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Class Theory and History: Capitalism and Communism in the USSR

Author(s):Resnick, Stephen A.
Wolff, Richard D.
Reviewer(s):Harrison, Mark

Published by EH.NET (January 2003)

Stephen A. Resnick and Richard D. Wolff, Class Theory and History:

Capitalism and Communism in the USSR. New York and London: Routledge, 2002.

xix + 353 pp. $85 (hardback), ISBN: 0-415-93317-X; $24.95 (paperback), ISBN:

0-415-93318-8.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Mark Harrison, Department of Economics, University of

Warwick.

This book has twin objectives. Parts I and II (“Communism” and “State

Capitalism”) lay out the authors’ theory of political economy and social

relations. Part III, which is more than half the book in length, then applies

the framework to “The Rise and Fall of the USSR.”

The book offers three main outcomes. First, at the core of Resnick and Wolff’s

understanding of what drives any society are the mechanisms and channels by

which it appropriates and distributes the surplus product. This, they argue,

follows the Marxian tradition. From here, they criticize a number of

alternative existing approaches, some that claim to be Marxian and some that do

not. The alternatives, they believe, place too much emphasis on the

distribution of power and not enough on the distribution of resources. The

problem that they find with starting from the distribution of power is that you

can’t pin it down empirically; when you look closely at the facts power turns

out always to be diffused through society. Instead, they prefer to try to pin

down how the surplus product is appropriated and distributed.

Second, Resnick and Wolff categorize various mechanisms for appropriating and

distributing the surplus product; most important from the point of view of the

book are “ancient,” feudal, capitalist, socialist, and communist mechanisms.

They use this framework to classify various kinds of institutions that existed

in Russia and the Soviet Union before 1917, during the 1920s, the 1930s, the

postwar period, and after the Soviet collapse.

Third, while properly impressed by the sheer variety and intermingling of

institutions of different kinds in all their phases of development, the authors

conclude that the dominant mode of production in Russia and the Soviet Union

throughout the twentieth century was capitalist: plain capitalist before 1917

and after 1991, and state-capitalist in between. Thus while political power

certainly changed hands during the Bolshevik Revolution and when the Soviet

Union fell, one way and then another, the basic mode of production did not

change and so less changed in an underlying sense than might appear at first

sight.

Does Soviet history truly bear out the authors’ theory? I must say yes, but in

a sense for which they may not thank me: in my view the theory is trivial. The

authors correctly wish to avoid the traps of determinism, and specifically

those of the economic kind. Many Marxists of earlier generations based

deterministic predictions on economic trends of one kind or another that

eventually came to nought. Instead of determinism Resnick and Wolff offer the

Althusserian concept of “overdetermination”: “all aspects of society condition

and shape one another” (p. 9). The result is that anything can lead to

anything, or not, as the case may be (p. 78). Consequently no predictions are

possible since anything or nothing can happen. A theory that is consistent with

anything happening clearly cannot be refuted from history; in Resnick and

Wolff’s hands the purpose of historical analysis is only to illustrate the

theory, not to subject it to any potentially damaging test.

Thus the book contains many statements that look substantial at first sight and

then seem to dissolve into word play. For example the authors state that the

“history of Russia was shaped, in part, by the specific and ever-changing class

positions occupied and negotiated by its people” (p. 146). Does “in part” mean

a lot or a little? Why doesn’t history shape class as well as class shaping

history? Is the influence of class on history greater than the influence of

history on class? How can we tell, and what difference does it make?

The authors’ criticism of power-based analysis seems to me to be somewhat lazy.

They view political power as a quicksilver that is always everywhere at once in

society, and therefore nowhere in particular. On Russia before the revolution

they write approvingly (p. 162) of the idea that “the czarist state was less

controlling than controlled by Russian society.” On the 1930s (p. 119) they

criticize the idea that Stalin held a “monopoly on power” or brought about a

“revolution from above”; here they refer to the recent “revisionist” historical

literature that shows how there was also a “revolution ‘from below’ in the

precise sense of all sorts of powers wielded by diverse groups of workers,

intellectuals, planners, managers, and others — powers with which Stalin had

to contend and compromise.” In a trivial sense this must be true: political

power is never unlimited. But in a narrower sense it is simply false. While

Stalin generally took decisions rationally, that is to say, taking into account

the opinions and information provided by others, the research of R.W. Davies,

Oleg Khlevniuk, and others has shown clearly that from 1932 onwards Stalin

ceased to have to persuade or compromise with others to reach a decision and

his decisions, once issued, were never challenged. While the political power of

Stalin’s successors was less untrammeled, general secretaries after Stalin

continued to retain extraordinary personal prerogatives, for example, over the

allocation of resources to the “military-industrial complex.”

