Marxism, Class Analysis, and the USSR: A Y2K Perspective

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The end of Marxism's first full century at Y2K seems a reasonable moment to compare its strengths and achievements with its weaknesses and failures.
Richard D. Wolff

Issue #45, October 1999


The end of Marxism's first full century at Y2K seems a reasonable moment to compare its strengths and achievements with its weaknesses and failures. The century's end also offers the opportunity to assess how much Marxism has changed over the last 100 years. At century's close, Marxists remain those people whose lives shape in them a real, activist commitment to community and solidarity. For them, Marxism is partly the necessary protest against the loneliness, isolation, and dangers of societies that organize the production of goods and services in ways that entail class conflict. Exploitation in production - the ceaseless class conflict between those who do the work and those who take the profit - promotes greed, wider social conflicts, and the alienated mentality that evaluates everything and everyone in terms of a "bottom line." Marxists struggle against the now dominant capitalist form of exploitation in production and for a community - or communist - organization instead. Their logic is straightforward: real community in politics and culture requires community in the production of goods and services that is basic in every society. Class divisions and conflicts in production are, for Marxism, the enemy of community. Marxism is the self-criticism of capitalist society which aims for a communitarian transformation.

The twentieth century has taught Marxists profound, difficult, and costly lessons. They have had to learn from Marxism's own mistakes and lost opportunities. The communism they seek at Y2K is very different from what communism meant for most of the century. Marxists now increasingly focus on a communism defined as an organization of production in which the people who do the work of production are also the same people who decide collectively how their work is to be performed and what will be done with the fruits of their labor. The working people themselves - not supervisors, boards of directors, state officials, or "investors" - are to operate their community of production. Marxists today also understand the need to build alliances linking their program of the class transformation of production with other social movements that have different but compatible programs (seeking, for example, democracy, equality, cultural diversity, and so on). Such alliances would aim to take power from those who maintain the capitalist status-quo and enact the social changes advocated by the allies, including the class transformations that Marxists want.

Among Marxism's achievements since 1850 are these:

  • construction of explicitly Marxist organizations (trade unions, political parties, journals, newspapers, mass organizations) and Marxist components of other organizations;
  • production of a genuinely global literature of social analysis including the documentation of countless practical struggles for socialism and communism, influencing several generations of workers and intellectuals to think in class terms;
  • political struggles and functioning governments that tried to replace capitalism with socialism in several nations and regions across the world.

Marxism's various weaknesses and failures can be summarized in one phrase: it simply could not yet displace capitalism. I would like here to focus on one major reason for these failures, namely the inability of Marxist political actors to appreciate the radical novelty of Marx's class analysis. Unlike many of the reasons commentators often cite for Marxism's failure, this one has not received the attention it deserves.

Marx developed an altogether new concept of class. He did so because he believed that this new way of understanding class was lacking in the radicals of his time. More importantly, Marx believed that this lack directly undermined the radicals' ability to move beyond capitalism to a socialism or communism. My argument is that Marx's new understanding still eludes the opponents of capitalism today, including those who are otherwise Marxists. Like Marx then, we now need urgently to address the failure of contemporary radicals to absorb and apply Marx's new class analysis, and for the same reason: it hobbles all the projects to pass beyond capitalism to communism.

Marx's new understanding of class differed from the older concepts of class that radicals had long been using to criticize capitalism, to work out their strategies to displace it, and to define the socialism or communism they sought to construct. While Marx respected and used the older concepts, his contribution was to add a new and different one. Yet that contribution got lost in the tumultuous crises of western capitalism that almost overwhelmed it from the 1870s to the 1950s - from the Paris Commune to the post-World War I socialist upheavals in Russia, across Europe, and beyond to the Chinese, Cuban, and Vietnamese revolutions. Marxists everywhere faced suddenly real chances for and some successes at taking power from capitalists. Swept up by such heady opportunities, by the mass agitation for social change, they relied upon the deeply engrained old concepts of class for their strategies, slogans, and programs. They had little time and saw little need to worry about what Marx's new class concept might mean and imply about radical goals and strategies. Class, after all, seemed to be a well-known, obvious matter. Capitalist societies split into two great groupings: a vast majority without property and power confronted a small minority who owned and ruled. Marx's Manifesto had declared it the great class confrontation of the bourgeoisie against the proletariat. So Marx could be read as endorsing this old dualistic concept of class. But that reading missed Marx's new concept of class.

Long before Marx -- at least back to the early Greeks -- radicals interested in changing societies had often divided (classified) their populations into groups (classes) according either to how much property they owned or how much power they wielded over others or both. On that basis they had devised explanations for their societies' ills -- that a small minority owned most of the property, wielded most of the power, and used both to maintain that status quo no matter the social waste, injustice, and suffering. The radicals' solution was to call for changing society's class structure, which they understood as the social distribution of property and power. Notions of community, socialism, and communism came to stand for the social change they sought. Property was to be redistributed equally and/or collectively owned and power was to be equally distributed among all. Democracy was broadened from referring merely to socially equalized power distributions to also including equalized or socialized property: it became "social democracy" or "democratic socialism".

lowell Marx no doubt partly embraced this radical tradition. His criticism of capitalism (and of feudalism, slavery, and so on) saw many of their injustices, wastes, and inequalities rooted in unequally distributed property and power. He too sought a movement of the propertyless and the powerless for social democracy to replace capitalism. But Marx also faced the big question: why had the large majorities without property or power tried but failed - before and since capitalism's arrival - to achieve socialist or communist goals? His major works, Capital and Theories of Surplus Value answer that question. Because radicals had not understood an important feature of the societies that they had tried to change, their struggles had been severely weakened. Where radicals did take power, their efforts to construct and sustain social democracy were likewise severely weakened because they did not understand and attend to this feature. Marx referred to this feature as "class." But he meant something new and different by that term. Instead of a property and/or power definition, he offered a very different definition based on the idea of surplus value.

In every human society, he argued, a portion of its members - the laborers - work; they use their brains and muscles to transform nature into useful objects. They not only produce such objects in quantities sufficient for their own consumption (the fruits of their "necessary" labor in Marx's language); they always also produce additional quantities of output. They perform "surplus labor." Its fruits are surplus products which, if sold in markets, yield "surplus value." Class, for Marx, concerns how societies organize and dispose of the fruits of this surplus labor. Thus, Marx asked the following questions about any society: what people produce this surplus, who receives it, how is this organized, to whom do such receivers distribute it, and what are the social effects of this organization of surplus labor? To answer these questions is to perform a "class analysis" of a society. In Marx's new conception, class is not about who owns and/or wields power; it is rather about how surplus labor is organized: who performs the surplus labor and who appropriates, distributes, and receives its fruits. How a society organizes its surplus labor production, appropriation, and distribution is different from how it distributes wealth and power. Surplus labor, wealth, and power interact and depend on one another in society, but they are not the same. Before Marx, radicals had focused on wealth and power, but rarely if ever on surplus labor. Because they had not understood what surplus labor is nor how it influences a society's wealth and power distributions, their projects for radical social transformation had not taken surplus into account. This proved to be a fatal error. Likewise, when constructing a new society, radicals tended to focus on changing wealth and power distributions without recognizing that if they left unchanged the organization of surplus labor, that might then undermine whatever other changes in wealth and power distributions they had been able to make. Marx's work stressed the mechanisms through which capitalist societies organize the who and how of producing, appropriating, and distributing surplus labor. He argued that capitalism entailed exploitation: a social organization of surplus labor in which those who produce it do not also appropriate and distribute it. Other people are the appropriators of surplus who then distribute it -- to themselves and others -- so as to perpetuate their position as the exclusive appropriators. Proletarians produce the surplus, capitalists appropriate it as profits, and then distribute those profits to others -- such as state officials, supervisors, advertisers, lawyers, and so on -- who provide the social conditions enabling capitalist exploitation to continue.

A brief history of the world's most ambitious and long-lasting effort to date to replace capitalism with communism -- the USSR -- can illustrate the costs to radicals of not recognizing surplus labor's role in social life. In the decades before 1917, Russian industry was mostly private capitalist. Private citizens, Russian and foreign, owned and operated corporations that hired other people, laborers, to produce commodities. The boards of directors of these private corporations then sold those commodities. They used a portion of the proceeds to pay wages, another portion to replenish used-up raw materials and tools, and a final portion as the corporation's profits. Those profits were the surplus value produced by their workers and appropriated by the boards of directors. The latter distributed those profits to keep themselves and their corporations in business and growing. In pre-1917 Russia, this capitalist class structure coexisted with an extremely unequal distribution of property and power. Very few individuals owned most of the corporations and a Czar monopolized most of the political power. Russia's history of mass privation, catastrophic involvement in World War I, and the resulting collapse of its economy destroyed the workers' and peasants' confidence in both the Czar and the capitalists. Radicals suddenly had a chance to win mass support to take political power. A group of Russian Marxists, the Bolsheviks, did so together with other socialists. Because they all understood class analysis in the old property and power way, they focused on transforming the distributions of wealth and power in the new USSR. They took land from many of its former owners and distributed it roughly equally to millions of peasant families. They abolished stock markets and took industrial property from private owners, making it instead the nation's collective property to be administered by the state. The Soviets, as the democratic organization of popular power, would control the state. They were replacing capitalism with socialism because of these changes (certainly monumental) in the social distribution of property and power. What did not change when Russian became Soviet industry was the organization of surplus labor. Before 1917, workers performed surplus labor in Russian factories and offices for private capitalist boards of directors who distributed the surpluses to maintain that exploitative system. After the revolution, those same workers performed surplus labor -- usually in the same ways with the same machines and making the same products -- whose fruits, again, others took away and distributed. But in place of the dispossessed private capitalist boards of directors, state officials appropriated and distributed the workers' surplus. The industries' capitalist class structure -- in Marx's surplus labor sense -- had not changed. Instead, a private capitalism had been supplanted by a state capitalism.

Lenin, to his credit, partly recognized this, arguing that state capitalism was needed until the Soviet state could manage the transition to a genuine socialism and then communism. But he did not express this in terms of a surplus labor theory of class. He too had not found that part of Marx's work sufficiently important to place it at the forefront of the political agenda. Likewise, the revolutionary workers who took over the Russian factories thought they had vanquished capitalism by giving these factories to the new state while simultaneously placing the new state in the hands of their workers' party. Everyone operated with a class analysis of capitalism and communism based on property and power. No one worried much about the organization of surplus labor. In the names of socialism and communism, the workers who had taken over the factories invited and welcomed the Soviet state officials who replaced the private boards of directors. Stalin simply then formalized and enforced the official definition of socialism as that "negation" of capitalism that existed in the USSR.

But Marx argued that exploitation -- as a particular organization of the production and distribution of surplus labor -- alienated workers and fostered all sorts of economic waste, cultural inequities, and social injustices. And exploitation continued in Soviet industry (and increasingly in agriculture too) through to the collapse of the USSR in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Across Soviet history, no leadership ever addressed the class structure of Soviet industry in the surplus labor sense. It was simply reiterated that no classes existed in the USSR. No Soviet strategy emerged to cope with how a continuing exploitative class structure undermined the changes in wealth and power distributions achieved by the 1917 revolution. What collapsed in 1989 included the USSR as a nation, state property as the exclusive mode of owning industrial capacity, the Communist Party's monopoly of power, and the dominance of state allocation over markets as means of distributing productive resources and outputs. What did not collapse was communism in Marx's class sense: it had never existed in Soviet industry. It was Soviet state capitalism that collapsed.

The experience of Marxism in the last century provides us with two major lessons for Marxism's future in the next. First, the capitalist class structure has existed in both private and state forms. That is, capitalist class structures have coexisted with private as well as state property, with markets as well as state planning and allocation. Establishing collective property and planning need not -- and in the USSR did not -- abolish capitalist exploitation or its social effects. We can extend and generalize this insight into the USSR's actual class history. Whenever and wherever capitalist class structures have come to prevail socially, they have oscillated between private and state capitalist forms. When private capitalisms have encountered serious business cycle downturns that provoked mass suffering and criticism, demands have arisen for the state to intervene: to regulate, manage, control, and sometimes even take over from private capitalists. Particular circumstances of time and place overdetermine in each instance how far and how long a swing to state capitalism will occur. Likewise, state forms of capitalism, when they encounter sufficiently serious economic and social crises, have frequently provoked calls for a solution that amounts to an oscillation toward more or less private capitalism. The USSR made the oscillation in one direction in 1917 and in the other in 1989. Other capitalist economies underwent more or less extreme variations of these same oscillations during the twentieth century as well: especially toward state capitalism in the crises of the 1930s and back toward private capitalisms in the 1980s and 1990s.

The second lesson concerns the Marxist goal of communism if now understood as fundamentally different from the state capitalism with which it has been conflated. From the standpoint of Marx's analysis of class as the organization of surplus labor, communism has a clear, stark definition. It exists if and when the workers who perform surplus labor are also themselves the collective appropriators and distributors of the fruits of that surplus labor. That is what Marx meant by the absence of exploitation. To establish communism then means fundamentally to alter the organization of surplus labor inside each enterprise: to transform the experience of work and thereby of life. That is a different goal from collectivizing property or democratizing power. For Marxists to affirm that goal for the twenty first century is to distance themselves critically -- and precisely as Marxists -- from the "communism" of the USSR and its imitators. It is also to place a genuinely new and dramatic program for radical social change on the political agenda for alliances of progressive forces in the years ahead. Finally, it also offers a chance to recapture for Marxism the utopian impulse and longing for community that can once again attract and inspire all those who believe that human society can be made to work better than capitalism.

Richard Wolff is Professor of Economics at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. He has published many articles and books on Marxism over the years. He is on the editorial board of the journal Rethinking Marxism, which he helped to start in 1988. He is also helping to organize the fourth major Rethinking Marxism conference, to be held in September, 2000 at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. The conference website provides details on how to participate. You may contact Richard by e-mail.

Copyright © 1999 by Richard D. Wolff. Drawing Mike Mosher 1999. All rights reserved.

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