The Class Character of the USSR

By Sam Marcy

May 24, 1976

The current controversy on the left with regard to Angola, China, and the USSR, which is reflected in the Guardian newspaper's opening of a discussion on these matters, must of necessity go beyond a debate on China's foreign policy to the question of the class character of the USSR.

First, however, the most important thing for our party is to state its own programmatic position, independently of the views expressed by others in the discussion.

WWP's record on national liberation

I need hardly state that so far as Angola goes, our party has vigorously and unconditionally supported the MPLA. Our support for the MPLA and the People's Republic of Angola flows from our general programmatic position — which is to render firm, vigorous, and unconditional support to all oppressed people fighting imperialism and for their liberation. Moreover, we of course stand for the unconditional support of all the socialist countries, including the USSR as well as China, in the struggle against imperialist aggression and bourgeois reaction at home. (Our support of the socialist countries should be distinguished from that which the CPUSA gives to the USSR, completely ratifying all policies of the Soviet bureaucracy. Nor should we be in any way identified with the kind of "support" which the Socialist Workers Party here still claims to give to the socialist countries. Their support is exceptionally well illustrated by the way they have hailed the Solzhenitsyns, the Sakharovs, the Amalriks, and others who are clearly and unequivocally champions of bourgeois reaction.

(The Militant, organ of the SWP, has, by the way, now declared its intention of entering the debate on China and Angola, although it has not supported the MPLA and has regarded it as virtually on the same footing with the FNLA and UNITA, characterizing all three as bourgeois nationalist groups maneuvering with imperialism. In its opening article there is not a word which would disclose the SWP's class characterization of the USSR, but does anyone really need to be told? Nominally, they say it is a workers' state. In practice, they treat it as an imperialist country.)

The record of our party on support to the struggles against imperialism is very clear, beginning with such concrete events as the first demonstration in the U.S. against the Vietnam war (1962) which perhaps many on the left may not have noticed — although Ho Chi Minh did and specifically acknowledged the support of Youth Against War & Fascism in an interview with Wilfred Burchett published in the Guardian (May 16, 1963).

Our very impressive demonstration on behalf of the Angolan people this January 17, and our work on the May Day anti-apartheid anti-imperialist demonstrations along with the Pan African Students Organization in the Americas and many other organizations, are most recent examples of our party's ability and willingness to take the necessary initiatives. A study of our party history reveals militant and consistent opposition to imperialist attacks against the oppressed peoples and socialist countries, with outstanding effort on such questions as the Middle East, Indonesia, Cuba, and Korea.

Beyond Angola, what is the real issue?

Angola, of course, which has currently engendered so much controversy in the movement, is not the key issue. It is merely a surface manifestation of a much deeper conflict. The real issue is the class character of the USSR. To deny this, to evade it, will lead to greater confusion, frustration and demoralization.

The class character of the Soviet Union has been at the bottom of the most heated political controversies in the left-wing movement virtually since the birth of the Soviet Socialist Republic. It is, at least in part, the fundamental axis of the world political struggle today, and it is impossible to construct a revolutionary Marxist-Leninist program in any single country without taking into account the class character of the USSR.

We, of course, believe neither that there is a new exploiting class in the Soviet Union, nor that there has been a return of the bourgeoisie to power there under the guise of Marxist-Leninist phraseology. We firmly adhere to the position that the USSR is a workers' state, although it has undergone a severe strain, deterioration, and erosion of revolutionary principles, and is moreover headed by a privileged, conservative bureaucracy which limits, distorts, and has on many occasions endangered the very existence of the socialist forms of organization in the USSR. This bureaucracy arose under the desperate conditions facing the newborn workers' state in its early years, but was held strongly in check during Lenin's time. After his death, however, it began to assume more and more ominous proportions.

However, the underlying social system of the USSR is infinitely superior to that of the most developed, the most "glorious," and the most "democratic" of the imperialist states. Whatever the drawbacks of the Soviet Union, whatever its trials and tribulations, whatever false policies have been imposed on the USSR by its leaders, it has nevertheless been able to achieve tremendous social, cultural, and material progress for the masses which no capitalist state could possibly have accomplished in the circumstances under which the USSR was originally founded and developed.

Indeed, the USSR is rooted in a social system superior to the capitalist system. It is our fundamental political position that, regardless of the Soviet bureaucracy, the USSR contains a new social formation, based on a historically superior mode of production, and is progressive in relation to monopoly capitalism in the same way that capitalism was a superior system in relation to feudalism, as indeed feudalism was a higher social system than slavery.

Two antagonistic class camps

The main contradiction in world politics today is not at all what the exponents of China's new policy say it is (which in any case has undergone several changes in the course of the struggle with USSR revisionism). The main contradiction, the main and fundamental antagonism, is between imperialism on the one hand, meaning thereby the U.S. and all other imperialist states, including Japan, and on the other all the socialist countries — China, the USSR etc. — plus all the oppressed people and the world proletariat.

