Intro to Political Economy Essay Series


Class Theory and History: Capitalism and Communism in the USSR by Resnick and Wolff: A Review

by Satya J. Gabriel

This essay was presented at Rethinking Marxism's Fifth International Gala Conference: Marxism and the World Stage

November, 2003

There are a great many important theoretical contributions made in this text. However, I am less than sanguine about the degree of acceptance, at least in the short-term, of the well-argued thesis that the collapse of the Soviet Union did not represent a failure of communism, but was, rather, a transition from one variant form of capitalism to another.

My reasons for being less than optimistic are shaped by debates over the class-nature of the Chinese revolution and contemporary Chinese society (where I have been arguing that China has undergone a transition from feudalism to state capitalism since the 1949 Revolution). Recognition that a great deal is at stake in the terms used to describe social formations and the definitions of those terms has produced a strong and often bitter reaction to applying the adjectives and underlying concepts "capitalist" and "feudal" to post-1949 China. One would anticipate no less emotional a reaction to the use of such terms in any analysis of the USSR.

What is at stake? It seems that words are very difficult creatures. They take on meaning like dogs take on fleas. And like fleas the meaning is very mobile and often difficult to find, although a source of a great deal of irritation and expense. Capitalism, feudalism, socialism, and communism are four words that have an abundance of fleas. Class Theory and History by Stephen A. Resnick and Richard D. Wolff pushes us to rethink these and other terms, to recognize their complexity, in particular the first and last of this list of four terms. Most importantly, it pushes us to stop using the terms as substitutes for analysis and, instead, to use the terms as the culmination of a diagnosis --- the diagnosis of a living patient, a social formation or, when in the form of the adjectives capitalist and communist, like the adjectives ancient, feudal, and slave, as modifiers of the term class process.

We must not presume capitalist or communist or ancient or feudal or slave class processes in any particular instance, in any particular social formation or subspace within a social formation, but do the work. Resnick and Wolff do the work in the specific case of the USSR. They do so with the tools of a Marxian analysis rooted in the idea of surplus appropriation and distribution as the defining aspects of class processes --- the basis for using the aforementioned adjectives. They do this while also recognizing the many other ways in which the term class is and has been used. They are making a contribution to our understanding by positing this surplus appropriation and distribution meaning for class: providing a unique way of making sense of the development and transitions that occurred within the USSR. Ironically, one of the implications of their approach is that if the particular conceptual framework and particular concepts of class they deploy had been widely used within the USSR that society would have developed and transitioned in completely different ways. Thus, this is also a story of opportunities lost: of what the USSR could have been , not just what it was. I'll return to this point at the end.

There has always been a certain ad hoc nature to the way that terms capitalism, communism, and feudalism have been used in the social scientific literature. Arguably, the term slavery has been used with more specificity. The term feudalism has been so closely connected to the various configurations of political, cultural, economic, and environmental conditions of a historical moment in Europe that it has very nearly lost any specifically economic meaning. Communism has been similarly conflated with the conditions generated in the USSR after Stalin rose to power. And capitalism has largely been collapsed into either an idealized market economy or conflated with some combination of private property, profit maximization, and entrepreneurialism. Nevermind that such a broad definition of capitalism allows it to take on enough shapes (including most manifestations of self-employment and slavery) to put Proteus to shame.

In any event, the rethinking of Marxian theory in Resnick and Wolff's work have made the terms simultaneously narrower and more complex. We can now define class processes in surplus appropriation and distribution terms such that it becomes possible to clearly differentiate exploitation from non-exploitation, and to identify the specific social arrangements under which exploitation occurs, to determine the appropriate adjective, feudalism, capitalism, or slavery, to define particular instances of exploitation. We can see capitalism through the veil of protean conditions of existence that make capitalist exploitation possible and we can see non-capitalist class processes in instances where others might casually presume capitalism to exist. This new way of seeing, the resurrection of Marx's unique method of identifying exploitation, makes it possible to identify variant forms of feudalism, capitalism, slavery, ancientism, and communism in a wide range of alternative conditions of existence. It becomes possible, for example, to theorize capitalism with private forms of ownership or state forms of ownership or some combination of the two. It becomes possible to theorize capitalism with varying degrees of market and governmental allocation, with more or less centralized planning. And it becomes possible to conceptualize (and observe) a wide range of possible agents acting in the role of capitalist appropriator, including state functionaries. The same logic holds for feudalism and slavery. We could, for example, observe at various historical and geographic moments private or state forms of feudalism, or private or state forms of slavery. Similarly, we may find free market versions of slavery or feudalism at certain instances and state regulated circulation at the core of such systems at other instances.

Thus, in their specific rethinking of the USSR, Resnick and Wolff do not presume that social formation to have been communist, feudal, capitalist, ancient, or slave, although they may identify variant forms of these class processes within the USSR in different proportions. Instead, they do the work and find that capitalism prevailed in the USSR over the sweep of its history, although oscillating between private and state forms over broad stretches of time with instances of other class processes occurring simultaneously. Let me repeat the key point: capitalism prevailed in the USSR. Capitalism prevailed in the sense that capitalist exploitation prevailed over all other forms of surplus appropriation and distribution. When they use their theoretical tools to dissect economic life in the USSR, Resnick and Wolff do not find that workers control their own surplus labor, as would be implied by communism. Instead, they find that a state bureaucracy controls that surplus labor in an arrangement that is, in class terms, no different from what can be found in any capitalist social formation, whether the United States or Japan or Haiti. Even more dramatically they find very little evidence of communism in the USSR and even when they find some instances of communism, at the micro scale, they also find that the policies of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) added to the negative pressures that undermined communism and in many cases destroyed it altogether.

Let's take stock of these ideas. The country that is often called the Great Experiment in Communism had very little communism and was ruled by a communist party that was, in practice, anti-communist. Instead, the USSR was dominated by capitalist exploitation, albeit state capitalist exploitation, for most of its history.

This illustrates another important theoretical point: if different forms of ownership, including both private and state forms, can be adapted to serve the reproduction of capitalism, then capitalism is far more complex and reproducible than in the traditional conceptions. It may take a good deal more to change the class nature of a social formation than has been conceived in the teleological stories of classical Marxism.

Similarly, capitalism can be reproduced under a wide range of political conditions of existence. In their analysis of Stalinism, Resnick and Wolff find this politico-social arrangement to have been an important condition for the reproduction and expansion of state capitalism in the USSR.

Indeed, we see in the text the power of the industrialization parable within the CPSU as a force driving the expansion of capitalist exploitation. The Soviet leadership and nomenklatura focused upon industrialization/modernization as key signs of "socialism's" success. They did not see class as surplus appropriation and distribution. This absence of vision coupled with the presence of the parable of modernity/industrialization is an important influence on the shape of the Soviet polity and economy. An implication of Resnick and Wolff's work is that if the presence had been an absence and vice versa, if the Soviet leadership had not held the parable of industrialization at their core and if they had a conception of their project in terms of liberating workers from exploitation, where exploitation was understood in terms of surplus appropriation then the USSR would have been a very different kind of society. The rare instances of communism, eventually squashed, would have more likely been fostered.

This is a lesson about the past but it is also a lesson for the future. Indeed, Resnick and Wolff close their text with a self-assessment of the potential impact of conducting the sort of class analysis that is the substance of Class Theory and History, stating their hope that such an analysis might contribute to recognition of the aforementioned absences and suppressions (of communism) in the struggles over the political, economic, and cultural structure of the USSR and promote a real experiment in communism, on a social scale, in some future post-revolutionary society.



Copyright © 2003, Satya J. Gabriel, Mount Holyoke College