The crisis of Russia and the Eastern countries (part 2)
Unlike the Trotskyists who drape a golden chasuble over the naked body of the capitalist economy in the East, militants of the communist left like Mattick or the GLAT1 recognize the reactionary character of state capitalism. They don’t give it a ‘progressive’ label by invoking the theory of the ‘third system’, like Socialisme ou Barbarie and its present-day offshoots in Solidarity. For example, we fully endorse the article which appeared in Lutte de Classe, January 1977, when it affirms clearly that “the contradictions which hurl capitalism into crisis are not the privilege of either the advanced or the underdeveloped countries of this planet. They are inherent in state capitalism, as the example of the USSR shows ...”. This position is certainly clearer than the gratuitous assertion -- completely in contradiction with the reality of Russian state capitalism -- made by Paul Mattick when he claims that “state capitalism is not ‘regulated’ by competition and crises”. By failing to see the destructive role of competition and crises in capitalism in general, and especially by denying their effects in the East, Mattick can only end up by rejecting the objective possibility of a proletarian revolution. This is why, at a time when the bourgeoisie all over the world is taking more and more state capitalist measures, nationalizing key sectors of the economy, it is important to define the nature of state capitalism, in order to show that it is merely a palliative and not a ‘solution’ to the general crisis of capitalism.1. What is state capitalism?
The fact that state capitalism has most often been associated with Russia and its bloc, or with China, has given rise to the idea that the more or less complete takeover of the economy by the state is a peculiarity of these countries. The apparent absence over a long period of the classical manifestations of the crisis -- unemployment, overproduction, brutal falls in production -- seemed to confirm this false idea of a ‘world on its own’.
In fact, far from being a historical enigma, this phenomenon is part of the ‘natural’ evolution of capitalism2; ‘natural’ in the sense that this mode of production has been obliged to dominate all social relations in an increasingly violent and totalitarian way. In the nineteenth century certain capitalist nations which, for historical and geographical reasons, had been accumulating capital over a long period, were able to follow the ‘natural’ laws of the capitalist economy. But towards the end of the century, the growing number of capitalist nations meant that the state had to interfere more and more with these ‘natural’ laws. When Engels wrote Anti-Duhring he was already aware that liberalism and the struggle against the Moloch-state so dear to the liberal theoreticians of the nineteenth century had had their day:
“The modern state, no matter what its form, is essentially a capitalist machine, the state of the capitalists, the ideal personification of the total national capital. The more it proceeds to the taking over of productive forces, the more does it actually become the national capitalist, the more citizens does it exploit. The workers remain wage-workers -- proletarians. The capitalist relation is not done away with. It is rather brought to a head.”
This analysis of Engels, which the Trotskyists are so careful to ‘ignore’, is a posthumous blow against their theory of the ‘workers’ state’. It is an unequivocal condemnation of all their ‘transitional programs’ and plans for the nationalization of private capital. The state is the machine of exploitation par excellence: when our latter-day Duhrings, the leftists, try to outbid the traditional left in their calls for nationalizations, they are simply calling for the strengthening of this capitalist machine.
The Bordigists unconsciously participate in this when they see the states engendered by national liberation struggles as ‘progressive’ factors, products of the bourgeois revolution. They don’t understand that the bourgeois states which came out of the bourgeois revolutions of the past only represented historical progress to the extent that they allowed for the free development of the productive forces, that they stood aside and enabled new historical forces to grow. But the increasing hypertrophy of the capitalist state from the end of last century on, far from expressing a new qualitative expansion of the productive forces, reflected the growing compression of the productive forces within the framework of the nation state. Two world wars have proved that the swelling of the state is directly proportional to the destruction of the accumulated productive forces. The fact that these new ‘liberated’ states have to take over the whole of social life is proof of the weakness of the economies in these areas; and this is why these states have to subject their proletariats to the most ferocious exploitation and repression.a. Weakness of Russian state capitalism
It would be quite wrong to limit the phenomenon of state capitalism to the so-called ‘socialist’ states. From Internationalisme3 to the ICC, revolutionaries have pointed out that we are dealing with a general phenomenon all over the world -- a tendency -- but one which can never be fully realized because of the impossibility of absorbing all the remaining non-capitalist sectors. This is why it’s wrong to talk about a fully-formed or economically ‘pure’ state capitalism in the East, which is burdened with a feebly centralized artisanal and agricultural sector (kolkhozes, small plots of land, etc), or to say that the West has a system of ‘private capitalism’ because of the relative weakness of the state sector. The tendency towards state capitalism is not a question of percentages, as though a country becomes ‘state capitalist’ when it goes beyond a fateful 50 per cent mark of state control. When Mattick, in Marx and Keynes, defines the American economy as a ‘mixed economy’ diametrically opposed to the ‘system’ of Russian state capitalism, he loses sight of the existence of this general tendency.
