The Russian Economy: An Acid Test for the Revolutionary Vanguard

From Battaglia Comunista #12, December 1956-January 1957 - Translated by the CWO in 2006

We quote from a programmatic note edited by comrades of Socialism or Barbarism (Socialisme ou Barbarie).

These ideas (of revolutionary Marxism) have been systematically deformed and finally abandoned by the traditional “socialist” and “communist” workers’ parties which are completely dominated by an unmovable bureaucracy that is outside and hostile to the proletariat, even if it does emanate from inside their ranks.
This bureaucracy utilises the workers’ struggle to pursue its own aims - which here are to procure itself a place in the management of the capitalist regime, there to dispossess the bourgeoisie and substitute itself by “nationalising” and “planning” the economy. But “nationalisation” and “planning” are not at all equivalent to socialism and can become the basis for exploitation of the proletariat by the bureaucracy which is no better than that practised by capitalism.

In the leaflet “Why Are Hungarian Workers Fighting?” the same comrades state:

Once the private owners were liquidated these bureaucrats took their place. They control all official positions, the economy and the entire State without ever taking the workers into account. The right to strike is suppressed, strikes being defined as “a crime against the socialist State”. As under capitalism, the product of the exploitation of the workers and peasants serves, on the one hand, to create ever more official posts, on the other, to secure an extravagant standard of living for the “communist” bureaucrats.

And, finally “Socialism or Barbarism” #20.

Bureaucratic capitalism in Russia and Eastern Europe can only use the methods created by private capitalism and apply them throughout the whole economy and society under the supervision of every single official. [...]
Once the underlying forces are considered there isn’t a crisis peculiar to the bureaucracy and its regime - the bureaucracy [our underlining]. [...]
And it is this same crisis which nullifies all the efforts of the ruling classes of the West to stabilise their regime and control their society. It is this crisis which is behind French capitalism’s incapacity to rationalise how the country is run or to normalise its relations with its ex-colonies, the incapacity of English or American capitalism to discipline their workers, or to dominate their satellites.

The conclusions are the same but not yet the political language. The comrades of “Socialism or Barbarism” now speak in terms of bureaucratic capitalism to indicate the social forces who are in control both in Russia and the popular democracies, as well as in the planned economies of the western world.

We agree with the view that planning is still not socialism but only capitalism in its highest phase of “sociality”, but the problem is knowing whether or not the social forces which are gradually taking on the aspect of the ruling class of this particular economic structure are the class which exploits the benefits and privileges of a social production organised by the state. While the concept of bureaucratic capitalism goes further and is politically more precise than that of bureaucracy it still does not resolve the problem of such a formulation: a type of economic category (no longer capitalism and not yet socialism) which in itself is abstract, intellectualist, disappearing in a fog of idealism.

The only class power that can correspond to capitalist production is one that is in the tradition of capitalism. So why not then call it state capitalism which expresses the idea of a ruling class which has the social physiognomy, the fundamental interests and the historic role of capitalism at a given phase of its development? And perhaps such a capitalism is not so easily recognised by its constituent traits (creation of surplus value, accumulation, conquest of markets and imperialist function) as by its climate and latitude?

The events which have occurred in recent years, and we can say in recent days, have opened everyone’s eyes. By now critical consciousness has gone far beyond Trotsky’s naive and romantic formulation whereby the Russian bureaucracy “is not an organ but a tumour” “on the social organism”, a formulation which history has demonstrated to be false both in economic and political terms. In the explosive phase of the contradictions which are shattering the economy of the Russian bloc, the upsurge of the masses against the system is in any case posed in the traditional terms of antagonistic social classes: the insurgency of the exploited class against the exploiting class. But proletariat and bourgeoisie are only subjective terms for an objective reality which yesterday comprised individual competition and today comprises social production of vast proportions and competition headed by monopolies at times on an intercontinental scale. State capitalism is the terminal phase of this historical course of capitalism, and the bureaucracy is only a superstructural expression of this. The subversive movement of the working masses, however it explodes, in fact goes beyond the cancerous excrescence of which Trotsky speaks so colourfully, and each time tends (see East Berlin, Potsdam, Hungary) to strike at the causes which “clinically” gave rise to the tumour.

And thus it is state capitalism, not the bureaucracy, which assumes fundamental importance for the economy and politics, because it is the state which operates at the heart of the accumulation process, which makes the economy an instrument of its political power, which lives on the exploitation of the working class and which operates according to economic, political and strategic necessity within the wider conflict of imperialist domination. Taken as a whole, the men of the bureaucratic apparatus are the executors of this imperative which originates from the concrete world of things engendered by the present phase of the capitalist economy. The armed struggle of the Hungarian workers is the latest dramatic manifestation of revolutionary assault aimed precisely against this particular economic world and of interests around which tragic marionettes appear and disappear, such as the planners from Stalin to Khrushchev, from Tito to Gomulka, from Nagy to Kadar. Such are the terms of the dialectic of class, and it has been these events, rather than our criticisms, which have got rid of the half-baked theories and the stack of formulations now centred round a bureaucratic caste, next round the degenerated state which becomes ... regenerated, then around the defence of the USSR whose economic axes - collectivised property and planning - are defended against external dangers and against... the totalitarian regime, which Trotsky at his worst seems to have passed down to multifarious international Trotskyists.

There would be little meaning to working class struggle today if it focussed on the bureaucracy alone. It would be not dissimilar in aims and method to palace revolutions as in the Balkans or the pronunciamentos of Latin America, which would take us back to pre-capitalist situations. But the workers’ struggle would dialectically become a concrete fact and objectively revolutionary if it was aimed directly against the whole of state capitalism, against the iron laws of its market economy, against its rules and regulations and its governing class (bureaucracy), thus shattering an economic structure which constituents the prime reason for the persistence of a system that generates inequality, exploitation and the exercise of political tyranny. In Russia, as well as in the People’s Democracies, the proletarian revolution will signify the upsurge, on the ruin of state capitalism, of an organisation of socialist production realised by the producers themselves and guaranteed by the exercise of their own class dictatorship.

The revolutionary vanguard will only succeed in liberating itself from the cumbersome baggage of ideas and methods linked to an erroneous and opportunistic evaluation of Russia’s economy if it succeeds in speaking in terms which are ideologically clear and politically unavoidable. It is a task which we have set for ourselves, and we don’t intend to delay.