These, in reality, constitute the two great class camps in the present contemporary epoch. The fact that there is struggle in the camp of the working class, which occasionally may even break out into armed struggle, does not alter the fundamental class antagonism between the two irreconcilable class camps, the two antagonistic social systems based upon two different classes.

The USSR is itself a contradictory social phenomenon, on top of which sits a heavy-handed bureaucracy which has a dual character. This is most strikingly shown in its capacity to play both a progressive as well as a reactionary role in domestic and foreign policy. It is utterly impossible to understand the Soviet Union unless one takes into account this characteristic of the Soviet ruling stratum.

Soviet leaders play a contradictory role

It explains why all those who immediately took on faith the Chinese characterization of the USSR as a capitalist or social-imperialist state now find themselves at a loss how to explain the truly progressive role the Soviet Union has played in Angola. They must ask themselves, how is it that revolutionary China supported the reactionary puppet cliques of the FNLA and UNITA while the "social imperialists" supported the revolutionary cause of the Angolan people? How is this to be explained?

Granted that an imperialist power might occasionally give material support here and there to a revolutionary cause, what imperialist power has given both material and political support to a revolutionary regime in complete hostility to all the other imperialist powers? And is Angola really the exceptional situation, the sole exception? What about Cuba itself? What about Vietnam?

Need we enumerate all the situations where the Soviet bureaucracy has played a progressive role on the international arena?

The Soviet Union's assistance to Angola is merely a continuation of what it did in Cuba. And even when the USSR sent missiles to Cuba in 1962, did the Chinese leadership call it social-imperialist then? Not at all, although they criticized the introduction of the missiles as adventurist and Khrushchev's retreat under U.S. pressure as capitulation and appeasement, while supporting Cuba against the U.S. But whatever the validity of these sharp criticisms, they were addressed to the policies of the leadership and were not attacks on the Soviet system — as in the case of Soviet aid to Angola. Yet what has really changed since then?

The fact of the matter is that there would scarcely have been a controversy over Angola were it not for the split between China and the USSR. And conceivably there might not have been a split between China and the USSR had the Soviet workers' state not been under the leadership of a bureaucracy.

China's leaders cross class lines

Nonetheless, whatever the origin of the struggle between China and the USSR leadership on principled political issues, as well as on matters concerning relations between states, China's characterization of the USSR as an imperialist power meant an abandonment and renunciation of class criteria in the struggle against revisionism.

It is one thing to attack the Soviet leadership as revisionists, renegades, opportunists, and so on. It is qualitatively different and a crossing of class lines to write off the Soviet Union itself and the social system that prevails there.

The most unfortunate aspect of this struggle is that a good deal of the movement here (and abroad as well) took China's hasty generalization about the USSR on pure faith, without subjecting this new and most dangerous departure from Marxist analytical method to any discussion whatsoever! It should be remembered that by the time the generalization about Soviet "imperialism" made its way around the world as a serious thrust by the Chinese leadership, the movement people here, and the younger ones in particular, were so enthusiastic about the Cultural Revolution they found it exceedingly difficult to criticize China for its failure to first of all initiate a discussion in China itself, a failure compounded by thrusting its new position on an unwary world movement of supporters of the Chinese Revolution.

Our party wholeheartedly supported the Cultural Revolution and considers its achievements of singular significance, but not for one moment did we go along with what amounted to a complete break with Marxist methodology so far as the question of the USSR is concerned.

Evaluating the USSR in terms of a hostile social formation, as the Chinese leaders have done, amounts to a crossing of the Rubicon on a fundamental class issue.

Disastrous effects on the movement

Of course, the leaders of a workers' state may quickly change their positions on any number of fundamental questions and, by virtue of the fact that they hold state power, be able to survive it (with what damage at home, only the future can tell). But it is not at all easy for working-class movements who do not hold state power to be confronted, the way the Chinese leadership has confronted its followers abroad, with Angola — and earlier Chile, Bangladesh, etc. For the movement to hold on to positions in glaring contradiction to firm beliefs, such as in Angola, means to convert the movement into an utterly unthinking, dogmatic, and insensitive group of followers who in times of great social crisis can only become a terrible drag on the advanced elements of the working-class movement.

What else can one think after reading William Hinton's piece in the May 5 Guardian? It amounts to a call to become recruiting sergeants for the U.S. imperialist war machine against the Soviet Union. How can any communist, how can anybody with any real class consciousness, feel that this can be a correct policy for a workers' movement to follow, here or anywhere?

To impose such a strategy upon the working-class movement is an act of folly. And, even worse, it is suicidal for those in the movement who would pursue such a course.

The theoretical exponents of the theory of capitalist restoration and social imperialism have suffered two major blows through their false generalization. Angola, of course, is the most glaring and in a way the acid test so far as support for the struggle of oppressed people goes. The other blow to their theory is, however, equally damaging from an entirely different perspective.

