On Bureaucratic Collectivism

Barry Finger

[from New Politics, vol. 6, no. 3 (new series), whole no. 23, Summer 1997]

Barry Finger is a member of the New Politics editorial board. His last article on this subject, "Was Russia a Workers' State?" appeared in Volume V, No. 2, Winter 1995.

THE WHOLESALE EXTINCTION OF STALINISM FROM THE EUROPEAN CONTINENT and its dramatic organizational transformation elsewhere has lent impetus to the resurrection of long dormant anti-statist themes in the capitalist West. Rather than having the salutary effect of clearing a path to the Marxian idea of remaking society from below -- of dispensing with the need for modernizing elites, of educational dictatorships from on high, and of permanent dependence on self-perpetuating bureaucracies -- the demise of Stalinism has had the corrosive consequence of thoroughly discrediting both revolutionary change and socialist aspiration itself. That this is so testifies to just how tightly identified Stalinism has been in the popular mind with revolutionary socialism, and how socialism itself has been seen as having maintained a diluted Western expression in the social-democratic welfare state. However unwelcome, this consequence can not be said to have been unanticipated. For whatever else so murderously separated capitalism from Stalinism, they remained unified both in their overarching fear of the revolutionary, democratic ideals which gave birth to the Russian revolution and to a working class whose latent power, once awakened, threatens the continuation of minority class rule, no matter the form. The opprobrium with which socialism is now so deeply stained is the unsavory dividend of decades of Stalinist ideological collaboration with the housebroken legions of the western intelligentsia -- both of the right and "left-wing" variety -- ever eager to adorn the latest Stalinist outrage with the patina of socialism.

In Neither Capitalism nor Socialism,* a volume painstakingly put together from obscure journals and bulletins now virtually unattainable, Ernest Haberkern and Arthur Lipow introduce and place into political context the emergence of a unique and dissident political and intellectual current from the Trotskyist movement which, from its inception, wrestled with the issues that shaped and defined the past 60 years of world history. The book is divided into four sections which roughly correspond to the political chronology of "bureaucratic collectivism" from its embryonic beginnings. It ranges from the rejoinders to Leon Trotsky by James Burnham and French Trotskyist Yves Craipeau, through the conquest of new political and theoretical departures against the backdrop of the Hitler-Stalin Pact World War II and the post-war extension of Stalinism throughout Eastern Europe and China. Written from a revolutionary socialist perspective, it contains contributions from Max Shachtman, Hal Draper, Dwight Macdonald, Joseph Carter and Jack Brad. In their introduction, Haberkern and Lipow assess the significance of bureaucratic collectivism -- a third form society, neither capitalist nor socialist -- not only in historical perspective, that is, in its Stalinist form, but as a continuing challenge for socialism in the emerging post-Cold War world.

The Yugoslav revolutionary Ante Ciliga expressed the problem in its full profundity.

The enigma of the Russian revolution that humanity and the international workers' movement must solve is exactly this: how has it come about that all that constitutes the October revolution has been entirely abolished, while its outward forms have been retained; that the exploitation of workers and peasants have been brought back to life without reviving private capitalists and landowners; that a revolution, begun in order to abolish the exploitation of man by man, has ended by installing a new type of exploitation.

Others, including Ciliga offered explanations and some in the narrowest and most formal sense approached political conclusions arrived at by the Workers Party-Independent Socialist League (WP-ISL), from whose pages or under whose inspiration, this book is largely culled. Trotsky himself came to the precipice, conceding that the trajectory of revolutionary degeneration might well hurl society back beyond capitalism to a new form of class slavery. The question of whether the burgeoning Soviet bureaucracy was best understood as "class" or "caste" was ultimately fended off by Trotsky who anticipated a revolutionary upsurge at the end of World War II which would reduce the issue to one of historic curiosity without practical significance.

This was a dodge which could not be sustained by the end of the war. A sober response to Ciliga's question required transcending the type of analysis by platitude which satisfied itself by characterizing Stalinism as merely a form of "totalitarianism" and that explained its genesis by the outcome of "crimes and excesses," or "mistaken policies" that were the inevitable result of immutable historic phenomena. The theory of bureaucratic collectivism argued, to the contrary, that the tendencies which give rise to this new form of class society, once understood, could only be combated and eradicated by a self-organized and politically conscious working class; that socialism, in other words, cannot be achieved without the full and active participation of the working class in building its new social order. And this is what distinguishes the precursors of the theory such as Bruno Rizzi or James Burnham -- who insisted with a dogged determination reinforced by their own rich but nonetheless one-dimensional insights into the phenomenon, that the historic moment for socialism had passed -- from the independent socialist tendency of the WP-ISL for whom bureaucratic collectivism became the anteroom to a reorientation of socialist theory. In the hands of the latter, bureaucratic collectivism facilitated the cleansing or jettisoning of the most mistaken views of revolutionary socialism and became a vehicle for the forceful reassertion and amplification of that cardinal principle of Marxism, namely, the fundamental inseparability of socialism and democracy, and for the repositioning of that understanding at the very heart of the revolutionary socialist program.1

It is moreover to the lasting credit of the WP-ISL that they drew an understanding from this premise that the production relations of a state collectivism without democratic feedback from below, that is of totalitarian collectivism, would eventually engender insurmountable impediments to the continued viability of the system itself. That they were at first overzealous in this regard, believing that Stalinism was nationally confined, does not detract from the essential breakthrough provided by the theory. It does place them light-years ahead of that long list of learned folk who saw, for good or ill, humanity's future tied to one variant or another of bureaucratic collectivism.

Other tendencies and political currents on the left, such as social democracy and "orthodox" Trotskyism, also profess hatred of Stalinism, but lack even the most rudimentary understanding of it. They have remained, at best, non-Stalinist, powerless to contribute -- much less enrich -- a broader anti-Stalinist current. It is precisely in their lack of understanding of bureaucratic collectivism that they remain, for all their otherwise demonstrably robust distinctions, symmetrical political entities. It is not merely that both have historically "defended" socialism by acting as ideological agents of reconciliation between the Western working classes and the ruling classes of one of the two contending imperialist forces. That they also did so, despite urging the working classes to remain politically independent of the Stalinist parties and movements, where this was still possible, was equally an imperative of organizational self-justification as it was a symptom of anti-Stalinist insight and therefore no more laudable for that pretext alone.

THE LARGER ROOT OF THE NON-STALINIST LEFT'S ideological confusion, however, lies rather in the differing weight assigned by it and the independent socialist tendency to the connection of socialism and democracy. Irresolution at this fundamental level has time and again rendered the non-Stalinist left ideologically susceptible to a weakened contagion of the same strain of bureaucratic collectivism which it opposes in its most virulent form. This manifests itself in the continuing "discovery" of some purported underlying socialistic dynamic to existing class societies as justification for their respective political capitulations: social democracy identified this momentum in the growth of public enterprises under capitalism, as well as in the state management of demand and the broad administrative regulation of corporate behavior; Trotskyism 2 (and the Stalinoid wing of social democracy, for that matter) in the enlargement of nationalized industry and state planning under Stalinism. Either way, socialism is found to have emerged through bureaucratic labyrinths, behind the backs and without the active stewardship of the working class -- indeed regardless of whether the working class, however large its social weight, plays any active political role whatsoever in society or is even, for that matter, the beneficiary of the most elementary of political rights.

The collapse of state collectivization in the East and its parallel shrinkage in the West is of comparatively recent circumstance. As a social tendency, however, the rise of the bureaucracy as a third social force in contemporary society had its roots in the mounting inability of inter- and post-war capitalist accumulation to maintain social cohesiveness. In the Stalinist social system, bureaucratic collectivism emerged full blown from the defeat of the Russian working class and the annihilation of the Bolshevik party. It was historically rooted in the very backwardness of Russian capitalism, yet had as its precondition the successful revolutionary destruction of capitalist power. But where a doddering capitalism was limping along -- still profitable perhaps, but plainly incapable of maintaining social coherence on its own accord -- reliance on bureaucratic crutches was a painful yet unavoidable concession to reality.

This social tendency forced its way through different channels than those experienced in Russia. Clearly bureaucratic intrusions especially in post-war European society, but paralleled by the burgeoning permanent arms economy and nascent welfare statism of America, were historic innovations signifying something other than the mere bolstering of capitalism. These departures inoculated capitalism with the germ-cells of a unique and unprecedented set of social relations. Personnel from the disintegrating managerial and administrative strata of capitalism -- enlisted both to oversee the state sector and to reassure and thereby fracture the resistance of capital to it -- merged with breakaway sections of the labor bureaucracy. Superimposed and crowding against the dynamic of capital self-expansion, there was now an ever-expanding state bureaucracy, drawing its strength increasingly at the expense of the two contending classes and against the social alternatives which they represented.

This project assumed a variety of national experience, from overt statist planning in France, to the functional merger of the state with leading cartels in Japan. National peculiarities aside, the mixed economies found their common attribute in the permanently sustained increase of the proportionate size of government expenditure. This gave the state a propulsive role not only in determining the volume, but in shaping the composition of overall demand. Demand management at the state level fundamentally altered certain characteristics of the business cycle and, moreover, suggested a back door by which it could begin to supplant the capital market as the primary allocative mechanism of investment. This was a tendency not only foreseen, but welcomed by Keynes as foreshadowing the "euthanasia of the rentier."

Haberkern and Lipow unfortunately locate the bureaucratic collectivist inroads to capitalism elsewhere -- not in the rise of an ever more autonomous state bureaucracy, but in the corporate form itself. This is a relapse into Burnham's theory in the Managerial Revolution and a retreat from the analysis that stems directly from Marx. For the latter, the modern joint stock company is notable precisely because shareholders collectivize risk and profit and thereby, by degrees, negate the anarchy of the marketplace. This expresses the self-collectivizing tendencies within a healthy and dynamic capitalism. It is a step further in organizational modification well beyond the earlier transformation of the capitalist pricing system into a redistributive mechanism allocating surplus-value in accordance with average profit rates. By these means, capitalism, in its corporate form, is able to vastly augment its ability to accumulate, to rationalize its existing production facilities and to avail itself of technological advances which, together, marked capitalist production as truly synonymous with mass production. The corporate bureaucracy, moreover, fails to evolve in the direction of class autonomy, because as soon as it acquires capital it is reabsorbed into the preexisting network of social relations and is subject to the same social parameters as the organizational property form which gave birth to it.

THOSE COLLECTIVIZING MEASURES, ON THE OTHER HAND, WHICH AROSE from the need to hold a disintegrating capitalism together -- which were not, in other words, an organic outgrowth of capitalist accumulation itself, but of its mounting difficulties -- represented an internal adaptation and concession to a rising third social force operating on a world scale. The very permanence of supplementary state interventions signified a tacit acknowledgement of the immanence of crisis conditions simmering below the surface of post-war prosperity. But because the state sector is so completely entangled with the modern market economy, it is impossible, as a practical matter, to anticipate what adjustments a shrinkage in the state sector could generate in any concrete situation to offset the slack in demand. Nevertheless, the continued recourse of capitalism to the adjunct of a mixed economy signifies a continued process of internal decay, of a capitalism unable to utilize the very economic resources that it, itself, generates. Even in the midst of relative affluence, American capitalism has proven chronically incapable of solving the economic question for millions of workers, above all for black and minority communities which continue to exist in a Lazarus-like economic twilight.

The problem is that although state production detracts from capital accumulation, it is also possible that economic activity would be even more depressed in the absence of state-induced production. This is because when the state borrows idle capital it mobilizes assets which would not be otherwise used and absorbs them into its own sphere. Markets are thereby cleared, but without system-wide accumulation and, moreover, without the imperative improvement in overall profitability previously required for self-resolution in the classical form of capitalist crises. The state simply places into circulation a chain of inputs from intermediary suppliers that can now be individually realized as profits through the issuance of state contracts. State activity, under such circumstances, extends economic activity beyond the point where it is capitalistically justifiable. Any future deterioration in the level of state demand can then only be offset by an invigorated accumulation process if the conditions of profitability have already been reestablished; if the previously existing idle capital could now, in other words, be capitalistically employed. Should real accumulation actually resume this would be attributable not to the actions of the state, either in priming the pump or in relinquishing its control over economic resources, but because excess capital values have previously been purged and an overall improvement in the extraction of surplus value has already been attained -- in short, because a massive restructuring of the system has improved the prospects for self-expansion on the part of the surviving capital values.

