Wednesday, December 21, 2011

On Charles Bettelheim

Ralph Miliband

Bettelheim and Soviet Experience

In the preface to Les Luttes de Classes en URSS 1917–1923, Charles Bettelheim notes that he has been studying the ussr for some forty years; and that until some time after the Twentieth Party Congress of 1956, he saw no reason, as he puts it, why the ussr should not pursue what he had always believed to be its progress towards socialism and communism, notwithstanding the ‘difficulties and contradictions’ on the way. [1] Indeed, he thought that the Twentieth Party Congress itself showed that the cpsu had the capacity to engage in the self-criticism which the rectification of ‘mistakes’ required. He has since then changed his mind; but it is worth stressing how thorough the change has been. For he now believes that the ussr is a capitalist country of a particular kind (though not all that particular, e.g. ‘it is the laws of capitalist accumulation, therefore of profit, which determine the use of the means of production’ [2]); and that this ‘state capitalist’ country is ruled by a ‘state bourgeoisie’ whose purpose is domination at home and imperialism abroad. He does not, however, suggest that this is the result of some dramatic counter-revolutionary change which has occurred in the last twenty-odd years, but rather that it marks the extreme accentuation of certain tendencies which were already present at the very inception of the Russian Revolution. He therefore intends to provide us with a series of volumes, of which this is the first, which will chronicle and explain this historical process.

Of course, the view that developments in the ussr following the first years of the Revolution were the logical or inevitable result of early tendencies is not at all new: in one form or another, it has been the underlying theme of much if not most writing on the subject, particularly from sources hostile to the Bolsheviks and for whom Stalinism, with all its horrors, was the ‘inevitable’ outcome of Leninism, or even of Marxism. Bettelheim for his part writes from the opposite end of the spectrum, from what may be described as a Chinese or Maoist perspective. The categories which he uses are also and specifically those which the Chinese Communist leaders use to depict the Soviet Union today. Bettelheim makes it quite clear that his present views on the ussr and its evolution over time were largely formed under the influence of Chinese experience, or what he reads that experience to be. His enterprise is in effect the most ambitious and comprehensive ‘Western’ attempt to apply Maoist categories to an elucidation of Soviet history—in the present volume to an elucidation of the first years of Soviet experience. This indeed is the main interest of the book, since it contributes nothing new to the actual history of these years, and is in fact extremely perfunctory about that history. It is as an essay in one kind of socialist theory and interpretation that the book must be judged; and I might as well say at the outset that, as such, it strikes me as a very bad piece of work. But this too is not without its interest. For Bettelheim is a respected socialist writer; and the fact that his book has so many crippling weaknesses may tell us something about the categories he uses, which have come to enjoy fairly wide currency. Moreover, the issues involved are of considerable contemporary importance, and their discussion by Bettelheim therefore needs careful attention.


Bettelheim starts from the now familiar proposition that the cardinal error of the working-class movement, from the days of the Second International right through the history of the Third, and pervading the whole Soviet experience, was ‘economism’. The term has come to be used in an exceedingly loose and arbitrary way, but it is interpreted by Bettelheim to mean three different things: firstly, the belief that public ownership of the means of production is synonymous with, or at least necessarily followed by, the socialist transformation of the relations of production. Secondly, there is the (related) belief in the ‘primacy’ of the development of the productive forces, in other words the assumption that socialist relations of production depend on, or must be preceded by, the achievement of a certain level of development of the productive forces. The third error of economism, in this version of it, is the belief that, with the abolition of private ownership and the disappearance of capitalists, the power apparatuses, and notably the state, altogether change their character and come to reflect or even incarnate the dictatorship of the proletariat.