Mattick and others are taken in by appearances and define capitalism in terms of two antagonistic forces (‘private’ and ‘state’ capitalism) because they only see the juridical forms which capital takes on. State capitalism is fundamentally the result of the growing fusion between capital and the state. This fusion is not the same as the juridical form it takes on and which is often the mystified form of its real content. It is the degree of concentration and centralization of capital at the level of the state which determines the reality of this fusion. The classical capitalism of the nineteenth century tended to become more and more concentrated internationally, beyond its original frontiers. But while capitalism is a world system it can only develop in the framework of competition between nation states. Thus, when imperialism began to develop at the end of the nineteenth century, the tendency towards international concentration was blocked: the concentration and centralization of capital gravitated more and more around the nation state, the only force capable of defending capital in an economic war of one against the rest. The tendency towards state capitalism expressed itself most clearly in World War I, among all the belligerents, weak and small. Although still relatively weak up until the crisis of 1929, the tendency was particularly striking in the great imperialist states, where capital had already reached a high level of concentration and centralization, for example, the US and Germany during World War I -- the Germany which Lenin saw as a model of state capitalism for Russia. The ability of US capital to transform its whole productive apparatus into a war economy during World War II shows that the strength of state capitalism is itself determined by the strength of the economy which underlies it.
This does not mean that state capitalism is a higher form of capitalism, “a rationalization of the process of production” (Bukharin, Economics of the Transition Period). The permanent crisis since 1914 has shown that you can’t ‘rationalize’ a system whose survival through the cycle of crisis-war-reconstruction shows that it has become totally irrational. The ‘rationalization’ of capitalism is a contradiction in terms. Similarly the planning of the economy under state capitalism can only be the planning of the anarchy which has characterized capitalism from the beginning.
The very strength of American state capitalism resides in its capacity to push the crisis out onto the world market through its state organs (the International Monetary Fund, International Bank of Reconstruction and Development etc).
What about Russian state capitalism? How does it differ from American state capitalism? As we have seen the existence of private capitalism is not in contradiction with the existence of state capital, and vice versa. Only the Stalinists and Trotskyists could see the American state as a ‘prisoner of the monopolies’, weakened by their occult powers. These apologists for the dictatorship of the Russian state obviously cannot understand that the political strength of a state is all the greater when it is based on a powerful economic substructure. As has been shown by Marxists in the past, beginning with Engels, the development of joint stock companies, then cartels and trusts, do not lead to the weakening of the state; on the contrary it ends up with a state monopoly excluding all the others and directly subordinating them to its control.
While this process took place in a largely gradual manner with the great capitalist powers (Germany, USA, Japan), it was different in Russia and the Eastern countries. Here the process was realized through the violent dispossession of most of the private owners, the state becoming the exclusive owner of the means of production. The state had to intervene despotically in the economy in order to make up for the congenital weakness of a bourgeoisie incapable of carrying through the concentration and centralization of capital. Thus the state swelled to huge proportions on a weak economic foundation, absorbing civil society without really dominating it.
Although in some ways state capitalism has reached its most complete form in Russia, with this total absorption of civil society, this fusion of economics and politics, it has only been achieved at the price of a growing anarchy in the relations of production, which are only formally dominated by the state. The gigantic waste involved in an anarchic system of planning, which is incapable of really centralizing and concentrating the capital accumulated, shows that this fusion between capital and the state has been realized more at the legal level than in reality.2. The myth of ‘scientific’ planning
The Eastern countries are an illustration of the growing irrationality of the capitalist system as a whole. Since the 1930s, the bourgeoisie has believed that it would be possible to develop production and consumption in a regular and harmonious manner by ‘deciding’ production quotas in advance. Precise statistical methods and specialized planning bureaux would make it possible to foresee the future and thus avoid sudden catastrophes like 1929. All the capitalist schemes from the De Man Plan to the Stalinist Plans nourished this illusion. The war was to destroy this illusion; after 1938 all the capitalist countries from the USA to the USSR which had adopted these planning methods fell back into the crisis.
The post-war period gave new life to this dream of discovering the Anti-Crisis Philosopher’s Stone, in the form of ‘econometric’ theories in the West and ‘scientific calculation’ in the East; but this was because the expansion of reconstructed markets was effectively ‘planning’ the economy. Today once again it is the crisis which is planning the economy. We saw this in the previous article when we showed that the continuing fall in production indices reflects the growing contradictions of accumulation. The fall in the rate of growth to the 4 per cent envisaged in the annual Plans of the COMECON countries up to 1980 shows that such Plans are merely passive reflections of the real situation. The Russian planners can’t be conscious agents of production; they don’t determine production, they simply put forward indices decided upon by tendencies outside their control.
