Communism Vol. 3, Part 9 - The problems of the period of transition (V)

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This is the concluding section of the series on "Problems of the period transition" published in Bilan between 1934 and 1937.This article appeared in Bilan n° 38 (December/January 1936/7). It is the continuation of a theoretical debate that the Italian left communists were extremely keen on developing, since they saw it as key to drawing the lessons from the defeat of the Russian revolution and thus for preparing the ground for a successful revolution in future. As we have mentioned in the introduction to the previous article in the series, the debate was very wide-ranging: the article that follows refers to the Trotskyist current, the Dutch internationalists, and even to disagreements between Mitchell (a member of the minority of the Ligue des Communistes Internationalistes which went on to form the Belgian Fraction of the Communist Left) and "the comrades of Bilan", who in his view did not place sufficient emphasis on the problem of the economic transformation following the proletarian seizure of power.

Whether or not this was the case, Mitchell's text poses a number of important questions about the economic policy of the proletariat, particularly with regard to overcoming the domination of production over consumption which is characteristic of the capitalist social relation, and to the intimately related problem of eliminating the law of value. We will not try to address these questions here, but will return to them in a subsequent article, which will go in more depth into the differences between the Italian and Dutch left communists, since to this day this debate remains a fundamental starting point for approaching the problem of how the working class can do away with capitalist accumulation and create a mode of production geared to the real needs of humanity.

Bilan no 38, December 1936 - January 1937

It remains for us to examine some of the norms of economic administration which, in our view, condition the relationship between the party and the masses, the basis for strengthening the dictatorship of the proletariat.

It's true that any system of production can only develop on the basis of enlarged reproduction, i.e. the accumulation of wealth. But a type of society is expressed less by its external forms and manifestations than by its social content, by the motivation for producing, i.e. by the class relations. In the evolution of history, the two processes, internal and external, are engaged in a constant contradiction. The development of capitalism has shown that the progress of the productive forces also engenders its opposite, the regression in the material conditions of the proletariat, a phenomenon which is expressed in the contradiction between use value and exchange value, between production and consumption. We have already noted that the capitalist system is not progressive by nature, but by necessity, spurred on by accumulation and competition. Marx underlined this contrast by saying that "the development of the productive forces only has any importance to the extent that it increases the surplus labour of the working class and not to the extent that it diminished the time necessary for material production" (Capital, Book X).

Beginning from an observation that is valid for all types of society, i.e. that surplus labour is inevitable, the problem is thus essentially concentrated on the mode of appropriation and of destruction of surplus labour, the mass of surplus labour and its duration, the relation between this mass and the total labour, and finally the rhythm of its accumulation. And immediately we can bring out another remark by Marx: "the real wealth of society and the possibility of the continual enlargement of the process of reproduction do not depend on the duration of surplus labour, but on its productivity and the more or less advantageous conditions in which this productivity is set to work" (Capital Book XIV). And he adds that the fundamental condition for the advent of the "realm of freedom" is the reduction in the working day.

These considerations enable us to grasp the tendencies that have to be imprinted in the evolution of a proletarian economy. It also allows us to reject the conception that sees the growth of the productive forces as the absolute proof of "socialism". This is a conception defended not only by Centrism but also by Trotsky: "liberalism pretends not to see the enormous progress of the Soviet regime, i.e. the concrete proofs of the incalculable advantages of socialism. The economists of the classes who have been dispossessed by it pass over in utter silence its rhythms of industrial development, unprecedented in world history" (Lutte de classes, June 1930).

We have already noted at the beginning of this chapter that this question of "rhythm" is at the forefront of the preoccupations of Trotsky and his Opposition, when in fact it does not at all correspond to the mission of the proletariat, which consists of modifying the motivation for production and not of accelerating its rhythm on the back of the impoverishment of the proletariat, exactly as under capitalism. The proletariat has all the less reason to be attached to the factor of "rhythm" given that this has to be seen on an international scale; the rhythm of production taking place in the USSR at present is as nothing compared to the contribution that the most advanced capitalist technology would bring to a world socialist economy.  

The reorientation of production towards consumption

When we pose the necessity to change the motive for production, gearing it towards the needs of consumption, as a primordial economic task, we are obviously talking about a process and not about an immediate result of the revolution. The very structure of the transitional economy, as we have already shown, cannot engender any such economic automatism, since the survival of "bourgeois right" means the subsistence of certain social relations of exploitation and labour power still to a certain extent retains the character of a commodity. The politics of the party, stimulated by the workers' struggles for immediate demands through their trade union organisations, must precisely tend to overcome the contradiction between labour and labour power, which has been developed to an extreme by capitalism. In other words, the capitalist use of labour power for the accumulation of capital must be replaced by the "proletarian" use of this labour power for purely social ends, which will facilitate the political and economic consolidation of the proletariat.

In the organisation of production, the proletarian state must be inspired above all by the needs of the masses, developing the branches of production which can respond to those needs, obviously in relation to the specific material conditions that prevail in the economy in question.

If the economic programme that has been elaborated remains in the framework of building the world socialist economy, and thus remains tied to the international class struggle, the proletarian state will be all the more able to confine its tasks to developing consumption. On the other hand, if this programme takes on an autonomous character which aims directly or indirectly at a form of "national socialism", a growing part of the surplus labour will be siphoned off into the construction of enterprises which in the future will have no justification in the international division of labour; at the same time these enterprises will inevitably be obliged to produce the means for the defence of the "socialist society" under construction. We will see that this is exactly what has happened in the Soviet Union.

It is certain that any improvement in the material situation of the proletarian masses depends in the first place on the productivity of labour, and this in turn depends on the technical level of the productive forces, and consequently on accumulation. In the second place it is linked to the output of labour that corresponds to the organisation and discipline within the labour process. Such are the fundamental elements that exist in the capitalist system as well, with the characteristic that the concrete results of accumulation are diverted from their human destination to the benefit of accumulation "in itself"; the productivity of labour does not translate into objects of consumption, but into capital.

It would be pointless to hide that the problem is far from being solved by proclaiming a policy aimed at enlarging consumption. But you have to begin by affirming it, because it is a major directive which is irreducibly opposed to the one that pushes first and foremost towards industrialisation and accelerated growth, inevitably sacrificing one or several generations of workers (Centrism[1] has declared this openly). A proletariat that has been "sacrificed", even for objectives that may seem to correspond to its historical interests (though the reality of Russia demonstrates that this is not at all the case) cannot constitute a real strength for the world proletariat. It can only be turned away from the latter under the hypnosis of national objectives.  

Continuing on the basis of the internationalist considerations we have developed, we thus have to affirm (unless we want to fall into abstraction) that the economic tasks of the proletariat, from the historical point of view, are primordial. The comrades of Bilan, animated by the correct concern to show the role of the proletarian state on the global terrain of the class struggle, have singularly restricted the importance of the question, by arguing that "the economic and military domains[2] can only be accessory questions, questions of detail, in the activity of the proletarian state, whereas they are essential for an exploiting class" (Bilan p 612). We repeat: the programme is determined and limited by the world policies of the proletarian state, but having established this, the proletariat can still not invest too much vigilance and energy into searching for a solution to the redoubtable problem of consumption, which still conditions its role as a "simple factor in the struggle of the world proletariat".

In our view the comrades of Bilan make another mistake[3] when they make no distinction between a form of administration that tends towards the "building of socialism" and a socialist administration of the transitional economy, declaring that "far from envisaging the possibility of a socialist administration of the economy in a given country and the international class struggle, we must begin by proclaiming that such a socialist administration is impossible". But what is a policy which aims at improving the living conditions of the workers if not a truly socialist one, seeking precisely to overturn the capitalist process of production. In the period of transition, it is perfectly possible to develop this new economic course towards a production based on need even while classes still exist.

But the fact remains that the motivation of production does not depend solely on adopting a correct policy, but above all on the proletariat's organisations exerting pressure on the economy and adapting the productive apparatus to its needs. Furthermore the amelioration of living conditions does not fall from the sky. It is a result of the development of productive capacity, whether that is the consequence of an increase in the mass of social labour, a greater output, through better organisation of the labour process, or through an increase in labour productivity thanks to the use of more powerful means of production.

