What was the USSR? : Towards a Theory of the Deformation of Value Under State Capitalism

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The journal Aufheben was first produced in the UK in Autumn 1992. Those involved had participated in a number of struggles together - the anti-poll tax movement, the campaign against the Gulf War - and wanted to develop theory in order to participate more effectively: to understand capital and ourselves as part of the proletariat so we could attack capital more effectively. We began this task with a reading group dedicated to Marx's Capital and Grundrisse. Our influences included the Italian autonomia movement of 1969-77, the situationists, and others who took Marx's work as a basic starting point and used it to develop the communist project beyond the anti-proletarian dogmatisms of Leninism (in all its varieties) and to reflect the current state of the class struggle. We also recognized the moment of truth in versions of class struggle anarchism, the German and Italian lefts and other tendencies. In developing proletarian theory we needed to go beyond all these past movements at t... (From : LibCom.org/aufheben.)


This document contains 19 sections, with 79,482 words or 507,993 characters.

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Part I: Trotsky and state capitalism The Russian Revolution and the subsequent establishment of the USSR as a ‘workers’ state’, has dominated political thinking for more than three generations. In the past, it seemed enough for communist revolutionaries to define their radical separation with much of the ‘left’ by denouncing the Soviet Union as state capitalist. This is no longer sufficient, if it ever was. Many Trotskyists, for example, now feel vindicated by the ‘restoration of capitalism’ in Russia. To transform society we not only have to understand what it is, we also have to understand how past attempts to transform it failed. In this and future issues we shall explore the inadequacies of the theory of the USSR as a degenerated workers’ state and the various versions of the theory that the USSR was a form of state capitalism. Introduction The question of Russia once... (From : TheAnarchistLibrary.org.)

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Trotsky’s theory of the Soviet Union as a degenerated workers’ state Introduction It is now easy to deride those who have sought, however critically, to defend the USSR as having been in some sense ‘progressive’. Yet for more than a half a century the ‘defense of the Soviet Union’ was a central issue for nearly all ‘revolutionary socialists’, and is a concern that still persists today among some. To understand the significance of this it is necessary to make some effort to appreciate the profound impact the Russian Revolution must have had on previous generations of socialists and working class militants. I The Russian Revolution It is perhaps not that hard to imagine the profound impact the Russian Revolution had on the working class movements at the time. In the midst of the great war, not only had the working masses of the Russian Empire risen up and overthrown the once formidab... (From : TheAnarchistLibrary.org.)

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The theory of the USSR as a form of state capitalism within Trotskyism Introduction For Trotsky, the Stalinist system in the USSR could only be but a transitory historical phenomena. Lacking a firm legal basis in the ownership of the means of production, the Stalinist bureaucracy was doomed to a mere fleeting appearance in the overall course of history. Indeed, throughout the 1930s, Trotsky had been convinced that the days of the Stalinist bureaucracy were numbered. For Trotsky, world capitalism was in terminal decline. The economic stagnation that had followed the Wall Street crash in 1929 could only intensify imperialist rivalries among the great capitalist powers which ultimately could only be resolved through the devastation of a Second World War. Yet Trotsky firmly believed that, like the First World War, this Second World War would bring in its wake a renewed revolutionary wave that would sweep the whole of Europe if not the world. In... (From : TheAnarchistLibrary.org.)

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Part II: Russia as a Non-mode of Production Having disposed of the theory of the USSR as a 'degenerated workers' state', Ticktin's theory presents itself as the most persuasive alternative to the understanding of the USSR as capitalist. Its strength is its attention to the empirical reality of the USSR and its consideration of the specific forms of class struggle it was subject to. However, while we acknowledge that the USSR must be understood as a malfunctioning system, we argue that, because Ticktin doesn't relate his categories of 'political economy' to the class struggle, he fails to grasp the capitalist nature of the USSR. Introduction Here we present the second part of our article ‘What was the USSR?’. In our last issue, we dealt with Trotsky’s theory that it was a ‘degenerated workers’ state’, and the best known theory of state capitalism which has emerged within Trotskyism — th... (From : TheAnarchistLibrary.org.)

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The origins of Ticktin’s theory of the USSR Introduction In Part I we gave a lengthy treatment of what has probably been the best known critical theory of the Soviet Union: Leon Trotsky’s theory of the ‘degenerated workers’ state’. While critical of the privileges of the Stalinist bureaucracy, lack of freedom and workers’ democracy, Trotsky took the view that the formal property relations of the USSR — i.e. that the means of production were not private property but the property of a workers’ state — meant that the USSR could not be seen as being capitalist, but was instead a transitory regime caught between capitalism and socialism which had degenerated. It followed from this that, for Trotsky, despite all its faults and monstrous distortions, the Soviet Union was ultimately progressive. As such, the Soviet Union was a decisive advance over capitalism which, by preserving the proletarian gains of the... (From : TheAnarchistLibrary.org.)