What is this ‘planning’ if it doesn’t have any real basis? The title of a pamphlet published by the Novosti press agency, Major Options for the National Economy of the USSR for 1976-80 gives us an answer. Planning under state capitalism doesn’t mean attaining definite objectives, but putting forward options: This means that the planning is aimed not at achieving a splendid mathematical growth but at regulating the existing proportions between the producer goods sector and the consumer goods sector; this has to take into account a. the class struggle, which makes it difficult to cut consumer goods production too brutally; b. the need to constantly reinforce the armaments sector and thus Department I. What state capitalism can’t achieve through expansion it tries to provide through fluctuations in the proportions between the two sectors, through giving priority as to how much capital should be invested in this or that sector, this or that branch of industry.
This in no way means that capitalist anarchy has been suppressed in these ‘priority’ sectors. On the contrary, the realization of the Plan’s objectives in a given branch is done at the expense of a permanent wastage of raw materials. The commodities produced at a very low value are sometimes so poor in quality that they are unusable: “In other countries (than the USSR) production is usually extended over the whole month, but here it can only begin on the fifteenth or twentieth day of the month, when all the material has arrived. The factories then have to meet 80 per cent of the demands of the Plan (the quotas) during the last ten or fifteen days. In such conditions, no one worries about quality. Only quantity counts.”
From the standpoint of capitalist laws, the Russian economy is a perfect example of irrationality in the division of labor, productivity and profitability. This situation is reflected in the ritualistic declarations of the leaders of Russian capital:
“In the existing enterprises production must be increased, without augmenting the workforce and even by reducing it. But it is no less important to improve the organization of labor, to eliminate time-wasting and raise the level of discipline in production.” (Kosygin, at the Twenty-Fifth Congress of the CPSU)
It takes someone like Ernest Mandel to see some sort of ‘rationality’ in the permanent anarchy of the Eastern European economies. According to him, in contrast to western planning, “Soviet planning is real planning” (Marxist Economic Theory). For the Trotskyists any lie is permissible in the defense of the ‘socialist’ character of the ‘workers’ states’.3. Weakness of the state capitalist economy in the East
In Eastern Europe, and even more in Russia, the only sector of the economy which has any real vitality is the armaments industry. “It is easier to produce an atomic bomb or isotopes than transistors or biochemical medicines” as a Russian physicist has said (quoted in The Russians by Hedrick Smith). It is the only sector where production is really controlled. It has better materials, higher productivity and higher wages to stimulate the effort to achieve higher quality. It is the only sector where the concentration and centralization of capital by the state is a reality, because this is a vital question for the very existence of the Russian imperialist bloc4.
This strength of the Russian war economy, which proved itself in World War II against German capital, is not a reflection of the strength of the economy as a whole; it is inversely proportional to it.
But for the Russian war economy to be really effective and capable of confronting the US war economy, it’s not enough for armaments production in the Russian bloc to equal that of the other bloc. The fact that the Russian armaments sector represents 20 per cent (officially) of the GNP of the USSR, as against 10 per cent in the USA, clearly shows the weakness of the Soviet economy.
Despite a commonly held conception that was particularly in vogue at the time of the ‘Liberman reforms’, state capitalism does not suffer from a hyper-centralization and hyper-concentration of the units of production. Exactly the opposite is the case. The growing hypertrophy of planning bureaux in the COMECON countries is precisely the result of the weakness of the economic substructure; it does not signify a movement towards a greater centralization of capital, since this is fundamentally “the concentration of already-formed capitals, the transcendence of their individual autonomy, the expropriation of capitalist by capitalist, the transformation of many small capitals into a few capitals which are already existing and functioning” (Marx, Capital, Volume I). The Russian statistics show that state capitalism often exists on the purely theoretical level (and this also applies to the other countries of the bloc, except East Germany which inherited the high level of concentration of the pre-war German economy): on 1 January 1974, Russian industry included 48,578 state-owned autonomous enterprises, each one functioning as a centre of accumulation, with its own accounting system and financial autonomy. The part played by large-scale enterprises remains small except for pilot projects in petrochemicals and electro-metallurgy (Elektro-sila in Moscow has 20,000 workers). In 1973, 31% of industrial production was carried out by 1.4% of the enterprises (660); to obtain the same percentage in the USA, only fifty enterprises are needed (Fortune, May 1974). Despite the setting up of the famous ‘industrial unions’ which regroup small enterprises in larger units, in a given branch of industry in 1974-5 fifty American enterprises could, according to Fortune, produce as much as 5000 Russian enterprises!
