Meszaros on the Question of Revolutionary Agency (2012)

Meszaros on the Question of Revolutionary Agency (October 2012)

The following contribution by the late Istvan Meszaros (who died in October 2017) was given verbally at a seminar on ‘Revolutionary Agency’ at Birkbeck College in London on Saturday 27 October 2012. The transcript of Meszaros’s contribution is a lightly edited, more-or-less exact transcript which Meszaros agreed with Terry Brotherstone (University of Aberdeen) who made the transcript and chaired the meeting. 

For me, the difficult question, which I think we all agree about, relates to the tremendous problems facing the labour movement, the working-class movement. So many things have turned out to be extremely grave, and the big problem for the future is to grasp the nature of the crisis that we face.

On the question [which has come up] of assuming state power … What is the meaning of that state power? What does a state power amount to? In the past it was often posed as a question of ‘overthrowing capitalism’. Now, my difficulty with that concept is always that what can be overthrown can also be restored. And it has been. That’s the gravity of the situation.

If we go back into the past, to the Paris Commune, all those events which led to change in the state power were the consequence, quite – or more-or-less – directly of the collapse of the state system. The Paris Commune was the result also of a major military defeat. And how do we understand the Russian revolution without the disaster of the First World War? And in Hungary – which I know well – there was, in 1919, a kind of commune, a communist system if you like, established. And how did it happen? The President of the Hungarian Republic after the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy was a count, the enlightened Count Károlyi. When he was pushed by the great democracies to get hold of the Communists, he decided, instead, to hand over state power to the Communists. That’s how it happened in Hungary. So we cannot romanticise in any way the significance of the state power being exchanged.

When you think of the quotation at the very end of Cliff Slaughter’s paper on The Miner – this business about taking communist consciousness from the outside into the working class and how this concept is extremely problematical – it is an absolutely grave problem. Because after the revolution, after the Russian Revolution, what is ‘from the outside’ when the state becomes the party, Lenin’s party? It is no longer ‘outside’, no longer ‘from the outside’: it is from above. And that problem was continued into the notion of the ‘deformed workers’ state’.

I remember my first conversation [in the late 1980s] with Cyril Smith. He brought up the Trotskyite notion of the ‘deformed workers’ state’. My reaction to that was: ‘on which planet did it happen?’ Apparently there was supposed to be this ‘deformed workers’ state’ in the Soviet Union – of which I saw absolutely no sign anywhere. But for a long time you were considering building a revolutionary party on the basis of that kind of conception; and then you also talked about a ‘deformed workers’ state’ in the ‘Peoples’ Democracies’. Well, I was born and brought up in one of them, in Hungary!

But I would like here to pay tribute to my friend Cliff Slaughter. For several decades he remained firmly in a revolutionary orientation even if the organisation he was attached to was in an extremely problematical orientation. He maintained this determined position of thinking in terms of a revolutionary perspective. I can also tell you that our two names are almost identical. He’s called ‘Slaughter’: in Hungarian my name means ‘a slaughterer’! That relates our two names together …; but in what framework?

It is very easy to say what the party should be against, to say what has to be demolished or abolished. It is much more difficult to say what must be put in its place. In this context, I should say something about the problem of the middle class [to which I’ll return]. If I try to find what Marx says about the middle class I find a big zero. Marx was never interested in the ‘middle class’. What is the middle class? The Marxian orientation – and I think this is very important for our future, for the revival of the working-class movement – is to stress the nature of the system that has to be replaced.

And in this sense, the conquest of state power becomes a fairly vacuous problem. Once you talk about state power – and I refer again to Count Károlyi who handed it over to the Communists, to Bela Kun and others – what happens is that the material power of society remains identical. So the conquest of state power amounts to very little under those circumstances. Lenin expressed it in quite a moving way when circumstances had turned very sour in the Soviet Union, in Russia. He said, ‘What can we do? We cannot call back the tsars and say, “Please take back power.”’ And how do you separate the whole problem, the vanguard-party problem, from the tsarist system under which it was inaugurated and within which it had to fulfil certain historical functions? And Lenin was right, you cannot say, ‘Romanovs, please come back and carry on slaughtering our people and destroying everything.’ But the material power – and at that time it was a devastated material power as a consequence of the First World War – remained absolutely the same.

For me therefore the question regarding the future is: how can we properly evaluate the nature of the present crisis, the present historical crisis? Humanity never faced a crisis even remotely comparable to what we have today. In capitalism, crisis is the normality. It is a regular, periodical renewal of crisis, of cyclical crisis. But I always insist that, in the last forty or fifty years, the crisis we have been facing, and face today, is absolutely different. The crisis of today is the structural crisis of the whole system, not just of the capitalist system, but of the whole capital system – because capitalism didn’t fall out of the sky. It came on the foundations of a very long historical process, preceded by thousands of years of one form or another of capital.

And the problem of the future, when we contemplate it, is that all the parties, even the revolutionary parties, are always trying to fit in to the existing institutional framework. Cliff, in his paper on The Miner also quoted something very interesting and important from Trotsky’s interview with Kingsley Martin, the editor of the New Statesman, in 1937. Trotsky was saying that in four or five years the Fourth International will be a very big power. How can you be as unrealistic as that?

And you have to think back to the antecedents of the Fourth International – it was only the fourth. There was a First International, which collapsed and Marx himself was desperately trying to rescue the little that could be rescued from it, transferring it to the United States. We know very well what happened to the Second International. It has become an ignominious, disastrous organisation – you know well the social democratic degeneration that started a long time ago and was carried on. You know what happened – it officially abandoned absolutely everything.

And think of the Third International. There was a time when you had a number of parties which called themselves revolutionary parties, some of them also very influential parties – and that also turned out to be an absolute disaster. Just think of the two most important of them in the West: the French Communist Party and the Italian Communist Party. I ask you: which one is the more disastrous? This tells you a very sad story about the Third International.

Then we come to the Fourth: what happened to it? Has it achieved anything of what it was meant to achieve, anything of what Trotsky said to Kingsley Martin – that in a short period it would be able to achieve great things. I think these questions have to be examined in their historical context because so much remains problematical.

When I first read [Ernest] Mandel’s book with the significant title, Late Capitalism, I asked myself the question, ‘What is capitalism late for?’ What was it all about, what has it missed? The lateness of capitalism doesn’t explain anything. We have to go back to the fundamental problems of the crisis of today, because it is absolutely tremendous. It cannot be simply assessed any longer in terms of the bankers. The bankers do what they do. There is much talk about reforming the bankers, but this is so much wishful thinking. But there will be absolutely nothing done about it.

Then there are people blaming the ‘Third World’, the ‘underdeveloped’ countries, for how our expectations have not been realised…..But returning to the real problem, the fundamental structural problem and the question of the so-called advanced capitalist societies … Now, this is another concept I find extremely problematical. What is an advanced capitalist society? Capitalist society is a putrefying society. How advanced is a putrefying society? An advanced capitalist society is advanced only in the sense that it is capitalistically advanced. But the capitalistic advancement is towards becoming ever more destructive – and it has become extremely destructive. It has reached a point in its own development when the destruction of humanity is on the agenda of this great ‘advanced capitalist society’.

I think that if we, as we must, examine the possibilities for the future – the confrontations which face us – we see that Marx was not interested in the middle class because the social order he was interested in was the bourgeois social order. People talk about the middle class – and then they start slicing it up: the lower middle class and the middle middle class and the upper middle class. And they are doing the same thing with labour, with the working class – there are all sorts of sociological ramifications and divisions.

And these serve a purpose: they produce a great deal of mystification in the literature on the subject because the working class is often reduced to the industrial working class and they find out that it is diminishing in some part of the world. But it is increasing in the world as a whole.

This is a fundamental issue. What Marx was interested in was the historical confrontation between capital and labour. That is the fundamental category. And any strategy for the future transformation has to be for a revolutionary transformation: I don’t believe for a moment in anything less than that.

One of the tragedies of the workers’ parties was that in the past they always tried to fit in to the framework of the parliamentary system. Now the parliamentary system from day one of its establishment was never meant for the working class. The working class was not even on the agenda when the parliamentary system was established. At a certain point the working class was allowed to fit in to it, as the ‘labour movement’ or the social-democratic movement. We know from Marx’s comments on the Gotha Programme how desperately unhappy he was about this type of development  taking place, the type of movement forward which was within this sort of framework.

