From the June 1979 issue of the Socialist Standard
All class societies are based on the separation of the producers from the means of production. Under capitalism the means of production and distribution monopolised by a minority function as “capital”, as wealth used to produce other wealth with a view to profit.
The source of this profit is the unpaid labour of the working class. Being excluded from the ownership and control of the means of production, the working class can only get a living by selling their ability to work, mental and physical, to a capitalist employer for a wage or salary. But this wage or salary, representing the value of the labour power they have sold, is less than the value of what they produce. The difference is surplus value and belongs to the capitalists who have bought the labour power. It is the source of their profits and of all other property and privilege incomes.
If we look at the social position of the producers in Russia we see that they are in basically the same position as are the working class in the West. They too are excluded from ownership and control of the means of production and they too are forced to sell their ability to work for a wage or salary. Defenders of the Russian regime argue that in reality the situation is different: that Russian workers work not for capitalist employers but for the State which represents the whole community, so that they are in a sense working for themselves and the profits they produce belong to them.
This view is incorrect, both from a theoretical point of view and on all the evidence we have on the social and political scene in Russia. We are also told in the West that “the state represents the whole community” but workers in state-owned, or nationalised, industries know different. They still have to organise into trade unions to fight against their employer, the state. The state, in fact, represents not the community but the ruling class, the class which monopolises the means of production. When the state takes over an industry, it does so on behalf of the ruling class as a whole and functions as a kind of “collective capitalist”.
On theoretical grounds, then, we have every reason to suspect the claim that the state in Russia represents the community. This suspicion is fully confirmed when we examine the structure of the Russian state. In most Western countries the state is subject to formal democratic control: its top officials are elected or are answerable to elected assemblies. This is not the case in Russia. Here there is a single legal political party from whose ranks come all the top state officials and leaders. This party itself is not organised on a democratic basis but is controlled from the top downwards by its politbureau and central committee. State power in Russia, then, is concentrated in the hands of a minority quite as small as, if not smaller than, that in the West.
The fact of the existence of a political dictatorship in Russia, concentrating state power into the hands of a single political party, shows that the claim that the Russian state represents the community or the workers in Russia is quite without foundation. The state clearly represents the interests of the minority which controls it and through it the means of production. But if this is the case then the surplus value produced by the working class in the state factories of Russia belongs not to them but to this minority which controls the state. As in the West the working class is exploited by a class which monopolises the means of production and distribution.
The Russian ruling class in fact has a stronger hold over its working class than have Western ruling classes. In the West, after many hard struggles, the workers have won the right to organise into trade unions and to bargain, and if need be to strike, over their wages and working conditions. What they can achieve by such trade union action is not much, but at least it is a means of minimum protection against pressures from their employers. The Russian workers do not have this right nor this protection.
Organisations called “trade unions” do exist in Russia but these are not organisations formed by workers to protect their interests; they are state organisations into which the working class are brigaded, whose functions are precisely to see that strikes do not take place and that the work of production (of profits) is not interrupted. Strikes do take place in Russia but they are generally severely suppressed by the police. An attempt was made in January last year by some Russian workers to form a sort of trade union (though we would rather call it a “claimants union” since its purpose was to try to redress grievances against the state rather than to negotiate over wages); most of those responsible are now in psychiatric hospitals. The Russian ruling class is clearly not going to allow genuine trade unions to be formed in Russia except under mass pressure from the workers. As they did in the West, the workers in Russia are going to have to struggle against their rulers to obtain the freedom to organise.
It is the same with regard to political democracy. Limited as this must be by the class structure of capitalism, it is still the framework within which can develop the working class movement, both to defend its interests under capitalism and to replace capitalism by socialism. Freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and so on are needed by the working class so that they can acquire the majority socialist consciousness needed before capitalism can be abolished. The Russian ruling class, however, has the same fear of political democracy as it has of genuine trade unions and does the best it can to suppress the growing civil rights movement in Russia.
We workers in the West must wish our fellow workers in Russia every success in their struggle to win elementary trade union and political rights. But we do them a great disservice if we do not identify the Russian rulers for what they are: a class of state capitalist exploiters living off the backs of the Russian workers and oppressing them through a ruthless political dictatorship.
This is all the more necessary since this class of exploiters uses the language of socialism to disguise its class rule, thus discrediting the whole idea of socialism among millions of workers throughout the world who knowing what goes on in Russia, think (correctly) “If that’s socialism, no thank you!” But it’s not socialism and has nothing to do with socialism. It is state capitalism.