The Marxists were supposedly engaged in a quite different undertaking – not the creation of a national bourgeoisie to withstand the impact of the advanced concentrations of capital, but the destruction of the bourgeoisie in the countries controlling the advanced concentrations of capital; not the tasks of national capital accumulation and the socialization of the labour force, but the creation of an international planned economy, founded upon the abolition of the wages system; not national liberation but the dissolution of the national State.
In Tsarist Russia, the two contradictory tasks, the national bourgeois revolution and the international proletarian revolution, coincided. By European standards, Tsarist Russia was backward, its working class small, and its private industry dominated by foreign interests. The material conditions permitted only a bourgeois revolution. Yet Russia’s bourgeoisie was far too weak to undertake the task. According to the Bolsheviks, the only class which could overthrow the Tsar was the working class, provided the historic allies of the bourgeoisie, the peasantry, simultaneously seized the land and so destroyed the material basis of the aristocracy, the social foundation of Tsarism. The Workers would in due course be ousted from power by a new alliance of the propertied, the land-owning peasants and the capitalists – unless Russia’s bourgeois revolution proved the signal for the European proletarian revolution. Then the beleaguered Russian proletariat would receive the political and material help of advanced societies to placate the Russsian peasantry and ensure the survival of the workers’ State.
The Bolsheviks were not at all concerned with the “national liberation” of Russia. On the contrary, they identified this as the demand of the petty bourgeoisie, the “revolutionary chauvinists”. For the Bolsheviks, the aim was the dissolution of the Russian State in an “international Soviet Republic”. The new international workers’ party, the Communist International, declared that it would “fight by all available means, including armed struggle, for the overthrow of the international bourgeoisie and for the creation of an international Soviet Republic as a transitional stage to the complete abolition of the State”. Thus, the growing contradiction between the political structure of the world, a set of competing national States, and the unified international economic structure, embodied in the domination of Tsarist Russia by foreign capital, would be resolved by creating an international Republic.
The perspective failed. There was no German revolution, and the movements in other countries, substantial though they were, did not approach even the German level. There were massive defeats for the European working classes. As a result, the Bolsheviks entered a quite new situation. Two mutually exclusive sets of tasks faced them:
In the years following Lenin’s death, the leadership evaded a choice between fulfilling the tasks of a Russian national bourgeoisie or those of a world working class; or rather, the effect of the faction fight within the leadership and the temporary necessities of surviving in power prevented any clear choice. The régime stumbled between domestic needs of great urgency – for grain, for the rehabilitation and expansion of industry, for modern armed forces – and demands from abroad, for help in Germany, Bulgaria, China and Britain.
It was the peculiar historical task of Stalin and his followers to end the stalemate, to transmit the imperatives of national survival, imposed on Russia by the world economy, into the Communist party and the Soviet State. They were pushed – by the external threat of war and the internal threat of a catastrophic fall in the grain supply – into a choice, and they chose with increasing determination to transform backward Russia so that it was equipped to compete with, rather than overturn through revolution, the advanced concentrations of capital of the world economy. It was impossible to postpone the choice indefinitely. If Russia did not industrialize, the régime would sooner or later lose its basis of power and be overthrown through some combination of internal revolt and external threat. What of the other set of tasks? The prospects in Germany as the Nazis moved to power opened up again the possibility of revolution, but only if the Communists had been prepared, contrary to the tactics of the “Third Period”, to collaborate with the Social Democrats. In France, the potential independent force that was smothered in the Popular Front was another basis for breaking Russia’s isolation. In Spain, the civil war need not have been lost if Stalin had not been so obsessed with driving Britain and France into the arms of Nazi Germany. But by then, these were empty hypotheses; history now seemed to have a “necessary” character that flattened out all choice; the “necessity” was in fact no more than the subordination of the world movement to the tasks of Russia’s industrialization.
The party and its politics were not at all appropriate to the tasks the leadership chose. Its ranks of hardened cadres had fought, not to build “national socialism”, but to win a world. The old cadres had to be purged, and a new mass membership inducted. Waves of new recruits flowed into the party in the 1920s to tilt the balance. The leadership of 1920 was transformed by 1930, and that of 1930 had been decimated by 1939. By 1939, only 1.3 per cent of the members dated their membership from 1917, and 8.3 per cent from 1920. At the 18th Congress (1939) seventy per cent of the membership had joined since 1929.
