Class Struggle in the USSR

Jackson Pollock, Untitled, (c. 1945)


Commentary on the classic book by Charles Bettelheim.

The first volume of Class struggle in the Soviet Union marks Charles Bettelheim's intervention in the broad discussion of a socialist revolution.

The author's position on the paths followed by the regime established by the October 1917 revolution has been implicitly defined since La transition vers l'économie socialiste (1968). New elements on the same theme were developed in the work Calcul économique et forms de proprieté (1970). In these two books, Bettelheim keeps the most strictly economic problems at the center of his attention, in particular those related to planning, thus limiting himself to the field in which he is known in academic circles and in which he has worked since before the Second World War.

At the end of the XNUMXs, in letters exchanged with Paul Sweezy on the occasion of the invasion of Czechoslovakia, Bettelheim made his position more explicit and intervened openly on the fundamental question concerning the nature of the Soviet Union. Now Bettelheim directly proposes to contribute to answering the need to determine the economic relations currently dominant in the Soviet Union and the conditions for the formation of these relations.

Your position is displayed in all letters from the Foreword, when he clarifies the objectives of his work: “The analysis of the transformations carried out in the Soviet Union is at least as important as the analysis of its current situation: it can be an irreplaceable source of teaching and help to prevent other proletarian revolutions from following the same path and arrive, not at socialism, but at a specific form of capitalism as oppressive and aggressive as its classical forms” (p. 15 of the French edition). Its objective is to understand how “a proletarian revolution can turn into its opposite: a bourgeois counterrevolution” (idem).

construction of socialism

Bettelheim's book is not that of a historian in the narrow sense of the term. However, the book certainly also represents a contribution to the history of that country, either for the original presentation of the remarkable events of the phase studied, or for the proposed periodization, or for the analysis of the vast bibliography, which goes from the classics on the subject (among which stand out the various ones, books by EHCarr), to recent works, among which it is worth mentioning those by M. Grumbach (Contribution to l'étude du développement du capitalisme en Russie) and Sigrid Grosskopf (Le problem des cercales en Russie et la NEP), prepared at the former École Pratique des Hautes Études.

For the Brazilian reader, the book has a particular value, given the almost non-existence of interesting works on the history of the Soviet Union, more precisely of re-examining each history in terms of the teachings of history itself, teachings that are embodied in questions posed by the present, by the current political struggles. Now, in fact, this is the main task of the historian. According to a good part of the best “official” historians, history only makes sense in terms of the present.

Bettelheim is perfectly explicit. He claims to start from the questions posed by the workers' revolts in the countries of Eastern Europe, by the internal and foreign policy currently followed by the Soviet Union (with special emphasis on the invasion of Czechoslovakia), by the questions about the “path to socialism” taken by the movement socialist world-wide, by the evolution of the Third World and, finally, by the evolution of the Chinese Revolution, in particular after the cultural revolution.

Let's start with one of the most controversial aspects. Is it fair to analyze the Bolshevik revolution in the light of the Chinese revolution? Now, whether we like it or not, the second represents, historically, a “continuation” of the first. How to analyze the “construction of socialism” in the first without considering what was done in the second? After all, the specific contours of socialism can only be delineated from the very social practice of building that society. For this reason, for a long time, the idea of ​​socialism, in order to be developed, had as an obligatory point of reference what was being done in the Soviet Union.

The Chinese revolution, the evolution of building socialism in China, changed this reality. And, today, when trying to analyze the Bolshevik revolution itself; when trying to understand the process of transformation of the Soviet Union, it is indispensable to consider the Chinese revolution. If socialism is not reduced to a simple utopia, if we consider it as a concrete result of history, this procedure is essential so that we know, let's say, what we are talking about, that is, so that we know what, concretely, we can consider like socialism. It is not a question of comparing the Chinese “model” with the Soviet “model”, which is of practically no use. It is about knowing what socialism is, starting from the historical development itself, without which the word has no meaning.

