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Class Struggles in the USSR 1917-23 by Charles Bettelheim

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August 2011
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A major criticism that I had of Maoists for a long time was that their analysis of the Soviet Union was utterly simplistic. I believed that Maoists looked on the Stalin period as largely positive and suddenly saw a capitalist restoration in 1956 when Khrushchev denounced Stalin. However, as stated in my summary of Mao’s’ Critique of Soviet Economics, Mao himself had a nuanced view of the USSR. Yet it was the Maoist economist Charles Betteheim who provided a deep historical and theoretical look at the Soviet experience. Bettelheim’s work, Class Struggles in the USSR 1917-23, uses the tools of Maoist criticism to get at the roots of Soviet problems.

Bettelheim is critical of economist-style Marxism which he sees as a heritage of the Second International. Economism can be simply defined as a Marxism that sees only the productive forces as the driving motor of history. Economism only sees the economic contradictions in the class struggle which in turn promotes a narrow focus on the working class. Bettelheim believes that Bolsheviks in their majority (aside from Lenin) had a largely economist outlook. Bettelheim, like Mao Zedung, believes Marxist praxis needs to look at more than productive relations, but toward changing the superstructure (politics, ideology and culture). Since the Bolsheviks didn’t adequately challenge bourgeois survivals in the superstructure, this was a cause for a great many of their problems.

Bettelheim makes the case that it is not enough for the revolution to simply seize the factories. This merely establishes a new legal relation. For instance, a new political regime can say that the workers are in charge of the factories. Yet that is only the outward appearance. Is that the case on the shop floor? Bettelheim argues that Marxists need to look beyond the appearance to the essence, were workers actually in command?

Workers in the USSR did not effectively exercise control over the factories according to Bettelheim because only the judicial forms of ownership were challenged, not the actual forms of control. Since the Bolsheviks had a largely economist analysis, they did not challenge bourgeois survivals in the superstructure. These bourgeois survivals (such as commandism and bureaucracy) remained in the factories. The law of value (capitalism) was being reproduced. Bettelheim believes that new socialist relations of production need to be built consciously by the workers themselves. They can not evolve of their own accord. Like Mao, Bettelheim believes this means communist politics needs to be in command.

However, the Bolsheviks made mistakes as Bettelheim recognizes. Some of which were inevitable due to them being revolutionary pioneers. Other mistakes came from the need to survive amidst economic breakdown and civil war. The Bolsheviks survived these challenges. Bettelheim seems to wonder if from that victory came a defeat.

In order to prevail in the civil war, the Bolsheviks had to make use of former bourgeois in the state and administering the economy. This was also done in the schools and the Red Army. Old production relations were largely left in place in the countryside too. Bettelheim believes these bourgeois bring in their mode of operation (which was not proletariat). Once in the state and administration, the former bourgeois produced and reproduced those relations. A great failing of the Bolsheviks to Bettelheim was that these bourgeois relations were not challenged and in turn infected the party itself.

Yet Bettelheim believes that Lenin saw the dangers that came with the bourgeois survivals in Soviet Russia. It is here that Bettelheim undertakes a provocative reinterpretation of the New Economic Policy (NEP). By 1921, the Soviet economy was in ruins and needed to be rebuilt. Lenin saw the need to allow limited free market to help the USSR rebuild. Yet Bettelheim believes that Lenin’s NEP was not merely a retreat from communism or about rebuilding the economy. Rather, Lenin was seeking a way forward to rebuild a socialist (not a tsarist) state and forge a worker-peasant alliance.

Lenin’s approach to building a socialist state was mulch-faceted. For one, Lenin was looking for a way in which the workers were going to lead the peasantry to socialism. And to accomplish this, Lenin believed that workers needed to adopt a mass line approach in regards to the peasants to win them over. Furthermore, Lenin also wanted changes in the old production relations and control by the masses over state and the party (politics in command as it were). Lenin also wanted a cultural revolution that would rid the peasantry of their feudalistic and serf-like habits. This process was not something handed down to the peasantry from above, but a process they were going to be actively involved in. Far from seeing the peasantry as hostile to socialism, Lenin believed that they were a necessary ally. Together, the peasantry and workers would build socialism not just in the economy but in the superstructure.

It seems to me that Bettelheim is reading too much of Mao in Lenin. Yet his interpretation is intriguing to say the least. Bettelheim does make a convincing case for Lenin’s new strategic course. However, due to the economist outlook of many of the Bolsheviks and the growing power of the bourgeois in the Soviet state machine, Lenin’s ideas were not taken up after he died.

Bettelheim’s work in bold and path breaking in many respects. He provides a deep Maoist analysis of Soviet developments to 1923. His work should be studied by any serious revolutionary.


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