Alex Callinicos




5 Reorientations

5.1 Tony Cliff and the theory of state capitalism

Trotsky’s political project involved, above all, the attempt to continue the classical Marxist tradition, maintaining its identification of socialism with the self-emancipation of the working class. The last two chapters seem to suggest that this project was, in fact, impossible. Orthodox Trotskyism preserved the letter of Trotsky’s writings at the price of depriving them of substance, since forces other than the working class were now regarded as agents of socialist revolution. Those, on the other hand, who challenged Trotskyist orthodoxy – in particular, the idea that the USSR, China, and the Eastern bloc were workers’ states – tended subsequently to break with Marxism tout court, some, like Shachtman, succumbing to a Stalinophobia so acute as to drive them into the arms of the State Department. The natural conclusion to draw would be that Trotskyism, and with it Marxism itself, was exhausted as an intellectual tradition. At the end of his influential book After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre (1981: 243-4) recalled Trotsky’s claim, in September 1939, that if his predictions of post-war revolution were unfulfilled, Marxism itself would be refuted (see Section 2.2 above): the outcome after 1945 showed that “Trotsky’s own premisses entailed that the Soviet Union was not socialist and that the theory which was to have illuminated the path to human liberation had in fact led to darkness”.

This conclusion presumed that Trotsky was correct in presenting the following dilemma: either the Stalinist bureaucracy was an unstable parasitic formation battening off a backward workers’ state or it was the ruling class of a new form of society which rendered the class struggle between labour and capital obsolete. But what if this choice did not exhaust the alternatives, if the USSR and its like were a variant of capitalism? The versions of this idea discussed in the last chapter did not develop its possibilities much. James’s theory of state capitalism was very little elaborated, while Castoriadis’s alternative account of bureaucratic capitalism was in fact much closer to the Burnham-Rizzi-Shachtman concept of bureaucratic collectivism, since it denoted a society no longer governed by the laws of motion of capitalism. It was Tony Cliff who developed a much more articulated theory of state capitalism rooted in Capital and the work of later Marxist economists.

Cliff, brought up by Zionist parents in British-ruled Palestine, became a Trotskyist in the mid-1930s. He left Palestine in 1946, and settled in Britain, where he joined the leadership of the RCP. One of his main reasons for coming to Europe was to write a book that would resolve the crisis of post-war Trotskyism by showing that both the Soviet Union and the states of Eastern Europe were degenerated workers’ states. After six months’ work on the book he came to the conclusion that Trotsky was wrong and that the USSR and the rest of the Eastern bloc were bureaucratic state-capitalist societies. Originally argued in a 1948 RCP internal document that became the basis of Cliff’s book, State Capitalism in Russia, first published in 1955, this analysis provided the political basis on which the Socialist Review group was formed after the expulsion of Cliff’s supporters from the FI in 1950 (see Section 2.2 above). The variant of Trotskyism thus founded is generally known as the International Socialist tradition, after the journal International Socialism, established in 1960. Most of the groups which identify with this tradition call themselves the International Socialists, although the British group (confusingly enough) has been called the Socialist Workers’ Party since 1977. (See Cliff 1987 for an account of his own development and that of the International Socialists/SWP.)

Cliff’s theory of state capitalism had two aspects. In the first place, negatively, he sought to establish the falsehood of Trotsky’s analysis, focusing on the latter’s identification of state ownership with a workers’ state:

From the form of property alone – whether private, institutional or state property abstracted from the relations of production, it is impossible to define the class character of a social system. For this it is necessary to know the relation between people and the process of production, the relations between toilers and the means of production ... “To try to give a definition of property as of an independent relation, a category apart – an abstract eternal idea – can be nothing but an illusion of metaphysics or jurisprudence” [Marx]. (Cliff 1948: 7)

Cliff provided detailed empirical evidence to show that “the relation between people and the control of production” in the USSR was characterized by the denial to workers of the most elementary rights to organize, let alone any broader political rights, by the exercise of dictatorial managerial control in the factories as part of the systematic subordination of consumption to production, and by the existence of pervasive socio-economic inequalities (Cliff 1988: ch.1). These features of Russian society made it impossible to describe the USSR as a workers’ state, however degenerated.

