Below is the translation of one chapter of the book by Claude Varlet: ‘The Critique of Bettelheim, I, The October Revolution and Class Struggles in the USSR,’ written in 1978. It is printed here as a continuation of the critique by Sunil Sen published in the September 2000 issue of Revolutionary Democracy and, in my opinion, avoids some of the weaknesses in Sen’s critique. The exposure of certain petty-bourgeois academic currents that claim to adopt a Marxist-Leninist standpoint while actually introducing alien ideological views is an important duty of Marxist-Leninists.
One of Bettelheim’s main criticisms of the Soviet Union is that it followed the economist ‘theory of the productive forces.’ Bettelheim makes no distinction of principle here between the period of socialist construction under Stalin and the period of bourgeois revisionist rule under Khrushchev and his successors. In particular he criticizes the Soviet Union from at least the 1930s on for making the development of the productive forces primary.
Varlet here criticizes both the economism of the theory of the productive forces and the idealism of Bettelheim’s critique of this theory. To add to Varlet’s critique, we should examine Stalin’s criticism of Yaroshenko in Economic Problems of Socialism in the U.S.S.R., written in 1952. Yaroshenko had put forward a rather crude version of the theory of productive forces. Stalin responded:
‘Comrade Yaroshenko’s chief error is that he forsakes the Marxist position on the question of the role of the productive forces and of the relations of production in the development of society, that he inordinately overrates the role of the productive forces, and just as inordinately underrates the role of the relations of production, and ends up by declaring that under socialism the relations of production are a component part of the productive forces.’
It should be clear that Stalin was not a proponent of the theory of productive forces, and in actuality fought against it until the end of his life.
In the same section of this work, Stalin also puts forward his views of the material bases needed for the transition to communism. However, this is a subject for a different discussion. We urge readers to examine Stalin’s work themselves.
We hope in the future to translate additional material from Varlet’s excellent book.
According to Bettelheim, economism is the essential characteristic of ‘congealed Marxism.’ It is therefore necessary to examine the criticism that Bettelheim makes of economism in order to show that, under the pretext of criticizing the theory of productive forces, our eminent theoretician has substituted historical idealism for historical materialism.
Bettelheim begins by giving an original definition of economism: ‘...the term ‘economism’ was used by Lenin to characterize critically a conception of Marxism which sought to reduce it to a mere ‘economic theory’ by means of which all social changes could be interpreted.’1
This definition is absolutely remarkable in that it does not bring out the real essence of economism, nor does it show its counter-revolutionary character. Economism, which has its concentrated statement in the theory of productive forces, does not reduce Marxism to ‘a mere economic theory,’ but presents the development of society as the exclusive, natural and spontaneous result of the development of the productive forces, and in particular of the development of the means of production. It thus crudely distorts the relations that exist between the subjective and the objective, the revolution and production, the superstructure and the economic base, the relations of production and the productive forces. This vulgar distortion of the materialist conception of history is the foundation of the cult of spontaneity. In essence, the theory of productive forces is opposed to the proletariat making the revolution: it is directed against the proletarian revolution and the dictatorship of the proletariat. This is the logical basis of all opportunism.
Let us now look at the criticism that Bettelheim makes of economism: it consists of the following points: the base and the superstructure, the material basis of the class struggle, and the role of the subjective factor in history.
Bettelheim criticises the following thesis of Stalin taken from Dialectical and Historical Materialism:
‘First the productive forces of society change and develop, and then, depending on these changes and in conformity with them, men’s relations of production, their economic relations, change.’2
Here is the criticism that Bettelheim makes:
‘The thesis thus formulated does not deny the role of the class struggle - in so far as there is a society in which antagonistic classes confront one another — but relegates this to the secondary level: the class struggle intervenes essentially in order to smash production relations that hinder the development of the productive forces, thus engendering new production relations which conform to the needs of the development of the productive forces.’3
Bettelheim is creating confusion: Stalin does not deny the role of the class struggle nor does he relegate it to the secondary level, for the good reason that, in the passage quoted, he is not examining the role of the class struggle in the transformation of the relations of production but the dialectical unity between the productive forces and the relations of production. More specifically, he is stating correctly the law discovered by Marx of the necessary correspondence between the relations of production and the productive forces - the law that was magnificently stated in the Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy.4 Stalin would be denying the role of the class struggle, or relegating it to the secondary level, if he affirmed that the highly developed productive forces automatically and spontaneously engendered a new social system, that the passage from the old to the new relations of production did not take place in a revolutionary manner by the destruction of the old relations of production and the overthrow of the ruling class that personifies them. But, on the contrary, Stalin, in Dialectical and Historical Materialism, criticizes the revisionist theory of the productive forces and shows that it is the revolution which frees the productive forces of society. More than that. Bettelheim affirms that it is ‘relegating the class struggle to the secondary level’ to consider that it ‘intervenes essentially in order to smash production relations that hinder the development of the productive forces, thus engendering new production relations which conform to the needs of the development of the productive forces.’ I would like to put certain questions to Professor Bettelheim: did the revolutionary struggle of the Third Estate not aim to destroy the feudal relations of production which were a yoke on the new productive forces and establish new, capitalist, relations of production, which better corresponded to the development of the productive forces and propelled their development? Is the proletariat, which is linked to the most modern productive forces, not struggling to smash the capitalist relations of production personified by the bourgeoisie and make the form of appropriation correspond to the social character of the productive forces? After the socialist revolution, the relations of production and the productive forces being at the same time in agreement (this is the fundamental aspect) and in contradiction, does not the proletariat struggle unrelentingly to transform the parts of the relations of production which do not correspond to the productive forces? If Bettelheim gives a negative response to these questions, it is because he denies that the class struggle is the crystallization of the contradiction between the productive forces and the relations of production and he rejects the law of the necessary correspondence between the relations of production and the productive forces. This challenge is not new because in The Transition to the Socialist Economy, he formulates: ‘The necessary law of correspondence or of non-correspondence between the relations of production and the character of the productive forces.’ Thus, either the productive forces and relations of production correspond, or they do not correspond. He thus denies that, as a general rule, the productive forces play a principal, decisive role, since they are the most revolutionary and most mobile element, and that the development and change of the relations of production sooner or later follow the development and transformation of the productive forces. This does not mean that the relations of production passively submit to the demands of the development of the productive forces, but that the relations of production rein in or spur on the development of the productive forces and, in determined conditions, play the decisive role.
In the Letter to Mao addressed to the Italian magazine Il Manifesto in 1971, Bettelheim wrote that Mao Tsetung ‘challenges a certain conception of relations between the economic base and the ideological and political superstructure. In 1968, Yves Duroux had criticized this conception, defining it as ‘the house model.’ In fact this model is nothing more than a metaphor which has permitted (and permits) one to find some objects of analysis and put them in order; in this respect it is useful. But it has no foundation or theoretical significance and when one tries to make it function theoretically, this can only have dangerous ideological consequences. One of these dangers related to the pseudo-theoretical use of this model, and of the relations of dependence and autonomy which it conjures up between the base and the superstructure, is that it presupposes the existence of a base animated by its own dynamic, which comes up against the resistance of the superstructure existing independently of the base.’
