In the preface to Les Luttes de Classes en URSS 1917–1923, Charles Bettelheim notes that he has been studying the ussr for some forty years; and that until some time after the Twentieth Party Congress of 1956, he saw no reason, as he puts it, why the ussr should not pursue what he had always believed to be its progress towards socialism and communism, notwithstanding the ‘difficulties and contradictions’ on the way. footnote1 Indeed, he thought that the Twentieth Party Congress itself showed that the cpsu had the capacity to engage in the self-criticism which the rectification of ‘mistakes’ required. He has since then changed his mind; but it is worth stressing how thorough the change has been. For he now believes that the ussr is a capitalist country of a particular kind (though not all that particular, e.g. ‘it is the laws of capitalist accumulation, therefore of profit, which determine the use of the means of production’ footnote2); and that this ‘state capitalist’ country is ruled by a ‘state bourgeoisie’ whose purpose is domination at home and imperialism abroad. He does not, however, suggest that this is the result of some dramatic counter-revolutionary change which has occurred in the last twenty-odd years, but rather that it marks the extreme accentuation of certain tendencies which were already present at the very inception of the Russian Revolution. He therefore intends to provide us with a series of volumes, of which this is the first, which will chronicle and explain this historical process.

Of course, the view that developments in the ussr following the first years of the Revolution were the logical or inevitable result of early tendencies is not at all new: in one form or another, it has been the underlying theme of much if not most writing on the subject, particularly from sources hostile to the Bolsheviks and for whom Stalinism, with all its horrors, was the ‘inevitable’ outcome of Leninism, or even of Marxism. Bettelheim for his part writes from the opposite end of the spectrum, from what may be described as a Chinese or Maoist perspective. The categories which he uses are also and specifically those which the Chinese Communist leaders use to depict the Soviet Union today. Bettelheim makes it quite clear that his present views on the ussr and its evolution over time were largely formed under the influence of Chinese experience, or what he reads that experience to be. His enterprise is in effect the most ambitious and comprehensive ‘Western’ attempt to apply Maoist categories to an elucidation of Soviet history—in the present volume to an elucidation of the first years of Soviet experience. This indeed is the main interest of the book, since it contributes nothing new to the actual history of these years, and is in fact extremely perfunctory about that history. It is as an essay in one kind of socialist theory and interpretation that the book must be judged; and I might as well say at the outset that, as such, it strikes me as a very bad piece of work. But this too is not without its interest. For Bettelheim is a respected socialist writer; and the fact that his book has so many crippling weaknesses may tell us something about the categories he uses, which have come to enjoy fairly wide currency. Moreover, the issues involved are of considerable contemporary importance, and their discussion by Bettelheim therefore needs careful attention.

Bettelheim starts from the now familiar proposition that the cardinal error of the working-class movement, from the days of the Second International right through the history of the Third, and pervading the whole Soviet experience, was ‘economism’. The term has come to be used in an exceedingly loose and arbitrary way, but it is interpreted by Bettelheim to mean three different things: firstly, the belief that public ownership of the means of production is synonymous with, or at least necessarily followed by, the socialist transformation of the relations of production. Secondly, there is the (related) belief in the ‘primacy’ of the development of the productive forces, in other words the assumption that socialist relations of production depend on, or must be preceded by, the achievement of a certain level of development of the productive forces. The third error of economism, in this version of it, is the belief that, with the abolition of private ownership and the disappearance of capitalists, the power apparatuses, and notably the state, altogether change their character and come to reflect or even incarnate the dictatorship of the proletariat.

In asserting that these are grave deformations of Marxism, Bettelheim is obviously right. In fact, the point may be taken more generally: taken literally, economism is a form of historical and sociological reductionism which dooms to failure any explanation or project which rests upon it. Nevertheless, two qualifications need to be entered in regard to Bettelheim’s presentation of the issue. For one thing, it is very doubtful if the economistic deformation of Marxism was ever quite as crude and extreme as he makes out, even where it came to be most prevalent, namely in the stance adopted, largely for manipulative purposes, by the Third International under Stalinist direction or compulsion. Economism should not be turned into a catch-all explanation for phenomena which require deeper probing than the denunciation of it allows. In regard to the working-class movement before Stalinism, the economistic deformation, though real, can easily be exaggerated. The second and more important point is that the denunciation of economism, in the Bettelheim version of it, can easily turn into a very serious under-estimation of the weight of economic factors (which are, of course, never purely ‘economic’, whatever that could mean). One obvious result of this under-estimation is the obverse of economism, which has sometimes been called voluntarism.

In the present context, this under-estimation proceeds from an overoptimistic reading of Chinese experience. Thus, Bettelheim claims that ‘the example of China shows that it is not necessary (and indeed that it is dangerous) to want to construct “first” the material bases of a socialist society and to put off until later the transformation of the social relations which would then be made to correspond with the higher productive forces’. footnote3 But it is not true that the Chinese example ‘shows’ anything as conclusive as Bettelheim suggests. What it shows is that the margin of innovation is much larger than Stalinist dogma prescribed; and that much more, in different fields, is possible under highly unfavourable economic conditions than a crudely economistic perspective would indicate. But the Chinese themselves, to their credit, have been rather less prone than many of their worshippers to under-estimate let alone ignore the weight of ‘economic’ factors—as indeed how could they, in a country still dominated by pervasive under-development? Bettelheim himself is well aware of the meaning of under-development; and he therefore tries to integrate it into his framework by saying that the development of the productive forces and the socialist transformation of the relations of production must be seen as ‘joint tasks’. This, he says, is what the Chinese Communist Party expresses in the formula ‘Make the revolution and promote production’. footnote4 But such formulations and slogans do not resolve the theoretical, not to speak of the practical, problems which a low level of productive forces presents for the creation of a socialist society, as distinct from the rhetorical proclamation that such a society has been created, or is well on the way to being created, here, there or wherever. Bettelheim regretfully notes that Marx and Lenin were not always and altogether free from what he considers to be economistic thinking. But it is not economism, in the sense in which he means it, to see the level of productive development as a major limiting factor. Economism means fixing the limits so narrowly as to exclude the possibility of socialist innovation; and it has an even more definite meaning in so far as it denotes a belief that a high level of productive forces under collective ownership necessarily and automatically produces socialist relations of production. Beyond these meanings, ‘economism’ is a healthy corrective to incantation and triumphalism, though it would not be called economism.