No more historical abortions
Hillel Ticktin highlights the bogus nature of planning in the Soviet Union and locates the central importance of Europe for the transition to socialism
It is clear that we are living through a world transitional period, where socialism is wanted. However, just as in the transition from feudalism to capitalism a number of formations came into existence that were neither feudal nor capitalist, so in the current period there have been formations that are neither capitalist nor socialist.
Such forms cannot lead anywhere. The Stalinist countries were, in that sense, a historical abortion that had to end, but it is perfectly reasonable to assume that we will see further examples of such distorted forms - although the world is in transition to socialism, socialism is not actually happening yet. There is, nevertheless, a demand from below for change.
What began in 1917 as the natural progress of society ended up as an abomination. Trotsky talked about the conflict between the law of value and the law of planning under the new economic policy. But this was brought to an end, in a particular fashion, by Stalin. His concessions to the peasantry meant the destruction of the rouble, after which money no longer existed in the Marxist sense of the word. Goods could no longer be bought without standing in a long queue - the rouble simply was not the universal equivalent. It was impossible to buy the means of production. However, the elite of Soviet society would receive goods either for free or for very few roubles.
Enterprises were officially based on profit, but the banks would always supply them with what roubles they needed and in reality profit was not a factor. I make this point because still today there are many who believe that the USSR was in some way capitalist, but this is clearly not the case.
A certain social group, however we characterise it, took power secretly against the majority of the population. The only way it could maintain power was through force, through the atomisation and pulverisation of the population. This was done through a particular form of political economy which was neither socialist nor capitalist - there is a huge gap between nationalisation and socialisation, as could be seen in the Soviet Union.
The power of the ruling elite was enormous. The secret police in Britain or even in South Africa would never be as extensive and powerful as the NKVD or KGB, precisely because of the nationalisation of the means of production in the USSR. When Marx talked of "barracks socialism" he had no idea of what this would mean in practice, and could never have conceived that nationalised means of production could give the secret police so much power. However many laws Blair continues to pass, giving more and more power to MI5 and the secret state, they could not possibly have as much as that enjoyed by the secret police in the USSR. The reason for this is the existence of private property, which cannot be completely overridden under capitalism.
That is why the NKVD had far more power than the Gestapo. With total economic power, it is possible to control every aspect of an individual's life. In the case of Nazi Germany people were put into camps, but the average person was not controlled in the way that an individual worker in the Soviet Union was. The Nazis retained private property, whereas this was not the case in the Soviet Union.
The individual's place of work, their study programmes, their places of residence, etc were all tightly controlled to a degree that has only existed in the USSR. The ruling group was very weak, existing without the consent of the vast majority of the population and keeping its privileges secret. The only way it could survive was through atomisation.
This meant obviously that workers did not control their product. On the other hand, there was no way of directly controlling people's productive output either. In Germany the Nazis actually did try to control people at work at one point. The Gestapo stood behind the workers, jailing those who did not work quickly enough or to a certain standard. Yet this could not be maintained - it meant an effective doubling of the workforce. This absence of control - either by the workers, management or ultimately the bureaucracy - was a feature of all the Stalinist countries. That is what all these states fundamentally had in common. Preobrazhenksy made the point very early on that Soviet Russia lost the advantages of capitalism, but did not yet have the advantages of socialism, where the majority of people identify with the system itself. In reality the majority were alienated and exploited.
Rather curiously, though, certain leftwing commentators - Marcuse, for example - have argued that, whilst there was a group at the top, there was extensive grassroots democracy, but such argumentation is completely flawed. If people have no individual control over the labour process whatsoever, then they are economically atomised. Just as work under capitalism is atomised, as workers sell their individual labour-power, so in the Soviet Union they were atomised by the labour process and would work individually. Without genuine trade unions no collective action was possible, apart from some rare strikes and so on in the 1930s.
The result of this atomisation was that there was no abstract labour. Abstract Labour assumes a highly flexible labour force, which is to say the flexibility and exchangeability of the labour force. That is why, in principle, the capitalist class is opposed to racism and sexism - it might support it from time to time to time for political reasons, in order to maintain its own existence, but when it does so it is actually going against its own interests in an economic sense and has a considerable cost. That is, for example, the reason why the capitalist class never supported apartheid in South Africa.
In the absence of abstract labour and therefore value, economic calculations and planning were impossible. I take the view that even in a socialist society based on democratic planning precise calculation is impossible. It is possible to base the plan on rough calculations and that is what a socialist society would actually do. But the Soviet Union could neither use value as a means of calculation nor was capable of planning.
Trotsky in the early 20s made the same point in a slightly different way when he said there is no way to plan without the market. He did not mean that there has to be a market under socialism: what he meant was at that stage the Soviet Union, in its backward state, would require a market in order to calculate, in order to plan. Of course, there would also have to be abstract labour (and unemployment) in that case, and that is what there was under the new economic policy.
But when the NEP was brought to an end in 1929, upon what exactly were planning and organisation based? To work out the required quantity of every product was an impossible problem, no matter what attempts were made to overcome it.
People simply worked at their own rate and it was in everybody's interest to distort the figures in order to relieve the pressure on themselves. The result was, no-one believed the figures - the 'planners' did not believe them and the people who had to work to them certainly did not. Everybody had to make it seem they had produced what was stated, irrespective of the truth. But the entire system was based on untruth. Everybody knew it, including the ministries, which therefore had to demand that the plan be made tighter, even though they knew the figures were not correct anyway, and everything was 'planned' on a completely absurd basis. It was an impossible situation.
What was really happening on the ground? What I understand from people such as economists employed in the various ministries is that basically the system worked via a bargaining process between the major enterprises and the ministries, who effectively conspired to 'meet' the figures. Now, whatever that was, it was not planning. Genuine planning can only be based on the democratic involvement of the associated producers. Without democracy there can be no planning.
But this is more than a tautology: it is completely true that if the majority of the population has no interest in the 'plan', if in fact they are against the whole charade, it just will not work. The nature of socialism is that the associated producers themselves must be involved in and approve the plan at every stage, and in that case the figures upon which it is based will be more or less correct. In the Soviet Union, however, the enterprises fixed the figures and the centre would then somehow have to put it all together. To bring together the Soviet Union's 25 million price categories was an impossible task. Even today, how long would it take to feed all the information through a computer? Assuming it could eventually be done, it is necessary to consider who will input the data, who will oversee it and who will design the programme in the first place. Why on earth would you ever want such an enormous apparatus?
Even if the original figures had been correct, it would still have been impossible to provide every enterprise with the correct results. And, of course, the enterprises simply adjusted what they were given, so they could get the best technical result (as opposed to the best real result). An extreme example is the story of the unit that produced a huge, one-ton nail when asked to produce one tons of nails. That was the nature of the so-called 'planning' in the USSR - totally useless.
Nor was it restricted to the USSR. Any system of that kind, even one that is not as oppressive as the Soviet Union - Cuba, for example - will be the same. Unless there is genuine democracy in a socialist sense, it is impossible to plan. The majority of the population will be against the bureaucrats and whatever figures are actually produced are unlikely to be correct. What will result is the type of product that the USSR churned out: that is to say defective, unreliable and technologically backward.
As we know, when the Soviet Union came to an end, in spite of the argument of many western commentators, it had virtually no enterprises that were globally competitive - it was inevitable that would be the case. The same was true of East Germany, which is why it is still behind the west of the country today. Why is it when Germany was reunited it was a disaster for West Germany? They are still paying an extra six or seven percent in tax, 15 years later.
People who were used to working in a particular way under Stalinism were not generally inclined to adapt to what exists under capitalism. In eastern Europe completely new plants were set up in an attempt to employ labour that was not quite so stuck in that mentality. But, in general, surveys show exactly the same work ethic as existed within the USSR.
In the 30s Trotsky identified a big advantage that the bureaucracy had - control over the surplus product. Not only could they appropriate it: they could move it over the country and from institution to institution, factory to factory. In other words, they could build up and industrialise the country. It is true that they probably did it in the most inefficient way in human history, but they did it nevertheless.
But at a certain point, firstly labour becomes specific - that is to say, people have particular skills and cannot simply be shifted from one point to another without great cost to production. And secondly the labour surplus came to an end roughly in the 70s. At that point the elite began to realise the system would not go on forever and it was a good time to end it. By that time the elite consisted of people who would have preferred capitalism. None of them ever liked the system, but in the absence of private property how could the elite ensure its privileges were passed down to its children? How could it make them permanent? Trotsky said that the elite would have preferred capitalism in the 30s, but it had only just nationalised property and the owners were still alive in the west.
However, by the 80s, when virtually all the former property owners were dead, it became a real option. Similarly there was no longer a problem with foreign debt. True, it had originally been cancelled after the revolution, but it was eventually repaid - albeit without taking into account inflation, which meant a tiny fraction in real terms. The French had been the main investors in Russia and when the revolution took place France was knocked out as an imperial power. It probably lost $600 billion to $1 trillion as a result.
By going over to capitalism, then the elite was able to continue in a better, more stable form - which, of course, is what has actually happened. So, in other words, the system was coming to an end. It had been permanently unstable and unviable.
When Stalin took over, it became a system of its own kind, but it arrived at its inevitable demise when the elite realised that, had they allowed it to go on, they might have ended up hanging from various poles. From their point of view it was obviously better for it to come to an end while they were still in control. The fact that the standard of living would drop to a fraction of what it had been would not affect the majority of the people in control.