Bettelheim here distorts the dialectical materialist conception of the relations between the base and the superstructure. Under the pretext that the economic base cannot exist without the superstructure and that this latter in return acts upon the base, Bettelheim denies that in general the economic base plays the essential, decisive role, that the nature of the economic base determines that of the superstructure. It is this materialist thesis that Marx brilliantly explained in his Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy:
‘The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation on which there arises a legal and political superstructure and to which there correspond definite forms of social consciousness. [...] With the change in the economic foundation the whole immense superstructure is more slowly or more rapidly transformed.’5
Moreover, it is a deception to claim that it was Mao Tsetung who discovered that the superstructure is not a passive product of the base, that it has a relative independence and in return acts upon the base, and that, in determined conditions, it can play a decisive role on the economic base. In fact, Engels, in the last years of his life, explained how one should understand and apply the theory of historical materialism, criticising vulgar materialism and bringing out the role of the subjective factor. The letters to J. Bloch, C. Schmidt and H. Starkenburg6 correctly explain the relations between the base and superstructure and between the objective and subjective, and are an immense contribution to the development of historical materialism. Lenin also shed light on the enormous stimulating effect which the transformation of the superstructure plays in the development of the economic base of socialism. Refuting the arguments of the Menshevik N. Sukhanov who claimed that Russia was not ready for socialism, Lenin remarked that he knew absolutely nothing about the revolutionary dialectics of Marxism and declared:
‘If a definite level of culture is required for the building of socialism… why cannot we begin by first achieving the prerequisites for that definite level of culture in a revolutionary way, and then, with the aid of the workers’ and peasants’ government and the Soviet system, proceed to overtake the other nations?’7
If he had not discovered the active role which the superstructure plays,* Mao Tsetung at least helped develop Marxist-Leninist science by making an assessment of the practical experience since the October Revolution and in analyzing in detail the superstructure in socialist society and the dialectical unity which it forms with the economic base. In On the Correct Handling of Contradictions Among the People, he explains that the contradiction between the superstructure and the economic base remains in socialist society but that, by its character, it is distinguished fundamentally from the contradiction between the base and the superstructure in the old society: ‘[T]here is correspondence as well as contradiction between the superstructure and the economic base. The superstructure, comprising the state system and laws of the people’s democratic dictatorship and the socialist ideology guided by Marxism-Leninism, plays a positive role in facilitating the victory of socialist transformation and the socialist way of organizing labour; it is in correspondence with the socialist economic base, that is, with socialist relations of production. But the existence of bourgeois ideology, a certain bureaucratic style of work in our state organs and defects in some of the links in our state institutions are in contradiction with the socialist economic base.’8
* A detail stands out: in the 1930s, criticizing the dogmatism within the CPC, Mao Tsetung showed that, in general, it is the objective, practice, the productive forces, the economic base which play the principal, determining role, but that in determined conditions, the subjective, theory, the relations of production, the superstructure can play a decisive role. He also made a systematic account of the Marxist theory of the relations between objective and subjective, practice and theory, productive forces and relations of production, economic base and relations of production [‘superstructure’ is evidently meant here - translator’s note], bringing out what distinguishes historical materialism from vulgar materialism, but, I repeat, he did not discover the active role which the subjective factor and the superstructure play.
This is a very penetrating analysis which shows the necessity for the proletariat to continue the revolution in the superstructure in order to consolidate the socialist economic base.
Bettelheim analyzes the material basis of the class struggle in the following manner. ‘Because economism defines the development of the productive forces as the driving force of history, one of its chief effects is to depict the political struggle between classes as the direct and immediate result of economic contradictions. The latter are thus supposed to be able by themselves to ‘engender’ social changes and, ‘when the time is ripe, ‘revolutionary struggles. The working class thus appears to be spontaneously urged toward revolution (it is therefore not necessary to form a proletarian party).’9
