Workers' Liberty #68


The USSR, totalitarianism, and class

The Lost Debate: German Socialist Intellectuals and Totalitarianism, by William Jones, University of Illinois Press.

Reviewed by Edgar Sims.

This book demonstrates that the concept of 'totalitarianism', which came to dominate discourse on the USSR during the Cold War, was prefigured in the 1930s by discussions on the left about the nature of fascism and Stalinism.

Trotsky employed the term as early as 1936 (at which point he declared that the USSR had already been totalitarian 'for several years'), but not as a sociological category. In the Transitional Programme (1938), he argued that Stalin's political apparatus differed from fascism only in its 'more unbridled savagery'.

But the concepts of fascism as a phenomenon of decaying capitalism, and Stalinism as a new form of exploiting society, were more fundamental than 'totalitarianism'. Later uses of the term lacked great explanatory power because they did not specify the political economy behind it, and its use nowadays is even more limited. What is needed is a rounded theory of modern capitalism which includes developments in the world economy as a whole since 1914. Unpacking the concept of imperialism, which, as Jones points out, prefigured many of the features associated with totalitarianism, is more useful theoretical work.

The book's most serious omission is Karl Kautsky's work on Russia. Kautsky was hostile to the October revolution from the beginning, denying that a socialist revolution had taken place and affixing the term 'state capitalism' to the new regime from 1918. By the '30s Kautsky was able to make criticisms of Stalinism, its terroristic methods and its economic weaknesses which turned out to be remarkably astute. By the time he died in 1938, Kautsky had certainly written a body of work that gave some intellectual substance to the notion of 'totalitarianism'.

The book also sheds light indirectly on controversies within the Trotskyist movement. In 1939, when Trotsky argued with Shachtman and Burnham over Russia, he had clearly been thinking about theories which equated fascism and Stalinism. One influence on him which is seldom discussed was Otto Ruhle, who was also living in Mexico and who worked with Trotsky on an abridged edition of Marx's Capital. Rhle had developed his own theory of state capitalism in Russia as early as 1921, from his perspective as a council communist. By 1939 he had explicitly equated fascism with Stalinism (and with Bolshevism), and whilst his critique lacks great depth or rigour, it may well have prompted Trotsky to take up the issues.

This book nails the Bruno Rizzi myth. It has long been claimed that Rizzi was the originator of the idea that both fascism and Stalinism represented the rule of a bureaucratic 'new class'. In fact this idea, in many variants, was current long before Rizzi produced his particular version. Similarly, the myth that Tony Cliff invented the theory of state capitalism is laid bare: discussion of different versions of this concept were commonplace in the '30s.

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