Comments on a Critique of Charles Bettelheim

David Romagnolo

To the reader: the following text is an edited version (complete with deletions, additions, modifications and reformulations) of some informal ‘comments’ prepared, at the request of a subscriber and occasional contributor to this journal, on Sunil Sen’s ‘Marxism and Mr. Bettelheim’ (RD, Vol. VI, no. 2, September, 2000, pp 83-105). My reply to this request ultimately assumed the form of a rather long-winded and very ‘hostile’ series of remarks commensurate, I think with the tone set by Messrs. ‘V.S.’ and Sen. By and large my ‘comments’ consisted of a paragraph by paragraph critique of the first nine pages of the above entitled text, after which Sen ceased any further discussion of Bettelheim, whereupon I simply brought my remarks to an abrupt and apologetic close. For reasons that are still not altogether not clear to me, RD thought my comments might be of interest to some readers of this journal. If you do intend to read on, I would suggest you take out Sen’s article and keep it close at hand as you continue along. D.J.R.

Let me begin my ‘comments’ on ‘Marxism and Mr. Bettelheim’ by focusing on the introductory paragraph by ‘V.S.’ (the editor Vijay Singh, I presume). The whole point of this ‘Introduction’ is to call into question Bettelheim’s ‘requisite fidelity to Marxism-Leninism’ and discredit certain of his theses based, not on an assessment of their merit, but by way of extended character assassination. Hence, Bettelheim’s thesis that following the ‘withering away of the soviet organs’ during ‘War Communism’ NEP witnessed a rejuvenation of the old state apparatus and a period where the Party and State became increasingly removed from the masses is not countered, but merely dismissed as Trotskyite.

Apparently, it slipped the mind of ‘V.S.’ that Lenin’s writings during the period in question also address the bureaucratic character of the State and the Party. At the end of 1921 and in early 1922, for example, Lenin spoke of ‘the bureaucratic distortions of the proletarian state and... all sorts of survivals of the old capitalist system of government offices’ (‘The Role and Function of the Trade Unions Under the New Economic Policy,’ C.W, vol. 33, p. 187. See also Tenth Congress of the R.C.P.(B.), C.W, vol. 32, p. 212). One year later, Lenin characterized the Soviet state as ‘that same Russian apparatus which... we took over from tsarism and slightly anointed with Soviet oil’, for ‘the apparatus we call ours is... still quite alien to us; it is a bourgeois and tsarist hotch-potch’ (‘The Question of Nationalities or ‘Autonomisation’,’ C.W, vol. 36, pp. 605-606). A few weeks later, toward the end of January, 1923, Lenin offered the follow assessment of the Soviet state as part of a ‘Recommendation to the Twelfth Party Congress’ calling for the ‘amalgamation of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Inspection with the Central Control Commission’: ‘our state apparatus is to a considerable extent a survival of the past and has undergone hardly any serious change. It has only been slightly touched up on the surface, but in all other respects it is a most typical relic of our old state machine’ (‘How We Should Reorganise the Workers’ and Peasants’ Inspection,’ C.W, vol. 33, p. 481) And from Lenin’s last published text (March, 1923) there is this warning: ‘The most harmful thing would be to rely on the assumption... that we have any considerable number of elements necessary for the building of a really new state apparatus, one really worthy to be called socialist, Soviet, etc.’ He continues, ‘we are ridiculously deficient of such an apparatus, and even of the elements of it, and we must remember that we should not stint time on building it, and that it will take many, many years’ (‘Better Fewer, But Better,’ C.W. vol. 33, p. 488). All of this can be found in Bettelheim.

These concerns were also on Stalin’s mind throughout the 1920s. A month after Lenin’s death, Stalin, at the Twelfth Party Congress that Lenin never lived to see, he observes: ‘The state apparatus... is of the right type, but its component parts are still alien to us, bureaucratic, half tsarist-bourgeois.’ He further noted that ‘some of the officials in the state apparatus, are bad, they are not our men’ (‘The Twelfth Congress of the R.C.P.(B.),’ Works, vol. 5, pp. 210, 209). Nine months later, in January, 1924, Stalin noted the existence of ‘the bureaucratic state apparatus with not less than a million employees, largely elements alien to the Party’ (‘The Thirteenth Conference of the R.C.P.(B.),’ Works, vol. 6, p. 10). In June, 1925, he spoke of the twin evils of ‘the growth of the state apparatus’ and of ‘the presence of bourgeois-bureaucratic elements in the state apparatus,’ for which ‘[t]he task is to reduce the state apparatus as much as possible, [and] systematically to expel the elements of bureaucracy and bourgeois decay from it’ (‘Questions and Answers,’ Works, vol. 7, pp. 211-12). And jumping to 1930, where Stalin notes in his Political Report to Sixteenth Party Congress the persistence of ‘bureaucratic elements in the state apparatus’ and devotes considerable attention throughout this Report to the problem of bureaucracy (‘Political Report of the Central Committee to Sixteenth Party Congress of the C.P.S.U.(B.),’ Works, vol. 12, p. 311).

