Trotskyists and the class nature of the USSR
The Charlatanry of the Spartacists
(«Proletarian»;Nr. 6; October 2010)
A position typical of the various Trotskyist groups was that they believed that the USSR and the so-called “socialist bloc” countries were not capitalist. They not only shared this belief with the Stalinist currents and their successors, but also with bourgeois propaganda, only too happy to find this as an opportunity to disqualify Marxism and socialism in the eyes of workers. In reality the fraudulent socialist regimes of these countries imposed an exploitation at least as intense as in the West, supporting themselves moreover on relentless anti-proletarian dictatorships.
The fact that the State is the owner of industrial and commercial enterprises was, according to the Trotskyists, proof of the non-capitalist economies of these countries, even while all the characteristics of capitalism were present: wage labor (existence of a class of persons possessing nothing other than their labor power and forced to sell this against a living wage), market, money, race for profit, organization of the economy by enterprises, etc..
Yet in traditional capitalist countries, nationalization of enterprises is by no means unknown and nobody has claimed that they cease to be capitalist (with the exception of a few visionaries of the Tea Party movement who see socialism in the State bailout of General Motors or of various large financial institutions).
Today the Spartacists and their dissident splinters continue with the same perverse obstinance to pretend that China is non-capitalist although the workers there are exploited to the maximum: near-starvation wages, 10 hours a day, six days a week (minimum before “overtime”) and barracks discipline are the lot of tens of millions. After the strikes of this summer, the government raised the minimum wage in coastal regions to 150 or 175 dollars (US) per month!
In reality China, as well as Cuba and North Korea are, as was yesterday’s USSR, state capitalist countries, where to defend themselves against exploitation, the workers must lead the struggle against capitalism and for socialist revolution in exactly the same way as in the capitalist countries where so-called “free enterprise” reigns.
This is why the polemic which we conducted yesterday against the Spartacists about the USSR is valid today in regards to China.
* * *
The analysis made by the trotskyists of the “Spartacist” tendency (currently: Internationalist Communist League/League Communist Internationalist) of the nature of the USSR and the so-called “socialist” countries is summarized in their pamphlet Why the USSR is Not Capitalist (originally published in 1977 in the U.S.). It is a collection of articles written to counter various currents, in particular those connected to Maoism, which affirmed that the USSR was not socialist
Although the targets of these articles often display a theoretical weakness, this collection reveals that the theoretical weakness of the Spartacists is at least as severe. But let us start with their polemic against our current.
The Spartacists criticize the “positions of Bordiga” (classified in the chapter: “The reactionary utopias of anarco-syndicalism”!) with some off-hand lines: Bordiga “demonstrates that socialism, the first stage of Communism does not exist in the USSR (...). This mode of production is not socialist, he concludes; therefore it is capitalist”.
(...) Bordiga who “believed himself to be the fiercest defender of dictatorship of the proletariat”, “denied any economic content to this class dictatorship; it proceeded simply and exclusively from whomever had State power. Economically, there was according to him no transitional period between capitalism and socialism; the revolutionary party could well be in power, capitalism would persist until money, wage labor and commodity production are eliminated.
(...)This thesis is in total opposition to the Marxist theory of the State, in that it denies that the State has economic contents and that State power is based on bodies of armed men defending certain forms of property. The collectivist economy (abolition of private property in the means of production, planification of production) counts for nothing” (1).
Of course we have never maintained that there did not exist any transition on the economic level between capitalism and socialism and that the class dictatorship had no economic contents. Quite the contrary, the dictatorship of the proletariat is necessary precisely to carry out this transition between capitalism and socialism on the economic and social level. The capitalist enterpreneurs are first of all quickly expropriated, then all production is entirely reorganized and directed towards social objectives, socially harmful or useless activities are suppressed, the working day is reduced to a small number of hours, but extended to all the unemployed and those without occupation, the structure of the economy into enterprises, commodity production and distribution are suppressed in parallel with wage-labor, money etc.
