"When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist." — Archbishop Helder Camara
Capitalism’s most recent crisis, the current global recession, has opened it to criticism even in mainstream circles. For the moment at least, socialists and communists, who are ordinarily at the margins of our political and intellectual culture, are slowly coming into the center. Instead of celebrating capitalism for promoting freedom and generating prosperity, it may be more appropriate to see it as unstable, dangerous, and unjust, as it appears in Marxian economics.
However, it is very easy to find examples of people claiming that the demise of the Soviet Union and the so-called triumph of capitalism together altogether discredit the Marxian approach to economics, and its assessment of capitalism as unstable, dangerous, and unjust. Moreover, with the Soviet Union in mind, it is easy to condemn communism as unfeasible, inefficient, or highly corruptible. It can be shown that such charges to not stick by carrying out a Marxian class analysis of the Soviet Union, and I would like to sketch that here. Was the Soviet Union really communist, or did it even approximate communism?
Marxian economics begins its theoretical description of (capitalist) economies with the notion of class. For Marx, ‘class’ specifically refers a two-part process: the production of surplus labor and the appropriation of the labor. When a productive worker labors, she uses her muscles and brain to transform objects in nature into goods and services that meet human needs and satisfy human desires. Some of that labor goes into producing enough valuable things to pay for her wages, that is, some is necessary to sustain the laborer herself. The rest of the labor is surplus.
Class is the economic processes of creating and distributing surplus labor. So, class, in this technical sense, does not denote groups of people how have certain amounts of wealth or power (although they may in fact have wealth or power depending upon their economic class). In a capitalist firm, the laborers consist of people who have been hired from the labor market to work for the firm, which decides what is produced, how it is produced, and what it is produced for. The worker is paid her wages, but does not control or have any say over how the surplus that she creates is used. It is up to the firm to decide how much to invest in new capital or enjoy as profits. In capitalist society, those in the top managerial positions of firms, the board of directors, appropriate the surplus value produced by the works, and they alone, without input from the workers or the broader community affected by the activities of the firm.
In a communist society, three conditions are met: (a) productive labor is designed and performed collectively; (b) surplus labor is appropriated collectively, not privately; and (c) the collective appropriators of the productive labors’ surplus includes both the productive laborers themselves and all of the subsumed classes. Broadly speaking, then, we might realize a centralized or decentralized communist economy. In a centralized communist economy, major productive and economic institutions would be public services offered by an authentically democratic state; in a decentralized communist economy, each enterprise would be directly and collectively managed by the workers engaged in the enterprise as well as the people affected by the activities of that enterprise (much like workers’ collectives or co-operatives). The salient feature of a communist society in either case is that anyone who participates in the fundamental class process of that society is both a creator and appropriator of surplus value: the economy is in a very real sense democratized.
This is very different from the hierarchical command economy characteristic of the Soviet Union. The highest government economic committee, Gosplan, laid out the most general prescriptions for the Soviet economy, setting control numbers for industry and growth. These prescriptions were transmitted down to regional and local planners, who sought more detailed information from those in managerial positions in the enterprises themselves. All information acquired from the ground was accumulated back to Gosplan and the Supreme Council. All of this existed under conditions of extreme totalitarianism and tyranny, precisely the opposite of the democratized economy and open society of communism. The means of the production and surplus labor that came out of their operation were owned and distributed by an alien state that was in no way responsible to the productive laborers themselves. That is, in the case of the Soviet Union and its bloc satellites, communism was not tried and found wanting — it was not even tried.