The German war economy and state socialism - Robert Kurz

The German war economy and state socialism - Robert Kurz

In this excerpt from his book, The Collapse of Modernization (1991), Robert Kurz discusses the role played by the WWI German War Economy as a model for the catch-up modernization program implemented first by the Bolshevik regime and then completed by Stalin (defined by Preobrazhensky in 1926 as “Socialist Primitive Accumulation”), points out that this understanding of the transition to socialism was almost universally accepted at the time among all socialist and communist factions, including the most radical ones, due to a “false ontology of labor” and a “socio-technological” understanding of capital that are incompatible with Marx’s critique of the commodity form and abstract labor.

The German War Economy and State Socialism – Robert Kurz

The Sociologism of Class Struggle and the Veiling of Bourgeois Forms

The state socialist illusion is found in a paradigmatic form in Lenin, who took the state planning of the war economy of the German Empire as a model for the nascent soviet economy, with the sole proviso that a different kind of social power should make use of it. His praise for the German postal system as an organizational model for the socialist organization of society, in his book The State and Revolution, written in the summer of 1917, is famous:

“A witty German Social-Democrat of the seventies of the last century called the postal service an example of the socialist economic system. This is very true. At the present the postal service is a business organized on the lines of state-capitalist monopoly. Imperialism is gradually transforming all trusts into organizations of a similar type, in which, standing over the “common” people, who are overworked and starved, one has the same bourgeois bureaucracy. But the mechanism of social management is here already to hand. Once we have overthrown the capitalists, crushed the resistance of these exploiters with the iron hand of the armed workers, and smashed the bureaucratic machinery of the modern state, we shall have a splendidly-equipped mechanism, freed from the “parasite”, a mechanism which can very well be set going by the united workers themselves....” (Lenin, The State and Revolution)

Lenin went one step further in the article, “‘Left Wing’ Childishness and the Petty Bourgeois Mentality”, published in May 1918, where he no longer wants to liberate the ominous and, by its very form, the absolutely indeterminate “mechanism of the social direction of the economy” from “state capitalism”, but now wants to directly utilize that same state capitalism:

“To make things even clearer, let us first of all take the most concrete example of state capitalism. Everybody knows what this example is. It is Germany. Here we have “the last word” in modern large-scale capitalist engineering and planned organisation, subordinated to Junker-bourgeois imperialism. Cross out the words in italics, and in place of the militarist, Junker, bourgeois, imperialist state put also a state, but of a different social type, of a different class content—a Soviet state, that is, a proletarian state, and you will have the sum total of the conditions necessary for socialism. Socialism is inconceivable without large-scale capitalist engineering based on the latest discoveries of modern science. It is inconceivable without planned state organisation, which keeps tens of millions of people to the strictest observance of a unified standard in production and distribution.” (Lenin, “‘Left Wing’ Childishness…”)

Declarations of this kind are extraordinarily typical, not just of Lenin or the Bolsheviks, but of the entire workers movement (in the West as well) of the era, including Lenin’s “left-radical” opponents in the dispute cited above. The theoretical and ideological foundation of this kind of thinking was already present in their particularly sociological understanding of historical social relations and social formations.

Marxist theory, unilaterally vulgarized as “Marxism”, was dispossessed of its decisive formal critique of the modern system of bourgeois reproduction; the critique of the commodity form was eliminated, reduced to the Marxist concept of fetishism, and was exiled to a theoretical and historical beyond, discredited for its obscurity or degraded to a merely subjective phenomenon of consciousness.

In place of a concept of the form of the system of commodity production and its historical conditions, there appeared a reductionist concept of “classes in struggle”, as the alleged ultimate foundation of social bonds; the constituum became the constituens, the phenomenon derived from the social classes became their ultimate essence. Thus, capital itself was not criticized, but “the capitalists”, who were made to appear as personal subjects of the social relation of the commodity, which in actuality lacks a subject. The mystified social meta-subjects of the classes thus received a curiously familiar character, like the gods of antiquity, who were also provided with quite worldly personal character-traits.

Thus, from an analytical social category—the “working class”—an unmediated collective person arose with a consistent identity, which “acts” quasi-historically, independently of real empirical persons. Class identity found its basis in a false ontology of labor, which was not understood as a moment and constitutive part of the fetishist system of the commodity, but, in a strictly Biblical (“Protestant”, to be precise) fashion, was understood instead as an eternal human essence that was only violated from the outside by the “exploitative” subject of the “capitalists”. And, inversely, the alleged liberation from the capital relation could then appear as the dispossession of the “capitalists” or, in the worst case, as their Jacobin liquidation (1); the position of Lenin’s “left radical” critics is, in this regard, even more Jacobin-bourgeois: as an alleged alternative to “state capitalism” they proposed, in all innocence, the “total extermination of the bourgeoisie”. As a result, Lenin’s arguments must have been completely plausible in the understanding of the old workers movement. If labor appeared apart from its formal social-historical determination, as the positive basis for any imaginable “socialism”, then his arguments had to be equally valid for the basic categories of the system of commodity production. Lenin (and not just Lenin) totally lacked a denunciation of abstract labor as a form of capital. It therefore reemerges as a positive reflection, in a curiously vulgar, confusionist and a-conceptual way, in the form of “planned organization” or the “mechanism of the social direction of the economy”, intimately linked to the “‘the last word’ in modern large-scale capitalist engineering” [!] and the “the latest discoveries of modern science”, and finally, quite openly, as “planned state organization”.

These conceptual forms conceal a clearly indefensible understanding of the logic of capital, which, in contemporary terms, would be called socio-technological. (2) The society of the October Revolution as a “gigantic laboratory” was a metaphor used by others besides the Bolsheviks. This alleged socialism seemed to be a merely external, although powerful, organizational task, which had to be executed in the same ways and with the same means, only this time by the “true” subject, instead of the false “aristocratic-imperialist” subject.

Naturally, not even with the best intentions in the world could the mystified “working class” subject be brought to life; the enthusiasm and the excitement of the “working masses” for the soviets and their readiness for action were inevitably exhausted as these masses were enrolled for the expenditure of their labor power: not merely an inevitable obligation, in light of the low level of productivity, but also something which had to be brought to bear against the heavy inertia of the peasant system of production. The party thus became the embodiment of the metaphysical class subject which it had been ideologically incapable of exposing as the bourgeois mechanism of modernization: this also explains the criminal Stalinist terror directed against the Bolshevik old guard (any one of whom, however, and Trotsky most of all, would have been capable of becoming another Stalin).

As long as the Party was merged with the bureaucratic-Stalinist war economy, in part already existing, in part created by the Party, it could justify practically all of its actions, even the most repressive, senseless and bloody ones, as the acts of the representative of the working class on earth. The Party, which “is always right”, thus created, in its own mind, a new socialist society which, in fact, was no more than the belated forced recruitment of a modern working class under State leadership. The critics and skeptics, socialist or Marxist, who were physically eliminated in the Soviet Union by the Stalinist apparatus in a Jacobinical manner that recalled the methods used in the French Revolution, had neither a historical alternative to offer, nor were they in any position to conceptually grasp the social process unfolding before their very eyes. The Trotskyist orientation towards “revolution in the West”—because socialism in one country, and especially in “underdeveloped” Russia, was impossible, while in Europe both the objective and subjective conditions for revolution were present—was pure illusion.

In reality, and in the west as well, the capitalist development of the forces of production was far from having reached its critical threshold. The western revolutions and mass movements at the end of the First World War still belonged, like the war itself and the October Revolution, to the history of the maturation process of the system of commodity production rather than to its fully mature state that was ripe for being overthrown and for its internal crisis. The spokesmen of these movements were already, of course, modern men, formed by capitalism, and their confrontations were certainly produced by the contradictions of the system of commodity production, but these contradictions could not yet be overcome. In the west, too, in these social convulsions, semi-feudal, pre-capitalist and early capitalist remains, residues, social structures and relations of dependence, legal forms, social bonds, etc., still had to be dissolved. In general, the whole epoch of world wars still belongs to the global history of capital’s development, which could only develop as a self-sustained, mature and unmediated world system after 1945.

The fall of the German Empire and the Hapsburg monarchy, the elimination of the estate-based Prussian electoral law, the victorious advance of women’s suffrage in the western countries, etc., was the order of the day; not the suppression of the system of value production, which, for that reason, could be theoretically formulated by neither the Trotskyists nor the “left radicals”, etc. (with the exception of a small number of abstract and conceptually obscure presentations); precisely for this reason, this alleged radicality had to remain imprisoned within the working class mystification.

This state of affairs, taken as a whole, naturally reflected the still-precarious maturation process of world capitalist socialization. One can apply to Marxism itself what Marx said in his 1859 book, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy:

“No social order ever perishes before all the productive forces for which there is room in it have developed; and new, higher relations of production never appear before the material conditions of their existence have matured in the womb of the old society itself. Therefore mankind always sets itself only such tasks as it can solve; since, looking at the matter more closely, it will always be found that the tasks itself arises only when the material conditions of its solution already exist or are at least in the process of formation.” (Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy)

At the end of the First World War, it was not the suppression of the system of commodity production or capital that was imminent, but on the contrary, a more extensive realization of that system. Nowhere in the west did productive forces exist that would have made possible the suppression of the working class, that is, an uncoupling of social reproduction from the system of the abstract and massive expenditure of labor power. The only alternative to this had always been a retreat to agrarian forms of poverty and pre-modern rural ways of life. (3) As a result, even the left radical critics were incapable of imagining a revolutionary society except as a radical and Jacobin “self-government of the working class”: a contradiction in terms, a logical impossibility, since the autonomous decisions of society over the contents of use value, or over the contents of needs, and an existence structured on the basis of labor power, are mutually exclusive.

The famous Leninist formula of communism as being equivalent to “soviet power plus electrification” not only expresses an external and technological understanding of social emancipation, but also reflects a contradiction which was then insoluble: the “workers” as such could not “rule”, because they did not possess the experience required for the task and because they had to stop “working” in order to be able to “rule”; if this were to be possible, however, then no sort of “rule” would be necessary and the latter would become, in a social sense, totally superfluous. The “rule of the working class” could therefore only be transformed, independently of its ideological signification, into a bourgeois and Jacobin dictatorship of modernization. Ironically, and in contradiction to all the legends of the radical leftists, there was no proletarian revolution at all in the west, for precisely that reason; because the west was already highly developed and did not need a proletarian revolution in order to take its next step in bourgeois modernization.

Western communists (“Leninists”) and social democrats, the enemy brothers of the old workers movement, not only coincided in their still sociological-workerist basic understanding of the social, but were also identical in their historical function as bourgeois and sociological-workerist forces of modernization. For this task, social democracy and its policies sufficed for the west, while the relative underdevelopment in Russia required more radical measures. Only this explains the schism; just as the current miserable “reunification” of the finally self-identified pan-social democracy (4) is explained by the fact that this model has become historically evacuated of meaning, since the bourgeois history of modernization has entered its final crisis.

In a way, the Menshevik social democrats were right with regard to the “objectively bourgeois” character of the Russian Revolution and, certainly, more so than they could have imagined; in the logical sense, of course, and not historically or empirically. Thus, the immediate task of bourgeois modernization in Russia could not be carried out by the agent to whom such a task corresponds—to speak in sociological terms—that is, by the “liberal bourgeoisie”, which played a merely secondary role in the Russian Revolution. Only a radical workers party, strictly demarcated with respect to western capitalism, was capable under the circumstances of pulling the chestnuts out of the fire for a catch-up capitalist development in Russia.

Thus, the Bolsheviks were right, in terms of “practice”; they had to carry out a program of ideological deception, however, with regard to the content of their revolution, and did so precisely in the form of the Leninist illusion of the primacy of politics. It was necessary for the political will of the party to replace the impossible abolition of abstract labor. In this manner the internal identity of “capital” and “labor” could be systematically concealed and, along with it, the interchangeability of the social and institutional bearers of the “masks” (Marx) of the system of commodity production, which are only opposed to one another on the surface of the market. Communism thereby became a “proletarian” ideology for the legitimation of forced bourgeois late modernization.

In fact, all of Lenin’s hagiographers, of whatever stripe, overlook the historical essence of the October Revolution, precisely because they share the Leninist illusion and therefore project alternatives into the past, as if they were merely faced with the “correct” or “false” decision of the subject in question. Liberation from the coercive laws of the commodity form, that is, the abolition of a blind conditioning which originates outside the subject, is also conditioned. Up to this day, then, the social democratic and leftist enhancers of history have not posed the question correctly. Those who demand “direct action”, “self-management”, “rank and file democracy”, etc., in an ahistorical and pedagogical fashion, without even conceptually addressing the basic fetishistic structure of the system of commodity production, seek to realize the bourgeois heaven of liberty, equality and fraternity despite the bourgeois reality. This eternal spring of the bourgeois illusion of the subject has lost none of its charm since the days of the French Revolution and has therefore been patiently endured to this day. (5)

The Problem of Orientalism

Not much better than the critiques advanced by Lenin’s left radicals or left bourgeois late-enlightenment critics, who senselessly reproached the Bolshevik’s modernization regime for having been just as remiss as the bourgeoisie itself in realizing bourgeois ideals, are those belonging to a complementary wing of criticism who attempt to discover the origins of Bolshevik statism in the “Asiatic tradition”, and the Asiatic and despotic aspects of Czarism and its social legacy (Dutschke 1974, and Bahro 1977, among others). By this means they conceal and eliminate precisely the statist and despotic roots and features of democratic and enlightenment thought and social foundations, and erase, although perhaps unwittingly, the historic footprints of the western system of commodity production.

Only a totally superficial analogical mode of thought could fuse Asiatic despotism and the war economy of a modernization regime that, in reality, copied the west and, rather than Ivan the Terrible, took the yet more terrible German Post Office as its model. It is, of course, easy to reduce all the instances of despotism in world history to a formal and vacuous master concept, and then Bolshevism can just as well be compared to the empire of the Pharaohs—which has been done, for example, by one variety of high-minded anarchist critique of the productive forces that serves as the ideological substrate in The Myth of the Machine, by Lewis Mumford (Mumford, 1974). Yet this concept has not contributed to the understanding of even one real social formation in the context of the complete history of the preconditions and processes required for its constitution.

The social and historical foundations of Asiatic despotism are totally distinct from those of the modern system of commodity production, and cannot be compared. Neither agrarian subsistence production and its “depletion” by a class composed of a despotically centralized master race, or the system of natural economy based on irrigation, the “hydraulic society” (Wittfogel, 1977/1957) crowned by a despotic administrative bureaucracy, feature the commodity and money as their basic social nexus. Modern statism, however, despite the fact that it can be shown in certain stages of the development of its production system to bear formal similarities to oriental despotism, is altogether a moment in the constitution of the abstractly free individual made to conform to the commodity, whose internal heterogeneity does not arise from “bureaucratic arbitrariness”, but from the coercive and subject-less laws of the commodity form and money.

If, in the war economies of the German empire and the other imperialist states of the system of commodity production, as well as in the war economies of the Second World War, the statism of the mercantile era and of the early-modern revolution reappear in a new form and at a higher level of development; and if both liberal and leftist critics denounce the “capitalist bureaucracy” associated with it, the “administrative world”, etc., as a structurally negative characteristic (see Jacoby, 1969); if this is so, then it is not an autochthonous bureaucratism derived from despotism that lies concealed behind these phenomena, but the latter are merely the consequence of democratic freedom itself; the material coercion of the rule of the self-movement of money and the execution of the judgments which fall under the laws of “second nature”.

The despotic statism of the newborn soviet society was constructed precisely in opposition to the social and economic foundations of oriental despotism inherited from the Czarist empire; Lenin’s constantly-repeated declarations that western bourgeois forms of culture, science, management, etc., must be learned and emulated were consistent with not just the bourgeois modernization function of the October Revolution, but also with statist forms. The remnants of orientalism were dismantled and remodeled with statist means of modern socialization that conformed with the commodity, just as the products of feudal decomposition were swept away, in the west, by means of early-modern statism:

“While the revolution in Germany is still slow in “coming forth”, our task is to study the state capitalism of the Germans, to spare no effort in copying it and not shrink from adopting dictatorial methods to hasten the copying of it. Our task is to hasten this copying even more than Peter hastened the copying of Western culture by barbarian Russia, and we must not hesitate to use barbarous methods in fighting barbarism.” (Lenin, “‘Left Wing’ Childishness…” (1918))

This declaration reflects the real essence of the October Revolution more than Lenin could have intended. In fact, however, just as was the case in the period before the French Revolution, when the absolute monarchs and princes initiated the process of the destruction of the feudal mode of production and the dispossession of the nobility, a process to which they would eventually also fall victim, so, too, did the “modernizing” Czars initiate processes directed against orientalism and reducing the power of and decapitating the Boyars; just as the French Revolution took up and further developed mercantilist statism, so, too, did the October Revolution employ methods that were not those of oriental despotism, but those of the early-modern era on the basis of an extension of commodity production, as had already been initiated by the Czarist industrialization projects. Only a kind of thought that is imprisoned within “class” sociologism could remain ignorant of this continuity of the formal process of modernity via the various degrees of development, “systems of domination”, state forms and “class struggles”.

The reference to oriental despotism is therefore a distraction which erases the bloodstained past of western democracy. The peculiar virulence of Soviet bourgeois modernization can be explained by the fact that it condensed within an enormously-compressed time frame two centuries of development: mercantilism and bourgeois revolution, the industrialization process and the imperialist war economy, all at once. It is not surprising that this society is militarized to the core, that it raises to a practical ideal not just the “state capitalism” of the German war economy, but also the military virtues of the Prussian empire, discipline and obedience combined into one allegedly oppositional legitimizing “proletarian” ideology.

The Capitalist Nature of “Socialist Primitive Accumulation”

When, under the Stalinist regime, the death penalty for work-shirkers was introduced as a means to accelerate the harnessing of the Russian agrarian masses who were not accustomed to the material coercion of factory discipline, this was not just a strictly faithful implementation of the Trotskyist “militarization of the economy” from the civil war period, but was also the reflection of the violent modernization process of a primitive accumulation of capital, of the kind Marx had previously described, with identical qualities, with regard to England during its period of industrialization. Today, viewed from a different perspective, the incredibly callous and tortuous attempts of the supposedly critical Marxists (both in the Soviet Union and in the West) to legitimize the violent forced accumulation of dead labor as a “socialist alternative” seem grotesque and shocking.

Naturally, this only “worked” for them because they did not associate post-bourgeois transformation with the basic form of social reproduction, but with the activity of a mystified “proletariat”. Even Preobrazhensky, later condemned and executed for “Trotskyism”, accepted the inconceivable logic of a “socialist primitive accumulation” (7) (Preobrazhensky, 1971/1926). Even dissident Marxists in the west, until long after the Second World War, justified the cruelest and most repressive forms of the primitive accumulation of capital carried out against the empirical proletariat, in the name of a metaphysical proletariat:

“The proletarian dictatorship, however, is still even necessary for the working class itself, for as long as modes of thought and behavior inherited from capitalism remain predominant in the working class. As long as the new socialist and collectivist ways of thinking and behavior have not been transformed into the flesh and blood of the working masses and have not become predominant. Therefore, until this condition has been reached, not even with respect to the working class itself and the other laboring classes, can we get by without violence, without means of coercion, without proletarian dictatorship.” (Brandler, 1982/1950, pp. 48 et seq.)

Declarations like this from the German communist Heinrich Brandler (president of the German Communist Party during the early 1920s, then excluded as an oppositionist shortly thereafter) reveal just how much the conceptual understanding of the workers movement, imprisoned within the capital fetish, remains to this very day, even in the west, within the bourgeois statist tradition of the early modern period. “Socialism”, for such thinkers, was identical with the collectivist “good state” in the Fichtean sense. This turned the Marxist critique of political economy upside-down. Only in such an ideological climate, which had already made its debut in Germany with Lassalle, would it be possible to praise and even to make an ideal for the future out of the forced implementation of the Protestant Ethic and thus to defend almost every terrorist measure of primitive accumulation in the Soviet Union as an allegedly post-capitalist necessity.

The problems of a case of late bourgeois modernization were simply redefined as “problems of real socialism” right up to the moment when this historical illusion collapsed. Carefully considered, and stripped of its ideological mystification, the unavoidable task posed in the Soviet Union becomes totally clear, and was even unequivocally formulated by Stalin, for example, in the sadly famous textbook, The History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Bolsheviks):

“Clearly, construction work on so large a scale would necessitate the investment of thousands of millions of rubles. . . . But we were then a poor country. There lay one of the chief difficulties. Capitalist countries as a rule built up their heavy industries with funds obtained from abroad, whether by colonial plunder, or by exacting indemnities from vanquished nations, or else by foreign loans. The Soviet Union could not as a matter of principle resort to such infamous means of obtaining funds as the plunder of colonies or of vanquished nations. As for foreign loans, that avenue was closed to the U.S.S.R., as the capitalist countries refused to lend it anything. The funds had to be found inside the country.” (Stalin, n.d./1939, pp. 340 et seq.)

If he was talking about the belated construction of capitalism rather than the “construction of socialism”, then Stalin was entirely correct. At least some of the means for western Europe’s historical primitive accumulation were obtained by way of the colonial expansion that began in the 16th century (and, not least of all, the immense quantity of gold stolen from South America). Such opportunities were no longer available, in fact, for the Soviet Union. But if the necessary liquid capital had to be procured exclusively from “inside the country”, this means that the “human material” itself had to be squeezed even more mercilessly and that it had to be all the more rigorously transformed into a producer of abstract wealth, and thus into a producer of money or surplus value.

It was not just the lack of foreign capital that inhibited domestic accumulation, but also the belated character of the whole process, which demanded much more in the way of initial investments than was the case for the historic primitive accumulation in the west. It is easy to understand that, given this specific constellation, statism had to play a greater role than in the west. What had always appeared to bourgeois observers as a feature of “socialism”, and what Fichte had proclaimed to be the “rational state”, had to become a reality. In this respect, too, Stalin is unequivocal:

“And they were found. Financial sources were tapped in the U.S.S.R. such as could not be tapped in any capitalist country. The Soviet state had taken over all the mills, factories, and lands which the October Socialist Revolution had wrested from the capitalists and landlords, all the means of transportation, the banks, and home and foreign trade. The profits from the state-owned mills and factories, and from the means of transportation, trade and the banks now went to further the expansion of industry, and not into the pockets of a parasitic capitalist class. . . . All these sources of revenue were in the hands of the Soviet state. They could yield hundreds and thousands of millions of rubles for the creation of a heavy industry.” (Stalin, op. cit., p. 341)

In all innocence and ingenuousness, Stalin is describing the logic of accumulation of the system of commodity production, which produces, beyond physical needs and qualities, abstract “profits” in the form of money. “Too little” money is transformed, by way of its self-movement through economic-industrial processes of utilization, into “more money”; under state direction (since the “parasite class” of the old “capitalists” has been expropriated) this no longer appears to be capitalism. “State capitalism”, which Lenin had already conceived in an extraordinarily obtuse way and very imprecisely distinguished from “socialism”, was confused, in the concept of socialism as it was understood by the old workers movement, with the real existence of a statist regime of accumulation.

The Crystallization of Statism and the Militarization of Society

Bolshevik statism-modernization was forced to essentially differentiate itself, under the circumstances of its origins during the early years of the 20th century, from the comparable phenomena of western history, and precisely with regard to one point especially: the statist cycle could no longer dissolve itself into a monetarist phase, in the oscillating movement outlined above; it had to stop at one stage of the contradictory process of bourgeois modernity. The peculiar belated character of a basic capitalist process brought about a regime that had to be more absolutist than absolutism and more militarized than the western war economy. The ideology of the “Protestant” Work Ethic, the militarization of society and the state-directed economy of a “planned market” petrified, and the varnish painted over social reproduction solidified and became a death-shroud for all long-term development.

Of course, the epoch spanning the birth of the Soviet Union and its rise to world power status was a period of statism in the west as well: the war economies of both world wars (the model for the Bolshevik “new economy”), the unprecedented state interventions in the “normal” reproduction of capital during the world economic crisis, the planned economy of German fascism in the thirties and the triumphant rise of Keynesianism in political-economic theories and in the ideological formation of a paradigm of the social state, fostered a widespread belief that the particularly rigorous and consistent Soviet statism was only the spearhead of a generalized and definitive world-social process.

In any event, in the history of modernity up to the present, the statist tendency, of whatever social or ideological stripe, has not been understood as an integral part of the capitalist process, but as its polar opposite and, if possible, as a threat to overthrow and replace the capitalist system. The time appeared to be ripe for this overthrow, even in the eyes of those who did not welcome such a development. If all the traditional Marxists, despite their schism, from Hilferding to Lenin, saw the statist tendency as the “immediate preparation for socialism”, the critics of bureaucracy and “totalitarianism”, like Horkheimer and Adorno, understood this same development, to the contrary, as the “bad overcoming of capitalist contradictions” on the terrain of capital itself. The total “authoritarian state” (Horkheimer 1972/1942) appeared to be the general tendency in which modernity as a whole was bogged down.

This way of seeing things was obviously dazzled by the immediacy of historical phenomena as set forth, positively or negatively, by the traditions of bourgeois reflection starting with the “closed state” of Fichte. In reality, however, statism could by no means be the last word in modernity; the 20th century was still a mere transitory stage of the process of the unfolding of capitalist contradictions, which cannot be overcome on the basis of their own foundations. In the west, in fact, the war economy and the other manifestations of modern statism would not take root anywhere as profoundly as they did in the Soviet Union. The activities of the commercial process were never completely subjected to state command, and the relation between state and market never totally crystallized. Already, in the period between the wars, state intervention was more accepted and the Keynesian paradigm understood the state as an auxiliary regulator of the market rather than as an intrusive order-giving subject.