Yet all the working-class parties followed that path. Even, if I’m not mistaken the Workers’ Revolutionary Party, which at one time almost went completely bankrupt through presenting its candidates for election and losing I don’t know how many thousands of pounds in deposits, without ever managing to elect a single person.

And when you think about it, the reality of the situation lies in the need to take control of the material basis of society; because, without that, talk of any aspect of politics amounts to nothing. Whether you talk about taking power without trying, or of taking control of other aspects of life – if you don’t address yourself to the fundamental nature of the material power in our society, you don’t get anywhere.

And just to conclude, I salute Cliff; and I wish great success for The Bonfire of the Certainties, the book you started out from in organising today’s meeting. We should all start to discuss it and to take the discussion forward – because this can only be an ongoing enterprise, one of examining things without any fear of offending anything in the past. We are all here committed to a radical socialist transformation – without which there is no future, no humanity – in the quite literal sense of humanity surviving into the foreseeable future. And the Marxian conception of a historical alternative – that is what has to be at the centre of it all. What kind of social order can be historically viable for the future?

This must be the approach now, because the total bankruptcy of all the capitalist countries is a very novel phenomenon – it is post-Second World War – and the most disastrously bankrupt country in this world is the United States of America, which is regarded as the great powerhouse of this ‘advanced’ capitalist system. A totally bankrupt system is incapable of operating for the future on a long-term historical perspective.  And in my view the only way we can examine seriously these problems which are unavoidable for all of us is to address ourselves to this great difficulty and I wish all of us success in that respect.


Birkbeck College, London. Saturday 27 October 2012.

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Capital-in-Crisis, Trade Unionism and the Question of Revolutionary Agency

The following PDF link is a more expanded version of my published book given in previous posts. For example, the ‘hard copy’ version contains references only to material which was unquoted in the text whereas this version – which is longer and more developed – contains the inclusion of the quoted material directly into the text. Please feel free to share the link. The title of the book is ‘Capital-in-Crisis, Trade Unionism and the Question of Revolutionary Agency’




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PDF copy of my book ‘Capital-in-Crisis, Trade Unionism and the Question of Revolutionary Agency’

Access is available at the following link to a free, downloadable pdf copy of my book ‘Capital-in-Crisis, Trade Unionism and the Question of Revolutionary Agency’

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Publication of ‘Capital-in-Crisis, Trade Unionism and the Question of Revolutionary Agency’

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Book to be published

My book Capital-in-Crisis, Trade Unionism and the Question of Revolutionary agency will be published and available in hard copy and electronic format in March 2017.

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Forthcoming Book

Forthcoming book to be published by international publisher :

Capital-in-Crisis, Trade Unionism and the Question of Revolutionary Agency

by Shaun May

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A Note on Inconsistencies in the Conception of the Soviet System as a “Post Capitalist Capital System”

A Note on Inconsistencies in the Conception of the Soviet System as a “Post Capitalist Capital System”

We start with the following question (from the above link):

Question: What is the validity of criticism regarding Marx’s theory of the “conversion of value to price” and the Marxian model in response to that?

Istvan Meszaros : Well, I think it may be too technical to go into the details. You know the way in which modern economic theory was questioning these points. But I don’t think that we can make much of it, in that the market system under which we operate makes it necessary to provide this conversion. This takes us back to the question of the “Labour Theory of Value”. The foundation of the Marxian conceptual framework is the Labour Theory of Value, concerning the way in which “Surplus Value” is generated and appropriated under the rule of capital. Since under our present conditions of socio-economic reproduction in most countries we have a market framework in which the “plurality of capitals” which I mentioned earlier must adjust itself. You mentioned the “Profit Rate” which is also in the process of constant adjustment. But this adjustment cannot take place without the intermediary of conversion.
If (and where) capital had a straightforward political way of controlling the system’s expanded reproduction, there would be (and there was) no need for the intermediary of genuine conversion; the process could be more or less arbitrarily settled on the basis of political decisions, as it actually happened under the Soviet type capital system. In other words, we are again concerned with a subsidiary element of the overall theory. It is a matter of secondary importance whether “Surplus Labour” is appropriated politically or economically. What is of primary importance is that under all conceivable varieties of the capital system it must be appropriated by a separate body superimposed on, and structurally dominating, labour. Here, as you can see, the fundamental category is “Surplus Labour”, and not “Surplus Value”, as people often erroneously assume. “Surplus Value” and the specific forms of its appropriation and realisation are absolutely essential under capitalism. But the capital system embraces much more than its capitalist variety. There have been – and indeed even today there still are in existence – forms of the capital system which cannot be simply described as capitalist.
You know that many people have tried to characterise the now defunct Soviet system as “State Capitalist”. I do not think that such characterisation makes any sense at all. The Soviet system was not “State capitalist”; it was “Post-capitalist”. Nevertheless, this system also operated on the basis of the appropriation of Surplus Labour by a separate body, structurally dominating labour and operating the political extraction of Surplus Labour. In other words, the Soviet labour force was not in control of the regulation and allocation of its own Surplus Labour, which in that system did not have to be converted into Surplus Value. The Soviet type system was a historically specific form of the capital system in which the appropriation of surplus labour had to be politically controlled.

