Reply to James Daly on political economy

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Thu Dec 12 13:35:16 MST 2002

Jurriaan Bendien wrote:
> What Tony Cliff essentially does is to say that "words mean what I want them
> to mean". To the extent that state enterprises existed in the Soviet Union
> which made (administered) profits and traded according to administered
> prices, and to the extent that the working class as a whole did not
> effectively participate in economic and political decision-making, Cliff
> concludes that the Soviet Union was state capitalist. However, this ignores
> that privately-owned means of production were largely eliminated and that
> means of production by and large could not be freely traded. Also,
> labour-power was partially decommodified to the extent that such "labour
> markets" that existed were highly regulated, and part of workers wages was
> socialised (free or near free public services and goods). Cliff has no
> problem with that though, he just says state capitalism is a different kind
> of capitalism, that is all.

An excellent post from Jurriaan. I would only add that this theory is
not unique to the Cliffites. You can find virtually the same argument
from the neo-Althusserians Stephen Resnick and Richard Wolff.

"A group of Russian Marxists, the Bolsheviks, did so together with other
socialists. Because they all understood class analysis in the old
property and power way, they focused on transforming the distributions
of wealth and power in the new USSR. They took land from many of its
former owners and distributed it roughly equally to millions of peasant
families. They abolished stock markets and took industrial property from
private owners, making it instead the nation's collective property to be
administered by the state. The Soviets, as the democratic organization
of popular power, would control the state. They were replacing
capitalism with socialism because of these changes (certainly
monumental) in the social distribution of property and power. 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


This analysis is also shared by Harry Cleaver, a leading autonomist in
the USA. He writes:

"In the USSR these relations of production were essentially the same.
The workers alienated their labour. As such they did not produce for
their own immediate needs but worked for the management of the state
enterprise. Equally, the management of the state enterprise no more
appropriated the labour from its workers for it own immediate needs any
more than the management of a capitalist enterprise in the West. The
labour appropriated from the workers was used to produce products that
were objects of use for others external to the producers.  Like in any
capitalist enterprise, the management of the state enterprises in the
USSR, at least collectively, sought to make the workers produce a mass
of products that were worth more than the labour-power and means of
production used up in their production. As such the labour process was
both a process of exploitation and alienation just as it was a two-old
process of both abstract and concrete labour that produced products with
both a use-value and a value i.e. as commodities."

I believe that Trotsky's analysis remains superior:

The Soviet Union is a contradictory society halfway between capitalism
and socialism, in which: (a) the productive forces are still far from
adequate to give the state property a socialist character; (b) the
tendency toward primitive accumulation created by want breaks out
through innumerable pores of the planned economy; (c) norms of
distribution preserving a bourgeois character lie at the basis of a new
differentiation of society; (d) the economic growth, while slowly
bettering the situation of the toilers, promotes a swift formation of
privileged strata; (e) exploiting the social antagonisms, a bureaucracy
has converted itself into an uncontrolled caste alien to socialism; (f)
the social revolution, betrayed by the ruling party, still exists in
property relations and in the consciousness of the toiling masses; (g) a
further development of the accumulating contradictions can as well lead
to socialism as back to capitalism; (h) on the road to capitalism the
counterrevolution would have to break the resistance of the workers; (i)
on the road to socialism the workers would have to overthrow the
bureaucracy. In the last analysis, the question will be decided by a
struggle of living social forces, both on the national and the world arena.

Doctrinaires will doubtless not be satisfied with this hypothetical
definition. They would like categorical formulae: yes—yes, and no— no.
Sociological problems would certainly be simpler, if social phenomena
had always a finished character. There is nothing more dangerous,
however, than to throw out of reality, for the sake of logical
completeness, elements which today violate your scheme and tomorrow may
wholly overturn it. In our analysis, we have above all avoided doing
violence to dynamic social formations which have had no precedent and
have no analogies. The scientific task, as well as the political, is not
to give a finished definition to an unfinished process, but to follow
all its stages, separate its progressive from its reactionary
tendencies, expose their mutual relations, foresee possible variants of
development, and find in this foresight a basis for action.


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