Richard Wolff's state capitalism

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Tue Nov 16 10:37:53 MST 1999

>From "Marxism, Class Analysis, and the USSR: A Y2K Perspective "

by Richard D. Wolff

in Bad Subjects, Issue # 45 , October 1999 (special issue on Marx)

...Marxism's various weaknesses and failures can be summarized in one
phrase: it simply could not yet displace capitalism. I would like here to
focus on one major reason for these failures, namely the inability of
Marxist political actors to appreciate the radical novelty of Marx's class
analysis. Unlike many of the reasons commentators often cite for Marxism's
failure, this one has not received the attention it deserves.

...In every human society, he argued, a portion of its members - the
laborers - work; they use their brains and muscles to transform nature into
useful objects. They not only produce such objects in quantities sufficient
for their own consumption (the fruits of their "necessary" labor in Marx's
language); they always also produce additional quantities of output. They
perform "surplus labor." Its fruits are surplus products which, if sold in
markets, yield "surplus value." Class, for Marx, concerns how societies
organize and dispose of the fruits of this surplus labor.

...A brief history of the world's most ambitious and long-lasting effort to
date to replace capitalism with communism -- the USSR -- can illustrate the
costs to radicals of not recognizing surplus labor's role in social
life...What did not change when Russian became Soviet industry was the
organization of surplus labor. Before 1917, workers performed surplus labor
in Russian factories and offices for private capitalist boards of directors
who distributed the surpluses to maintain that exploitative system. After
the revolution, those same workers performed surplus labor -- usually in
the same ways with the same machines and making the same products -- whose
fruits, again, others took away and distributed. But in place of the
dispossessed private capitalist boards of directors, state officials
appropriated and distributed the workers' surplus. The industries'
capitalist class structure -- in Marx's surplus labor sense -- had not
changed. Instead, a private capitalism had been supplanted by a state


COMMENT: I hadn't realized that Richard Wolff was into "state capitalism"
although I suppose that this makes sense in some ways. Althusserianism has
tended in the past to be wedded to Maoist idealism with its anti-Marxist
notions of sneaky "revisionist" attacks on True Communism from within. But
I can also see how it would be deployed as the philosophical handmaiden to
Tony Cliff's brand of philosophical idealism as well. In many ways, Cliff
and his crew (Callinicos, Harman, Rees, et al) represent the purist form of
philosophical idealism dressed in Marxist garb that has ever been seen.

"State capitalism" entails a belief that commodity production and socialist
construction can not co-exist. This, of course, is absurd. Any country that
broke with capitalism this century would by necessity at the outset have to
be involved with commodity production. Foreign exchange requirements
dictate the production of commodities for sale on the world market that in
themselves have little to do with the needs of "socialism". Tobacco and
sugar are classic examples. The other problem with state capitalist
analysis is that it fails to explain that production in countries like the
former Soviet Union were not driven by profit. So, in one sense, there are
superficial similarities between "primitive socialist accumulation" of the
sort first recommended by Preobrezhensky and Trotsky, and primitive
accumulation of the sort described by Marx in Capital, their inner dynamic
is totally the opposite. In the first case, production is geared primarily
to social priorities, such as the need to construct housing or public
transportation. In the second, they are made by individual capitalists. In
actuality, the state capitalists have no concrete alternatives to the path
followed by the Bolsheviks since their vision of socialism is based on
utopian thinking rather than historical materialism.

Louis Proyect

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