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What was the Soviet system?

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One of many interpretations of the Soviet system is that it was a form of state capitalism in which the bourgeoisie class was replaced with a statist class. Some of the proponents of this view include Charles Bettelheim, Stephen Resnick and Richard Wolff, but each with their own slightly different take. The common version of this view is that the top officials of the communist party became a new capitalist class which appropriated surplus value from employees of the state. Beginning with Bettelheim’s version of this analysis, from his book Class Struggles in the USSR, he suggests that the Communist party came to dominate the working class, thereby becoming a new bourgeoisie class. Bettelheim’s analysis, however, suffers from some problems to put it mildly. In the Soviet system, there is no private ownership of the means of production, no commodity production, no competition, and no production for profit. Party elites had no drive or even means by which to accumulate capital. Rising within the rakes of the party was the only means by which to obtain greater status in the society, and the only way to do that was to perform well in your position. Workers had guaranteed jobs; they could not be fired as it was against the law. Therefore, party members could not use unemployment as a disciplining device as the bourgeoisie elite are able to do in capitalism. And since most basic needs were met through the provision of public goods, workers were not dependent on any one elite for subsistence. This runs counter to Marxist theory which argues the bourgeoisie class exerts influence over the political class, and thereby state policy. In the Soviet system, there was no bourgeoisie class to offer patronage, and state policy was determined with the party. Therefore, the description of state capitalism appears to be inconsistent with what we know about how the system functioned.

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Given the inconsistencies noted above, some theorists have attempted to expound the analysis of the Communist party elite as a new exploitative class. Resnick and Wolff’s approach, in their book Class Theory and History, is to examine the relational structure of appropriation of surplus value created by workers. In the Soviet system, producers worked as wage laborers but were free to move between enterprises just like in capitalism. Workers contribute value above what they need for their own subsistence, thereby creating surplus value. Since the Communist elite had control over the surplus, they argue that this was exploitation. If the Soviet system were a communist class system, workers would have control over the distribution of the surplus. Resnick and Wolff also argue that the Soviet system has some similar features to capitalism. Labor was free to move between enterprises. Industrial ministries were organized similarly to corporations. There was some competition among enterprises, and profit rates were one criterion to evaluate performance.

However, this appears to be a dubious attempt to apply the label of capitalism to the Soviet system. Resnick and Wolff arbitrarily narrow the descriptive options of class relations — slavery, feudalism, communism or socialism, and capitalism — but exclude the possibility of a hybrid or mixed socialist system wherein a new exploitative class could arise unaccounted for in traditional Marxian analysis. Paul M. Sweezy had a more refined argument of a new class system, in his article “Post-Revolutionary Society” published in Monthly Review back in 1980. Sweezy claimed that the Soviet system did transform into a statist mode of production in which the Communist party elite were the new ruling class, but admitted that the system lacked the key features of capitalism such as commodity production and competition. However, it is not clear the party-state elite where a class, at least not in the way we would define it in Marxist theory. It is also not clear the party-state elite appropriate a surplus from workers. Party-elites were given salaries, and profits were the first source of investment by enterprises, which were also taxed for government expenditure. Only a small portion went towards workers as a bonus for surpassing objectives. Party-elites had no mechanism by which to appropriate portions of those profits, or surplus generally in the aggregate. Furthermore, capital accumulation was not a measure of social status, nor could it be. The only way to increase social status in the Soviet system was to rise up through the ranks of the party and government positions. It is also telling what the later generation of party-elite truly thought of the system when they did little if nothing to defend the system before its collapse.

The claim that the system was socialist was made both by Soviet officials and Western specialists. The reasons they agreed upon were based on state ownership of the means of the production and central planning. Some socialists argued that the system was socialist at first, then mutated into a deformed workers’ state by Stalin and later leaders; this was the position taken by Trotskyists for example. However, a more realistic assessment of the system is as a mixed social formation with some socialist and non-socialist features.

Nominally, the Soviet system could be regarded as socialistic; there was after all social ownership of the means of production through the state which engaged in economic planning and production for use, not profit. The system had nearly all the trappings desirable of a socialist system — the right to a job, full employment, wide provision of public goods and basic needs, absence of property income, and relatively low levels of inequality. The non-socialist features, on the other hand, were substantive departures from the ideal socialist system. The two central tenets running through all ideals of socialist transformation is the social ownership of the means of production, and the democratic control of those means. While democratic on paper, workers had little democratic rights in the Soviet Union. The state was governed by a single party which was ruled by a select privileged elite that revolved around the General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. The state was highly hierarchical and authoritarian, and planning authorities and enterprises were as well. Civil rights and liberties were extremely limited throughout the Soviet Union; particularly during the Stalin era. Given these shortcomings, the description of socialism seems to be a stretch as its invocation suggests of a system which embodies both the central tenants of social ownership and democratic control. However, it is also a stretch to consider it capitalist for the reasons noted above. It is more persuasive to characterize the Soviet system as a uniquely mixed system with both socialist and non-socialist features.

By convention the mixed system of Soviet Union has been regarded as ‘state socialism’. Many socialists rightly cringe at the notion of conceding any term of socialism to the Soviet system as it failed to extend democracy in both its political and economic spheres. The core tenet of socialism is to broaden democracy to additional spheres of human relations particularly that of the production. It is possible to conceive of a democratic state that owns the means of production, but is internally organized in a participatory, cooperative fashion, thereby achieving both social ownership of productive property and workplace democracy. Thus by conceding the label of state socialism to the Soviet Union suggests socialist systems need not be democratic, and makes it that much more difficult to rid socialism of its Soviet baggage.

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