In asserting that these are grave deformations of Marxism, Bettelheim is obviously right. In fact, the point may be taken more generally: taken literally, economism is a form of historical and sociological reductionism which dooms to failure any explanation or project which rests upon it. Nevertheless, two qualifications need to be entered in regard to Bettelheim’s presentation of the issue. For one thing, it is very doubtful if the economistic deformation of Marxism was ever quite as crude and extreme as he makes out, even where it came to be most prevalent, namely in the stance adopted, largely for manipulative purposes, by the Third International under Stalinist direction or compulsion. Economism should not be turned into a catch-all explanation for phenomena which require deeper probing than the denunciation of it allows. In regard to the working-class movement before Stalinism, the economistic deformation, though real, can easily be exaggerated. The second and more important point is that the denunciation of economism, in the Bettelheim version of it, can easily turn into a very serious under-estimation of the weight of economic factors (which are, of course, never purely ‘economic’, whatever that could mean). One obvious result of this under-estimation is the obverse of economism, which has sometimes been called voluntarism.

In the present context, this under-estimation proceeds from an overoptimistic reading of Chinese experience. Thus, Bettelheim claims that ‘the example of China shows that it is not necessary (and indeed that it is dangerous) to want to construct “first” the material bases of a socialist society and to put off until later the transformation of the social relations which would then be made to correspond with the higher productive forces’. [3] But it is not true that the Chinese example ‘shows’ anything as conclusive as Bettelheim suggests. What it shows is that the margin of innovation is much larger than Stalinist dogma prescribed; and that much more, in different fields, is possible under highly unfavourable economic conditions than a crudely economistic perspective would indicate. But the Chinese themselves, to their credit, have been rather less prone than many of their worshippers to under-estimate let alone ignore the weight of ‘economic’ factors—as indeed how could they, in a country still dominated by pervasive under-development? Bettelheim himself is well aware of the meaning of under-development; and he therefore tries to integrate it into his framework by saying that the development of the productive forces and the socialist transformation of the relations of production must be seen as ‘joint tasks’. This, he says, is what the Chinese Communist Party expresses in the formula ‘Make the revolution and promote production’. [4] But such formulations and slogans do not resolve the theoretical, not to speak of the practical, problems which a low level of productive forces presents for the creation of a socialist society, as distinct from the rhetorical proclamation that such a society has been created, or is well on the way to being created, here, there or wherever. Bettelheim regretfully notes that Marx and Lenin were not always and altogether free from what he considers to be economistic thinking. But it is not economism, in the sense in which he means it, to see the level of productive development as a major limiting factor. Economism means fixing the limits so narrowly as to exclude the possibility of socialist innovation; and it has an even more definite meaning in so far as it denotes a belief that a high level of productive forces under collective ownership necessarily and automatically produces socialist relations of production. Beyond these meanings, ‘economism’ is a healthy corrective to incantation and triumphalism, though it would not be called economism.

Some doubt may also be expressed on the wisdom of Bettelheim’s insistence, in the same vein, that the transformation of the juridical forms of property is not sufficient to bring about a transformation in the relations of production. True enough. But the currently fashionable dismissal, even among Marxists, of ‘mere’ measures of nationalization runs the risk of devaluing the importance of such measures as a necessary condition for the achievement of anything else. Nationalization is not socialization. But socialization, if it is to have any chance at all, does require the transformation of the juridical forms of property.

Still, Bettelheim is right to lay stress on socialist relations of production. But what, it may well be asked, does he actually mean by this ? One major weakness of his book is that he is so remarkably imprecise on this score. At one point, he defines these relations as consisting in ‘the form of the social process of appropriation’ (presumably meaning who gets what and why) and ‘the place which the form of this process assigns to the agents of production’, i.e. ‘the relations which are established between them in social production’ (presumably who does what and under what conditions). [5] But this, obviously, does not do more than point to the questions which need to be tackled. Moreover, Bettelheim situates these relations of production inside a totality of social relations, all of which are interdependent and need to be ‘revolutionized’ for the purpose of creating a socialist society. [6] What this entails, he also notes, is the achievement of a social order whose major characteristics are the abolition of the social division between the ‘directing function’ and the ‘executive function’, the separation between manual and intellectual labour, the difference between town and country and workers and peasants.

So be it. But as Bettelheim repeatedly and rightly insists, this is bound to be a long, difficult and painful process (even assuming its complete realization to be possible). Meanwhile, there remains the question of socialist relations of production which have to be seen as part of that long, difficult and painful process. The crucial problem is to be able to determine what are the criteria which make it possible to judge whether advances are or are not being made, and the more specific the criteria the better. But on this, Bettelheim is entirely unhelpful and in fact has nothing to say that would suggest what the criteria are. He tells us that ‘by establishing its class power and by nationalizing some factories (sic), the proletariat acquires the possibility—but only the possibility—of revolutionizing the real process of production and thus bringing about new relations of production, a new social division of labour and new productive forces. In so far as this task has not yet been accomplished, the former relations of capitalist production endure, as well as the forms of representation and the ideological forms in which these relations appear.In so far as this task is on the way to being accomplished, the former relations are partially transformed, the socialist transition is under way, and one may speak of a “socialist society”.’ [7] Why we should be able to speak of this ‘process of transition’ as designating a ‘socialist society’ is not clear. But leaving this aside, it must be obvious that the question posed earlier has in no way been answered, namely what, in institutional or any other terms, is actually involved in the ‘process of transition’? Who gets what? Who directs? Under what conditions? Bettelheim does not know or does not tell. What he does say is that this process of transition involves a new ‘class struggle’, whose discussion in the book does not answer any of the questions raised by ‘socialist relations of production’, but which raises a set of different questions.

The ‘State Bourgeoisie’

Very early on in his book, Bettelheim notes that ‘the existence of the dictatorship of the proletariat and of state or collective forms of property is not sufficient for the “abolition” of capitalist relations of production and the “disappearance” of the antagonistic classes: the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. The latter may undergo changed forms of existence and assume, notably, the form of a state bourgeoisie.’ [8] Despite the fact that this concept of state bourgeoisie is clearly of key importance for his analysis, he does not discuss it in any detail, and specifically states that he ‘cannot develop it’ in this book—why is not made clear. [9] But he does say that the concept ‘designates the agents of social reproduction other than the direct producers who—by virtue of the system of existing social relations and the dominant social practices—have the effective disposal of the means of production and of the products which formally belong to the state’. [10] In a later footnote he also explains that, when it has been consolidated, the state bourgeoisie is distinguished by its relation to the means of production; its role in the social division of labour; the share it takes of the wealth produced; and its ‘class practices’. [11]

In these formulations as in so many others, Bettelheim takes for granted what has to be demonstrated, or at least argued—in this case the actual existence of a ‘state bourgeoisie’, a concept which conjures up a very definite class formation whose exact nature demands specification. But it demands in vain. Bettelheim appears to have takenover a rather extreme version of the ‘new class’ thesis, and he also appears to date the emergence of such a class from the earliest days of the Bolshevik revolution. What he seems to be suggesting is that, where there exists a division of labour according to which some people, located in the state or party apparatus, exercise a ‘directing function’, they constitute a ‘state bourgeoisie’ engaged in ‘class struggle’ with ‘the proletariat’. As a sociology of the complex processes of stratification and domination which are part of the consolidation of collectivist regimes, and notably of the Soviet Union, this will hardly do. Nor is the ‘model’ much improved by the qualifications which may be drawn from various parts of the text, and which may be itemized as follows.

Firstly, ‘it would be quite erroneous’, Bettelheim writes, ‘to consider that all those who occupied directing posts in industry or in the economic and administrative apparatuses (in the years after the Revolution) formed part of the state bourgeoisie’. For some of these posts were occupied ‘by communists who developed proletarian practices as much as possible in these posts, helped the workers to the maximum extent to free themselves from bourgeois relations and to give free rein to their initiatives’. [12] These cadres, who generally refused to receive a salary higher than that of workers, were not part of the state bourgeoisie but of the proletariat ‘to which they were ideologically and materially integrated and from which they often stemmed’. [13]What these proletarian practices are remains unspecified. But the picture presented here is one where some cadres, lodged in one or other apparatus of power, are members of the state bourgeoisie; while others, lodged in the same apparatuses of power, are not. But this clearly deprives the notion of state bourgeoisie of any but the most arbitrary and subjective meaning. Except for the matter of salary, which can easily be got round by various perquisites and other devices, membership of the state bourgeoisie depends on entirely unspecified criteria. Or it may be that the criteria are laid down by higher authority, in which case it is obviously possible to be a communist today, a member of the state bourgeoisie tomorrow, or retrospectively, or whenever.

This impression of subjective or external designation is strengthened by Bettelheim’s second qualification, namely that constituted by the revolutionary party, or rather some elements of the revolutionary party. For the ‘proletarian character’ of the party ‘can only be enduringly maintained if the ideological unity of the party is established on the principles of revolutionary Marxism and if the party functions in accordance with these principles, thus constituting a revolutionary vanguard supported by the working masses’. [14] However, since Bettelheim does not trouble to say what this involves, we are not much advanced. But what he does tell us is that the ‘definition of a revolutionary proletarian line cannot depend on a simple “majority vote” either in a popular or workers’ assembly or in a Party Congress or in a meeting of its Central Committee. Experience shows that in the face of a profoundly new situation, it is in general only a minority which finds the right way, even in an experienced proletarian party’. [15] Given this, it is no great wonder that Bettelheim has a rather elastic notion of the dictatorship of the proletariat; and that he has no great difficulty in identifying it, in the years following the Bolshevik revolution, with the dictatorship of the party, notwithstanding the latter’s growing isolation, its ‘autonomization’, of which more in a moment, and the emergence of a state bourgeoisie. Once ‘the right way’ is located in a minority, all else becomes easy, provided of course that one belongs to it, or approves of it.

But it is not really on a minority as such that Bettelheim relies as a means of countering the formation and consolidation of that state bourgeoisie. It is rather—and this is the third qualification to his ‘model’—on the great leader. Though it is not so explicitly stated, this is what is involved in the manner of Bettelheim’s apotheosis of Lenin after 1917, when Lenin is described as the all but omniscient guide, equipped with a self-correcting mechanism for the rare occasions on which he made what might be called mistakes. Most if not all the real mistakes were made, need one add, by other people, and because of a wrong application of Lenin’s right policies and views. [16] In this perspective, Lenin is quite consciously cast as an exact prototype of Chairman Mao, in terms which are copied from the descriptions often applied to the latter’s leadership. Unfortunately, the forces against which Lenin was fighting were too strong for him, as they were for all other counter-tendencies, with the result that the state bourgeoisie developed and consolidated its hold. Before we pursue this further, it is worth noting that there is one other ‘counter-force’ which Bettelheim mentions, namely the workers’ resistance, ‘which constitutes one of the obstacles that limit the possibilities of consolidation of the state bourgeoisie’. But this is an ‘elementary’ form of class struggle, which cannot really affect the issue. [17] It is very remarkable and very revealing that, for all his constant references to proletarian practices and the like, Bettelheim is seized by extreme circumspection and suspicion when he comes upon this kind of ‘class struggle’. Nor has he anything to say on the way in which democratic practices may be institutionalized—which is absolutely crucial. His whole cast of thought leads him to rely rather on ‘communists’ in the power apparatuses, on a minority which knows ‘the right way’, and on an inspired leader who can ‘swim against the current’.

From Leninism to Stalinism

Like every other writer on the Russian Revolution, of whatever disposition, Bettelheim notes the shrinking basis of Bolshevik support once the first flush of revolutionary euphoria was over. But it has to be said that his presentation of that phenomenon not only fails to add anything to our knowledge of it—in a number of important respects it tends to subtract from our understanding of its meaning. Three features of his presentation may be singled out here as being particularly important.

To begin with, the apotheosis of Lenin is so pronounced as to cast into deep shadow all other Bolshevik leaders during the period under discussion. The point is not that this is ‘unfair’ or bad history, though it is both. Much more important is that it devalues very greatly the significance of the debates that went on in those years, and the fact that intense and genuine debates, with opposing sides actually being heard, occurred at a time of extreme revolutionary crisis and over matters of crucial importance. Much if not most of the meaning of this tremendous fact is lost in Bettelheim’s account, and with it a proper appreciation of the character and temper of Bolshevik party life between 1917 and 1921, and even for a little while beyond 1921. Yet it is essential, for a proper appreciation of later periods, to remember the debates of those years; and also that the sharp tightening up of 1921 was viewed as a temporary measure, required by conditions of great crisis, and not acclaimed as a great triumph of party unity.

It is not very surprising that the significance of these debates should be lost in Bettelheim’s account, and that he should accord very little interest to the different tendencies in the party. After all, if Lenin was always right, then everybody else who opposed Lenin, or who failed to give him instant and wholehearted support, must have been always wrong. Any such opponent must have been guilty of a rightist deviation, or of a leftist one, or of a rightist-leftist one, and/or represented petty-bourgeois elements, or anarcho-syndicalist ones, or economistic tendencies, or whatever—in any case, cannot have been of serious account. In Bettelheim’s index, Trotsky has half a dozen references and Bukharin a few more, and practically no other revolutionary figure save Stalin qualifies for inclusion at all. In fact, no figure other than Lenin makes more than a fleeting appearance in the story, and when one does, it is only as a member of the supporting (or opposing) cast in a drama in which Lenin is the only distinct individual. It is in no way to detract from Lenin’s pre-eminence to say that this is an absurd and misleading way to write the history of those years. [18]

Secondly, and related to this way of writing, there is Bettelheim’s characterization of the phenomenon of ‘autonomization’ of Bolshevik power in the years immediately following the revolution. He refers to the dreadful ravages of those years, to the famine, disease, destruction, civil war, invasion, which resulted in the death of seven and a half million people from epidemics, hunger and cold, and of another four million in war. These circumstances were all but certain to produce a drastic shrinkage of support for the Bolsheviks, now that they were in power, a strong centralization of such power as they commanded, and a related disappearance or destruction of the organs of popular initiative—notably the soviets—which had sprung into being in 1917. Nor is it surprising that this situation should also have produced a vast inflation of bureaucracy, both in terms of numbers and of power.

This whole process is by now well documented. But Bettelheim has a particular view of it. For him, there was already at this time a state bourgeoisie in the process of formation. At the end of his book, he notes that most Bolsheviks used the notions of bureaucracy and bureaucratic deformation as a substitute for what he calls a class analysis, and thereby helped to mask ‘the bourgeois political and ideological relations of which the “bureaucratic” phenomena were only the manifestation’. There are two points here. The first, which is valid, is that ‘bureaucracy’ and ‘bureaucratic deformation’ have been overused in the analysis of the Soviet experience, and have served as a convenient escape from a serious sociology of that experience. The second point, however, does not follow. For Bettelheim is asking us to adopt the notions of state bourgeoisie and class struggle instead of bureaucracy and bureaucratic deformation, without advancing a shred of justification for it. It may be that we should adopt that ‘model’: but there is nothing in the work which justifies doing so, least of all in relation to the early years of the revolution.

This brings me to the third and in some ways the most important point of all. By locating a state bourgeoisie in the process of formation in the earliest period of the revolution, Bettelheim suggests a link of a direct kind between that early history and the later one, a steady development, an unbroken line, stretching from 1917 onwards and encompassing both Leninism and Stalinism as part of a single, evolving process.

But this is a perniciously misleading perspective. For there is a world of difference between the Leninist years and the Stalinist ones; and there are few things more important in socialist historiography than to mark very clearly the break between Leninism and Stalinism, not because it happens to be politically convenient but because it happens to be historically true. Bettelheim’s account does precisely the opposite, for reasons which are made clear in the Introduction to his book, and which concern his view of Stalin’s role.

In this Introduction, Bettelheim tells us that Stalin ‘persevered with inflexible rigour in the application of measures called for by perspectives which were not only his but those of the quasi-totality of the party, including most of its members who opposed this or that concrete measure’. [19] So much for the various and conflicting elements of the anti-Stalin opposition: with the exception of this or that ‘concrete measure’, they really agreed with him. Moreover, the ‘quasi-totality’ of the party agreed with him because he was in fact applying the ‘Leninist thesis’ of socialism in one country and thus renewing the self-confidence of the party and the workers. [20]