As regards the mass of social labour - if we take the number of workers to be constant - we have said that it is given by the length and intensity of the use of labour power. Now, it is precisely these two factors, linked to the falling value of labour power as a result of its greater productivity, which determines the degree of exploitation imposed on the proletariat in the capitalist regime.

In the transitional phase, labour power still conserves its character as a commodity to the extent that wages are directly linked to its value. By contrast, it throws off this character to the extent that wages moves towards the equivalent of the total labour provided by the worker (once the surplus labour earmarked for social needs is deducted).

Unlike the policy of capitalism, a truly proletarian policy seeking to increase the productive forces can certainly not be based on surplus labour that derives from a greater length of intensity of social labour, which in its capitalist form constitutes absolute surplus value. On the contrary it has to be linked to the rhythms and duration of labour that are compatible with the existence of a real dictatorship of the proletariat; it must therefore preside over a more rational organisation of labour, over the elimination of any wasted social activity, even if in this domain the possibilities of increasing the mass of useful labour are quickly exhausted.

In these conditions, "proletarian" accumulation must find its essential source in labour that has become available through a higher level of technique.

This means that increasing the productivity of labour poses the following alternative: either the same mass of products (or use values) determines a reduction in the total volume of labour consumed, or, if the latter remains constant (or even if it diminishes depending on the level of technical progress), the quantity of products to be distributed will increase. But in both cases, a diminution in relative surplus labour (relative that is to the labour strictly necessary for the reproduction of labour power) can perfectly well be conjoined to greater consumption and thus to a real rise in wages and not fictional ones as in capitalism. It is in the new use of productivity that we will see the superiority of proletarian administration over capitalist administration, rather than competition over production costs, since on this basis the proletariat will inevitably be beaten, as we have already indicated.        

In effect it is the development of the productivity of labour which has precipitated capitalism into its crisis of decadence where, in a permanent manner (and no longer only through cyclical crises) the mass of use values is set against the mass of exchange values. The bourgeoisie is overcome by the immensity of its production and yet is pushed towards suicide by a huge mass of unsatisfied needs.

In the period of transition, the productivity of labour is of course still a long way from responding to the formula "to each according to his needs", but the possibility of using it fully for human ends overturns the givens of the social problem. Marx already noted that although it was well below its theoretical maximum, the increasing productivity of labour was basic to capitalism. But after the revolution it will be possible to reduce, then suppress, the capitalist antagonism between the product and its value, provided that the proletarian policy tends not to reduce wages to the value of labour power - a capitalist method which diverts technical progress to the benefit of capital - but to more and more elevate it above this value, on the basis of the development of productivity.   

It is obvious that a certain fraction of relative surplus labour cannot return directly to the worker, given the basic necessities of accumulation without which there can be no technical progress. And once again we are faced with the problem of the rhythm and rate of accumulation. And while it appears to be a question of measurement, any arbitrary element will be excluded on a principled basis that defines the economic tasks of the proletariat.

The determination of the rhythm of accumulation

Furthermore, it goes without saying that determining the rate of accumulation is based on economic centralism and not on the decision of the producers in their enterprises, as in the view of the Dutch internationalists (p 116 of their work). What's more they do not seem very convinced of the practical value of such a solution, since they bring it in immediately after affirming that "the rate of accumulation cannot be left to the free choice of the separate enterprises and it is the general congress of the enterprise councils that will decide on the obligatory norms", a formula which seems to be a kind of disguised centralism.

