Charles Bettelheim: Class Struggles in the USSR 1917-1923

by tigermanifesto


The birth of the USSR carries a dual meaning for international Marxism. On the one hand, it marks the first successful seizure of power by a proletarian revolutionary movement. Urban and peasant masses, accompanied by soldiers and guided by the militants of the Bolshevik Party, held onto state power through an insurrection, a brutal war against internal and external friends of the old regime and of international capital, and the often haphazard installation of the untested ruling party’s political program. Simultaneously, the opening of this new period in human history also presents the problem of revolutionary decay and failure in a potent fashion.

Despite the seizure of political power and the creation of a new state apparatus committed to the liberation of the working class, this revolutionary process would eventually freeze in place, and the state constituted in its name would eventually figure as a major geopolitical military power that turned accumulation into its sacred byword. By the beginning the 1990s, the once-inspiring example of the Soviet Union had lost all of its allure, and the Union itself fragmented, leaving the descendants of the revolutionary generation in a state of disintegration and chaos.

Charles Bettelheim was keenly aware of this dual meaning when he wrote this book, as he explains in the preface. His opening words invoke the memory of Soviet tanks rolling into Czechoslovakia in an attempt to crush the Czech deviation from the USSR’s political line. Arriving in the same historical moment as epochal riots and popular uprisings in core capitalist countries and the upheavals of the Cultural Revolution in China, the suppression of the Prague Spring provoked Bettelheim to undertake a lengthy and involved inquiry into the history of the USSR and the objective historical process that led it from 1917 to 1968. Bettelheim, along with others like philosopher Louis Althusser, were dissatisfied with the conventional explanations for the deviations of the Soviet Union that centred around the “personality” of Joseph Stalin. What he attempts to do here is explain the failure of the USSR to maintain its revolutionary process by an appeal to the political and ideological categories. Namely, he argues that it was the lack of a correct political orientation and the swamping of the Bolshevik by bourgeois ideology through many vectors that led to its degeneration.

It’s not my intention to provide a full review of the book, but rather to draw attention to it and discuss how it was helpful in clarifying my own thoughts about the Soviet Union and about the history of socialism in general, up to and including its present. I noted early on that the focus of the book is not so much political economic as it is a political-ideological critique that foregrounds the political programme of the Bolshevik Party and in particular the writings of V.I. Lenin. This approach produces both the strengths and the weaknesses of the book. On the positive side, it avoids a narrow economic determinism, pointing out that in a revolutionary situation the influence of the leading political forces and the state apparatus can have decisive impact on the course of objective processes.

Charles Bettelheim

There is a clear affinity here with the work of Althusser, who also worked within his own political party (the PCF) to pursue a disentanglement with the line of the USSR and to orient it away from seeing the development economy as a kind of mystical force that could correct bad political situations. Bettelheim’s recognition of the relative autonomy of the embryonic state, therefore, is a plus. His discussion of the operation of the new political apparatus and the way it served as an avenue for the bourgeoisie to struggle for its own place in the ostensibly new society confirms that the seizure of state power by the masses is not a single cataclysmic event but rather a necessary step in a long process of uprooting capitalism from society bit by bit. Even the organs of the state not staffed by bourgeois experts out of necessity could develop reactionary tendencies––particularly a misplaced faith in the power of pure administration and technocracy––without the supervision of the masses and the intervention of active political elements to kill off these tendencies.

Looming not so far behind the text is the Cultural Revolution in China, which Bettelheim occasionally invokes as a positive counter-example. This was not an outrageous assumption at the time, though my recent reading of Yiching Wu’s Cultural Revolution at the Margins and similar works certainly makes it impossible for me to agree with his implication that the Chinese state was playing an entirely positive role in promoting the self-organization of the masses. Still, I appreciated the many concrete examples provided in the text outlining the misjudged policies of “war communism.”

It’s at this point that I should note that Bettelheim’s text, with its appreciation for politics and attention to the tendencies and political lines that emerged within the party ties to what I would call a strangely myopic focus on Lenin’s writings and a lack of sufficient criticism of Lenin’s own work during this period. While it’s true enough that, as he notes many times, Lenin was often far better than the rest of his party at appreciating his own mistakes and correcting them, the book’s reliance on Lenin as a source makes it less historically interesting and relevant in my eyes. It’s not that Lenin’s appraisals of the situations that Bettelheim describes were completely off the mark, but some additional perspective or a more intense focus on the actual relationship between the state and the party and the party-state and the workers and peasants would have been appreciated. This is something that, for example, Janet Afary in her book on the Constitutional Revolution in Iran is able to do much better. Lenin was clearly immensely capable and an advanced thinker, but his own limitations remain inaccessible to Bettelheim’s readers because the author sets him up as the hero far too often, leading to the creation of a kind of narrative and moral dichotomy that he sets up between Lenin on the good side and Stalin-Trotsky-Bukharin etc. on the other. Perhaps it’s because I am being overly skeptical, but I found it a notable weakness in the text, a lack that I hoped would be further addressed. A better explanation of why Lenin could have been so far in advance of his party (other than his “personality”) would have been appreciated.

Still, I am looking forward to going further into Soviet history with Bettelheim as a guide in the next two volumes, assuming I can get ahold of them. His core themes, the relationship between the state, the ideological and state apparatuses, and the masses, remain viable topics to this day, and the book taught me much about the rapid evolution of the Russian Revolution in its initial “baptism of fire” from 1917-1923. It’s almost absurdly cheap to pick up secondhand (the first volume, that is), so I would recommend it to any leftist with an interest in Soviet history done mostly well.