On The Two Souls of Socialism

by Joaquín Bustelo (Solidarity, U.S.) on March 22, 2013

Originally posted on the Marxism List in August of 2005, this article takes up the arguments presented by British Socialist Workers Party (SWP) leader Alex Callinicos in a debate with John Holloway on “Can we change the world without taking power?” The debate was held at the World Social Forum in January of 2005 and the transcript was presented in issue 106 of International Socialism, which is available online.

My contention is that the argument presented by Callinicos, centered on the “two souls of socialism” meme, is quite distant from a rigorous Marxist analysis. Useful as the “two souls” idea and especially “socialism from below” may be in explaining certain concepts in a popular way, trying to use these as fundamental analytical categories, as Callinicos does, following the example of Hal Draper’s famous 1960’s article, is a mistake. It creates a catchall category of “socialism for above” that doesn’t really tell you anything because it is so broad, and sets up impossibly high barriers to any revolutionary process being blessed with the “from below” label.

I am republishing it at The North Star because I believe crises like the one in the SWP involve more than organizational practices. Also involved is an idealist approach that turns preservation of a doctrine into a central task and the very reason for being of a revolutionary organization. I follow it with another post in that discussion thread where I expand on some points.


It is really quite striking how much of Callinicos’s theoretical arsenal is derived from what is a transparently idealist, not Marxist analysis. In his debate with Holloway, Callinicos, a leader of the British SWP says:

I absolutely sympathise with one of the impulses behind the slogan ‘Change the world without taking power’. Among a lot of the traditions on the left worldwide there has been what has been called ‘socialism from above’. Whether it is a Communist party with Stalinist traditions or a social democratic party like the Workers Party in Brazil today, it involves the idea that the party changes things for you and everyone else remains passive.

The political tradition I stand in is a very different one. It is that of socialism from below summed up in Marx’s definition of socialism as the self-emancipation of the working class. Socialism is about the oppressed and exploited of the world effectively liberating themselves.

My fundamental difference with John is that I believe this process of self-emancipation requires us to confront and overthrow the existing state and replacing it with a radically different form of state power.

This will immediately be recognized by many as a line of argument derived from the idea that there have been historically two “souls” of socialism — socialism from above versus socialism from below. Now, this may have some propaganda utility in the same sense that Lenin said that the phrase “socialism is my religion” might be a permissible pedagogical adaptation by a Marxist to make certain ideas more accessible. But I believe if one delves deeply in the source text of this theses, Hal Draper’s 1960’s article, “The Two Souls of Socialism,” one will find rather less than meets the eye.

The problem as I see it with Draper’s “two souls” thesis is that having traced the evolution of collectivist-egalitarian “models” and democratic popular mass movements, he fails to recognize that with their fusion in Marx, this whole dichotomy or debate gets taken out of the field of ideology and into the field of the class struggle. The clash is only apparently between different “souls” of socialism: it is in reality the clash of different social layers with different class interests.

Because Callinicos doesn’t recognize this, we get a sentence like “Whether it is a Communist party with Stalinist traditions or a social democratic party like the Workers Party in Brazil today, it involves the idea that the party changes things for you and everyone else remains passive.”

But is that what is really going on in either case? The expression of an idea, the manifestation of a “from above” ethereal soul?

This does, I grant you, handily resolve all sorts of wicked contradictions. There is no need, for example, to study in detail and on its own terms the Soviet state and its evolution or the state that issued from the Cuban revolution and how it evolved. It is only necessary to verify the non-existence of a state of the Paris Commune type and one can then safely dispatch the given case to the “not-socialism-from-below” pigeonhole, whether this be labeled “state capitalism,” “bureaucratic collectivism” or even “Stalinism.”

The idea of “socialism from below,” Callinicos says, “requires us to confront and overthrow the existing state and replacing it with a radically different form of state power.” But so does the idea of the Kingdom of God on earth. The problem is not describing the ideal forms but discovering in this vale of tears the actual social processes of which those ideas are a reified expression.

The “ideal” form of the proletarian state is quite thoroughly explained in the Marxist classics: the Paris Commune form of state, a state which, from its inception, is already in the process of withering away, i.e., where the functions of social organization and control which became concentrated in a body standing above society (because of the class division in society) returning increasingly to society as a whole, because what is now being “controlled” by the state is not the majority, but a minority.

What experience has shown, however, is that the pure form of such a state has proven to not yet be possible in any country where a successful anticapitalist revolution has taken place, nor is it easy to anticipate a successful revolution where a pure form of this state would be possible under current circumstances.

The only case where it is likely that the form of the state after a successful revolution is going to be one of a “pure” Paris Commune or Soviet type is that of nearly simultaneous revolutions in the main imperialist centers.

Rejection of “impure” forms of a workers state is thus tantamount to rejection of all currently possible revolutions and — carried out logically to the end — it carries the danger of embracing a messianic vision of white euro-North American revolution.


Callinicos has already traveled a fair distance in this direction, and although couched in optimistic terms, what he preaches is daunting if not defeatist.

John talked about fissures. The Russian Revolution of 1917 was a fissure. It tore a great hole in the capitalist system, the biggest fissure so far in world history. But just to break a hole in capitalism, even a hole as big as Russia, was not enough. There was a simple reason. The power of capital is global and it can concentrate its forces massively to destroy any fissure that threatens it. That is what they have been trying to do with Chávez in Venezuela. Whatever the problem is with his politics and so on, the US and its allies have been trying to break the experiment taking place in Venezuela because it threatens to open up a fissure.

