Raya Dunayevskaya, The Marxist-Humanist Theory of State Capitalism, News and Letters, Chicago, 1992, pp168

This interesting book is a collection of analyses of the Soviet Union and like social formations elaborated between 1942 and 1986, published to mark ‘the fiftieth anniversary of the birth of Dunayevskaya’s theory of state capitalism’ (p ix). At the time of compilation her first such essay, written in 1941 and published in the Internal Bulletin of Max Shachtman’s Workers Party, could not be located (p ix, n3), but it has turned up since and can be consulted in News and Letters (October 1992). Since the appearance of this book coincides with the collapse of the Soviet state and its system in Eastern Europe, we are now in a position to study the development of her ideas over a well-defined period, and attempt an evaluation of her distinctive contribution. It is all the more absorbing because the book presents a ‘state capitalist’ theory completely different from that so well known in Britain from the work of Tony Cliff. Indeed, the preface admits that such analyses of the USSR had already been made by the Socialist Party of Great Britain and some dissident Anarchists, Council Communists and Trotskyists, but claims that ‘for all these tendencies, however, state capitalism was little more than a political swear word, as none sought to prove its existence on the basis of a thorough analysis of the Russian economy’ (p xi, n8). A bit of humility would not have come amiss here in view of the work of Korsch, Bordiga and Mattick, but let us proceed to examine the book, nonetheless.

Apart from the main thesis, to which we must proceed later, let us begin with a number of valuable observations made in the course of the argument. Basing herself four-square on Marx, Dunayevskaya makes an effective onslaught upon the common misconception that there is something inherently Socialist, or revolutionary, about state owned property as such. Noting that to begin with Marx described labour in class society as slave, serf or wage slave (p18), she points out that it was in the Grundrisse that he ‘first worked out the Asiatic Mode of Production’, considering it ‘of such fundamental historic significance in human development that he designated it as the “fourth” form’ (p14). Thus ‘communal ownership in and of itself does not denote a new, non-private property epoch’ (p22), since ‘for Marx the abolition of private property was not an end in itself, but a means toward the abolition of the alienated mode of labour’ (p23). She also disposes of the idea that state capitalism is a theoretical impossibility for Marxists by quoting the ‘knockout blow’ delivered in Volume Two of Capital:

We must not follow the manner copied by Proudhon from bourgeois economy, which looks upon this matter as though a society with a capitalist mode of production would lose its specific historical and economic characteristics by being taken as a unit. Not at all. We have, in that case, to deal with the aggregate capitalist. (p96)

And we can only agree when she says about the Soviet Union that this ‘fetishism of state property arises from the fact that the form of state property appeared in history as workers’ state property and thus identified with a new production relation, which became attached to the thing, statified property’ (p26).

Her observations upon the development of Lenin’s ideas are no less illuminating. For those who have accorded Materialism and Empiriocriticism the status of holy writ, she notes that this book gives ‘the green light to vulgar materialism’, and properly emphasises ‘Lenin’s break with his own philosophic past emanating from his later, profound Philosophic Notebooks’ (p112). Most significant in view of Russia’s evolution in these last few years is her reminder that in March 1922 Lenin had quoted one of Kolchak’s ministers as ‘speaking the class truth’ when he claimed that Soviet power was already taking ‘the road that will lead it to the ordinary bourgeois state’ (p111; Collected Works, Volume 33, pp286-7).

By contrast, Trotsky and his followers are less generously dealt with. She wrote in 1942 that:

When Trotsky failed to check the abstraction, workers’ state, against the reality, the Soviet Union, the mistake, in a practical sense, was a minor one because it concerned the viable workers’ state of Lenin and Trotsky, which was still a workers’ state, though bureaucratically distorted. But when Trotsky carried over his mistaken conception of the workers’ state to the state of Stalin, the mistake was fatal. (p26)

Over the second Chinese Revolution of 1925-28, Trotsky is criticised in vulgar Stalinist manner for contributing to the defeat ‘by his refusal to face the revolutionary nature of the peasantry’, while Mao ‘had singled out the peasantry as the revolutionary force and went his own way’ (p8). Since Trotsky had already been accused in the preface of ‘tail-ending the Communist Party-supported Popular Front government’ in Spain (p xi), the impression we get from these sectarians is that any stick is alright to beat the old dog with, even if some of the criticisms of his followers, such as those Bolivians who in 1952 became ‘part of a class-collaborationist government’ (p6), are well-directed. Our suspicions about this personalisation of politics are confirmed later, when CLR James is attacked for being ‘altogether preoccupied with probing the “social personality” of “original characters” and the “uniqueness” of the great literary writer and the greater literary critic’ (p102), and Ernest Mandel is quite falsely accused of holding the view that Russia was ‘Socialist’ (pp128, 130).

