Monday, 27 January 2020

Book Review - Western Marxism and the Soviet Union (2008)

The "Russian Question"
Written By: Ian Birchall
Date: January 2008
Published In LSHG Newsletter Issue 30: Lent 2008 

Western Marxism and the Soviet Union A Survey of Critical Theories and Debates since 1917 Marcel van der Linden (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2007_ XII + 380 pp ISBN 978 90 04 15875 7 € 89.00; US$ 125.00

Readers of a certain age will recall debates among Young Socialists or student leftists about whether Russia was “state capitalist” or a “degenerated workers’ state”. Sometimes it seemed no more significant than a confrontation between Arsenal and Spurs supporters.

Yet the debate was profoundly serious, since it raged among Stalin’s victims, who needed to know why they had been defeated, and by what. In Victor Serge’s magnificent novel of 1930s Russia, The Case of Comrade Tulayev, three men awaiting arrest and probable death disagree whether their bodies will fertilise “Socialist soil” or “State Capitalism”. Since the Russian experience is still used to vilify the idea of socialism, the debate remains relevant.

Most earlier accounts of the debate were written from a partisan standpoint. Fortunately Marcel van der Linden, Research Director of the International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam, has now produced a comprehensive scholarly account of the arguments. He begins with the polemics between Kautsky and Trotsky in the aftermath of 1917, and continues to the collapse of the Soviet Union and such recent writers as Sapir, Chattopadhyay and Resnick & Wolff.

Van der Linden gives a fair account of each position, so that each argument may be judged by its strengths, not its weaknesses. Trotsky, Pannekoek, Korsch, James, Dunayevskaya, Cliff, Bordiga, Shachtman, Deutscher, Mandel, Djilas, Kuron and Modzelewski, Bettelheim and Ticktin are all studied in some detail. There is consideration of the assorted versions of the theory that Russia was neither capitalist nor a workers’ state (“bureaucratic collectivism” etc.), and this current is shown to originate with Lucien Laurat and not, as often claimed, with Bruno Rizzi. A comprehensive 44-page bibliography will be invaluable to all future researchers Van der Linden confines his study to Russia, not covering the related debates about China, Cuba, etc. It would have been interesting to know when North Korea first acquired its status as a “workers’ state”. As Bruce Cumings shows in The Origins of the Korean War (Princeton NJ, 1981-1990), the North Korean state was established by the United States State-War-Navy Coordinating Committee, thus making the working class and the revolutionary party equally nugatory.

Van der Linden’s conclusion is brief, modest and relatively agnostic. Doubtless it will not satisfy those with axes to grind, and since I have one, I shall grind it.

He claims only two advocates of the state capitalist theory, Cliff and Bettelheim, “took an approach compatible with an orthodox definition of capitalism”. Cliff is criticised because his “approach forces him to reduce competition essentially to the arms race… That, however, is still in conflict with orthodoxy. The arms race … did not involve mainly commodities produced for an open market, and therefore cannot be considered as trade based on capitalist competition.”

This seems less than fair to Cliff. To insist that accumulation was driven by competition was indeed retaining an essential element of Marxism; to abandon that would mean departing from the very core of the Marxist analysis. To observe that in the twentieth century competition might take forms never envisaged by Marx involved a simple recognition of the facts. The combination of the essence of Marxism with an acceptance of the changing nature of reality was the very heart of Cliff’s method.
But such reservations are trivial in face of van der Linden’s achievement, which will stand as the definitive treatment of the question for some time to come.

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