It was, then, to be expected that the recognition of money, already an old habit in the west, and its self-moving structure would force a new turn. After the Second World War, in various stages, the rebirth of the monetarist paradigm began—in the theoretical-economic sense—a full-scale neo-liberal rollback. From Ludwig Erhard, transformed into a symbol of the commercial and competitive “economic miracle” and its “social market economy”, to the militant and directly anti-social crisis philosophy of the explicit monetarism of our time, confirmed by the practical political-social doctrines of Thatcherism and Reaganomics—the statist tendency, even of the merely Keynesian type, is becoming increasingly weaker and more impotent.

The renewed turn towards monetarism was (and is) hardly in any position to overcome the internal contradictions of capital, which is driving towards crisis in its world movement, just like the “authoritarian state”. This new detour in the process of bourgeois modernity is itself a reaction to the phenomena of crisis, which the retreating statism could no longer control, and will once again find its end by unleashing a new statist counter-coup, especially as the world crisis worsens and the monetarist tendency must demonstrate its specific lack of control. The nearer we get to the absolute limits of the modern society of abstract labor, both from the economic as well as the ecological points of view, the more rapid and despairing the changes succeed one another, then all the more fleeting will be the oscillations between statism and monetarism.

But it is precisely this flexibility and versatility of the social forms of reaction, this capacity for changing position in the infernal process of the unfolding of capitalist contradictions, which is, on the other hand, what delays the end and prolongs the life of capital and makes possible a crisis process punctuated by moments of temporary control. With state control having assumed a merely external form in the petrified war economies of “real socialism”, capital in these countries no longer possessed this ability. The realization of the bourgeois mercantilist “rational state” and the perpetuation of the war economy had to perforce be converted into a mechanism for belated development in a junk-pile that was incapable of effectively reacting to stagnation. The crisis of the society of the abstract expenditure of labor power struck first and hardest at the most rigid parts, congealed into state forms, of the world system of commodity production.

This collapse was most tragically displayed in the western periphery of the Soviet Union and especially in eastern Germany. In this region, the total nationalization of capital was unable to invoke—already at its very inception—the relative historical rationality of a belated development of modern bourgeois societies; at least in Germany and Czechoslovakia (and to some extent also in Hungary and Poland) this stage had already been more or less attained, so that capital in these countries was sufficiently developed to allow its modernization process to proceed on its own foundations. The forced incorporation of these societies into the sphere of Soviet statism was therefore, already from the start, historically reactionary and counterproductive; and this was fully confirmed by the long series of popular uprisings and mass movements in these countries beginning in the 1950s. (8)

Particularly in the GDR, this imported war economy and neo-mercantilist statism could clearly rely on a certain domestic tradition. The domestic development of eastern Germany was, so to speak, the latest arrival among all the modern bourgeois societies and the statist aspect of capital there underwent a correspondingly powerful development. It was not by chance that the war economy of the Kaiser’s empire was the most accentuated and therefore appeared to the Bolsheviks as the most preferable model; nor was it by chance that the fascist planned economy in Germany was the one that approached most closely, among all the western countries, to the model of the Fichtean “rational state” of a “planned market”. The regime imposed by force in eastern Germany, of Bolshevik origins, as a second sowing of the process of a belated bourgeois socialization, was thus rooted in a terrain that still bore the traces, although weakened, of a tradition of the early-modern type, to which it was related.

This “typically German” army of diligent worker-bureaucrats, officials working for a foreign occupation force, which had been so uncomfortably established at gunpoint, could only rely—a fantastic irony of history—on aspects, traditions and structures of thought of its own society as, constantly humming with a dry and incredible rhetoric of revolution and progress, it obstinately attempted to mobilize in its favor the reactionary, Prussian, Wilhelmine (and in some points, even fascist) contents of its past: the goose-stepping People’s National Army symbolizes more than just a military legacy.

Here we see the combination, in a particularly repugnant mixture, of Bolshevik and Prussian statism, the spawn of two very different eras of belated capitalist development. Thus arose a mixture of the German Post Office, a permanent boy-scout barracks-life (from cradle to grave) and a militarized economy. If the Soviet Union had to become more of a war economy than its western models, the GDR was more Soviet than the Soviets and, for precisely that reason, more Prussian than Prussia. The economy of goose-stepping barracks socialism produced in the GDR a deviant form in the development of capitalist modernization which, if a corresponding form were to appear in biology, would be a Darwinian nightmare.

The prospect of the reunification of the two Germanies is therefore all the more dreadful; not only because this could awaken a national super-statism, but also because both parts no longer fit together and their fusion can only be understood as a crisis, in view of the historical discontinuity of their respective contemporary situations. The petrified war economy of the capital of 1916 with its fossilized Wilhelmine structures mixed with a late capitalist monetized market economy. Two counterposed forms of the crisis of the system of commodity production clash. This process will be more like a historical traffic accident in the last stage of modernity than a lavish wedding at the beginning of a new boom.

Robert Kurz

Translated from the Spanish translation on the website of EXIT!:

The German original, from which the Spanish translation was excerpted, can be found in:

Robert Kurz, Der Kollaps der Modernisierung: Vom Zusammenbruch des Kasernensozialismus zur Krise der Weltökonomie, Reclam, Leipzig, 1994, 330 p. (Originally published in 1991 by Eichborn).


1. The Jacobin-bourgeois feature of the Bolsheviks (which, naturally, implies a Girondin character for their Menshevik enemies) has not only often been pointed out, but has even been proudly claimed by the Bolsheviks themselves and especially by Lenin. The fact that this should appear to them only as a glorious historical comparison, to which “a totally different class content” corresponds in their revolution, is only the historical reproduction of their error on a higher level. The personalized and sociologically reduced concept of the “enemy”, which made it appear logical to them that this enemy could be “decapitated” in order to solve their problems, characterizes Bolshevik Jacobinism as the repetition of a bourgeois revolution in the conditions of the early 20th century.

2. A glance at a list of Lenin’s works is enough to make it clear that in that corpus one cannot even find a trace of a thematization of the economic concept of value or the Marxist critique of fetishism; the historical basis for this theoretical naiveté also explains why western Marxism, too, has made little or no progress in this regard, with the exception of a few isolated attempts that have remained “solitary” and have never born fruit.

3. This alternative has in the meantime become, in all seriousness, popular in the ivory tower discourse of the fundamentalist-green “critics of the productive forces”, although, naturally, only as an ideological decoration, which can only be explained by the fact that the historical distance that has since opened up between our time and these kinds of relations has become so great that they can be subject to such glorification. The workers movement and the Bolsheviks of 1917, which actually had these relations right before their eyes, had every reason not to champion such an irrational, reactionary and profoundly anti-liberatory alternative.

4. At first, this social democratic reunification was presented in the form of a shamefaced return of the Leninist-communist prodigal son: throughout Europe the red stars and the symbols of the hammer and sickle were torn down and the parties of barracks socialism hastily changed their names to “socialist” or “social democratic”; the most grotesque of them all, the SED [Socialist Unity Party of Germany], which had arisen historically from the shotgun marriage of the SPD and the KPD, now, as the Party of Democratic Socialism, sought, in one mortal ideological leap, to plunge into its next marriage out of love. This specter will fade away as, in the West as well, the critical purpose of the social democratic function within modernization and the propaganda of social conciliation comes to an end. The “Swedish model”, for example, is succumbing to a mortal illness in its home country, while the ingenuously purified ex-Leninists still consider it to be a model for their own practice.

5. The practice of viewing history that assumes the form of a maniacal critique of the past, which considers the past as having behaved in an incomprehensibly evil way, when it could have done much better, is, in general, a logical characteristic of enlightenment thought, as is the practice of measuring the past with abstract rational principles, while the history of its constitution is left utterly unexamined. This kind of thinking always presupposes a bourgeois subject and projects it into historical events, or at least does so with regard to the events of the modern era, without realizing that all of the modern era is nothing but the history of the constitution of that form of subjectivity.

6. Wittfogel also tried to transform his investigation of the “hydraulic societies” of oriental despotism into a critique of Bolshevism and Soviet society; his hypothesis remains, with regard to this aspect as well, just as sterile as all the others and is based on the same unquestioned western democratic premises of the system of commodity production.

7. Accumulation of what? This is what should have been immediately asked. The answer is, naturally, the accumulation of capital, but this does not appear to have disturbed the Marxists. The “socialist primitive accumulation of capital”: such a nonsense-concept shows only that “capital” and, therefore, the fetishist and reified mode of its symbiotic process with nature appears as something of an unspecific and neutral form, to which both the “capitalists” and the “proletariat” must presumably be counterposed.

8. In this aspect as well, western and allegedly critical Marxism has not produced, for the most part, more than apologetics, as well as an unhelpful accentuation of the “antifascism” of that statist order and command economy whose irrelevance is today being so shamefully demonstrated. In general, a merely verbal “antifascism”, devalued since the Second World War, had to serve as an a-conceptual trademark for many misunderstood phenomena and developments.


Sep 25 2011 11:37

Thanks for posting this.