What was the USSR? Part II: Russia as a non-mode of production

Hillel Ticktin
Hillel Ticktin

Aufheben critique Hillel Ticktin's analysis of the Soviet Union. Having disposed of the theory of the USSR as a 'degenerated workers' state', Ticktin's theory presents itself as the most persuasive alternative to the understanding of the USSR as capitalist.

Submitted by libcom on April 9, 2005

What was the USSR? Aufheben
- What was the USSR? Part I: Trotsky and state capitalism
- What was the USSR? Part II: Russia as a non-mode of production
- What was the USSR? Part III: Left communism and the Russian revolution
- What was the USSR? Part IV: Towards a theory of the deformation of value

Its strength is its attention to the empirical reality of the USSR and its consideration of the specific forms of class struggle it was subject to. However, while we acknowledge that the USSR must be understood as a malfunctioning system, we argue that, because Ticktin doesn't relate his categories of 'political economy' to the class struggle, he fails to grasp the capitalist nature of the USSR.

What was the USSR?

Towards a Theory of the Deformation of Value Under State Capitalism Part II: Russia as a Non-mode of Production

Here we present the second part of our article 'What was the USSR?'. In our last issue, we dealt with Trotsky's theory that it was a 'degenerated workers' state', and the best known theory of state capitalism which has emerged within Trotskyism - that of Tony Cliff. Our original intention was to follow that up by dealing with both the less well-known theories of state capitalism developed by the left communists and with Hillel Ticktin's theory that sees itself as going beyond both Trotsky's theory and the state capitalist alternative. Due to foreseeable circumstances totally within our control, we have been unable to do this. Therefore we have decided not to combine these sections, and instead here complete the trajectory of Trotskyism with an account and critique of Ticktin's theory, and put off our treatment of the left communists till our next issue. However, this effective extension of the article's length leads us to answer some questions readers may have. It can be asked: Why bother giving such an extended treatment to this question? Isn't the Russian Revolution and the regime that emerged from it now merely of historical interest? Shouldn't we be writing about what is going on in Russia now? One response would be to say that it is not possible to understand what is happening in Russia now without grasping the history of the USSR. But, while that is true to an extent, the detail we are choosing to give this issue does deserve more explanation.

As Loren Goldner puts it, in a very interesting article published in 1991:

Into the mid-1970s, the 'Russian question' and its implications was the inescapable 'paradigm' of political perspective on the left, in Europe and the U.S. and yet 15 years later seems like such ancient history. This was a political milieu where the minute study of the month-to-month history of the Russian Revolution and the Comintern from 1917-1928 seemed the key to the universe as a whole. If someone said they believed that the Russian Revolution had been defeated in 1919, 1921, 1923, 1927, or 1936, or 1953, one had a pretty good sense of what they would think on just about every other political question in the world: the nature of the Soviet Union, of China, the nature of the world CPs, the nature of Social Democracy, the nature of trade unions, the United Front, the Popular Front, national liberation movements, aesthetics and philosophy, the relationship of party and class, the significance of soviets and workers' councils, and whether Luxemburg or Bukharin was right about imperialism.1

However, that period seems to be at a close. It seems clear that the Russian Revolution and the arguments around it will not have the same significance for those becoming involved in the revolutionary project now as it did for previous generations.

Posing the issue slightly differently, Camatte wrote in 1972: "The Russian Revolution and its involution are indeed some of the greatest events of our century. Thanks to them, a horde of thinkers, writers and politicians are not unemployed."2 Camatte usefully then draws attention to the way that the production of theories on the USSR has very often served purposes quite opposed to that of clarification of the question. To be acknowledged as a proper political group or - as Camatte would say - gang, it was seen as an essential requirement to have a distinctive position or theory on the Soviet Union. But if Camatte expressed reluctance to "place some new goods on the over-saturated market", he nonetheless and justifiably thought it worthwhile to do so. But is our purpose as clear? For revolutionaries, hasn't the position that the Soviet Union was (state-) capitalist and opposed to human liberation become fairly basic since '68? Haven't theories like Trotsky's that gave critical support to the Soviet Union been comprehensively exposed? Well, yes and no. To simply assert that the USSR was another form of capitalism and that little more need be said is not convincing.

Around the same time as Camatte's comments, the Trotskyist academic Hillel Ticktin began to develop a theory of the nature and crisis of the Soviet system which has come to hold a significant status and influence.3 Ticktin's theory, with its attention to the empirical reality of the USSR and its consideration of the specific forms of class struggle it was subject to, is certainly the most persuasive alternative to the understanding of the USSR as capitalist. But again it can be asked who really cares about this issue? Ultimately we are writing for ourselves, answering questions we feel important. To many it seems intuitively the politically revolutionary position - to say the Soviet Union was (state) capitalist and that is enough. We'd contend, however, that a position appears to be revolutionary does not make it true, while what is true will show itself to be revolutionary. For us, to know that Russia was exploitative and opposed to human liberation and to call it capitalist to make one's condemnation clear is not enough. The importance of Marx's critique of political economy is not just that it condemns capitalism, but that it understands it better than the bourgeoisie and explains it better than moralistic forms of criticism. The events in Russia at the moment, which reflect a profound failure to turn it into an area for the successful accumulation of value, show that in some ways the question of the USSR is not over. In dealing with this issue we are not attempting to provide the final definitive solution to the Russian question. Theory - the search for practical truth - is not something that once arrived at is given from then on; it must always be renewed or it becomes ideology.

The origins of Ticktin's theory of the USSR


In Part I we gave a lengthy treatment of what has probably been the best known critical theory of the Soviet Union: Leon Trotsky's theory of the 'degenerated workers' state'. While critical of the privileges of the Stalinist bureaucracy, lack of freedom and workers' democracy, Trotsky took the view that the formal property relations of the USSR - i.e. that the means of production were not private property but the property of a workers' state - meant that the USSR could not be seen as being capitalist, but was instead a transitory regime caught between capitalism and socialism which had degenerated. It followed from this that, for Trotsky, despite all its faults and monstrous distortions, the Soviet Union was ultimately progressive. As such, the Soviet Union was a decisive advance over capitalism which, by preserving the proletarian gains of the October Revolution, had to be defended against the military and ideological attacks of the great capitalist powers.

However, as we saw, for Trotsky the Soviet Union's predicament could not for last long. Either the Russian working class would rise up and reassert control over their state through a political revolution which would depose the bureaucracy, or else the bureaucracy would seek to preserve its precarious position of power by reintroducing private property relations and restoring capitalism in Russia. Either way, for Trotsky, the rather peculiar historical situation in which Russian society found itself, stuck half-way between capitalism and socialism, could only be a fleeting phenomena. Indeed, Trotsky believed that this situation would be resolved one way or another in the immediate aftermath of the second world war.

Yet, as we now know, Trotsky's prediction that the Soviet Union would soon be either overthrown by a workers' revolution or else revert back to capitalism with the bureaucracy converting itself into a new Russian bourgeoisie failed to come about. Instead the USSR persisted for another forty years rendering Trotsky's theory increasingly untenable. As a consequence many Trotskyists were led to break from the orthodox Trotskyist position regarding Russia to argue that the USSR was state capitalist. In Britain the main debate on the nature of Russia arose between orthodox Trotskyism's 'degenerated workers' state' and the neo-Trotskyist version of state capitalism developed by Tony Cliff. As we pointed out in Part I, while the orthodox Trotskyist account obviously had big problems, this alternative theory of state capitalism had three vital weaknesses: 1) Cliff's attempt to make the point of counter-revolution and the introduction of state capitalism coincide with Stalin's first five year plan (and Trotsky's exile); 2) his denial that the law of value operated within the USSR; and 3) his orthodox Marxist insistence that state capitalism was the highest stage of capitalism which implied that the USSR was more advanced than Western capitalism.4

As a result, throughout the post-war era, orthodox Trotskyists were able dogmatically to defend Trotsky's theory of the USSR as a degenerated workers' state; they were content that, while the rival state capitalist theory may appear more politically intuitive, their own was more theoretically coherent. Indeed, with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990, many Trotskyists felt vindicated in that Trotsky's predictions of the possible restoration of capitalism now seemed to have been proved correct, albeit rather belatedly.5

However, there have been a few more sophisticated Trotskyists who, in recognizing the inadequacies of the theory of the USSR as a degenerated workers' state, have sought to develop new conceptions of what the USSR was and how it came to collapse. One of the most prominent of these has been Hillel Ticktin.

Ticktin and the reconstruction of Trotskyism

By the 1970s, the chronic economic stagnation and gross economic inefficiencies of Brezhnev's Russia had become widely recognized. Few 'sovietologists' were not now sceptical of the production figures pumped out by the Soviet authorities; and everyone was aware of the long queues for basic necessities and the economic absurdities that seemed to characterize the USSR.

Of course, Trotsky himself had argued that, in the absence of workers' democracy, centralized state planning would lead to waste and economic inefficiency. Yet, for Trotsky, it had been clear that, despite such inefficiencies, bureaucratic planning would necessarily be superior to the anarchy of the market. Yet it was now becoming apparent that the gross inefficiencies and stagnation of the economy of the USSR were of such a scale compared with economic performance in the West that its economic and social system could no longer be considered as being superior to free market capitalism.

In response to these perceptions of the USSR, orthodox Trotskyists, while accepting the inefficiencies of bureaucratic planning, could only argue that the reports of the economic situation in the Soviet Union were exaggerated and obscured its real and lasting achievements. Yet it was a line that not all Trotskyists found easy to defend.

As an academic Marxist specializing in the field of Russian and East European studies, Ticktin could not ignore the critical analyses of the Soviet Union being developed by both liberal and conservative 'sovietologists'. In the face of the mounting evidence of the dire state of the Russian economy it was therefore perhaps not so easy for Ticktin to simply defend the standard Trotskyist line. As a result Ticktin came to reject the orthodox Trotskyist theory of the USSR as a degenerated workers' state and the notion that the Soviet Union was objectively progressive that this theory implied.

However, while he rejected the theory of the USSR as a degenerated workers' state, Ticktin refused to accept the notion that the USSR was state capitalist. Immersed in the peculiarities of the Soviet Union, Ticktin maintained the orthodox Trotskyist position that state capitalist theories simply projected the categories of capitalism onto the USSR. Indeed, for Ticktin the failure of all Marxist theories of the Soviet Union was that they did not develop out of the empirical realities of the USSR. For Ticktin the task was to develop a Marxist theory of the USSR that was able to grasp the historical peculiarities of the Soviet Union without falling foul of the shallow empiricism of most bourgeois theories of the USSR.

However, in rejecting Trotsky's theory of the USSR as a degenerated workers' state Ticktin was obliged to undertake a major re-evaluation of Trotsky. After all, alongside his theory of permanent revolution and uneven and combined development, Trotsky's theory of the degenerated workers' state had been seen as central to both Trotsky and Trotskyism. As Cliff's adoption of a theory of state capitalism had shown, a rejection of the theory of a degenerated workers' state could prove problematic for anyone who sought to maintain a consistent Trotskyist position. However, as we shall see, through both his re-evaluation of Trotsky and the development of his theory of the USSR, Ticktin has been able to offer a reconstructed Trotskyism that, by freeing it from its critical support for the Soviet Union, has cut the umbilical cord with a declining Stalinism, providing the opportunity for a new lease of life for Leninism in the post-Stalinist era.6

Ticktin and Trotsky's theory of the transitional epoch

For orthodox Trotskyism, the theory of the USSR as a degenerated workers' state stood alongside both the theory of combined and uneven development and the theory of permanent revolution as one of the central pillars of Trotsky's thought. For Ticktin, however, the key to understanding Trotsky's ideas was the notion of the transitional epoch. Indeed, for Ticktin, the notion of the transitional epoch was the keystone that held the entire structure of Trotsky's thought together, and it was only by fully grasping this notion that his various theories could be adequately understood.

Of course, the notion that capitalism had entered its final stage and was on the verge of giving way to socialism had been commonplace amongst Marxists at the beginning of this century. Indeed, it had been widely accepted by most leading theoreticians of the Second International that, with the emergence of monopoly capitalism in the 1870s, the era of classical capitalism studied by Marx had come to an end. As a result the contradictions between the socialization of production and the private appropriation of wealth were becoming ever more acute and could be only be resolved through the working class coming to power and creating a new socialist society.

Faced with the horrors and sheer barbarity of the first world war, many Marxists had come to the conclusion that capitalism had entered its final stage and was in decline. While nineteenth century capitalism, despite all its faults, had at least served to develop the forces of production at an unprecedented rate, capitalism now seemed to offer only chronic economic stagnation and total war. As capitalism entered its final stage the fundamental question could only be 'war or revolution', 'socialism or barbarism'.7

Yet while many Marxists had come to the conclusion that the first world war heralded the era of the transition from capitalism to socialism, Ticktin argues that it was Trotsky who went furthest in drawing out both the theoretical and political implications of this notion of the transitional epoch. Thus, whereas most Marxists had seen the question of transition principally in terms of particular nation-states, Trotsky emphasized capitalism as a world system. For Trotsky, it was capitalism as a world system that, with the first world war, had entered the transitional epoch. From this global perspective there was not some predetermined line of capitalist development which each nation-state had to pass through before it reached the threshold of socialism. On the contrary the development of more backward economies was conditioned by the development of the more advanced nations.

It was to explain how the development of the backward nations of the world were radically reshaped by the existence of more advanced nations that Trotsky developed his theory of combined and uneven development. It was then, on the basis of this theory of combined and uneven development, that Trotsky could come to the conclusion that the contradictions of the transitional epoch would become most acute, not in the most advanced capitalist economies as most Marxists had assumed, but in the more backward nations such as Russia that had yet to make the full transition to capitalism. It was this conclusion that then formed the basis of Trotsky's theory of permanent revolution in which Trotsky had argued that in a backward country such as Russia it would be necessary for any bourgeois revolution to develop at once into a proletarian revolution.

Thus, whereas most Marxists had assumed the revolution would break out in the most advanced capitalist nations and, by destroying imperialism, would spread to the rest of the world, Trotsky, through his notion of the transitional epoch, had come to the conclusion that the revolution was more likely to break out in the more backward nations. Yet Trotsky had insisted that any such proletarian revolution could only be successful if it served to spark proletarian revolution in the more advanced nations. Without the aid of revolutions in these more advanced nations any proletarian revolution in a backward country could only degenerate.

Hence Trotsky was later able to explain the degeneration of the Russian Revolution. The failure of the revolutionary movements that swept across Europe following the end of the first world war had left the Russian Revolution isolated. Trapped within its own economic and cultural backwardness and surrounded by hostile capitalist powers, the Russian workers' state could only degenerate. With this then we have the basis of Trotsky's theory of the USSR as a degenerated workers' state.

Yet the importance of Trotsky's notion of transitional epoch was not only that it allowed Trotsky to grasp the problems of transition on a world scale, but also that it implied the possibility that this transition could be a prolonged process. If proletarian revolutions were more likely at first to break out in less advanced countries it was possible that there could be several such revolutions before the contradictions within the more advanced nations reached such a point to ensure that such revolutionary outbreaks would lead to a world revolution. Further, as happened with the Russian Revolution, the isolation and subsequent degeneration of proletarian revolutions in the periphery could then serve to discredit and thereby retard the revolutionary process in the more advanced capitalist nations.

However, Ticktin argues that Trotsky failed to draw out such implications of his notion of the transitional epoch. As a result Trotsky severely underestimated the capacity of both social democracy and Stalinism in forestalling world revolution and the global transition to socialism. Armed with the hindsight of the post-war era, Ticktin has sought to overcome this failing in the thought of his great teacher.

For Ticktin then, the first world war indeed marked the beginning of the transitional epoch,8 an epoch in which there can be seen a growing struggle between the law of value and the immanent law of planning. With the Russian Revolution, and the revolutionary wave that swept Europe from 1918-24, the first attempt was made to overthrow capitalism on a world scale. With the defeat of the revolutionary wave in Europe and the degeneration of the Russian Revolution, capitalism found the means to prolong itself. In the more advanced capitalist nations, under the banner of social democracy, a combination of concessions to the working class and the nationalization of large sections of industry allowed capitalism to contain the sharpening social conflicts brought about by the heightening of its fundamental contradiction between the socialization of production and the private appropriation of wealth.