This argument established at most that the USSR was a class society, in the Marxist sense of a society where the direct producers were excluded from control of the productive forces by an exploiting minority. But what kind of class society”? The Johnson-Forest tendency argued that the USSR was state-capitalist entirely on the grounds of the existence of a “hierarchy in the process of production itself” (James l986a: 37). This presumed, as James (1986a: 31) argued, that “the factory” was “the centre of production relations”. But this seemed to involve too narrow a conception of capitalism. Marx (1973: 449) himself distinguished between the analysis of “capital in general, as distinct from the particular capitals” and that of “many capitals”. “Capital in general” referred above all to the immediate process of production analysed in Capital Volume 1, where capitalist control of the labour process makes possible the extraction of surplus-value from workers compelled to sell their labour-power to secure their means of existence. However, “[c]apital exists and can only exist as many capitals” (Marx 1973: 414). The capitalist economy is necessarily divided among competing firms. This process of competition is no mere secondary feature of the capitalist mode of production. On the contrary, “[t]he influence of individual capitals upon one another has the effect precisely that they must conduct themselves as capital” (Marx 1973: 657). Competition in particular compels capitals to accumulate, to reinvest surplus-value in expanding output and improving productivity. The accumulation process in turn underlies the main tendencies of the capitalist mode, in particular, the centralization and concentration of capital and the trend for the rate of profit to fall underlying the theory of crises that is the centrepiece of Capital Volume 3. (The interpretation of Capital outlined above is most fully developed in the chef d’oeuvre of the Ukrainian Trotskyist Roman Rosdolsky (1977); see also Callinicos 1982a ch.3.)

Marx’s analysis of capitalism thus involves a theory of the relations among the exploiters as well as of those between exploiters and exploited. This consideration underlays the insistence by Trotsky and his orthodox followers as well as by Burnham, Shachtman and Castoriadis, that the complete statization of an economy would involve its liberation of the laws of motion of capitalism. A state-controlled economy was one in which the market had been suppressed, thereby removing the process of competition through which individual units of production are compelled “to conduct themselves as capital”. Cliff’s solution to this problem was simple. Considered in isolation from the rest of the world, the internal workings of the Soviet economy could be understood as if “Russia were one big factory managed directly from one centre” (Cliff 1988: 221). The “many capitals” had been eliminated within the USSR. But, of course Russia was in fact part of the international state system and subject to the competitive pressures at work within it. These pressures took the form mainly of the military rivalries between the USSR and Western capitalism – in the inter-war period, chiefly Britain and then Germany, after 1945 the USA and its allies – but their effects were the same as those deriving from the market. Military competition forced the Russian bureaucracy to give priority to heavy industry and the arms sector. This, Cliff argued, was a form of capital accumulation, in which consumption is subordinated to production. Hence the period of the First Five Year Plan (1928-32) marked the turning point from what Lenin had called a “workers’ state with bureaucratic deformations” to state capitalism. Committed to building the industrial base essential to meet the military challenge from the West,

the bureaucracy, transformed into a personification of capital, for whom the accumulation of capital is the be-all and end-all here, must get rid of all remnants of workers’ control, must substitute conviction in the labour process by coercion, must atomize the working class, must force all social-political life into a totalitarian mould. (Cliff 1988: 165)

The horrors of the 1930s reflected the extremely concentrated fashion in which the “primitive accumulation of capital”, which took two centuries in Britain, was packed into ten years in the USSR.

Cliff’s analysis of Stalinism followed Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution in taking the capitalist world system as its basic frame of reference: “when Russia is viewed within the international economy the basic features of capitalism can be discerned: ‘anarchy in the social division of labour and despotism in that of the workshop are mutual conditions of each other ...’ ” (Cliff 1988: 221-2). In treating the effects of global competition as a necessary condition of the existence of state capitalism in the USSR Cliff avoided the main defect of James’s version of the theory. James located state capitalism entirely in “the process of production itself”. He consequently had no means of explaining why the Soviet bureaucracy enforced “despotism in ... the workshop”. Capitalism was thus reduced to the clash of wills between workers and management within the factory. Castoriadis’s theory of “bureaucratic capitalism” thus drew out the voluntarism implicit in any analysis which, like James’s, reduces capitalist relations of production to class conflict in the immediate production process (the German “capital-logic” school is another example of this approach: see Callinicos 1982a: ch.6). Cliff’s theory, by contrast, was able to explain the subjection of the working class in the USSR in the dynamic of capital accumulation by setting the Stalinist regime in its global context, the international state system dominated by military competition.