Shaun May : I think the answer to this question raises a host of questions regarding what is meant by a “capital system”. In the Soviet system, capital was not the dominant social relationship of production and distribution as we see it under the capitalist system. But this then elicits the question of what Meszaros actually means by the term “capital system” in relation to the Soviet system i.e. if capital did not operate in the same mode as it does in the capitalist system. Capital in the capitalist system means the production of surplus value, its realisation through the market and the augmentation of the value of capital in accumulation. What Meszaros is effectively doing is re-defining what is meant by “capital” according to altered historical conditions. Since in the Soviet system, there was neither the production of surplus value nor a market through which it was socially realised as profit. But what is this “capital” in the “post-capitalist capital system” of the Soviet Union? It is not the same “capital” as we see under capitalism.
Capital originates in circulation, not in production. The first forms of capital – which were operative in both ancient and feudal societies – were commodity and money capital in the form of merchants’ and usurers’ capital. These forms of capital were the chief historical agents in and for the dissolution of feudal relations. Only after feudalism had disappeared did capital become the dominant social relationship in production itself, first entering and dominating agricultural production and later manufacture. Capitalism itself only announces its historical arrival with capitalist commodity production. Capitalist production as a whole now means the evolution of the total complex of productive, commodity and money capital., i.e. capitalist production as a whole has arrived.
This is why Marx writes that capital-in-circulation only attains its “classical form” after capital becomes the dominant relation of production and not before this historically. But these societies – ancient and feudal – were not “capital systems” despite the historical existence of forms of capital within them. And, also, despite the political extraction of surplus labour from the producers. Marx writes of the the trading peoples of antiquity living in the “pores of society” which implies that they were not of the dominant mode of production.
This notion that “it is a matter of secondary importance whether surplus labour is appropriated politically or economically” could therefore be important in regard to the question of the Soviet system as a “capital system”. And, of course, the idea that “what is of primary importance is that under all conceivable varieties of the capital system it (surplus labour – SM) must be appropriated by a separate body superimposed on, and structurally dominating, labour” could also apply to all conceivable class societies producing a surplus – including those river valley civilisations dominated by a priesthood caste – and not simply those “varieties of the capital system”.
Where society has reached the point in the evolution of production where a surplus can be produced this always, sooner or later, gives rise to the appropriation of this surplus labour by an alien class, caste or state which becomes separated out as the ruling one and thenceforth we have the “superimposition” and “domination” of this class in the articulated form of its state power. Whether this surplus labour is appropriated as surplus value or not, as the case may be, is actually very important as an indicator which helps us to characterise the form of society within which this appropriation actually takes place. It helps us to understand whether or not the capital relation is operating under the given historical conditions.
Where this surplus labour is appropriated in the form of surplus value, there we have the operation of the capital relation. The capital relation – as a social relationship of production and distribution – cannot exist on the basis of the appropriation of surplus labour per se but only on the ground of its appropriation in the specific historical form of surplus value. Implicitly, if surplus labour is not appropriated in this form, the capital relation cannot be operative. Otherwise, we have to re-conceive what we understand by capital and modulate that conception according to the prevailing socio-historical conditions.
Productive capital finds its notion (Begriff) in its continuous expansion i.e. it is characterised as capital as such only in so far as it continually augments its value, returns to itself in the form of expanded value from which point it thence proceeds again into the next phase of expansion. This expansion of capital is the accumulation of surplus labour but only in the form of surplus value. The distinction of form is critical because it means that humanity has reached its capitalist stage of production. All societies producing a surplus have accumulated “surplus labour” in one form or another but this did not make them “capital systems”. For them to be a “capital system” (i.e. as the dominant, preponderant social relationship of production), this accumulation must take the form of the accumulation of surplus labour in the form of surplus value. To assert that such an accumulation only has to take the form of the accumulation of “surplus labour” (“Here, as you can see, the fundamental category is “Surplus Labour”, and not “Surplus Value”, as people often erroneously assume” IM) is itself the assertion of an abstract ahistorical proposition.

In essence, the point which SM is making here is that the extraction of surplus labour from the producers by an alien body does not necessarily make that system a capital system. We all know this. It is the ‘bread and butter’ of Marx and thousands of years of human history testifies to this.
In ‘Beyond Capital’, the author (pp. 911-914, 6. Breaking the rule of capital, Political Power and Dissent) gives a summary of his rationale as to why the Soviet system was a “post-capitalist capital order”. The six bullet points he gives are not simply conditions for the existence of “the capitalist formation” but also for the actual existence of a “capital system”. Not necessarily for capital itself in its historical genesis (as we know from Antiquity and the Middle Ages) but certainly for a “capital system” or “order”. Meszaros appears to make a radical rupture with Marx by characterising a system as a “capital system” simply on the principal ground that “the extraction of surplus labour is regulated politically and not economically”. But does this make such a system a “capital system”? Other societies have operated on the same basis – the soviet system was not unique in this regard – but this did not make them “capital systems”. Meszaros seems to effectively redefine what is meant by the term “capital” by stripping it of its essential economic character as accumulated surplus value and postulating its existence in a political form independently of this economic character.
The means of production and distribution in the Soviet system were not forms of capital as it exists in its specific mode as the preponderant social relationship of production which also embraces its function as a “mode of control of the social metabolism”. The extraction of surplus labour from the producers by the state power does not render these means of production “capital” per se. This is to misconceive the very nature of Marx’s conception of capital. Otherwise, almost every society in the history of man could be characterised as a “capital system”.
In the final sentence of the above answer, he makes a leap from “political extraction of surplus labour” to “capital system”. Surplus labour can be extracted without the system being a capital system. The process of politically appropriating surplus labour can take place even if the means of production and distribution are not forms of capital. But we all know this.
If we admit that capital was the dominant social relationship of production in the Soviet system, then this tends to lead towards the conception that the Soviet system was indeed “state capitalist” which Meszaros himself denies. What needs to be clarified and concretised is what Meszaros actually means by the term “capital system” in relation to the Soviet system when capital did not operate within this system as the dominant social relationship of production as it does under capitalism.
When Meszaros refers to the Soviet system as a “post-capitalist capital order” he refers to capital as the “mode of control of the social metabolism”. He cannot be referring to capital as the dominant socio-economic relationship of production and distribution because that would undoubtedly mean that the Soviet system was a capitalist system and not post-capitalist. This raises the question of the distinction between capital as a “social relationship of production” and capital as “a mode of control of the social metabolism” and their interrelationship. Obviously, for Meszaros, in the actual operation of the Soviet system, capital as a “mode of control of the social metabolism” could continue in the absence of its historic function as a preponderant social relationship of production as Marx develops it. How was capital as a mode of control of social metabolism actually articulated through the real structures and within the real relations of the Soviet system? Clearly this is a development by Meszaros of Marx’s conception of capital but we need to concretely grasp what is the content of this development within the context of understanding the nature of the Soviet system.

It was the control of production and distribution – and not any form of ownership – which enabled this privileged stratum in the Soviet system to appropriate, assign and manage the distribution of the surplus produced by the labour of the people. Control of production afforded this privileged parasitic layer the right to appropriate a disproportionate share of the socially produced surplus. This control afforded certain privileges but not comprehensively as in the case of ownership. It is worth mentioning that even under capitalism, ownership does not necessarily give complete control since state regulations can limit what owners can do with their property, taxation, building and land-use statutes, etc.

The ruling Soviet stratum did not have the right to alienate the resources which they controlled as with property-owning classes. That is, they could not sell these resources with a view to the full compensation of their total value. However, their control of these resources gave them a self-serving privileged position in regard to the management and direction of them. Such ruling strata – as with the ancient priesthoods – owe their position and privileges to control and not to ownership. Once established, they develop and cultivate a consciousness of their own interests (separate from, and antagonistic to, those over which they rule) and which is embodied (in confronting alienated form) in the structures of power and state.

