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The author of "A Marxist Post-mortem of Soviet Socialism" (EPW, 28 May 2011) responds to Paresh Chattopadhyay's "On a Strange Misreading of Marx: A Note" (EPW, 24 September 2011) and Cem Somel's "On a 'Marxist' Post-mortem" (EPW, 24 September 2011) with reference to terminological objections in the use of the terms socialism, communism and dictatorship of the proletariat, differences of historical interpretation, the class nature of Soviet society, and the restoration of capitalism.



A Response to Chattopadhyay and Somel

Markar Melkonian

socialism, communism, and dictatorship of the proletariat as I have used them. What Chattopadhyay might call “the higher form of socialism”, Lenin called “the higher form of communism”, or simply “communism”. A perusal of one or two high-traffic online dictionaries of

The author of “A Marxist Post-mortem of Soviet Socialism” (EPW, 28 May 2011) responds to Paresh Chattopadhyay’s “On a Strange Misreading of Marx: A Note” (EPW, 24 September 2011) and Cem Somel’s “On a ‘Marxist’ Post-mortem” (EPW, 24 September 2011) with reference to terminological objections in the use of the terms socialism, communism and dictatorship of the proletariat, differences of historical interpretation, the class nature of Soviet society, and the restoration of capitalism.

My article “A Marxist Post-mortem of Soviet Socialism” (EPW, 28 May 2011) has prompted several reactions, including a couple of critical responses in the pages of EPW. The responses are perspicacious, but some points could stand to be clarified.

Markar Melkonian ( is with the department of philosophy, California State University, Northridge, California, US.

Economic & Political Weekly

february 18, 2012


aresh Chattopadhyay (“On a Strange Misreading of Marx: A Note”, EPW, 24 September 2011) has raised terminological objections and differences of historical interpretation. He believes that I have used the terms socialism, communism, and dictatorship of the proletariat in ways that Marx himself would not have endorsed. Accor ding to Chattopadhyay, my claim that socialism is a state of affairs distinct from and transitional to communism “has no textual basis in Marx”. Socialism, he says, is the more encompassing term, and communism refers to a higher stage of socialism.

Without conceding that my use of these terms is at odds with Marx’s frequent usage, I wish to point out that Marx and Engels did not use these terms in the same way throughout their careers and in all contexts. In one context, for example, they described communism as “the riddle of history solved” (1844), while in another context it designated a social order which, once achieved, would inaugurate the “real history” of our species. It is not at all surprising that these terms would have taken on different meanings throughout the four tumultuous decades of Marx’s career as a thinking fighter. This is especially the case in view of the fact that Marx had remarkably little to say about the postcapitalist future. His 10,000 pages of unfolding theoretical work contain perhaps 100 pages of descriptive references to socialism or communism, and much of this takes the form of negative claims and warnings against concocting “recipe books for the cook shops of the future”.

Chattopadhyay notes that subsequent figures who had been influenced by Marx, notably Lenin, typically (but not always, I would add) used the terms

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Marxism might be enough to make the case that, if there is anything like a prevailing usage by Marxists near and far, then I come close to it. I see no advantage in adopting an uncustomary usage, for the sake of a Marxological point that, in any case, is disputable.

We do appear to agree, at least, that the “higher stage” of a post-capitalist order will be communism, with or without a preceding adjectival phrase.

When it comes to Chattopadhyay’s discussion of the term dictatorship of the proletariat, there is more agreement.1 Chattopadhyay reminds us that, according to Marx, the conquest of political power by the proletariat is not the end of the proletarian revolution, but is rather the first step in the social revolution. The much longer revolutionary process, he notes, “continues through a prolonged period until the capitalist mode of production is replaced by the ‘associated mode of production’...” This protracted “revolutionary transformation period between capitalist and communist society” is what Chattopadhyay identifies as the dictatorship of the proletariat.

Indeed, Chattopadhyay’s remarks bolster my claim that the term dictatorship of the proletariat is synonymous with socialism. Chattopadhyay avoids this conclusion only because he ascribes a lessfamiliar meaning to the word socialism.

Let us place the two alternative vocabularies side by side: according to Chattopadhyay, Marx is supposed to have held that political revolution will inaugurate

  • (a) a more prolonged revolutionary phase of proletarian dictatorship, followed by
  • (b) the lower stage of communism or socialism, and then, eventually, (c) the higher stage of communism. According to my preferred vocabulary, by contrast, political revolution will hopefully i naugurate (a) proletarian dictatorship or socialism, which then in the fullness

    of time will segue into (b) communism

    – that is to say, a social order in which classes and the workers’ state have disappeared and the communist mode of production prevails.2 The reader is free to decide for herself which of these alternative vocabularies is preferable.

    This sort of terminological disagreement is not unusual among Marxists and communists, and I suspect that it is a reflection of some deeper malaise. I suspect it is just one more signal (as if we needed any more!) that, despite mounting inequalities, exploitation, disenfranchisement, warmongering, and despoliation of the planet, there is nothing today that one could properly call an international left.