The Bolshevik Party could not long remain unscathed by the re-emergence of the old bureaucracy in the Soviet state. The changing composition of the Bolshevik Party (recalling that many, perhaps most, of the BEST died in the Revolution and the Civil War) and the massive influx of petty-bourgeois and bourgeois careerists beginning with the Eighth Party Congress, until the purges of the Tenth Congress (which surely did not get all of them), after which there was yet another massive recruitment campaign. At the Tenth Party Congress, 1921, Lenin could speak of the presence of a ‘bureaucratic ulcer’ in the Party (Tenth Congress of the R.C.P.(B.), C.W, vol. 32, p. 190f) and two years later he expressed considerable concern over the existence of a ‘Soviet and Party bureaucracy... [with] bureaucrats in our Party offices as well as in Soviet offices’ (‘Better Fewer, But Better,’ C.W, vol. 33, p. 494). And in 1925 Stalin remarked on ‘the domination of bureaucratic elements in quite a number of Party and trade-union bodies, not excluding Party units and factory committees’ and of the need ‘to rid our Party and trade-union organisations of the manifestly bureaucratic elements’ (‘Questions and Answers,’ Works, vol. 7, pp. 212, 213).

It is indeed regrettable that any mention of ‘bureaucracy’ in relation to the Soviet state and the Bolshevik Party carries with it an a priori condemnation of ‘Trotskyism!’ It is ‘regrettable’ because the implication has been (and continues to be) that Trotsky single-handedly raised the question, which is, of course, exactly what the Trots would have you believe! The critique of Trotskyism (on this issue) has been to deny a reality that Lenin and Stalin clearly perceived, i.e., a rather pervasive bureaucratic influence in both the Soviet state and the Party, and in so doing the question has been ceded to the Trots. Rather than confront the reality and examine the contradictions and social forces of the concrete conditions of the period, that is, provide a ‘materialist analysis’ that might explain a manifest problem, the erstwhile defenders of Stalin would rather bury their heads in the sand and, like the Trots, talk about personalities, i.e., descend into the ‘Great Man’ theory of history (consisting of The Good, The Bad, and even The Ugly).

Presumably no less Trotskyite in its conception is Bettelheim’s characterization of the so-called ‘socialist offensive in planning, industry and agriculture’ begun in 1929 as, according to ‘V.S.,’ the ‘solution born of despair’. As I recall, the Trots have repeatedly said that the ‘socialist offensive’ had been Trotsky’s (and Preobrazensky’s) idea dating from the early- to mid-20s, and Stalin merely came to see the wisdom of it five years too late. But never mind this irony. I’d like to see the evidence or the argument, rather than a mere assertion, for the characterization proffered by ‘V.S.’ of some kind of a collective existential experience of angst. Any sketch of Bettelheim’s argument would have to include some account of the Party’s political influence in the countryside (the relative weakness of which had been its Achilles Heel for decades– hence the persistent influence and strength of the S.R.s and the Mensheviks). Bettelheim’s point, which one can certainly question, is that 1929 offensive was not a response to an economic crisis spearheaded by the kulaks, but to a crisis that was at bottom political in character, that is, one borne of the failure to sustain and deepen the political bond between the proletariat and peasantry, especially the middle peasantry, in the last years of the 1920s. As for the role of planning and industry, this would take us very far afield, and I have already digressed enough.

I think these are all issues worthy of thoughtful consideration (even if only to be DEMONSTRATED as errors), not ignored. Suffice it to say that none of these issues is ever addressed in the profession de foi offered by ‘V.S.’ While unable to tackle the issues head on, ‘V.S.’ is more content devoting his time and limited space to informing us that Bettelheim supported the 20th Party Congress (but not on what basis he supported it, i.e., from the left or right– which I imagine really doesn’t matter for him, for ANY kind of support, no matter from which direction, is enough to elicit condemnation). Support for Liberman’s reforms? I simply don’t know about this. A collection of Bettelheim’s essays written in the 1960s (The Transition to Socialist Economy) are very scathing in their criticism of Mandel (which may mean nothing to opponents of Bettelheim since this might be dismissed as a case of Trots devouring each other) and none of these essays show a fondness for Liberman, who is mentioned very briefly on only three occasions in the context of presenting the views of various Soviets economists. In Bettelheim’s 1970 text, Economic Calculation and Forms of Property, Liberman is mentioned once and is criticized for ‘referring to ‘commodity forms that have a radically new content within the socialist economy’ (p. 50). Perhaps it is worth noting here that Stalin, in Economic Problems of Socialism, advanced substantively the same thesis as Liberman: ‘... it is chiefly the form, the outward appearance, of the old categories of capitalism that have remained in our country, but... their essence has radically changed in adaptation to the requirements of the development of the socialist economy’ (p. 55, Chinese edition). Are we to conclude from this that Liberman’s ‘reforms’ found their theoretical ground in Stalin’s text? If you criticize Liberman, you at once criticize Stalin. For many this may be a bitter pill to swallow, so perhaps it is best not criticize Liberman, on this point anyhow. As for Bettelheim’s association with Baran and Sweezy, so what? How about Lenin’s association with Plekhanov? Trotsky? Bukharin? Kamenev? Zinoviev? And Stalin’s association with the forgoing? It is very clear from the exchange between Sweezy and Bettelheim in On the Transition to Socialism that there are substantive differences on very important issues, i.e., the economics and politics of the dictatorship of the proletariat.