The politics of the party had also to be transformed, its concepts rendered opaque and confusing, a confusion through which only the party leadership could be relied upon to guide the members. Now “democratic centralism” was not a method of unifying one tendency in the working-class movement, but the principle of an authoritarian State. Now the “dictatorship of the proletariat” meant not the Russian working class holding power, but the Communist party exercising a monopoly. Now the “class struggle” became, not a conflict between workers and capitalists, but the collision of different national orders, the Russian and the American. Now “building socialism” meant “the accumulation of capital”, emancipation “submission to the Russian State”.
Stalin’s success in mobilizing the Russian State for accumulation demonstrated that the new Communist party represented neither workers nor peasants, since these two classes were the primary victims of rising rates of exploitation. The party “represented” no class. On the contrary, it endeavoured to constitute itself as a class, whose material basis lay in its collective control of the means of production through its mastery of the State. In the history of industrial societies it was a novel phenomenon (although not new in relationship to many pre-industrial societies) that the hierarchy of a party should become a class, that its individual members should have no right of ownership over the means of production, no juridical right of inheritance (although its children in fact inherited power), no right to profit. The originality of the Russian solution to the problem of national independence was impelled by the decay of the world capitalist class; there was now no private capitalist solution to the problem of national backwardness.
Ironically, the Soviet Union carried to an extreme degree the trends of advanced capitalism, the statification of the economy, the militarization of society. In institutional terms, the Russian State leapt to a “more advanced” stage than that achieved by the advanced concentrations of capital themselves, the creation of a gigantic national conglomerate under one board of directors, the Russian government. The Soviet Union could accomplish its innovation to this degree only because it had, in 1917, swept away all the old social forces of the past phase of Russian national development, the forces which, in the advanced countries, held back the drift to State capitalism.
Could the Soviet Union have accomplished the accumulation of capital while maintaining the advance to popular emancipation? This is clearly an absurd proposition. The accumulation of capital in conditions of national backwardness imposes a division of labour independently of the wishes of the participants, the more so, the more urgent the need to accumulate – in Russia’s case, in order to “catch up” with its foreign rivals. October 1917 was not premature for the agenda of world working-class revolution, for the working classes already formed a majority of the population in the advanced countries; but it was premature for backward Russia in isolation. Regardless of the aspirations of the new State, its behaviour would be shaped by the historically appropriate task – accumulation. Marx describes just such a process: “If the proletariat destroys the political rule of the bourgeoisie, that will only be a temporary victory, only an element in the service of the bourgeois revolution itself, as in 1794, so long as in the course of history, in its ‘movement’, the material conditions are not yet created which make necessary the abolition of the bourgeois mode of production ... Men do not build themselves a new world out of the fruits of the earth, as vulgar superstition believes, but out of the historical accomplishments of their declining civilization. They must, in the course of their development, begin by themselves producing the material conditions of a new society, and no effort of mind or will can free them from this destiny.” 
For more than a generation, the most advanced sections of the working class in the advanced countries were tied politically to the needs of accumulation in the Soviet Union, unwilling to recognize that the new Russian ruling class in no way embodied the aspirations of 1917. It was the authority of the October revolution, the ambition of world working-class power, which sanctioned Stalin’s betrayal of that ambition. It permitted the Russian State to bend each workers’ movement it controlled to the needs of its foreign policy, to the territorial defence of the Soviet Union as a national power. Invariably that meant Russia stressed the weakness of the workers’ movement, its incapacity to rely on its own independent power, its need therefore to depend on the local bourgeoisie. At every crisis, the Soviet Union compelled its supporters to collaborate with the local ruling class against what Russia saw as its main enemy. Whether it was the United Front in China in 1927, the Popular Front in France in 1935 and during the civil war in Spain, the Popular Unity in Chile, the “historic compromise” with Christian Democracy in Italy today, or the absurd call of the British Communist party in 1945 for a coalition government with the Conservative party , the working-class movement was persistently sacrificed to the defence of that “bulwark of socialism”, the Soviet Union.