Perhaps Resnick and Wolff have a fair point in the following sense: some kinds

of power matter more than others, and what they would like us to focus on is

the power to appropriate and distribute resources. The Soviet surplus product

was produced in state enterprises, but where exactly was it appropriated and

distributed? Their answer (p. 166) is that this happened in Vesenkha, the

“Supreme Council of National Economy,” established in 1923 to administer state

industry and “soon reorganised as the Council of Ministers.” Its leaders were

the “first receivers and distributors of the surpluses produced by industrial

laborers” and “functioned similarly to a centralized board of directors of a

private capitalist industrial combine.” There is a factual error: Vesenkha was

a ministry and its successor organization was not the Council of People’s

Commissars (from 1946 Ministers) which had existed from the first days of the

October Revolution, but separate ministries of heavy and light industry and

logging established in 1932. Setting that aside, the authors are still wrong:

the most important decisions about the Soviet surplus product, those that fixed

the annual budgets for investment and defense, were always taken at the very

vertex of the system by the general secretary in the Politburo with no more

than a handful of senior Politburo. Moreover this was no “board of directors”

that, in the worst run of capitalist enterprises, must ultimately account for

its decisions to the shareholders, the markets, or the courts.

The evidence base of the work is remarkable for its breadth, yet still

deficient. I will give two examples. First, Resnick and Wolff claim that the

burdens of taxation on “the desperately poor mass of individuals” had Tsarist

society on the edge of revolt, and this resulted in a growing reliance on

deficit finance in the “last decades” (pp. 160-61). I know of no serious

historical support for the former claim and the latter is plain wrong. From the

1880s onwards, if we exclude the years of the war with Japan, which was

financed by borrowing on orthodox tax-smoothing grounds, the reliance of the

state budget on loans declined steadily. Similarly in relation to the 1920s

Resnick and Wolff suggest that adverse terms of trade on the rural-urban market

deprived farmers of “sufficient revenues to secure their conditions of

existence,” an absurd exaggeration and misunderstanding of the true state of

affairs.

Second, Resnick and Wolff devote major efforts to trying to track changes in

the “appropriation and distribution” of the Soviet surplus product that

resulted from Soviet price policies in the 1920s and collectivization in the

1930s, but they are apparently ignorant of the monograph on this topic

published by A.A. Barsov in 1966, which led to a major controversy among

western economists and historians, notably James R. Millar, Michael Ellman, and

Alec Nove.

As a reader, despite being reasonably familiar with the historical literature

about the Russian and Soviet economies and also with the concepts of classical

Marxian political economy, I found this book very heavy going. On its own this

cannot be a criticism: when my first year students complain that they have to

work hard to learn new concepts I just tell them that’s why they’re at

university. In the present case the book would benefit from more of the

attributes of a good textbook such as definitions that are highlighted and

cross-referenced. My patience was especially taxed by the attempts to

mathematize various kinds of budget constraints, given in the form of equations

yet “the word ‘equation’ does not signal any necessity that … revenues equal

expenditures (p. 179n); the symbolization features many weird acronyms and

subscripts that have no obvious intrinsic meaning and are not indexed anywhere.

These are things that a good editor should have rooted out.

In summary this is a well-intentioned, complex work that is hard to do justice

in a short review, but even summary justice must make an attempt at balance.

The plaudits on the book’s back cover describe it as “path breaking” …

“Whether one agrees or disagrees … no future work … will be able to ignore

the sheer creative verve and intellectual rigor with which [the authors] lay

out their arguments.” While this reviewer is impressed by the efforts put in by

the writers and required of the reader, the path that has been opened seems to

lead nowhere; the rigor is superficial and the verve is not enough.

Mark Harrison is professor of economics at the University of Warwick and

honorary senior research fellow of the Centre for Russian and East European

Studies, University of Birmingham. He is the author of a number of books and

articles on Soviet economic history including most recently “Coercion,

Compliance, and the Collapse of the Soviet Command Economy,” Economic

History Review, 55(3), 2002, pp. 397-433.

Subject(s):Economywide Country Studies and Comparative History
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII