Richard Wolff

Changes in Class Analysis - an Interview

Thierry Simonelli:
Professor Wolff, you published a book together with Professor Stephen A. Resnick entitled Class Theory and History. This is a highly original historical analysis of the economy of the Soviet Union. The new point of view you elaborate in your book is based on a shift in the classical concept of surplus value and class theory. Before we get to the main issue, I would like to briefly discuss those two shifts.

With Marx, the concept of surplus value derives from the more general concept of value: value is conceived of as abstract, reified work. Thus, Marx could disclose the capitalist acquisition of surplus value as acquisition of surplus labor and, finally, as exploitation. Your concept of surplus value privileges the aspect of “social organization”. Why this change of perspective?

Richard Wolff: Marx developed a labor theory of value and introduced it in the opening chapters of Capital because prices, commodities, and markets were then thought to be the essential core issues in economics. Marx did not agree. But to get readers interested in the economic aspects of capitalism, his book began with prices and commodities and markets. But his goal was to move elsewhere quickly. He took his readers into the capitalist production process to show them how workers generated a surplus there. He explained how that surplus was taken from the workers who produced by others (capitalist exploitation). He traced what capitalists did with the surplus to show how this organization of the production, appropriation, and distribution of the surplus shaped capitalist society, in particular its enduring inequality, injustice, and inefficiency.
My point is that the labor theory of value and the theory of the surplus were useful entry points into and thus components of the critical social analysis Marx championed. The overwhelming bulk of Marx’s chief work, Capital, focuses on the surplus and how its capitalist organization sustains the problems of capitalist society that its critics have yet to overcome.
However, non-Marxist economists remained obsessed by prices, commodities, and market (as in the currently dominant neoclassical economics which says nothing about the surplus). Thus, many Marxist economists have felt obliged likewise to stress the labor theory of value as the distinctively Marxist approach to commodity exchange. The resulting vast Marxist literature on value is interesting, but it downplays or ignores the larger socio-economic analysis to which the labor theory of value was an introductory pathway. Our approach aims to correct this imbalance. Our focus returns to the social analysis of Marx’s larger project by foregrounding the way capitalist societies organize the production, appropriation, and distribution of the surplus. Matters of value theory and surplus value theory resume their original place as introductory frameworks within which to pursue the main tasks.

TS: Your analysis of the Soviet Union is also based on what you call a “nondeterministic” class conception that throws a new light on communism. How do communism and class structure hold together?

RW: The word “communism” has usually referred to an entire society or social system. However, Marx’s analysis focused on something significantly narrower, namely the class structure of production: the who and how of surplus production, appropriation and distribution. I don’t read Marx as a determinist, as asserting that the class structure of production determines everything else about society. That would a crude and mechanical sort of base/ superstructure approach.
Instead, the non-deterministic analysis separates the communist nature of a class structure from the larger society within which it may occur. Thus, for example, a society can (and usually does) include multiple, different class structures. A nondeterministic Marxian analysis always asks the following question about any society chosen for analysis: what are the different class structures existing within it, how do they interact, and how does their interaction influence the larger society (its economic, political, and cultural processes). As societies, the USSR and China exhibit multiple class structures with distinctive contradictions within them in within their inter-relationships. Our new book on the USSR focuses precisely on where and why capitalist class structures survived and grew across the history of Soviet industry. It also examines the multiple class structures (including the communist) that variously coexisted across the history of Soviet agriculture. The book rejects any determinism that reduces these societies’ social complexity to one class structure by labels like “socialism” or “communism.”
Another way to specify what a nondeterministic approach entails is this: any class structure of production is as much determined by the non-class aspects of society as vice-versa. Indeed, one uniqueness of the Marxian approach is to stress this interaction in which every effect is a cause and vice-versa (dialectics). Class structures, whatever their particular nature, always depend on their economic, political, and cultural context while they also shape that context. Endless change and mutual transformation characterize the relationship. This open-ended dialectic dissolves if a deterministic linkage is presumed or asserted between class structures on the one hand and all the non-class aspects of a social totality on the other.