Marx and Trotsky aside, what other filiations within Marxism could Cliff’s theory claim? Anderson (1984a: 125) calls the social-democratic theorist Karl Kautsky “the father of ‘state capitalism’ ”. In fact, Cliff/#8217;s and Kautsky’s theories have little in common apart from their use of the expression “state capitalism”. Kautsky dubbed the Bolshevik regime state-capitalist from 1917 onwards, on the grounds that the October Revolution took place in a backward country unready for socialism and broke with parliamentary democracy (Salvadori 1979; chs.VIII, IX). The reasons reflected more Kautsky’s evolutionist theory of history and reformist political strategy than an elaborated analysis of the USSR. Cliff, by contrast, regarded the October Revolution as a socialist revolution and dated the bureaucratic counter-revolution to the late 1920s. His own theory bore a kinship to, and was to some degree influenced by Bukharin’s writings during and immediately after the First World War. As early as 1915, Bukharin (1982: 17) argued that the tendencies towards the concentration and centralization of capital whose culmination Hilferding described as “finance capital”, the merger of banking and industrial capital, involved a trend for the state and private capital themselves to fuse, in turn involving “the conversion of each developed ‘national system’ of capitalism into a ‘state capitalist trust’ ”. At the same. “the centre of gravity in the competitive struggle is carried over into the world market, whereas within the country competition dies out” (Bukharin 1982: 18). The form of competition thereby tended to change, as the rivalries of private firms in the market were subordinated to the military struggle between state capitals, a process culminating in the First World War. From this perspective, the Stalinist industrialization of the Soviet Union could be seen, not as the economic consolidation of a workers’ state, but as an extreme form of a generalized tendency towards militarized state capitalism accelerated by the Great Depression of the 1930s and leading again to the outbreak of war at the end of the decade (Harman 1984: ch.2).

What were the political implications of the theory of state capitalism? Cliff (1948: 142) concluded his original version of the theory by predicting that “[t]he class struggle in Stalinist Russia must inevitably express itself in gigantic spontaneous explosions of millions” that would be the “first chapter of the victorious proletarian revolution”, a perspective which he defended in later years against those such as Deutscher who expected the bureaucracy to reform itself (for example, Cliff 1982: 118-34, 166-91). But what about the West? Anderson (1984a: 124) argues that describing the USSR as a “class society” necessarily involves an accommodation with Western capitalism, since the latter possesses the “democratic liberties” absent in the East and therefore seems to be “the lesser – because non-totalitarian – evil”. Shachtman’s final destiny as a Cold War Democrat revealed the political truth of theories of state capitalism as well as of bureaucratic collectivism: “The logic of these interpretations ... always ultimately tended (though with individual, less consistent exceptions) to shift their adherents to the Right” (Anderson 1984a: 125) Anderson’s logic does not seem compelling. Trotsky had refused to make a difference in political regime the basis of supporting one group of capitalist powers against another. Even in June 1940, after the fall of France, he had rejected the argument that the existence of parliamentary democracy in Britain made it a lesser evil than German fascism, and had argued that the contradictions involved in the Nazis’ attempt to rule the Continent by force would provoke revolutionary explosions (Trotsky 1973d: 296-9). The Socialist Review group took a similar approach during the Cold War, refusing to support either the Eastern or the Western bloc, and instead basing their hopes on working-class revolt from below, a stance summed up by the slogan “Neither Washington nor Moscow but International Socialism”. Viewing the East-West conflict as an inter-imperialist struggle implied the revolutionary defeatism first developed by Lenin during the First World War rather than Shachtman’s Stalinophobia.

More generally, Cliff’s theory of state capitalism made it possible to reinstate the idea of socialism as the self-emancipation of the working class to the central importance given it by Marx. If not only the Soviet Union but also the Eastern European states, China, Vietnam and Cuba represented, not a deformed socialism, but a variant of capitalism, then there was no question of socialism being achieved without the self-activity of the working class. It was also possible to defend a fairly orthodox version of the revolutionary socialist tradition as it had been developed by figures such as Lenin, Luxemburg, and Trotsky. The voluntarist theories of state or bureaucratic capitalism advanced by James and Castoriadis tended to identify socialism with spontaneous shopfloor revolt and therefore to reject the theory of a vanguard party and the associated strategy and tactics developed by Lenin and Trotsky in particular. Cliff’s version of the theory of state capitalism required no such break with the classical Marxist tradition, as is indicated by his major study of Lenin (Cliff 1975-9), although the implied commitment to the construction of a revolutionary party was combined with a Luxemburgian stress on the essential and creative role played by spontaneous explosions of working-class revolt.


Last updated on 13.3.2001