From Communism to Capitalism: Rethinking the Boundaries of Class Analysis

Jonathan Diskin. Rethinking Marxism. Volume 17, Issue 4. 2005.

Readers interested in the possibility of a large-scale noncapitalist future should pick up Stephen Resnick and Richard Wolff’s recent book, Class Theory and History: Capitalism and Communism in the USSR (2002). In this text the authors produce a systematic and imaginative reading of the class processes that characterized the former Soviet Union—a reading that traces the forms of the production, appropriation, and distribution of surplus labor time that is the hallmark of their Marxian conception of class. It would be hard to imagine a more stimulating introduction to both the theoretical and concrete aspects of their work for those not familiar with it. Yet readers already familiar with Resnick and Wolff’s work, even their essays on communism and the Soviet Union, skip this book at their peril. This sustained encounter between the theoretical categories of class and the complex and concrete forms of life in the Soviet Union generates theoretical sparks as the friction between well-developed theoretical categories and the evidence of historical interpretation collide.

While this book at times presents itself as an application of established categories to a crucial case, it is much more than that. In some ways it becomes a sustained examination of the meaning of appropriation; its systematic examination of new forms of capitalism and communism raises questions about exploitation and collectivity that spill beyond the structures of the text. Resnick and Wolff note that “the Marxian theory we use here is driven to investigate its own conceptual limits, the boundary that defines it” (2002, 71), and indeed their analysis does just this. The book advances the trend to produce nuanced, theoretically informed, concrete class analyses that is also on display in the work of those influenced by Resnick and Wolff. Their analysis of the class structure of the Soviet Union not only changes our understanding of communism but, ironically, enlarges and destabilizes our understandings of capitalism and value through their examination of how appropriation is constituted. Throughout the book runs a theme of collectivity—of how collectivity might be (or fail to be) constituted as a force that shapes class processes.

Resnick and Wolff advance the thesis that, despite the existence of communal and ancient class processes, the predominant class process in the former Soviet Union was a form of capitalism—namely, state capitalism. Long ago the authors taught us that we cannot speak of commodities without specifying whether they are capitalist, feudal, slave, ancient, or communal. Here, too, they produce new concepts that take the form of adjectives that modify some of our most cherished nouns: capitalism, communism, and value. Indeed, our reading of Marx’s work which lacks these adjectives may be forever changed for, in light of the theoretical work in Class Theory and History, Marx’s work appears as the specification of a single form of capitalism that he presents as its only variant. Henceforth, our consideration of forms of appropriation must distinguish between private capitalism and state capitalism, between centralized and decentralized communisms. Perhaps most surprising of all, we must attach new adjectives to the concept of value and distinguish between administered value and a seemingly naked, unadministered form of value that does not yet have a good conceptual name. My comments center chiefly on these theoretical issues raised by Resnick and Wolff’s remarkable new book more than on the class history they create.

As they have for more than thirty years, Resnick and Wolff isolate the concepts and processes of ‘class as surplus’ and then reconnect them to political, cultural, other economic, and natural conditions that give them concrete form. They show that most analyses of the Soviet Union, including those purporting to be class analyses, focus on issues of political power, property ownership, and forms of allocation (i.e., state versus market) as the pivotal terms of debate. Ironically, the ‘class as surplus’ history of the USSR remained, until now, unwritten. They argue that a group, the Council of Ministers, appropriated the surplus labor time of productive Soviet workers in value form, and that the USSR was therefore a (state) capitalist society—though other class processes coexisted with this state capitalism. In order to make the case that the Soviet Union was a state-capitalist society, they return in strikingly imaginative form to the central themes of their work: how the appropriation specific to different fundamental class processes can be nonreductively linked to possible conditions of existence.

They define class narrowly, to resist subsuming class processes to their conditions of existence. As they note, to “help avoid such confusion, we have systematically separated the differences between private and state enterprises, between private and collective ownership, and between market and nonmarket exchanges from the difference between capitalist and communist class structures” (95). In an extended discussion of the possible forms of communism, they show that communal class processes may coexist with private property or its absence, with market or nonmarket allocation mechanisms, and with democratic or nondemocratic forms of political power (chap. 2). They want to make clear that the capitalist nature of class in the Soviet Union is not deducible from forms of property, markets, or governance, but rests exclusively on whether surplus labor time is appropriated by those who produce it or by others.