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Problems of Ticktin’s ‘political economy of the USSR’ We have devoted considerable space to Ticktin’s theory of the USSR since it provides perhaps the most cogent explanation of the nature of the USSR and the causes of its decline which has arisen out of the Trotskyist tradition. Shorn of any apology for Stalinism, Ticktin is able to develop a theory which seeks to show the specific internal contradictions of the Soviet system. As such, it is a theory that not only goes beyond the traditional Trotskyist theory of the USSR as a degenerated workers’ state, it also provides a formidable challenge to any approach which sees the USSR as having been in some sense a capitalist system. Indeed, it would seem to us that any attempt to develop a theory of the USSR as being essentially a capitalist system must take on board and develop a critique of some of the central positions put forward by Ticktin. Perhaps most importantly, after... (From : TheAnarchistLibrary.org.)

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Part III: Left Communism and the Russian Revolution In the previous articles we examined various Trotskyist and neo-Trotskyist positions on the nature of the USSR. We now turn to the theories of the less well known but more interesting Communist Left, who were among the first revolutionary Marxists to distance themselves from the Russian model by deeming it state capitalist or simply capitalist. The Russian Left Communists' critique remained at the level of an immediate response to how capitalist measures were affecting the class, whereas in both the German/Dutch and Italian Lefts, we see real attempts to ground revolutionary theory in Marx's categories in a way distinct from Second International orthodoxy. Introduction Any analysis of the USSR necessarily involves an underlying conception of what the Russian Revolution was. The Trotskyist approaches that we have previously considered are all based on the conception of the Rus... (From : TheAnarchistLibrary.org.)

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Who was this communist left? The Communist Left emerged out of the crisis of Marxist Social Democracy that became acutely visible during the war. Left Communist currents emerged across the world. Those with politics that we and Lenin could describe as left communist were generally the first revolutionary militants from their respective countries attracted to the Russian Revolution and to the Communist International (Comintern) set up in 1919. In some countries notably Germany, Italy a majority of those who formed their respective communist parties had left communist politics. However their experience was — sooner or later — to find themselves in disagreement with the policies promoted from Moscow and eventually excluded from the Communist International. Two main wings of the Communist Left managed to survive the defeat of the revolutionary wave as traditions: the German/Dutch Left (sometimes known as Council Communists) and the I... (From : TheAnarchistLibrary.org.)

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The Russian Left Communists What is striking about the Russian Left Communist current is that it emerged out of an environment that was both dissimilar and similar to the their European counterparts. As we will see in the following sections, the German and Italian Communist Lefts emerged as an opposition to social democracy’s accommodation with and incorporation into bourgeois society. In Russia the situation was somewhat different. Still being an overwhelmingly agricultural and peasant country under the autocratic rule of the czar, bourgeois society had not become dominant, let alone allowed the establishment of social democracy within it. In fact, the very repressive character of the czarist regime meant that the gradualist approach of stressing legal parliamentary and trade union methods that prevailed in Western Europe was largely absent in Russia, and there was a general acceptance of the need for a violent revolution. This need was confirmed by the 1905... (From : TheAnarchistLibrary.org.)

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The German/Dutch Communist Left In Germany the beginning of the century was characterized by a tension between official and unofficial expressions of working class strength. On the one hand, the Social Democratic Party (SPD), which had founded and dominated the Second International, had grown to an unprecedented scale (almost becoming a ‘state within a state’), and was receiving steadily larger proportion of votes in elections. On the other, there was also an increased militancy and radicalization of class struggle, manifesting itself in more and more strikes and lockouts — struggles that in many cases went beyond economic demands and took on a mass and political character. While a left radical current within the SPD was to see these as a way the class was developing towards revolution, the mainstream party and trade union leadership set itself against these new forms of class struggle. In the years to come these two expression of the wo... (From : TheAnarchistLibrary.org.)

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The Italian Left Origins We now turn to the other main left communist position, that of the Italian left. Like the German and Dutch Lefts the Italian Left originated, in the years before the first world war as a left opposition within a Second International party, in their case the Socialist Party of Italy (PSI). But whereas German social democracy had exposed itself as both reactionary and actively counter-revolutionary, the very radicality of the Italian working class, and consequent strength of the Left, meant that reformism in the PSI was not as hegemonic as in the SPD. In 1912 the party even expelled an ultra-reformist wing over its support for Italy’s Libyan war, and when the world war broke out and the Italian working class responded with a Red Week of riots across the country reaching insurrectionary proportions in Ancona, the PSI alone among the western Social democratic parties did not rally to the nation. Their apparent difference from t... (From : TheAnarchistLibrary.org.)

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Conclusion As stated in the introduction, any analysis of the Russian revolution and the society that emerged from it cannot be separated from a conception of what communism is. Indeed one way in which all the left communists, unlike Trotsky, could go beyond Second International Marxism, was by insisting that neither the transition to communism nor communism itself should in any way be identified with state-control of the means of production. Indeed nothing short of their proper socialization or communization would do. It was this perspective that allowed them to distance themselves from, and criticize Russia as being state capitalist or, as Bordiga put it, simply capitalist. However, with regard to their specific answers to the question of what a genuine communization process would have consisted in, the situation was slightly more ambiguous. The Germans (and to some extent the Russians), in their focus on the economic sphere, ultimately ended up with... (From : TheAnarchistLibrary.org.)