If we apply this to what has happened in Russia, we can see all the more clearly the fraud of Centrism, which claims that the suppression of the exploitation of the proletariat flows directly from the collectivisation of the means of production. We can see that the economic processes in the Soviet Union are those of the capitalist economy; even if they begin from a different basis they have ended up flowing towards the same outlet: imperialist war. Both have unfolded on the basis of a growing extraction of surplus value which is not returned to the working class. In the USSR, the labour process is capitalist in substance, if not in its social aspects and in the relations of the production. There is a drive to increase absolute surplus value, obtained through the intensification of labour, which has taken the form of "Stakhanovism". The material conditions of the workers are in no way linked to the technical improvements and the development of the productive forces, and in any case the relative participation of the proletariat in the patrimony of society is not increasing but diminishing. This is a phenomenon analogous to what the capitalist system has always engendered, even in its most prosperous periods. We lack elements to establish the extent to which there is a real growth of the absolute part that goes to the workers.

Moreover, the USSR practises a policy of wage reductions, which tends to substitute unqualified workers (coming from the immense reserves of the peasantry) for qualified workers, who are also the most class conscious.

To the question of how this enormous mass of surplus labour becomes congealed, we are given the facile answer that a major part goes to the bureaucratic "class". But such an explanation is disproved by the very existence of an enormous productive apparatus which remains collective property, and in comparison to which the beefsteaks, automobiles and villas of the bureaucrats cut a small figure! The official statistics and others, as well as the inquiries, confirm that there is an enormous and growing disproportion between the production of means of production (tools, buildings, public works, etc) and the objects of consumption destined for the "bureaucracy" and for the worker and peasant masses. If it was true that the bureaucracy is a class which disposes of the economy and appropriates surplus labour, how are we to explain how the latter is to a large part transformed into collective wealth and not private property? This paradox can only be explained by discovering why this wealth, while still remaining within the Soviet community, goes against it in the way that it is distributed. Let's note that today we are seeing a similar phenomenon within capitalist society, i.e. that the major part of the surplus value doesn't end up in the pockets of the capitalists but is accumulated in the form of goods which are only private property from the juridical point of view. The difference is that in the USSR this phenomenon doesn't take on a capitalist character properly speaking. The two evolutions also start from a different origin: in the USSR it doesn't arise out of an economic antagonism, but a political one; from a split between the Russian proletariat and the international proletariat; it develops under the banner of the defence of "national socialism" and of its integration into the mechanisms of world capitalism. By contrast, in the capitalist countries, the evolution is determined by the decadence of the bourgeois economy. But the two social developments end up in a common objective: the construction of war economies (the Soviet leaders boast of having set up the most formidable war machine in the world). This, it seems to us, is the answer to the "Russian enigma". This explains why the defeat of the October revolution does not come from an overturn in the relations between classes within Russia, but on the international arena.

Let's now examine the policies that are orienting the course of the class struggle towards imperialist war rather than the world revolution.

The exploitation of the Russian workers in the service of the war economy

For certain comrades, as we have already said, the Russian revolution was not proletarian and its reactionary evolution was determined in advance by the fact that it was carried out by a proletariat which was culturally backward (even though, at the level of class consciousness, it was in the vanguard of the world proletariat) and which was obliged to take over a backward country. We will limit ourselves to opposing such a fatalist attitude by referring to that of Marx with regard to the Commune: although the latter expressed a historical immaturity of the proletariat vis-à-vis the taking of power, Marx nevertheless saw its immense importance and drew fertile lessons from it, the precise lessons that would inspire the Bolsheviks in 1917. While acting in the same way towards the Russian revolution, we don't deduce from this that future revolutions will be photographic reproductions of October. What we do say is that the fundamental traits of the October revolution will indeed be found in these revolutions, recalling what Lenin meant when he talked about the "international value of the Russian revolution" (Left Wing Communism). A marxist does not "repeat" history but interprets it to forge the theoretical weapons of the proletariat, to help it avoid errors and finally triumph over the bourgeoisie. To search for the conditions that would have placed the Russian proletariat in a position to have won a definitive victory is to give the marxist method of investigation all its value by adding a new stone to the construction of historical materialism.

While it's true that the retreat of the first revolutionary wave led to the temporary isolation of the Russian proletariat, we think that it's not there that we have to look for the decisive cause of the evolution of the USSR, but in the interpretation which was subsequently made of the events, and in the false perspectives about the evolution of capitalism that derived from this. The conception of the "stabilisation" of capitalism naturally engendered the theory of "socialism in one country" and consequently the "defensive" policy of the USSR.

