Answer to Theories of Despair

By Sam Marcy

June 21, 1976

A ruling class -- such as the ancient slave-holding class, the feudal class, or the modern bourgeoisie -- cannot emerge or gain ascendancy over society merely as a result of political conspiracy, cunning manipulation, deceit, or ruthless oppression. A ruling class can, in the final analysis, come into existence only as a result of the deep-rooted needs of the processes of production.

That alone should give Marxists pause in adopting the spurious theory which proclaims that a new ruling class dominates in the USSR.

Ruling classes and social evolution

Primitive communism gave way to chattel slavery because the latter was a superior mode of production, even though it was accompanied by the most ferocious oppression and exploitation. Likewise, the feudal system took form and developed, not because the feudal lords were more kindly disposed to the peasants nor because the landed gentry were endowed with superior moral and intellectual qualities. The chattel slave system was uprooted and destroyed not as a concession to humanitarianism but as a response to the need for the development of the productive forces which were constricted by outmoded social relations.

In a similar vein, the feudal system yielded to the capitalist mode of production, not because the bourgeoisie was less repressive, more humanitarian, or extracted less of the surplus product from the producers. On the contrary, under the system of capitalist exploitation the new master class extracted more of the surplus product in the form of surplus value from the backs of the producers than all other previous modes of production put together.

None of the basic classes in history which emerged as ruling classes did so without a previous life and death political struggle, without the use of conspiracy, without cunning manipulation, and without the use of fraud and deceit of the conquered classes. Certainly all this played a great part in the final outcome of the struggle and the final ascendancy and political supremacy of one class over another and over society in general. But in the long run, each of the historical classes that assumed control over society was able to do so because it had a historic mission to perform before it gave way to a more advanced class.

Each class advanced the productive forces to a higher level than was prevalent in the preceding mode of production. It changed the character of the relations of production precisely because the old relations of production had become incompatible with and hampered the growth of the productive forces.

Role of the proletariat today

In modern times, the proletariat is the only class which can succeed on a world scale and take the reins of society from the decadent bourgeoisie, which is hampering the harmonious development of the productive forces by maintaining the outmoded, antiquated and severely oppressive social relations based on imperialist exploitation and oppression.

The proletariat is the only class that has a truly historic mission to carry out which no preceding class could accomplish and which the bourgeoisie is utterly incapable of executing. That is to organize, or rather reorganize, society on a rational basis, purge it of the incredibly destructive economic crises born out of the anarchy of capitalist production, and begin the reorganization of production for human needs and not for profit. The proletariat is the only class capable of putting an end to catastrophic imperialist wars and destructive economic dislocation. It is the only class capable of satisfying all of humanity's needs and assuring its further existence and development. And it can do this precisely because it can free the productive forces of society from the encroachments and restrictions of capitalist private property and assure their limitless development for the good of humanity and not for narrow private interests and exploitation.

No other class is as consistent with the needs of the rest of humanity as is the proletariat. Other classes and social groupings can play a revolutionary role in society only by adopting the viewpoint of the proletariat and making their interests identical with the class interests of the proletariat.

Marxism challenged once again

All of the above, which are fundamental postulates of the Marxist theory of social development, are once again being called into question, just as has happened before during periods of social crisis and whenever there have been setbacks to the cause of the working class and the oppressed.

The widespread disenchantment and disillusionment of certain strata of the population, and in particular of the radical petty bourgeoisie, with extremely negative developments in the USSR, both internally as well as in foreign policy, have caused them to make a headlong retreat in the direction of bourgeois apologetics and a renunciation of basic Marxist doctrine. This is reflected in a "new" appreciation of the USSR as a state ruled either by a new exploiting class or by the old bourgeoisie restored in a new disguise. In either case, the analysis is based on a rupture with Marxism as the doctrine of social evolution and is in effect a retreat to the bourgeois theory that chance and not historic necessity governs social development.

Many of the theoreticians who hold the view that the USSR is a bourgeois state, albeit of a new type, have explained the development on the basis of conspiracy, fraud, deceit, Machiavellian tactics, and what-not. Others, who have based themselves on a somewhat less superficial theory, have sought to explain their theory of the transformation of the USSR into a capitalist state on the narrow data which became available as a result of the economic reforms in the USSR under the Khrushchev era and partly under Brezhnev.