The consistency of the record betrayed a strategic political position. Many years before, Rosa Luxemburg had confronted the same argument as Stalin’s in the writings of Bernstein. She concluded that the argument that the working class was too weak to take power was, in reality, “nothing more than a general opposition to the aspirations of the proletariat to possess itself of State power”.  The general opposition flowed from the particular opposition of the Russian State to working-class power in Russia and to the conditions of “instability” that jeopardized its own existence.
None of this was of any significance to those struggling for national independence in the mass of backward countries. They were impressed rather more by the heroic repudiation of the control of the advanced Centres of capital. Russia was anti-imperialist because it was dedicated to achieving equality with the leading centres. It was anti-capitalist because – to undertake accumulation – it utilized the State, not private businessmen with their manifold links with foreign capital. It was, at least according to propaganda, as rationally planned as the small firm was supposed to be in the early phases of accumulation. It seemed to have imposed a pattern of austere equality on Russia, eliminating the sordid extravagance of monopoly capital, ending the waste and duplication of the search for private profit. In the 1930s when the whole advanced bloc was smitten by a crisis some saw as fatal, Russia seemed be the only embodiment of the pristine virtues of capitalism – discipline, order, energy and drive. Above all it was successful; it transformed Russia from a backward peasant society, from the muzhik world, to an advanced industrial power that could lob missiles into space and challenge the imperialists of the world, all within a quarter of a century.
The fact that the price of this remarkable progress was the barbarous exploitation of the Russian working class did not trouble ruling classes, actual or potential. It was the “model” of a “new civilization”, an “experiment” in Utopian social organization: the dogmas of planning exercised fascination over those who aspired to form new independent ruling classes. For many of those struggling for independence, it was the discipline of a mass party, the instruments of dictatorship, and Stalin’s version of “democratic centralism”, that excited admiration. Socialism became not a society of collective self-emancipation but a “model of economic development”.
The irony would have struck Marx forcefully – that the institutions of proletarian emancipation were converted by material backwardness into the mechanisms of intensified proletarian exploitation. The State which Marx and Lenin identified as the primary instrument of class rule had become supposedly the very essence of classlessness.
However, the abstract lessons of Soviet development are of no value in tackling national accumulation – and so securing national independence – unless there are social forces available and willing to implement the programme. Marxists had argued that in the final analysis only two classes dominated modern capitalism, workers and employers. The private capitalists in backward countries would not collectively undertake a process, no matter how much it was objectively required, which involved their own liquidation. Workers similarly would have no interest in creating a system for their own increased exploitation. There was thus apparently no force with sufficient autonomy to identify the needs of national survival and carry them out in the face of the opposition of the existing classes.
The four classes identified by the Communist party and the Comintern in Kuomintang China did not exhaust the class spectrum. Indeed, by Marx’s broad criteria, there were only three – capitalists, workers and “petite bourgeoisie”. For Marx, “petite bourgeoisie” covered a vast heterogeneous group – peasant small-holders and their landless dependants, shopkeepers, independent artisans, small businessmen in the cities, small-town merchants and capitalists. They had in common only an interest in the defence of small property or, in the case of the landless, an aspiration to own small property. It was a social position which stimulated an equal hostility to the large property owners and the demands of the concentrated propertyless, the working class. It was, for Marx, a doomed class. As capitalism developed, big business, through the logic of the market, would expropriate urban and rural small owners, driving the majority into the ranks of the proletariat. Nonetheless, before that occurred, political alternatives would be presented by this class, ones essentially reactionary – opposition to advanced capitalism and in defence of pre-capitalist, or at least early-capitalist, society.
Because the petite bourgeoisie was opposed to the growth of capitalism in the interests of its own survival, it could come to champion a number of demands of workers. This was particularly true in the approach to a bourgeois revolution. It was in this light that Marx warned workers in Germany, still at that time a backward country, to draw a sharp line between their class interests and those of the “democratic petite bourgeoisie”. Since what he had to say is of much relevance to our theme, his words are quoted at some length:
As far as the workers are concerned, it remains certain above all that [after the revolution] they are to remain wage workers as before; the democratic petty bourgeoisie only desire better wages and a secure existence for the workers and hope to achieve this through partial employment by the State and through charity measures, in short, they hope to bribe the workers by more or less concealed alms and to break their revolutionary force by making their position tolerable for the moment ...
While the democratic petty bourgeoisie wish to bring the revolution to a conclusion as quickly as possible and with the achievement of most of the above demands, it is our interest and our task to make the revolution permanent, until all more or less possessing classes have been displaced from domination, until the proletariat has conquered State power, and the association of proletarians, not only in one country but in all the dominant countries of the world, has advanced so far that competition among the proletarians of these countries has ceased and that at least the decisive productive forces are concentrated in the hands of the proletarians ...
At the present moment, when the democratic petty bourgeoisie are everywhere oppressed, they preach, in general, unity and reconciliation to the proletariat; they offer their hand and strive for the establishment of a large opposition party which will embrace all shades of opinion in the Democratic Party, i.e. they strive to involve the workers in a party organization in which general Social Democratic phrases predominate behind which their special interests are concealed and in which the particular demands of the proletariat may not be brought forward for the sake of beloved peace. Such a union would turn out solely to their benefit and altogether to the disadvantage of the proletariat ...
As soon as the victory has been decided, [the democratic petty bourgeoisie will] take possession of it for themselves, call upon the workers to maintain tranquillity and return to their work, guard against so-called excesses and exclude the proletariat from the fruits of victory ... 
The passage has an uncanny relevance to the ascent to power of the Chinese Communist party, even down to its opposition to “excesses”. But it is not applicable directly since, for Marx, the “democratic petty bourgeoisie” remained wedded to private property, even if they might make temporary concessions on the question of State ownership to induce worker support with the offer of public employment. The Chinese Communists were not at all wedded to the private ownership of the means of production.
The growth of large-scale concentrations of capital and of the State accompanied the attrition of the small owners of capital, and it was this that created the potential for a new social stratum. In the absence of workers’ control, large-scale production and control produces bureaucracy, the layered hierarchy of managerial supervision, public or private. Furthermore, the maintenance of labour productivity at very high and rising levels required the creation of vast new sectors of “white collar” employment – teachers, health and medical workers, technical and research staff. In the twentieth century, this stratum of employment has grown much more rapidly than manual occupations. In the period since the Second World War, most industrial countries have witnessed a relative decline in the proportion of the workforce in the strongholds of the old labour movement. The solitary master clerk with a handful of writers in the medium-sized business of a century ago has swollen into vast “mass-production” clerical grades, symbolized in the tower blocks of central ministries and giant companies.
By its work, this new stratum is often collectively organized in large-scale units, unlike the petite bourgeoisie of the nineteenth century. Above all, it is propertyless; it has no more realistic opportunity to own part of the means of production than the manual working class. Objectively, it has nothing to sell but its labour power, although in some cases it has greater access to the control of part of the means of production. Objectively, such a stratum is part of the working class, but whether its members subjectively feel this depends upon the existence of a clear-cut working class alternative. Without that alternative, such a stratum is ambivalent, drawn towards, not private ownership, but the control of the means of production, an expansion in the role of the State, in its own employment and promotion. There is no difficulty in it being anti-capitalist, hostile to private ownership, but, on its own, it adopts the frontiers of the existing State as its own; it is nationalist.
Late Tsarist Russia represents a transitional phase between the nineteenth-century picture and the present. On the one hand, there was a majority “petty bourgeoisie” of the type Marx would have recognized – rural small-holders, merchants etc. On the other, the massive Tsarist bureaucracy represented a force far more powerful than anything comparable in Germany sixty years earlier. Before the revolution, the Bolsheviks had no need to distinguish the two. Together, they represented a force liable to pull the party towards compromise with national power and capitalism. Lenin identified the contradictory quality of the old petty bourgeoisie with characteristic ruthlessness: “The petty bourgeoisie, i.e. the vast mass of the barely awakened population of Russia, is groping blindly in the wake of the bourgeoisie, a captive to nationalist prejudices on the one hand, prodded into the revolution by the unparalleled horror and misery of war, the high cost of living, impoverishment, ruin and starvation, but on the other, glancing backward at every step towards the idea of the defence of the fatherland, towards the idea of Russia’s state integrity, or towards the idea of small peasant prosperity to be achieved through a victory over Tsarism and over Germany, but without a victory over capitalism.” 
Indeed, he identified the accommodation of the party leadership to the Provisional Government in the spring of 1917 as an accommodation to the interests of the petty bourgeoisie.
The failure of the revolution abroad, the destruction of the Russian working class in the civil war, and finally the urgent need for industrialization and rearmament in the late 1920s were the basis of Stalin’s transformation. The State was mobilized for accumulation, the needs of which impelled those who commanded the State, the bureaucratic petty bourgeoisie, to liquidate small rural property. The historical clash which filled the minds of the Left, between the nationalist private capitalists and the internationalist workers, was refracted into a much narrower contest, between the small property owners (the “NEPmen” and kulaks) and the bureaucratic stratum, between small capitalism and State capitalism.
Sustained industrialization appeared to validate the change. In Asia, the appeals of Communism attracted the same stratum, the propertyless middle class. The struggle to establish an independent State, to exclude foreigners from the competition for jobs in the civil service, loomed larger than talk of the small working classes emancipating the majority. Indeed, in its finished form, Stalinism was the most coherent expression of the most radical elements of the propertyless urban middle classes.
Stalinism could only secure a popular following in peculiar circumstances. First, it required that the working class proper present no political alternative; the transformation of the Comintern ensured that. Second, that the private employers, dominated by the giant concentrations of capital abroad, did not provide an alternative nationalist political focus (in general, private capitalism was far too weak to do this). Third, that the old petty bourgeoisie, the small property owners, were too weak or disunited to offer an alternative. In the majority of cases, the bureaucratic middle class could not mobilize sufficient independent power to establish its own unchallenged leadership. It was obliged to make concessions to entrenched interests, land, capital and small business, to prevent revolution. Thus it mortgaged its future power.
India provides an example of this loose coalition. Congress combined the interests of the old petite bourgeoisie, symbolized by the pre-eminent position of Gandhi. But it also gained support from Indian capitalists and landlords. Alongside these forces, the Congress Socialist party and, outside Congress, the Communist party competed to embody the interests of the bureaucratic middle class. The role of Pandit Nehru was to balance these competing forces, apparently in rhetoric leaning towards the bureaucratic class, but in behaviour never deviating from the central line laid down by Gandhi. From the 1930s, the debate in Congress was on the surface between “socialism” and “capitalism”, but in practice it was between the majority segment of the petite bourgeoisie and the bureaucratic minority. 
Egypt provides a different case. There was no lack of government bureaucracy there; the overwhelming majority of educated Egyptians were employed by the State, and some forty-six per cent of government expenditure was allocated to salaries before Nasser came to power. The drive to “emancipate the State” and thereby expel and keep at bay foreign powers (primarily the British) which had historically frustrated all domestic attempts to sustain accumulation, came from within the bureaucracy itself and, in particular, from its military section. Nasser was able to accomplish considerable changes in ownership, to go some way to creating a statified economy, before the combined effects of the war with Israel and the contracting world opportunities for accumulation closed in on the Egyptian economy.
Neither India nor Egypt escaped the logic of backwardness. The new State capitalists developed as much a taste for high consumption as the private capitalists had, absorbing an increasing part of the surplus through corruption. They were compelled in conditions of relative stagnation to reach a new accommodation with both the old entrenched classes at home and the dominant foreign powers abroad. They had no instrument of power, extending throughout the society, obedient to the imperatives of accumulation; Congress was tied by the existing social structure; military power in Egypt remained the prerogative of the old officer corps. Neither could raise the question of self-emancipation and create a popular force. The workers, lacking any class alternative, traded their political loyalty for “alms” as Marx described it, measures of labour legislation and welfare for the minority of workers in large plants.
How does this discussion relate to China? The “switching of the points” of history from the aspirations of 1917 to those of 1789 (as reshaped by capitalism in the twentieth century) afflicted the Communist party at just the moment when it found itself leading a genuine working-class movement, between 1925 and 1927. There was no time to make a smooth adjustment. The contradiction between the interests of the new Russian ruling class and those of the Chinese working class wrecked the party, uprooting it from the traditions of the October revolution. It was re-created, slowly and painfully, but only in isolation from the class it claimed to be leading. The task of the partisans would have been insupportable if they had been encumbered with the interests of an urban working-class movement. The partisans were no more rooted in the peasants of the localities in which they operated, although they were dependent upon them for food supplies and manpower. The party was independent of the entrenched classes of China, the embodiment of a future national ruling class appropriate to the demands of national survival today. The experience of the Soviet Union in the 1930s illustrated that, if the Chinese Communists could only secure power, they could create an independent State. But it was a very long process, a “protracted struggle”, because the party insisted upon its independence, insisted on not leading the independent initiative of the exploited of China lest that jeopardize its own party freedom. Indeed, without the Japanese invasion, there is no certainty that it would have come to power at all.
From the mid-1930s the leadership of the party oriented itself on the interests of the “majority”, what Mao called the “middle class”. His attitude to it is in striking contrast to that of Marx to the “democratic petite bourgeoisie” in Germany or that of Lenin to the Russian petite bourgeoisie: “Chinese society is a society with two small heads and a large body; the proletariat and the big landlords and capitalists are minorities; and the broadest group is the middle class. If the policy of any political party does not look after the interests of the middle class, if the middle class does not gain its proper place ... affairs cannot be well-managed.”  The party was oriented in this direction, but not subordinated. On the contrary, the orientation secured that it did not compromise its independence.
Once in power, the party showed its ability to eliminate its erstwhile allies, the landlords, “patriotic gentry” and capitalists, and to limit the activities of small property owners. Its main task – to accelerate accumulation – was triumphantly accomplished in the early years.
But China was more backward than Russia, and needed more time for development. It was not possible to eliminate the small property owners without jeopardizing the security of the State. Each acceleration in the pace of accumulation prompted counteraction from both workers and peasants. The régime went into reverse, permitting the reappearance of the “rich peasant” economy, the old unregenerate small-holder. Indeed, in the rural areas the boundary between party and rich peasants tended to disappear. Then the party leadership, in alarm at the disintegration of its power, was compelled to purge or at least chastise the rural cadres, to try to reopen the gap between the bureaucratic and small propertied middle classes.
Throughout the shifts and zigzags of policy as the régime tried to propel China towards industrialization, none of the factions of the party challenged the need for rapid accumulation. The so-called “Left” was distinguished by being ruthlessly devoted to accumulation, to the highest possible rate of exploitation. So far as Chinese workers were concerned, none of the factions raised the question of the “abolition of the wages system”, except as rhetorical play, much as Stalin promised one day “the withering away of the State”.
Could this be seen as, in reality, “building socialism”? Only by ignoring the material reality, and seeing only the ideology.
If Marxism is valid, if human thought is the product of material circumstances, Mao Tse-tung thought could not but reflect the material necessities of China, rather than independently reshaping China. It is claimed that Mao Tse-tung thought is no more than a contingent adjustment to Chinese circumstances, a “Sinification of Marxism”. Yet if this is so, the materialist determination of thought must be false. The next chapter examines this question.
8. Die moralisierende Kritik und die kritisierende Moral, Deutsch-Brüsseler Zeitung, 28 October-2 November 1847, in Karl Marx. Selected Writings in Sociology and Social Philosophy, edited by I.B. Bottomore and Maximilien Rubel, London, 1963, pp.244-5. Stress in original.
9. The Daily Worker was calling, in April 1945, for the Labour Party to “form a National Government, inviting others, including Tories like Churchill and Eden, to participate”; no doubt they had in mind Stalin’s wish to exploit the peasant’s old nag of Chiang Kai-shek – cf. above, Chapter 2 (5).
10. Social Reform or Revolution?, 1900, translated and published by the Young Socialists, Colombo, 1966, p.56; Luxemburg’s stress.
11. Address of the Central Council to the Communist League, 1850, in SW II, pp.161-8.
12. CW 21, p.380; Lenin’s stress.
13. Examined in my India: A first approximation, II, International Socialism 18, Autumn 1964; cf. also India-China, op. cit., Part I.
14. 22 December 1941, Address to the Shensi-Kansu-Ninghsia Border Region Assembly, in Mao’s China: Party Reform Documents, op. cit., pp.247-8.
Last updated on 26.1.2002