THE state bureaucracy in modern capitalism, as opposed to the corporate bureaucracy, has built into it an autonomizing dynamic. This is entirely distinct from Bonapartism, to which the capitalist class occasionally seeks recourse in periods of revolutionary turmoil and which may, in its extremes, attain political independence. This independence does not tend to class autonomy insofar as the Bonapartist bureaucracy does not struggle to define a separate economic role for itself in society. Its functions are confined to reinforcing and enhancing the repressive functions of the capitalist state -- functions which may require the curtailment of political rights even for bourgeois parties, but not the abridgement of bourgeois property rights, beyond the costs of repression itself. This engorged bureaucracy is an ad hoc inconvenience for capitalism to be dispensed with when its services are no longer required, as illustrated most recently by the grisly Chilean experience.

The modern administrative state bureaucracy, on the other hand, is a permanent feature of capitalism, grounded in the fundamental economic deficiencies of capitalism rather than in any acute political crisis. This state bureaucracy, even if marketing no values of its own, has no means of exchange other than what it expropriates from the private sector through its taxing or borrowing powers. (And, insofar as loans are payment through installment, debt retirement presupposes additional future taxes on capital.) For what appears to be accumulation on the part of capitalists operating under state contracts is in fact realized through the withdrawal of surplus value from the system as a whole, that is by deductions from the accumulation fund which would otherwise be available to expand the two major departments of capitalist production. The fundamental distinction between capitalist production and economic activity per se is thereby effaced. The difference between outright nationalization which, under some circumstances, can be clearly seen as anti-capitalist, and the massive state interventionism undertaken by the bureaucracy is therefore, too, an artificial one. Although clouded by the formal change in property relations, the fact remains that state-induced economic activity is fundamentally anti-capitalist in scope -- even if it provides a measure of economic stabilization -- without being socialist in content. The mixed economy may have been conceived, and is still touted, solely as a full-employment program realized through state intervention to enhance the private enterprise system. But the price paid for this temporary stability is an entrenched state apparatus which secures and expands its control over economic resources bureaucratically and wields that control both without opportunity for direct, private ownership and without relinquishing that control to democratic participation from below.

As long as capital is accumulating, the state can expand proportionally and, in tandem with the private sector, lift the economy to levels approaching full capacity employment. In such periods of relative prosperity, the tendency of the state sector to encroach beyond the established baseline level of economic involvement remains latent. So too, the revolving door that exists between the upper tier of state bureaucracy and ever more lucrative positions in the corporate bureaucracy acts as a retardant to the evolution of a solidified, institutional class consciousness on the part of state administrators. This is reinforced by the political control exercised by the bourgeois parties over large swaths of discretionary fiscal policy.

Nevertheless, "welfare statism," as such, certainly became the expression, if not the ideology, around which this new class-in-the-making began to coopt and dominate mass movements for change, promising identification with labor and reformist aspirations without actually strengthening the forces of opposition. Their support was reconfigured, not as active participants for social progress, but solely as the objects of bureaucratic action. Welfare statism offered the prospect of countering, as if class consciously, the weight of big business and big labor in the "public" interest, an interest which it so fortuitously claimed to embody. On this basis it continually expanded its mass base by uniting a cross section of class and community interest groups into unified patronage constituencies, whose continued prosperity was dependent on a corresponding growth of bureaucratic influence and power. Yet its mental horizons remained remarkably limited, as evidenced by its glaring inability to definitively advance the national integration of administrative structures.

With the end of post-war prosperity, a prosperity limited in capitalist terms both by relatively low profit rates and dependency on comparatively large doses of state-induced activity, the incipient tendency of the state to expand its consumption at the expense of capital accumulation became manifest. Yet because the inherent tendency of profit to fall under capitalism must be contravened by ever more feverish rates of accumulation, the expansion of the state sector in times of crisis threatens to intensify the breakdown of the system. The system, therefore, began to come face to face with a new social dilemma: not only was there a crisis of capitalism, but there was a crisis of the mixed economy itself -- of the interpenetration of two competing and, at length, contradictory economic dynamics at work in modern society. For state activity can at length stave off the cumulative momentum of economic contraction solely by imposing a barrier against the very massacre of values, including the value of labor-power, otherwise needed to restore profitability. But circumventing the purgative process that such a deep economic contraction would entail requires a relentless diversion of excess, non-profitable capital to the state sector, a diversion so massive as to threaten an overturn of the established social equilibrium. The elements of the predicament began to unravel in unmistakable terms: either the ever-evolving submission of the existing economy to bureaucratic direction under the auspices of the state or the decisive reassertion of the value-profit relationships of the market sector over a drastically reduced and hence manageable "public" sphere.

To arrest the decay of the private enterprise system would require nothing less than the total overhaul and reversal of the general developmental trend of post-war capitalism. To be sure, there was always a latent tendency residing in the mass base of capitalism to halt and revoke the reliance on stabilizing social forces from without its ranks for a return to traditional forms of repression and market discipline. This sentiment was usually confined to the margins of capitalist parties or beyond. The "Republican revolution," which actually has its roots in the Reagan Administration and its counterpart in the Thatcher regime, is the crowning achievement of a massive, corporately financed ideological retrenchment. Business sponsored think-tanks now offered the hat-in-hand intellectual set, the reserve army of academia, the very security so seldom available through traditional academic pursuits. It is through this conduit that capitalist reaction was sanitized and lifted from relative obscurity to new-found prominence. The taxpaying host, or some equally potent yet empty abstraction, which the bureaucracy supposedly "exploited" finally became the rallying point of reactionary resentment. The aims of this burgeoning "revolution" were quite simply to replicate through internalization the very dynamic purportedly at work internationally. Yet, this lusty second childhood that capitalism has now apparently lit upon remains recklessly oblivious to the sobering paradox that the collapse of bureaucratic collectivism in the formerly Stalinist nations has yet to offer the West any tangible commercial momentum to displace its own state sector through the export of surplus capital abroad.

Despite the right's scapegoating of the usual litany of social culprits for the hated rise of the welfare state -- in a campaign of demonization which, in its vehemence, has brought to the fore every atavistic and retrograde prejudice and paranoid delusion in the American psyche -- the fact remains that the rise of the state bureaucracy finds its reason, above all, in the malfunction of private capital production. As a form of collectivization conjured up against a disintegrating capitalist society, the mixed economy has provided the system with a degree of social cohesion purchased on the cheap. For the welfare state dissipated and diffused the oppositional tendencies of the exploited and oppressed, tendencies already long weakened and disoriented by the pall cast by Stalinism over insurgent movements for change, and did so without actual redress of the fundamental social problems which it, too, proved at length powerless to overcome. For this reason alone, the existence of bureaucratic collectivism, although perhaps not in its Stalinist form, will forever be tethered to the continued existence of capitalism in decline. What we are witnessing today is merely the forced renegotiation of the terms of engagement.

BUREAUCRATIC COLLECTIVISM IS SOCIALISM'S DOPPLEGÄNGER. It is a distorted reflection of the fact that real social advance requires some form of collectivization. Where the working class cannot organize its forces to overthrow capitalism and establish the free rule of labor, bureaucracy invariably arises as an independent, substitute social force. The state bureaucracies, Stalinist or otherwise, can address the unengaged historic tasks of labor, but only with reactionary, anti-socialist consequences. The 20th century has verified, in horrific detail, the fundamental truth of that proposition by the manifest failure of these forces, either alone or in combination, to resolve the most pressing needs of humanity. The studies assembled by Haberkern and Lipow which anticipated this conclusion stemmed from an examination of the "Russian question." The tragic failure of a workers' revolution demanded clarification of the fundamental propositions and purposes of revolutionary socialism with a sweep and urgency that few other issues could claim. Rare were those in the broad revolutionary movement able to rise to the challenge. This contribution from those who did constitutes a unique and enduring addition to the arsenal of socialism.


