The nature and deficiencies of Soviet society have been hotly debated by Marxists more or less continuously since 1917.footnote Marxist polemics over Bolshevism go back even further. It is therefore wise to begin by indicating where we think we have anything new to say. It is not at the level of facts. Our concern is rather with the theories which give such well rehearsed facts as Russia’s pre-1917 ‘backwardness’ or the decimation of the urban working class in the civil war their salience in Marxist accounts. Our specific focus is on what we call the Bolshevik problematic. We use the term ‘problematic’ to describe the usually unarticulated premises shared by a variety of otherwise opposed positions, which allow us to speak of them as identifiably ‘Marxist’, ‘Bolshevik’, or whatever, notwithstanding their differences. In talking of a specifically Bolshevik problematic we therefore intend both to point to the common ground on which we believe all major Bolshevik positions stand and to distinguish this common ground from that of Marxism as such. Two further clarifications are necessary given the overly formal way in which this concept is often used. First, we do not see the Bolshevik problematic as being simply a theoretical framework. The premises of which we speak are material practices, forms and agencies as much as ideas. These include for instance a particular kind of party before 1917—illegal, urban, its leaders mostly in exile, and particular kinds of state formation after. Such social forms are as much a part of the equipment Bolsheviks brought to bear on the problems that confronted them as their understanding and application of Marx or their analyses of Tsarism or imperialism.

Second, we do not see this problematic as being static and unchanging, and still less as tidy and consistent. It is the historical product of a century of struggle, and there are struggles and tensions, and silences and absences within it. Indeed, we will argue that Bolshevism is structured around a raging contradiction which lies at its very heart. We cannot do justice to Bolshevism’s complexity in an article of this length. But we must avoid reifying. The Bolshevik problematic is not some mysterious hidden structure that somehow realises itself in the Bolsheviks’ actions, but an analytic device we employ to impose coherence upon them. Unless both of these points are borne in mind throughout, our argument is open to a seriously idealist misreading.

Our interest in the Boshevik problematic in this article is twofold. We are primarily concerned with its influence within the ussr. But we also contend that the Bolshevik problematic has dominated most (though not all) Marxist analyses of the Soviet experience, including critical ones. This has had several unfortunate effects. Critical Marxist analyses have all too often tended to replicate Bolsheviks’ own assessments of the contexts in which they were acting, the problems they faced and the range of available remedies. Disputes within Bolshevism have attracted far more notice than the assumptions which competing positions shared. Most seriously of all, Bolshevism itself has rarely been taken as an explicit object of study within the mainstream of critical Marxist accounts of the ussr. In sum, the common ground we have called the Bolshevik problematic has remained something of a Marxist blindspot.

Critical Marxist analyses of the Soviet Union can be divided into three broad groups. (1) Classical Trotskyist views, of which Mandel is probably the best contemporary example, hold the ussr to be a deformed or degenerated workers’ state. They argue that the production relations of Soviet society remain ‘basically’ socialist, but a parasitic bureaucracy rather than the working class exercises political power and enjoys economic privilege. This ruling ‘caste’ does not constitute a ruling class. (2) State capitalist theories consider the ussr a capitalist society, albeit of a peculiar type. Control of the state, which itself controls the economy, is seen as the basis for exploitation of wage labour and accumulation of capital. Party and state bosses are regarded as forming a specifically capitalist ruling class, a ‘state-bourgeoisie’ in Bettelheim’s term. Variants of this view are held by the Socialist Workers Party (swp) in Britain, the Communist Party of China (at least until recently), and others including Martin Nicolaus and Charles Bettelheim. They frequently differ over when and how ‘state capitalism’ came into being. For Tony Cliff (swp) it was in the twenties, for the cpc sometime after 1953. (3) ‘New classtheories agree that there is a Soviet ruling class but deny that this class is a bourgeoisie or the ussr is in any way capitalist. For them the Soviet Union is neither capitalist nor socialist, but a social formation of a new and historically specific type. Some see it as progressive with regard to capitalism. Older new class theories include those of Rizzi and Schachtman, recent ones those of Djilas, Melotti and (in his latest writings on the topic) Sweezy. These theories differ as to exactly what kind of social formation the ussr is and who makes up its ruling class.

Beneath the surface heat and thunder of debates between these positions, two motifs predominate. The first—in fact an extraordinary focus for Marxist historical accounts in both its personalism and its stress on motive and intention—is the notion of ‘betrayal’. A self-interested clique or stratum, strategically located in the state and party bureaucracy, is held at some point to have ‘seized power’ and perverted the machinery of state to its own ends. This is the structure both of official communist critiques of Stalin and of Maoist critiques of Khrushchev and Brezhnev. Accusations of betrayal also occur in Trotskyist accounts, though these at least attempt to explain how such ‘betrayals’ became possible. And this is, of course, the issue. For put at its simplest, what kind of a socialist revolution is it that can be so readily betrayed by one ‘clique’ or—in the ludicrous extreme of this view—by one man? If this has occurred, then what requires explanation is surely the antecedent centralisation of power that permitted such an outcome. And for that, not a personal and motivational, but a structural and historical explanation is necessary.

The second motif is that of ‘backwardness’, often coupled with isolation. This has an ancestry going back at least to Kautsky and the Mensheviks. The crudest version of this argument assumes an inexorable path of historic development that all societies must undergo and argues that in the absence of revolution in the ‘advanced countries’, the Soviet State had no alternative but to act as a surrogate capitalist accumulator while its upper echelons developed into a ‘state-bourgeoisie’. This is in essence the swp position. Elsewhere things are stated less nakedly. Trotsky, for instance, did not explicitly endorse the inexorability argument but, nonetheless invoked Russian backwardness and isolation to account for the rise of those strata who supported Stalin. Similarly, decisive importance has sometimes been attached to the civil war decimation of the urban proletariat, although much of the force of this argument derives from the hidden assumption that the ‘backward’ peasant masses who survived could not build socialism.

‘Backwardness’ arguments are less easily dismissed than ‘betrayal’ theses, for communism does require a high level of development of the productive forces. But while economic development, broadly conceived, may well be a necessary condition for communism, it does not follow that all societies have to go through a capitalist or quasi-capitalist stage. This would follow only if capitalism were the unique set of social relations capable of stimulating such development. It is difficult to see how such an argument might be constructed in a historical materialist framework (though bourgeois economists working from their universal ‘homo economicus’ might have less trouble). We would also suggest that capitalist ‘development’ has in fact meant underdevelopment for many—in the metropolitan countries as well as in the ‘third world’—while socialism has provided ample evidence of the productive viability of alternative and more egalitarian forms of development.