In either case, so far as the reforms go, while they started off in a dangerous direction, they merely evinced and offered the possibility of a bourgeois restoration. The trends were nevertheless arrested. The basic conquests of the October Proletarian Revolution -- the planned character of the Soviet economy and the public ownership of the means of production -- have by no means been eroded and in some aspects have been strengthened even while there has been a contradictory growth of social inequality and accumulating political antagonisms.

The most serious bourgeois economists and the world bourgeoisie as a whole have not for a moment abandoned their conception of the USSR as a "centrally planned" society and their mortal and irreconcilable antagonism towards it.

Doctrine of chance vs. historic necessity

In constructing their conception of the USSR as a new hostile class formation, the "new" theoreticians have broken with Marxism as a doctrine of social evolution and have introduced the reign of the arbitrary in the domain of social evolution. For, according to them, political leaders can change social systems at will, overthrow new classes, and bring back old ones without the knowledge, let alone the participation, of the masses. Indeed, this is a throwback to pre-modern conceptions of history. Wherever a so-called material basis is offered, it can't stand the light of day. It's overthrown by reality.

When the bourgeoisie was young and full of enthusiasm, its most enlightened sections pursued the theory of evolution not only in nature but to some extent in social development as well. It is to be noted that Marx's Critique of Political Economy and Darwin's The Origin of Species were published almost simultaneously in the year of 1859. The advance of humanity from lower to higher stages of social development received wide approval and that was because the bourgeois intelligentsia saw the capitalist class as the bearer of social, political, and scientific progress. Capitalism was still on the ascending scale of history.

Today the bourgeoisie, needless to say, is bereft of all historic validity. It is declining everywhere. It has long exhausted its historic mission and its further existence can only wreak one catastrophe after another upon humanity. It is bewildered and confused by its utter inability not only to control the productive forces it has brought into being but even to maintain them in the face of revolutionary upheavals everywhere.

Their philosophy has led them for a considerable period now to renounce in the strongest terms the theory of evolution and in particular the Marxist theory of social development, which not only shows that the class struggle is the motive force of history but that the class struggle of the proletariat inevitably leads to the dictatorship of the proletariat. Nevertheless, the ideology of the bourgeoisie permeates all sections of society with its message of decline.

Monod and Nicolaus

Only lately the bourgeoisie began to peddle in intellectual circles Jacques Monod's theory of "Chance and Necessity." According to him it is not social evolution, the development from lower to higher forms of society based upon new modes of production, which governs society; it is all pure chance. Chance determines everything.

What else can the bourgeoisie really rely upon?

In its youth it believed in evolution. Now when it is bankrupt it can only rely on chance, on fortuitous circumstances and historical conjunctures. Strange, isn't it, that precisely such theoretical fulminations govern in one way or another those theoreticians who have proclaimed the USSR a bourgeois state? Martin Nicolaus' "Restoration of Capitalism," if one reads it carefully, leads to the ultimate conclusion that it was conspiracy that determined the fate of Stalin as well as of Khrushchev, and that Brezhnev and Kosygin maintained themselves in power as a result of pure chance. In his conception of the events that led to the restoration of capitalism the good guys were overthrown by the bad guys while the masses slept.

A more vulgar application of contemporary American pragmatism to great historical phenomena is scarcely conceivable The fact that there may be basic disagreements among other things, as to who were the "good guys" and who were the "bad guys" is not even raised as an issue.

His analysis of the reforms during the Khrushchev and Brezhnev period cannot stand the light of day because they do not take into account the basic reality of the Soviet system -- that the planned character of the Soviet economy and the public ownership of the means of production have remained basically intact in spite of the marauding incursions of the Soviet bureaucracy. How else explain that the worldwide capitalist economic crisis has not overtaken the USSR? -- a fact so plain that only the politically blind, those who will not see, can ignore it.

Bettelheim and Sweezy

Another version of the restoration of capitalism theory is that of Charles Bettelheim, which unfortunately has been embraced by some who in our view should know better, such as Paul Sweezy. In Bettelheim's view, the basic cause of the degeneration, or rather the transformation, of the USSR into a capitalist state ruled by a "new" state bourgeoisie lies in the theoretical error presumably pursued both by Stalin and even more so by Trotsky in stressing the development of the productive forces rather than in changing social relations. It's hard to take this thesis seriously and one wonders how serious people who have devoted much of their lives to the struggle for socialism can come up with a theory that defies the very basis of the Marxist conception of history and does so much violence to the actual developments in the USSR.

Bettelheim, and Sweezy too, are comforted and bolstered in their new theory by the belief that it is also the conception of Chairman Mao -- a dubious proposition which events in China, especially as they are unfolding, are sure to disqualify. Why have Bettelheim and Sweezy found this new detour to explain social development in the USSR?

First of all there has been the strong pull of China -- but the victory of the Angolan people and the reactionary foreign policy of Peking are sure to create second thoughts among many of China's followers.

But there is another reason, too, aside from the disillusionment and disenchantment which followed in the wake of successive setbacks in the USSR and which have discredited the Soviet leadership for many, many years.

If Stalin and Trotsky both thought that the main emphasis had to be put on the productive forces to develop a workers' state in a backward country, they were right -- that was not an erroneous conception. Therein does not lie the fundamental difficulty faced by the new social formation, by the new society which issued from the October Revolution. It was not neglect of the social relations. That's avoiding the issue.

To put it properly, it was the growth of the Soviet bureaucracy, headed by Stalin, which perverted the social relations which issued from the October Revolution. That was possible because Soviet society was characterized by a fundamental contradiction which the bureaucracy was unable to resolve by its methods. The contradiction was that the productive forces were too meager and inadequate to give the new social relations in the USSR a socialist character.

Whereas in all the older modes of production the productive forces first outgrew the social relations and then rebelled against them, in the new Soviet society the productive forces were inadequate to assure a socialist development. Unable to pursue a revolutionary policy either at home or abroad, the bureaucracy took on the character of a coercive and repressive force and began the construction of socialism in a way which destroyed the political gains of the working class but retained the fundamental social conquests necessary to insure the existence of a workers' state but not of a socialist society.

So that what we have is not a new ruling class, not a new state bourgeoisie, but the very familiar phenomenon of a bureaucracy which has expropriated the proletariat politically while it -- the bureaucracy -- rules on behalf of the proletariat. In doing so, it naturally appropriates in its own self-interest a good deal of the privileges and emoluments that go with governing, but this does not nullify the fact that the proletariat, in a historical and sociological sense, is still the ruling class, hampered by a bureaucratic upper crust.

Is this a new phenomenon in world history? Not really. If we examine other classes, both the British and the German bourgeoisies, for example, they were not able to rule directly on their own behalf until many, many decades had passed. In Germany it took Bismarck, a Junker, a feudalist, and his array of bureaucrats to unify the bourgeoisie in a national state and to dominate over them.

Vast difference between bureaucracy and class

It makes a great deal of difference whether one characterizes the ruling group in the USSR as a bureaucracy or as a social class on a historic scale with other possessing classes. Previous ruling classes have had their bureaucracies and in contemporary bourgeois society the labor movement has been led and victimized by a labor bureaucracy. While a bureaucracy attains a relative independence from the class it represents and appropriates, or rather misappropriates, a share of the social income for its own selfish interests, it is nevertheless rooted in the class it represents.

In this sense the Soviet bureaucracy does not differ fundamentally from the bureaucracies in prior epochs. The Soviet bureaucracy is rooted in nationalized property, public ownership of the means of production, centralized planning. It cannot undo these progressive social achievements without undoing itself. It doesn't mean that there is not a neo-restorationist wing of the bureaucracy, but it by no means signifies that the latter has completely triumphed.

A 'new class' must have a historic mission

In attributing a new sociological character to the USSR, these theoreticians have unwittingly crowned the Soviet bureaucracy with a great new historic mission. If a new class governs the USSR then the evidence of all previous class societies compels us to conclude that such a class could only come into existence by historic necessity and, as a corollary to that, that it has a historic mission which no effort by the proletariat can successfully nullify until that mission is exhausted.

Why were the proletarian revolutions of 1848 and 1871 overcome? When all is said and done, when all the political mistakes, false policies by workers' organizations, the machinations and conspiracy of the bourgeoisie, etc., etc., are taken into account, was it not because the bourgeoisie had not yet exhausted its historic mission? Capitalism still had plenty of room for development. It took some decades before competitive capitalism turned to monopoly capitalism: imperialism.

What follows from the theories of capitalist restoration is that the proletarian revolution in the USSR, the seizure of power by the proletariat, was premature. Therefore, not only were the political policies of the leaders of the revolution and their successors erroneous but they were utopian. Marxism, even in the hands of the genius of Lenin, merely served as an ideological garb, as a cover to objectively pave the way, smooth the path, for the bourgeoisie. In other words, Marxism as a doctrine is really comparable to the teachings of the men of the Great Enlightenment in the period preceding the French Revolution. It served to rally the masses, ultimately gave them slogans, such as Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, but in the end it turned out to be an ideological cover for a new ruling class.

Have these theoreticians of the new ruling class in the USSR thought these matters through to the end?

Pragmatic origins of their thesis

On the contrary, it is not objective thought which has impelled them to move in this direction. It is not objective, independent thinking which has resulted in this theory which is so favorable to the imperialist bourgeoisie. It is born out of subjectivist and politically tendentious trends in contemporary politics. This theory began to come in vogue here not when the presumed transformation took place, but in 1968 and 1969, after Czechoslovakia. And what impelled its exponents to take that position was that they had turned their face to the Chinese leadership who abruptly proclaimed the theory of social imperialism and left it to the foreign theoreticians to theorize what in effect was a political cuss word pronounced by one faction in the international communist movement against another.

Important as the Czechoslovak intervention was, it could under no circumstances be the starting point for a new sociological appraisal of the USSR. If the Czechoslovak intervention was such an enormously regressive action, how about Hungary? And wasn't Georgia forcibly Sovietized under Lenin? Indeed, none of these interventions could possibly serve as a starting point for a reevaluation of the class character of the USSR. It is interesting that none of these theoreticians was prompted to pronounce an anathema on the class character of the USSR for the previous interventions.

None of the interventions flow from a transformation in Soviet property relations. (In Georgia, the intervention was of course wholly progressive.) The Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia (as well as in Hungary, which was approved and encouraged by Mao), was launched to stave off bourgeois counter-revolution, which in part was the result of reactionary policies pursued by the Soviet leaders and approved by the Chinese leaders.

Had these counter-revolutions succeeded, had the Soviet Union not crushed them, then they might have been the starting point for not merely a theoretical reappraisal of the class character of the USSR, but for a mighty impulse to real bourgeois restoration there.

What the theoreticians mentioned here have done is to confuse bourgeois restoration -- which, of course, could happen, especially where the new workers' state and the new social system are still on shaky grounds -- with political reaction.

Political rise of reactionary forces

Political reaction has taken place in practically all of the countries where the great bourgeois revolutions occurred. But the restoration of feudalism has not taken place anywhere the bourgeoisie has triumphed.

Political reaction can last a long time. A political reaction in the USSR set in after the death of Lenin. It became strengthened, along with the growth of social inequality, but the socialist aspects of the Soviet economy as well as the living standards of the masses also increased. To substitute bourgeois restoration for political reaction has more than a terminological significance. Whether there is a new bourgeoisie or merely a bureaucracy has tremendous strategic as well as tactical significance for the world proletariat and oppressed.

If it is a bourgeois or "social imperialist" state, the proletariat is duty-bound to follow the same political criteria in the struggle against it as against any other imperialist state. If it is, on the other hand, a workers' state led by a bureaucracy, a wholly different set of criteria apply. While fighting against the oppressive character of the Soviet bureaucracy, it is nevertheless necessary to defend the USSR against imperialist aggression and against internal bourgeois reaction and to support the Soviet Union wherever and whenever it takes progressive measures in domestic and foreign affairs.

Understanding these criteria helps to explain the ease with which the Chinese leadership hastily characterized the USSR as a hostile formation no better than an imperialist state. Their formulation of the class character of the USSR has the dubious advantage that it relieves them of any necessity to defend what is progressive in the USSR, both in foreign as well as in domestic policy, or to pursue a proletarian policy in relation to a sister socialist state. On the other hand, by characterizing the USSR as imperialist, the Chinese leadership are free to act without any limitation as regards the USSR. They can thus bloc with the imperialists against the USSR and claim that they are pursuing a Marxist-Leninist thesis. Their position sanctions collaboration with the real imperialists, whereas if they confined themselves to treating the USSR as it really is they would of necessity have to continue what they began in the early 1960s -- to fight the Soviet bureaucracy for collaborating with imperialism rather than themselves allying with imperialism.

The difference in the two divergent class appreciations of the social nature of the USSR is fundamental to the cause of the working class. With the Chinese formulation of the question, one of necessity is impelled to embrace a strategic world outlook on the same barricades with imperialism. With the other we are on the class barricades of the world proletariat, all the oppressed people, and all the progressive elements in the USSR which, like China, is still a fortress of the world revolution in spite of the Soviet bureaucracy.

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