This process of radical modification of the economic and social structures, which leads to the lower stage of socialism (the collectivist economy), is far from instantaneous because it is not limited, as we have seen, to the expropriation of the large capitalists which, in itself, can be very rapid. Not only does it take time, but most importantly it cannot be achieved within the framework of one only nation because it must include at least all the principal centers of the worldwide economy, including areas producing raw materials, because of the very high degree of economic interdependence hitherto reached by capitalist economies. As long as the international victory of the revolution is not yet achieved, already established dictatorships of the proletariat will only be able to take the first steps in this socio-economic transformation; therefore capitalist economic forms will still exist (money circulation, wage labor, small peasant or artisanal production, etc.) which will entail the risk of underming these steps from the inside.
The situation in Russia was much more difficult because, in the countryside where the vast majority of the population lived, the anti-tsarist revolution which had smashed the feudal structure, had at the same time opened the way to a powerful development of capitalism. Towards the end of his life, Lenin explained that on the economic level the struggle in Russia was not yet between the socialism and capitalism, but between State capitalism, tied to socialism (political power), and petty commodity production, allied with private capitalism. And Lenin warned that it was still impossible to say – in 1923 – which was going to win! We know today that it is State capitalism which won out – at the price of a compromise with petty production under the formula of the kolkhoz – but only by killing socialism, i.e. the proletarian nature of the political power. The forms of property, the plans, presented as “collective” and ritually worshipped by the Spartacists as so much evidence of the non-capitalist nature of the USSR, were in fact founded mainly by the Stalinist regime. The Soviet workers did not in any way take part in this form of property; they remained proletarians, with no other recourse than the obligation to sell their labor power wages against wages so as not to die of hunger; incurring the most severe penalties (including capital punishment for “theft of State property”) if they ever even imagined helping themeselves to some of this property, or disturbing the workings of this economy which the Spartacists have the gall to call “collectivist”! The bodies of armed men (the State) relentlessly defended the State’s property against the proletariat.
If the Spartacists seem to recognize in the quoted passage that, on the economic level, Russia was not socialist, they claim nevertheless that it was no longer capitalist. There still remains the problem of the indubitable, non-temporary existence of the pillars of the capitalist mode of production which are the market and money and not in constant retreat as they would be in a society in transition towards socialism, but rather permanent and continually developing:
They assert that: “The idea of an economy without money or markets, completely administrative, is, in a situation of shortage, a reactionary Utopia pure and simple. The Soviet masses, which supported the militarization of labor under Stalin and who still must line up in a queue (...), would not view with a kindly eye the programmes of sharing out work per administrative decision and the general rationing of consumer goods” (2).
It is thus just, normal, for the Spartacists, that this sharing out work and of consumer goods, instead of being done in a rational way, planned, by central political decision, is left to the more or less free play of the market!!! And who are these masses which would not view with a kindly eye the disappearance of money and the market, if not the layers which have more money than the remainder of the population and who can thus buy on the market all that the latter cannot afford to purchase, i.e. the layers – the classes! – of the privileged, of the possessors? Rationing – which, it should be said in passing, makes no sense other than in a situation of shortage – is the means by which products are distributed in a levelling way, and it is thus a proletarian measure, whereas to rely on the play of the market and currency means to let the rich consume more than the others, and is thus a concession to the bourgeois layers.
After the period known as “War Communism”, the Bolsheviks were constrained, to avoid economic catastrophe, to make these kind of concessions; it was the introduction of the NEP (New Economic Policy) which allowed the mechanisms of the market and money to function, the only means to revitalize the economy because the real level of development of Russia did not make it possible to go beyond the capitalist stage. The Spartacists, incapable of understanding this exceptionally difficult historical situation where the proletarian power is to some extent constrained to carry out the transition towards capitalism; raise the recourse to the market and money in a society in transition towards socialism to the level of a general law. Worse, they claim that it is Marx himself who established this “law”! Here is how they set forth, with a meritorious clarity, this conception which deserves to find its place among the most splendidly inane stupidities ever uttered by pseudo-Marxists:
“Marx estimated that in a collectivized economy in a situation of shortage, consumer goods should be sold at their production costs. He thought that one of the advantages of economic planning is precisely that it eliminates the erratic fluctuations from the market and as well that it allows consumer goods to be available at their true value and with quantities in equilibrium:
“(It is only there where production is under the actual, predetermining control of society that the latter establishes a relation between the volume of social labour-time applied in producing definite articles, and the volume of the social want to be satisfied by these articles.) (...)
“But if the quantity of social labour expended in the production of a certain article corresponds to the social demand for that article, so that the produced quantity corresponds to the usual scale of reproduction and the demand remains unchanged, then the article is sold at its market-value. The exchange or sale of goods at their value is rational; it is the natural law of its equilibrium” (underlined by us). - K. Marx, Capital, Book III, Chap. X.
Under the dictatorship of the proletariat, the market should be the normal mechanism for the existing distribution of goods and services intended for consumption which are available only in limited quantities” (3).
If we leave side the coarse confusion between the collectivized economy, therefore socialism, and the dictatorship of the proletariat – the proletarian political power which has as its historical task the carrying out of this collectivization (when the economy is actually collectivized, there will be no more classes, no more State, therefore no more dictatorship of the proletariat), it still remains that Marx would have been the first, before Stalin and his Gorbachevian heirs, to theorize the socialist market economy, since in the collectivized society consumer goods are commodities with their price of production!
Fortunately for the reputation of Marx, there is nothing at all to this, as the reader will be able to convince himself quite easily, if he or she follows us with patience.
The quotation reproduced by the Spartacists, in two fragments, is extracted from the section of Volume III of Capital devoted to the Transformation of profit into average profit, in the chapter bearing on the Equalization of the general rate of profit by competition; market prices and market values; surplus profit. At no time here is it a question of the dictatorship of the proletariat, nor of “the collectivized economy in a situation of shortage”! On the page which contains the quotation, Marx examines the variations of supply and demand: they correspond to variations between the quantity of produced goods and the effective demand. The “social need” about which he speaks on this subject, he had defined as follows before:
“Let us remark in passing that the ‘social need’, which regulates the principle of demand, is primarily conditioned by the relationship of the various classes between themselves and by their respective economic position; thus initially by the relation of the total surplus value to wages and then by the relationship between the various fractions into which the surplus value decomposes (...). We thus note again that nothing new can be explained in an absolute way by the relationship between supply and demand, if one does not show on which basis this relationship comes into play” (4).
It is incontestable that we are here in the capitalist economy!
In the parentheses, Marx states that contrary to capitalism, in a socialist economy there cannot be discordances between the quantity of the products and the needs to satisfy (first part of the quotation reproduced by the spartacists). Continuing his reasoning, he explains why when there are too many goods, they are sold below their value, the reverse being true when there are too little of them (the passage in bold ellipses, omitted by the Spartacists). Then Marx writes that when there is agreement, commodities are then sold at their value; “it is the natural law of its equilibrium” (second part of the quotation). The Spartacists then cut the end of the sentence: “and it is starting from this law that it is necessary to explain the variations and not conversely to explain the law itself starting from these variations”, undoubtedly because the reader could then have suspected that Marx spoke about capitalism while polemicizing against the vulgar bourgeois theorists who explain value by the variations of supply and demand.
It should also be noted that Marx does not speak about goods sold at their production cost, but at their market value, i.e. which include the average rate of profit for the producers producing with average manufacturing costs, and, for certain producers who have lower production costs, a surplus profit (and conversely, a profit lower than the average profit for those who produce with higher costs) (5). If the goods were sold at their production costs (average) and not at their value (thus by removing the unpaid working time which is the source of value), as recommend by the Spartacists for their collectivized and nevertheless mercantile economy, the consequence would be the cessation of production: indeed the money obtained by the sale could be used only for reimbursement of the expenditure carried out and there would remain nothing with which to begin a new productive cycle. Fundamentally it is the erroneous old demand for the integral fruit of labor, refuted a hundred times by Marxists, for example in the Critique of the Gotha Program: even in a really collectivized economy (that it is of transition towards socialism, or already Socialist or Communist), and independent of Spartacist stupidities in connection to the role of the market and of money (“within a Communalist social order, the producers do not exchange their products” Marx, ibid: thus no selling and no market), the worker will never receive the integral fruit of his work, because it will always be necessary to deduct a part for the non-workers (infirm, children, aged, etc), to improve the general terms of life including for the coming generations, to ensure the continuation of production, etc, etc (6).