Finally, mention must be made of Bettelheim having ‘absorbed the philosophical effusions of the revisionist Althusser.’ This is certainly true, although the latter’s writings are not any more ‘effusive’ than those of Marx, Engels, Lenin, etc., and very few have considered Althusser to be a ‘revisionist’ (although I realize that in certain quarters any criticism of the period of Stalin’s leadership, whether it be from the right or the left, is dismissed as ‘revisionist’). Trots, who generally view Mao as a ‘Stalinist,’ fault Althusser for having ‘Maoist inclinations’ and for being at bottom an unrepentant ‘Stalinist.’ That Bettelheim is judged by ‘V.S.’ to be a Trot-revisionist, and not a ‘Maoist’ (or a Maoist-revisionist– excuse the neologism but among many Mao is considered a revisionist), which is what every other ‘critic’ labels him, is not even thought provoking given the ‘evidence’ and ‘arguments’ that ‘V.S.’ neglected to marshal.

Still, it is reassuring to know that those who lack any substance can fall back on the results of an ‘archaeological excavation of Bettelheim’s history’ culled from Claude Varlet’s ‘tour de force’ and the ‘encyclopedic exposé’ contained therein. ‘V.S.’ admonishes us that ‘The child is the father of the man it is said...’ and this is all done as a favour to the reader, to warn us away from Bettelheim’s poisonous weeds. We are entitled to asked, ‘said’ by whom? We have all heard enough ‘sayings’ during our lives to know that there is a ‘saying’ for everything under the sun! (One of the most popular ‘sayings,’ especially among union bureaucrats, is ‘something is better than nothing!’ although I much prefer that advanced by a militant Hispanic: ‘sometimes nothing is better than too little!’) This happens to be one of those ‘sayings’ that is thoroughly reactionary; it denies change and development! Few individuals are so blessed as ‘V.S.’ and Varlet to be born Marxist-Leninists. I suspect that the vast majority of us came to Marxism-Leninism from some impure beginning. Any former Trots out there? How about Social Democrats? Anarchists? If, indeed, ‘The child is the father of the man’ as ‘V.S.’ intones, then we could, with considerable justice, assert that Marx remained a ‘Young Hegelian’ until his dieing day; that Marx’s 1844 Manuscripts is but a precursor and anticipation of Capital, or that the latter is nothing but the realization of the themes of the former. All of these theses, you may recall, were very popular with the ‘humanist,’ ‘philosophy of man,’ neo-Hegelian interpretation of Marx (Eric Fromm, Roger Garaudy, Adam Shaff, ad nauseum) that came in the wake of the right-wing critique of ‘Stalinism’ and constituted the essence of the 20th Party Congress. And what of Lenin? How about a Plekhanovist? And Stalin? A dogmatic seminarian? There is no end to how silly, indeed stupid, things can become when one thinks in terms of a teleological future anterior!

It is very apparent that neither ‘V.S.’ nor Sen for that matter (as we will see in a moment) are willing (or able) to deal with the merits (or lack thereof) of Bettelheim’s (and Althusser’s) work. As such, it would have been MORE enlightening to read Varlet’s book. Since ‘V.S.’ is so cock-sure that Varlet’s ‘entire book devastatingly analyses’ Bettelheim from 1934 until the mid-1970’s, it would have been MUCH BETTER had they translated and published Varlet’s text in the form of installments. Perhaps the editor(s) of RD might give this matter serious consideration? It certainly couldn’t be any worse than the rubbish flowing from ‘V.S.’ and Sen.

Since it was Sen’s contribution that provided the initial impetus for my remarks, it it time to turn our attention to his text. The title of the piece is very misleading; there is, I think, actually VERY LITTLE focus on, and even less ‘analysis’, verging on none at all, of ‘Mr. Bettelheim,’ and what there is limited to the first half of Sen’s text, after which Bettelheim is not mentioned again. In the place of ‘analysis’ we are merely given a seemingly never-ending concatenation of long blocks of quotations peppered (albeit infrequently) with a few connecting sentences authored by Sen himself. This well serves the author’s intended purpose: it establishes the ‘requisite fidelity’ Sen needs to present himself as one fit to safeguard the purity of certain formulations of ‘classical’ Marxism (most especially ‘[t]hat the economic basis is the ultimate determining factor...’, p. 86) and the materialist conception of history from a misperceived fifth column assault. By allowing Marx and Engels to speak for themselves, Sen cannot be accused of misrepresentation; the downside, of course, is that there is an implicit assumption that no inconsistencies exist within or between the works of Marx and Engels. The existence of various ‘clarifications’ and ‘rectifications’ during their lifetimes (not to mention unstated theoretical differences between Marx and Engels, e.g., regarding the operation of the law of value historically, wherein for Marx its existence is bound up with the capitalist mode of production, while for Engels it ‘has prevailed during a period of from five to seven thousand years’– ‘The Law of Value and Rate of Profit’ in Capital, vol. 3) is enough to dispel any such illusion. No matter. Why anyone would be committed to merely reiterating the formulations of ‘classical’ Marxism after the revolutionary events (and subsequent counter-revolutionary restorations) of the 20th century is simply mind-boggling to me. For all the talk about Marxism being a science open to further development, here we are in the 21st century and Sen is still bogged down in the 19th century. But so be it.