TS: Your book gives a quite detailed analysis of the economical organization and class structure of the U.S.S.R. from the twenties to the end of the eighties. If you had to sum up the most important discoveries you made with the help of your surplus and class concepts, what would they be?

RW : Our book’s unique discoveries about Soviet history emerge from our understanding and use of the term class to analyze that history. Others have analyzed the USSR (and socialism and communism generally) in terms of property and power (that is how they define class), not in terms of surplus, as we do. The distribution of property and power did change as result of the 1917 revolution in the USSR (and similar revolutions elsewhere since), but the social organization of the industrial surplus did not.
After 1917, Soviet state officials replaced private individuals in appropriating the surplus (profits) generated by industrial workers, and the Communist Party took political power away from the czar, nobility, Russian Orthodox Church and wealthy capitalists who had dominated Russian politics before. The USSR thus differed from pre-1917 Russia precisely in terms of altered distributions of industrial property and political power. However, the Marxist tradition, as we read and use it, focuses on something other than property and power; it focuses on the social organization of the surplus. Our book thus asks and answers these parallel questions: how did the Soviet revolution of 1917 change the organization of the surplus? And how did Soviet socialism/communism differ from capitalism?
Our research argues that the 1917 revolution replaced a private capitalism with a state capitalism and a pre-revolutionary Czarist power structure with a Soviet Communist Party power structure. These were historically significant changes, but they were NOT changes in the social organization of the industrial surplus. That is, before and after 1917 the class structure of industry remained capitalist. Before and after, the workers produced a surplus (the excess of the value added by their labor over the wages paid to them) that others appropriated. Before 1917 those others were a private board of directors, while after 1917 they were commissars or industrial ministers. State capitalism replaced private capitalism. Communism, as Marx made clear, refers to a different organization of the surplus where the workers who collectively produce the surplus are identical to the collective that appropriates and distributes this surplus. This communist organization of the surplus was never established in Soviet industry. It remained state capitalist to the end of the USSR.
The 1917 revolution may have aimed at communism, but it never progressed beyond state capitalism. Lenin recognized this and made several speeches and comments about “Soviet state capitalism.” He hoped that the workers’ political power over the Soviet state would guarantee that state capitalism would pass into communism as the organization of each industrial enterprise’s surplus was transformed. However, that never happened. While state capitalism remained in Soviet industry, Stalin stopped calling it state capitalism. Instead, he simply insisted that what existed in Soviet industry was socialism-in-transition-to-communism. Stalin renamed state capitalism as socialism/communism. Industry owned by the state (rather than private persons), state central planning rather than markets, and dominant political power over the state by the workers’ vanguard party became the definitions of communism. Defenders of the USSR celebrated its “communism” in these terms. Ironically, critics of the USSR, Stalin, Stalinism, socialism, and communism mostly also adopted Stalin’s definition (without knowing or admitting it): they praised capitalism as a system defined by private ownership of industry, markets, parliamentary politics, and so on.
Our book concludes that the great confrontation of the twentieth century was between private and state capitalism, not between capitalism and communism. When either kind of capitalism encountered a crisis of the sort that regularly occur (the capitalist business cycle), it was often necessary to pass over into the other kind. The Russian crisis of 1917 provoked a change to state capitalism from private capitalism. When Soviet state capitalism hit a comparable crisis in the 1980s, the result was a shift back to a private capitalism. Likewise when the Great Depression plunged many private capitalisms (US European, etc.) into grave crises, they shifted to state capitalism (or heavily state regulated private capitalism) depending on local conditions. In the last twenty years, as state-capitalisms and state-regulated capitalisms encountered their capitalist crises, the shift has been back to more private capitalism (the movement often called “neo-liberalism”).
A final summary conclusion follows: what collapsed in the USSR in 1989 was not communism because that had never been established in Soviet industry. All that happened was yet another oscillation between state and private capitalism (similar to many oscillations in both directions that characterize all capitalisms). Thus, the communist alternative to capitalism remains to be tried. It will likely return to the agenda of revolutionary movements once they recognize that switching between private and state capitalisms has never yet overcome the inequality and injustice that haunt and destabilize both kinds of capitalism.

XHTML 1.0 Transitional