The power of capital is so great that usually they can close the fissures. Usually they do so by overthrowing the revolutionary process and destroying its leaders and activists. There are many examples of that. In the Russian case there was a particularly horrible way in which capital won, by creating such pressures as to cause the revolutionary regime to transform itself into a barbarous replica of the global system.

The reason that happened was not that Marx liked the state, but that there was not a powerful enough global movement to break the power of capital globally. That doesn’t have to be our fate. We are already in the process collectively of creating the greatest global movement against capitalism in world history. But we won’t do that if we think that simply creating holes, fissures, in the existing system is enough to destroy it.

For Callinicos, a successful revolution is only possible if there is “a powerful enough global movement to break the power of capital globally” and he rejects the idea of revolutions surviving for a time within the framework of a single or a few countries. He thinks, in fact, those revolutions are a diversion: “we won’t do that [building a global movement] if we think that simply creating holes, fissures, in the existing system is enough to destroy it.”

Callinicos’s argument that “The power of capital is global and it can concentrate its forces massively to destroy any fissure that threatens it” is false.

It turns the capitalist classes, which is what exists in the real world, into a God — “Capital” in general — and imputes to it supernatural strength. The reality, as is being shown daily in Iraq, is otherwise.

The idea that Capital can simply make a decision to concentrate all its forces is completely undialectical. There are not one, but many capitals. Their fundamental relationship of one “capital” to the others is not cooperation, but competition. Their competition undermines, limits and constrains their cooperation, as does the existence of other classes with other class interests. Capitalist society isn’t one made up exclusively of capitalists where they all act in concert and therefore can do just as they please.

Look no further than the Iraq War, where most of the West European imperialist countries refused to go along with U.S. imperialism, because their interests as individual imperialist countries (composed, in turn, of individual masses of capital) clashed with the interests of the United States. The exception, Britain, can best be understood by looking at the interpenetration of English and American capitalism. There is a sense in which one can talk about Anglo-American imperialism which would be false if extended to “Franco-American imperialism” or “Italo-American imperialism.” And there is a material basis for the London-Washington “special relationship” which is quite evident if you look at the interpenetration of these two capitalist classes as reflected in the London and New York stock exchanges.

And in addition to the contradictions between Anglo-American imperialism and the continental imperialisms, there are also other social forces. Unless you believe the hoary imperialist myths of “ancient hatreds” that spring from strictly confessional concerns, the Iraqi resistance is an expression of certain social classes and layers of classes. As with so many other political struggles throughout history, these interests may not be explicitly proclaimed or even understood by many participants, but they are there. And they have been a very definite constraint on what the imperialists could do in Iraq, what they could get away with.

Even on the level of vulgar common sense, Callinicos’ posited all-powerful worldwide Capital does not compute. If this were so, how could there be any unions? How could any semicolonial countries have achieved independence? How could lesbians and gays be winning civil rights like the right to adopt children and to marry? Are we to view all these concessions as capitalist plots?

More to the point of Callinicos’ argument: how could there be a Cuba? Even if one accepts for argument’s sake Callinicos’ characterization of Cuba as “state capitalist,” how is it possible for a regime that is anathema to the world’s most powerful imperialist center to survive for nearly five decades, given the absolute or almost absolute capacity of capital to concentrate all its worldwide forces? This is the tenth successive U.S. administration that has tried to destroy the Cuban Revolution. Why hasn’t it been able to do so?

Supporters of the state capitalist theses might argue that the hostility doesn’t run all that deep; Fidel is really part of the family, not an absolute enemy. I think you’d be hard-pressed to prove this empirically, but the plain fact is that these state capitalist comrades — unlike both the imperialists and the masses in Latin America, for example — do not ascribe any special significance to Cuba at all.


In part, this is because Callinicos judges revolutionary success by idealist criteria. Either you measure up to what Lenin said in State and Revolution, or you’re not the real thing, but a bogus item. But there are good reasons why it is unrealistic and wrong to expect revolutions to be Lenin’s little book transformed into a living reality.

In his analysis in State and Revolution, Lenin completely abstracts from the international context, from the world imperialist system within which such states are born. He also doesn’t take up the relation between the level of culture and economic development of the country where such a state has arisen and the rest of the world.

However, these real-world circumstances make a state “simply” of the Paris Commune type impossible.

It is one thing to suppress the fading remnants of bourgeois resistance. This is easily enough done with popularly based organs such as the block-by-block Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR) in Cuba. If that were ALL that was involved, then something like the CDR’s would be the main bodies that carry out policing-type functions, and it would be an especially striking confirmation of the theses that this is a state that isn’t really a state, that it is already in the process of withering away.

But to confront not just bourgeois stragglers, but the military might and intelligence services of the most powerful imperialism the world has ever known, something more than a CDR is necessary. There is a need for a regular army, specialized organs of intelligence, counter-espionage and counter-sabotage.

In the economic sphere it is pretty much the same situation. Lenin in State and Revolution explains that, in the initial stages of the development of communist society, distribution will have to be restricted, i.e., based on “bourgeois law,” and adds:

Of course, bourgeois law in regard to the distribution of consumer goods inevitably presupposes the existence of the bourgeois state, for law is nothing without an apparatus capable of enforcing the observance of the rules of law.

It follows that under communism there remains for a time not only bourgeois law, but even the bourgeois state, without the bourgeoisie!

