State monopoly capitalism and twentieth century socialism

As people  may notice, I spend quite a bit of time debating with other socialists in the comments sections over on the Socialist Unity blog. These ahem, er ‘insights’ (or rants) often become quite lengthy, but are soon lost in the general hubbub.

So I might start the habit of repeating them here, make a little collection!

This one was sparked of by a discussion of of Tony Cliff’s theory of ‘State Capitalism’. Here I argue that ‘state capitalism’ does not just describe features of  Stalin’s Soviet Union, but also describes a general logic imposed on all economies by the whole imperialist stage of capitalism, a world system of state monoploly capitalism, or ‘organised capitalism’. This shaped the twentieth century ‘socialist imaginary’ .

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Those opposing the theory of state capitalism here ask how come the collapse of the USSR and its satellites had such a dramatically negative effect on the world workers and socialist movements, if the USSR was only state capitalist?

Obviously one factor was ideological: Even if its an illusion that these states were socialist – if the world workers movements subscribed to that illusion, then it will have material effects.

But I think there is another powerful factor at work here, that needs a long view of the twentieth century to apprehend:

Early in the 20th century Bolshevik theorists such as Bukharin and Lenin had identified a general trend towards ’state monopoly capitalism’. The tendency towards the concentration of capital had lead to monopoly on a national scale and therefore to the the transfer of competition to the international scale – i.e.the imperialist stage of capitalism.

Across all capitalist societies therefore, the state began to adopt the task of coordinating national capital for this international competition – and not just economic but increasingly military competition like WW1.

Marx had also pointed to the contradiction between the increasingly collective forces of production versus their private control and appropriation. As capitalism moved into its monopoly stage, its productive forces became ever more collective or interconnected, thus intensifying this contradiction. Thus the capitalist state began to step in to attempt to manage this contradiction – by adopting the role of collective, or state capitalist.

Imperialist, or state monopoly capitalism began to nationalise failing industries, – or even take command of all essential industries for the total wars of the twentieth century. The imperialist capitalist state also began to step up its ‘biopolitical’ task of organising the supply of a healthy and educated workforce, through beginning to establish a welfare state. Recent academic sociologists have called this the phase of ‘organised capitalism’.

Thus capitalism, being a world system, began to impose this logic on all parts of the world economy. Therefore by the mid twentieth century we saw nationally organised state capitalisms in different political forms from Roosevelt’s USA to Hitler’s Germany, to Churchill and Atlee’s Britain, to Nasser’s Egypt, to Apartheid South Africa – and Stalin’s USSR. Such national autarchism also became the model for national liberation movements attempting to build centres of accumulation independent from imperialism. Of course all these have their national specificities and differences, with different ways of organising and disciplining the working class. But they were also all being shaped by the overarching structure of the world system of imperialism, or state monopoly capitalism.

As we know, mainstream twentieth century social democracy saw the state as class neutral and able to take over industry and provide welfare in the interests of the ‘nation’. They saw this as ’socialism’. Therefore, during this heyday of state monopoly capitalism, as it reached its Zenith in the mid twentieth century, social democrats and reformist socialists could imagine that ‘history’ was moving in their direction, towards a state socialism. Victory would come gradually but inevitably. This was the dominant idea which animated twentieth century socialism.

But this state monoploy capitalist model went into crisis in the late 1960’s, as a result of its successful global spread. The period of turmoil between 1968 and 1973 opened up many different possible futures. But capitalism prevailed, and began to chart a new course. This was the emergence of globalising neoliberalism. The state-capitalist model was being abandoned by ruling classes everywhere, as Pinochet’s Chile, Thatcher’s Britain and Reagan’s USA lead the way. The USSR under Gorbachev would soon follow this global trend.

In the 1950’s the USSR had been one of the most advanced parts of the world system – a fact symbolised by its world leading space science and exploration programme. In the mid twentieth century period of nationally organised and state lead economies – it formed the most fully developed example of a successful global model. But as capitalism shifted towards globalising neoliberalism, this model began to falter and fail.

Furthermore, in the mid-twentieth century period of state monopoly capitalism the forces of nationally organised workers movements had found it easier to extract concessions from capitalism organised on a national scale. Thus it was also disorientated and weakened by the shift  the new neoliberal global models. This weakening was not just organisational but ideological. Suddenly the direction of history no longer seemed to be flowing in the direction of socialism, and the battle became harder. History and time no longer seemed our ally. Thatcher instead could imagine she was now riding the overall tide of history.

What Cliff unhelpfully dubbed the ‘downturn’ was in fact this global restructuring of the class struggle. But we can reconstitute ourselves as a global class with a global politics, and move forward once again.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “State monopoly capitalism and twentieth century socialism

  1. I largely agree with your analysis, but this caught my eye:

    “Marx had also pointed to the contradiction between the increasingly collective forces of production versus their private control and appropriation. As capitalism moved into its monopoly stage, its productive forces became ever more collective or interconnected, thus intensifying this contradiction. Thus the capitalist state began to step in to attempt to manage this contradiction – by adopting the role of collective, or state capitalist.”

    Why is this a contradiction? It would be if this were the case: “The forces of production are increasingly collective and they aren’t” –, or: “Control and appropriation
    are private, and they aren’t.”

    Comrades use this word (i.e., “contradiction”) without much thought, it seems.

  2. Editor

    The difference between socialism and capitalism? Under socialism, banks are first nationalized and then go bankrupt. In the capitalist system it appears to work the other way around.

    Read more on Crunchreport.com.

  3. Editor, you have an odd idea of Marxist socilism, which, as I am sure the owner of this blog will agree, has not been tried out anywhere on this planet yet (not even in the former USSR or in China). So, how you know this:

    “The difference between socialism and capitalism? Under socialism, banks are first nationalized and then go bankrupt. In the capitalist system it appears to work the other way around.”

    is something of a mystery.

    Are you psychic?

  4. barrykade

    Just to point out that ‘Editor’ is not really the editor of this blog, but appears to be some random anti-socialist troll…

    Re Rosa Lichenstein – I’m still thinking through whether there can be a genuinely Marxist and historical materialist dialectic, or if this is an unfortunate shadow that Hegelian idealism casts over our thinking. Back to you on this later….

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