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On a 'Marxist' Post-mortem

A rigorous analysis of the Soviet transition to capitalism calls for a revision of the concept of class and necessitates a reassessment of the economism in Soviet Marxism.



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-the 20th century is crucial for laying out a

On a ‘Marxist’ Post-mortem

fresh undertaking that should prove more viable than the real socialism of the 20th century. The diagnosis is necessary for the Cem Somel new project to transcend the failures of

A rigorous analysis of the Soviet transition to capitalism calls for a revision of the concept of class and necessitates a reassessment of the economism in Soviet Marxism.

Cem Somel ( is an economist at Abant øzzet Baysal University, Bolu, Turkey.

Economic & Political Weekly

september 24, 2011

his brief note is with reference to Markar Melkonian’s “A Marxist Post-mortem of Soviet Socialism” (EPW, 28 May 2011).

Since the demise of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (ussr) and the restoration of capitalism in the former socialist countries, socialism has been reduced to a failed, discredited project. Since then, social movements have been struggling to stem the bourgeois “reforms” intensifying social oppression and expanding the exploitation of human beings and nature. Social movements resisting the onslaught are on the defensive and have been losing ground because they lack a common social project that would meet the demands for justice. The correct diagnosis of what went wrong with the socialist project in

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the past. Any attempt at reviving the socialist ideal must confront the honest question: “Why did the Soviet working class not defend the Soviet Union?”

A historical-materialist account that e xplains the demise of the Soviet Union and the restoration of capitalism there should logically enhance and enrich the historical materialist understanding of history. Marxism was the official ideology of the USSR. How did historical materialism enable the ruling party (the Communist Party of the Soviet Union) to steer the country towards the restoration of capitalism? A Marxist post-mortem of Soviet socialism should explain what was wrong in the theory and in the implementation of Marxism in the USSR. It should suggest lessons for avoiding the historical errors of the past. Historical materialism should incorporate


in its corpus the socialist experience of the 20th century. Only then can Marxism become a political force again, and not dwindle to an academic peculiarity.

Why did the Soviet proletariat not resist and prevent the legal transition to capitalism in 1992? This is the question. Whether the people of the former USSR now rue this transition or not is beside the point, as are comparisons of productivity or social indicators before and after the legal transition (p 33). A post-mortem d iagnoses the causes of death, not what happens to the corpse thereafter.

A rigorous analysis of the Soviet transition calls for a revision of the concept of class. Classes are not created by legislation; rather the obverse happens: ruling classes legislate. If we define class as “a social group, composed of members with a common position with respect to the control of the distribution of the surplus, and who pass on these positions to their offspring” we can see that the transition was carried out in the USSR by a class who already was wielding this kind of economic and political power. Legal ownership of means of production is only one of the institutions for controlling distribution. Control over access to education, control over taxation and public expenditure, control over social security policies are other effective instruments for distributing the surplus.

It is superfluous to quibble over whether there was a class ruling in the USSR in the 1980s, or whether there was a “class-inthe-making” (p 35). Nepotism among the nomenklatura and their blatant economic privileges were the norm in the USSR a lready under Leonid Brezhnev. The ruling class in the USSR and the class social formation there may not have an established name in Marxist theory. This does not disprove that the USSR (under Brezhnev at the latest) had evolved into a class society; it only shows that Marxists still refuse to apply historical materialism to the study of the USSR.

The definition of social class by control over distribution also helps resolve another theoretical problem. Marxists have been unable to observe classes in non-European social formations (Indian, Ottoman, Chinese, etc) because of the fixation on defining classes by the ownership of the means of production. Defining classes by their position in the control over the surplus is sufficient to recognise classes both in capitalist and non-capitalist class social formations.

To return to the issue: The proposition that classes are to be diagnosed by their position with respect to ownership of the means of production was the very tool used to blind the working people in the USSR to their subjugation and exploitation. The USSR officially held that it was a classless society, because there was no private property in the means of production.

But when did classes actually emerge in the USSR? This calls for a detailed study of diminishing social mobility, increasing control over higher education, increasing concentration of material privileges and power in families of the party élite in the USSR.

The analysis of the transition to capitalism in Russia also necessitates a reassessment of the economism in Soviet Marxism. It was held that with the alleged abolition of classes, problems of gender, environment, ethnic and religious identity had been solved or had become irrelevant. So the “dictatorship of the proletariat” became a repressive apparatus over any proletarian who might protest the destruction of the environment, who might take exception to manifestations of Russian “overlordship”, who might protest religious persecution, who might inveigh against gendering or gender discrimination. Repression did not solve these problems. As the Soviet ruling class corrupted the state, these social grievances surfaced with a vengeance.

As long as Marxism is fixated on economic exploitation based on property relations, and ignores other forms of exploitation and the various forms of oppression in hierarchical social structures (whether it be in the family, in trade unions, in state bureaucracies or in communist parties) it cannot explain why working people in the USSR did not resist its dismantling.

Historical materialism has to incorporate the 20th century experiences of real socialism if it is to provide any guidance for socialist struggles in the future. This calls for concrete analyses of forms of exploitation and oppression in social formations where no private property exists in the means of production.

Melkonian identifies Marxism with historical materialism and describes the latter “as an interdisciplinary social science framework, unifying in one way or another fields of anthropology, political economy, political science, sociology, and historiography, as well as social and political philosophy and perhaps philosophy of science. Either that or it is an alternative discipline, a science of history and society that could eclipse these conventional social sciences and philosophical fields” (p 32). If Marxism and historical materialism have become as disconnected from political action as the above conception – and the consequent post-mortem – implies, then they are doomed to insignificance in the real world of social struggles.


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