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Western Marxism and the Soviet Union: A Survey of Critical Theories and Debates since 1917

Author(s):Linden, Marcel van der
Reviewer(s):Kragh, Martin

Published by EH.NET (October 2007)

Marcel van der Linden, Western Marxism and the Soviet Union: A Survey of Critical Theories and Debates since 1917. Leiden: Brill, 2007. xi + 375 pp. ?56/$125 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-90-04-158757.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Martin Kragh, Institute for Research in Economic History, Stockholm School of Economics.

The objective of this book is to present the development of the Western Marxist critique of the Soviet Union from 1917 to the present. The author aims to show how Marxists who were politically independent of the USSR “theoretically interpreted developments in the Soviet Union” (p. 3). In order to accomplish this, the author has collected a vast collection of sources (books, articles and pamphlets) in the major European languages dealing with these questions from a Marxist and critical point of view, “critical” meaning not conforming to the official Soviet or Stalinist point of view.

The first chapter, which has been rewritten for this English edition, summarizes the author’s methodology and research questions. Chapters two to seven analyze different epochs of Marxist research, beginning with the debate between the Bolsheviks and Kautsky in chapter two, and ending with analyses made after the collapse of the Soviet system in chapter seven (this last chapter is also new). Chapter eight summarizes some concluding remarks, and chapter nine aims to provide a “meta-theoretical” contribution to the science of analyzing political texts in general.

Considering the long-term perspective (1917-2005), the author tries to capture historical change through three “contextual clusters” that he believes influenced Marxist theorizing on the USSR. The first cluster deals with the Marxist conception of different forms of society (modes of production) and their succession. This debate gravitated around the question on how societies develop from feudal to capitalist and finally into socialist (communist) societies, and whether or not this sequence would be linear or not. Later the debate shifted to more unilinear theories, arguing primarily that the Soviet Union was something completely different from capitalism and feudalism (while not being socialist either).

The second cluster deals with the way Western economies were interpreted, whether or not they were conceived of as being stable, dynamic or crisis prone. Considering the development from the Great Depression to World War II and the final period of long-term growth in the 1950s to the 1970s, all these interpretations were bound to change. In this it followed that the interpretation of the Soviet economy’s sustainability also would be subject to re-evaluation. The third cluster deals with precisely this very last aspect. Accordingly, all these three clusters helped compound one another in the analysis reached by Marxist scholars.

The author formulates three general questions that he tries to answer in his reading of the subsequent texts. Firstly, in the texts, what is the place of the Soviet Union in the successive modes of production? Secondly, are there any essential class antagonisms in Soviet society that they describe, and if so, which? And thirdly, what is the driving force of Soviet society as they see it? These questions in turn are consistently analyzed throughout the book, and they support the author in giving structure to an otherwise heterogeneous whole.

How well does the author answer these questions using his cluster approach? In my opinion, he has done very well. The texts are thoroughly worked through and analyzed ? and contrary to many of the original texts ? in a very detached, informed and scholarly fashion. The amount of sources the author has studied is staggering and the bibliography in itself is a scientific contribution. He also succeeds well in engaging in a dialogue with his research objects, triangulating them against one another, appraising some, and criticizing others in one coherent “language” or discourse. This is the book’s main strength, an aspect which gives the book an encyclopedic value and makes it accessible to all scholars interested in political history. This strength, however, also represents some core weaknesses that can be summarized as follows.

As a scholar of the economic history of the USSR, the reviewer is interested not only in the theories per se, but also to what extent these theories can be considered consistent not primarily with Marx(ism) ? which is what van der Linden investigates ? but with the historical evidence and facts. Only in this fashion, I believe, is it possible to make a real assessment of the theories’ accuracy and scientific value. The author in concluding seems to hold this position himself, when asserting that “some texts” had “solid empirical foundations,” but that most were “lacking them,” being “illogical and superficial” at times (p. 305). The problem is that we never learn how van der Linden reached this conclusion. Throughout the book, there is little empirical evidence provided on the USSR, and few attempts are made to evaluate the different authors against the scant material presented. It is therefore impossible for the reader to understand what van der Linden means by his claim that “some” or “most” authors were more or less scientific. Who are the authors in the first group, and who are the authors in the second one? And secondly, what were these major shortcomings as he sees it?

The second problem relates to the author’s choice of scholars to be analyzed. He describes his method as including all those who labeled themselves “Marxists” as such, but also those who conform to a certain “Marxist approach.” The Marxist approach, accordingly, means emphasizing economic and social forces, dialectics and class struggle. Unfortunately this is a much more inclusive approach than the author might imagine. For example, why are not Alec Nove (who dedicated a book to Marx’ theories in relation to the USSR) or Donald Filtzer (an outspoken Marxist historian) included? Not only do they seem to fit into the model, but their research on the USSR is also far reaching and well known. It seems, in fact, as if the author has had another method in choosing his texts which he might not be aware of himself. Instead of having chosen texts conforming to a certain “world outlook,” it seems as if van der Linden has made his choice depending on whether or not the authors of these texts engaged in debate with other Marxists primarily for political, rather than scholarly reasons. Those who fall into the first category are thus included, and those in the latter are excluded. This alternative conclusion would be consistent with what van der Linden says himself about the texts’ scientific (scholarly) value.

In conclusion, van der Linden’s book is the outcome of a well researched and scholarly work spanning years of hard labor studying many varied sources. The book has a beautiful language but requires some previous knowledge in Marxist theory and the history of the USSR. Now available in English, it will most likely serve as a future reference point for people interested in the history of ideas. Its shortcomings are relevant but do not affect the conclusions reached by the author.


Filtzer, D., Soviet Workers and Late Stalinism: Labour and the Restoration of the Stalinist System after World War II. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Filtzer, D., Soviet Workers and the Collapse of Perestroika: The Soviet labour Process and Gorbachev’s Reforms, 1985-1991. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Nove, A, The Economics of Feasible Socialism. London: Allen & Unwin, 1983, reprinted in 1991.

Martin Kragh is a Ph.D. student at Stockholm School of Economics. His research interests include the economic history of the USSR and history of economic thought.

Subject(s):Markets and Institutions
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII