A Stalinist school of development? [Workers Weekly]

[This article is mirrored from Weekly Worker, where it was posted on December 2, 2021.]

Paul Flewers looks back at the flawed but insightful theory of state collectivism presented by John Fantham and Moshé Machover in the late 1970s

The discussion around the nature of the Soviet Union was and still remains a matter of great interest for the left. Readers of the Weekly Worker will be familiar with the various analyses of the Stalinist socio-economic formation, such as ‘degenerated workers’ state’, ‘bureaucratic collectivism’ and ‘state capitalism’.

Rather less known is the novel analysis presented in the pamphlet written by John Fantham and MoshĂ© Machover, The century of the unexpected: a new analysis of Soviet-type societies.1 This was written in the summer of 1978 and published in 1979 as a discussion document by Big Flame – a now-defunct semi-Maoist organisation. Here, in a slightly edited version of a chapter in my forthcoming book, Confronting the myth: essays on Stalinism and the cold war, I would like to appraise this pamphlet and the analysis which it presented.

The century of the unexpected presented an analysis of the Stalinist socio-economic formation that considered it to be a new mode of production, which the authors called “state collectivism”. This mode of production – one which “was not anticipated, let alone described and analysed, by classical Marxism” – was neither capitalist nor socialist, but was a parallel to capitalism, an example of “a bifurcation in human history” (pp3-4).

The most prescient observation made by Fantham and Machover was that state collectivism was essentially a means by which an underdeveloped country could make progress in a world dominated by the big imperialist powers. The developed world, they accurately noted, had “remained virtually immune to it” (p3).2 They considered that, because of the impact of imperialism, the path of underdeveloped countries towards the “full development of capitalism” was blocked.

This left these countries with three choices. The first was subordination to the main capitalist powers, with no possibility of a full development of capitalism. The second was a move to a socialist society, but this was more or less ruled out because of the retardation of the productive forces. The third was to move away from the world market to a state-collectivist society, in order to “develop the forces of production and to lay down an industrial infrastructure” (pp11-12).

State collectivism was “not an alternative to socialism on a world scale” nor “some halfway house between capitalism and socialism”, but an “alternative to the road of full capitalist development”, which was blocked for underdeveloped countries (p4). And so:

A series of societies in the underdeveloped world have branched off into a non-capitalist path – a path which runs not between capitalism and socialism, but parallel to capitalism; a path along which those societies can industrialise and to some extent catch up with the more advanced part of the world (p4).

This is a compelling argument, as the Stalinist socio-economic formation was introduced in a number of countries, starting in eastern Europe after World War II, in China in 1949, and subsequently in various former colonial countries. Although the Soviet Union was looking a bit worse for wear by the time Fantham and Machover were writing their pamphlet, it was nonetheless giving generous military, financial and technical aid to various national liberation organisations in third world countries and to the post-colonial regimes, which some of them had managed to establish.

The USA had but a few years previously ignominiously withdrawn from Vietnam – the world’s mightiest armed power humbled by the forces of this small and divided country, which was reunited in 1976 as the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. The apartheid regime in South Africa was fighting a vicious, but nonetheless rearguard, battle against Soviet-backed national liberation forces and newly-proclaimed Marxist-Leninist regimes in neighbouring countries, and the western rightwing press regularly ran lurid articles pointing to growing Soviet influence in the third world. Four decades back, it did not seem unreasonable to declare that: “A very large part of humanity at present lives in what may be termed ‘the second world’ – a group of countries which includes the Soviet Union, eastern Europe, Outer Mongolia, China, North Korea, Indochina and Cuba” (p3).

Fantham and Machover dealt succinctly and convincingly with both the traditional Trotskyist ‘degenerated workers’ state’ theory and the theory of state capitalism. Arguing against the former, they stated that the mere existence of a planned economy and nationalised property was not necessarily in the interests of the working class: “It all depWeekly Workerends on who makes the plans, whose interests they represent and therefore who, in the final analysis, controls the state.” Proletarian control “over the means of production and distribution, and over all areas of life” is essential.

As for state capitalism, they explained that the proportion of authentic commodity exchange within economic relations in the Soviet Union was very small, existing almost exclusively in the state import/export trade and in the trading of agricultural produce from private plots. The bulk of Soviet economic activity consisted of the exchange of goods within the state sector, and the state purchase and sale of agricultural produce and sale of consumer goods, and these did not constitute commodity exchange (pp7-10).

The authors also engaged with the theory of bureaucratic collectivism, although here they realised, maybe a little uncomfortably (perhaps because of their knowing where Max Shachtman, its most prominent promoter, ended up), that this had a certain resemblance to their own ideas on the subject. Hence they – not without justification – criticised Shachtman for his “moralisation”, “lack of theorisation”, “woolliness” and “impressionism”, but they nonetheless conceded that his insights were “significant” (p10).3 They claimed that one of the main problems with Shachtman’s theory was that it considered the Stalinist socio-economic formation as inseparable from the development of the Soviet Union:

The question of Stalinism is confused with that of the new mode of production (we use the term ‘Stalinism’ here in an historically specific and strict sense – the regime that existed in the USSR under the leadership of Joseph Stalin). Because in the Soviet Union the rise of the new mode of production was accompanied by the crushing of the proletarian revolution, Shachtman sees the new mode of production as emerging only as a Stalinist phenomenon. Stalinism is the inevitable and brutal accompaniment of Shachtman’s ‘bureaucratic collectivism’.

The effect of Shachtman’s emphasis on Stalinism as the supposedly necessary form of bureaucratic collectivism is to make any study of the bureaucratic mode itself highly problematical. Rather than seeing Stalinism as just one variant of bureaucratic collectivism, it becomes the distinguishing mark of this form of society. The bureaucratic collectivist society then is not defined through intrinsic analysis of its mode of production, but by its similarity to the Soviet Union. That is why Shachtman is unable to understand either the historical place of the new mode of production or, for that matter, Stalinism. The real and urgent problem of the historical and material conditions under which the new mode of production might and does emerge is lost amidst a polemic around the demon, Stalin (p11).4

Three questions

This does raise some important questions. Firstly, it begs the question as to whether our authors considered that state collectivism would have emerged if the Soviet Union had developed along a different path, or indeed had never existed. Leaving out the possibility that world history would go the way the Bolsheviks hoped – towards a global socialist society – as this renders irrelevant any consideration of the emergence of other, non-socialist forms of society, there are the possibilities that the Soviet regime might have collapsed during the civil war of 1918-21. Alternatively, it might, with different leaders at the helm, have developed in a different direction from the mid-1920s – and not experienced the crash collectivisation and industrialisation schemes which established the Stalinist socio-economic formation reproduced in the state-collectivist ‘second world’.

Had the last-mentioned possibility – a non-Stalinist Soviet Union – come about, it is difficult to envisage the country as the prototype for state collectivism, unless it was a state collectivism without totalitarianism, without repressive, single-party states, without monolithic parties with leader cults, without police-state measures and show trials, without forcible state-led modernisation, and all the other paraphernalia of the actual Soviet regime, both permanent and transitory. Such a development was not impossible – we are, after all, dealing with a century of the unexpected – but this brand of state collectivism would have been radically different from the various permutations of state collectivist society that did come into existence.

I do not think that state collectivist society can be understood without reference to the experience of the early Soviet Union and the rise of Stalinism. To be sure, the society which emerged during the first five year plan was not what the Bolsheviks had originally envisaged, and there were different routes along which the Soviet republic might have proceeded in the 1920s. But for Stalinism – the specific form that the degeneration of the Soviet regime took – to have come into being, there needed to have been in the first place a revolution putting a revolutionary Marxist party into power, and there needed to have been a leadership in the Soviet republic that contained within itself the possibility of mutating into a new elite, whilst it introduced a non-market solution to the deep economic problems that it was facing.

A capitalist class facing a crisis of similar depth would not have hesitated to restrict or distort value relations through heavy state intervention in the economy, had it felt this necessary, but it would not have expunged the market altogether: there is a qualitative difference between the distortion of value relations under capitalism and the suppression of them under Stalinism. It is extremely unlikely, if not absolutely impossible, that a new elite would emerge from within a capitalist class and proceed to introduce a non-market economy. However, the Stalinist elite needed to have emerged from within a political movement that accepted the principle of expunging market relations, even if that elite’s practical form of suppressing the market bore no relationship to how Marxists had traditionally envisaged doing so.

Secondly, Fantham’s and Machover’s consideration of Stalinism as limited to the regime that existed in the Soviet Union under Stalin – as opposed to viewing it as the socio-economic formation that came into being during the first five-year plan of 1929-32 and lasted until 1991, and which was in the meantime to come into being in other countries – means that they shifted the focus from the fact that, whatever the differences amongst these countries, they all shared quite a few features that existed in the Soviet Union: some reminiscent of what we might call the ‘high Stalinism’ of 1929-53, and some reminiscent of the post-Stalin era.

The importance of the existence of the Soviet Union and other Stalinist countries and their influence upon third world modernisers can be seen in respect of the nature of several national liberation movements in Africa and the way in which they governed, once having obtained power. It is true that these movements often varied in respect of their histories. For example, the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), the main nationalist movement in that country, was a product of a merger in 1956 of the Angolan Communist Party and various national liberation groups, whereas the Liberation Front of Mozambique (Frelimo) was formed in 1962 and the experience of implementing reforms in the liberated zones it had set up from the late 1960s led it consider itself a Marxist organisation. Having come under Soviet influence, both organisations formally adopted Marxism-Leninism in 1977, two years after Angola and Mozambique had been proclaimed as People’s Republics.

Some post-colonial modernising regimes were headed by career military officers who had become entranced by the Soviet Union. Mohamed Siad Barre, who led the pro-Moscow government established in Somalia in 1969, was an army officer who had been politically influenced by Soviet military leaders he had met in the early 1960s. In neighbouring Ethiopia, Mengistu Haile Mariam had attended military training courses in the USA, but subsequently became an admirer of Stalinist policies, which he implemented when heading the Derg regime, which seized power in 1974, and its successor, the People’s Democratic Republic of Ethiopia.5

Nevertheless, whatever their differing origins, the nature of the state-collectivist regimes that were established both in Africa and on other continents, and the policies that they implemented, shared far too many features for the similarities to have been purely coincidental. In each of these countries a one-party, Marxist-Leninist government was established which dealt harshly with political dissidence, nationalised key sectors of the economy, initiated land reform, introduced healthcare and education schemes, attempted to abolish archaic social practices and bring into being a cohesive nation-state, and established close links with the Soviet Union – or, in the case of Cambodia, with China – from which each country received technical, financial and military assistance.

Thirdly, Fantham and Machover claimed that Shachtman’s association of bureaucratic collectivism with the Stalin era “obscured the possibility of less barbarous forms of state collectivism emerging” (p11). True, not all Stalinist regimes implemented destructive and inhumane policies to the degree experienced at certain junctures in Stalin’s Soviet Union; Cuba and Vietnam are two examples that come to mind. But surely Mao’s Great Leap Forward of 1958-62 was more costly in both material and human terms than Stalin’s five-year plans, and his Cultural Revolution of 1966-76 gave Stalin’s terror of the late 1930s a good run for its money, so far as the human costs and societal disruption went.6

Two errors

Although The century of the unexpected was written at a time when the Soviet economy was showing distinct signs of slowing down and China was emerging bleary-eyed from the trauma of the Cultural Revolution, it nonetheless seemed that the Stalinist socio-economic formation was a going concern, and Marxist-Leninist movements were making distinct gains in various underdeveloped parts of the world and seizing power in some countries. At the time of publication, Fantham’s and Machover’s contention that state collectivism was a new mode of production – a parallel to capitalism that enabled underdeveloped countries to break free of imperialist domination and embark upon a programme of state-led modernisation – did not lack plausibility.

Looking back after four decades, however, it can be seen that Fantham and Machover erred in two aspects – one that was discernible at the time, and one that can be seen only in retrospect.

The first error was to downplay the connection between the Soviet Union and the other state-collectivist countries, which was the result of the authors’ narrow association of Stalinism with the Stalin era in the Soviet Union, rather than with the entire Soviet experience from the start of the Stalin era. As we have seen, the nature of the regimes in those countries and the policies they implemented shared far too much in common with the Soviet Union under Stalin and his successors for this to have been purely coincidental, and the differences amongst them were mostly relatively minor variations within a definite framework.7

As if to prove this, the connection endured, if in a negative manner, when the Soviet Union entered its death throes and finally expired, with the bureaucracy almost to a man disavowing Marxism with indecent haste, as we can see if we return to the African liberation organisations. Parallel with the falling away of the eastern bloc countries from Moscow in 1989, Frelimo reimaged itself as a social democratic party, and in Ethiopia Mengistu dropped any commitment to Marxism-Leninism and proclaimed his support for a mixed economy and multi-party elections. The MPLA dropped any commitment to Marxism-Leninism shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, and subsequently joined the Socialist International.

The most obvious exemplifier of this organic connection must be the African National Congress in South Africa. For decades the ANC was a classic example of a pro-Moscow national liberation organisation. Intimately linked since the 1950s to the South African Communist Party, and even running its own private Gulag for dissident members, it was therefore an obvious candidate as a would-be state collectiviser. When it finally took office in 1994, three years after the demise of the Soviet Union and with the shift of China to the market underway, it did not nationalise the South African economy or proclaim a one-party state, but proceeded to govern via a parliamentary political system, overseeing a conventional capitalist economy. In neighbouring Namibia, the national independence movement, the South-West Africa People’s Organisation, still adhered to a Marxist-Leninist programme when the country achieved independence in 1990, but, like the MPLA, soon adopted a social democratic orientation and subsequently joined the Socialist International. It is as if the chastened shade of the deceased Soviet Union still managed to exert its influence upon its erstwhile client organisations.

The second error is fundamental, although one must emphasise that it could not have been detected at the time when The century of the unexpected was being written, and is obvious only when we look back from today. The four decades since the pamphlet was published have seen a great deal of change in the world – and unexpected change at that: the collapse of the entire Soviet bloc during 1989-91 and the return of its constituent countries to the world market; the remarkable transformation of China under the dictatorial stewardship of its Communist Party into the world’s second largest and decidedly capitalist economy; and the relegation of Stalinism elsewhere to Cuba, itself facing an uncertain future since the passing of Fidel Castro, and the grotesque fossil of North Korea, now under the third generation of the Kim dynasty. As for the other countries which Fantham and Machover listed as state-collectivist, whether or not a party with a Stalinist past still rules, is in a coalition or has been replaced is barely a relevant question, as they all have found their way back into the world market and are more or less indistinguishable from their neighbours, which never experienced a Stalinist government.

Fantham and Machover wrote that historically “modes of production diverge from each other along alternative paths, sometimes only to reconverge” (p4), and foresaw that this would occur when “the three parts of the world (developed world, collectivist world, underdeveloped world)” would “converge into one universal society”: that is, socialism (p13). There has indeed been a reconvergence, albeit not in the way that they expected, with the return of all but a tiny handful of the Stalinist countries to the capitalist world. This reconvergence with the capitalist world more than suggests that the theory of state collectivism as a new mode of production was erroneous, and that it is much more accurate to conclude that the Stalinist socio-economic formation was a historically temporary phenomenon – one which enabled an underdeveloped country to undergo a process of state-led, non-capitalist primary accumulation under the rule of a determined national elite, but which at some point obliged that country to return to the world market if that elite wished to continue the process of economic development.

Moreover, if one takes into consideration the intrinsic connection between the Stalinist socio-economic formation and the Soviet Union and China, the collapse of the former and the move to the market of the latter, along with the unlikeliness of any country embarking upon the Stalinist road of development in the future, it is fair to conclude that this socio-economic formation is essentially a thing of the past.