This sort of language is very familiar indeed: it once served to lull the political and moral sensibilities of successive generations of socialists. Bettelheim provides other and equally telling examples of its use. Thus, Stalin, by taking up the ‘Leninist’ positions he did, ‘contributed to setting in motion a process of transformation of gigantic scope, which was to create the necessary condition for the defence of the ussr and the aggravation of the divisions of the imperialist camp, which enabled the Soviet Union to make a decisive contribution to the defeat of Hitlerism’, and so forth. [21] There is nothing whatever here to suggest that Bettelheim has considered the possibility that Stalin might have been a major contributory factor to the disasters which befell the Soviet Union, and the world socialist movement, and indeed the rest of the world, in the years of his absolute power. No doubt, ‘serious mistakes’ were made. But ‘in the situation in which the Soviet Union was at the end of the twenties and in which the Bolshevik Party found itself, the mistakes that were made were probably historically inevitable’. [22]

It is not the vulgar apologetics of Stalinism which matter most here; nor the fact that Bettelheim appears to believe that the ussr has gone from bad to worse since Stalin died. Much more serious, in the present context, is the conflation, referred to earlier, of the early years of the revolution and the years of Stalinism. Bettelheim notes that the ‘mistakes’ committed by Stalin provided an ‘exemplary lesson for the world proletariat’. But it is instructive to discover what he believes this exemplary lesson to have been: the mistakes in question ‘finally showed that some forms of attack against capitalism were illusory and only served to reinforce the bourgeoisie inside the political and economic apparatuses’. [23] It might have been thought that the Stalinist cataclysm provided a few other ‘exemplary lessons’. But here comes the main point: ‘The lessons drawn by Lenin from the analogous but limited experience of “war communism” were thus confirmed’. [24]

The notion that there is anything remotely analogous between the experience of war communism and Stalinism is a gross perversion of the truth. Much that was damaging was done in those early years, including much that was cruel and unjust; and some of it is directly attributable to Lenin. But there is nothing in the period in which Lenin was at the head of the revolution which begins to resemble the later experience. Nor can it be seriously argued that the early years ‘paved the way’ for the later ones. In regard to the issue of concern here, that notion is very misleading. Obviously, the centralization of power which occurred and the ‘military style’ which came to dominate the way things were done were of help to Stalin in his ascent to power. But to make much of this is to blur the enormity of the difference in kind between the two periods, and the fact that it took a qualitatively different state of affairs to make possible the ‘liquidation’ and incarceration of millions upon millions of people, the creation of an all-pervasive police regime based on fear and delation, the total suppression of any vestige of criticism of Stalin and his policies. This was Stalinism; and it was not inscribed in either Leninist theory or practice. Whatever judgment may be passed on Leninism, it must not, as a matter of simple historical accuracy, be turned into the progenitor or early version of Stalinism. In so doing, Bettelheim renders a great disservice to the elucidation of Soviet experience, which socialists badly need and which he wants to provide. He does not: he has only exchanged one set of blinkers for another.

[1] Charles Bettelheim, Les Luttes de Classes en URSS 1917–1923, Maspéro/Seuil, Paris 1974.

[2] Ibid. p. 42.

[3] Ibid. p. 40. Italics in text.

[4] Ibid. p. 397.

[5] Ibid. p. 19.

[6] Ibid. p. 118.

[7] Ibid. p. 117. Italics in text.

[8] Ibid. p. 19.

[9] Ibid. p. 41, n. 1.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid. p. 146, n. 2. He also uses ‘state bourgeoisie’ later as meaning the developed element of which ‘the bureaucracy’ of the state and the party were the embryo in the early days of the Revolution; and he further defines it as that ‘directing fraction’ which ‘disposes of the whole or the essential part of the means of production, and where these are activated on the basis of capitalist relations of production (particularly the capitalist division of labour)’ (pp. 279–80. Italics in text).

[12] Ibid. p. 147.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid. pp. 368–9. Italics in text.

[15] Ibid. p. 371. Italics in text.

[16] Ibid. pp. 49, 309–10, 464–5 and passim.

[17] Ibid. p. 147.

[18] For an instructive comparison with Bettelheim’s treatment, see the second part of Marcel Liebman’s Leninism Under Lenin, London 1975.

[19] Ibid. p. 36.

[20] Ibid. p. 37.

[21] Ibid. pp. 37–8.

[22] Ibid. p. 38.

[23] Ibid. p. 39.

[24] Ibid. My italics.

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