One of two things is possible: either that the Spartacists did not understand Marx’s explanation; or maybe, much more probably, they shamelessly falsify it with their only aim being to make an economy where mercantile production reigns, pass for socialism or, “post-capitalism” …
However in another polemical article reproduced in their booklet, the Spartacists claim without batting an eyelid that the roubles of the wages paid to the workers are actually not money but “generalized ration coupons”; “Under this relation, the Soviet economy is in conformity with the description which Marx gives of the financial mechanisms (sic! Ed. note) of a socialized economy subjected to scarcity:
“Money-capital is eliminated in the case of socialized production. Society distributes labour-power and means of production to the different branches of production. The producers may, for all it matters, receive paper vouchers entitling them to withdraw from the social supplies of consumer goods a quantity corresponding to their labour-time. These vouchers are not money. They do not circulate.” (our emphasis) Capital vol 2 chap.18 (7)
Thus with the Spartacists either money is made to disappear in the USSR, falsifying Soviet reality much more than the most rabid of Stalinist propagandists; or roubles do indeed circulate, justifying on the contrary their existence and their use, against which they polemicize next! It is thus useless to point out to them that they sometimes claim that the USSR is not socialist, sometimes that it is in conformity with the Marxist description of a socialist economy. Useless also to weary the patience of the reader by raising the “errors” which swarm with each one of their theoretical explanations or the fantastic idealizations of Soviet reality: the demonstration of the theoretical charlatanry of the Spartacists is already made. We will be satisfied with only one gem, but a rather monumental one, in connection with the law of the value.
Wanting to prove that the law of the value does not exist in the USSR, although they admit the existence of the market there (or rather of… three markets!), the Spartacists affirm that “the law of the value does not function, for example, in a barter economy (without money). In these circumstances, the conditions of exchange are controlled either by the accidental conditions of supply and demand, or by tradition. (...)” (!!!)
It is “possible to have markets in which the law of the value does not function. In pre-capitalist societies, exchange was rather far removed from the conditions of reproduction so that the law of the value does not operate. (...) I do not believe that this trade (of the Roman empire with China, Ed.note) was governed by the law of the value” !!! (8).
The ignorance of the fundamental texts of Marxism is here such as to become suspect. Not only did Marx take the trouble to explain at great length how the law of value appears at the periphery of primitive economies, where they trade with others and how once it appears it undermines these economies; how before the creation of money, values of the products which are exchanged are evaluated in comparison to other goods then via products which function as general equivalents, etc., but moreover he opens one of his fundamental economic works by quoting the Greek philosopher Aristotle who, well before the foundation of the Roman empire, had established the distinction between exchange value and use value (9)! At about the same time, while the republic of Rome was only at its beginning, the great Chinese philosopher Mencius (Meng-Tse) had already asserted that labor was the source of value… The idea that markets can exist – i.e. the exchange of products and not plundering or the exchange of gifts – without these products being exchanged at their value is a pure imbecillity: “the law of the value is the fundamental law of market production, Engels recalled to Dühring, who, like the Spartacists and all false socialists, wanted to preserve production for the market in the future society, “consequently also of its most elevated form, capitalist production” (10). Thus the socialist society imagined by Dühring was only an idealized copy of contemporary capitalist society.
The desire to justify the Soviet regime founded on the exploitation of wage labor inevitably resulted in ignorance, concealment, falsification of Marxist positions; the Spartacists, who, on the political level, pushed the defense of this regime and its satellites to a caricature, could not avoid reappropriating Dühring’s counter-revolutionary work for their own purposes.
The film of reformism run in reverse
But, ironically, in addition to the theoretical charlatanism of which we give just the most glaring examples, the Spartacists themselves provide us with the reduction ad absurdum proof of the falseness of their analysis of the nature of the USSR, an analysis which is that of all trotskyists.