Yet these very means to prevent communism have only served to undermine capitalism in the longer term. Concessions to the working class, for example the development of a welfare state, and the nationalization of large sections of industry have served to restrict and, as Radical Chains put it, 'partially suspend' the operation of the law of value.9 With its basic regulatory principle - the law of value - being progressively made non-operational, capitalism is ultimately doomed. For Ticktin, even the more recent attempts by Thatcher and 'neo-liberalism' to reverse social democracy and re-impose the law of value over the last two decades can only be short lived. The clearest expression of this is the huge growth of parasitical finance capital whose growth can ultimately only be at the expense of development truly productive industrial capital.

As for Russia, Ticktin accepts Trotsky's position that the Russian Revolution overthrew capitalism and established a workers' state, and that with the failure of the revolutionary wave the Russian workers' state had degenerated. However, unlike Trotsky, Ticktin argues that with the triumph of Stalin in the 1930s the USSR ceased to be a workers' state. With Stalin the bureaucratic elite had taken power. Yet, unable to move back to capitalism without confronting the power of the Russian working class, and unable and unwilling to move forward socialism since this would undermine the elite's power and privileges, the USSR became stuck half-way between capitalism and socialism.

As a system that was nether fish nor foul - neither capitalism or socialism - the USSR was an unviable system. A system that could only preserve the gains of the October Revolution by petrifying them; and it was a system that could only preserve itself through the terror of the Gulag and the secret police.

Yet it was such a monstrous system that presented itself as being socialist and demanded the allegiance of large sections of the world's working class. As such it came to discredit socialism, and, through the dominance of Stalinism, cripple the revolutionary working class movement throughout the world for more than five decades. Thus, although the USSR served to restrict the international operation of the law of value by removing millions from the world market, particularly following the formation of the Eastern bloc and the Chinese Revolution, it also served to prolong the transitional epoch and the survival of capitalism.

By drawing out Trotsky's conception of the transitional epoch in this way, Tictkin attempted finally to cut the umbilical between Trotskyism and a declining Stalinism. Ticktin is thereby able to offer a reconstructed Trotskyism that is free to denounce unequivocally both Stalinism and the USSR. As we shall now see, in doing so Ticktin is led to both exalt Trotsky's theoretical capacities and pinpoint his theoretical weaknesses.

Ticktin and the failure of Trotsky

Following Lenin's death, and with the rise of Lenin's personality cult, Trotsky had endeavoured to play down the differences between himself and Lenin. As a consequence, orthodox Trotskyists, ever faithful to the word of Trotsky, had always sought to minimize the theoretical differences between Lenin and Trotsky. For them Trotsky was merely the true heir to Lenin.

However, by focusing on Trotsky's key conception of the transitional epoch, Ticktin is able cast new light on the significance of Trotsky's thought as a whole. For Ticktin, although he may well have been more politically adept than Trotsky, Lenin's overriding concern with immediate Russian affairs constrained the development of his theoretical thought at crucial points. In contrast, for Ticktin, the sheer cosmopolitan breadth of Trotsky's concerns in many respects placed Trotsky above Lenin with regards to theoretical analysis.

But raising the standing of Trotsky as a theorist only serves to underline an important question for Ticktin's understanding of Trotsky. If Trotsky was so intellectually brilliant why did he persist in defending the USSR as a degenerated workers' state long after lesser intellects had recognized that such a position was untenable? To answer this Ticktin puts forward several explanations.

First of all Ticktin argues that Trotsky made the mistake of regarding Stalin as a 'centrist'.10 Throughout the period of the New Economic Policy (NEP) what Trotsky feared more than anything was the restoration of capitalism through the emergence of a new class of capitalist farmers and middlemen. For Trotsky at this time, Stalin, and the bureaucratic forces that he represented, was a bulwark against danger of capitalist restoration. He was a lesser of two evils. Thus Trotsky had always ended up deferring to Stalin rather than risk the triumph of the Right. It was this attitude towards Stalin as a centrist that was carried through in Trotsky's perception of Stalin's Russia throughout the 1930s.

While this immediate political orientation might explain the origin of Trotsky's position with regard to Stalin's Russia of the 1930s it does not explain why he persisted with it. To explain this Ticktin points to the circumstances Trotsky found himself in. Ticktin argues that with his exile from the USSR Trotsky found himself isolated. Being removed from the centre of political and theoretical activity and dulled by ill health and old age the sharpness of Trotsky's thought began to suffer. As a result, in the final few years of his life Trotsky could only cling to the positions that he had developed up as far as the early 1930s.

The decline of Trotsky's thought was further compounded by the weakness of rival theories of the USSR with the Trotskyist movement. As we saw in Part I, Trotsky was easily able to shoot down the theory originally put forward by Bruno Rizzi, and later taken up by the minority faction within the American SWP, which argued that the USSR was a new mode of production that could be described as bureaucratic collectivism. The ease with which Trotsky was able to dismiss such rival theories of the nature of the USSR as being unMarxist meant that he was not obliged seriously to reconsider his own position on the Soviet Union.

Yet, as Ticktin recognizes, while such circumstantial explanations as old age, exile and lack of credible alternatives may have contributed to an understanding of why Trotsky failed to radically revise his theory of the nature of Stalin's Russia they are far from constituting a sufficient explanation in themselves. For Ticktin there is a fundamental theoretical explanation for Trotsky's failure to develop his theory of the USSR at this time which arises due Trotsky's relation to Preobrazhensky.

For Ticktin, the fundamental obstacle which prevented Trotsky from developing his critique of the USSR is to be found in the very origins of this critique. As we saw in Part I, Trotsky's theory of the USSR as a degenerated workers' state originated from earlier criticisms of the Party leadership and the NEP that had been advanced by the Left Opposition during the 1920s. In advancing these criticisms, there had been a distinct division of labour. Trotsky, as the sole member of the Left Opposition within the Politburo, had concentrated on the broad political issues and detailed questions of policy. Preobrazhensky, on the other hand, had been left to set out the 'economics' which underlay these political and policy positions of the Left Opposition.

As we saw in Part I, Preobrazhensky had sought to develop a political economy for the period of the transition of Russia from capitalism to socialism in terms of the struggle between the two regulating mechanisms of capitalism and socialism that had been identified by the classical Marxism of the Second International. For the orthodox Marxism of the Second International, the basic regulating principle of capitalism was the blind operation of the 'law of value'. In contrast, the basic regulating principle of socialism was to be conscious planning. Form this Preobrazhensky had argued that during the period of transition from capitalism to socialism these two principles of economic organization would necessary co-exist and as such would be in conflict with each other.

However, for Preobrazhensky, in the relatively backward conditions prevailing in Russia there was no guarantee that the principle of planning would prevail over the law of value on purely economic grounds. Hence, for Preobrazhensky, it was necessary for the proletarian state to actively intervene in order to accelerate accumulation in those sectors of the economy, such as state industry, where the principle of planning predominated at the expense of those sectors, such as peasant agriculture, where the law of value still held sway. It was this theory of 'primitive socialist accumulation' which had underpinned the Left Opposition's criticisms of the NEP and their advocacy of an alternative policy of rapid industrialization.

When Stalin finally abandoned the NEP in favour of centralized planning embodied in the five year plans many members of the Left Opposition, including Preobrazhensky himself, took the view that the Party leadership had finally, if rather belatedly, come round to their position of rapid industrialization. As a consequence, Preobrazhensky along with other former members of the Left Opposition fully embraced Stalin's new turn and fell in line with leadership of the Party. Trotsky, on the other, maintained a far more critical attitude to Stalin's new turn.

Of course, even if he had wanted to, Trotsky was in no position to fall in behind Stalin and the leadership of the Party. Trotsky was too much of an enemy and rival to Stalin for that. However, Trotsky's broader political perspective allowed him to maintain and develop a critique of Stalin's Russia. While Trotsky welcomed Stalin's adoption of a policy of centralized planning and rapid industrialization he argued that it was too long delayed. The sudden zig-zags of policy from one extreme position to another were for Trotsky symptomatic of the bureaucratization of the state and Party and indicated the degeneration of Russia as a workers' state.

