Letter to the Editors from the March 1982 issue of the Socialist Standard
The SPGB’s characterisation of modern Russia as ‘state-capitalist" is, I would argue, somewhat mistaken. At present the most relevant interpretation of the country has been made by Corrigan, Ramsey and Sayer, in an article published in the New Left Review, on which I draw heavily.
Capitalism has three specific and necessary features: 1) production units operate independently so that goods are produced as commodities and resources through a market system; 2) capital accumulation through the extraction of surplus value, is in Marx’s words “the direct aim and determining motive of production"; and 3) the foundation of this exploitation is the wage relation.
In the case of 1 and 2, they cannot be applied to Russia because the overwhelming majority of resources “are allocated through the plan often uncconomically by capitalist market rationality. The absence of market laws in turn means no compulsion to accumulate comparable to capitalist economies. Accumulation has occurred, but has resulted from political decisions about priorities and necessities, of a characteristically Bolshevik kind.” Moreover, the third condition is difficult to maintain: “even if we allow that the workers do not exercise political power (an over simplification) and are effectively removed from the state-owned means of production, the contents of this separation are very different to that under capitalism. Also, real guarantees of employment mean that wage levels are not subject to supply and demand determination of capitalism”.
Those who propose the state-capitalist thesis have singularly failed in specifically outlining capitalist relations in Russia. The SWP case rests on the analogy between military competition between Russia and the West, and economic competition within capitalist economics. Bettleheim on the other hand, inflates necessary into sufficient conditions for capitalist production: confusing surviving capitalist elements with a fully-fledged capitalist system.
In my view Russia contains elements of capitalism, socialism, and elements unique to itself. It is a class-divided society, but they arc not based upon the private ownership/non-ownership model of the means of production. Rather, they are based upon authority and legitimation created and maintained by control of the means of communication (mass media, books, etc.) and control of the means of coercion (the armed forces, moral and ethical pressure).
Unfortunately the SPGB views the women’s movement as a type of “bourgeois deviation”, of little relevance to socialist theory. They derive their primitive views from the archaic and mostly erroneous writings of L. H. Morgan, a 19th century anthropologist, via an interpretation of Engels. The latter adapted the work of the former and claimed that society moves through three stages of marriage which result in the limitation of women's freedom. Essentially, in order to protect the descent of property through the male line Engels claimed that with industrialisation male domination would be removed, even before the advent of socialism. He linked male domination to private property in a grossly mechanistic way. He felt it would disappear because a) the working class family lacks private property, b) because the woman becomes a wage earner, thus achieving economic [in]dependence from her husband and family, and c) because the working class family lacks the instrument of male domination through bourgeois law. This is deficient in a number of ways; i) he fails to analyse the ideology of domesticity and male superiority and ii) he presumes that the monogamous family would end among the working class as women were drawn into the labour market; these are but two.
The relationship between a man and a woman is often one of domination and subordination/acquiescence. In short, one of exploitation, and moreover, one which cannot be simply reduced to a class relation, a phenomenon of capitalism. The working class male possesses domination and authority over the female not because he owns private property or the means of production. His authority is made possible by the subordination of the female via a process of legitimation, i.e., male ideological hegemony. If we forget Morgan and look at modern anthropological data, we will see many examples of such relationships. There have been numerous examples of societies in which the means of production were communally-owned, with little or no private property. However, sections of the tribe/group accrued wealth and power, which appeared to the subordinate sections as legitimate and desirable. It was justified on religious, moral, mystical, ethnic, hereditary and pseudo-rational grounds. These beliefs were inculcated via socialisation. Male dominance will have to be overcome in post-capitalist societies, as well as present ones, and must be the work of women themselves. All socialist groups must support the women’s movement.
My final point is in connection with the SPGB’s utopian notion of “no transitional society” between capitalism and communism/socialism. That is, the creation of a classless, moneyless, private propertyless, totally-free, equal society, almost immediately after the downfall of capitalism. This notion seems to be premised on the belief that during “late capitalism” the working class will gain a perfect understanding of what socialism is, and what action is required of them. Having done this they will automatically elect, via universal suffrage, the SPGB who will begin the rapid transformation. The multinationals and the capitalist classes will realise that it is “a fair cop” and will hand over the ‘goodies.’ Of course you cannot have socialism in one country, so the previously described process will take place on a world scale.
One is left with the impression that the SPGB owes more to Tolstoy and the anarchist movement than to Marx and socialism. The problem of a class-divided society based upon authority and domination, cannot be dismissed with a trite slogan, such as “state capitalism”, nor male oppression as a "bourgeois deviation”. The major problem of authority-domination relationships must be overcome with transcendence capitalist relations, and other major problems— something that can only be achieved in a transitional social development. Nevertheless, we should give the SPGB the benefit of the doubt and not label them as mystical anarchists, and put it down to some simplistic and mechanical views on capitalism, socialism and society in general; if only because a non-Bolshevik socialist party is badly needed. Although it needs to be a thinking one!
It’s a pity that the writer quotes so extensively, for what he has to say is more interesting than the NLR stuff, which is easily disposed of.
It is claimed to be a necessary feature of capitalism that production units operate independently through a market. Yet in this country the National Coal Board does not operate independently of the Central Electricity Generating Board, there is cooperation between the boards on coal output for power station input, both directly and via the government. In the USA the aircraft companies are not independent of NASA and the USAAF. In general it is absurd to insist that large production units must remain independent of major customers in modern capitalist society. Interestingly though, those who use this argument to show that Russia is a special case, often make much of the dreadful conspiracies between multi-national corporations.
