Monday, 27 January 2020

Book Review - Class Theory and History (2003)

Stephen A. Resnick & Richard D. Wolff, Class Theory and History. Capitalism and Communism in the USSR (Routledge, 2002)
Written By: Mike Haynes
Date: April 2003
Published In LSHG Newsletter Issue 18: Summer 2003  

I have to declare an interest. It is a strange thing to review a book published more or less at the same time and on the same theme as one you have just written yourself. Stephen Resnick and Richard Wolff are two well-known radical economists in the USA. This book is their attempt to come to terms with the history of the USSR. Their conclusion is that “the USSR represented across its entire history chiefly a form of state capitalism”.

But their approach is quite different from my own account, Russia Class and Power 1917-2000, which is an attempt to write a history of Russia using a state capitalist approach. Resnick and Wolff are primarily concerned with elaborating a theoretical account built out of their previously published analysis of capitalism and class - Knowledge and Class (1987). The first part of their new book discusses the concept of communism; the second their concept of state capitalism; only part 3 deals with the “rise and fall of the USSR” and even here most attention is given to the years 1900-1929.

Their argument is that class is not about property or power but “how society organises the production, appropriation and distribution of the surplus”. 1917 shifted Russia to a form of state capitalism which then developed until its partial collapse at the turn of the 1990s pushed the system back more towards privatised forms. Such shifts in property forms, they argue, are not unique to the USSR or so unusual in the wider history of capitalism.

Yet despite my sympathies with some of these arguments their account poses many difficulties. Firstly, they are too much concerned with abstract classification. They do not see the USSR as a dynamic whole but “an interdependent, contradictory complex of multiple and different class structures”. Industry, it seems was state capitalist, but in the countryside were “collective farms that had communist class structures”, state capitalist farms and feudal and ancient class structures. Even parts of the second economy had “ancient class structures”. This is confused and confusing. It puts form over substance a mistake they rightly say lies behind the wider argument that the USSR had some how transcended class and capital.

They fall into this trap themselves because they focus more on the appropriation of the surplus than the determinants of its size and use. This is also related to their attempt to privilege an internal account of the USSR, detached from its wider location in the global system.

From a historical point of view this approach is very debilitating. The 1917 revolution is effectively written off. My own view is that it is more credible to see it as a genuine revolution which did begin to break with capitalism only for it then to degenerate into state capitalism as Stalin consolidated his power. Which view is correct is a matter of historical analysis. But suppose Resnick and Wolff are right. This would mean that 1917 was a monstrous conceit, an act of “false consciousness”. Now false consciousness is endemic to capitalism where it depends on force, fraud and the political demobilisation of the population. But what is supposed to break this is the working class coming to self-consciousness through struggle. Well is this wrong as a theory? Or was 1917 not a workers’ revolution, contrary to what most left wing historiography maintains? Resnick and Wolff do not consider the former but make no serious attempt to confront the latter.

The issue of degeneration to state capitalism also helps to explain the role and character of repression under Stalin. It was needed both to build the new system and to strangle the memory that the revolution had promised something else. But Resnick and Wolff hardly make any reference to issues like this. Indeed the terms Gulag, labour camp, forced labour etc do not even appear in their index.

The failure to deal more explicitly with issues like this suggests that Resnick and Wolff still have unresolved problems with their account. If the USSR was a state capitalist economy, for example, did it have rulers committed to perpetuating capitalism? Their analysis of the transition would seem to suggest so. Forms were changed to hold on to the substance of the control of the surplus. But why then do the authors suggest that as problems began to arise after 1945 that Russia’s leaders might have saved themselves by turning to a genuine communism? As a ruling class did they have a unique flexibility to transcend their base denied to say the American ruling class?

In these terms the bad news is that while Resnick and Wolff’s account is intriguing in parts it is also frustrating and inconsistent in others. The good news is that it shows that in both historical and theoretical terms the issue of the nature of the USSR is not only alive but also being opened up again something that can only be good for socialist historians.

Mike Haynes lectures at the University of Wolverhampton and is the author of Russia Class and Power 1917 -2000 (Bookmarks, 2002).

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