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Tony Cliff interview ten years after the wall came down

This article is over 24 years, 5 months old
Many commentators claimed the collapse of the Stalinist regimes was the end of socialism. Tony Cliff, a founding member of the Socialist Workers Party, argued 52 years ago that the successful workers' revolution in Russia was smashed by a rising burea
Issue 1671
Tony Cliff
Tony Cliff

When a person dies, the autopsy reveals the nature of their illness. The collapse of the Stalinist regimes in Russia and Eastern Europe makes it possible to be absolutely clear about the nature of those regimes. There was no resistance to the collapse from the mass of people. They didn’t defend the system. That shows they didn’t believe the regimes had anything to do with socialism or workers’ power.

There was almost no resistance from the rulers either. If the system had been changing fundamentally, the rulers would have defended their privileges. The fact is that the same people who used to be the ruling bureaucrats are now managing the same factories they used to run, but now as private companies. That is why the shift could take place with no real resistance. If the rulers thought they were moving to a completely different society then there would have been resistance. Before the collapse, 42 years before it, I came to the conclusion that Russia was a state capitalist society.

I looked at the economy and asked, what did Stalin achieve? In 1929 he said that in ten years time he would accomplish the industrial revolution. You should remember that in 1928 Russian industrial production was less than that of little Belgium. Twenty years later Russia was the second biggest industrial power in Europe. How did they achieve it?

You have to look not at what Stalin said, but what he did. The position of Russia at the end of the 1920s and 1930s when Stalin’s regime fully established itself was like someone trapped in a fight with a mad dog.

In any fight there has to be a symmetry between the fighters. If I kill the dog the symmetry is broken and the situation resolved. If the dog kills me it is broken too and the situation resolved, but less happily for me.

But what happens if you live for years in the same room with a mad dog, and you can’t kill him and he can’t kill you? Before long you wouldn’t know who was the mad dog. We’d look exactly the same! When it comes to Russia facing Nazi Germany building a massive military machine they responded by doing the same.

You can’t accumulate the capital needed to do that by an act of will. Someone once argued that capitalist accumulation was the result of abstinence. Marx said, yes, but you should finish the sentence. Capitalist accumulation is the result of abstinence imposed on the majority by a minority. In Britain’s industrialisation it wasn’t true that people said, alright, let’s tighten our belts to build industry, then another notch to build railways, another notch to build the army.

No. The minority controlled the belt of the majority and the minority tightened it, one notch for industry, one for railways, one for the army – and one more for themselves because they control the bloody belt! In Russia the rulers accumulated capital, built a military machine and did it in the same way Britain did, but in the most cruel way possible because they did it more quickly and were late comers.

In Britain it took 100 years full of sweat and blood and appalling conditions for the working class. It took just 20 years in Russia. It took three centuries in Britain to remove the peasants from the land. In Russia it took three years under Stalin. Britain was helped by the slave trade. The walls of Bristol, Liverpool and the City of London are covered with the blood of slavery. In Russia they had the gulag.

That is basically what the theory of state capitalism is about. The events of ten years ago confirmed it. Unlike those on the left who thought Russia was socialist in some way, we were not demoralised by the collapse of the Stalinist regime. For us there is no socialism independent of working class action. Socialism cannot be delivered from above. You can have capitalism with or without democracy. But socialism, because it is about collective control by workers, cannot exist without democracy. Democracy is the heart of the thing.

Tony Cliff’s book State Capitalism in Russia is available from Bookmarks, £9.95. To order your copy phone 0171 637 1848.

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