Through such criticisms Trotsky came to formulate his theory of the USSR as a degenerated workers' state. Yet while Trotsky was able to develop his critique of the new Stalinist regime in political terms, that is as the political domination of a distinct bureaucratic caste that had taken over the workers' state, he failed to reconsider the political economy of Stalin's Russia. In accordance with the old division of labour between himself and Preobrazhensky, Trotsky implicitly remained content with the political economy of transition that had been advanced in the 1920s by Preobrazhensky.

For Ticktin it was this failure to develop Preobrazhensky's political economy of transition in the light of Stalin's Russia that proved to be the Achilles' heel of Trotsky's theory of the USSR as a degenerated workers' state. Of course, given that Trotsky could at the time reasonably expect the USSR to be a short-lived phenomenon he could perhaps be excused from neglecting the long and arduous task of developing a political economy of the USSR. For Ticktin, his followers have had no such excuse. As we shall now see, for Ticktin the central task in developing Trotsky's analysis of the nature of the Soviet Union has been to develop a political economy of the USSR.

Ticktin and the political economy of the USSR

So, for Ticktin, the Achilles' heel of Trotsky's theory of the USSR as a degenerated workers' state was his failure to develop a political economy of Stalinist Russia. Yet, at the same time, Ticktin rejected the notion that the USSR was in any way capitalist. For him, Trotsky had been correct in seeing the October revolution, and the subsequent nationalization of the means of production under a workers' state, as a decisive break from capitalism. As such any attempt to develop a political economy of the USSR could not simply apply the categories developed by Marx in his critique of capitalism since the USSR had ceased to be capitalist. Instead it was necessary to develop a new political economy of the USSR as a specific social and economic system.

Ticktin began his attempt to develop such a political economy of the USSR in 1973 with an article entitled 'Towards a political economy of the USSR' which was published in the first issue of Critique. This was followed by a series of articles and polemics in subsequent issues of Critique and culminated, 19 years later, with his Origins of the Crisis in the USSR: Essays on the Political Economy of a Disintegrating System. Although Ticktin's work undoubtedly provides important insights into what the USSR was and the causes of its crisis and eventual collapse - and as such provides an important challenge to any alternative theory of the USSR - after all these years he fails to provide a systematic political economy of the USSR. As the subtitle to Origins of the Crisis in the USSR indicates, his attempt to develop a political economy of the USSR was overtaken by events and all we are left with is a series of essays which seek to link his various attempts to develop a political economy of the USSR with an explanation of the Soviet Union's eventual demise.

As we shall argue, this failure to develop a systematic presentation of a political economy of the USSR was no accident. For us it was a failure rooted in his very premise of his analysis which he derives from Trotsky. Yet before considering such an argument we must first of all briefly review Ticktin's attempt to develop a political economy of the USSR.

A question of method?

The task facing Ticktin of developing a Marxist political economy of the USSR was not as straightforward as it may seem. What is political economy? For Marx, political economy was the bourgeois science par excellence. It was the science that grew up with the capitalist mode of production in order to explain and justify it as a natural and objective social and economic system. When Marx came to write Capital he did not aim to write yet another treatise on political economy of capitalism - numerous bourgeois writers had done this already - but rather he sought to develop a critique of political economy.

However, even if we admit that in order to make his critique of political economy Marx had to develop and complete bourgeois political economy, the problem remains of how far can a political economy be constructed for a mode of production other than capitalism? After all it is only with the rise capitalism, where the social relations come to manifest themselves as relations between things, that the political economy as an objective science becomes fully possible. But this is not all. Ticktin is not merely seeking to develop a political economy for a mode of production other than capitalism but for system in transition from one mode of production to another - indeed for a system that Ticktin himself comes to conclude is a 'non-mode of production'!

Unfortunately Ticktin not only side-steps all these preliminary questions, but he also fails to address the most important methodological questions of how to begin and how to proceed with his proposed 'political economy' of the USSR. Instead he adopts a rather heuristic approach, adopting various points of departure to see how far he can go. It is only when these reach a dead end that we find Ticktin appealing to questions of method. As a result we find a number of false starts that Ticktin then seeks to draw together. Let us begin by briefly examine some of these false starts.


In Origins of the Crisis in the USSR, Ticktin begins with an analysis of the three main groups and classes that could be identified within the USSR: namely, the elite, the Intelligentsia and the working class. Through this analysis Ticktin is then able to develop a framework through which to understand the social and political forces lying behind the policies of Glasnost and Perestroika pursued in the final years of the USSR's decline. Yet, despite the usefulness such class analysis may have in explaining certain political developments within the USSR, it does not itself amount to a 'political economy of the USSR'. Indeed, if we take Marx's Capital as a 'model of a political economy', as Ticktin surely does, then it is clear that class analysis must be a result of a political economy not its premise.11


If 'class' proves to be a non-starter in developing a political economy of the USSR then a more promising starting point may appear to be an analysis of the fundamental laws through which it was regulated. Of course, as we have seen, this was the approach that had been pioneered by Preobrazhensky and adopted by Trotsky and the Left Opposition in the 1920s. Preobrazhensky had argued that the nature of the transition from capitalism to socialism had to be grasped in terms of the conflict between the two regulating mechanism of capitalism and socialism: that is between the law of value and the law of planning. Indeed, as we have also seen, one of Ticktin's most important criticisms of Trotsky was his failure to develop Preobrazhensky's political economy of the Soviet Union after the triumph of Stalin in the early 1930s.

It is not surprising then that we find Ticktin repeatedly returning to this line of approach in his various attempts to develop a political economy of the USSR. Ticktin proceeds by arguing that Preobrazhensky's theory was correct for Russia up until the collectivization of agriculture and the first five year plan. Up until then there had existed a large market-oriented peasant agricultural sector alongside a state-owned and planned industrial sector (although even this was still based on quasi-autonomous enterprises run on a 'profit and loss' criteria). As such, the 'law of planning'12 and the law of value co-existed as distinct regulating mechanisms - although they both conflicted and conditioned each other through the relations both between and within the industrial and the agricultural sectors of the economy.

With the abolition of peasant agriculture through forced collectivization, and the introduction of comprehensive central planning geared towards the rapid industrialization of Russia, the two laws could no longer co-exist as distinct regulatory mechanisms that predominated in different sectors of the economy. The two laws 'interpenetrated' each other, preventing each other's proper functioning. As a result there emerged under Stalin a system based neither on the law of value nor on the law of planning. Indeed, for Ticktin these laws degenerated, the law of planning giving rise to the 'law of organization' and the law of value giving rise to the 'law of self-interest of the individual unit'.

Yet it soon becomes clear that as the number of laws in Ticktin's analysis proliferate their explanatory power diminishes. In the Origins of the Crisis in the USSR, where he pursues this line of argument the furthest, Ticktin is eventually obliged to ask the question what he means by a 'law'. He answers that a law is the movement between tow poles of a contradiction but he does not then go on consider the ground of these contradictions.


Perhaps Ticktin's most promising point of departure is that of the problem of the endemic waste that was so apparent even for the least critical of observers of the USSR. This became most clearly evident in the stark contrast between the increasing amounts the Soviet economy was able to produce and the continued shortages of even the most basic consumer goods in the shops.

Following the rapid industrialization of the USSR under Stalin the Soviet Union could boast that it could rival any country in the world in terms of absolute levels of production of industrial products. This was particularly true for heavy and basic industries. Russia's production of such products as coal, iron, steel, concrete and so forth had grown enormously in merely a few decades. Yet alongside such colossal advances in the quantity of goods produced, which had accompanied the startling transformation of Russia from a predominantly peasant society into an industrialized economy, the standard of living for most people had grown very slowly. Despite repeated attempts to give greater priority to the production in consumer industries from the 1950s onwards, the vast majority of the population continued to face acute shortages of basic consumer goods right up until the demise of the USSR.

So while the apologists of the USSR could triumphantly greet the publication of each record-breaking production figure, their critics merely pointed to the lengthy shopping queues and empty shops evident to any visitor to Russia. What then explained this huge gap between production and consumption? For Ticktin, as for many other theorists of the USSR, the reason clearly lay in the huge waste endemic to the Russian economic system.

Although Russian industry was able to produce in great quantities, much of this production was substandard. Indeed a significant proportion of what was produced was so substandard as to be useless. This problem of defective production became further compounded since, in an economy as integrated and self-contained as the USSR, the outputs of each industry in the industrial chain of production became the inputs of tools, machinery or raw materials for subsequent industries in the chain. Indeed. in many industries more labour had to be devoted to repairing defective tools, machinery and output than in actual production!

As a result, waste swallowed up ever increasing amounts of labour and resources. This, together with the great resistance to the introduction of new technology and production methods in existing factories, meant that huge amounts of labour and resources had to be invested in heavy industry in order to provide the inputs necessary to allow just a small increase in the output of consumer goods at the end of the industrial chain of production.

Taking this phenomenon of 'waste', Ticktin sought to find a point of departure for a political economy of the USSR analogous to that which is found in the opening chapter of Marx's Capital. In Capital Marx begins with the immediate appearance of the capitalist mode of production in which wealth appears as an 'immense accumulation of commodities'. Marx then analysed the individual commodity and found that it is composed of two contradictory aspects: exchange-value and use-value. By examining how this contradictory social form of the commodity is produced Marx was then able to develop a critique of all the categories of political economy.

Likewise, Ticktin sought to take as his starting point the immediate appearance of the Soviet economic system. However, for Ticktin, this economic system did not present itself as an immense accumulation of commodities. Indeed, for Ticktin, wealth did not assume the specific social form of the commodity as it does for capitalist societies.

Of course, as Bettelheim has pointed out, although all production is formally state owned actual production is devolved into competing units. These units of production, the enterprise and the various trusts, buy and sell products to each other as well as selling products to consumers. Therefore the market and commodities still persisted in the USSR. In response, Ticktin argues that such buying and selling was strictly subordinated to the central plan and were more like transfers of products rather than real sales. While money was also transferred as a result of these product transfers such transactions were simply a form of accounting with strict limits being placed on the amount of profits that could be accumulated as a result. Furthermore, the prices of products were not determined through the market but were set by the central plan. These prices were as a result administered prices and were therefore not a reflection of value. Products did not therefore assume the form of commodities nor did they have a value in the Marxist sense.

Hence, for Ticktin, the wealth did not present itself as an immense accumulation of commodities as it does under capitalism but rather as an immense accumulation of defective products.

So, for Ticktin, since products did not assume the form of commodities, the elementary contradiction of Soviet political economy could not be that between use-value and value, as it was within the capitalist mode of production. Instead, Ticktin argued that the elementary contradiction of the Soviet system presented itself as the contradiction between the potential use-value of the product and its real use-value. That is, the product was produced for the purpose of meeting a social need determined through the mediation of the bureaucracy's 'central plan'; as such, it assumed the 'administered form' of an intended or potential use-value. However, in general, the use-value of the product fell far short of the intended or potential use-value - it was defective. Thus as Ticktin concludes:

The waste in the USSR then emerges as the difference between what the product promises and what it is. The difference between the appearance of planning and socialism and the reality of a harsh bureaucratised administration shows itself in the product itself.

(Origins of the Crisis in the USSR, p. 134)

The question then arises as to how this contradiction emerged out of the process of production which produced such products.

For Marx the key to understanding the specific nature of any class society was to determine the precise way in which surplus-labour was extracted from direct producers. With the capitalist mode of production, the direct producers are dispossessed of both the means of production and the means of subsistence. With no means of supporting themselves on their own accord, the direct producers are obliged to sell their labour-power to the capitalist class which owns the means of production. However, despite how it may appear to each individual worker, in buying the labour-power of the workers the capitalists do not pay according to the amount of labour the workers perform, and thus the amount of value the workers create, but they pay the level of wages required to reproduce the labour-power of the workers as a whole. Since workers can create products with a value greater than the value they require to reproduce their own labour-power, the capitalists are able to extract surplus-labour in the form of the surplus-value of the product the workers produce.

Thus for Marx the key to understanding the essential nature of the capitalist mode of production was the sale of the worker's labour-power and the consequent expropriation of surplus-labour in the specific social form of surplus-value by the class of capitalists. For Ticktin, however, the workers in the USSR did not sell their labour-power.13

Yet, although he denies that labour-power was sold in the USSR, Ticktin does not deny that the working class was dispossessed of the means of production. There is no question that Ticktin rejects any idea that the workers somehow owned their means of production due to the persistence of some form of 'degenerated workers' state'. Indeed, it is central to Ticktin's argument that the workers alienate the product of their labour.

However, the dispossession of the direct producers of the means of production is not the only essential pre-condition for the sale of labour-power. The other all-important pre-condition of the capitalist mode of production is that there exists generalized commodity exchange. If, as Ticktin maintains, there was no generalized commodity exchange in the USSR - and thus, as he infers, neither value nor real money - how could labour-power itself assume the form of a commodity that could be sold?

Of course, Ticktin admits that workers were formally paid wages in the USSR, just as goods were bought and sold, but for him this did not amount to the real sale of labour-power. To understand why Ticktin thought this, it is necessary to look at his conception of the wage and money in the USSR.

Under capitalism the principal if not exclusive means of obtaining wealth is money. For the worker, money assumes the form of the wage. However, in the USSR, money, and therefore the wage, was far from being a sufficient or exclusive means of obtaining the worker's needs. Other factors were necessary to obtain the goods and services the worker needed - such as time to wait in queues, connections and influence with well-placed people in the state or Party apparatus, and access to the black market. Such factors, together with the fact that a large proportion of the workers' needs were provided for free or were highly subsidized - such as housing, child-care, and transport - meant that the wage was far less important to the Russian worker than to his or her Western counterpart. In fact it could be concluded that the wage was more like a pension than a real wage.

Under capitalism the wage appears to the individual worker as the price of their labour. The more that individual workers labour the more they are paid. As a consequence, the wage serves as a direct incentive for each individual worker to work for the capitalist.14 In the USSR, the wage, being little more than a pension, was a far weaker incentive for the Soviet worker.

But not only was the wage an inadequate carrot, management lacked the stick of unemployment. Under capitalism the threat of the sack or redundancy is an important means through which management can discipline its workforce and ensure its control over production. In the USSR, however, the state guaranteed full employment. As a result, managers, facing chronic labour shortages, had little scope to use the threat of dismissals to discipline the work force.

Lacking both the carrot of money-wages and the stick of unemployment, management was unable to gain full control of the workers' labour. From this Ticktin concludes that, although the workers may have been paid what at first sight appears as a wage, in reality they did not sell their labour-power since the workers retained a substantial control over the use of their labour. As the old British Rail workers' adage had it: "management pretends to pay us and we pretend to work!"

However, although for Ticktin the workers in the USSR did not sell their labour-power, and therefore did not alienate their labour, Ticktin still argues that the workers alienated the product of their labour. Since the workers were alienated from the product of their labour they had no interest in it. Therefore the workers' main concern in exercising their control over their own labour was to minimize it. On the other side, management, although taking possession of the final product of the labour process, lacked full control over the labour process that produced it. As a result, the elite lacked control over the production of the total product of the economy, and with this the production of surplus-product necessary to support itself.

It is with this that Ticktin locates the basis of the fundamental contradiction of the Soviet system. On the one side stood the demands of the elite for increased production necessary to secure the extraction of a surplus-product; on the other side, and in opposition to it, stood the negative control of the working class over the labour process which sought to minimize its labour. The resolution of this contradiction was found in defective production.

Through the imposition of the central plan, the elite sought to appropriate the products of the labour of the working class necessary both to maintain its own privileged position and for the expanded reproduction of the system as a whole. To ensure the extraction of a surplus-product that would be sufficient to meet its own privileged needs, and at the same time ensure the expansion of the system, the elite was obliged to set ambitious and ever-increasing production targets through the system of central planning.

However, the actual implementation of the central plan had to be devolved to the management of each individual enterprise. Faced with the ambitious production targets set out in the central plan on the one side and the power of the working class over the labour process on the other, the management of the enterprise were obliged to strike a compromise with its workers which in effect subverted the intentions of the plan while at the same time appearing to fulfil its specifications. To do this, management sought to meet the more verifiable criteria of the plan, which were usually its more quantifiable aspects, while surrendering the plan's less verifiable qualitative criteria. As a consequence, quality was sacrificed for quantity, leading to the production of defective products.