In asserting that the class struggle is not the product of ‘economic contradictions,’ Bettelheim denies that the class struggle is the manifestation of the contradiction between the productive forces and the relations of production. This leads him to the necessity of maintaining that the class struggle falls from the sky. He thus takes the opposite view to the teachings of Marxism-Leninism: ‘The contradiction between social production and capitalist appropriation became manifest as the antagonism between proletariat and bourgeoisie.’10
In denying that the fundamental contradiction of capitalist society, the contradiction between the social character of production and the private character of property, is manifested, in class relations, in the contradiction between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, Bettelheim removes the whole material basis of the struggle between the two fundamental classes in bourgeois society and, at the same time, he denies that socialism is an objective historical necessity independent of man’s will. This idealist conception of history leads Bettelheim to be caught up in an absurd dilemma: either the working class is spontaneously urged toward revolution and it is then not necessary to form a proletarian party, or it is necessary to form a proletarian party and the working class is then not spontaneously urged toward revolution. An absurd dilemma, because the two contrary propositions between which the reader must choose are equally false. If the working class is not spontaneously urged toward revolution, the activity of the communists to raise the proletariat to the consciousness of its place in capitalist society, of its class interests and of its historic mission does not have an objective basis and is inevitably doomed to failure. If it is necessary to form a proletarian party able to lead all the manifestations of the class struggle of the proletariat, this is not because the working class is not spontaneously urged toward revolution, but because the working class is not in a position, by its own forces, to develop socialist ideology, scientific socialism, and that for this reason, the spontaneous working class movement inevitably tends to be subjected to bourgeois ideology. In getting caught up in this absurd dilemma, Bettelheim shows clearly that he does not understand that, by its situation, the proletariat is spontaneously urged toward revolution, without however being conscious of its situation, of its mission as grave-digger of the bourgeoisie and that its victory is inevitable. Thus, under the pretext that the proletariat cannot by itself achieve Marxist-Leninist consciousness, Bettelheim denies that the struggle of the proletariat against the bourgeoisie begins with its very existence and that this struggle is directed against the capitalist relations of production and the domination of the bourgeoisie. Just like Bernstein and all the revisionists after him, Bettelheim, in denying that the class struggle of the proletariat has its foundation in the insurmountable contradictions of capitalist society, removes all the material, objective basis to Marxist-Leninist theory of the proletarian revolution and places it on an idealist basis.
The same idealist conception of history leads Bettelheim to maintain that it is the leadership of the party of the proletariat which determines the proletarian character of the revolution:
‘From the point of view of the class content of the October Revolution and of the regime that resulted from it, what is decisive, is the leading role of the Bolshevik party.’
‘All revolutions are due to the resolute action and heroism of the masses, and in particular, when this class is present, of the working class. That was so in the case of the revolution of February 1917, in which the working classes of Petrograd, Moscow and other towns played the determining role, and yet this revolution did not lead to the establishment of proletarian rule. The October Revolution was unlike all previous revolutions, except the Paris Commune, by virtue of the fact that it was carried through under the guidance of proletarian ideas.’11
He resorts to claiming that the February Revolution did not lead to the establishment of proletarian rule because it was not ‘carried through under the guidance of proletarian ideas.’ In other words, the bourgeois or proletarian character of a revolution depends on the absence or existence of "the guidance of proletarian ideas.’ Bettelheim thus substitutes subjective idealism for Marxism-Leninism. Indeed, the character of a revolution is determined by the character of the society in which it develops, that is to say by the nature of the fundamental contradiction(s) which characterise(s) this society and which the revolution must resolve. It is the nature of the fundamental contradiction(s) which determine what are the targets, the tasks and the motive forces of the revolution. Let us look at the analysis made by Mao Tsetung of the character of the Chinese revolution:
‘Since Chinese society is colonial, semi-colonial and semi-feudal, since the principal enemies of the Chinese revolution are imperialism and feudalism, since the tasks of the revolution are to overthrow these two enemies by means of a national and democratic revolution in which the bourgeoisie sometimes takes part, and since the edge of the revolution is directed against imperialism and feudalism and not against capitalism and capitalist private property in general even if the big bourgeoisie betrays the revolution and becomes its enemy - since all this is true, the character of the Chinese revolution at the present stage is not proletarian-socialist but bourgeois-democratic.’12
If one applies that criterion stated by Bettelheim to the Chinese revolution, one must conclude that, from 1927 to 1949, the Chinese revolution, since it was led by the proletariat and its party, the CPC, was not a national-democratic but a proletarian revolution! The leading role of the proletariat and of the CPC did not at all change the character of the Chinese revolution in the period from 1927-1949. On the contrary, without the leadership of the proletariat, the anti-feudal and anti-imperialist revolution could not achieve a complete victory, crowned by the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, and the uninterrupted passage of the Chinese revolution from the democratic stage to the socialist stage would have been impossible. Bettelheim thus proves himself incapable of grasping, on the one hand, the difference in content between the democratic revolution (directed against imperialism and feudalism) and the socialist revolution (directed against capitalism), and on the other hand, the difference and the connection between a bourgeois democratic revolution led by the proletariat (such as the new democratic revolution) and the socialist revolution. Finally, let us return to the two revolutions of 1917: the February Revolution was not distinguished, from the point of view of its character, from the October Revolution, in that the first was not led by the Bolshevik party, but in that it aimed at overthrowing tsarism and the domination of the landlords, and not capitalism. In claiming that it is the leadership of the proletarian party which determines the proletarian character of a revolution, Bettelheim overestimates the role of the subjective factor which he accords an absolute value in the transformation of reality and he denies the role of objective conditions and of the real possibilities of the situation. The absolutization of the subjective factor leads Bettelheim to idealism.**
** And to adventurism in politics: on several occasions, Bettelheim advances conceptions of a Trotskyite type on the character of the revolution in the colonies and semi-colonies. For a Marxist-Leninist analysis of the relations between the objective and subjective factors in the revolution, see the article by Foto Cami: ‘The objective and subjective factors in the revolution’13 and also his report: ‘The Further Revolutionization of the Life of the Country and Some Questions of the Theory and Practice of Socialism.’14
Under the pretext of criticizing ‘congealed Marxism,’ Bettelheim abandons the positions of historical materialism in distorting the Marxist conception of the relations between the productive forces and the relations of production and between the base and the superstructure, in denying that the class struggle has its foundation in the contradictions of society, and in absolutizing the role of the subjective factor. We shall see, in the following chapters, that historical idealism and vulgar materialism*** get along well together in the analyses that Bettelheim devotes to the socialist transition and the class struggles in the USSR.
*** Bettelheim having made a systematic critical exposure of ‘congealed Marxism,’ it was necessary to subject it to an equally systematic examination; on the other hand one does not find an exposure of the theory of productive forces which is at work in the analyses that he presents: it thus seemed preferable to not separate the criticism of this theory from the criticism of Bettelheim’s analysis.
1) Bettelheim, Charles, Class Struggles in the USSR, First period: 1917-1923, Monthly Review Press, New York and London, 1976, p. 33, English edition.
2) Stalin, Joseph, Dialectical and Historical Materialism, Foreign Languages Publishing House, Moscow, 1941, p. 29.
3) Bettelheim, Charles, Class Struggles in the USSR, op. cit., p. 23, English edition.
4) Marx, Karl, Preface and Introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Foreign Languages Press, Peking, 1976, pp. 2-3, English edition.
5) Ibid., pp. 2-3.
6) Marx, Karl and Engels, Frederick, Etudes philosophiques, Ed. Sociales, 1977, pp. 236-259, French edition. Lettres sur le Capital, Correspondances Marx-Engels, Ed. Sociales, 1964, pp. 410-412, French edition.
7) Lenin, Vladimir, Collected Works, 4th English Edition, Progress Publishers, Vol. 33, Our Revolution, pp. 478-479.
8) Mao Tsetung, Selected Works, Foreign Languages Press, Peking, 1977, Vol. V, pp. 394-395, English edition.
9) Bettelheim, Charles, Class Struggles in the USSR, op. cit., pp. 33-34, English edition.
10) Engels, Frederick, Anti-Duhring, Foreign Languages Press, Peking, 1976, p. 349, English edition.
11) Bettelheim, Charles, Class Struggles in the USSR, op. cit., p. 92, English edition.
12) Mao Tsetung, Selected Works, Foreign Language Press, Peking, 1967, Vol. II, The Chinese Revolution and the Chinese Communist Party, p. 326, English edition.
13) Albania Today, 1973, no. 1.
14) In Some Questions of Socialist Construction in Albania and of the Struggle Against Revisionism, ‘Naim Frasheri’ Publishing House, Tirana, 1971.
Courtesy: ‘Critique de Bettelheim I: La Revolution d’octobre et les luttes de classes en URSS’, Nouveau Bureau d’edition, Paris, 1978. Translated from the French by George Gruenthal
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