The capitalist economic cycle and the USSR

The last two years of the deepest and profoundest world capitalist economic crisis since the crash in 1929 have disproved the theory of capitalist restoration in the USSR. Such a deep-seated and profound economic crisis could not but be equally pervasive in the USSR if it were indeed a capitalist state, if indeed a new bourgeoisie, or as Professor Charles Bettelheim calls it a "state bourgeoisie," had taken over.

For whatever nomenclature is applied to it, the implication of such a theory is that the Soviet economy has been subjected to the same driving forces which motivate the capitalist system and which result in such devastating economic crises as unemployment and ultimately imperialist wars.

Now, all of us must retain objectivity in observing the evolution of the USSR and not close our eyes to any possible transformation of the social system from a workers' state with a planned economy and ownership of the means of production by the workers into a capitalist state.

But if these two fundamental elements of a workers' state, along with the monopoly of foreign trade, were in reality of merely technical significance and a market economy had actually developed to the extent where it would nullify what Engels called the criteria for the bare beginnings of a workers' state, then we should have the kind of unemployment in the USSR which no government could conceivably hide. Yet this is precisely what has not happened in these two crucial years of economic crisis in the imperialist world.

It is true that there is a certain amount of "unemployment," which some pro-Chinese theoreticians claim to be the indubitable proof that capitalism has, in fact, been restored. But this is the kind of unforgivable exaggeration which no serious capitalist economist, however full of hatred for the Soviet Union, has yet been able to make. The "unemployment" that exists in the USSR results from technological changeovers and the inefficiency of the bureaucracy in finding new employment, but the reality of the situation is that there is a labor shortage in the Soviet Union, the very reverse of what these theoreticians are trying to prove. The world capitalist economic crisis has, of course, affected all socialist countries, including China. But these stresses are the results of external influences from the world capitalist market and do not arise out of the internal dynamics of socialist construction.

What about foreign trade deficits?

Only last week (May 22) the New York Times, in an editorial, tried to show that the huge foreign trade deficit of the USSR proved that the centralized economy with a monopoly of foreign trade was either nonexistent or was ineffective to cope with economic problems and that the USSR was therefore on the same level or suffered from the same problems as the capitalist countries. It did not mention China, out of courtesy to its possible "new strategic ally." But it was subsequently disclosed that China, too, suffers from a trade deficit.

What the trade deficits really show is that both countries, the USSR and China, are still in great need of Western and Japanese technology and that for the most part there is still a worldwide partial imperialist economic blockade against the socialist countries. They are not free to purchase and sell in the world capitalist market because of stringent political conditions attached by the imperialist powers and their satellites.

Problems of farm collectivization

The deficit incurred by the USSR is explained by its huge purchases of grain on the world market, mostly from the U.S., which reflect not only the bad weather conditions which have prevailed in the USSR over the last few years but also on mismanagement and inefficiency in the policy of farm collectivization. There has been an enormous growth of the so-called private plots and an equally enormous growth of the grasping and acquisitive Kolkhoz aristocracy. And the growing social differentiations go hand-in-hand with a monstrous growth of privileges among the upper strata of Soviet society.

Nevertheless, it is something that the USSR has the wherewithal to purchase such huge amounts of grain and see to it that the population is taken care of. In Stalin's time the deficit in grain production would not have been made up by purchases from the world market and the needs of the people would not have been met.

Finally, as regards the foreign trade deficits of the socialist countries, it is important to point out that this does not at all prove what the imperialists and sycophants are saying — just the opposite. Up until well into the 1890s, and even well after that, the U.S. was a debtor nation in relation to the old capitalist countries. Nevertheless, it was plain as daylight that the U.S. was a growing and developing capitalist country and that the European capitalist powers were really on the decline in spite of the fact that the U.S. was in debt to them.

The fact that the USSR and China are compelled to purchase or, to put it more correctly, are planning to purchase more than they can sell merely indicates their urgent need for further industrial development. It indicates that the basic tendency of their economies is to grow as against imperialist decline. Would that the capitalist ruling classes would permit all the socialist countries to buy and sell without political restrictions and the more onerous imperialist strings attached. Overall, the foreign trade deficits (which, in any case, the socialist countries can, if they desire, wipe out merely by planning) simply indicate that the bourgeois mode of production is still the predominant form on a world scale, although it is in political disarray and economically outmoded.

Only the consistent and unrelenting struggle of the world proletariat and oppressed people for the socialist revolution can put an end to that.

To enter the current political controversy without first taking into account what has been said above, without clearly coming to grips with the central question — the class character of the USSR — would merely be dealing with derivative political issues. However important they may be, they cannot be discussed fully and comprehended if taken in isolation from the class character of the USSR and its reciprocal relations to China.

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