Yet this was not all. In order to protect itself from the ever-increasing unrealizable demands of the central planners, the management of individual enterprises resorted to systematically misinforming the centre concerning the actual conditions of production at the same time as hoarding workers and scarce resources. Without reliable information on the actual conditions of production, the production plans set out in the central plan became increasingly divorced from reality, which led to the further malfunctioning of the economic system which compounded defective production through the misallocation of resources.

Thus, for Ticktin, because the Russian workers did not sell their labour-power, although they alienated the product of their labour, the elite was unable fully to control the labour process. As a consequence the economic system was bedevilled by waste on a colossal scale to the point where it barely functioned. As neither capitalism nor socialism, the USSR was in effect a non-mode of production. As such, the crucial question was not how the USSR functioned as an economic system but how it was able to survive for so long. It was in addressing this problem that Ticktin came to analyse the crisis and disintegration of the USSR.

The question of commodity fetishism and ideology in the USSR

Despite the fact that the capitalist mode of production is based on class exploitation, capitalist society has yet to be torn apart and destroyed by class antagonisms. The reason for the persistence of capitalist society is that the capitalist mode of production gives rise to a powerful ideology that is rooted in its very material existence.

The basis of this ideology lies in commodity fetishism.15 In a society based on generalized commodity exchange, the relations between people appear as a relation between things. As a result, social relations appear as something objective and natural. Furthermore, in so far as capitalism is able to present itself as a society of generalized commodity exchange, everyone appears as a commodity-owner/citizen. As such, everyone is as free and equal as everyone else to buy and sell. Thus it appears that the worker, at least in principle, is able to obtain a fair price for his labour, just as much as the capitalist is able to obtain a fair return on his capital and the landlord a fair rent on his land.

So capitalist society appears as a society which is not only natural but one in which everyone is free and equal. However, this 'free market' ideology is not simply propaganda. It arises out of the everyday experience of the capitalist mode of production in so far as it exists as a market economy. It is therefore an ideology that is rooted in the everyday reality of capitalism.16 Of course, the existence of capitalism as a 'market economy' is only one side of the capitalist mode of production and the more superficial side at that. Nevertheless it provides a strong and coherent foundation for bourgeois ideology.

However, if, as Ticktin maintains, there was no commodity exchange in the USSR there could no basis for commodity fetishism. Furthermore, lacking any alternative to commodity fetishism which could obscure the exploitative nature of the system, there could be no basis for a coherent ideology in the USSR. Instead there was simply the 'big lie' which was officially propagated that the USSR was a socialist society.17 But this was a lie which no one any longer really believed - although everyone was obliged to pretend that they did believe it.18

As a consequence, Ticktin argues that the nature of social relations were fully transparent in the USSR. With their privileged access to goods and services, everyone could see the privileged position of the elite and their exploitative and parasitical relation to the rest of society. At the same time, given the blatant waste and inefficiency of the system, no one had any illusions in the efficacy of 'socialist planning'. Everyone recognized that the system was a mess and was run in the interests of a small minority that made up the elite of the state and Party bureaucracy.

But if the was no ideology in the USSR, what was it that served to hold this exploitative system together for more than half a century? Ticktin argues there were two factors that served to maintain the USSR for so long. First, there were the concessions made to the working class. The guarantee of full employment, free education and health care, cheap housing and transport and an egalitarian wage structure all served to bind the working class to the system. Second, and complementing the first, there was brutal police repression which, by suppressing the development of ideas and collective organization not sanctioned by the state, served to atomize the working class and prevent it from becoming a revolutionary class for-itself.

It was through this crude carrot-and-stick approach that the elite sought to maintain the system and their privileged place within it. However, it was an approach that was riven by contradictions and one that was ultimately unviable. As we have seen, it was these very concessions made to the working class, particularly that of full employment, which meant that the elite were unable to gain full control of the labour process and which in turn resulted in the gross inefficiency of the system. Unwilling to surrender their own privileged position, the Soviet elite were unable to move towards socialism. Therefore the elite's only alternative to maintaining the grossly inefficient system of the USSR was to move towards capitalism by introducing the market. But such a move towards the market necessarily involved the introduction of mass unemployment and the withdrawal of the elite's concessions to the working class.

The elite therefore faced a continual dilemma. On the one side it sought to move away from its inefficient economic system by introducing market reforms; but on the other side it feared that the introduction of such reforms would cause a revolutionary response in the Russian working class. Ticktin argues that it was this dilemma which underlay the history of the USSR following the death of Stalin and which explains the crisis that confronted Gorbachev and the final demise of the USSR.

Ticktin's analysis of the history of the USSR and its final crisis and demise does not concern us here.19 We now need to examine the problems of Ticktin's 'political economy' of the USSR.

Problems of Ticktin's 'political economy of the USSR'

We have devoted considerable space to Ticktin's theory of the USSR since it provides perhaps the most cogent explanation of the nature of the USSR and the causes of its decline which has arisen out of the Trotskyist tradition. Shorn of any apology for Stalinism, Ticktin is able to develop a theory which seeks to show the specific internal contradictions of the Soviet system. As such, it is a theory that not only goes beyond the traditional Trotskyist theory of the USSR as a degenerated workers' state, it also provides a formidable challenge to any approach which sees the USSR as having been in some sense a capitalist system.

Indeed, it would seem to us that any attempt to develop a theory of the USSR as being essentially a capitalist system must take on board and develop a critique of some of the central positions put forward by Ticktin. Perhaps most importantly, after Ticktin and of course the collapse he describes, it is obvious that the USSR can in no way be seen as some higher and more developed stage of capitalism, as some state capitalist theories might imply. What becomes clear from Ticktin is that any understanding of the USSR must start from its malfunctioning: it must explain the systematic waste and inefficiencies that it produced. If the USSR was in any way capitalist it must have been a deformed capitalism, as we shall argue.

However, while we accept that Ticktin provides a powerful theory of the USSR, we also argue that it has important deficiencies which lead us ultimately to reject his understanding of the nature of the USSR.

When we come to develop and present our own theory of the USSR, we will necessarily have to critique in detail the central premise of Ticktin's theory - that the USSR was in transition from capitalism to socialism. For the moment, however, we will confine ourselves to criticizing the problems that arise within the theory itself.

As we have already noted, Ticktin not only fails to present a systematic presentation of a 'political economy of the USSR', he also fails to clarify his methodological approach. As a result, Ticktin is able to escape from addressing some important logical questions regarding the categories of his political economy.

Although he attacks state capitalist theories for projecting categories of capitalism onto the Soviet Union, Ticktin himself has to admit that many categories of bourgeois political economy appeared to persist in the USSR. Categories such as 'money', 'prices', 'wages' and even 'profits'. In capitalism these categories are forms that express a real content even though they may obscure or deviate from this content. As such they are not merely illusions but are real. Ticktin, however, fails to specify how he understands the relation between the essential relations of the political economy of the USSR and how these relations make their appearance, and is therefore unable to clarify the ontological status of such apparent forms as 'money', 'prices', 'wages' and 'profits'. Indeed, in his efforts to deny the capitalist nature of the USSR, Ticktin is pushed to the point where he has to imply that such categories are simply relics of capitalism, empty husks that have no real content. But, of course, if they have no real content, if they are purely nominal, how is that they continue to persist? This failure to address fully the question of form and content becomes most apparent with the all important example of the wage and the sale of labour-power.

The wage-form

As we have seen, the crux of Ticktin's analysis of the USSR was his contention that, although they alienated the product of their labour, Soviet workers did not sell their labour-power. So, although they were paid what at first sight appears as a wage, on close inspection what the workers received was in fact more akin to a pension.

However, in his attempt to compare and contrast the form of the wage as it exists under capitalism with what existed in the USSR in order to deny the application of capitalist categories to the Soviet Union, Ticktin fails to gasp the full complexities of the wage-form as it exists within the capitalist mode of production. As we have already noted, under capitalism workers are obliged to sell their labour-power to the capitalists. However, to both the individual capitalist and the individual worker, this sale of labour-power appears in the wage-form as not the sale of labour-power as such but the sale of labour;20 that is, the worker appears not to be paid in accordance to the value of his labour-power (i.e. the value incorporated in the commodities required to reproduce the worker's capacity to work), but in terms of labour-time the worker performs for the capitalist.

