Returning to the Russian question

Issue: 118

Chris Harman

Marcel van der Linden, Western Marxism and the Soviet Union (Brill, 2007), £56

One central issue confronted all revolutionary socialists in the six decades from the late 1920s to the early 1990s. A state covering a third of the Earth’s land surface claimed to embody our ideals. Did we accept those claims, even if critically, and, if not, how did we define the state?

This “Russian question” involved innumerable documents, polemics, tortuous debates and episodes of apparently petty point scoring. But the arguments involved were not a case of theory for theory’s sake. They had immense practical implications. If Russia was in some way socialist, or at least a “workers’ state” or a “post-capitalist society”, then siding with it was siding with the struggle for a socialist future for humanity as a whole. If, far from being in some way socialist, it was a more backward form of social organisation than capitalism, the logical thing to do was critically to support the Western capitalists in their moves against it. And, if it was essentially the same sort of society as that in the West, then what fitted was to argue, “A plague on both your houses.”

Marcel van der Linden set out in this book to provide an encyclopaedic history of the debate. This involved seeking out and summarising the theoretical positions of 80 writers, a few with well known names, others never known outside small and localised circles of the left. In doing so he provides an insight into old controversies that will be of immense value to those trying to come to terms with the history of the left during the 20th century, and particularly during the “midnight in the century”, that horrific period when both Stalinism and Nazism were murdering the hopes of 1917.

I did, however, find two weaknesses in the book. Its determination to deal with every thinker leads to it skating over interesting and sometimes important elements in the ideas of the more important ones. This even leads him to distort a couple of the positions held by what he describes as “the current around Cliff”—the theoretical tradition embraced by most contributors to this journal.

So he states that Tony Cliff, in contrast to Paul Mattick, had not “emphasised that state capitalism had the opportunity to develop especially in capital-poor countries”. In fact, Cliff’s article “Permanent Revolution” from the early 1960s described how “deflected permanent revolution” led to forms of state capitalism in counties such as Algeria, Egypt and Cuba (

Again van der Linden claims that “Cliff’s theory had shown little in the way of new development during the period 1956-68… The discussion among Cliff’s followers concentrated on one point: the social position of Soviet workers” (p180). This is to ignore Cliff’s detailed examination of the growing elements of crisis in the Soviet economy in his pamphlet From Stalin to Khrushchev and in the 1963 edition of Russia: A Marxist Analysis (both available from

Van der Linden compounds his mistake in this respect by writing that “Cliff and his supporters…could hardly conceive of a collapse of state capitalism” in the 1980s. In fact, writing in this journal in the 1970s, I had already spelt out the inevitability of the USSR being torn apart by an enormous economic crisis (“Prospects for the Seventies—the Stalinist States”, International Socialism 42, first series, available from

I developed this argument further in the two editions of my book Bureaucracy and Revolution in Eastern Europe, and in an article on Poland in this journal in 1977 (“Poland and the Crisis of State Capitalism”, International Socialism 93 and 94, first series). I hope his treatment of other theories shows more depth than his treatment of ours.

I have one other criticism. The tone of this book is too detached and academic. There is never a sense that three generations of revolutionaries had to agonise over these matters. The issues are still worth some agonising over. One precondition for fighting effectively for socialism in the 21st century is coming to terms with the often monstrous regimes that claimed to embody it in the 20th.

The debates also have wider relevance in analysing the world system today. Very large proportions of social production still depend on states. Some socialist writers see these parts of the economy as lying outside the realm of capitalist exploitation, while others see that competition within the global system compels those who run states and firms to set up internal, non-market mechanisms that subordinate these workers to the laws of capitalist production.

Van der Linden has written a book that historians of the revolutionary movement will find very useful. But it is weakened by an unnecessary sense of detachment of theory from practical concerns.