For example, the idea that people had about the role of industrialization in building socialism, about the role of peasants and rural workers in general, the ideas about the so-called “socialist accumulation” were profoundly transformed. It is evident that the Chinese “solutions” are the result of certain historical conditions that some indicate as “favorable”. It would be foolish to think that the conflicts with the peasants and the rural petty bourgeoisie were desired by the Bolshevik leaders or that these conflicts happened due to the lack of intelligence of these leaders. It is no coincidence that the Chinese Communist Party developed in the countryside, while the Bolsheviks practically failed to establish themselves in rural areas.

waiting for the revolution

All historical experiences are relative. But one cannot, therefore, fall into a total relativism that consists, in the last analysis, in the denial of the contribution of any experience insofar as it was necessarily developed in particular conditions. This position leads to a perfectly sterile historical “objectivism”, where every experience is “interesting” and, at the same time, teaches us nothing concretely.

We must not deny that many tend to use other people's experience in a simplistic way, analyzing, for example, the development of the Soviet Union or other realities in terms of a Chinese “model”. This is not, however, the case of Bettelheim which, therefore, must be read with due attention by those who are not disposed to, as they say, “throwing the child out with the bath water”.

The critique of “economism” occupies a central place in Class struggle in the Soviet Union. Economicism that Bettelheim defines through the “problem of the productive forces” and the underestimation of the social relations of production. It would be naive to think that criticism is addressed to the Bolshevik leaders and try to answer it by listing the thousand and one “adverse” historical conditions that would explain this “deviation”. The addressee is none other than so-called modern Marxist thought. Once again, the Author places himself in relation to the present.

In presenting this criticism, the Author has in mind - and warns the reader of this from the outset - Foreword the situation of the current socialist movement, in particular in the advanced capitalist countries. He has in mind the precise consequences of the “problem of productive forces”: the fact that in advanced capitalist countries, political leaders and socialist intellectuals, with very rare exceptions, limit themselves to “marking time”, hoping that “the general crisis of capitalism ” produce its effects. Placing the development of the productive forces in the foreground, it is considered that the “objective conditions” for the revolution are already in place and all that is missing is a favorable situation. Note the devastating effect of this idea at the level of analysis, which becomes unnecessary or purely illustrative in advance.

The planning and social relations of production

Placing the development of the productive forces in the foreground, without subordinating them to the development of new-type social relations of production, leads to an erroneous idea of ​​the role of planning (and, more generally, of economic intervention by the State and, in ultimately, of the State itself). To such an extent that social relations of a new type are simply confused with planning. Bettelheim speaks about this with the authority of one who operates, thus, an important revision in his own thinking.

But how many have not managed to reduce and how many still do not feel entitled to reduce the economic differences between socialism and capitalism to the differences between centralized planning and indicative planning? In the early XNUMXs Bettelheim was led to combat the illusion of Cuban leaders about the possibility of centralizing the setting of all prices and thus “eliminating the market economy”. The illusion of planning suggests that social relations can be abolished by decree.

How many have embarked, even for limited periods of time, on the canoe of Arab socialism, African socialism, or even Indian socialism? How many do not confuse, on the left and on the right, socialism with direct State intervention in the economy? Bettelheim's book, when talking about the Soviet Union from 1917 to 1928, has all these questions present. And the Author, who asks himself these questions, although mainly as an academic, has lived them as an advisor or researcher working in various Third World countries, from Cuba to China and Algeria, including India.

Analyzing history in the light of the present seems to me to be the right point of view. One can only regret that this method did not take it further, so that the reexamination of the history of the Russian Revolution could be carried out in terms of questions more directly related to the situation of the advanced capitalist countries. This would certainly help to avoid simplistic interpretations. The fact that the analysis has not reached this point should not, however, be attributed solely to the Author. Its roots undoubtedly lie in the very weaknesses of the European socialist movement.

None of the fundamental questions that the book raises could be raised if the Author did not treat history with the objectivity of someone who analyzes a process of social struggles, excluding simplistic explanations such as those that see history as the realization of an idea by a handful of leaders. In this way, it contributes to burying the myths of Stalinism, the illusory explanations about the domination of the bureaucracy, as well as the old and wrinkled ideas that try to explain the evolution of socialist countries from the congenital effects found in Marx, Lenin or the Bolshevik party, considered as authoritarian demiurges. In Betteilheim's book, social conflicts gain the foreground and men, even the most illustrious, appear in their proper place: as actors in history.

*Sérgio Salome Silva (1946-2021) was a professor in the sociology department at Unicamp. Author, among others, of the book Coffee Expansion and Origins of the Industry (Alpha Omega).

Originally published in the newspaper Movement, No90, 1977.


Charles Bettelheim. The class struggle in the USSR. Rio de Janeiro: Paz e Terra, 1976.


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