    Historical Interpretation

    This delivers us to the issue of historical interpretation. The Soviet Union, Chattopadhyay writes, was neither soviet nor socialist. It was not soviet because the Bolsheviks soon shut down the soviets and factory committees, or transformed them into what Stalin later called “conveyor belts” of the party and the state. Nor was it socialist, insofar as socialism is the self-emancipation of the working class, because the Bolsheviks substituted a single party for a whole class. I do not entirely disagree with these claims, but the interpretation strikes me as excessively one-sided. Here I wish only to register two observations:

    On the eve of the October Revolution, Lenin viewed Russia as the weak link in the chain of imperialism, a link which if shattered would set loose revolutionary forces in the industrialised west. Lenin explicitly connected prospects of socialism in Russia, prospects for building the dictatorship of the proletariat, to the success of the political revolutions in the west. As we know, Revolutions did indeed break out in Germany in 1919 and elsewhere, but unfortunately for a generation of Europeans, these revolutions were put down with truncheons and lead. After the defeat of the revolutions in the West, and finding themselves econo mically decimated, embargoed, besieged and invaded, dire circumstances forced Lenin and the B olsheviks to hunker down, switch gears, and pivot, in an attempt to salvage something of the revolution.

    Surely these considerations should inform our evaluation of Lenin and his comrades, just as similar considerations should inform our evaluations of, say, Spartacus, Mazdak, Thomas Muntzer, or Ambedkar.

    With reference to the caricature of the ruthless and manipulative Leninists, Ronald Suny’s book, The Baku Commune,3 presents a fascinating and very different picture of Bolshevik power u nder the most desperate of circumstances. The brief, turbulent existence of the Bolshevik-led Baku Commune contrasts sharply with Kronstadt when it comes to the democratic practices that Chattopadhyay endorses – universal suffrage, multiparty elections and governance, democratic accountability, and active soviets and factory committees that drew their support from the militant, multinational oil industry workers. B eset by foreign intriguers, riven by bloody ethnic conflicts, surrounded, i solated, and ultimately doo med in the path of an advancing foreign army, Stepan Shahumyan, the “Lenin of the Caucasus”, was able to somehow organise for the common defence and welfare of Baku, all the while keeping a tight lid on even the most defensive acts of revolutionary violence.

    Class and Post-Soviet Russia

    In his critical comments (“On a ‘Marxist’ Post-mortem”, EPW, 24 September 2011), Cem Somel appears to believe that I hold that the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) was at some point a classless society. On the basis of this assumption, it seems, he asks rhetorically “But when did classes actually emerge in the USSR?” I hope my article did not create the impression that I think that the USSR was ever a classless society! Stalin’s preposterous announcements notwithstanding, the Soviet Union most certainly was a class-divided society, from the beginning to the end.

    I probably contributed to the confusion by inadequately defining a class as a social group “composed of members with a common relationship to ownership and control of the means of production” (p 36, note 5). Somel, by contrast, defines a 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

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    their offspring”. Somel’s definition of “class” is closer to my definition in a primer that I wrote in the mid-1990s:

    Class. A large group that differs from other such groups in a society in the following four ways: (1) the place it occupies in a given mode of production; (2) its relationship to possession, legal ownership, or control of the means of production; (3) its ability or inability to appropriate a surplus product, in a manner determined by a given mode of production; and (4) the share of total social wealth its members have at their disposal.4

    Somel’s definition is more clear and concise than my formulation above, and it is more accurate than my definition in the post-mortem article. Moreover, his definition importantly includes the addendum that class membership involves the transmission of positions of control (or relative powerlessness) to progeny.5

    Somel is on target, too, when he writes that a correct definition of a class will allow us to see that the transition to capitalism was carried out in the USSR by a social group that had already wielded economic and political power. This group included high party functionaries, highranking bureaucrats in all-union and republican ministries, and managers of large firms. Members of this group and their close kin made up part of the Russian, republican, and regional nomenklaturas. Later in the process, in one locale after another, the nomenklaturas joined in a tense, frequently adverse alliance with upstart New Russian “oligarchs”. Russia’s post-Soviet rulers and bosses, then, emerged from deep within the Soviet order, by way of complicated processes that historical materialists are especially well equipped to describe.

    Somel poses what he rightly considers to be a crucial question: Why did the Soviet proletariat not resist the transition to capitalism in the early 1990s? We will probably agree on elements of a partial explanation, including the role of the party in controlling, demoralising, and ideologically disarming generations of workers, and stripping them of the very institutions that were supposed to represent them and advance their interests. Because state security agencies, schools, and the state-run media were also under their control, any independent activity by workers was bound to be

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    Economic & Political Weekly


    disorganised and easily routed. Defeat fed into popular disillusionment and passivity, even as the top bosses and bureaucrats were coming together rapidly as an incipient capitalist class.