* Ernest E. Haberkern and Arthur Lipow, editors, Neither Capitalism nor Socialism, Humanities Press, Atlantic Highlands, 1996. return

  1. In a lamentable subtext to this volume the editors seek to separate Max Shachtman, the leading personality of the WP-ISL, from the independent socialist heritage. It is true that Shachtman did not initially develop the most far-seeing or consistent version of the bureaucratic collectivist theory. That was done by Joseph Carter, a brilliant theoretician in the early Trotskyist movement. But it must also be noted that the "bowdlerization" of Shachtman's article, "Is Russia a Workers' State?", that the editors make so much of, cannot simply be attributed to his later political collapse. The essay first appeared in that form, cleansed of its semi-Trotskyist conclusions, in the January-February 1952 issue of The New International. It was modified openly, and with an editor's introduction to avert any confusion as to what the movement stood for. Where Shachtman's strengths lay and remain overlooked by the editors' unease with his final, ambiguous legacy was in his development, amplification and application of the theory. It is not merely that he defended the heritage of the Russian revolution and "debunked the claims of several apologists for Stalinism such as Isaac Deutscher," but that he did so while trailblazing an independent socialist or third camp formulation of that defense. That is also what the essays assembled in the Bureaucratic Revolution reflect, and what the Struggle for the New Course is all about. Third camp socialism, moreover, provided the context for his remarkable articles on the colonial and national liberation problems which, in turn, became the springboard for his spirited opposition to the competing imperialist camps during World War II and to the post-war division of Europe. The theory of bureaucratic collectivism alone made possible the view best articulated by Shachtman that the Communist political parties were in but not of the labor movement. And it was this insight that alerted him to other, social democratic roads to bureaucratic collectivism. While the editors provide some worthwhile insights, they should be augmented with "The Two Deaths of Max Shachtman" by Julius Jacobson which appeared in the Winter 1973 issue of this journal and Peter Drucker's Max Shachtman and His Left. return

  2. It is also of note that all the weaknesses of Trotsky's theory are augmented in the state-capitalist theory identified with Tony Cliff, leading theoretician of the British Trotskyist movement. Here the Stalinist bureaucracy is assigned the task of completing the historic mission of the bourgeoisie, because the state ownership of the means of production purportedly gives a "tremendous lever" to the development of the productive forces. This preserves Trotsky's earliest theory that the bureaucracy represented a centrist, i.e., pro-capitalist wing and splices it to the later interpretations dominant in Trotskyist circles which invented the "transitional" character of Stalinist society as a bridge between capitalism and socialism. Thus, far from casting society back to a new form of barbarism, the Cliffites held Stalinism as tracking the highest pinnacle of capitalist development. It followed that the Stalinist parties were viewed merely as a version of social democracy, or labor reformism and a more left-wing version of the species at that. This melange has been offered as a corrective to the "supra-historical" theory of bureaucratic collectivism. Needless to say, history has been less than kind to this theory on every account. (See "The Theory of Bureaucratic Collectivism: A Critique," reprinted in Neither Washington nor Moscow, Bookmarks, 1982.)

    It would take this essay far afield from the theme under consideration to deal comprehensively with the theory of state capitalism, one of the most perennially stultifying and disorienting explanations of Stalinism. Marxism is an instrument for interpreting living reality and as such its propositions are provisional, meaning that they must be tested, modified and improved as required by evolving circumstances. State capitalism instead reduces Marxism to dogma whereby the material means of production under Stalinism, a form of society unanticipated by Marx, are treated as capital. They acquire this attribute not because they express a definite social relation between specific classes expressed through the instrumentality of things -- this after all being the method of Capital and presupposes, reasonably enough, private ownership, i.e. the existence of capitalists -- but because the accumulation of the means of production are a precondition of expanded reproduction, and capitalism was seen by Marx as that form of expanded reproduction that prepares society for socialism. QED Stalinism equals capitalism. Any other conclusion would, according to the Cliff church, render "Marxism as a method, as a guide for the proletariat as the subject of historical change (...) superfluous, meaningless." return

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