For those on the right, neither Marx nor an analysis of the Soviet economy ill the light of Marx’s theoretical categories hits been of any importance except perhaps as scholastic curiosities. Needless to add, there is nothing personal about this debate.
The individuals concerned appear here uniquely is representatives of certain tendencies, and, in the debate, issue is taken with those tendencies. In the book considerable space is devoted to the debate with Paul Sweezy. Much more than the general indebtedness which I, like many others studying Marx « Critique, » owe to him, I am personally indebted to him and his distinguished colleague Harry Magdoff in so many different ways that it is not possible to sufficiently acknowledge my gratitude to them here. Let me stress that in my arguments with Sweezy I, following an ancient Indian tradition, have remained well within the bounds of debate between a master and his pupil.

The writings of Karel Kosik, Roman Rosdolsky and Maximilien Rubel have, in their different ways, considerably helped me in my Marx reading. I have also learnt a great deal from Charles Bettelheim’s works on the USSR as well its from my personal association with him over a long period. He particularly helped by his unfailing observations on a large portion of the manuscript which I had the occasion to send him in parts over a period of time. I am also grateful to the following friends and colleagues who either commented on parts of the manuscript or helped in various other ways: Kevin Anderson, Asit Bhattacharyya, Rosalind Boyd, Adam Buick, Antonio Callari, Guglielmo Carchedi, Bernard Chavance, Iona Christopher, Walter Daum, Neil Garston, Peter Hudis, Louis Gil, Michael Goldfield, Rodney Green, John McDermott, Fred Moseley, Frank Thompson, John Weeks, Tom Weisskopf, John Willoughby, Behzad Yagmaian, and Paul Zarembka.
I owe a special debt to Dr. James Ice, Praeger’s acquisitions editor for economics, for his suggestions concerning the formal aspects of preparing and submitting the manuscript.

A word about the citations in the book from the non-English sources. I have preferred to translate them from their original versions, wherever available, even when their English versions existed. This preference is explained by my respect for the original texts, as well as a sense of dissatisfaction felt with regard to their existing English versions. This is particularly the case with Marx’s texts. To remain close to Marx’s texts. I have tried to translate them its literally as impossible.

I should point out, in this connection, that Marx’s language was not completely free from what is considered today as sexism. In order not to tamper with his texts I have retained that language in the translation.

A final word. Throughout the manuscript I have used first person plural (« we »). instead of the first person singular (« I »), referring to its author. The basic reason is that I do not think any author can really claim that all the ideas in the particular work are wholly his/hers. Knowingly or unknowingly, we take, and make our own, the ideas of our predecessors and contemporaries. So I find the usage of « I » for an author immodest and not entirely honest.


In any endeavor to analyze the Soviet economy within a Marxian theoretical framework, one is immediately confronted with an apparently formidable problem.
Are Marx’s method and categories at all relevant for an inquiry into the Soviet economy? After the much proclaimed « defeat » of socialism, any effort in that direction would appear futile to most people. Leaving aside the non-Marxists, for whom such a stand is understandable, among Marxists, such reservations already aired earlier, can be summed up in four distinguished cases, which we discuss below.


One and a half decades ago, the French Marxist philosopher L. Althusser underlined the « quasi-impossibility of furnishing a satisfactory Marxian explanation » for the latter day Soviet developments, and Marxism’s « difficulties, contradictions, shortcomings » leading to a veritable « crisis of Marxism » faced with the latter day Soviet phenomenon ( 1978: 244, 249). At about the same time P. Sweezy opined that while the part of Marxism dealing with « global capitalism and its crisis. . . works as well as ever, » anomalies were appearing in the other part of Marxism, that which is concerned with the future society, inasmuch as there was a gap between « observed reality and the expectations generated by (Marxist) theory. » More specifically, contrary to Marx’s original ideas, the reality has shown that « a proletarian revolution can give rise to a non-socialist society, . . . a new form of society, neither capitalist nor socialist. » Thus the « anomalies have been so massive and egregious that the result has been a deep crisis in Marxian theory, » Sweezy concluded ( 1980: 136, 137). In the same way, but from a different point of view, C. Bettelheim observed that « Marxian concepts » have become « insufficient » in view of the « new forms of capitalist relations » in the Soviet type societies ( 1985a: 31). Finally, we have the well-known « analytical Marxist » J. Roemer, whose conclusions concerning Marx were the most far reaching. After adopting the « semantic convention » that the USSR was a « socialist society » and, at the same time, observing that exploitation persisted in that society, Roemer concluded that the Marxists were « incorrect in assuming that the absence of private ownership implies the abolition of exploitation. » Indeed, as Marxism denied the existence of exploitation under « public ownership » of the means of production, « no materialist theory of the laws of motion of socialist societies is produced. » After all, « Marxism is the application of historical materialism to the nineteenth-century society. » Consequently, « Marxian theory is in a Ptolemaic crisis. » It cannot « explain the developments of late twentieth-century society. »
Given this difficult situation in which Marxism finds itself, it is of course natural that Roemer’s « work contributes . . . a foundation for Marxian economic theory, » striving to « separate the historical-materialist kernel from its specific application as Marxism, the theory of nineteenth-century capitalism » ( 1981: 6,208-10).

In sum, the observations of these Marxists seem to lead to the conclusion, in the words of some Hungarian scholars, that « the very conceptual framework of Marxist theory » would « require significant revisions and modifications » before applying to the Soviet type societies ( Feher, Heller, and Markus 1983: 8). Let us consider these arguments.

We start with Althusser. From the context of Althusser’s discussion, it appears that he was speaking as a communist party member, basically as a Leninist and in terms of the « crisis of the international communist movement » ( 1978: 245,248).

Althusser would prove correct if he could show that the Marxism, which the Communists, including Lenin, claimed as essentially realized in the Bolshevik seizure of power in 1917, and the construction of the society which issued therefrom, was the Marxism of Marx himself in the first place. If, on the contrary, it is seen — as we shall argue in our concluding chapter — that both the way in which the « socialist revolution » was represented and claimed to have been realized by the Bolsheviks, and the way in which the construction of socialism was undertaken in Russia, were exactly the opposite of what Marx had conceived them to be, then obviously Marx is not being judged within his own universe of discourse, and the judgment cannot be accepted as valid. Again, a word of precision. When Althusser underlines the « crisis of Marxism, » the Marxism he, as a party person, is referring to, is the Leninist brand of Marxism. But why should the Leninist Marxism be identified with Marx’s Marxism (to use R. Dunayevskaya’s felicitous term)? It is well-known that all along there have been non-Leninist currents within Marxism which were, by and large, denounced, unilaterally, as anti-Marxism by Lenin and his followers. We do not see any (…) [end page 2]

[p. 9](…) commodity form — which it admittedly did in the USSR — then, for the purposes of commodity production, spontaneity or non-spontaneity of exchange is of little importance. Thirdly, as respects the competition of capitals, wage labor producing commodities, which were exchanged between reciprocally autonomous enterprises (each considered as a juridical person) ensured competition of capitals in the Soviet economy. Finally, the strategy of « catching up with and surpassing » within the shortest period, based on extensive accumulation, signified that the needs of capital extruded the supply of labor and thereby guaranteed the full employment of wage labor.

The book concludes by arguing the invalidity of the generally accepted idea of « restoration of capitalism » in the ex-USSR The Soviet regime, almost from the beginning, was not a regime ruled by the workers themselves. The autonomized Party-State exercised dictatorship over the proletariat (in the latter’s name) from Lenin’s days. The Bolsheviks had effectively destroyed the earlier pre-capitalist production relations and increasingly transformed the producers into wage laborers (whose, freedom from individual production units was curtailed for a limited period). Given this essentially capitalist reality, there is no question of restoration of capitalism in the ex-USSR.

1. The expressions « society » in the first quotation, and « the economic conditions » in
the second, appear in the French version replacing, respectively, « world » and « the mode
by which they gained their living » in the German edition.
2. It is not clear whether Althusser accepts Marx’s materialist method at all. For he
seems to virtually reject ( 1969:21) what he calls Marx’s « profoundly Hegelian-evolutionist »
« Preface » [to the Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy of 1859] which is the
text where Marx magisterially lays down his specific method, and to which he explicitly
refers in Capital, considering it as the text where « I discuss the materialist foundation of
my method » ( 1962a: 25,96).
3. For a clear exposition of Marxian abstraction, see Ollman ( 1993).


Chapter 1

Despite the fact that Marx’s lifelong preoccupation was the investigation and analysis of the « economic law of motion » of the capitalist society and of the working of the forces destined, according to him, to undermine and eventually destroy it, there has surprisingly been little satisfactory discussion of the Marxian category of capital as such. Marx emphasizes the necessity of developing an « exact concept of capital, » because it abstractly mirrors the « bourgeois society » with all its contradictions, and, at the same time, shows the limit where the « bourgeois relation is driven to supersede itself » ( 1953: 237). In order to develop an exact concept of capital (in Marx), it is necessary to analyze what Marx calls capital’s « double existence, » or the « economic property » and the « juridical property » of capital ( 1962b: 456, 460), where the first refers to the production relation and the second to the ownership relation of capital.1 In this chapter, this relatively unexplored aspect of Marx’s critique of political economy is analyzed. The chapter is divided into two sections corresponding to capital’s two existences. Section one analyzes the economic existence of capital, first as a pure social relation and then as a social totality. Section two deals with the juridical existence of capital in the two very different senses of private property in capital: as private property of the capitalist class and as private property of the individual capitalist.


The economic property of capital, compared to political economy, undergoes a double rupture in Marx. First, capital is not a thing, but a social relation of production, a historical and not a natural category. Secondly, capital, as a social


1. The common term « property » in both the expressions in this case is not to be
interpreted in the usual juridical sense of ownership or possession. It has another meaning
here. It refers to quality or power belonging specially to something (e.g., the soap has
the property of removing dirt). The term « Eigentum » that Marx uses in both the
expressions is exactly property in this sense: « what belongs to one » [« was einem gehört« ].
See Der Sprach-Brockhaus (Wiesbaden 1956: 154).

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