And whilst we can only admire the acumen with which Dunayevskaya demonstrates that the workers in the Soviet Union were subject to the operations of a single capital (‘a bourgeois state without a bourgeoisie’, as Lenin himself called it, though for all her appeal to the dialectic she does not seem to have grasped this particular formulation), her theory of how the ‘viable workers’ state’ of Lenin and Trotsky became a capitalist state is surprisingly simplistic. For while she holds that ‘Stakhanovism made possible the development of a labor aristocracy’ (p75) (as opposed to the plain facts of the case, that it was the other way round), her real bête noire in the ruling group is the intelligentsia (pp67-70, 76, 85). Describing the ambitions of ‘the middle-class intellectual’, she contends that ‘where he doesn’t come to the position “naturally” (that is, through counter-revolution, as in Russia, where he is openly designated as the ruling class), he is perfectly willing to sacrifice whatever is necessary in order that he might become the representative of the State Plan in field and factory’ (p106). This view of the social origins of the new states is quite simply the old hash of Bakunin and Machajski warmed up a bit (cf Revolutionary History, Volume 3, no 1, Summer 1990, pp40-1), that Socialist ideas about the need to seize state power represent no more than the desires of the petit-bourgeoisie to enjoy governmental positions.

For one who so identifies herself with spontaneous revolt against the state, Dunayevskaya’s theory of how the counter-revolution took place in the Soviet Union (dated by her to 1935-37) is amazingly legalistic — we might almost say reformist. There was, apparently, no assault upon or shattering of the apparatus of the workers’ state. Here was a quiet counter-revolution, if ever there was one:

The counter-revolution did not make a ‘formal appearance’, with arms in hand, and therefore it was hard to recognise it. Along with the bureaucratisation of the apparatus and loss of political control over the state by the proletariat, the relations of production were undergoing a transformation. (p74)

So how did this ‘transformation’ manifest itself at state level? ‘To legitimise the counter-revolution against October, the new class needed a new constitution.’ (p75) This was none other than the ‘Stalin Constitution’ of 1936, which according to her ‘legalised the existence of the intelligentsia as a special “group” in Soviet society’ (p84)! Here we see the origins of that strange significance accorded by American Marxists to a document that was intended as a scrap of paper from the start, a mere exercise in Popular Front foreign policy propaganda, the ‘most democratic constitution in the world’, drafted and revised at the height of the purges by two people who were about to lose their lives in them (cf my remarks in Revolutionary History, Volume 3, No 4, Autumn 1991, p36). She thus maintains, along with Walter Daum, that ‘the Moscow Trials of 1937 [why not those of 1936?] were the culminating point to the counter-revolution that we saw developing early in the changed relations of production’, and that ‘the October Revolution was exterminated and the proletarian state overthrown not only by the execution of the Old Bolsheviks who led it, but by clearing a place in the process of production for the new class’ (p76). These mental devices for establishing the turning point in 1935-37 are laughably Talmudic, for Stalin’s total power had been established long before, and these trials were only part of a series that had been going on for years, apart from the fact that the number of different dates proposed from 1917 onwards for the establishment of a capitalist state by the various ‘state capitalist’ analyses of Russia show that this theory is useless for understanding the development of that country.

Since her theory is so clearly inadequate to explain how these new state forms arose, it is also little guide as to how they have started to fall. Although Dunayevskaya died six years ago and thus never witnessed this herself, she maintained her conviction to the end that the Soviet Union continued to ‘plan’ its economy (in defiance of the facts, as Hillel Ticktin has shown) and to ‘produce commodities’ (even though wages piled up, and could not be spent). This has led the tendency she inspired to claim that what we have now seen is that ‘the “Soviet” rulers, faced with an insurmountable economic morass, jettisoned their “Communist” ideology and embraced “free market” capitalism without, however, giving up their position as “masters” over the process of production’ in an ‘effort to restructure state capitalism’s existing institutions as part of extracting ever more unpaid hours of labor from the workers’ (p x). Dunayevskaya does, however, have a devastating answer to those who would disinter Shachtman’s ‘new class’ theories. Quoting from the Russian periodical Pod Znamenem Marxizma, she effectively proves that already by 1943 the regime itself had admitted that the law of value operated in the USSR: ‘Value of the commodities in a Socialist [sic!] society is determined not by the units of labour expended in its production, but upon the quality of labour socially necessary for its production and reproduction.’ (p78)

In fact, she points out, ‘the low productivity of Russian labour conflicted with the high productivity of international labour’ (p42). And if the Soviet Union were a new form of class society, why did it employ wage labour to begin with? This argument has double weight when applied to the coexistence of wage labour with more primitive forms of exploitation. ‘The idea that a superior form of production can coexist with slave labour destroys the entire Marxist conception of the development of labour in society’, she notes (p33). So far she seems to analyse the Soviet economy as having been a particularly backward form of capitalism, but like all other ‘state capitalist’ theorists she is unable to make up her mind in the end as to whether it does not, in fact, represent a mirror of the future of the rest of the world, a higher stage of capitalism. For the developed form of her theory 35 years later held that ‘we should also speak of state capitalism as being not so much the “logical conclusion” and “highest stage” of capitalism, as about the transformation of monopoly capitalism into its opposite, state capitalism’ (p98), and that ‘it is the age of state capitalism as a world phenomenon’ (p125). This would certainly seem to imply that state capitalism is a higher form than the ‘free enterprise’ variety more familiar to us, though to be fair to the author, she never actually says this.

So how, in the end, do we account for this strange mixture of deep insight and flawed over-generalisation in Dunayevskaya’s mental constructs? It can only be located in the gap opened up between her economic analysis and her theory of revolution, which brings us to the weakness lying behind her philosophical assumptions. As the preface to this book puts it, ‘from the beginning her theory of state capitalism was not limited to an economic or political analysis, but reached for philosophy’ (p ix). For although other critics of Stalinism are held to have ‘kept their distance from working out a philosophy of liberation, preferring instead to cling to one or another form of economic determinism or political voluntarism’, and so to have narrowed ‘the very concept of what is Marx’s Marxism’ (p viii), in fact her own approach contains both economic determinism and voluntarism in full measure. Speaking of the rise of dictatorship in the ‘Third World’, we are told that:

The recent retrogressive moves in some of the newly-independent countries — military takeovers — are not the result only of the pull of the vortex of the world economy — neo-colonialism, although that, of course, played not an unimportant part. Rather, they are closely related to the fact that the new leaders moved away from the spontaneity and revolutionary zeal of the very people that made possible the revolutionary victory. (p121)

This method of analysis becomes even more crude when applied by her epigones to such as ‘Fidel Castro’s Cuba, which had at first embraced Humanism only to end up following the state capitalist model of Russia’, which is held to have developed in this direction not as the result of a little matter of the three million a day it cost the Soviet Union to keep it in existence, but because ‘the price of sugar is still dependent upon the socially necessary labour time established by world production’ (p xix).

This form of analysis, which zigzags so violently between making the development of political events depend on the particular whims of individuals and leaving humanity to the uncontrolled domination of market forces, bears no resemblance to the Marxist theory of history being the creative activity of human beings within given social relations at all. Dunayevskaya’s vaunted ‘Marxist-Humanism’ turns out to be a ‘Marxism’ with no programmatic principles, no theory of the party, and no theory of working-class organisation outside of spontaneism. Indeed, it is even doubtful whether we have here a class theory at all. For whenever the working class gets a mention in this ‘concept of freedom encompassing new man-woman relations, new relations at work and in the family, new human relations between the races’ (p viii) it is as one category among others in the usual American left litany of ‘workers, women, youth’ and ‘the Black Dimension’ (pp xviii, 136, 142 and 151), that is, where it is mentioned at all, which is often not the case (for example pp147, xii-xiii, etc). It is a very poor result to all this economic analysis and philosophising, if it only comes down to confirming the rainbow coalition prejudices held by the left in the USA in the first place (and all too often here as well). The mountains laboured, and brought forth a mouse.

When, oh when, are today’s Marxists going to dump these ‘don’t nuke gay whales’ lifestyle politics and start talking about class again?

Al Richardson