It is very important to recognize that, even in presenting the “pure” proletarian state, abstracted from its world context, Lenin explained that it was anything but pure, and would involve much more than soviet or commune-type bodies, but also ones that could only be described as a “bourgeois state without the bourgeoisie.” When you place that state in its international context, you get Lenin’s “bourgeois state without the bourgeoisie” on steroids.

If the productivity of labor in the country of the revolution were already significantly superior to those of the capitalist countries, then perhaps one might question the need for a state monopoly of foreign trade. But since it isn’t, it is necessary to protect the internal economy of the country from being penetrated and ravaged by imperialist concerns.

And like this you can go through specific fields and functions, diplomacy, education, health care, and see that, especially because of the existence of a much stronger imperialist camp, none of these things can simply be left to a committee of the national Soviet in a direct, immediate and transparent way, but MUST instead be handled by specialized bureaucratic-administrative structure, a “bourgeois state without the bourgeoisie.”


Lenin is undoubtedly correct in calling this a “bourgeois state without the bourgeoisie” rather than a “proletarian” administrative apparatus or some other such prettification. These are not the historically evolved nonpolitical, classless, mechanisms of administration of a society of the XXIII Century, but rather the existing political and “classist” forms of administration applied to regulation of a society which, although no longer ruled by the bourgeoisie, is entirely a product of bourgeois society.

And because it is a “bourgeois state without the bourgeoisie,” a tendency towards bureaucratization is inevitable, and under certain circumstances (the destruction of the revolution as a living mass movement of the toilers) this tendency gives rise to a consolidated bureaucratic layer, a caste.

This, of course, is the transformation of “socialism from below” into “socialism from above,” except that it is marked by the transfer of political control from the working class and its project of developing a socialist society to a self-serving bureaucratic caste. But as Trotsky explained in The Revolution Betrayed, and as life has now completely confirmed, it is a caste whose interests lie not in any form of socialism at all (whether from above or below, or even a fake-socialist “state capitalism”) but rather in outright capitalist restoration.

Comrades from the Callinicos group and others argue, in essence, that the transfer of political control to a caste means that the revolution has been completely stripped of all proletarian content. I think that the experience of the USSR and Eastern Europe has now confirmed beyond any possible doubt that, for the toilers, there can be something worse than the British SWP’s “state capitalism” — there can be plain vanilla real capitalism. The assertion that the difference between the two sorts of regime isn’t qualitative isn’t supported by the data.

Moreover, you have the case of Cuba, where you have a government issued from a popular worker and peasant revolution, a government which led the armed workers in carrying out the expropriation of the bourgeoisie as a class, and where that government has for nearly a half century carried out a foreign policy of opposition to imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism, as well as a domestic policy aimed at a much more egalitarian society than even the “really existing” socialism of Eastern Europe, never mind more egalitarian than neighboring countries, which are substantially similar to Cuba in virtually all ways but one: they did not have a revolution like Cuba’s.

For an analysis that starts with fundamental categories like “socialism from above” and “socialism from below,” the difference a revolution makes is well-nigh inexplicable. Unless you want to posit that socialism’s “from above” soul suffers from multiple-personality disorder, including one stable personality that imagines it is socialism from below and sets its policies accordingly.

It is much better to dump the whole schema and instead accept Trotsky’s analysis, that these are transitory and highly unstable socio-economic-political formations that do not yet represent even what can be anticipated as the first forms of relatively unfettered and unrestrained proletarian power. Much more than the beginning of what a world socialist commonwealth will look like, a place like Cuba can in many ways better be understood as the world’s most successful union, a revolutionary union local with superpowers.

I say that because there are *elements* of a state capitalist analysis that clearly do represent insights into reality. And most of all, the reality that Cuba’s toilers are still exploited, imperialism still extracts surplus value from the island, due to its insertion in the world capitalist market. Viewed from the angle of the imperialist system as a whole, Cuba relates to it as a single conglomerate, as one more enterprise, a firm.

Why not accept then the classification of it as “state capitalism?” Because the politics of it are all wrong. This state does not represent, neither in its origins nor in its quite consistent policies over nearly a half a century, the fusion of local capital with the state into state monopoly capitalism. It represents rather the expropriation of the capitalists — which isn’t a small detail — and policies that flow from that politically.

If you label a place like Cuba, or even the USSR, state capitalism, then I think, on the basis of the evidence, you have to say that this kind of capitalism is relatively more progressive than the regular flavor; that the working people do have a stake, therefore, in defending this sort of capitalist regime against the previous kinds; and that pending the arrival of the simultaneous world social revolution, workers in a place like Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina and Bolivia should fight for this kind of “capitalism.”

Trotsky’s concept of a workers state — a transitional formation that does not yet represent the sort of full-fledged beginning of the building of socialism analyzed by Marx (in the Critique of the Gotha Program) and Lenin (in State and Revolution) because it is still a besieged island surrounded by much bigger and more productive capitalism — recognizes the contradictory nature of the reality.


The illusion that there is such a thing as”socialism from above” embodied in Stalinism and social democracy was a product of World War II and its specific outcome, in which both the Soviet Union and U.S. imperialism were victors, and the world imperialist system emerged significantly weakened which obligated its recomposition on a new basis.

This led to emergence of long term, stable “social” (welfare state) bourgeois democracies in Western Europe, and to the working out of the logic of the position of the bureaucratic caste in the USSR taking on a protracted character.

Neither condition obtains any longer and I, for one, greatly doubt that “classical” Stalinism, a prolonged interregnum of bureaucratic rule, is going to reappear anywhere, quite simply because everyone now knows how the story ends. The bureaucratic usurpation of power from a revolutionary working class that has become exhausted or atomized in the future will I believe immediately have a restorationist character, even if hidden behind slogans about a mixed economy or even socialism.