Yet, as they conduct their analysis of Soviet class processes and enlarge our notions of communism and capitalism in the process, the issue of how we understand value and collective appropriation begins to emerge more clearly. I want now to consider how our understanding of value is changed by Resnick and Wolff’s analysis of state capitalism, and then to return to the issue of collective appropriation.

State Capitalism and the Administration of Value

As they produce the concept of state capitalism in the former Soviet Union, they turn to the role of the Council of Ministers as the body that appropriates the surplus labor of productive state workers. They have already disabused us of the facile correspondence between the state and communism that still pervades the literature on these issues, by insisting that the communist class process “is defined by an identity between the collectivities of surplus labor producers and appropriators” (16). This collectivity clearly does not need to be the state or any agency of it, though the weight of this prejudice haunts their claim that the Council of Ministers appropriates surplus in capitalist form, given the deep association between capitalism and private enterprises. In order to be capitalist appropriators, the Council must, by definition, appropriate the surplus labor time in value form, which implies that workers produce necessary and surplus value. It is here that Marx’s analysis of value in capitalism is revealed to rely on the particular institutions of what we must now call private capitalism. What is it that stamps a commodity as a capitalist commodity—that gives it value as Marx understood it in Capital? It is my reading of Capital that the exchange of commodities in the marketplace and the competition among enterprises stamps the character of human labor as value producing, for it is these interactions that attach quantums of social labor to particular commodities. These relatively decentralized and “private” processes remain the backbone of Marx’s analysis even when he argues in volume 3 that the actual amount of social labor associated with commodities and reflected in their price form is further determined by the tendency toward the equalization of accounting profit rates.

The former Soviet Union did not share the institutions of competition among privately owned enterprises seeking profit via markets and strategic interactions or the market mechanisms that allowed commodities (including labor power) to interact in a way that produces private capitalist value. Thus, if a form of capitalism existed in the Soviet Union, these institutional forms, so prominently featured in Marx’s work, are not central to capitalism, but are “accidental” forms of one kind of capitalism. Resnick and Wolff argue that the exchange values among commodities in the Soviet Union is determined through a centralized process through which “Soviet-style planning officials define, calculate, and announce the values of outputs produced in state enterprises for exchange. We will call them ‘administered values’” (92). This planning process attaches social labor values to commodities and is thus analogous to the more decentralized interaction among capitalist enterprises. This determination of value is crucial to their conceptualization of the Soviet Union as a state-capitalist society.

This new adjective for value points in two directions. The first is toward the expansion of our notion of capitalist value. Is it a sufficient condition for the existence of value in capitalist form for a social body (or individual?) to define, calculate, and announce the values of outputs for exchange? Of course class cannot be reduced to any one relation or set of practices, but the identification of this valuation process is pivotal to Resnick and Wolff’s analysis of the form of appropriation in the Soviet Union. (As I will argue shortly, I do not think we can restrict communal class processes to the case whereby those who do this valuing are only the direct producers.)

The second direction is a form of feedback on our older notion of value in private capitalism. Resnick and Wolff’s argument leads me to wonder whether the determination of value in private capitalism is any less administered than in state capitalism. It may be that the forms of administration differ—that in private capitalism the presumed “private” market and competitive interactions that give labor its value character are themselves administered through institutional practices that occur inside the enterprise and state and the institutions of consumption and work (including marketing and worker and consumer preferences). These institutional patterns and practices may not be as centrally planned, but the impact of Resnick and Wolff’s work on administered value leads me to think that it is not adequate to simply consider them, by implication, to be nonadministered values. The naming of value (and markets) as administered opens value to new horizons. The new conceptions of value that Resnick and Wolff produce then feed back upon our older notions of the determination of value to destabilize what used to seem secure and raise new questions. For example, if distinct forms of capitalism have distinct forms of turning human labor time into the substance of value, then does the difference between administered state-capitalist value and market private capitalist (or perhaps market-administered?) value risk reinscribing the dichotomy between planning and market in a new way? What are the chief theoretical distinctions to be drawn among different constructions of value in various forms of capitalism?