The international proletariat became the instrument of the proletarian state, a force to defend it against imperialist aggression, while the world revolution faded into the background as a concrete objective. If Bukharin still talked about the latter in 1925 it was because "for us the world revolution has this importance, that it is the only guarantee against interventions, against a new war"

He thus elaborated the theory of the "guarantee against interventions", which the CI took up as it became the expression of the particular interests of the USSR and no longer the interests of the world revolution. The "guarantee" was no longer sought in linking up with the international proletariat but in modifying the character and content of the relations between the proletarian state and the capitalist states. The world proletariat remained only as a point of support for the defence of "national socialism".

As regards the NEP, basing ourselves on what we said previously, we don't think that it offered a specific terrain for an inevitable degeneration, although it did give rise to a very considerable recrudescence of capitalist ambitions among the peasantry in particular; and, under Centrism, the alliance with the poor peasants (the smytchka), which Lenin saw as a means to strengthen the proletarian dictatorship, became a goal, at the same time as a union was forged with the middle peasants and the kulaks.

Contrary to the opinion of the comrades of Bilan, we also don't think that we can infer from Lenin's declarations about the NEP that he would have advocated a policy of separating the economic evolution of Russia from the course of the world revolution.

On the contrary, for Lenin, the NEP was a "holding" policy, a policy of respite, until the revival of the international class struggle: "when we adopt a policy that has to last for many years, we don't forget for a moment that the international revolution, the rapidity and the conditions of its development, can change everything". For him it was a question of re-establishing a certain economic balance, making concessions to capitalist forces without which the dictatorship would have collapsed, but not of "calling for class collaboration with the enemy with the aim of building the foundations of the socialist economy".

By the same token it is incorrect to say that Lenin was a partisan of "socialism in one country" on the basis of one apocryphal document.

On the other hand, the "Trotskyist" Russian opposition is helping to accredit the opinion that the key struggle is the one between the capitalist states and the Soviet state. In 1927 it saw an imperialist war against the USSR as inevitable, at the very time that the CI was tearing workers away from class positions and hurling them onto the front of the defence of the USSR, simultaneously presiding over the crushing of the Chinese revolution. On this basis the Opposition is getting involved in the preparations of the USSR - the "bastion of socialism" - for war. This position means theoretically sanctioning the exploitation of the Russian workers in order to build a war economy (the Five Year Plans). The Opposition is even going so far as to agitate the myth of the unity of the party "at any cost" as a precondition for the military victory of the USSR. At the same time it makes equivocal statements about the "the struggle for peace" (!) by considering that the USSR should try to "put off the war", even to pay a ransom while "preparing the economy, the budget etc to the maximum with a view to war", and considers that the question of industrialisation is decisive for ensuring the technical resources needed for defence (Platform).

Subsequently Trotsky, in his Permanent Revolution, took up this thesis of industrialisation at the quickest possible pace as a guarantee of "external threats" while also serving to raise the living standards of the masses. We know that the "external threat" comes not from a "crusade" against the USSR, but through its integration into the front of world imperialism; and at the same time that industrialisation in no way implies a better existence for the proletariat, but the most frenzied exploitation with the aim of preparing for imperialist war.

In the next revolution, the proletariat will win, independently of its cultural immaturity and its economic deficiencies, provided that it bases itself not on the "building of socialism" but on the extension of the international civil war.


(republished August 2008)

[1]. It should be noted that at the time Bilan published this contribution the whole of the Italian left still qualified the Stalinist policy that guided the Communist International as "Centrism". It was only later, notably by Internationalisme after the war, that the current coming from the Italian left clearly qualified Stalinism as counter revolutionary. We refer the reader to the critical presentation of these texts published in International Review nº 132.


[2]. We agree with the comrades of Bilan that the defence of the proletarian state cannot be posed on the military terrain but on the political level, through its links with the international proletariat


[3]. Which may be just a question of formulation, but it is still important to raise it since it is connected to their tendency to minimise economic problems.