The Soviet bureaucracy controlled social property but did not own it. As a stratum, it owned nothing but controlled everything. All the resources in the old Soviet system, the land, factories, infrastructure, etc, were owned by the state as social property and could not be bought or sold by bureaucrats. The Soviet system was, according to Meszaros, neither “capitalist” nor “state capitalist”. It was “post-capitalist”. Trotsky himself (1936, Revolution Betrayed, Chapter 9, Social Relations in the Soviet Union) insisted that the Soviet system was not a form of “state capitalism”. In this respect, Meszaros and Trotsky coincide. Later some “Trotskyists” described it as “state capitalist” not that long after Trotsky wrote Revolution Betrayed.

Trotsky remarks that the characterisation of the Soviet Union as “state capitalist” was an attempt to “seek salvation from unfamiliar phenomena in familiar terms” (ibid., Revolution Betrayed, subsection 1, State Capitalism). In other words, an attempt to squeeze the living reality of the historically novel and unfamiliar into the formal categories of the familiar in order for metaphysical thinking to comfortably apprehend and ‘box’ the nature of the Soviet Union. In this way, the living reality of the Soviet system eluded the conceptual grasp of the purveyors of the ‘State Capitalist Theory’. Perhaps we need to consider Trotsky’s remark here in regard to the conception of the “post-capitalist capital order”?

There is not a single, convincing analysis and discourse of the late Soviet system which gives us an adequate characterisation of it being a form of “state capitalism”. Moreover, there is no comprehensive and convincing historical study of how it was, ab initio, or actually became, “state capitalist” either before or after Trotsky’s study in his 1936 Revolution Betrayed.

The implication in Meszaros’s work is that capital existed in the Soviet system in a different mode to the way it exists in capitalist society. In the Soviet system, it existed as an overarching ‘mode of control of the whole social metabolism; which is distinct from its existence under capitalism itself as a more intrinsic, organic and more widely and deeply embracing and economically entrenched controlling ‘social relationship of production and distribution’ which also incorporates within itself this latter function of ‘metabolic control’. In this case, the conception of capital is modulated according to the conditions of a ‘post-capitalist society’. Of course, this is problematic in terms of the differentiation of the determination because it implies that there are two forms of capital. The ‘complete’ and all embracing, ‘totalising’ form under capitalism and the modulated form in the Soviet system in which capital does not exist ontologically as a ‘social relationship of production’. This leaves the theoretical path open for the assertion that once ‘capital’ no longer exists as a ‘social relation of production’ then it has passed over into something other than ‘capital’; that to characterise the Soviet system as a “capital system” is falling into Trotsky’s trap of seeking “salvation from unfamiliar phenomena in familiar terms”. If the extraction of surplus labour was carried through politically and not also economically, then to describe such a state of affairs as a “capital system” actually raises significant difficulties because it denies the organic and intrinsic social embeddedness of capital as a social relation. It renders capital as ‘social epiphenomenon’ which is simply imposed as a consequence of political structures. It leaves no room for the possibility of a system which is not a ‘capital system’ economically and yet displays the characteristics of one in terms of its political hierarchical and administrative functions. But such a hybrid system could not be characterised as a “capital system” but must be determined differentially from such a system. It becomes neither a capital nor a post-capital system but a transient species in which both aspects are manifested simultaneously in its internal social relations.

[See Istvan Meszaros, Beyond Capital, Political Power and Dissent in Post-Revolutionary Societies, p.898. Merlin Press, 1985. And specifically, section 6. Breaking the Rule of Capital, pp. 911-914 where he characterises the Soviet system as a ‘capital system’.]

The emergence and consolidation of the rule of the Soviet bureaucracy expressed the resistance of international capital to the Russian Revolution. This stratum was essentially parasitic and did not own the means of production and therefore was not a property-owning ruling class as such. In the same way, the trade union bureaucracy is not a property-owning ruling class but a controlling bureaucratic caste.