But more important than the level of technical concentration, which is a product of, rather than a condition for, enlarged accumulation, is the fact that the state capitalist countries of the Eastern bloc suffer from a purely formal domination over labor. Apart from in the pilot projects, what we see is the extensive utilization of labor power based on the size of the workforce used (or rather, wasted in the general anarchy) rather than an intensive development of the productivity of labor, which has been the basis of modern capitalism since the end of the last century. While the exploitation of the proletariat is just as ferocious in the East as it is in the West, it doesn’t take the same form. What capitalist exploitation gains in the USSR and COMECON by the lengthening of the working day (up to ten to twelve hours), by the quantitative mobilization of the workforce, it loses in intensity, and thus, from the capitalist point of view, in efficiency5. Last century it was the orientation of capital towards the relative extraction of surplus value which allowed capitalism to achieve a more and more totalitarian domination over living labor. The dictatorship of capital over labor, which is achieved at the political level in Russia through the terrorist violence of the state, is only formally achieved at the economic level. This is why the Russian capitalists are forever warning against the perils of lax attitudes at work. As Marx said last century, “while the production of absolute surplus value corresponds to the formal domination of labor by capital, the production of relative surplus value corresponds to the real domination of capital” (Marx, Capital).
Reflecting the general crisis of capitalism since 1914, Russian state capitalism has to confront the open crisis in a weak, anachronistic condition, which accentuates the economic gap between the two competing blocs. Thus in 1973 output per inhabitant in the USSR was almost that of an underdeveloped country -- Russia was 25th in the world ranks in this field: Russia only participates in 4 per cent of international trade, about the same as Holland. Although its position on the world market is a question of life or death for each national capital in the face of the crisis, for the last twenty years COMECON has only participated in 10 per cent of world trade, less than West Germany. If we also note that the agricultural sector still mobilizes between 25 and 40 per cent of the active population in the COMECON countries, we can have some idea of just how bankrupt state capitalism is in the East. The general bankruptcy of capitalism today is also and above all the bankruptcy of state capitalism, which is a hopeless response to the general decadence of the system, and which takes the irrationality of capital as the very basis of its existence.
4. The end of illusions
a. The mercantile illusion
At the end of the 1960s, the Russian bloc tried to ‘resolve’ its crisis by modernizing its productive apparatus and thus increasing its exports on the world market, given the limitations of the COMECON market. The Liberman reforms did not stop the continual fall in the rate of profit in the enterprises; this went from “a monetary accumulation of 45.1% in 1960 to 31.7% in 1973”, the fall in the rate of profit haling recovered somewhat in 1971 (V. Vassilev, Rationality of the Soviet Economic System).
At the price of a considerable indebtedness, the countries of COMECON tried to import technology and invited the industrialized countries to install ultra-modern factories. The Eastern countries had the illusion that if you modernized your capital you could transform this ‘thrust to the East’ by western capital into a ‘thrust to the West’ by the commodities of COMECON. Since 1975 the capitalist world has had to abandon this idea: not only has the West reduced its capital exports to the East for economic and strategic reasons (the growing insolvency of COMECON, resumption of the cold war); the East has also had to resign itself to a diminution of its exports to western markets. Despite resorting to the palliative of dumping, the contraction of international trade is an irreversible phenomenon which can’t be overcome by importing technology. Even the countries whose exports are orientated towards the West have had to modify their export policies and reorientate their trade towards the East.
Contrary to what the GLAT say (Lutte de Classe, February 1977) the present crisis does express itself in the East as the product of the saturation of markets, even if the effects of this are concretized in the tendential fall in the rate of profit. One must deny reality to say that “the USSR is the experimental proof of the absurdity (!) of all theories which seek the origins of the crisis of capitalism in the insufficiency of demand or any other form (?) of lack of outlets”. State capitalism in the Russian bloc is not in crisis because it isn’t producing enough accumulated capital: state capitalism is a gigantic accumulation of constant and variable capital devalorized not only by the endemic anarchy of production but by the weakness of the markets through which it could be realized. Like the GLAT, state capitalism had the illusion that it was stagnating because it wasn’t producing enough capital6. But the underproduction of capital, ie of commodities, is, on a global scale, simply the corollary to overproduction. Underproduction in a given national capital is the result of the tendency towards overproduction of the more developed capitals in the face of the contraction of the market. Polish capital, for example, produces too many ships in relation to the world market’s capacity to absorb them; it thus finds itself obliged to underproduce vis-a-vis its own productive capacities. This is the whole point of planning in the countries of the East: capital attempts to avoid the brutal collapse threatened by the contraction of the world market by adapting its productive apparatus to the rhythm of this collapse. Only socialism will be able to put an end to this infernal dialectic of over-and-underproduction, since it is the unlimited growth of the needs of humanity and thus of the production of use values aimed at meeting these needs. Only socialism will end the mercantile illusion which is plunging humanity into barbarism.
b. The reinforcement of the Russian bloc
While the brutal aggravation of the crisis has accelerated the tendency towards autarky in the COMECON countries, it has also led to an increase in trade inside COMECON. What the COMECON planners refer to politely as the ‘international socialist division of labor’ and the ‘development of specialization’ is in reality the economic, political and strategic reinforcement of the domination of Russian capital. In order to develop and strengthen its war economy against the US bloc, Russia has adopted symmetrical measures:
“In July 1975, in Bucharest, the COMECON countries decided (sic) that nine billion roubles would be jointly spent between 1976 and 1980 in order to help realize Soviet resources in raw materials.” (L’Integration Economique a 1’Est’, Notes et Etudes Documentaires, 8 March 1976)
To give an idea of how Russia is exploiting its ‘fraternal countries’, such a measure would mean that Czechoslovakia would have to devote at least 4 per cent of its overall investments to it. These measures, ratified by the different CPs, as at the Ninth Congress of the East German Party, show clearly that Russia is going to impose rationing on its satellites. Although COMECON countries like Poland and Hungary managed to diversify their production and trade in the 1960s, they now find themselves more and more obliged to accept the stranglehold of Russian capital on all branches of their industry (multinational chemicals in Poland, etc); thanks to its monopoly of raw materials, Russia has a great potential for blackmail. For such purposes Russia has its own IMF, the International Investment Bank7 which, through the medium of the transferable rouble, allows it to be the real paymaster; while at the same time the increasing price of Russian energy, though less expensive than in the West, has considerably augmented the satellites’ debts to the USSR.
So, what Russian state capitalism has been unable to achieve through detente with the West and the modernization of its productive apparatus, it is now trying to achieve by force, by pushing the weight of the crisis onto its allies. Not only are the Dubcek economic policies of ‘facing both ways’ definitely out, with the return to the fold of those unruly children, Poland and Hungary; also finished is the whole illusion of detente and ‘peaceful coexistence’ between the blocs, as theorized some time ago by Kruschchev.c. The end of ‘Goulash Socialism’ illusion
The resurgence of the class struggle in the 1970s in Poland, the fear that the workers’ insurrection in the Baltic would contaminate the other COMECON countries, pushed the bourgeoisie of these countries to augment the consumer goods sector, albeit at the price of plunging the economy into debt by importing the necessary goods or blocking prices of basic consumer products. The bourgeoisie in all these countries tried to convince the workers that the scarcity of the 1950s was now just a memory and that the alliance between imported coca-cola (canned in Russia) and the local goulash would lead to a real rise in living standards.
The crisis, the strengthening of the Russian bloc by pushing the crisis onto all the COMECON countries, the growing importance given to investments in heavy industry, have modified this situation. Despite the bourgeoisie’s justifiable fear of fresh workers’ riots, all the Plans up until 1980 envisage a clear reduction in real wages:
PERCENTAGE ANNUAL GROWTH OF WAGES
SOURCE: ‘L’ Europe de L’Est en 1976’, Notes et Etudes Documentaires, 9 Septemb
We know that after the riots at Radom and Ursus, Poland had to revise its policy of attacking the living standards of the workers, cancelling the rises in food prices Nevertheless the last two years have seen capital continuing to attack the class through repeated price rises. The weight of these sacrifices is going to get heavier and heavier, particularly in the ‘People’s Democracies’, to which Russia has begun to export the effects of the crisis. This doesn’t mean that Russia will give up directly attacking ‘its’ working class. On the contrary: the prodigious development of military expenditure in Russia in order to cope with the strategic advance of the US bloc; the emergence of an aggressive global policy in the Middle East and Africa in particular; the necessity to pay a high price to keep its more distant allies in its own camp (Cuba, Vietnam) -- all of this is weighing more and more heavily not simply on the economies of the bloc but on the shoulders of all the workers of COMECON. The theory of a ‘labour aristocracy’ in the big imperialist countries, bought off by their own bourgeoisie, is as far as the Russian proletariat is concerned a sinister joke which only Third Worldist fanatics and avid defenders of ‘small nations’ could take seriously.d. The explosive contradictions of the Russian bloc
The proletariat of the Eastern countries is perhaps even less willing than any other section of the class to be mobilized for imperialist war, to be sacrificed on the altar of ‘socialism’. It is a proletariat which has experienced the ferocious reactions of a bourgeoisie which has shown itself to be quite pitiless in the defense of its system (Hungary 1956, Poland 1970); while today, capital’s attacks on its living standards are pushing it below the minimum guaranteed wage which state capitalism has maintained up till now. Even if state capitalism is now trying to build up food stocks by investing massively in agriculture, these are not to be understood as preventative measures against famine but as the establishment of reserve stocks to nourish the armies which one day will be thrown into an imperialist war.
At the same time, in order to face up to the US bloc on the world market, the Russian bloc must increase its productive capacities, which means increasing the rate of exploitation of the workers. In 1976 however “there was a slowing down of the rate of growth in productivity, imports and investments” (NED, 9 Sept 1977). This means that capital in the COMECON countries is unable to modernize its productive apparatus. The period of importing western technology is over. In order to make its existing capital more profitable -- particularly because of the weakness of its fixed capital -- it must not only reduce the real wages of the workers, but also reduce the number of workers, which means opening the door to unemployment. This is at least a temptation for capitalism in the eastern countries; but giving in to this temptation also means risking further class upsurges, upsetting the fragile stability which these countries have maintained since the war through policies of full employment.
The combativity of the proletariat in these countries remains intact. The class movements which have appeared in Eastern Europe, albeit in a dispersed fashion, from Radom to Karl-Marx-Stadt and the Romanian coal basin show up the fragility of the ideological preparations for imperialist war in the Russian bloc. Carter’s campaign for ‘human rights’ is much more pernicious and effective than the idea of the ‘socialist fatherland’.
Finally, the strengthening of Russia’s economic grip on the COMECON countries has only formally strengthened the cohesion of COMECON. The dues Russian imperialism demands of its allies are too heavy to pay, the economic and political advantages of being in the bloc are too few compared to the benefits offered by the US bloc. The stability and solidity of the bloc are far from guaranteed. As can be seen by the echo Carter’s campaign has had in the ‘People’s Democracies’ (Charter ‘77, internal oppositions in East Germany and the Party itself, ‘democratic’ opposition in Poland), the strengthening of the bloc has been accompanied by the accentuation of centrifugal tendencies which can weaken the cohesion of the bloc.
As the contradictions of the Russian bloc accumulate, it is up to revolutionaries to evaluate the balance of forces between the classes, ie the objective conditions for the outbreak of the world revolution in Eastern Europe.5. Political crisis and class struggle
The development of state capitalism in Eastern Europe has simplified the political framework within which the life of capital takes place. The victory of the USSR in this part of Europe has led to profound political changes: the establishment of the one-party system, the elimination of the pro-American social democratic peasant and liberal parties. Although officially other parties continue to exist alongside the state party, such as the Polish peasant party or the christian-democratic and liberal-democratic parties in East Germany, they are simply appendages to the party-state. Their anachronistic existence is the reflection not of a western-type pluralism, but of the subsistence of a large peasant or religious sector, which is important without constituting a force for opposition. The same phenomenon exists in the USSR where the Russian Stalinist party co-exists with other ‘Communist’ or ‘national’ parties who are supposed to represent not particular social groups but ‘nationalities’ (Ukrainians, Georgians, Armenians etc).
Despite these particularities, the violent establishment of state capitalism in these countries has led to the one party system. What could not be truly realized on the economic level -- the fusion of capital with the state -- has taken place on the political level. The existence of such parties is the purest expression of the decadence of the democratic form of the bourgeois dictatorship. Last century the subsistence of classes left over from older modes of production (nobility, peasantry) obliged the bourgeoisie to coexist with and accommodate itself to these archaic forces within the state. The bourgeoisie’s growing domination over the state finally eliminated such forces. In the period of capital’s decline, the instability of the system’s economic base has compelled the bourgeoisie to do away with the ‘liberties’ which mask its class dictatorship; in this epoch the bourgeoisie has tended to fuse completely with the state, the last bastion of its power. This tendency towards the disappearance of the formal content of democracy has gone furthest where the capitalist class is weakest, where its economic base is most feeble: in the third world and Eastern Europe. The strengthening of state totalitarianism in the West shows that this tendency is not only universal but irreversible. Only the relative strength of capital in the more developed countries has allowed it to tolerate the existence of parties representing the backward strata of capital. Democracy has ceased to be a functional mechanism for capital; its only role is one of mystification (democratic ‘freedoms’, ‘free’ elections, etc). The weakness of capitalism in the East, the weakness of a bourgeois class which is constituted in the state in an inorganic manner, deprives it of the luxury of the democratic opium for calming the suffering of a poverty-stricken working class. The capitalist class has to fuse directly into the state with the police and army, via the single party which functions as the general staff of capital.
It would be a major error to believe that the concentration of the capitalist class into one unit, its total fusion with the state, have eliminated the internal contradictions of the bourgeois class and done away with political crises within its ranks. The bloody purges inside the ruling Stalinist parties over the last forty years show that state capitalism does not bring with it a consolidation of the ruling class. Purges, coups d’Etat, settlings of accounts remain the back-cloth to the political life of the bourgeoisie. But the divergent interests within the ruling class are no longer expressed through a multiplicity of parties; they appear within the single party itself, and this has the effect of increasing the instability and fragility of the state. Hungary 1956 was the most striking example of this -- the party was split in two between the Rakosi faction and the Nagy faction. State capitalism, a response to the permanent economic crisis of the system, also involves a permanent political crisis of the bourgeoisie, which is imprisoned within the totalitarian state and often finds itself strangled by the very single party system which it set up to preserve its rule.
The open crisis of capitalism today has simply made this reality stand out more starkly: thus we have seen the elimination of Kruschchev, the Prague spring, the replacement of Gomulka by Gierek. The political crisis is tending more and more to come out into broad daylight; it is moving away from shady duels between rival cliques and is now manifesting itself openly in public. This simply reflects the growing accumulation of contradictions within each national capital in the bloc. The austerity imposed by Russian capital not only threatens social cohesion in the ‘People’s Democracies’: it is far too heavy a burden for the congenitally feeble bourgeoisies of these countries. But, unable to find the outlets they need in the West, they have no option except to return to the fold of COMECON.
Over the last few years, especially since Carter’s campaign about the ‘rights of man’ and after the hopes raised in certain intellectual circles by the Helsinki agreements, we have seen in the USSR, Poland, East Germany and Czechoslovakia the appearance of opposition groups, both inside and outside the ruling parties, calling for ‘democratic freedoms’ and political pluralism. In the USSR this opposition is limited essentially to intellectual circles which call for greater freedom of thought in their work, and to the nationalist opposition against ‘Great Russia’ in the non-Russian republics. In the ‘People’s Democracies’ these two forms tend to be combined: intellectuals calling for ‘freedom’ are more or less openly supported by factions of the bourgeoisie hoping to distance themselves economically and politically from the ruinous ‘friendship’ of the Russian bear.
In a country like Poland the resurgence of class struggle, the impossibility of crushing the fierce resistance of the Polish proletariat through the totalitarian power of the state, has given rise to an army of opposition groups or circles which claim to ‘defend the workers’, like Kuron’s Workers’ Defense Committee. These are the elements who bring tears of joy to the eyes of the Trotskyists and other advocates of the ‘re-establishment of workers’ democracy’. These good pilgrims of ‘democratic freedom’ even go so far as to talk about “the extraordinarily subversive character of the call for democratic freedoms in Eastern Europe” (Stalinisme et Libertes en Europe de 1’Est, Cahier Rouge, no. 2, Serie Pays de 1’Est) . Subversive? Let’s hear from one of the representatives of this ‘democratic’ current, Lipinski:
“A political system that lacks any mechanism for continuous adaptation, a rigid system that destroys criticism, which does not respect the fundamental freedom to criticize, such a system is not effective.” (Interview with Nouvel Observateur, 15 May 1976)
Maintaining the cohesion, the ‘effectiveness’ of the capitalist system -- this is the ‘subversive’ program the Trotskyists have once again discovered in a bourgeois current.
It is difficult to know what echo such groups have among the workers: although they have none at all in the USSR where the activity of the intelligentsia only meets with distrust, in Poland they seem to have had a greater impact on the workers’ milieu8. However, such attempts to set up an opposition do not mean that ‘democratic’ regimes are on the agenda in Eastern Europe. The crisis of capitalism can only accentuate the totalitarian character of the state; strengthen its stranglehold on the whole of society. Capital’s tightening grip on the social organism can only be relaxed momentarily when social conflict breaks out: such a relaxation can only be temporary and is in fact a preparation for further repressive measures to break the resistance of the proletariat. The ‘democratic’ opposition in Poland is simply the corollary, the complement, to the reinforcement of the dictatorship of the capitalist state concentrated in the single party. Adam Michnik, a representative of the Workers’ Defense Committee, cynically expressed this a short time ago: “To postulate a revolutionary overthrow of the dictatorship of the party, to organize actions with this aim, would be both unrealistic and dangerous” (Esprit, January 1977). The growing domination of its allies by the USSR leaves this opposition with no choice but to be the loyal opposition within state capitalism, to tacitly or resignedly accept the reality of the Russian bloc.
Outside of its function of locally diverting the discontent of the workers into campaigns and signatures against repression, the ‘democratic opposition’ has little chance of gaining an echo if it threatens the domination of Russian imperialism and proposes a break with the bloc (Charter ‘77 in Czechoslovakia). In no way can these groups be transformed into real opposition parties. All they can do is co-exist alongside the ruling party for as long as the national capital and the USSR see fit to allow them. This is the policy which Polish capital followed in 1956: once the discontent of the workers was exhausted and the regime was stabilized, the opposition groups that had arisen disappeared with or without open repression.
East or West, the proletariat has no ‘freedoms’ to defend or any ‘friends’ to count on. The only freedom the proletariat demands is the freedom to destroy this rotten system. Arms in hand, the proletariat will seize hold of the freedom to organize itself and struggle for the destruction of capital; it will take the liberty of denying the freedom of the bourgeoisie to exploit it. This basic Marxist truth, which Lenin defended incessantly against all the ‘democrats’ and ‘friends’ of the proletariat, applies more than ever to Eastern Europe.
From the insurrection in Saxony and Berlin in 1953 to the explosion in Hungary 1956 and the struggles in the shipyards of the Baltic in 1971, the proletariat of Eastern Europe has shown that it is not separate from the world proletariat, but one of its detachments. Through its combativity and heroism it has shown that the possibility of a proletarian revolution in Eastern Europe is not a utopia dreamed up by a few ‘archeo-marxists’.
Certainly the proletariat of Eastern Europe has to overcome many obstacles before rediscovering the path that led to October 1917:
-- the ruthless, totalitarian hold of the state, which atomizes the class more than anywhere else;
-- the crushing of the Russian proletariat, which destroyed all organizational continuity with the revolutionary wave of the 1920s;
-- the difficulty for the class to draw the lessons from its struggles once they have subsided, owing to the absence of revolutionary political organizations.
The upsurges of the class in Eastern Europe show that it is easier for the proletariat to express its combativity and extend its struggle in these countries than in Russia, where the struggle is much weaker and dispersed both in time and space, taking the form of totally isolated local explosions. Because state capitalism in these countries is the expression of the weakness of capital, they will more and more become weak links of world capital in the face of the proletariat.
However, the central role of the West European proletariat in the international class struggle, its concentration, the emergence since 1968 of revolutionary political organizations, secreted by the class in order to draw the lessons of its struggles, its more developed historical class consciousness -- all these factors will make the West European proletariat a decisive catalyst for the workers of Eastern Europe, enabling the combativity which has been accumulating since 1971 to be transformed into a conscious revolutionary energy which can bring down the iron dictatorship of capital on a world scale.
1 GLAT – Groupe de Liaison pour l’Action des Travailleurs. Write to Renee Togny, BP 62009, 75421, Paris, Cedex 09, France.
2 It goes without saying that no evolution of a historical phenomenon is predetermined, because men make their own history. It is the survival of capitalism after the 1917-21 revolutionary wave which has allowed this phenomenon to develop.
3 Organ of the Gauche Communiste de France. See Revolution Internationale, Bulletin d’Etudes et de Discussion, no. 8
4 This is so much the case, that in the factories working for the civil sector, certain assembly lines do work for the army with first-class materials which are rigorously tested from their arrival at the factory to their transformation into military equipment. For example, in contrast to the proverbial mediocrity of automobiles sold on the civil market, the vehicles reserved for army and party personnel have a special robustness (mentioned in Smith, The Russians).
5 The dominant form of wage labor in Russia is piece work (two-thirds of the workforce). This form so widespread in the early days of industrial capitalism, is typical in a weak capital and reflects a low productivity of labor.
6 See for example, the complex of truck factories in Kama, a gigantic accumulation of capital imported from the west, and a gigantic fiasco. After several years of work (roads, buildings etc), by 1975 around 100,000 of the trucks planned had not been produced.
7 This can be no help to the most debt-ridden countries, Poland, Hungary. This is so much the case that these two plus Czechoslovakia have recently officially made it known that they would like to receive loans from the IMF. Since the IMF is an organ of US capital, it goes without saying that this could only happen if these countries joined the other bloc. The strengthening of Russia’s hold over its satellites shows that such a project is completely illusory.
8 Thousands of Polish workers signed the Workers’ Defense Committee petition.