    Somel writes that whether or not the people of the former USSR now rue this transition is beside the point. “A postmortem”, he writes, “diagnoses the cau ses of death, not what happens to the corpse thereafter”. But surely autopsies serve prospective purposes. What happens to the corpse – or what does not happen to it – is often a clue to both the immanent cause of death and the ultimate cause. In the case of the USSR, what did not happen to the corpse was the resurrection of Russia in a new body. In the past 20 years Russian workers have seen their living standards and birth rates plummet, and “surplus deaths” skyrocket into the millions. And yet until just recently, Russian workers have remained quiescent. Surely these post-Soviet developments have a bearing on the common claim that the USSR fell because it had become clear to everyone that capitalism could do a better job of delivering the goods. It seems to me that this is an important insight, with obvious political significance for the medium-term future.

    Theory and Practice

    Somel poses the question: “How did historical materialism enable the ruling party (the Communist Party of the Soviet Union) to steer the country towards the restoration of capitalism?” My response – as automatic as it is perhaps too neat – is that what was wrong with the implementation of Marxism in the USSR was that it was not implemented, at least not since the first years after the October Revolution. If Soviet policymakers could for decades deny the class character of the USSR, then how could they be said to have implemented Marxism at all? Whatever one may wish to call the official ideology of the Soviet Union during Stalin’s tenure, Marxism did not inform Soviet policy any more than John Locke and Jeffersonian democracy inform United States policy today.

    Of course, this raises more questions than it lays to rest, including the question: Why was socialism not implemented?

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    february 18, 2012

    And, the more ominous question: Is it even implementable? I suspect that the answer to the latter question might be: no, socialism could not have been implemented in 20th century Russia, even by the most principled and sagacious Marxists. We did not have a failure of Marxism here, or even primarily a failure of leadership; the disaster that was the leadership of the USSR after Lenin was more a result of much deeper failure than a cause of it. Comparing the state of the Russian Federation today to its immediate predecessor, it has become clear that the problem with Soviet Russia had much more to do with the fact that it was Russia than that it was Soviet. What Somel has called the “failed, discredited project” of 20th century socialism was the failure of attempts to build socialism on a non-capitalist foundation. On this point, too, Lenin’s post-revolutionary fears have been realised, and Marx and Engels have been vindicated, unfortunately, for most of us.

    Somel appears to hold the common view that Marxism per se is both a political commitment and a theory of society or history. So when I describe Marxism as a research programme, he concludes that, “If Marxism and historical materialism have become as disconnected from political action as [Melkonian] implies, then they are doomed to insignificance in the real world of social struggles”.

    Theory and class struggle are interconnected, of course. Perhaps they are even dialectically interrelated. Theory is itself a kind of productive practice, and the class struggle is inseparable from mental conceptions. Beyond these observations, though, I am not sure that there is much more that needs to be said under the heading of theory and practice. Marxists have spilled much ink expostulating on the subtleties of the unity of theory and practice, but there is still a distinction to be drawn between a class allegiance and a social science. In any case, to put it bluntly, I would rather run the risk of theoreticism than invite the vagaries, repressions, and disasters of a resurrected “proletarian science”.

    But perhaps Somel has posed the problem wrongly. Perhaps the problem is not so much that historical materialism

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    is disconnected from social struggles, but rather the reverse. Marxists might take a brief recess from the hand wringing and self-flagellation to reflect on the fact that when workers in Eastern Europe and Russia embraced the opponents of Marxism, they were the first and the worst to lose. Identity politics has been worse than a failure, and the massive movement with the revealingly un-Marxist title, the “anti-globalisation movement”, has disappeared with hardly a trace.6

    When workers have relinquished class analysis, they have lost benefits for which their predecessors had fought long and hard.

    With due respect to Somel, what we have witnessed in recent decades is that when political action is disconnected from Marxism, the social struggles are doomed to failure, co-optation, or worse. In the welter of escalating social struggles today, from Tahrir Square to Red Square, and from Liberty Square to the Niger Delta, those with a stake in sweeping transformation need to accurately identify their enemies, to appraise their resources, and to formulate realistic goals. The most clear-sighted environmentalists, the most militant union activists, the most perseverant fighters for women’s rights, the most determined enemies of imperialism – they all need fighting Marxists and thinking communists, in the most ecumenical sense of the word.


    1 I assume that we agree, too, that the term dictatorship of the proletariat has no especially tyrannical implications. The relevant contrastterm is dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, which describes a wide range of political orders, including the class dictatorships that obtain in even the most liberal capitalist democracies today. Since workers greatly outnumber capitalists, the prospect of socialism holds the hope for greater democracy.

    2 I use the verb forms “will inaugurate” and “will segue”, but of course there is nothing inevitable about any of this.

    3 The Baku Commune, 1917-18: Class and Nationality in the Russian Revolution (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press), 1972.

    4 Markar Melkonian, Marxism: A Post-Cold War Primer (Boulder: Westview), 1996, p 134.

    5 Somel’s definition would have better served my purposes of describing the gestation of the nomenklatura within the USSR, and distinguishing between them and the upstart New Russians who comprised many of the most powerful and visible members of the so-called “oligarchs”.

    6 A notable exception is the creation of alternative media outlets.

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