The Basic Contradiction in Socialist Society (Part Two) — Dimitris Kaltsonis

[This is the second in a series of two posts by Dimitris Kaltsonis. The first post is available here.]

Bureaucracy and bourgeois class

The autonomy of the administrators does not render them bourgeois. The leading bureaucratic stratum should not be identified with the bourgeois class, and a socioeconomic system of this period should not be identified with capitalism.[1] None of the fundamental characteristics of capitalist society, as they were analyzed in Das Capital, existed in the former Soviet Union, for example.

There was no private ownership of the means of production. Labor power was not a commodity, it was not bought by the capitalists. There was absolutely no unemployment, which is an important element for the buying and selling of labor power. Various enterprises did not compete against each other, but they were under a national plan (although there were internal contradictions). Anarchy was not a feature of soviet economics. Τhe enterprises did not aim to derive surplus. The financial system was not characterized by periodical crises of overaccumulation and overproduction. There was no tendency of relative or absolute impoverishment.[2]

The leading bureaucratic stratum did not own the means of production, not even collectively. It might have gained more from the social product than what it should gain according to its labor, but this is not the same as the mechanism of deriving surplus value. The material benefits of bureaucracy were definitely a violation of the socialist concept of distribution “to each one according to his/her labor” but they were not surplus value neither could they turn such benefits into capital. There was no tendency to increase labor exploitation. There was no constant influx of new technologies and fixed capital, nor intensification of labor. On the contrary, what characterized these countries during the latter period was the difficulty in embodying new technologies in production, and low labor productivity.[3]

Under certain circumstances, the administrative bureaucratic stratum is able to become a class as such. This observation was confirmed in the former Soviet Union, in China and all the former socialist countries, except Cuba. The new bourgeois class that was established after the regime overthrows, consists, at least in part, of the former administrative stratum. However, two important factors were necessary for this: firstly, the absolute deconstruction of the socialist state, and secondly, the privatization of the basic means of production. Those requirements were fulfilled from 1989-1991 onwards. Today’s capitalists in those countries do not spring mainly from the descendants of former owners whose private property was expropriated during the revolution, but from this particular stratum.[4]

The nature of bureaucracy in socialism

A full understanding of bureaucracy’s precise nature in socialism is extremely important  to understand the development of the former USSR and other socialist countries. It also explains many contradictions of internal and external policy. Bureaucracy was like a cancerous tumor. It developed mutually and aggressively over the organism of the socialist state, by spreading over, weakening and modifying it.

The bigger the distance between bureaucracy and the working class, the greater the negative effects and the alteration, making it more difficult to fix the mistakes. This distance grew as the society moved away from the revolution of 1917 (this stands for the other countries as well), and thus the memories, the status and the alertness of the working class and of the people weakened, while the political and material privileges and the corrupted bureaucracy grew up. Therefore, bureaucracy in the Soviet Union during the 1930s did not have the characteristics of the 1980s. The former did not lead to capitalist restoration, while the latter did. The former passionately defended socialism (in spite of its inherent errors and problems), while the latter transformed into a bourgeois class.

This particular distance started to broaden, depending on the particular historical conditions, specifications, traditions etc., as the other contradictions affected the basic contradiction. Thus, extreme phenomena that had to do with bureaucratic distortions can be explained, such as the governance of Enver Hoxha in Albania, of Nicolae Ceaușescu in Romania or Kim Jong-un in North Korea. However, as it happened in the case of Eastern Europe, the administrative bureaucratic stratum led the restoration of capitalism and became a bourgeois class.

This distance was the material basis that contributed to the consolidation of negative and fallacious (from the point of view of Marxism and the interests of the working class) views and practices. It encouraged decisions not by the people themselves, but on behalf of the people. This was a kind of paternalism. Thus, even decisions in favor of the people’s interests were undermined in the long run, because people did not participate actively. At the same time, the administrators developed a gradual indifference for people’s lives.

That consequently promoted the negation of democratic practices and criticism, since bureaucracy sought to immunise itself from them. Criticism was considered as anti-revolutionary and often led to hard, oppressive measures. This explains the roughness of the internal party disputes and purges. In countries with no established bureaucracy, such as Cuba, internal party conflicts did not end in purges or, even worse, physical extermination. Fidel Castro, for example, blamed Stalin’s ruling for “a policy of endless persecutions and all kinds of power misuse in the USSR”, which led to “uncountable strategic errors in the political field, and in the military sector as well.[5]

 The establishment of the bureaucratic stratum paved the way for administrative methods of enforcement instead of persuasion. This led to the lack of trust in the people, underestimation of spontaneity and overvaluation of the conscious. This establishment of bureaucracy led not only to the consolidation of bourgeois and petit-bourgeois political standards, such as leadership, the enhanced role of the leader against collectivity, but even to the cult of personality.

The negation of democracy meant that important decisions were made without democratic debate among the people, or, sometimes, among the party and state leaders. For instance, the decision to send soviet troops to Afghanistan was never discussed in the Supreme Soviet, nor among the government, nor the Politburo Committee of the CPSU.[6] Likewise, the Great Leap Forward in China did not have the authorization of the government, or of the highest levels of China’s CP.[7] Indicative of the aversion of democratic procedures is the fact that the voting for the nomination of political mentors within the ruling Polish Unified Labor Party was open until 1981.[8] The same was true for the CPSU during the 30s. It is obvious that under such circumstances the electoral procedure was under the control of the leadership.

The bureaucratization of the leadership often gave rise to wrong decisions of nationalistic nature in foreign policy, since the need for broader self-protection of the socialist state was overestimated, and the need for the growing of the revolutionary movement was underestimated. From this point of view, a typical example is the initial reluctance of the USSR to support the revolutionary movement in Angola.[9] A more extreme example is China, especially the triggering of military conflict with the Soviet Union in 1969[10] and later with Vietnam.[11]

At the level of ideology, the establishment of bureaucracy distorted the Marxist-Leninist theory, implementing elements of dogmatism, verbalism and aestheticization of situations in order to justify itself, instead of scientifically analyzing the constantly changing reality.

A view of social harmony was put forward. A soviet manual in 1954 claimed that “the main particularity of aforementioned conflicts in soviet society has to do with the fact that they do not constitute actual contradictions between the productive forces and the relations of production. Such kinds of contradictions simply do not exist in the USSR”[12]. Another variation suggested that the adaptation of relations of production was automatic, while the concept of relations of production was detached from the concept of people’s participation and deepening of democracy.[13] The only contradictions that were accepted were the ones deriving from the remnants of capitalism in economy or ideology, and most certainly the contradiction with the international bourgeois class.

From a historical perspective, as the bureaucratic stratum came close to becoming a bourgeois class, it integrated social-democratic elements into its ideology. During the restoration, almost all those parties turned into social-democratic ones.

The basic contradiction and the lesser ones

Therefore, this basic contradiction, which under certain circumstances tends to be antagonistic, colors and directs all other contradictions of socialist society. For instance, the autonomy of the leading state bureaucracy may exacerbate the contradiction between industrial and rural economy, when with its decisions, which are not authorized by the people, it tries to solve the problems. This is the case, even if its solutions are objectively right, but the people are not convinced of their validity.

The basic contradiction, to the extent that it is not in a process of being resolved, counteracts with the productive forces, thus delaying their growth. Therefore, it has historically been observed that the initial liberation of productive forces which took place after the revolution, was restricted soon after.

This was mostly evident in the main productive force, labor. Productivity of labor, interest in labor, is the driving force of socialist economy. While at first there was a massive increase of labor productivity, later on, indifference for labor prevailed. This was due to the fact that the workers felt all the more alienated from the political and economic decisions[14].

There was an attempt to address these problems (the workers’ lack of interest in labor, excessive centralization of planning without real democratic debate – thus unrealistic and inefficient) by expanding commodity relations in the 60s (Kosygin’s reformation).[15] That is to say, a tool that caused other problems was used, instead of turning back to the main tool, that could revive the workers’ interest but it would also affect the political privileges of bureaucracy: the restitution of revolutionary democracy and essential democratic participation in political and economic decision making.

Vice versa, the basic contradiction may escalate due to other contradictions. For instance, the fact that the revolution prevailed in a country with low development of productive forces, and high percentage of small-property ownership, feudal remnants, low educational and cultural level, all these led to the autonomy of the administrators and made it difficult for people to be interested in administering      their own matters. Therefore, all these prevent the resolving of the main contradiction.

The resolving of the basic contradiction, entailed in a socialist society, is also decisively affected by the basic contradiction that characterizes capitalist society as such. That is to say, it is affected by the contradiction between working and bourgeois class, in three ways: First of all, in the form of the contradiction between bourgeois and socialist states. Secondly, in the form of the contradiction between the bourgeois and working classes within capitalist countries. Thirdly, in the form of capitalist leftovers (in economy, politics, ideology, culture etc.) within socialist countries. As a result, we must see the basic internal contradiction of socialist countries (administrators-administrated), the basic external contradiction (bourgeois-working class), and their mutual interaction.

The basic internal contradiction (as well as the basic external one) reflects and affects the political, ideological, legal and cultural superstructure. Respectively, political, ideological, legal and cultural relations –since they have a relative self-sufficiency- interact with the basic contradiction. They may affect its final resolution one way or another.