There is, therefore, a potential contradiction between the wage-form and its real content - the sale of labour-power - which may become manifest if the wages paid to the workers are insufficient to reproduce fully the labour-power of the working class. There are two principal situations where this may occur. First, an individual capitalist may be neither willing nor able to offer sufficient hours for an individual worker to be able to earn a 'living wage'. Second, the individual capitalist may pay a wage sufficient to reproduce the individual worker but not enough to meet the cost of living necessary for the worker to bring up and educate the next generation of workers. In this case, the individual capitalist pays a wage that is insufficient to reproduce the labour-power in the long term.

In both these cases the interests of the individual capitalist conflicts with the interests of capital in general which requires the reproduction of the working class as a whole. Of course, this is also true in the case of unemployment. An individual capital has little interest in paying workers a wage if it has no work for them to do that can make it a profit; however, social capital requires an industrial reserve army of the unemployed - unemployed labour-power - in order to keep wages down, and this has to be maintained. The result is that the state has to intervene, often under pressure from the working class itself, in order to overcome the conflict of interest between individual capitals and social capital. It was through this imperative that the welfare state was formed. Health care, free state education and welfare benefits all have to be introduced to overcome the deficiencies of the wage-form in the social reproduction of the working class.

Thus, under capitalism, there is always an underlying tension within the wage-form between the wage being simply a payment for labour-time and the wage as a payment to cover the needs of the worker and her family. As a result, under capitalism, the payments made to ensure the reproduction of the labour-power of the working class is always composed not only of the wage but also benefits and payments in kind. In this light, the USSR only appears as an extreme example in which the needs of social capital have become paramount and completely subsume those of the individual capital.

Labour-power as a commodity

Yet, in denying the capitalist nature of the USSR, Ticktin also argues that the working class did not sell its labour-power in the USSR because labour-power did not exist as a commodity. But then again, as Ticktin fails to recognize, labour-power does not exist immediately as a commodity under capitalism either. A commodity is some thing that is alienable and separable from its owner which is produced for sale. However, labour-power is not produced primarily for sale, although the capitalist may regard it as such, but for its own sake. It is after all simply the potential living activity of the worker and is reproduced along with the worker herself: and as such it also inseparable from the worker.

Labour-power is therefore not immediately a commodity but must be subsumed as such in its confrontation with capital. Labour-power therefore is a commodity which is not a commodity; and this does not simply cease to be the case when it is sold. Normally when someone buys a commodity they obtain the exclusive possession and use of it as a thing - the commodity ceasing to have any connection with its original owner. But this cannot be the case with labour-power. Labour-power, as the subjective activity of the worker, is inseparable from the worker as a subject. Although the worker sells her labour-power to the capitalist, she must still be present as a subject within the labour process where her labour-power is put to use by the capitalist.

Capital must continue to subsume labour-power to the commodity form and this continues right into the labour process itself. The struggle between capital and labour over the labour process is central to the capitalist mode of production. The attempt to overcome the power of the working class at the point of production is the driving force of capitalist development, with the capitalists forced to revolutionize the methods of production in order to maintain their upper hand over the resistance of their workers.

The fact that the workers in the USSR were able to assert considerable control over the labour process does not necessarily mean that they did not sell their labour-power. It need only mean that, given the state guarantee of full employment, the workers enjoyed an exceptionally favourable position with regard to management and were able to resist the full subsumption of labour-power to the commodity form within the labour process.

Again, as with the case of the wage-form, it could be argued that the difference between the USSR and the capitalism that exists in the West, at least in terms of the essential relation of wage-labour, was simply a question of degree rather than of kind. The failure to recognize this and grasp the full complexities of the wage-form and the commodification of labour-power could be seen as a result of Ticktin's restrictive understanding of capitalism which he inherits from objectivist orthodox Marxism.

First, in accordance with orthodox Marxism, Ticktin sees the essential nature of capitalism in terms of the operation of the 'law of value'. Hence, for Ticktin, if there is no market there can be no operation of the 'law of value' and hence there can be no capitalism. Having shown that products were not bought and sold in the USSR, Ticktin has all but shown that the USSR was not capitalist. The demonstration that even labour-power was not really sold simply clinches the argument.

However, we would argue that the essence of capitalism is not the operation of the 'law of value' as such but value as alienated labour and its consequent self-expansion as capital. In this case, it is the alienation of labour through the sale of labour-power that is essential.21 The operation of the 'law of value' through the sale of commodities on the market is then seen as merely a mode of appearance of the essential relations of value and capital.

Second, Ticktin fails to grasp the reified character of the categories of political economy. As a consequence, he fails to see how labour-power, for example, is not simply given but constituted through class struggle. For Ticktin, there is the 'movement of the categories and the movement of class struggle' as if they were two externally related movements. As a result, as soon as the working class becomes powerful enough to restrict the logic of capital - for example in imposing control over the capitalist's use of labour-power - then Ticktin must see a decisive shift away from capitalism. Ticktin is led to restrict capitalism in its pure and unadulterated form to a brief period in the mid-nineteenth century.22

The question of the transitional epoch

As Ticktin admits, contemporary capitalism has involved widespread nationalization of production and the administration of prices, the provision of welfare and the social wage; moreover, in the two decades following the second world war, capitalism was able to maintain a commitment to near full employment. As such, contemporary capitalism, particularly in the years following the second world war, had features that were strikingly familiar to those in the USSR. However, for Ticktin, such social democratic features of twentieth century capitalism were simply symptoms of the decline of capitalism in the transitional epoch. The USSR was therefore only like contemporary capitalism insofar as both Russia and Western capitalism were part of the same transitional epoch: the global transition of capitalism into socialism. Whereas in the USSR the 'law of value' had become completely negated, in the West the advance of social democracy meant only the partial negation of the 'law of value'.

The problem of Ticktin's notion of the transitional epoch is not simply the restrictive understanding of capitalism which we have already mentioned, but also its restrictive notion of socialism and communism. For Ticktin, in the true tradition of orthodox Marxism, socialism is essentially the nationalization of production and exchange combined with democratic state planning. As a consequence, for Ticktin, the Russian Revolution must be seen as a successful socialist revolution in that it abolished private property and laid the basis for state planning under workers' control. It was only subsequently that, due to the backwardness and isolation of the Soviet Union, the workers' state degenerated and as a result became stuck half-way between capitalism and socialism.

Yet, as many anarchists and left communists have argued, the Russian Revolution was never a successful proletarian revolution. The revolution failed not simply because of the isolation and backwardness of Russia - although these may have been important factors - but because the Russian working class failed fully to transform the social relations of production. This failure to transform the relations of production meant that, even though the working class may have taken control through the Bolsheviks' seizure of power and established a 'workers' state', they had failed to go beyond capitalism. As a result, the new state bureaucracy had to adopt the role of the bourgeoisie in advancing the forces of production at all costs.

If this position is correct and Russia never went beyond capitalism, then the basic assumption, which Ticktin himself admits is the very foundation of his analysis, that the USSR was stuck half-way between capitalism and socialism, falls to the ground. Nevertheless, Ticktin's notion that the USSR was a distorted system due it being in transition from one mode of production to another is an important insight. However, as we shall argue in Part IV of this article, the USSR was not so much in transition to socialism as in transition to capitalism. However, before considering this we shall in Part III look in more detail at the various theories of state capitalism that have arisen within the left communist tradition.