In the Soviet system there was no private ownership of the land, production, infrastructure, etc. But the Soviet state bureaucracy controlled and directed production and lived a privileged existence off the surplus created and extracted from the producers. The producers had no control over their product which was controlled and directed by an alien body hovering over society. The fundamental question (and determining criterion in social relations) in the Soviet system was one of control and not of ownership. And this corresponds to the conception that the controlling collective in that system was not constituted as a property-owning class but rather as a controlling caste.

The bureaucratic system of control was in dissonance with the post-capitalist forms of ownership. It resembled capitalist forms of social control. Either restoration of capitalism, on the one hand, or taking the whole system beyond the constricted form of bureaucratic control which corresponded to, or resembled, capitalist forms of control, on the other hand, was the contradictory pivot on which the whole Soviet system precariously balanced. 1989 and after gave the impetus to the process of restoration. If the forms of ownership and control do not correspond to, and compliment, each other, the whole social structure becomes animated with a structural contradiction which has to be resolved one way or the other i.e. either control has to bow to the developmental tendencies of ownership or ownership must be reversed in favour of the character of the forms of control.

The way forward for the producers in and beyond the Soviet system was to rid themselves of bureaucratic control so that it was they who not only produced but also controlled and directed production and distribution rather than an alien state bureaucracy hovering menacingly above society. A system of bureaucratic state management which, in its mode of operation, still connected Soviet society to capitalist relations meant that the system had not irreversibly rid itself of the threat of capitalist restoration. And, of course, after 1989 this is what has actually proceeded. The Russian Revolution – as a result of the impact of world capital and its state powers on it – never resolved the posited conflict between ownership and control. Under such circumstances, the possibility of capitalist restoration was always a mediating factor animating the whole social structure.

In the Soviet system, the form of social ownership of the means of production and distribution pointed beyond the age of capital. However, because these means of production and distribution were controlled and managed according to norms and parameters which resembled those of a capitalist system, their operation, but not there ownership, corresponded to the rule of capital. This is not to assert that the means of production and distribution in the Soviet system were capital. Only in their state management and control could they possibly be described as exhibiting the characteristics of capital. Only in their external bureaucratic mode of state management from the “outside” so to speak. The extraction of a surplus and its distribution were carried out under the concerted direction and control of the bureaucratised state structures but not, as in capitalist countries, under the private ownership and control of a distinct ruling capitalist class and its state power. The ruling echelons of the state bureaucracy were not a new ruling property-owning class but rather a ruling controlling stratum. If we employ control as the major criterion to determine class, then we could describe this stratum as a ruling class. Under capitalism, a fundamental pre-condition for the operation of the productive forces is the continual expansion and augmentation in their value, i.e. valorisation and accumulation are an actual precondition for their actual existence. This was not the case in the Soviet system. The means of production and distribution did not exhibit this social characteristic of the capital relation which is intrinsic to the capitalist system.

Of course, the capital relation (commodity capital and money capital) actually operated in pre-capitalist societies just as commodity production and exchange did. It was not, of course, capitalist commodity production in these societies. The capital relation did not (and could not) reach its ‘classical’ form until capital became the dominant relationship within production. In antiquity and in the feudal period, merchant and money capital emerged and developed in the form of trade and usury. For example, Carthage in the Mediterranean but trading and usury were common amongst the other developed peoples such as the Greeks, Romans, etc, and in the ‘interstices’ of feudal society, especially amongst the Jews. (see Abram Leon’s work on ‘The Jewish Question’).

However, what distinguishes capital in antiquity and the feudal period from its existence in contemporary society is that it was not the dominant/preponderant relationship of production and distribution. It was merely a subsidiary, peripheral aspect of these societies which were essentially subsistence societies with the ruling classes living on the extraction of a surplus from the labour of serfs/villeins, slaves, coloni or conquered peoples or from the plunder, tribute and taxes in kind or coin arising out of such conquests. The parasitism of the ruling classes was founded upon their ownership and/or control of the land or the military domination of the subjugated populations. The general form of labour was not wage labour but rather slave or bond labour. And this simple truth necessarily meant that the means of production, even those utilised to produce saleable items, were not forms of capital as such. In antiquity, for example, products of labour which found their way into exchange relations were generally produced by the slave, the colonus or the workshop-owning petty artisan.