The term 'historical abortion' applies to the whole of Stalinism. It is not just true of the Soviet Union and eastern Europe, but of China, Vietnam and Cuba too. In every case the state enterprises had exactly the same problem. In terms of the forces of production Stalinism is a system that is more inefficient and backward than capitalism. It had none of the advantages of socialism or capitalism either. Most people in the USSR would have opted to transfer to an American-style capitalism - which, of course, was impossible - where they would clearly have been much better off.
We must ensure that the lessons of Stalinism are learnt if the transition to socialism is to proceed. But under what circumstances will it be possible to take power? Marxism has tended to see that happening under conditions of crisis.
Capitalism produces a whole series of crises, when, in dialectical terms, the opposite poles are unable to interpenetrate and the mediations that usually enable this to happen cannot hold for very long. So there is a process of disintegration. Unless the present system is superseded that process of crisis and disintegration will become more general. The system is already starting to pull apart - economically, sociologically and in every respect. We can see it in third world poverty and the high levels of unemployment in the advanced countries. Disease goes untreated because pharmaceutical companies actually refuse to do anything about it. We know that these diseases can be overcome if enough money is spent.
Historically, there have been a number of forms which have been able to delay crises. One example is imperialism; a second is war - in the past period there has been the cold war and a whole series of real wars. The system is one which has to resort to the most extreme forms in order to maintain its existence.
Logically, then, instead of such inhuman forms, which have held capitalism together - imperialism, war, fascism and so on - one would expect that some other form would have to come into existence, although it is very hard to envisage what that might be. However, if it were just an economic crisis, that would not be fatal for capitalism - there has to be a political crisis too.
As we know, Marx expected an economic crisis, followed by revolution, in 1848. But he did not expect the petty bourgeoisie to take over: he hoped that the working class would do the job. Ever since, people have said that he was wrong - how an earth could the proletariat have taken power in 1848, when western Europe was still backward? Well, I am not so certain he was wrong. Provided the revolution had taken place in a democratic form, with the vast majority supporting it, I think it would have been possible. Of course, what happened in Russia was quite different, because the vast majority - ie, the peasantry - did not support the revolution. But, once a revolution had taken place in western Europe, there could have been a rapid period of industrialisation.
Part of the reason I say that is because some people argue that the revolution of 1917 could never have succeeded, since the world as a whole was too backward. On that basis it would be necessary to wait until the year 2000 for the forces of production to mature. Logically, however, socialism would have been able to open the way to the full flowering of the forces of production.
At least now nearly everyone accepts (apart from the odd unreconstructed Stalinist) that socialism in one country cannot be built. It has to be a worldwide movement, both in theory and in material reality. That is to say, it has to be developed intellectually as well as practically before change can be achieved.
What is needed is the overall current of thought shifting towards the recognition that the world is moving towards socialism - just as the enlightenment was the dominant train of thought leading up to 1789. At the moment this may seem impossible, but in the 70s things were actually moving in that direction and the right had no answer. Today the left does not have much to say. It cannot be said that Marxist theory is dominant: quite the opposite.
Yet it has to become respected, agreed with and generally accepted. If that kind of movement does not occur, we cannot expect sections of the working class simply to act blindly. We have to win a good number of intellectuals before we can talk of a real movement towards socialism. This will happen again because the right has no answers. The bourgeoisie has not had a theory since 1800, but we do, and our theory is profound and gives us an understanding of reality.
The actual process of taking power will have to involve a considerable number of developed countries. If the left managed to take power in the third world, the country in which that happened would have to wait for the first world to act before there was any real transition. What is required is abundance, not scarcity.
The United States is highly unlikely to be the first to develop a socialist movement while it remains the main beneficiary of imperialism. Surplus value continues to flow into America despite the substantial section that lives in poverty and a sufficient number will continue to benefit from it. That is why we must look to Europe.
A substantial majority of the population will have to be in favour of socialism - it cannot be established on the basis of 51% support. The working class as a whole - white collar and blue collar - must support it. There has to be a genuine intellectual shift whereby most people conceive of the superiority of socialism. The main problem to overcome in this respect is clearly what existed in the Stalinist countries. With a clear majority in favour, it would be very hard for the capitalist class to wage a destructive war.
Nevertheless, once power has been taken, the following period is likely to be difficult. The shift from surplus value to planning by the associated producers cannot be done overnight. It will require a period in which victory is consolidated within a new system. And that gap is crucial. How will it be possible to leave behind the market and establish the institutions of socialism? There is a possibility in that period that things will slide back.
Avoiding that will depend on the party and the degree to which people are fully conscious of the difference between socialism and capitalism and are committed to the new society.