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Part IV: Towards a theory of the deformation of value So our saga on the nature of the USSR draws to a close. While some readers have awaited avidly for each exciting installment, others from the beginning thought we gave disproportionate space to this rather tired old topic. Another dissatisfied group may be the partizans of particular theories which were not given the recognition they feel they deserved. This was unavoidable considering the sheer number of theories one could have dealt with. The list of political tendencies which have considered that the USSR was a variety of capitalism includes ‘anarchism, council communism, “impossibilism”, many types of Leninism (including Bordigism, Maoism and a number arising out of Trotskyism), libertarian socialism, Marxist-Humanism, Menshevism, the Situationist International and social democracy. Some might also question why, of our previous parts, only one dealt with (st... (From : TheAnarchistLibrary.org.)

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The historical significance of state capitalism Within the traditional Marxism of both the Second and Third Internationals state capitalism is viewed as the highest form of capitalism. As Marx argued, the prevalent tendency within the development of capitalism is the both the concentration and centralization of capital. As capital is accumulated in ever large amounts the weak capitals are driven out by the strong. Capital becomes centralized into fewer and fewer hands as in each industry the competition between many small capitals becomes replaced by the monopoly of a few. By the end of the nineteenth century the theorists of the Second International had begun to argue that this tendency had gone so far that the competitive laissez-faire capitalism that Marx had analyzed in the mid-nineteenth century was giving way to a monopoly capitalism in which the key industries were dominated by national monopolistic corporation or price-fixing cartels. It was ar... (From : TheAnarchistLibrary.org.)

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Underdevelopment In The Communist Manifesto Marx remarks: The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication. draws all, even the most barbarian, nations into civilization. The cheap prices of its commodities are the heavy artillery with which it batters down all Chinese walls, with which it forces the barbarians’ intensely obstinate hatred of foreigners to capitulate. It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilization into their midst i.e., to become bourgeois themselves. In one word, it creates a world after its own image. Of course, capital’s inherent tendency to reproduce itself on an ever greater scale has led to the relentless geographical expansion of capitalism to the point where its has l... (From : TheAnarchistLibrary.org.)

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The deformation of Value The problem of the nature of the USSR restated As we seen, the traditional Marxism of the Second and Third Internationals saw state capitalism as the highest stage of capitalism. As such state capitalism could be seen as the first step in the transition to socialism. As a consequence, Lenin could consistently argue against the Left Communists — from the imposition of one-man management and the reintroduction of Taylorism to the introduction of the New Economic Policy — that the immediate task of the Revolutionary Government, given the backward conditions in Russia, was first and foremost the development of state capitalism. Of course, for Lenin the nationalization of the means of production and the introduction of state planning introduced by the Revolution marked a decisive advance. Under the control of a Workers’ State, state capitalism would be superseded by socialism. Subsequently, with the int... (From : TheAnarchistLibrary.org.)

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To what extent did the Commodity-form exist in the USSR? As we have seen, Trotskyist theorists place great importance on property forms when it comes to the question of the nationalization of the means of production. State ownership of the means of production, and hence the abolition of private property, is seen as constituting the crucial advance over capitalism. However, although the state owned all the principal means of production in the USSR, the actual legal possession and operation of the means of production was left to the state enterprises and trusts, each of which was constituted as a distinct legal entity with its own set of accounts and responsibilities for production. While Trotskyists have tended to gloss over this, seeing these legal forms of the state enterprises as being merely formal, Bettleheim has argued that the existence of these separate state enterprises, which traded with each other and sold products to the working class, meant... (From : TheAnarchistLibrary.org.)

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Conclusion As we pointed out in Part I, the Russian Revolution and the establishment of the first ‘workers state’ has had a profound impact in shaping our world. At first the apparent success of the Russian Revolution showed that there was a realistic alternative to capitalism. It showed that capitalism could be overthrown by the working classes and that a socialist, if not communist, society could be constructed on its ruins. As such it inspired generations of socialists and workers in their conflicts with the capitalism system, defining both their aims and methods. However, as the true nature of the USSR began to emerge the perception that it was ‘actually exiting socialism’ became an increasing barrier to the development of an opposition to capitalism. If the socialist alternative to capitalism was a totalitarian police state in which you still had to work for a boss then most workers concluded that it might be better to mere... (From : TheAnarchistLibrary.org.)

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For convenience we shall at times use the term ‘state capitalism’ for all theories that consider the Soviet Union to have been capitalist. As N. Fernandez points out in a forthcoming book, Capitalism and Class Struggle in the USSR, many theories, for example those of Bordiga and more recently Chattopadhyay, have for good theoretical reasons avoided the term ‘state capitalism’ in their accounts of the USSR. We will deal with some of the issues raised by the term ‘state capitalism’ in more detail in Aufheben 8. ‘Ultra-left’ is a loaded and ambiguous term. It was originally a term of abuse used by Lenin against communists and revolutionaries, particularly in West European countries such as Holland, Germany and Italy, who refused to accept the Bolshevik model of revolution and the right of the Russian Communist Party to determine the tactics and leadership of the world Communist movement. These communists... (From : TheAnarchistLibrary.org.)


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