Communism, Surplus, and Reproduction

Resnick and Wolff’s work not only changes how we will read Marx’s analysis of capitalism, but challenges our preconceptions about communist class processes. In what follows I want to examine the implications of scale (or the degree of centralization) and issues of political representation and culture for our understanding of collectivity and communism.

In an extension of work begun some years ago with David Ruccio about the scale of appropriation in connection with international capitalist exploitation, Resnick and Wolff examine the class implications of a spatial separation between the production and appropriation/receipt of surplus labor time in communism. As we noted, the communist class process entails an “an identity between the collectivities of surplus labor producers and appropriators” (16). This identity is sometimes taken to mean that producers must literally, through a ritual or some other formalized process, take possession of that which they produce in its entirety at the site of its production. But just as a board of directors of a capitalist enterprise may legally receive the surplus even if they are not present at the site of its creation, so “communist production of surplus can occur in one space while its appropriation happens elsewhere” (16).

This separation raises the possibility that workers may direct some subset of themselves, or perhaps separate representatives or functionaries, to receive the surplus at a time and place different from its performance. These sub- or designated groups must represent the producers. Further, their argument suggests that when the scale of production and appropriation is large there will likely be, in capitalism or communism, some mediation between the social position of appropriator and the distribution of surplus labor time that defines subsumed class processes. This seems quite right, and it pushes us in the direction of detailed examination of the relationship between those we might identify as the appropriators (a capitalist board of directors or a workers’ committee, for example) and those who are appointed by them to carry out various functions of distribution. If those who carry out distributive functions have discretionary power, it is difficult to distinguish between those who are distributors of the surplus (i.e., are making decisions about its distribution) and those who are implementing decisions made by others. To be more specific, can producers appoint a planning board, a council, a body of people, to receive the surplus they have produced? The issue seems to turn on whether there is collective appropriation and, thus, what the precise links are between the producers and the body that socially receives the surplus. These boundary issues seem inherent in doing a complex, concrete, and dialectical class analysis, and require that we look closely at issues of representation and principal/agent relationships. As Resnick and Wolff note, appropriation is a social process, and therefore the question of the forms of representation between the many producers and the subset who may appropriate on their behalf now very much constitutes class.

This limit case illustrates that political or social representation is internal to the notion of appropriation, not an external relation that may or may not be present. Resnick and Wolff do discuss the ways that political relations overdetermine appropriation, to be sure, by considering how the communist class process can coexist with various forms of political power in society. But in their discussion of these possible combinations, they consider only the power relations between a communist group that appropriates its own surplus labor and other members of society, not the question of political representation (and the messy issues of accountability, authenticity, and so on that this surely suggests) among workers and their agents that is internal to or constitutive of the class process itself. In my view, Resnick and Wolff are somewhat reluctant to allow political relations directly to constitute class precisely because they have labored long and hard (and effectively) to distinguish class processes from power relations. But their discussion of communism reveals that the interpretation of these relationships of representation is necessary to the analysis of the form of appropriation itself.

Culture and Class

In order to address issues of representation and communism, it is necessary to deal directly with the question of collectivity. Resnick and Wolff address issues of collectivity throughout their text, arguing that a hegemonic communist culture of collectivity is an important condition of existence of communist class processes (23). Such a culture would identify the existence of class processes and promote values that favored collective appropriation by producers over forms of exploitation. In this provocative discussion they consider a hypothetical communism in which there is “[c]entralized communist surplus labor appropriation … across its enterprises” (20). Thus the surplus is appropriated by the producers but, being centralized, not at the individual sites of production by specific sets of workers. It appears, then, that for Resnick and Wolff, the existence of a communist culture would ensure that all productive workers appropriate in some collective and centralized fashion. For example, if we ask them on what basis they reject the claim that the Council of Ministers was not a body that legitimately served the function of receiving the surplus as a representative of workers, I believe an important element of their answer would be that there was not an authentic communist culture, despite the proliferation of discourses of collectivity. Without such a culture, the Council was exploiting workers.

