Monday, August 27, 2018

Peter Binns, Tony Cliff & Chris Harman - Russia: From Workers' State to State Capitalism

Having spent some of the Russian Revolution's centenary year reading books about 1917, the years 2018 onward bring a whole host of opportunities to read about what happened afterwards. I thought it would be useful to recap on the development of the International Socialist traditions views on Russia in the aftermath of the revolution.

This short 1987 collection of essays brings together four short pieces by leading British Marxists of the International Socialists and the Socialist Workers' Party. Only the first, an introductory piece by the Palestinian Jewish Marxist Tony Cliff is new for this piece, the others are from various other socialist journals and books. Cliff's piece is short and the meat of the argument is presented by Chris Harman's pieces which deal with the defeat of the Russia Revolution and the nature of Russia and its satellite states. The first Harman piece How the Revolution Was Lost (online here) is one of the clearest arguments about why Russia, first through isolation and the defeat of the post-World War One European Revolutionary movements and then the development of a new bureaucratic class, led to the defeat of the Revolution itself. It's a classic article that I have read numerous times and which I highly recommend to socialists.

Harman's second piece can be seen as a basic introduction to the idea that defines the International Socialist tradition, that Russia was State Capitalist. Because of the origin of the articles as separate pieces there is some duplication, but again, Harman's argument is clear and accessible and like the following Peter Binn's article he returns first to a study of what capitalism is, before showing what Russia was/is. Harman shows how the basic dynamics of capitalism existed in pre-1989 Russia (and the Eastern bloc countries), showing how they could not possibly be socialist:
whereas under pre-capitalist societies production is determined by the desires of the ruling class and under socialism by the desires of the mass of the population, under capitalism the nature and dynamic of production results from the compulsion on those who control production to extract a surplus in order to accumulate means of production in competition with one another. The particular way in which the ruling class owns industry in Russia, through its control of the state, does not affect this essential point. That is why the only meaningful designation in Marxist terms of the society that has existed in Russia for the last forty years [Harman means since the 1920s] is 'state capitalism'.
Peter Binn's piece The Theory of State Capitalism (which can be found online here) is an extremely good short introduction to the idea. Like Harman he develops this through a study of capitalism, with frequent references to Marx's Capital. Crucially he shows how accumulation is a central feature of the economy of Russia, and this is because Russia is not an isolated economic system but one in intense competition with the Western Powers. This competition, like the competition between rival capitalists, drives the economic accumulation. Binns shows that this is true by showing how even within the developed capitalist powers, where the concentration and monopolisation of capitalism has meant that frequently only a single multinational dominates its sphere of production, yet these remain capitalist systems. State ownership, and indeed the existence of state planning, does not undermine this dynamic.

Central to all four pieces is a study of the rise of the bureaucracy in Russia. This came initially from the reality of the young, isolated Revolution which had experienced a decimation of the revolutionary working class. But eventually this bureaucracy became a class for itself, organising in its own interests and striving to extract the maximum surplus from the workers and peasants.

A few years after this book was published, the State Capitalist regimes of Eastern Europe and the USSR collapsed. As pointed out by Tony Cliff, in none of these supposed "workers' states" did workers collectively lift a finger to protect them. I was struck reading this that the essential arguments where proved by the nature of the end of the Eastern States. While it suited the capitalists to label these as socialist and the process from 1989 to 1991 as "the end of socialism", in reality this was capitalism reforming itself to try and deal with its inherent contradictions. Why does this matter today? After all these regimes haven't existed for almost thirty years. Binns and Harman both make the point that firstly the clarity provided by returning to the basic ideas of Marxist theory helped ensure that some revolutionary socialists weren't distracted by the idea of "actually existing socialism" and secondly, because if the Revolution of 1917 could be defeated by counter-revolution and the rise of a bureaucratic class then future revolutionaries must guard against the possibility.

Related Reviews

Sherry - Russia 1917: Workers' Revolution and Festival of the Oppressed
Trotsky - Lessons of October
Birchall - Tony Cliff
Cliff - Trtosky 1923-1927: Fighting the Rising Stalinist Bureaucracy
Cliff - Trotsky 1927-1940: The Darker the Night, the Brighter the Star

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