Paul B.Smith reviews Hillel Ticktin's book: Origins of the Crisis in the USSR: Essays on the Political Economy of a Disintegrating System (from Radical Chains no.4).
Towards a political economy of Stalinism - Paul B Smith
Hillel Ticktin was probably the only theorist to predict that the USSR would disintegrate and one of the few who made an attempt to understand its laws by returning to Marx's critique of political economy. For this reason his work has been ignored both by bourgeois sovietology and by the left. Ticktin's work makes it possible to emerge from a theoretical wilderness of competing definitions of the USSR - 'degenerate workers state', 'state capitalist', 'bureaucratic collectivist' …
This is an important book. Written by a Marxist critic of both Western Sovietology and Stalinism, it is a major contribution to the critique of the political economy of the former USSR. As such it offers a refreshing contrast to the sterility of Cold War thought on the Soviet Union, whether bourgeois or socialist.
Over the last twenty years or so, Hillel Ticktin was probably the only theorist to predict that the USSR would disintegrate, arguing, contrary to scholars influenced by Cold War rhetoric, that it was a profoundly unstable social formation. He is, moreover, one of the few persons who made an attempt to understand its laws and tendencies by returning to the method of Marx's critique of political economy. For this reason his work has generally been ignored both by bourgeois sovietology and by the left. That he was right is confirmed by events. Ticktin's work makes it possible to emerge from a theoretical wilderness of competing political definitions of the USSR - 'degenerate workers state', 'state capitalist', 'bureaucratic collectivist', and so on.
Ticktin's work is better known in the USA than in Europe. He has lectured to hundreds of students in Los Angeles and appears regularly on phone-ins organised by independent radio. He is also known in South Africa where, since liberalisation, he has organised a large conference on the future of Marxism and had a newspaper article published on developments in the former Soviet Union. In the UK, he teaches at Glasgow University and edits the journal Critique. Through this journal he has developed a critique of the political economy of the USSR and enabled the publication of the work of left wing anti-stalinist scholars who would otherwise have gone unrecognised. He has written extensively on finance capital, class, capitalist decline, the nature of a socialist society, Trotsky, the Jewish Question, and the Gulf War. His first book, The Politics of Race: Discrimination in South Africa, was published by Pluto Press in 1991 and has been reviewed in recent issues of Radical Chains, Searchlight South Africa, and Revolutionary History. His work on the Soviet Union is now helping to challenge accepted ideas and stimulate debate amongst sections of the left.
The book's form as a collection of essays presented in chapters enables the reader to examine Ticktin's system as separate parts and as a whole. Anyone interested in finding an explanation for the failure of Gorbachev's perestroika should go straight to Ticktin's account of disintegration in the ninth chapter, skipping the rest of the material. Although written before the 1991 coup that brought Yeltsin to power, the information to be found there is a good introduction for anyone trying to understand contemporary developments. Chapter nine stands on its own as an elegant essay which demolishes illusions in so-called 'market socialism' and argues persuasively that attempts to force the market onto the working class will fail.
Ticktin's originality shines through most brilliantly in the second chapter on social control. Here the reader will enjoy studying a careful critique of the Cold War literature on the nature of the atomization of populations in totalitarian systems. Ticktin refines the category of atomization and creates a political economy of bureaucratic dependency. Ticktin's understanding of the category of atomization is richer and deeper than any other, precisely because it contains within it a recognition of the form labour power takes in a declining capitalism: a decline within which the contradictions within value and abstract labour are becoming increasingly antagonistic - as capital struggles to contain combined labour within the sphere of exchangeability. To fully appreciate the subtleties of his argument it is helpful to have some understanding of categories derived from Marx, especially the discussion of dependence and independence to be found in the Grundrisse and that of commodity fetishism found in Capital and elsewhere.
Ticktin's arguments are persuasive whether or nor one is a scholar of Marx. The reason for this is his grasp of method. Ticktin has not simply read Capital and then proceeded to impose the categories of commodity and value on the USSR. In the introduction to the Grundrisse Marx stated that theory must start from the concrete, the empirical reality of the society being discussed. Ticktin follows this approach, developing his categories in relation to both the vast amount of empirical research on the USSR that has taken place and the various explanatory frameworks that have been put forward by both right and left. His categories are not imported from some a priori schema but grow organically and logically out of the material he has studied. His knowledge of the Russian language (acquired in part through having lived and worked in the USSR itself) has enabled him to penetrate the bureaucratese of the official documents of the stalinist elite in which tone is just as important as content. This raises his understanding to a higher level than most on the left. Even if the reader rejects or is sceptical of Ticktin's theoretical foundations, she or he is likely to learn a great deal about the Soviet Union from this book.
THE RULING ELITE
Ticktin's thinking is demanding but rarely dull. The esoteric aspect to the book - the application of the categories of contradiction, law, actual and potential use-value, and real and imagined product - reveals quantity and quality of study which it is difficult to imagine being equaled by any contemporary Marxist. Yet Ticktin's presentation of categories neither obtrudes nor drifts from a path that is clear and exact. Practically every term he uses is carefully defined so that if the reader gets lost, she or he can retrace their steps to the point of confusion. This makes it easy to follow the logical relations between the categories and the direction of his thought.
For example, class is defined as 'a collectivity that has a particular relation to the extraction of the surplus product' (p.6). Surplus product is defined as 'that portion of the social product that a whole or part of the society has decided to allocate for uses other than the immediate satisfaction of the needs of those engaged in productive work: in other words, those who produce the surplus product itself' (p.10). These definitions are useful in deciding whether the members of the ruling group in the Stalinist system constitute a class. This belief is held to by adherents of the idea of state capitalism, such as C L R James, Raya Dunayevskaya and Tony Cliff. In contrast, Ticktin argues that there was no ruling class within the Stalinist system. Control over the extraction of surplus product is almost completely restricted by a negative control that atomised workers have over the labour process. This manifests itself in absenteeism, sabotage, alcoholism and defective products. Moreover, the ruling group is also atomised. Members live in constant fear of losing their privileges and cannot pass them on to their children with any certainty. They are therefore insufficiently stable to form a collectivity. If they are prevented from forming a collectivity, then they cannot form a class.
How should this ruling group be described? Ticktin plumps for 'elite'. Despite its unfortunate sociological connotations, 'elite' has the advantage of suggesting that the ruling group is unstable and incoherent. He defines it as 'those people who have some limited control over the surplus product' (p.48). He goes on to argue that the attempt by the elite to escape the threat of its abolition motivates its members to aspire to achieving the stability, continuity and coherence of a class. This utopian dream drives them to shift the system towards the market.
THE POLITICAL ECONOMY OF STALINISM
Ticktin's aim is to provide an 'outline of the political economy of the USSR' (p.6). The fact that the USSR has formally ceased to exist hardly invalidates his work, for the entity for which he provides a political economy, and which is now disintegrating, is Stalinism. This started its life as the subjective doctrine of 'socialism in one country'. The doctrine took on an objective form when attempts were made to extract an absolute surplus from the working class and peasantry by brute force. This culminated in and survived the purges of the 1930s. The system formed out of this failed doctrine is now in terminal crisis. It may cease to exist before any viable social formation emerges out of its ruins.
Ticktin argues that the Stalinist system was never a planned society. Lack of control over the process of production by a democratic collectivity of freely associated producers makes all talk of planning in the Soviet Union meaningless. The atomization of the elite and of the working class makes impossible the communication necessary for planning. There is thus no sense in which the USSR can be described as a workers' state, however degenerate. Nationalisation in the absence of genuine workers control is not a sufficient condition for the existence of a workers' state.
Nor did the Soviet Union have any significant growth. The idea that the USSR was a growing economy is now disproved. Soviet statistics were deliberately falsified. The regime claimed that GNP had expanded ninety times over the last sixty years. Official sources now say that expansion was only six times during this period. When inflation has continued to be higher (3% per annum) than expansion of GNP (2.4% per annum), then growth in the economy is negative (p. 126). Moreover, growth of GNP is calculated as growth of net product: a quantitative increase of goods over time. But producer goods were so defective that they led to increasing shortages of consumer goods.
Defenders of the old USSR have argued that the regime was able to compete with capitalist countries i the space and arms races. They forget, however, that Soviet workers in the arms sector were both better paid and under strict military discipline. It is a fact that when workers are slaves or semi-slaves, they can be made to create products of some durability in a short space of time. The pyramids of Egypt and the Great Wall of China were made by such workers. The battleships and military aircraft of the First and Second World Wars were produced by workers under military discipline. Yet, besides the notable exception of the Kalashnikov rifle and a few other products, the majority of Soviet arms products are at such a low level of technique that they are unable to compete in the world market. No sensible nation will want to buy Soviet arms after the Gulf War. It is ironic that some left-wingers should use Soviet arms production to support the doctrine that the USSR had features which made it a superior mode of production to capitalism.
The Soviet Union was not a workers' state nor was it 'state capitalist'. It was based on the obliteration of commodity production and there was therefore no value, no money and no capital. By contrast with capitalist societies, where production is dominated by exchange value, Ticktin argues, 'in the case of the USSR ... use value is all important' (p.11).
Ticktin shows that the rouble does not function as money, because it does not exist as a measure of value. His first reference to money is an historical one: money was abolished in the early 1930s 'in order to deal with the massive shortages operating throughout the economy' (p.33). The wage is therefore 'nominal'. The rouble does not enable the worker to acquire 'an apartment, a car, or most consumer durables without being placed on a waiting list, and often he needs to belong to a particular institution with a particular status' (p.36). As the labour is semi-forced, through the social controls of atomization, the wage is in effect a type of pension (p.84). Ticktin makes a distinction between exchange value and value. Forms of exchange exist in the system but 'capital goods cannot be bought and sold, land cannot be bought and sold, and the transport system, construction, and housing for the individual are all virtually allocated or so heavily subsidised as to make all talk of purchase and sale a mockery' (p.133). The argument that money does not exist is developed in chapter nine where he states that 'There can only be value if labour power itself has value, or in other words, if it is bought and sold'. If there is no value, then there can be no measure of value. If there is no measure of value there can be no money. The rouble functions as a 'defective means of circulation' (p.160). Ticktin's account is fully consistent with Marx's in the Grundrisse and Capital.
Is it possible for the rouble to be converted into money? Not without a capital market and a labour market. The former needs a stock market and bankruptcies and the latter needs unemployment and the right to hire and fire. This is what the elite are attempting to push through at time of writing (July 1992). Ticktin argues that this policy has already failed. Even if the figures of ten million unemployed predicted by the International Labour Organisation are achieved by the end of the year, he argues that at least forty million unemployed will be necessary to function as a reserve army of labour. Moreover, unemployment will not function to control the workers if the individualised control over the labour process breaks through its atomised form and becomes increasingly socialised and politicised. The control workers have will be strengthened further. It could only be broken if there is a massive aid package from the West which might serve to divide privileged from unprivileged workers. This is not forthcoming and will not be forthcoming during a period of world slump led by the American recession. It was only under intense political pressure from the G7 countries that the IMF reluctantly released one billion of the twenty four billion dollars promised Russia. As Bush has stated, trillions of dollars would be needed to rescue the Russian economy.
STALINISM AND DECLINE
What is the nature of this unlovely beast? How can we understand this historical black hole? Ticktin suggests that its dynamic is the outgrowth of the attempt to contain revolution in the context of capitalist decline.
Early on in the book, Ticktin states that Stalinism 'constitutes a conservative social formation that has taken on a monstrous and sui generis form precisely in order to prevent social revolution' (p.9). He says that it represented the victory of capitalism in preventing a move towards socialism. Like other non-viable social formations which copied it (such as China, Pol Pot's Cambodia, Ethiopia, Angola and Cuba) systematic repression is specially reserved for the left. The difference between Stalinism and its surrogates, and between Stalinism and other non-viable social formations (such as fascism and the theocracy in Iran) is that Stalinism evolved out of the defeat of world-wide social revolution. Whilst control over the product was seized from them, the workers retained a limited control over the labour process in an individualised and atomised form.
Brute force is a limited method of extracting a surplus. If the society was to progress beyond the extraction of an absolute surplus, other methods had to be tried. These included workers setting norms and rates of work at the factory level. These measures, however, acted to socialise labour despite the atomization. Throughout the book, therefore, Ticktin stresses that the elite has been conscious of the possibility of its abolition. Its moves and its factionalisation have been motivated by attempts to control, persuade and cajole a working class which is becoming increasingly strong and increasingly threatening. The move to the market is a last ditch attempt to destroy the basis of the potential of workers for social revolution. It is an attempt to destroy the control they have over the labour process. Looked at in this light, developments over the last few years reflect the needs of a desperate and fearful social grouping who are clearly acting as allies of the world bourgeoisie.
Capitalist decline, on the other hand, serves to explain the emergence of social formations which are non-viable and have no potential. Ticktin states that his study is concerned with the laws of transition in a world where the laws of capitalism are in decline but where a new mode of production has yet to come into being. He writes that the 'fundamental law of the transition period is that of the growing contradiction between incipient and often distorted forms of planning and the market' (p.185). Planning is defined as 'the conscious regulation of the economy by the associated producers themselves' (p.182-183) and the market as 'the sphere of action of the law of value' (p.183). Planning and the market are in contradiction with one another. Every effort is made by the bourgeoisie to keep the market alive and to stop, slow down, or assist the bureaucratic destruction of embryonic planning forms established by workers who take charge of the means of production.
Thus in the USSR, in the early 1920s, there was an attempt to plan at the same time as holding on to elements of the market. This attempt was still-born once the revolution was defeated world-wide. The logic would have entailed opening the USSR to capital investment from the West. This proved impossible for political and economic reasons. The reparations would have been immense, and the West was in a slump and could not afford to reinvest. Stalinism emerged out of the degeneration of the law of value and of the law of planning in the late twenties. It became a system without value and without planning. It had its own peculiar contradictory laws. These Ticktin calls the law of organisation and the law of self interest.
THE CONTRADICTION WITHIN USE VALUE
Ticktin defines a law as 'a description of the process of movement of the poles of a contradiction' (p.118) and defines contradiction 'in its Hegelian and Marxist sense' as 'a necessary relation between opposites that interpenetrate and change each other' (p.13). The two opposite poles within Stalinism are derived from a contradiction within use value. Ticktin uses various terms to describe the contradiction. In the introductory chapter he states that it lies between a 'real' use value and a 'potential' use value. The example he gives is of a jacket with one arm shorter than another: 'it has a real use value; but the use value is less than that of a jacket with two arms of the same length' (p.12). Later he writes: 'A jacket is a jacket but a jacket with one arm shorter than the other may or may not be said to be a jacket' (p.134). Thus it is questionable whether a use value is a use value in the Stalinist system. It is possible to imagine a society in which there is production intended for need but in which every product is useless. Within Stalinism there is a massive production of goods of such poor quality that they are as good as useless.
Ticktin describes the contradiction in various ways. For example, he sometimes describes it as lying between a real use value and an 'apparent' use value (p.127). At other times he describes it as lying between a real use value and an 'imagined or intended' use value. This difference of usage would appear to be necessary to make the connection between the contradiction within the product and the contradictions within the system. Both are clearly related. The one causes the other and vice versa. Ticktin quite clearly wants to connect the two yet never quite gets round to stating the logical relationship explicitly.
The clue to the relationship between the two levels of contradiction - within the product and within the system - is to be found in the following statement: 'The contradiction within the product is then between the administered form of the product and its use value' (p.134). Consideration of the administered form of the product leads directly to the means of social control: atomization and bureaucratic dependency. The fact is that labour power is expended in such a way that it is useless both to the individual worker and to society as a whole. Ticktin makes this connection clear when he writes that '...behind the administered product form lies a form of control over labour' and 'the imagined performance of labour power is one thing, its actual utility is another' (p.137).
The contradiction within the use value of the product is now derived from its administered form. This in turn reflects the contradiction in labour power. Workers alienate their labour power in a way that satisfies neither their own interests (because workers have no control over the product or over society) nor the interests of the elite (because the elite has no control over the labour process and only limited control over the surplus product). It follows that the 'fundamental contradiction of the Soviet system lies in the form of control over the workers, through their atomization' (p.117). It is in the interest of the workers to remove this form of social control. This can go two ways. On the one hand, they might accept a form of control based on the market, with mass unemployment functioning as a reserve army of labour in return for wages which function as money and can buy commodities. On the other, they might reject all forms of control and express a desire for a full expression of democratic control over the products they make. If they take the latter road, then the contradictions within use value are abolished and the real and imagined character of needs are expressed in a social unity instead of standing in an antagonistic relationship to one another.
ORGANISATION AND SELF-INTEREST
The law of self-interest that Ticktin sees as operating within the Stalinist system has two opposing poles: the atomised worker and socialised labour. The atomised worker can therefore be understood as the actual use value of labour power within the system. The atomised worker has no interest in producing a non-defective use value. From the point of view of the elite, the labour power of the atomised worker is defective because it does not produce a surplus they can appropriate. It is therefore in the interest of the elite to try to socialise labour towards this end. Socialised labour, on the other hand, expresses the potential or imagined use value of labour power. This can only produce non-contradictory use values if it bursts through its atomised fetters and becomes a democratic collectivity which plans not only for the needs of the particular individual but universally - for the needs of every individual. The more labour is socialised, the more it becomes apparent that the interest of workers is to gain control of the surplus.
The two opposing poles of the law of organisation, on the other hand, are central control and the interests of the elite. To repeat, the interest of the elite is to gain complete control over the labour process. They try to do this through centralised control. The centrally controlled worker, however, is atomised and prevents the elite gaining real control. The more they attempt to control, the more defective use values are produced. Economic and social units express the interests of their unit by acting independently from central control. This makes for an increasingly defective surplus product and a gradual disintegration of the economy. The elite nurtures a utopian desire for a market with no centralised controls but attempts impose it through centralised controls. As a result, the process of disintegration speeds up.
The above account of Ticktin's theory of the laws of the system is extrapolated from various sections of the book. The relationship between the contradictions in use value and the laws which govern Stalinism are not obvious. The reason for this is that the discussions of atomization, use value and law take place in different chapters and appear, at times, unrelated.
A good example of this is chapter seven, 'The Nature of the Soviet Political Economy'. In the section on the laws and contradictions of the system, Ticktin mentions the phenomenon of waste as a category and refers also to the difference between actual and potential output. However, he refrains from any explicit discussion of the relationship between the laws, and the contradictions in use value he examines elsewhere. It may be that he thinks that the discussion on waste in chapter two is a sufficient introduction. If so, it would have done no harm to remind the reader of this in the later chapter. If, moreover, he intended the chapter to stand on its own as an independent essay, it would have been helpful if he had made these relationships more explicit and shown how the contradictory laws of the system can be derived from the contradictions within the product and vice versa.
DISINTEGRATION, DECLINE, AND TERMINAL CRISIS
Ticktin argues, further, that workers in the USSR will move to the left as they realise that the market cannot be introduced without a deeper deterioration in their standard of living - as attempts are made by the elite to stifle demands for democracy being communicated from within the work-place to the whole of society. This argument about the impossibility of introducing the market is based on a broader theory of capitalist decline. Because there is a lot o confusion over the meaning of this category it is necessary to spell it out in more detail.
Some people seem to think that to say that capitalism is in decline is to say that it is facing a terminal crisis. This is not so. Ticktin keeps the two concepts distinct. Stalinism is undoubtedly in terminal crisis and disintegration is the form of this crisis. By disintegration Ticktin means the 'pulling apart of the poles of the system, so that the social groups, factions, and economic categories stand in opposing and noncooperating forms' (p.14). If there is any slogan to be found in his book it is the constant re-iteration that there is no third way. Either the market or socialism will burst through the disintegrating system. A terminal crisis for capitalism would be analogous to the events leading up to the 1917 revolution. There is no indication that such a terminal crisis is likely in the immediate future in the absence of a coherent left.
Decline is a completely different idea. Ticktin's view is that the 'decline of capitalism involves the decline of its fundamental law and social relation; it is therefore the decline of the law of value itself' (p.173). The discussion then becomes one about value, abstract labour, money, capital and the market. Ticktin draws attention to the rise of a needs based sector, the growth of monopolies and corresponding lack of competition as evidence of this decline. He also mentions the higher capital-labour ratio requiring long term investment before a return of profits, the management of capitalist economies by their governments, the short term investment policy of finance capital and the rise of bureaucracy.
The consequences for disintegrating Stalinism are threefold. Firstly there can be no proper introduction of a functioning reserve army of labour if it does not function properly under capitalism. Secondly, there can be no internal competition of firms if utilities such as transport, housing, health and education remain in the state or a monopoly sector, and if, even in manufacturing, industries are handed over to cartels. He writes that the system needs 'not just competition but a raging competition to re-establish capitalism with all its controls over the workers' (p.175). Thirdly, finance capital will not be interested in investing in the system 'because it demands quick returns and so does not permit investment that provides profits only over a long time span' (p.167).
The policy of the elite is to introduce the market 'with an iron fist' (p.164). Ticktin argues that this policy has failed. Yet at one point he states: 'Ultimately the market will burst through in spite of the forces holding it back, but it will be in an explosive form' (p.170). This statement appears to contradict the general thrust of his argument. It implies that labour power will take the form of value; that money, capital and abstract labour will come into being and that the policy of the elite will be successful. It is the only statement of its kind. Ticktin was writing this book in 1990 when it was not clear that the liberal section of the elite would take power. It is possible to interpret this statement in hindsight as a prediction of what has in fact happened. In this sense, 'the market' has already burst through explosively. In which case his use of the word 'market' is ambiguous, referring both to a mature entity and to its parasitic and decadent offspring: the black market and the mafia.
NATIONALISM IN THE USSR
This book does not give much attention to the rise of nationalism or to the position of women and of the peasantry in the USSR. The reason for this is to do with publication pressures and Ticktin apologises in the preface for these omissions. It is possible, however, to construct his views on nationalism from various references he makes in the book. Events have, of course, gone beyond the scope of the book: war with the Ukraine is being discussed in some circles in Russia and elsewhere, and the ghost of Yugoslavia haunts the East as a warning of the failure of 'market socialism' and a dire premonition of the future. Nevertheless enough information can be gleaned from the book to serve as the foundation of a theory of nationalism that has contemporary relevance.
Nationalism is understood to be 'interclass or intergroup' (p.23). It is the doctrine most likely to appeal to the intelligentsia as the system disintegrates and their position becomes increasingly unstable. The intelligentsia include 'all those who both alienate their labour power and assist in the process of extraction of the surplus product, usually by being in charge of others' (p.75). This intermediate group roughly corresponds to all those with a higher education. It is the most insecure group in the system. The intelligentsia tend to think of workers as 'cattle' and are pre-disposed to anti-semitism and nationalism. As the system disintegrates the standard of living of members of the intelligentsia will decline. They will fluctuate between a dependence on the working class and on the elite. Some no doubt will form part of an emergent left as they start to identify themselves with the working class. Others who ally with the elite will intensify their hatred for workers and Jews and will try to whip up general discontent into patriotic fervour.
War is an option for this layer. But war between Russia and the Ukraine will not be favoured by that section of the elite desperate for stability. Nor will it be favoured by the bourgeoisie in the West. It would be an admission of the fact that the attempt to introduce money and the market had failed. Moreover, it might speed up the process of the working class moving to the left. War is a high risk strategy. That does not mean, of course, that it will not happen. Compounding the despair, misery and fear that already exists with a good dose of mass slaughter might serve the interests of a small determined faction for a while.
To reiterate, this is an important book for any honest enquirer into the nature of Stalinism. It is difficult to imagine that it will be superseded until it has been translated into Russian and Ukrainian and forms part of the internal critical debate that is already under way on the prospect of the reforms. It is the development of critical thought within the intelligentsia and the working class that the elite most fears and it is a process they are powerless to prevent. As Ticktin states:
'Indeed, whatever the reforms may be, there can be no hope whatsoever of their success if there cannot be a critical discussion of their progress. This problem, however, is insuperable because any real discussion must come up against the nature of socialism itself - with the majority controlling, work become humanity's prime want, interchangeability of occupations within the division of labour, and hence the abolition of the elite itself' (p.80).
See scribd.com for articles by Hillel Ticktin