Paul Mattick 1937

John Strachey Confesses

Source: International Review, New York, April 1937, May 1937;
The Theory and Practice of Socialism. By John Strachey, Random House, New York;
Transcribed: by Adam Buick;
Proofed: and corrected by Geoff Traugh, July 2005.

Writing on Stratchey’s book The Nature of Capitalist Crisis (Modern Monthly, April 1935) the present reviewer had to close with the remark that anyone, like Strachey, “who does not understand capitalism is also incapable of getting at the state of society which must of necessity result from it.” This statement is well illustrated by Strachey’s new book. His Theory and Practice is essentially the last revision of the program of the Communist Party spread over five hundred pages. It re-chews the known statement of the Russophiles in an especially uninteresting manner. It serves as a further example of the sterility of present-day Bolshevism.

The book is divided into four, almost unrelated, parts.

“Stalin,” writes Strachey, “is the culminating figure in a whole group of men, which includes the several million members of the Communist Party, and in the last analysis includes the whole Russian working class (p. 172).” Leaders are chosen, but “unique about working class rule is that the workers choose their leaders far more carefully, through the long and searching apprenticeship of work in the Party, and control them far more closely, than do the capitalists (p. 173).” This might explain the fact that “the workers” were able in as short a period as seventeen years to discover that most of their carefully chosen leaders were “agents of the counter-revolution,” hired by Hitler and the Mikado. “Voting by secret ballot is impossible for an illiterate population (p. 176).” That is how Strachey accounts for the up to now questionable election method, but control by their leaders seemed unhampered by the fact of the illiteracy of the masses.

But this is past history. We have now in Russia “a new kind of democracy.” He quotes heavily from Engels, Lenin and Stalin to explain why the state exists. After first making Russia a “classless society,” Strachey restates his position and says that the State can only be done away with, “when a truly classless society appears (p. 188).” There must then be an “untruly” classless society in Russia. One may, therefore, apply to Strachey’s chosen fatherland what he says about his as yet unconquered fatherland: “So long as a limited class own society’s very means of life that class will rule; and the most perfectly democratic constitution in the world can do no more than mask, and a little mitigate, its dictatorship (p. 149).”

On questions like religion, peace, war, nationalism, liberty, etc., Strachey rewrites the typical respective editorial of the C.P. dailies. Criticism would be futile here. The third part of his book contains essays on the development of the working class movement. Partly interesting and readable, they are of no real significance. The last part, The Science of Social Change, is the most meager section of the book. Overstuffed with quotations from Engels’ Anti-Dühring, it illustrates most clearly Strachey’s theoretical incapacity.

His book “attempts to say what the working class movement of the world is striving for (p. 9).” In his opinion, this has become comparatively easy as “socialism has now been established in one of the major countries of the world (p. 9).” Yet, he does not address his book to the workers, but to the “best men and women of every class in Britain and America (p. 18).” The good old days of progressive capitalism are over; to lead a fuller life, Strachey is convinced, the “best men and women” will soon turn to socialism. He wants to show how nice socialism really is. Capitalism in its hey-day, he admits was swell, but socialism is better, — and anyhow it is inevitable.

A society with “profitability as the criterion of production,” Strachey maintains, is bound to decline, bringing along unbearable crisis conditions which will lead to a revolutionary change, to socialism, “the first stage of communism.” The later stage presupposes all-around abundance, brought about by socialism. Obviously he contradicts here comrade Stalin himself, who so often pointed out that the “principle of profitability in all enterprises is indispensable to socialism” a principle, which, according to Strachey, leads to decline.

Strachey agrees largely with Stuart Chase and his school, in that the “essential economic problem of socialism is the deliberate decision of some central body as to what goods, and how many of them should be produced (p. 31).” The only difference between him and Stuart Chase is, that the latter looks at his “Government in Business” as a capitalist affair, while Strachey regards it as a problem of socialism. Socialism is to be realized by the statisticians; a plan is needed. Fortunately, however — “although unintentionally” — the capitalist class has also provided the world and Strachey with “a draft economic plan (p. 32).” The findings of The National Survey of Potential Product Capacity (The Chart of Plenty), are sufficient and satisfactory to start socialism with. The partial elimination of competition by the monopolization of capital has brought plenty of trouble. The remaining competition of the individual entrepreneurs is to be replaced by the co-ordinating activity of a Planning Authority. A consistent, developed monopoly seems to Strachey to be the solution. General competition or none at all — that is the question. The technical-organizational planning, which marks any of the capitalist enterprises today, is to be extended over the whole of society.

No economic problem exists here for Strachey. He simply takes technical-organizational problems for economic problems. In reality, socialism will deal with the relation of the producer to the means of production and therewith to the products of his labor. It is an economic problem. Only after this is solved, will the technical-organizational problems arise. Strachey is not interested in a change of the economic relation in society. The State, with its planning authority, simply takes the place of the former capitalists. For the workers nothing is to be changed. As before, they have no control over the means of production and therefore none over the products of their labor. All “planning” under such conditions must be “planning” to reproduce these conditions on a larger scale, that is to appropriate continually more surplus-value from the workers and by so doing increase the social contradictions involved in their exploitation.

Such conditions necessarily imply crisis situations. The abundance necessary for “communism” cannot be created. Exploitation, because of the modified form of society, becomes only sooner a hindrance to further development of the productive forces. Russia has not and cannot overreach the level of productive capacities acquired by the old private-capitalist system.

What Strachey has to say about the “existing socialist system of production” he has taken from the Webbs’ Soviet-Communism: A New Civilization. He accepts the Webbs as authorities because their Fabian ideology assures for him sufficient objectivity on their part. Fabian socialism is a proposed form of state capitalism. When B. Shaw returned from Russia he claimed that the Bolsheviks had done nothing more than realize the Fabian program. The Webbs'’ appraisal of Russia is, therefore, a self-appraisal. Their “objective” statements make life easier for Strachey. All he has to do is to quote and to popularise the Webbs’ fairy tales.

Strachey makes it clear that Russia has nothing to do with the “somewhat monotone picture of the ‘socialist state’ often drawn by those who favor the continuance of the capitalist system.” (p. 62) In agriculture, for instance, producers’ co-operatives predominate. “And as they sell a great deal of their products on the market in which competing bidders exist ... a large number of goods and services are distributed by means of exchanges between different producers, and not by allocation of the planning authorities ... An important proportion of the total annual production comes to a genuine market and is bought and sold, between organizations and between individuals.” (pp. 62-63) But this has nothing to do with capitalism, because, according to Strachey, “at no point in the process is there the employment of wage labor for the purpose of making profit for any individual or group of individuals, and secondly, no act of purchase is made with the object of re-selling the goods obtained at a profit to a third individual or organization.” (p. 64) Is it possible that Strachey does not know that his “producers’ co-operatives,” continuously and with the approval of the Soviet State, hire wage laborers for exploitation? The Handbook of the Soviet Union (p. 435), for instance, explains that workers are shifted from the cities to the villages when a shortage of employment possibilities in industry arises. Profits are not made in the sphere of circulation. It is obvious that Stalin’s “principle of profitability” must involve the exploitation of labor. The market is necessary for a profit-making society. There it realizes profit created in the productive process. Surely to realize greater profits, as Strachey quotes Stalin, “the expansion of trade is a very urgent problem.” (p. 64) Wage-labor in industry is profit production, the existing wage labor in agriculture is the same. The tendency of the state to introduce the wage-system in the whole of agriculture explains the present restrictions clamped on the collectives and the individual peasants.

The “paradox of plenty” must in time appear also in Russia. After quoting the Webbs on the “existing abundance in Soviet stores,” Strachey says proudly: “Soviet citizens feel that many commodities are scarce.” (p. 66) This situation, he, however, finds wonderful, for “paradoxically enough, the creation of this feeling of scarcity is one of the greatest achievements of the socialist economic system.” (p. 66) This feeling will be followed by the attainment of “general plenty,” whereby one of “the greatest achievements” will be lost. General plenty “will not have been fully accomplished until every Soviet citizen who wants one, owns a motor car (p. 108).” From this point of view the United States must be much closer to socialism than the U.S.S.R.

After a sickening attempt to simplify the Marxist concept of surplus value, he takes up the differences in the distribution methods in Russia and the rest of the capitalist world. For him the one is more evenly regulated than the one. And that is why the one cannot get rid of commodities, the other has an easy time at that. Furthermore, the capitalist system of distribution creates classes, “for what places a particular individual in one or the other class is not the size, but the source of his income.” (p. 98) As if the source is not always productive labor and all activity, which is not such, is not supported by surplus labor of the producers. How is it possible to divorce the size from the source? A great size is a greater slice, a greater appropriation of surplus labor. Under relations of exploitation the “size” becomes also a source of greater exploitation. Strachey needs his trick formulations to justify the differentiation of income in Russia. The whole question of distribution boils down for him to “how much shall this man get — how much the other.” Exploitation must be planned in order to be continued. “Communists,” in Strachey’s opinion, “do not propose either, as an immediate or as an ultimate aim, the provision of equal incomes to all members of the community, a flat equality of pay would not only be impossible it would also be undesirable.” (p. 117) The pay is given according to the quality and quantity of work. Again the planning authority makes the respective evaluations. For instance, a judge who convicts more Trotskyites or more important Trotskyites than another, will be promoted and given more pay. A GPU-agent who tortures more scientifically (quality) more “Hitler agents” in a shorter time (quantity) — in other words, a real Stakhanovist in his field — will have to receive more pay. As in capitalism, those whose work, is, from the social point of view, more important and most strenuous receive the lesser income. If quantity and quality of work really were the measurement, the present picture in Russia would have to be reversed, the lowest paid would have to replace those paid highest at present. If a productive worker in Russia receives monthly 200 rubles and a destructive military officer 20,000 rubles, it is simply idiotic to say that the incomes are based on the quantity and quality of work. The production and reproduction of labor power is in reality, like everything else, also in Russia left to the individual. It is not socially regulated. With this the prices of labor must vary as they do in capitalism. Even in the case of the Stakhanovists the phrase “according to quantity and quality” is without sense. In relation to their output the wages of these workers are lower than those of other workers. Their wages rise slower than their productivity, they are now more, not less, exploited. Marx’s concept of quantity of labor involves labor time, Strachey’s concept of quantity and quality of labor has nothing to do with Marx’s idea. On the basis of Strachey’s measurement of the “value” of work, socialism is impossible. His measurement implies a system of exploitation, of wage-labor and the market and money economy.

“The actual quantitative degree of inequality between different earned incomes is always small as compared with the inequality between earned and unearned incomes,” Strachey consoles himself, “for while an income of fifteen times the minimum level can easily be spent on consumers goods and services, an income of forty thousand times the minimum level cannot so be spent, and must be in a large measure accumulated.” (p.105) Here he uses another trick to show that the Russian inequalities are not as bad as in other countries. In capitalism, accumulation is a private function and necessitates high inequalities in order to be possible. In state-capitalist Russia it is a collective function of the new ruling class and the incomes of this class are accounted for after accumulation has taken place. Necessarily their consumption fund will be expressed in smaller figures, but the higher income of the private capitalists might mean at the same time a lower consumption fund, when compared with that of the new Russian bourgeoisie. There are exceptionally high private fortunes in the old capitalist countries. But it is yet to be proved that the consumption fund of the non-workers in private-capitalist countries is higher than that of the non-workers in Russia. And this has to be proved on an equal productive level. In Capital Marx pointed out that the capitalists at the beginning of capitalism, were quite abstemious, for they needed a relatively large share of their profits for capitalization. It is a long step from this situation to Veblen’s Leisure Class. The consumption fund of the new ruling class in Russia will increase with the increase of exploitation, a process we are now witnessing. Accumulation on the basis of inequality means the accumulation of inequality. With the necessity, the rich in Russia too will become richer and the poor poorer.

Naturally the “present interest-bearing government bonds” in Russia don’t fit in Strachey’s argument about the process of accumulation. However he hopes “that this will prove a temporary and transitional feature of a system of planned production for use (p. 106).” Unfortunately for Strachey this form of “unearned income” is on the increase in Russia. To do away with it, a new expropriation of the expropriators of other people’s labor will be necessary. Never does a privileged class give up their privileges without a struggle. Not the abolition but the development of classes characterizes the Russian scene. Stalin claims that classes have already been abolished, and so Strachey explains that the abolition of classes means nothing more than equality of opportunity. Opportunity to get a bigger slice from the “sourceless” consumption fund. “It is true,” he admits, “that in a socialist society the children of the higher paid workers enjoy advantages over the children of the lower paid. But such advantages can be almost completely offset by a sufficiently comprehensive system of social services, such as State education, etc. (p. 109).” He does not even see that his statement contradicts itself, for if you offset such inequality there would be no inequality. But why inequality in the first place? Furthermore on this basis Strachey’s socialism could not be fulfilled, for in his system inequality, as we already know, is not “only necessary but desirable.” It becomes clear that all Strachey is striving for is a philanthropic capitalism which gives some of the poor a break once in a while.

Inequality there must be for Strachey because “one of the characteristics of contemporary human beings ... is that they are accustomed to work for an individual reward (p. 115).” On the basis of this argumentation the entire capitalist society will have to be preserved, for people are accustomed to it. It flouts his conception of justice “that the better worker should get no more than the less good worker.”

The “years of training” which the better worker went through must be rewarded. But all the time Strachey argues from the level of the bourgeois society which leaves the reproduction of the different labor functions to the individuals. This bourgeois point of view he tries to eternalize. In socialism, however, the reproduction of labor power is a social affair. Training for labor itself is labor. It is not preparation for a higher income, but for some useful social work. Society provides for the training. With this the “justified claim” for a better income because of personal sacrifices disappears. For Strachey, however, better pay is more than the satisfaction of his “sense for justice.” It is “one of the incentives which makes a man work for promotion. Many men are allured by the increased power which promotion nearly always brings with it. Associated with power is prestige (p. 137).” Power for what? Over whom? In a classless, non-exploiting society? Strachey does not want such a society. He wants state-capitalism à lá Russia. It goes against his grain to think that a worker should be his equal in society. He wants power and prestige, which is also more material wealth. And for this reason he does not even mention the real incentives to work dominant in Russia. The workers there must either work under the conditions provided for them by a mixture of market relations and the ideas of the planning authority, or starve. Possessing nothing but their labor power, their work is really forced labor as elsewhere in capitalism. Otherwise there would be no need for the wage system.

It is true, Marx spoke, and not very clearly, of the two phases of socialism: The first, still requiring a general measurement to enable the smooth-going of production and distribution; and a second phase, where in relation to consumption, such a strict measurement can disappear, because the abundance will make it unnecessary. This measurement is the social average labor time. But Strachey’s socialism, as the first phase of communism, has nothing to do with this concept. Marx’s concept implies the prior destruction of the capital-wage relationship, which is, on the contrary the basis of Strachey’s first phase.