As for a prolonged restoration of “social” capitalism, that would depend on a decades-long upswing in capitalist production, such as that which followed the tremendous devastation of the two World Wars and was largely fueled by rebuilding from them.

As for Brazil being an example of “classic” social democracy, the parallels are too striking to ignore, but I believe not enough attention is paid to the differences. Unless one wants to make the case that Brazil has become some sort of imperialist or sub/quasi/partly-imperialist  power, this isn’t “classic” social democracy because “classic” social democracy is a phenomenon of the imperialist countries, and a central political axis is the “united front” between the working class and its ruling class in defense of imperialist interests (and, from the point of view of the workers, imperialist privilege).

In Brazil, I believe what we are seeing instead is a semicolonial nation resisting many imperialist impositions, on everything from “free trade” to giving U.S. imperial storm troopers amnesty in advance for genocide and other crimes against humanity.

(Nor, I would like to add, does the classification of Lula’s regime as “neo-liberal,” as many on the left do, make a lot of sense to me. I do not believe the essence of neo-liberalism is the free market religion, that’s just ideological mumbo jumbo from the marketing department. The essence of “neoliberalism” is handing the country and its resources over to imperialist interests. I just don’t see it in this case.)

Saying Lula’s government is an expression of the “from above” socialism might be a useful pedagogical or rhetorical device in addressing those who still have illusions that this is some sort of expression of working class politics. But it doesn’t really get you much closer to a concrete understanding of what is going on there. For that, the traditional tools of Marxist analysis, which look at concrete class interests rather than the ideological phantasms that they give rise to, are much more useful.

{ 26 comments… read them below or add one }

Joaquín Bustelo March 22, 2013 at 6:31 am

[This is from the discussion thread on my post. It further develops some of the concepts above.]

Ian Pace says: “Well, Cuba still isn’t of great strategic or economic importance to the USA any longer, now that it’s no longer aligned with the USSR. That’s why I believe the antagonism from the USA is largely symbolic.”

I think the evidence could well be read to support the opposite hypothesis, i.e., that Russia’s centrality as an antagonist has receded now that it is no longer aligned with Cuba. As long as the USSR retained even the most tenuous links to what made it like Cuba, to its past, as a tradition and its counterpart in property forms and social conquests, the size, resources and strategic importance of the Soviet State made it imperialist enemy #1.

Ian Pace says, about Cuba-U.S. relations, “My suggestion [is] that the antagonism is symbolic rather than being rooted in the geopolitical interests of global capital.”

I agree in a certain sense, except that instead of “symbolic,” I would call it political. The problem with Cuba isn’t that it messes up some vital oil pipeline or denies the U.S. some ultra-important market or military base. The problem with Cuba is that it shows that the revolution is possible, that the people can make it, and that there is no power on this earth greater than that of a people determined to win its liberation.

“Symbolic” in the sense of “unimportant” or of “little practical significance” is not coherent with American actions. Because U.S. antagonism towards Cuba isn’t limited to “symbolic” gestures, but is quite material and quite extraordinary. The U.S. spends no small amount of political and economic capital trying to keep Cuba isolated. It pays a significant political, diplomatic and economic price for its obstinacy.

Ian doesn’t see this because he doesn’t see the importance of revolution in the colonial and semicolonial world. Basically he assumes what he is trying to prove: the unimportance of the revolutions in the Third World.

“What I’m suggesting, in line with Callinicos, is not so much prescriptive as fatalistic. I would LOVE to think that it were possible for the underdeveloped countries to achieve their own brand of socialism irrespective of the first world, but I simply find it hard to believe this will be able to happen, with all the forces of global capital stacked in opposition.”

Ian in his various posts gives sharp and clear expression to what I noted was a clear danger of the way Callinicos absolutizes the global power of capitalism: a perspective that reduces the masses of the third world, the big majority of humanity, to passive impotence awaiting the revolution in the white countries, Western Europe and the United States.

I know this attitude well because it is the attitude of much of the Latin American petty-bourgeoisie and intelligentsia. Sure, they recognize that the U.S. in insufferably arrogant, petty, self-absorbed and imperialistic, but who is going to stop it from being that way?

This was the explanation I heard –privately, of course, and on at least one occasion after alcoholic lubrication– from representatives of several of the countries that decided to “play along” with the United States and support the invasion of Iraq, some even sending their own troops. “The United States can do anything it wants,” the argument goes. “Our choice isn’t whether to approve or disapprove, but simply whether we’re going to get a better deal for ourselves by playing along.”

But despite the blindness of petty-bourgeois democrats, experience shows not just that the imperialists are powerful, but that there are very real limits to that power. The limits are being shown every day in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, Cuba and Venezuela, among other places. These limits are the result of the capacity of the oppressed and exploited for heroism, for courage, for sacrifice: for struggle.

This is something that is hard to comprehend from the perspectives of the imperialist world, and above all the United States, where people are socialized that the greatest good is individual self-satisfaction achieved through consumption of commodities.

If you look at the five Cuban heroes in prison in the United States, there is absolutely nothing exceptional about them or what they did. They are ordinary working people who had agreed to help Cuba’s revolutionary intelligence service in preventing terrorist attacks, as many have done before them, and as many continue to do, we can be sure.

Why is it that Cuba has never had any difficulty finding workers willing to penetrate terrorist groups, and even draws to it people from other countries willing to help, even in the highest reaches of the Pentagon, for absolutely no reward save jail or assassination if exposed? And the United States, the most powerful and richest nation the world has ever known, capable of offering a 7, 8 or even 10-digit reward, is unable to penetrate a band of crazed fanatics that its own CIA helped to create, al Qaeda?

Iraq is showing that the essential lesson of Vietnam is still valid, perhaps even more valid today than then. And that lesson is that the power of the people is greater than the man’s technology. It is the power of ideas and ideals.

This, I would say, is the most essential “soul” of socialism in our epoch. Not from above. Not from below. But struggle.

This is what has allowed Cuba to survive all these years and to play the role it does. That its children are raised from the youngest age with no greater aspiration than the one embodied in the slogan of the José Martí Pioneer Organization: “We will be like Che.”



Pham Binh March 22, 2013 at 12:25 pm

The same idealism Bustelo identifies in Callinicos runs throughout Chris Harman’s essay Party and Class and Paul LeBlanc’s “Leninism in the Wake of Occupy.” Harman claims that the difference between the social-democratic, Stalinist, and “Leninist” party arise from different conceptions of the party-class relationship. LeBlanc claims that Lenin’s Marxism was better, more consistent, or less compromising than Kautsky’s, and therefore the Bolsheviks opposed World War One and led a revolution while the German Social Democratic Party supported World War One and strangled a revolution. Idealism has also severely distorted how Marxists from a variety of trends have evaluated the Arab Spring.

On Cuba: they simply do not have the means to create a classless, stateless society. So Cuba is a class society. It has a state. You can call it state capitalist if you want, but that does not get you very far. As Bustelo points out, there is capitalism and there is capitalism. Not all capitalisms are the same. Hitler’s fascist dictatorship was just as capitalist socioeconomically as the Weimar Republic; if you apply the same rule to Cuba, Batista’s Cuba and Castro’s Cuba are both capitalist. But that makes a big difference from the point of view of the Cuba people! Lenin argued along similar lines in his (excellent) Two Tactics:

“There is bourgeois democracy and bourgeois democracy. The Zemstvo monarchist who favours an upper chamber, and who ‘asks’ for universal suffrage while secretly, on the sly, striking a bargain with tsarism for a curtailed constitution, is also a bourgeois-democrat. And the peasant who is fighting, arms in hand, against the landlords and the government officials and with a ‘naïve republicanism’ proposes ‘to send the tsar packing’, is also a bourgeois-democrat. There are bourgeois-democratic regimes like the one in Germany and also in England, like the one in Austria and also like those in America or Switzerland. He would be a fine Marxist indeed, who in a period of democratic revolution failed to see the difference between the degrees of democracy, the difference of its various forms and confined himself to ‘clever’ remarks to the effect that, after all, this is ‘a bourgeois revolution,’ the fruits of a ‘bourgeois revolution.’”

This is the underlying reason why I don’t agree with Bustelo that the alternative to the Cliff or idealist view of Cuba is Trotsky’s deformed/degenerated workers’ state concept. Ultimately, it’s an obfuscation to say a given society is “in transition.” Transition from what to what? What are its different elements? What class forces are pushing it in what direction? Which class holds power and makes decisions? It’s much better to focus on these questions than get caught up in categories and jargon that does more to confuse things and hide underlying realities than clarify anything. Quite a few Marxists claimed that Ghadafi’s Libya and Assad’s Syria were also “in transition” or represented some bastardized form of socialism/workers’ state at one point or another because those repressive tyrannies enacted land reform or other types of progressive socioeconomic measures. Ted Grant even claimed Pol Pot’s Cambodia was a degenerated workers’ state — in transition, of course!

Just because Cuba was or is state capitalist does not mean one should withhold support for the 1959 revolution or refuse to defend the Cuba from imperialist attacks/strangling just every Marxist should have supported the bourgeois-democratic Russian revolution of 1917.

If the Cliff crowd really gave a damn about the toiling Cuban masses, they’d focus their efforts on ending the sanctions instead of using the masses to score points against the regime and alienating every pro-Cuba trend on the Western socialist left in the process.


Brian S. March 23, 2013 at 12:41 pm

Ever since I first encountered the state caps in the flesh in 1970 I have had a standard question to ask them: Is a “state capitalist” social formation “capitalist”? I’ve yet to get a straight answer.


Pham Binh March 25, 2013 at 10:06 am

Shouldn’t the answer be yes?


David Berger March 25, 2013 at 10:57 am

PHAM BINH: If the Cliff crowd really gave a damn about the toiling Cuban masses, they’d focus their efforts on ending the sanctions instead of using the masses to score points against the regime and alienating every pro-Cuba trend on the Western socialist left in the process.

DAVID BERGER: I’m glad you feel that you’re in a political position to dictate policy to the British SWP.

BRIAN S: Ever since I first encountered the state caps in the flesh in 1970 I have had a standard question to ask them: Is a “state capitalist” social formation “capitalist”? I’ve yet to get a straight answer.

PHAM BINH: Shouldn’t the answer be yes?

DAVID BERGER: Indeed, it should, which is why socialists should be focused not only on defending Cuba against US intervention and ending the sanctions but also defending all left-wing opposition to the state capitalist regime.


Pham Binh March 25, 2013 at 4:39 pm

“defending all left-wing opposition to the state capitalist regime.”

Is there any Cuban-based left opposition to the regime?


Brian S. March 25, 2013 at 4:28 pm

For their position to be logical it should be “yes” . But from the point of view of Marxist theory, I fear the answer is “no”.


Pham Binh March 25, 2013 at 4:34 pm

I’ll take the bait and say “yes!” Now what?


Pham Binh April 7, 2013 at 11:50 am

I’m beginning to think that some of the recent discussion on this site re: Marx’s Capital has implications for the state capitalist hypothesis.


Louis Proyect March 22, 2013 at 5:35 pm

The term “workers state” was never used by Trotsky. If you read the chapter on the USSR’s class character in “Revolution Betrayed”, he only referred to it as a society in between capitalism and socialism. The same sort of theoretical problem presents itself when discussing another transition problem, namely when a nation like France became capitalist. Supporters of Robert Brenner argue that there was no bourgeois revolution and that even more puzzlingly that the country was still precapitalist after 1789. The term “workers state” came into existence as part of a really extended and deep debate in the Fourth International with people like Joseph Hansen playing a leading role. In my view the problem revolves around trying to define a nation when the term capitalism really refers to a world system. As this world system was developing, there was a mixture of feudal/precapitalist and capitalist property relations that sometimes clashed with each other and sometimes collaborated, such as the slavery system in the USA. I think years from now when we are living under socialism as a world system, which is what Marx was really getting at, the role of transitional societies like Cuba or the USSR will be better understood.

I should mention that I plan to write an in-depth analysis of these questions when I get a chance, having a new look at permanent revolution, Doug Lorimer’s critique, etc. It is worth noting that Lenin was inconsistent in his own way, sometimes referring to the USSR as having experienced a proletarian revolution, other times using a formulation along the lines of the workers leading a bourgeois-democratic revolution.

The bottom line is that if you are not capable of thinking dialectically, much of this will be vexing intellectually and politically.


Brian S. March 23, 2013 at 1:13 pm

@ Louis: Not sure what you mean here, Louis. Trotsky uses the term “workers state” often in Revolution Betrayed. One thing to distinguish is the state form and the mode of production (a basic oversight of the state caps). In Chapter 9 of Rev Betrayed “Social Relations in the Soviet Union” Trotsky is primarily concerned with the latter. But when he deals with the state form he uses “workers state” regularly.


Matt March 22, 2013 at 5:42 pm

Kudos to Joaquín Bustelo for his well-formed presentation. I’m in substantial agreement with it, and it’s a good explanation of why I’ve never cottoned to the “state capitalist” interpretation. The concept basically confounds historical-material analysis with the abstract analysis of the state. The Communist Manifesto is an example of the former; Das Capital, an example of the latter, as it pertains to capital, of course, and not the state – though according to his 1859 Preface, Marx had that in his sights as well, though he never got to it. The former is necessary to identifying the real basis for any practical activity on our part; the latter for the framing of that reality, it’s “reproduction in the mind as concept”.

The same approach can be applied to the concept of historical “transition”. These thoughts are provoked by a current reading of “Impersonal Power: History and Theory of the Bourgeois State”, an immense 700-odd page work by what seems to be a German-language variant of “political Marxism” written by Heide Gerstenberger. She adheres to one of the key dogmas of political Marxism in the rejection tout court of the concept of “transition” as a valid analytical framework for organizing any presentation of the real historical material. (The other is the rejection of the framework of the contradiction of forces/relations of production). It is primarily rejected as a purely retrospective projection upon the past from the vantage point of the “future” present. It corresponds to nothing real in that past; that is, in Marx’s words, the concept of “transition” is not a *real abstraction*, as, say, “price” is the real abstract presentation of value or “abstract labor” the same with respect to the “social commensurability of labour” under capitalism (see http://www.marxists.org/archive/rubin/abstract-labour.htm, free of charge of any possible “hagiography” as few Marxists today know of their existence) .

The confusion arises from the confounding of abstract deductive analysis with the inductive analysis of the concrete historical material process. This is basically a *purely analytical category in abstraction from the actual historical material for deductive purposes*. It is *not* a *real abstraction*. The actual historical material seen in its immediacy appears as a simple chain of events in a series of pure contingencies; no tendency towards “transition” can be inferred by the examination of a single event in isolation; moreover, no such thing can be “really” inferred in the material itself even if we examine a string of contingently related events, even if the string moves or (heaven forbid) “progresses” from point A to point B. And it is in fact correct to say that 18th Puritans were not consciously “building capitalism” through their actions (they were consciously building “the New Jerusalem” on Earth), nor that their actions at that time bore the “inevitability” of the “transition to capitalism”.

But since we have in fact made the “transition” from A to B, that fact is the real basis of the retrospective power that allows us to frame how we got to B. Why not use it, so long as we avoid the error of confounding the framing of the thing for the thing itself: that circle of (a mostly academic) Hell labeled “teleological transitionalism”. If “transitions” were real, why continue the heated debates on the “subjective factor” of the revolutionary party, when we should have hopped on board Eduard Bernstein’s Transition Train and kicked back for the free ride. That is why I refer to this edict of political Marxism as a dogma – it is akin to Brad DeLong’s admonition to his economics acolytes in re Marxism: “Dooonnn’tt goooee theeeree! You’ll get lost in the mucky swamp of the labor theory of value!” said in tremulous voice as he waves his shamans’ stick. It is really a species of negatory mystification.

Hence Trotsky’s usage of “transitional” is correct in this case, as it did not infer any teleology in the destiny of the Soviet Union (leaving that to be determined by “the subjective factor”), instead describing a structure suspended in time between A and B, and therefore a contradictory combination of A and B. And it is precisely the very useful concept of contradictory (and further, combined and uneven) combination that the concept of “state capitalism” obscures.


prianikoff March 23, 2013 at 5:15 am

Pham Binh

“The same idealism Bustelo identifies in Callinicos runs throughout Chris Harman’s essay Party and Class and Paul LeBlanc’s “Leninism in the Wake of Occupy.” Harman claims that the difference between the social-democratic, Stalinist, and “Leninist” party arise from different conceptions of the party-class relationship. LeBlanc claims that Lenin’s Marxism was better, more consistent, or less compromising than Kautsky’s, and therefore the Bolsheviks opposed World War One and led a revolution while the German Social Democratic Party supported World War One and strangled a revolution.”

One of Harman’s better articles IMHO and I don’t detect any trace of idealism in it.
Le Blanc’s point is also right.
This has nothing to do with ‘organisational idealism’.

The differences between the Mensheviks and Bolsheviks were not simply over organisational questions.
They involved the whole perspective of how the RSDLP should relate to the democratic revolution.
As the Mensheviks saw the workers’ party as a pressure group on the liberal bourgeoisie, a loosely-knit talking shop of a party served their purposes very well.

Lenin was clear that German Social Democracy had an opportunist wing.
It’s just that, until 1914, he didn’t fully understand that the Kautskyite Centre was too tied to the right wing to actively resist the War.
Luxemburg paid with her life for her mistake in not breaking with the Centre earlier.

Louis Proyect “The term “workers state” was never used by Trotsky”

It’s really unwise to make statements like that on the internet!
A search of Trotsky’s 1933 article “The Class Nature of the Soviet State” finds 10 instances of the term “workers state”.
Try it:-

For example:-

“….the tragic possibility is not excluded that the first workers’ state, weakened by its bureaucracy, will fall under the joint blows of its internal and external enemies”
….we wage our struggle from the standpoint of defending the workers’ state”

It may have been a short-hand for a more complex analysis, but Trotsky certainly used it.


Pham Binh March 23, 2013 at 8:38 am

Re: prianikoff

LeBlanc “forgets” to mention that the Menshevik wing of the RSDLP (to which the Bolsheviks also belonged) and the Serbian socialist party also adopted internationalist positions when World War One broke out. I guess their Marxism was better than Kautsky’s but not as good as Lenin’s?

Here’s Harman’s idealism in his own words:

“It will be the contention of this argument that
most of the discussion even in revolutionary circles is,
as a consequence, discussion for or against basically Stalinist or Social-Democratic conceptions of organisation. It will be held that the sort of organisational views developed implicitly in the writings and actions of Lenin are radically different to both these conceptions.”

Turns out Lenin’s conception of the party-class relationship was the same as Kautsky’s. Further:

“Parties exist in order to act in this situation to propagate a particular world view and the practical activity corresponding to it. They attempt to unite
together into a collectivity all those who share a
particular world view and to spread this. They exist to
give homogeneity to the mass of individuals
influenced by a variety of ideologies and interests. …

“For Gramsci and Lenin this means that the party is constantly trying to make its newest members rise
to the level of understanding of its oldest. It has always to be able to react to the ‘spontaneous’
developments of the class, to attract those elements
that are developing a clear consciousness as a result of these.”

The following line is ironic, given the fate of Harman’s own party:

“The Leninist party does not suffer from this tendency to bureaucratic control precisely because it restricts its membership to those willing to be serious and disciplined enough to take political and theoretical issues as their starting point, and to subordinate all their activities to these.”

So according to Harman, the correct party-class conception and resulting organization practices is a guarantee against bureaucratism. It is “I think, therefore I am” dressed up in Marxist phraseology.


prianikoff March 23, 2013 at 10:18 am

On the first point, even Kautsky wasn’t totally pro-war and there were obviously different positions within International Social-Democracy – the Zimmerwaldists, the Menshevik-Internationalsts etc….
Even the IWW in the US weren’t “defeatists”, even though many of them were jailed after the US entered the War.

The essay by Harman that you refer to was published in the early 70’s, in a booklet titled “Party and Class”.
It was required reading for all new members of the I.S. But it also contained some other articles that contradicted it; the famous pre-1914 article by Trotsky – on Substitutionism, that warned of the Central Committee substituting itself for the Party and the Party substituting for the Class. Also something by Cliff that was a throw-back to his pre-1968 espousal of Luxemburgism. So it was quite an eclectic mix that could be used to justify various party-building models later on.

In practice, the emerging SWP didn’t adopt Harman’s approach, even if his essay gave it a Leninist lustre
It’s been notorious on the British Left for it’s scattergun approach to recruitment, virtually handing out membership cards at meetings and hoping for the best.
Retention of members is often based on the basis of hyper-activity driven by full-timers, not necessarily political and theoretical development. This is one reason why the Students tend to go through the revolving door rather quickly while longer-term members tend to be passive subs-payers.

To that degree, Harman’s fairly orthodox Leninist approach (which was first argued by the Democratic Centralist Tendency around 1969) never became the dominant model in the I.S-SWP.

It was Cliff’s eclectic approach to party- building that was really adopted. This owed as much to Social Democracy as Leninism, i.e. the progress of the working class is identified with recruitment to the party – build the party to…. build the party!

In any organisation, this can lead to the danger of bureaucracy. An apparatus of full-timers dominates a politically passive membership, who aren’t developed and encouraged to be autonomous representatives of the party inside the mass movements. This is what Lenin encouraged.


Richard Estes March 23, 2013 at 8:29 pm

“As for Brazil being an example of “classic” social democracy, the parallels are too striking to ignore, but I believe not enough attention is paid to the differences. ”

For those who consider Brazil to be such an example, this is another instance of what I mentioned on the thread about those who supported the invasion of Iraq, the tendency to see the peoples of other cultures and their historical development through a eurocentric lens. Brazil a “classic social democracy”? What does that mean exactly? That it is analogous to the UK from 1945 to 1979? Germany, from 1945 to date? If so, this makes no sense to me at all. Is there even such a thing as a prototype “social democracy” that can used for analytical purposes at all?

The failure to engage the countries of South America on their own terms results in absurdities like characterizing Lula as a social democrat and the rejection of Chavez because he refused to sufficiently challenge capital. Lula was a kind of social democrat, I guess, but a very peculiar one that operated within the limits of neoliberalism as did Chavez. Lula practiced a pension fund investment capitalism and Chavez used oil revenues obtained on global markets to finance his social programs. It might be more productive to examine why they did what they did, and what constraints influenced them to do so, instead of trying to force them into outdated conceptual categories.


Brian S. March 24, 2013 at 9:06 am

@Richard. I agree with you on the distinctiveness of Brazil: a middle income country which combines a long period of social-democratic government with one of the most unequal societies in the world (the most unequal of the middle income group).
I also agree with you about the dangers of using eurocentric analytic categories to dissolve the specificities of societies that are outside this cultural zone. But that doesn’t mean that there can’t be significant parallels across cultural boundaries, nor that there is no value in exploring such parallels.
Clearly there are both national and historical variations in “social democracy”, but I think there are defining features in terms of social base, political composition, and relationship to the capitalist economy and bourgeois power, that can generate a usable “ideal type”. In that regard Brazil strikes me as lying within it, and Chavez as outside. The analytic value of this is that Lula’s trajectory could belargely predicted from European experience; whereas Chavez’s could not.


David Berger March 24, 2013 at 11:17 am

JAOQUIN BUSTELO: If you label a place like Cuba, or even the USSR, state capitalism, then I think, on the basis of the evidence, you have to say that this kind of capitalism is relatively more progressive than the regular flavor; that the working people do have a stake, therefore, in defending this sort of capitalist regime against the previous kinds; and that pending the arrival of the simultaneous world social revolution, workers in a place like Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina and Bolivia should fight for this kind of “capitalism.”

DAVID BERGER: For me, this says it all. “Workers of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains. You have a capitalism to win.”


negative potential March 25, 2013 at 1:12 pm

priakanoff wrote: “even Kautsky wasn’t totally pro-war”

Lolwut?! Kautsky was opposed to the war! As was that revisionist bete noir of pseudo-Bolshevik cosmology, Eduard Bernstein.

This is just another demonstration of how most self-styled “Leninists” have basically no familiarity with the international labour movement prior to Bolshevism. They adhere to a quasi-religious notion of “revolutionary continuity” that posits an unbroken lineage of the one true faith originating with Marx and transmitted to his disciples Engels, Lenin, and Trotsky (sometimes Luxemburg and Gramsci, depending upon how open-minded one is), with total disregard for the real discontinuities and fissures of the actual labour movement.

Shocking as it may be for our pseudo-Bolshevists, one’s position in 1914 did not map cleanly onto whatever position one took a decade earlier regarding the mass strike debate, revisionism, etc.


Pham Binh March 25, 2013 at 3:01 pm

When I read the line about Kautsky not being “totally pro-war” I facepalm’d and decided it wasn’t worth responding at that point. The level of ignorance among “Leninists” really is astounding.


David Berger March 26, 2013 at 9:53 am

Truth is that Kautsky was actually somewhat opposed to the war, but he didn’t want to foster a split in the SPD. Later in the war, he joined the ISPD, which had an anti-war program. Nevertheless, there is a special place in hell where Kautsky is being constantly basted.


negative potential March 26, 2013 at 5:16 pm

Uh, the USPD wasn’t formed until 1917.

FYI, Rosa Luxemburg and the Spartakusbund were also part of the USPD. Are they being basted in hell too?

Paul Levi even rejoined the USPD and participated in its re-merger with the SPD after the nitwit Zionievist Comintern expelled him from the KPD. How about Levi, another candidate for your BBQ in hell?

What self-proclaimed “Bolsheviks” don’t know about the German labour movement could fill a library.


Brian S. March 26, 2013 at 7:42 pm

@negative potential. Well, actually, they mapped pretty well in Kautsky’s case: he dithered in 1905, in 1910, and again in 1914.


negative potential March 26, 2013 at 5:19 pm

You gotta love the chutzpah of all these Keyboard Lenins, passing judgment on historical leaders of the labour movement for reservations about making decisions affecting parties that commanded the allegiance of millions of workers.

As if splitting a mass workers’ party were as facile a manner as a couple of Trotskyites getting a new PO Box at the post office.


PatrickSMcNally March 26, 2013 at 5:32 pm

If there was ever a time to split a mass workers’ party, World War I should have been that time. This line of argument is in the same road as the way some purported “Leftists” insist that Democrats need to be voted for. NOW has even supported Joe Lieberman because of the fact that he can vote in favor of abortion rights. Although I fully agree that a socialist Left must support abortion rights and easy cheap access to all forms of birth control, but casting votes for someone like Lieberman is what always kills the potential for a future Left. As an atheist I don’t believe in hell, but Kautsky’s refusal to see that 1914 was a time to call for revolution has had long-running bad ramifications.


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