The “elements of socialism” that people profess to see in Russia arise from confusing nationalisation with socialism, a weakness in most left-wingers, which they could cure by asking themselves a simple question: does nationalisation of the major production areas bring socialist society any nearer? If it does, then Russia must be closer to socialism than Britain. Marxism and socialism are the most unpopular social theories in Russia today: if you advocated the socialism of the SPGB in Red Square you might be ignored by the people, but whisked off to jail by the secret police. So the subjective conditions for socialism, democracy and class consciousness, are almost totally absent.
We are told that capital accumulation proceeds in Russia, not by the extraction of a surplus from the workers, but results from political decisions. All governments would be delighted if this were so, for they would then only have to take the necessary decisions and decree that all production be profitable, making capital accumulation great enough to fund any level of government spending.
In fact the so-called plans of the Russian government have been little more than successive accommodations to reality. Starting in the 1920s everything was to double in five years; by the 1970s ten per cent increase in production over five years has become acceptable. So a rate of growth barely sufficient to ensure the replacement of worn-out stock is hailed as a triumph of a “planned economy”.
The early plans hoped to extract a surplus from the rich peasants—“de-kulakisation”. That didn’t work, the grain wasn’t forthcoming. The next plans encouraged collective farms, but they proved hopelessly inefficient. Then shock-work and the Stakhanovite movement were encouraged, to push up industrial production levels and flood the countryside with agricultural machinery; but the workers resented the increase in the rate of exploitation, so concessions had to be made to them. Thus arose the mass of welfare benefits and heavy subsidies on basic items all in short supply. At this point Russian society has got stuck. On paper the plans allocate whatever resources a production unit requests; in fact every unit has to fight for what it can get in a cycle of inventory-taking, estimation, planning and allocation. All ensuring that the most efficient exploiters—the industries that extract the greatest surplus from their workers—are the ones that get the largest allocations. So the foundation of Russian production is still the wage relation—the smaller the bundle of commodities the workers can appropriate, the greater is the mass of surplus accruing to the state for division among the elite, the Politbureau and the managers.
Can socialists support the women's movement, when, as the writer proclaims, overcoming male dominance ‘must be the work of women themselves’? Many of the feminist groups are exclusive preserves into which men are not allowed. So the efforts of male socialists would be limited to cheering from the sidelines and agreeing with whatever the women decide. Support on those conditions is not worth having or giving.
A society divided into nations whose armed forces wave nuclear weapons about in the hope of frightening others away from the markets and raw materials that all countries covet, periodically blowing the opposition away in wars, when sufficient patriotic fervour can be drummed into the workers—is not a society where equal relations, non-dominance and toleration can be fostered. In brief, workers are encouraged by turns to hate the “bloody huns”, “grasping frogs”, “lousy gooks” and so on; both during the trade wars and actual wars. Not surprisingly. this attitude spills over to others as “dirty yids”, “bleeding pooftahs” and “silly moos” in the domestic and local tyranny of wife-bashing and street brawls. A society transitional between capitalism and socialism would have to be one without war, if tolerance and equality were to be achieved. Does the next step in the argument need to be spelt out? Capitalism without nations, armies, wars and international competition is the reformer’s pipe-dream—what everybody who stops short of socialist conclusions would like the world to be. For this reason the SPGB is not prepared to sully socialism by working with those who are trying to turn capitalism into the impossible—a transitional society of non-socialists. Apart from that, socialists do what they can in their personal relationships, without believing that they are changing the world with such behaviour.
With regard to the comments about Morgan and Engels: the SPGB is prepared to discuss the matter. We consider the work of Morgan and Engels provides a starting-point from which to look at social evolution, tribal common ownership and the origin of private property society; in answer to those who hold that social institutions are permanent, that capitalism has always existed and will continue to do so. But the letter-writer is not concerned with such things, he knows “essentially” what Engels said and that it was “mechanistic”. Arguing against dogma derived from secondary opinion is a lengthy business, so we will restrict ourselves to a single counter-quotation; in Engels’ book his theory is quite sophisticated:
With the transfer of the means of production into common ownership, the single family ceases to be the economic unit of society. Private housekeeping is transformed into a social industry. The care and education of the children becomes a public affair. (Emphasis added)
(The Origin of the Family . . . Lawrence and Wishart, 1972, p. 139.)
How the various classes or privileged groups justify their dominance is a minor matter as far as socialists are concerned, because the tightest legitimations of privilege can disappear with the smallest social change. The almost universally-held belief that wealth grew from abstinence and frugality, ceased to be credible in the Edwardian period of “conspicuous consumption”. Generations of “socialisation” into this belief just evaporated then. Now this argument may be generalised. Almost any position may be justified, belief in it inculcated by socialisation, establishing the ideological hegemony of those whose interest it serves. But when another lot of people with different interests come along, they can take the same “data” and justify a completely different position, blowing down the other ideological house; proving that the “legitimation process” is a quite secondary problem. It is the support that workers give to capitalist society (private, mixed, state, and peculiar) which generates the morals, attitudes and behaviour that go with this society. Withdraw that support on the basis of socialist understanding, change society by democratic revolution and the requisite cooperative morals will arise, difficult to under.
The last paragraph of the letter is difficult to understand. The writer appears to want a thinking, non-Bolshevik political party, that will overcome authority and domination, along with other major social problems, transcending capitalist social relations, by achieving a non-socialist transition world. Is he writing a manifesto for the SDP? Does he want a revolution or not?