However, an approach that attributes the resolution of the basic contradiction to one or another factor, would be incomplete, if it overestimated the importance of political etc. decisions. To be precise, such an analysis would tend to idealism and the negation of the basic principles of dialectical and historical materialism.

For instance, it is important to evaluate the politics of the CPSU under the leadership of Stalin, Khrushchev, Kosygin, Brezhnev, Gorbachev, etc. That is to say, to examine the way in which they contributed to the resolution of the basic contradiction and to what direction. More important, however, is to interpret their policies in the light of the basic contradiction (and the lesser contradictions as well).

Those views according to which ‘all decisions were fundamentally correct then’, or vice versa, cannot explain why, before or after this period, everything was wrong or the opposite. These views look at the surface, the political or ideological superstructure. They are unable to perceive the progress of the society based on the basic contradictions. We have to use a materialistic approach, in order to explain the reason why specific decisions were made and certain political tendencies prevailed instead of others.

According to some views, the leadership of the CPSU took a social-democratic turn, because of the bourgeois leftovers and the ideological influence of imperialism, that is the international bourgeois class. Such views are only partly true. They see one side of the truth, some of the existing contradictions, but they close their eyes to the basic internal contradiction. Therefore, they fail to explain, in a convincing and comprehensive way, why those deviations finally prevailed.

Such an interpretation cannot explain why socialist Cuba endured almost half a century, in total seclusion and without other socialist countries nearby. Why didn’t the determining bourgeois and international imperialism leftovers affect Cuba? The answer lies obviously in the fact that this influence did not prevail because bureaucracy did not detach itself from the people, up to a point, because the basic internal contradiction tended to be rightly resolved.[16] As long as this specific feature exists, socialist Cuba will be able to continue its course.

The bourgeois class of imperialist countries and the leftovers of the bourgeois class within the Soviet Union and other socialist countries would not have been able to overturn the revolutionary procedures, if they were not based on bureaucratic detachment and corruption of the administrators.

The procedure of resolving the basic contradiction

The road to resolving the basic contradiction goes necessarily through the continuous, persistent and strenuous effort of preserving and deepening revolutionary democracy. It goes through the continuous control of the administrators by the workers and the people, and the ongoing effort to raise the educational, cultural and political level of the working class, their scientific knowledge, so that people’s participation and control become more essential day by day. This means conscious interference for a more and more effective implementation of the revolutionary democratic values: eligibility, revocability, interchange, monitoring, abolition of privileges, normal working salary for the state officials. This attempt cannot be straightforward. It is influenced by other, internal or international, contradictions.

To the extent that this procedure moves forward, one could say that the relations of production move forward as well, one step at a time, stage by stage, from formal socialization to an essential one. This positive progress shall affect in turn the productive forces and mainly the productivity of labor by developing them further. The further development of the productive forces and social wealth shall form the material basis (as a possibility, not as an automatic realization), so that the socialization and participation of the working class can move deeper, into a continuous spiral development. The positive progress towards the resolving of the contradiction between the administrators and the administrated has also a beneficial influence on the resolving or overcoming of fundamental contradictions.

In this procedure of preserving and deepening democracy, the role of the revolutionary party is crucial. The latter can and should become the driving force. The deepening of revolutionary democracy cannot be based only on spontaneity.

However, objectively speaking, as a ruling party, it is a part of the basic contradiction, and it is possible (as proved by historical experience, in the Soviet Union and elsewhere) to become part of the problem. Therefore, it is crucial to preserve the revolutionary and democratic character of the party, subjecting it to people’s control and self-regulation via the implementation of the revolutionary democratic values of the Paris Commune: eligibility of party leaders, revocability, interchange, control by the members, ordinary wages for government officials, no material privileges. Only on this basis can the party retain its ideology, its relation with the working class and its revolutionary role.

In conclusion, it is necessary to recognize the dangers entailed in the detachment of the administrative stratum and in the bureaucratic corruption, so as to revive the revolutionary effort in the 21st century. This by no means degrades the importance of the social achievements by the people in the Soviet Union (and other socialist countries), nor their great contribution to the victory against fascism and to world peace during the last half of the 20th century.

Dimitris Kaltsonis is Associate Professor of State and Legal Theory at Panteion University of Social and Political Sciences

[1] Eu. Bitsakis, A specter is haunting Europe [Greek Edition, Athens, εκδ. Στάχυ, 1992], pp. 196-197 and Τ. Cliff, State Capitalism in Russia, [Greek Edition, Αthens, εκδ. Μαρξιστικό Βιβλιοπωλείο, 2005] , pp. 151 ff. and D. Kaltsonis, Estado y democracia en el siglo XXI, Madrid, Munoz Moya Editores, 2018, pp. 97 ff.

[2] Ε. Mandel, Τhe contradictions in the theory of “State Capitalism”, [Greek Edition, Αthens, εκδ. Πρωτοποριακή βιβλιοθήκη, 1984], pp. 27 ff. and Ν.V. Yakushev, “The Theory of State Capitalism in USSR” [Greek Edition, Κομμουνιστική Επιθεώρηση, v. 6/2002],

[3]  E. Che Guevara, Apuntes criticos a la Economia Politica, Ocean Press, La Habana- Melbourne, 2006, p. 9 ff.

[4]  In China the same phenomenon was observed after the shift of the economy of the market that was evident in the revision of the Constitution in 1993, see M.-C. Bergère, Capitalismes et capitalistes en Chine, Paris, Perrin, 2007, p. 258-259, 299-300, 303, 305-306, 309 and J.P. Cabestan, Le système politique chinois, Paris, Sciences Po/Les presses, 2014, p. 432 ff., 465.

[5] Ι. Ramonet, One Hundred Hours with Fidel, [Greek edition, Athens, εκδ. Πατάκη, 2007], p. 68.

[6] See many examples of the antidemocratic operation of the leadership of the CP OF USSR in Yegor Kuzmich Ligatsev, The Gorbacev Riddle, [Greek Edition, Athens, εκδ. Σύγχρονη Εποχή, 1994].

[7] It was a violation of the decisions of the 8th Conference of CP of China. See USSR Academy of Sciences, Criticism of the theoretical terms of Maoism, [Greek Edition, Athens, εκδ. Πλανήτης, χ.χρ.], p. 61, 118.

[8] Ν. Κotzias, Polland and Us,[Greek Edition, Athens, εκδ. Σύγχρονη Εποχή, 1981], p. 38.

[9] F. Castro, Cuba and Africa [Greek Edition, Athens, εκδ. Διεθνές Bήμα, 2006].

[10] L. Μaitan, Party, Army and Masses in China, [Greek Edition, Athens, εκδ. Eργατική Πάλη, 2012], p. 262.

[11] Μ. Young, Vietnam Wars 1945-1990, [Greek Edition, Athens, εκδ. Οδυσσέας, 2008], p. 407.

[12] Institute of USSR Philosophical Academy of Sciences, Dialectical Materialism, [Greek Edition, Athens, εκδ. Γνώσεις, 1954], pp. 224 ff., 230.

[13] See also USSR Academy of Sciences, Political Economy, [Greek Edition, Athens, Πολιτικές και λογοτεχνικές εκδόσεις, 1961], pp. 510-511.

[14] L. Corvalàn, El derrumbe del poder sovietico, Santiago de Chile, Editorial Los Andes, 1993, p. 69.

[15] J.L. Rodriguez, “La desaparicion de la URSS 25 anos despues: Algunas reflexiones”, I-VI, Cubadebate, 2016,, and Β. Logatsev, “The debate between the tendencies on soviet political economy as a reflection of the contradictions of soviet economy” and Ν. Cagolov, “The trade-financial relations in the system of the planned and organized socialist production”, in the volume October Revolution and our age, [Greek Edition, Athens, εκδ. ΚΨΜ, 2017], p. 195 ff. and 227 ff.

[16] A. Silva Leon, Breve historia de la revolucion Cubana, La Habana, editorial de ciencias sociales, 2003, p. 65 f., 68 and R. Alarcón, “La democracia cubana no se agota en la representación formal, sino que incorpora mecanismos y formas de la democracia directa”, Rebelión, 6/12/2003, και J.C. Guanche, Estado, participación y representación politicas en Cuba: diseño institucional y práctica politica tras la reforma constitucional de 1992, Buenos Aires, CLASCO, 2011 (in english J.C. Guanche, “Citizen participation in the Cuban state”, Socialism and Democracy, 30:1, pp. 72 ff.) and U. Aquino, Or. Cruz, J.C. Guanche, R. Hernandez, “Veinte anos: la reforma constitucional (1992-2002)”, Temas, n. 81-82, 2015, p. 111 ff. and D. Ralfus Pineda, “El sistema electoral cubano: de la representación formal a la participación real”, Temas, n. 78, 2014, p. 64 ff. and E. Duharte, “Updating the Cuban political model: For a systemic and democratic-participatory transformation”, Socialism and Democracy, 30:1, p. 35 ff. and D. Ralfus Pineda, “Cuba’s electoral system and the dilemmas of the twenty-first century: Between the liberal-democratic tradition and true participation”, Socialism and Democracy, 30:1, p. 91 ff. and D. Kaltsonis, “The future of people’s power in Cuba”, [Greek Edition, περ. Ουτοπία, τ. 123, 2018], p. 43 ff.