To be clear, I am not mounting an argument that the Soviet Union was a society in which the communist class process prevailed. I am prepared to agree with Resnick and Wolff that some form of exploitation occurred. I am, however, arguing that we must analyze the nature and limits of collectivity in order to establish a basis for concluding that the centralized receipt and redistribution of (state-capitalist) value was a case of state capitalism and not a centralized communal class processes. Either we rule out the possibility of some selected body acting in the name of the productive workers, acting as embodiments of the collective, and insist that only all the workers simultaneously receiving their surplus can constitute a centralized collective receipt of their produced surplus, or we must have some forms of representation that are considered legitimate. Resnick and Wolff’s work puts this question before us, though I think they could more specifically analyze the limits of collectivity and communist culture in their text.

This line of reasoning also suggests that we need to look carefully at how individual agents understand their own activity, which further complicates class analysis by introducing agents’ subjectivity into the process more fully. This is not to suggest that questions of culture or collectivity are resolvable to individual agency alone, but individual understandings are a piece of the analysis of collectivity that requires attention. It is also clearly not a matter of taking what individuals or groups say or write about their forms of collectivity at face value alone—of allowing all who claim to be engaged in collective production, appropriation, and distribution of their surplus to escape analysis. Still, work by Jack Amariglio on “primitive communism” and by Jenny Cameron on forms of exploitation in the household instructively suggests that it is possible to interpret class relations differently depending on the self-understanding of agents involved. If a collectivity of producers understands itself to have first claim on its produce, but “elects” to have a powerful member of the collective receive the surplus on behalf of the community, is that a form of communism or is it always exploitation? Such receipt might be a vital element in the reproduction of that collective itself; thus that mediated receipt might in fact help to establish a form of collectivity that stamps the interaction as communal. If the receiver can “be” the community under certain circumstances, then it is exactly those circumstances that we need to interrogate. Likewise, if a worker in a household understands that the surpluses she produces are hers to keep or to dispense with and distributes them to reproduce certain identity positions, does that spell exploitation or a form of self-appropriation and distribution? My only claim here is that we cannot deduce an answer without examining agents’ self-understandings and that our interpretation might depend on whether we want to foster certain identity positions (in this case) or forms of collectivity (in other cases). To the extent that collective and individual self-understandings in part constitute the class relation, or perhaps suggest alternative readings of class relationships, class is further unmoored from a transparent reading of the historical evidence.

The relationship between class and various notions of collectivity and identity is an important theme that runs through Resnick and Wolff’s text. On the one hand, they show how various understandings of a socialist society and socialist culture and attitudes may actually serve as conditions of existence of state-capitalist exploitation. They suggest at points that the lack of a clear conceptualization of class as surplus undermined the ability of people to achieve any widespread form of communism in the Soviet Union. This seems a particularly telling point as Resnick and Wolff recount the debates pitched around the traditional opposition between private/individual and social/state leading up to the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Still, we may ask what kinds of collectivity and agency people were trying to achieve (or to prevent). We may need to put the question of class in this framework in order to avoid some of the functionalism that characterizes Resnick and Wolff’s consideration of subsumed class processes. They have a tendency to argue that subsumed class processes that receive a cut of the surplus are intended to help to reproduce the fundamental class process, though they may well have contradictory effects that sometimes undermine the very source of the surplus they depend upon. Do we see things differently if we conceptualize subsumed class payments flowing to reproduce a notion of collectivity (or perhaps some other logics as well)? They may reproduce some fundamental class processes and mitigate against others, to be sure, but not because they are invoked as the intended supports for class, but as the by-product of a broader notion of collectivity that may provide a field for social coherence.

My reading of Resnick and Wolff’s remarkable book is that it points beyond itself to the issue of forms of collectivity in complex societies in which labor time may not be appropriated at the site of production, in which forms of centralized, symbolic appropriations take place. Some of the solidity of their very categories of class is called into question by their rigorous work, especially through the ways that appropriation is itself constituted by notions of collectivity and forms of representation. While in some ways their work is about the failure to constitute a broad form of the communist class process in the Soviet Union, I think it directs us to the areas where more detailed analysis is required for class analysis in general and for the creation of the complex forms of collectivity that may one day help to constitute a broad social form of the communist class process.