Today the Spartacists admit that capitalism exists in Russia, but according to them because it had been “restored” by Yeltsin following the failure of the tragi-comic attempt at a putsch in the summer of 1990. Contrary to reformism, revolutionary Marxism affirms that it is impossible to pass gradually, peacefully, from one social regime to another, from one mode of production to another: it is impossible to gradually transform capitalism into socialism, by social and political reforms. It requires a revolution which smashes the old political superstructures (the bourgeois State) built to defend bourgeois social relations, and which founds a new political structure (the proletarian State, dictatorship of the proletariat) able to act despotically to impose, in spite of the resistance of the vanquished classes, radical alteration of the social relations.
Trotsky believed he had found in this fundamental Marxist truth an argument for rejecting the idea of the capitalist nature of the State in the USSR; according to him, to admit that a restoration of capitalism had taken place there without there being social and political counter-revolution, i.e. violent stuggles between classes, a bitter intense civil war, etc, would have been nothing more than running the film of reformism in reverse that this would have been nothing other than falling into vulgar reformist ideology. The fatal error of Trotsky was to forget that the capitalist mode of production had never initially been abolished in Russia. Without the victory of the revolution in the fully capitalist countries which could have provided productive forces sufficient to accelerate social changes, it could not materially exist in a country with retarded development and where the peasantry, which constituted the great majority of the population, lived under the reign of petty market production; only the private capitalists had been expropriated and their enterprises put under State control. Trotsky then forgot that this State industry, based on the wage-laborers, did not represent any post-capitalist form, but a form of State capitalism, in a struggle against “the ocean of petty market production” (peasant) as Lenin said, and also, insidiously but powerfully, against proletarian political control.
Taking up again the line of Trotsky’s reasoning, the Spartacists rail in their brochure against the absurdity of the Maoist idea that a simple change of leaders at the top could alter the social nature of a country, i.e. its dominating mode of production, its social relations, the class nature of its State, etc: “an idealistic and conspirative conception of history”, the Spartacists affirmed with good reason for once.
They wrote: “The restoration of capitalism cannot occur by gradual evolution or simple rearrangement at the summit; it requires a violent counter-revolution. (...) [the restoration of capitalism] would not have been a palace conspiracy as in the phantasms Maoists of ‘restoration à la Kruschev’. (...) The appearance of powerful forces favorable to the restoration of capitalism would cause a reflex of ‘conservation’ on behalf of a part the Stalinist bureaucrats, anxious to preserve their social position; that would also give to birth to a directly counter-revolutionary wing of the bureaucracy (...). However, the workers would act instinctively to defend their interests against the growing reactionary danger. The restoration of capitalism could triumph only during a civil war in which the conscious elements of the proletariat would have been crushed after a relentless struggle to defend collectivized property, the economic basis of the transition to socialism” (their emphasis).
Nothing of the sort took place and the Spartacists as well now swear that a palace conspiracy caused the capitalist restoration! So today what they insist has occured, they – along with Trotsky – yesterday considereded impossible from the Marxist point of view! But to admit that they were mistaken, would either be admitting that Marxism is not worth anything and that it should be replaced by idealism; or admitting that this palace conspiracy did not change the social nature of the country, but had only given impetus to modifications of the political superstructure, because before as after, the dominating mode of production is capitalism, society is divided into classes and the proletariat is the exploited class – thus to recognize the falseness of a central dogma of Trotskyism used to justify a policy of tailism in relation to the Stalinist and post-Stalinist States and parties.
Thus it is of little importance to them that they were deluded; when peddling opportunist goods, for which theoretical argumentations are only used to justify political adaptations step-by-step, the movement is everything, theory is nothing…
(1) “Original introduction to the brochure by the Spartacist Youth League”, p.13.
(2) Ibid, p.15.
(3) “The reactionary Utopias of Bettelheim and Sweezy”, p. 27.
(4) “Capital”, Book III, CH. 10 (ED. Social 1976, p. 183).
(5) If commodities were sold in proportion to their production costs, those produced with lower costs would be less expensive and would thus be sold to the detriment of the commodities more expensive to produce. If the producer of these commodities has sufficient production capacity, he eliminates the other producers and the “market value” becomes that of his goods; if not he is satisfied with a cut of the market share corresponding to his capacities to produce thanks to the fact that his goods are more competitive, then it is aligned with the average selling price of these goods, i.e. the “value of market”, which allows him to pocket a “surplus profit” in comparison to his competitors. Marx explains this mechanism in detail in order to ridicule the vulgar thesis according to which it would be the law of supply and demand which would determine value: actually this only causes the appearance of the average value of commodities, corresponding to average social time necessary to produce them, to their average production costs, and which explains only the oscillations when compared to this value. All this characterizes a society of commodity production and is thus inconceivable in a socialist, non-mercantile society with production planned to meet the social needs. In another passage the Spartacists reconsider this question of production costs, only to consider it regrettable that the USSR is not mercantile enough: “My opinion, and I believe that it was the position of Marx (!), is that in a workers’ State under conditions of shortage (?), consumer goods should generally be priced at their production costs. This is not a law resulting from the autonomous operation of competition; it is a standard of planning (!!). Nevertheless, in the bureaucratically degenerated Russian State this standard is violated. There is no (...) tendency for the prices of the consumer goods to correspond to the production costs (!?). If the rate of sales turnover, which is an index of the difference between supply and demand, is particularly high for a certain product, there does not exist a mechanism (!?!) to move production towards these goods” (p.54). What would this unfortunately absent mechanism in this degenerated workers’ State be, if not this famous “invisible hand of the market” which carries out the process that we described of elimination of the insufficiently profitable producers (with the too high production costs)? The theoretical reflection of the Spartacists is unable to overcome the limits of the fundamental categories of bourgeois economy, in the same way that their political practice is unable to exceed the limits of tailism in relation to opportunism, the Stalinist matrix of preference.
(6) cf Marx Engels, “Critique of the programs of Gotha and Erfurt”, Ed. Sociale 1966, p. 27 and following.
(7) cf “Why The USSR is not capitalist”, p. 25.
(8) ibidem, p. 52.
(9) cf K. Marx, Contribution to the critique of political economy, first section, first chapter, first page (Ed. Sociales 1972, p.9). The reader can refer to the first chapter of the first volume of Capital, “Commodities”, to find the explanations of the exchange of goods during the era of barter, the creation of the money, etc. Various goods and especially Chinese silk arrived on the Roman markets, while passing through various intermediaries. The writer and moralist Pliny the Elder lamented about this as follows: “Every year, India, China and Arabia take from our empire a hundred million sesterces – such is what the increase of our luxury and what our wives cost us (...)” (cf “Richness and poverty of nations”, “Politique International ”, summer 1997). The historians have easily highlighted that Pliny did not take into account what the Romans sold: trade with these countries was not a simple haemorrhage of Roman values, but was probably balanced. But in any event, these complaints would be enough to establish that the law of the value fully governed trade with China and elsewhere. The texts of Marx swarm with notes indicating the role of the law of the value in Rome (including as causes of social disturbances, for example the increase in the value of copper in the first years of the Republic which caused the ruin of the plebeians). Studying the development of trade and commercial capital, he writes: “Ancient Rome, towards the end of its republican period, already carried the development of commercial capital higher than ever before in the Old World” Capital, Book III, Chap. 20 (Ed. Sociale 1976, p.314). The control of commercial routes was an important reason for the wars carried out by Rome. Our article “Principal results of Book I of Capital” (Programme Communiste n° 48-49), gives the explanations of Marx on the law of the value and the exchange of the goods, by illustrating them with examples drawn from the tablets for the setting of prices in Mesopotamia at the beginning of the 2nd millenium BC. One could also evoke work of contemporary ethnologists on the fixing of the value of goods which are exchanged between Stone Age communities in Papua-New Guinea...
(10) Engels, Anti-Dühring, Third part, Chap.4, “Distribution” (Ed. Sociales 1973, p. 349).
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