Extraction and distribution of the surplus in the Soviet system was controlled and managed politically. But that, in itself, does not render the means of production ‘capital’. In other words, in the Soviet system, the appropriation of the surplus by the state was not based on, did not arise out of, the operation of capital as the controlling social relation of production and distribution in the same mode as it does under capitalism. Rather this appropriation of a surplus arose on the basis of the direct political domination of the state bureaucracy – backed up by military force – over the producers. The means of production and distribution were controlled and managed according to capitalist norms [“the mode of metabolic control”] but this, in itself, did not make them forms of capital. The fundamental contradiction was between the social form of ownership and the form of control. In a similar fashion (not identical, of course), the ancient (non-property owning) priesthood of the ancient river valley civilisations extracted its surplus from its human hinterland. It did not need to actually own the land in order to carry this out. The existence of social property formed the basis for its parasitism which arose out of its control and management of production based on social ownership of the land and infrastructure.

The conception that the Soviet system was ‘state capitalist’ implies that the means of production in the Soviet system were owned and operated on the same basis as the former nationalised industries in Britain before their privatisation by the Thatcher governments. However, the relations of ownership of the nationalised industries in pre-Thatcher Britain were fundamentally different in their characterisation to the forms of ownership of the means of production in the Soviet system. In Britain, before ‘privatisation’, these means of production and distribution were actually forms of state capital in their very nature whereas in the Soviet system the means of production were only managed according to capitalist norms but were not subject to the relations of capitalist ownership either by state or capitalist class. The driving raison ‘d’etre of state capital is production for profit and the augmentation of value. Accordingly, the failure to do this (and continual state subsidy) was a motivating ground for their later ‘privatisation’ as capital’s structural crisis began to develop in the 1980s.

Meszaros cites four basic pre-conditions by means of which “capital maintains its – by no means unrestricted – rule in post-revolutionary societies…” [p.913, Beyond Capital]. In none of them can we find any indication that what existed in the Soviet system was a new form of capitalist or state capitalist ownership but rather, according to Meszaros, that capital exerted its control by means of a system of bureaucratic management and the prioritisation of ‘material imperatives’; through the continuation of the division of labour inherited from capitalism; through the ‘structure of the available production apparatus’ and the ‘restricted form of scientific knowledge’ and through the Soviet system’s ‘links….with the global system of capitalism’. It exerted its rule as a ‘mode of control of the social metabolism’ but not as a fundamentally animating and governing social relationship of production and distribution – economically extracting surplus value – as in capitalist society. But how does capital exert such control without it being the animating social relationship of production? The Soviet system was ‘post-capitalist’ but not ‘post-capital’. But being not ‘post-capital’ does not necessarily make it a ‘capital system’. That is a doctrine of formal logic : if not A then must be B. A system which is neither ‘post-capital’ nor ‘capital’ could conceivably be a distinctly unique type of social system which transiently exhibits qualities of both but as a system as a whole is neither.

The age-old division of labour will still be with us in a sublated, more fluid, form even after the capital relation and commodity production have been eliminated from society. Only the further evolution of society into the ‘True Realm of Freedom’ will see it progressively diminish and disappear. The ‘available production apparatus’ and ‘form of scientific knowledge’ will always be ‘restricted’ in the sense that both are historically conditioned and ‘limited in their actuality but unlimited in their disposition’ (Engels). To focus on these in order to provide evidential criteria for the “maintenance of capital’s rule” in the Soviet system is not fetishistic but it is somewhat departing from a characterisation of the nature of social relations in the Soviet system in order to explain capital’s continued “influence”.

Only points [1] and [4] [p.913., Beyond Capital] are really fundamental and are actually related and interconnected. If anything the ‘material imperatives which circumscribed the possibilities of the totality of life-processes’ were inextricably connected to the historical ‘links and interconnections’ which the Soviet system had ‘with the global system of capitalism’. The real “influence” of capital and the forms of state bureaucratic control and management corresponding to this “influence” arose from the daunting pressures of the world capitalist order on the Soviet system. From the very start, and before, this was the fundamental condition and reason why a technically isolated and capitalistically encircled ‘post-revolutionary’ society was degraded and degenerate in nascendi. It reinforces the overall conception that the commencement of the destruction of the global capital order and its state powers must be posited as nothing less than a continuously unfolding global process. And only temporarily halting when this is absolutely unavoidable according to conditions and expedience.

Shaun May

Revised November 2015

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