No reasonable person will criticise Fantham and Machover for failing to predict the future; after all, they were discussing the ‘century of the unexpected’, and who actually did predict with any accuracy what was to happen in the Soviet bloc or in China? The theory of state collectivism was a serious attempt to position historically the Stalinist countries, and its central thesis – that Stalinism was a non-capitalist socio-economic formation parallel to capitalism, which enabled underdeveloped countries to engage in a process of modernisation – was far closer to reality than the assertions of the rival leftwing analyses of Stalinist society that held it to be ‘state capitalism’ or a ‘degenerated workers’ state’.

The authors were emphatic that the Stalinist socio-economic formation was a mode of production, which they correctly outlined as “the historically determined, irreducible totality of relations and arrangements, through which a society reproduces both its material life and these very relations and arrangements themselves” (p 3). However, the course of recent history has proven that the socio-economic formation that existed in the Soviet Union, China and the other countries the authors denoted as state-collectivist was not a new mode of production. It is clear that it was not able to reproduce itself and that it therefore was a temporary phenomenon – one, moreover, whose time has assuredly come and gone.

  1. J Fantham and M Machover The century of the unexpected: a new analysis of Soviet-type societies London 1979. An image of the original pamphlet is available in two parts at bigflameuk.files.wordpress.com/2009/12/unexpected-sec1.pdf and bigflameuk.files.wordpress.com/2009/12/unexpected-sec2.pdf.??
  2. They did mention East Germany and Czechoslovakia, where unspecified “very special circumstances” led to its introduction – presumably the post-1945 Soviet occupation of eastern Europe (p3).??
  3. I do take issue with the authors’ assertion that Shachtman’s formulation was “the first attempt, other than Trotsky’s, to come to terms with developments in the Soviet Union following Stalin’s consolidation of power” (p10). There had been attempts to do this at various points during the 1930s by Friedrich Adler, Yvon Craipeau, Rudolf Hilferding, Karl Kautsky, Lucian Laurat (Otto Maschl), Gavril Miasnikov, Bruno Rizzi, Simone Weil and Ryan Worrall. The debate on the left about the nature of Stalin’s Soviet Union was also part of a much broader exchange of ideas about the trends towards Ă©tatisation and totalitarianism in respect of Italy, the Soviet Union and, after 1933, Germany, and indeed modern society in general.??
  4. Fantham and Machover provided a rather one-dimensional picture of the bureaucratic collectivist school. There were differing strands of thought within this school – from viewing the Stalinist socio-economic formation as a short-lived diversion on the road from capitalism to socialism, to seeing it as a new form of viable society that could emerge in any country, given the existence of a suitable social force willing and able to seize power. Both of these extremes Shachtman promoted at different times (including his remarkable prognosis in 1951 of Attlee’s Labour government as a would-be bureaucratic collectivist ruling elite). Shachtman also threw into the mix the idea that bureaucratic collectivism was most likely to emerge in more marginal countries, in which the capitalist class was weak, and that one of his comrades, Jack Brad, in a formulation closely resembling the state-collectivist theory, considered that it was an ideal option for a would-be elite in countries (in particular China) in which the bourgeoisie was incapable of carrying out the tasks of the bourgeois revolution.??
  5. Narrow national interests could lead to trouble between state-collectivist countries, not just between ones that were sponsored by different countries (one thinks here of Beijing-backed Cambodia’s war with Moscow-backed Vietnam), but between ones which were sponsored by the same country. In 1977, Somalia invaded Ethiopia, and Moscow solved its dilemma by siding solidly with Mengistu and providing the Derg regime with matĂ©riel and Cuban troops, despite having been allied with Somalia for much longer. Barre repaid Moscow for its perfidy by turning Somalia into a client state of the USA.??
  6. The appalling events that took place in Pol Pot’s Cambodian madhouse had probably not emerged in full when this pamphlet was written, but were soon to come to light, and surely what happened there was proportionally more cruel and irrational than anything that occurred in the Soviet Union under Stalin’s rule.??
  7. It is almost certainly no accident that Pol Pot’s Cambodia – by far the most irrational and proportionally the most destructive of all the Stalinist regimes – was a client state of China rather than of the Soviet Union. The Khmer Rouge grew up and seized power under Beijing’s aegis during the time of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, and its economic programme was explicitly modelled on his Great Leap Forward.??

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