  • 1Loren Goldner, Communism is the Material Human Community (Collective Action Notes, POB 22962, Balto., MD 21203, USA.). Also published as 'Amadeo Bordiga, the Agrarian Question and the International Revolutionary Movement', in Critique, 23, 1991.
  • 2Jacques Camatte, Community and Communism in Russia.
  • 3This influence is not confined to the Leninist left. The recent book from Neil Fernandez - Capitalism and Class Struggle in the USSR - while opposed to Ticktin's Leninism acknowledges his work as a 'major theoretical achievement' in terms of grasping the forms taken by the class struggle in the Soviet Union. The journal Radical Chains has attempted to develop revolutionary critique by combining some of Ticktin's ideas with others from the autonomist and left communist traditions.
  • 4With the growing crisis in the USSR in the 1980s, there were several attempts by leading theoreticians within the Socialist Workers Party to revise Cliff's theory of state capitalism to overcome its inherent weaknesses.
  • 5The collapse of the USSR has forced a major rethink amongst both Trotskyists and Stalinists. One of the first attempts to draw together the various positions on the USSR was made in Open Polemic, 4 & 5.
  • 6In fact, Ticktin's theory has assumed a strong role among the remnants of the British far left that goes beyond just Trotskyism. The ideological crisis that has accompanied the collapse of the USSR has led the smaller groups to some fairly serious rethinking. Ticktin's theory seems to offer the best hope of keeping their Leninist assumptions while fundamentally disentangling themselves from what has happened in Russia. Showing some of the strange realignments that have followed the collapse of the USSR, a Ticktinite analysis of the USSR seems now to be the dominant position within the ex-Stalinist group previously known as the Leninist. Having reclaimed the CPGB title abandoned by the old Euro-Stalinists (now New Labourites), this group seems to be attracting quite a few homeless leftists to a project based on going back to the 1920 formation of the original CPGB before the split of Trotskyism and Stalinism. However, we'd suggest that, for Leninists, now that the USSR has collapsed, overcoming the division of Stalinism and Trotskyism is not too hard; understanding much less crossing the gap between Leninism and communism is a more difficult task.
  • 7For a discussion of the different ways Trotskyism and left communism interpreted the meaning of these slogans, see our article 'Decadence: The Theory of Decline or the Decline of Theory? Part I' in Aufheben 2 (Summer 1993).
  • 8See, again, our article 'Decadence' in Aufheben 2.
  • 9See 'The Leopard in the 20th Century: Value, Struggle and Administration' in Radical Chains, 4.
  • 10The notion of centrism had originally been applied to those within the Second International who sought to combine a commitment to proletarian revolution with a reformist practice - a position best exemplified by Karl Kautsky.
  • 11In Marx's Capital the question of class is not presented until the very end of Volume III.
  • 12For a critique of this identification of communism with 'a law of planning', or indeed even with planning per se, see 'Decadence Part III' in Aufheben 4 (Summer 1995).
  • 13Tony Cliff Puts Forward a Similar Position That in the USSR the Workers Did Not Really Sell Their Labour-Power.
  • 14Under capitalism, the individual worker can earn more by working harder or longer than the average or norm. However, if the individual worker's colleagues follow suit, the average or norm of working will be increased and the individual worker will soon find his wages revised down to the value of his labour-power.
  • 15Focusing on commodity fetishism helps one avoid the mistake of seeing ideology as predominantly a creation of state and other ideological apparatuses or institutions. To make people work for it, capital neither has to rely on direct force nor on somehow inserting the idea that they should work into people's heads. Their needs, plus their separation from the means of production and each other, makes working for capital a necessity for proletarians. Commodity fetishism in one sense, then, is not in itself an ideology but an inseparable part of the social reality of a value- and commodity-producing society: "to the producers, therefore, the social relations between their private labours appear as what they are, i.e., they do not appear as direct social relations between persons in their work, but rather as material [dinglich] relations between persons and social relations between things" (Capital, vol. 1, Chapter 1, Section 4). On the other hand, people generate ideology to make sense of their alienated practice; to the extent that most people's existence most of the time is within capitalist relations, they generate and adopt ideas to rationalize and make sense of this existence. Because that reality is itself contradictory, their ideas can both be incoherent and quite functional for them. The point here, though, is that no 'battle of ideas' will disabuse them of such ideas which are expressive of their reality. Only in relation to practical struggle, when the reified appearance of capitalist relations is exposed as vulnerable to human interference, are most people likely to adopt revolutionary ideas. On the other hand, leftist intellectuals attempt to be both coherent and critical of this society. It is in relation to such 'critical ideas' that, following Marx and the Situationists, we oppose revolutionary theory to revolutionary ideology.
  • 16There is a key passage in Marx's Capital that would seem at first to support Ticktin's argument that the lack of normal market relations in the USSR meant that it did not generate the powerful 'dull compulsion of everyday life' that the worker experiences in the West:

    the advance of capitalist production develops a working class which by education, tradition and habit looks upon the requirements of that mode of production as self-evident natural laws. The organization of the capitalist process of production, once it is fully developed, breaks down all resistance. The constant generation of a relative surplus population keeps the law of the supply and demand of labour, and therefore wages, within narrow limits which correspond to capital's valorization requirements. The silent compulsion of economic relations sets the seal on the domination of the capitalist over the worker. Direct extra-economic force is still of course used, but only in exceptional cases. In the ordinary run of things, the worker can be left to the "natural laws of production", i.e. it is possible to rely on his dependence on capital, which springs from the conditions of production themselves and is guaranteed in perpetuity by them. (Capital, vol. 1, Chapter 28).

    But the lines that immediately follow suggest a quite different way of grasping the Russian situation:

    It is otherwise during the historical genesis of capitalist production. The rising bourgeoisie needs the power of the state, and uses it to "regulate" wages, i.e. to force them into the limits suitable for making a profit, to lengthen the working day, and to keep the worker himself at his normal level of dependence. This is an essential aspect of so-called primitive accumulation.

    A lot of the strange features of the USSR vis-a-vis 'normal' capitalism become clear when one sees it as attempting to make the transition towards capitalism.

  • 17The observation that there was a fundamental contradiction between the reality of the Soviet regime and what it said about itself is hardly new. The original title of The Russian Enigma by Anton Ciliga, which brilliantly combines an account of his personal experiences of the Stalinist regime and its camps with his reflections on the nature of its economic system, was Au Pays du Grand Mensonge: 'In the Country of the Big Lie'.
  • 18It is interesting to contrast the views of Ticktin with Debord on the Soviet lie.

    Ticktin argues that, unlike the false consciousness of the Western bourgeoisie, the set of doctrines promoted by the Soviet elite doesn't even partially correspond to reality and thus the system has no ideology. Ticktin's motivation to deny that these falsehoods are an ideology is theoretical: 'Systematic, conscious untruthfulness is a symptom of a system that is inherently unstable' (Origins of the Crisis in the USSR, p. 18). His view that it is not a viable system leads him polemically to assert that it has no ideology; for something that is not a mode of production does not generate a coherent false consciousness.

    Debord (Society of the Spectacle, Theses 102-111) similarly describes Soviet society as based on a lie that no one believes and which has thus to be enforced by the police. He also points at the way that its reliance on falsification of the past and present means that it suffers "the loss of the rational reference which is indispensable to the historical society, capitalism", making it a poor imitation of the West in terms of industrial production (108). However Debord does not feel the need to say that, because it has become manifestly incoherent, Stalinist ideology is no longer ideology; rather, it is for him an extreme victory of ideology.

    While it has a theoretical consistency, Ticktin's polemical insistence that there was no ideology in the USSR imposes a very restricted sense on the notion of ideology. Essentially it limits the meaning of ideology to that false consciousness generated by a mode of production which partially grasps the reality of the world which that mode produces and which is thus functional to those identifying with that world. However, ideology can also infect the thought of those who see themselves as critical of and wishing to go beyond that mode of production. For example, the Marxism of the Second International, of which Leninism is essentially a variant, absorbed bourgeois conceptions of the relation of knowledge to practice, of the need for representation and hierarchical organization and of progress, which made it into a revolutionary ideology. Ticktin's limited conception of ideology allows him to escape the questions of the relation of the Soviet Union's ideology of 'Marxism-Leninism' to its origins in Leninism, and the ideological assumptions Trotskyism shares with Stalinism. Debord however, grasps the totalitarian falsehood of Soviet ideology as a dialectical development of the revolutionary ideology of Leninism. As he puts it: "As the coherence of the separate, the revolutionary ideology, of which Leninism was the highest voluntaristic expression, governed the management of a reality that was resistant to it; with Stalinism, this ideology rediscovered its own incoherent essence. Ideology was no longer a weapon but an end in itself. But a lie which can no longer be challenged becomes a form of madness" (105).

  • 19On the basis of this dilemma for the Russian elite, Ticktin is able to provide a persuasive account of the post-war history of the USSR which in many respects is far superior to most attempts by state capitalist theorists to explain the crisis of the Soviet Union.
  • 20See Part VI of Volume I of Capital.
  • 21We shall take this point up in far more detail in 'What was the USSR? Part IV'.
  • 22Again, see 'Decadence Part III' in Aufheben 4 (Summer 1995).