Sen’s piece gets off to a very rough start. He begins with a quote from Engels (the Preface to the 1883 German edition of the Manifesto) that is (presumably) intended to summarize the materialist conception of history. However, since this extract says virtually nothing about the ‘superstructure’, and what it does say suggests its existence is passive, Sen reproduces a sentence fragment from Engels’ famous 1890 letter to Schmidt (27 October 1890) which is (presumably) intended to rectify this problem, viz. ‘the whole vast process goes on in the form of interaction– though of very unequal forces, the economic movement being by far the strongest, the primary and most decisive and that in this contest everything is relative and nothing absolute.’ The operative word here of course is ‘interaction,’ although Sen never managed to indicate what it was that was interacting! He must have been so excited with himself that he just forgot, or he may have thought the (already knowledgeable) reader would figure it out. I mention this apparently small point to suggest that, in spite of Sen’s subjective ‘requisite fidelity,’ we are NOT dealing with an author who is very careful. This is not a good sign, but it is a sign of things to come.

Very generally, the issues taken up by Sen centre on the role of the ‘economic’ as the ‘ultimate determining factor’ in historical development, to which we shall return shortly, and within the economic realm the status of the concepts ‘productive forces,’ ‘productive relations,’ and the relationship between them, the manner in which the ‘class struggle’ fits into this, etc., etc. These are all issues revisited in the 1960s via the ‘philosophical effusions of the revisionist Althusser,’ who is really the target (consciously or not) of Sen’s catatonic catechism. Since Sen has NOTHING AT ALL to say about Bettelheim’s analysis of the early history Soviet Union, only Bettelheim’s abhorrent Althusserian-influenced Marxism, it should be understood from here on out that whenever I speak of Bettelheim it is short-hand for ‘Bettelheim, following Althusser, Balibar, et al.’ (I will be ignoring the differences between them since they have no bearing on the matters taken up by Sen.)

For Sen, Bettelheim’s guerrilla offensive commences with the concept of ‘economism’ and the latter’s claim that ‘the term ‘economism’ was used by Lenin to characterize critically a conception of Marxism which sought to reduce it [Marxism] to a mere ‘economic theory’ by means of which all social changes could be interpreted.’ Sen’s extract from Engels’ Preface to the Manifesto would constitute an example of ‘economism’ (hence Sen’s recourse to the supplementary fragment from the Letter to Schmidt). Sen, however, accuses Bettelheim of using the term ‘economism’ and linking it to Lenin’s continual struggle against it ‘in order to camouflage his [Bettelheim’s] special (but not so new) conception of ‘historical materialism’, as one directed against economism’. But Sen thinks he sees through Bettelheim’s scheme. Sen assures us: ‘The ‘economism’ that Lenin fought against had nothing to do with the understanding of the economic factor in the materialist conception of history.’ Indeed, Sen reminds us that the ‘economism’ against which Lenin did fight (in What Is To Be Done?) was that which sought to limit the working class struggle to the sphere of economic struggle, i.e., trade-union demands and economic reforms.

Unfortunately, Sen, in his eagerness to remain true to the Word, and rein in what he perceives to be Bettelheim’s fast, lose and deliberately distorted use of the term ‘economism’, has substituted his own fast, restrictive and deliberately distorted notion limited to its particular application in the year 1902! Sen, apparently, is only able to recognize ‘economism’ as a particular ideological form and NOT a general ideological tendency capable of assuming many forms. I think the latter is CLEARLY Lenin’s point of view. For example, Lenin characterized the period of struggle against the Narodniks (1894-1902) as the ‘old Economism,’ and fourteen years later, in the midst of the First World War, he was fighting against the ‘new Economism’ (this is Lenin’s characterization), viz. ‘Imperialist Economism.’

We need only to recall that Lenin, in ‘The Nascent Trend of Imperialist Economism,' summed up the 'fundamental mistake' of Economism as the 'inability to pose political questions' (vol. 23, p. 18). For Lenin, imperialist Economism, the existence of which was bound up with the national question, was characterized by 'The same [old] Economist refusal to see and pose political questions. Since socialism creates the economic basis for the abolition of national oppression in the political sphere, therefore our author refuses to formulate our political tasks in this sphere. That’s ridiculous!’ (p. 16) The same idea is again expressed by Lenin in ‘A Caricature of Marxism and Imperialist Economism’: ‘The economic revolution will create the necessary prerequisites for eliminating all types of political oppression. Precisely for that reason it is illogical and incorrect to reduce everything to the economic revolution, for the question is: how to eliminate national oppression? It cannot be eliminated without an economic revolution. That is incontestable. But to limit ourselves to this is to lapse into absurd and wretched imperialist Economism,’ (vol. 23, p. 75) that is, into forgoing the need to ‘formulate our political tasks’ based on the concrete conditions at hand.

It is this failure to ‘formulate our political tasks’ which converts the economic factor from being merely a necessary condition into one that is both a necessary and (above all) sufficient condition, and it is this last formulation, which seeks ‘to reduce everything to the economic revolution’, that is a hallmark of mechanical materialism. Is Sen really serious when he asserts that ‘The ‘economism’ that Lenin fought against had nothing [??!!] to do with the understanding of the economic factor in the materialist conception of history’? Is Sen blinded here by forgetfulness or is it just good old dogmatism asserting itself? How is Bettelheim’s characterization of ‘economism’ substantively different from the essence of Lenin’s formulation? Thus far, I would suggest, not at all.

At this point Sen returns ever so briefly (in fact, for only one sentence) to the materialist conception of history as a general proposition en route to re-affirming the classical thesis of the primacy of the productive forces. He first takes Bettelheim to task for characterizing as ‘economist’ the thesis that ‘the economic base is the ultimate determining factor.’ Since Sen provides no direct quotation from Bettelheim, this must be an inference and as such it requires some evidence, i.e., an argument based on an analysis that sustains the inference. Nevertheless, in some sense what Sen asserts is very true. Since Sen neglected to construct a sentence, giving us only a fragment, it is difficult to understand EXACTLY with respect to WHAT ‘the economic base is the ultimate determining factor’. With respect to development? Change? (They are not one and the same unless one is a Hegelian evolutionist.) Class struggle? Politics? Human sexuality? All the above? And everything else we can think of? Setting Sen’s vague formulation aside, a formulation which I would hope NO Marxist could endorse), what EXACTLY does it mean to say ‘the economic base is the ultimate determining factor’ (of whatever)? That the economy is determinant ‘in the last instance’? which merely re-states the prior formulation without moving any further. A great deal turns on what is packed into our understanding of the notion ‘ultimate’ and of the limits placed on the category ‘determination.’

Although Sen earlier cited the formulation presented by Engels’ 1890 letter to Schmidt (which characterizes the economic as ‘by far the strongest, the primary and most decisive’), the statement ‘ultimately determining’ comes from Engels’ letter to Bloch (21 September 1890, which I suspect is even more famous than the letters to Schmidt), a letter which is curiously absent from Sen’s string of quotations. No matter, Sen never made an attempt to explicate the sense of Engels’ remarks. Specifically, how do the instances of the ‘superstructure’ ‘interact’? What are the modalities of ‘interaction’? Are the ‘political’ and ‘ideological’ instances just ‘phenomenal forms’ of the economy, in which the economy basically defines everything, or at least everything that is ‘important’, perpetually relegating the superstructure to a secondary role, a ‘reflex’? Or is there a ‘relative autonomy’ of the superstructure which then entails that these ‘instances’ (i.e., the ‘political’ and ‘ideological’) can (and must!) necessarily play a leading role at times that limits the ‘effectivity’ (the determination) of the economy (e.g., the emergence of the dictatorship of the proletariat and the policies instituted to further this dictatorship).

In this same letter to Bloch, Engels stated, ‘We had to emphasize the main principle vis-à-vis our adversaries, who denied it, and we had not always the time, the place or the opportunity to give their due to other elements involved in the interaction.’ In short, he and Marx had, by and large, ‘bent the stick’ (to use one of Lenin’s statement) in one direction only to gain a hearing for the importance of the economic factor, and as such they were in part responsible for the one-sided understanding that was fast becoming Second International orthodoxy. It was here that Engels tried to correct such a misunderstanding by stressing the importance of the superstructural aspects as part of ‘the whole vast process go[ing] on in the form of interaction.’ I have provided a more complete context for the extract Sen used in order to make the following point: Engels, by his own admission, acknowledged that all too often the materialist conception of history had been presented in such a manner as to impart a one-sided emphasis on the economic factor. As a corrective to this, Engels (in the same letter) singled out The Eighteenth Brumaire, Capital, Anti-Dühring and Ludwig Feuerbach as the central texts illustrating an all-sided application of the materialist conception of history. Conspicuously absent from this list is the famous 1859 Preface. In light of this, one cannot just go about reproducing long quotations, because there are ‘counter-quotations,’ and this means that things are not always as clear and self-evident as Sen would like us to believe.

Sen’s momentary gesture toward the re-assertion of the economic base as ‘the ultimate determining factor’ was merely intended as a lead into his central concern: re-affirming the classical thesis of ‘the development of the productive forces as the driving force of history’. Make no mistake. Bettelheim DOES follow Althusser et al in calling this thesis into question and characterizing it as ‘economistic.’ This heresy is committed in defence of another classical thesis, to wit, ‘the class struggle as the driving force of history’). On this point Sen is absolutely correct, although you’d NEVER know it from the quotations (pp. 86-87) extracted from Bettelheim that he chose to string together into a relatively incoherent view! Sen makes NO attempt whatsoever to explain how it is that Bettelheim could possibly view the thesis that gives primacy to the development of the forces of production as one tainted by economism. This is dishonest. When one criticizes an opponent one is obliged to present the position of that opponent, and bend over backwards to do so. Had I never read Bettelheim, I’d be hard pressed to understand how in the hell he could possibly find ‘Marx sufficiently guilty of such an economistic view.’

Let me construct Bettelheim’s view on the basis of the quotations given to the reader by Sen, and on the basis of this let’s see if we can discern why on earth Bettelheim would have the gall to claim that some of Marx’s formulations are tainted by economism. First, Bettelheim is claiming that it is incorrect to suppose that the formulations and analysis of Marx and Engels are consistent from beginning to end. Put another way, Marx and Engels may both have been communists in the early 1840s, but only later did they really become Marxists. And even then, this ‘becoming’ was a process of a gradual shedding of old views and concepts and the formulation of more properly scientific concepts of analysis. Second, Bettelheim’s shot at Stalin’s Dialectical and Historical Materialism (for which there was no REAL reason to quote, in the context of letting Bettelheim speak for himself, other than Sen’s desire to remind the reader of his own personal ‘fidelity’ to Stalin, as if any criticism of the latter constituted ‘opposition’) has as its real target Marx’s 1859 Preface (which Plekhanov, Stalin, and Bukharin took as their fundamental text– as does Sen, as we will see later on). Third, what interests Bettelheim about the Preface is the apparently ‘autonomous’ character of the development of the productive forces, independent from the relations of production. Fourth, Bettelheim reads Marx, in the quotation from the so-called ‘Appendix’ to Capital, vol. I (‘Results of the Immediate Process of Production’) where Marx writes of the ‘formal’ and ‘real’ subsumption of labour under capital, as taking a step forward by presenting the development of the productive forces as internally related to the productive relations, that is, organically linked to the class struggle. On this view, the productive forces do not develop independently, ‘surrounded by’ the relations of production (if you will), such that the latter are externally related to the former; the productive forces develop on the basis of the relations of production. (I will come back to this momentarily.)

This, VERY SCHEMATICALLY, is the argument that can be discerned from the string of quotations Sen selected. Had Sen bothered to include some reference to the famous 1846 letter by Marx to Annenkov (‘Assume a particular state of development in the productive forces... and you will get a particular form of commerce and consumption,... a corresponding social constitution,... organization of the family, of orders or of classes,... and you will get particular political conditions which are only the official statement of civil society’) which Bettelheim does quote, or the equally famous formulation from the Poverty of Philosophy (‘the handmill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill, society with the industrial capitalist’) which Bettelheim does not quote, this would have given some additional credibility to Bettelheim’s thesis that Marx’s views underwent a change of emphasis over the years, i.e., moved away from a form of ‘technological determinism’. Now, given the foregoing, what is the case for characterizing the ‘productivist’ thesis (i.e., the theory of the productive forces) as ‘economistic’? Very simply: where’s the politics?– which is a question one is NOT apt to ask with respect to the other classical thesis (‘the class struggle as the driving force of history’), a thesis which is CLEARLY and DEEPLY grounded in the relations of production.

Had Sen made even the slightest effort to explain on what basis Bettelheim could possibly argue that there are ‘economistic’ theses present in Marx’s work, he would have done much to enhance his credibility as a conscientious defender of the Word. As it is, the only thing that stands out is Sen’s intellectual dishonesty. This is all the more so when we encounter his first words that follow the string of quotes from Bettelheim that ends with Bettelheim’s extract from the Appendix: ‘Incidentally, Charles Bettelheim’s charlatanism is totally exposed here.’ And wherein lay the deceit? Since Sen rarely speaks for himself, I’m loathe to speak for him when he finally does manage to find an occasion to express his own thoughts. As such, I’m going to let Sen speak himself:

‘Not only that he [Bettelheim] has ‘confined himself’ to ‘just two examples’ (as if he can give more) from the Appendix to Capital, Vol. I (removed by Marx himself in subsequent editions), the main body of which (the book) refutes his contention but even then this fare is spurious. The full paragraph from which Bettelheim quotes... reads (quite to the contrary!) like this –’ (p. 87).

We will get to the ‘full paragraph’ in short order. But for the moment let’s skip over the poor syntax and focus on the misinformation contained in the first clause of this sentence-without-a-verb. Bettelheim does not say ‘just two examples’; he says ‘two examples’. Sen’s inclusion of the word ‘just’ is a duplicitous trick intended to lend some credence to the haughtiness of his snide parenthetical remark: ‘as if he can give more’. Actually, a quick perusal of the sections focusing specifically on the matter of the formal and the real subsumption of labor under capital, where Bettelheim was only able to find ‘just two examples’ (pp. 1026, 1064-65) yields three addition examples (pp. 1021, 1031, 1034– and a fourth preceding the above topic on p. 1010) and prompts one to wonder whether Sen actually read the Appendix! Moreover, Marx never ‘himself’ removed the Appendix ‘in subsequent editions’ because this ‘Appendix’ was never included in any published edition of Capital in the first place! I’m going to pass over the question of ‘why?’ Marx never included the ‘Results...’ in any published edition of Capital. For Sen its absence clearly speaks volumes, i.e., that Marx judged the material to be either misguided, or worse, incorrect (this latter being the best case scenario for Sen). Neither conclusion is justified, although no other conclusion is possible for Sen, since this would require that he actually explain what in the hell Marx was doing when he wrote those passages that suggested changes in the relations of production appeared as a condition for changes in the productive forces. Neither conclusion is justified any more than it would be for some of the most significant of Marx’s writings which he never published. It is well known that Marx was very much a perfectionist with respect to both form and content. I will suggest in a moment that the ideas under discussion which appear in the ‘Results...’ also appear in Capital in a less didactic form. Notwithstanding these minor points, which are only worth noting as another example of Sen’s poor attention to detail, its pretty clear that Sen really thinks he finally has Bettelheim by the short hairs, for the deceit (that is, Bettelheim’s, not Sen’s) exists in the ‘spurious’ interpretation given to one of its passages.

Now, for the ‘full paragraph’ that ‘... reads (quite to the contrary!)’ of what Bettelheim claims.

For capitalist relations to establish themselves at all presupposes that a certain historical level of social production has been attain. Even within the framework of an earlier mode of production certain needs and certain means of communication and production must have developed which go beyond the old relations of production and coerce them into a capitalist mould. But for the time being they need to be developed only to the point that permits the formal subsumption of labour under capital. On the basis of that change, however, specific changes in the mode of production are introduced which create new forces of production and these in turn influence the mode of production so that new real conditions come into being. Thus a complete economic revolution is brought about. On the one hand it creates the real conditions for the domination of labour by capital, perfecting the process and providing it with the appropriate framework.’

The italicized section of this extract is Sen’s emphasis and is meant to demonstrate that Bettelheim’s conclusion, which stresses the role of the relations of production in revolutionizing the productive forces, contradicts the meaning of the larger paragraph as laid out in the opening sentences. Sen’s interpretation of this passage is as follows:

‘Marx gives ‘primacy’ to the development of the productive forces. He writes that the formal subsumption of the labour process to capital requires a certain development of productive forces; even then, he considers these relations inadequate for the specifically capitalist mode of production. Marx considers productive forces to be the most mobile element of production. In the over all historical development of society, productive forces have played the main determining role’ (p. 88).

This is the extent of Sen’s ‘analysis’ of the disputed passages and his refutation of Bettelheim, and what a mess he makes of it! The first sentence, ‘Marx gives ‘primacy’ to the development of the productive forces,’ is the central thesis Sen takes away from the disputed passage and it is the proposition for which he must present an argument. Let’s see how his analysis unfolds.

The second sentence of Sen’s ‘argument’: ‘He [Marx] writes that the formal subsumption of the labour process to capital requires a certain development of productive forces; even then, he considers these relations [i.e., ‘the formal subsumption of the labour process to capital’] inadequate for the specifically capitalist mode of production.’ This is straight forward enough: the level of development of the productive forces sufficient for ‘the formal subsumption of labour under capital’ is insufficient for the ‘specifically capitalist mode of production’. This is certainly true. But so what? One cannot conclude from this that ‘Marx gives ‘primacy’ to the development of the productive forces’, any more than one could conclude that he gives primacy to the existence of ‘certain needs’ or ‘certain means of communication’. There is NOTHING is the disputed passage to warrant any claim about ‘primacy’. On what basis does Sen justify his claim? On no basis whatsoever. It is, apparently, self-evident from the words expressed by Marx when he wrote: ‘even within the framework of an earlier mode of production certain needs and certain means of communication and production must have developed which go beyond the old relations of production and coerce them into a capitalist mould.’ It is here that Sen terminates his italics; he sees ‘means of communication and production must have developed which go beyond the old relations of production and coerce them into a capitalist mould’ and voila, ‘the ‘primacy’ of the productive forces’!

Let’s see to what extent sentences three and four develop the argument further. The third sentence, ‘Marx considers productive forces to be the most mobile element of production,’ as stated, is an empirical proposition and it is most certainly false: there is NOTHING ‘mobile’ about land, which surely constitutes a pervasive productive force), and besides, the relevance of the question of ‘mobility’ is never even established. Moreover, ‘most mobile’ compared to what? It is a gratuitous assertion which contributes NOTHING WHATSOEVER to the issue under consideration. It has been suggested to me that my reading here is ‘too literal’ and that ‘mobile’ should be understood to mean ‘development’. If that is what Sen meant, why didn’t he just say it? There is nothing about Sen’s text that would qualify it as a piece of literature entitled to some kind of poetic licence in his choice of words. Make the substitution if you like, but I see no need to alter my assessment of the analytic contribution of his sentence.

And finally, the last proposition, ‘In the over all historical development of society, productive forces have played the main determining role’, is of course nothing more than a non sequitur; there is ABSOLUTELY NOTHING in the prior sentences to justify this salto mortale! It merely re-asserts, in a generalized form, the initial thesis and is quite simply a textbook case of begging the question. Given the total irrelevance of sentences three and four of Sen’s ‘argument,’ all of the burden of his ‘analysis’ is carried (by default) by the second sentence and his perhaps figurative use of the word ‘mobile.’ With this kind of rigour, Sen’s ‘argument’ and ‘analysis’ doesn’t even rise to the level of a charlatan, for such an ascent would first require a good measure of intellectual coherence.

Sen should have paid closer attention to the sentence IMMEDIATELY FOLLOWING the section he set off in italics, because it is the former which renders the latter meaningful. Marx writes, ‘But for the time being they [i.e., ‘certain needs and certain means of communication and production’] need to be developed only to the point that permits the formal subsumption of labour under capital.’ ‘But for the time being...’ It is clear that the sentence upon which Sen hangs his hat describes a condition that follows the appearance of the ‘formal subsumption of labour under capital,’ that is, that Marx is referring to the period of the ‘real subsumption of capital under labour.’

Sen, unwittingly (and contrary to all intentions), actually acknowledges as much when he writes, in the second half of his second sentence: ‘even then, he [Marx] considers these relations inadequate for the specifically capitalist mode of production.’ Unfortunately, Sen shows no understanding of what Marx means by the statement ‘specifically capitalist mode of production.’ Had he read the ‘Results...’ carefully he would realize that the word ‘specifically’ often appears italicized, and that this was in the context of differentiating between capitalism in its initial stage of development and capitalism when it has come into its own. With respect to the latter Marx employs such expressions as ‘adequate form,’ ‘perfecting the process,’ ‘appropriate framework,’ etc. That is, the development of the productive forces ‘Taylored’ (please allow me this play on words) to the self-expansion of capital, freed of the dead weight of its origins. It is the difference between a capitalism founded on absolute surplus-value and one founded on relative surplus-value. Marx is very clear on this: ‘... if we consider the two forms of surplus-value, absolute and relative, separately, we shall see that absolute surplus-value always precedes relative. To these two forms of surplus-value there correspond two separate forms of the subsumption of labour under capital, or two distinct forms of capitalist production’ (p. 1025 – my emphasis – DJR).

There is an analogous error in the notion of ‘mode of production.’ Marx utilizes this notion in two distinct senses; on the one hand, in a very narrow sense to refer to the labour process, the process of production, and on the other, in a very broad sense, as when capitalism is contrasted with slavery, feudalism, etc. and includes much more than the production process. In the Appendix, indeed, in the very quotation which Sen charges Bettelheim with ‘charlatanism,’ Marx is using the narrow sense (e.g., ‘On the basis of that change [the coming into being of the ‘formal subsumption of labour under capital’], however, specific changes in the mode of production are introduced which create new forces of production and these in turn influence the mode of production so that new real conditions come into being.’), while Sen appears to be basing himself on the broader sense of the term.

For the sake of argument we’ll set aside these critical remarks and assume Sen’s reading to be correct, how does he deal with the substantive issue attending Marx’s discussion of the ‘formal subsumption of labour under capital’? He doesn’t, choosing instead simply to ignore the matter. However, if Sen is to be taken seriously, it is incumbent upon him to offer an alternative reading of the passage(s) singled out by Bettelheim, viz. with ‘the formal subsumption of labour under capital... specific changes in the mode of production are introduced which create new forces of production and these in turn influence the mode of production so that new real conditions come into being’. Predictably, Sen has nothing at all to say.

Even if Sen were to concede, for some unexplainable reason (for it would have to be ‘unexplainable’), to Bettelheim some ground on the significance of the relations of production vis-à-vis the so-called ‘Appendix’ to Capital, ‘the main body of which (the book) refutes this contention’, it is this latter assessment that remains, as far as Sen is concerned, the inescapable conclusion when all is said and done. Now, DOES ‘the main body... (the book)’ really ‘refute this contention’ as Sen insists? I wonder? To be sure, one does not encounter the expressions ‘formal subsumption’ and ‘real subsumption’ in Capital (not that I can recall anyhow). But in chapters 13, 14 and 15 of vol. I of ‘(the book) [that] refutes...’, Marx outlines three stages, characterized by distinct modes of cooperation, leading to the fully-developed capitalist mode of production: simple cooperation, cooperation based on the division of labor in the workshop (the unstated ‘formal subsumption’ typical of manufacturing where accumulation is limited to the production of absolute surplus-value), and cooperation based on machinery (‘machinofacture’, the unstated ‘real subsumption’ specific to large-scale industry and the primacy of the production of relative surplus-value, the ‘adequate form’ of the capitalist mode of production). In this process, it is the relations of production, i.e., the relentless striving of capital to wrest control of the process of production from the direct producers, that is the ‘determining’ character of the development of the forces of production. Is not ‘Taylorism’ the quintessential statement of this?

Although Capital is typically read as a book of economics or history, and often even as philosophy, one can and should also read Capital politically. Such a reading of ‘the book’ draws out the profound influence of capitalist relations of production on the development of the forces of production. Marx’s account of the emergence and development of the capitalist mode of production, from primitive accumulation (i.e., the separation of the direct producers from the means of production) and the ‘Poor Laws’, through the history of the extension of the working-day, to the Factory Acts, illustrates changes in the productive forces brought on by the pressure of the relations of production. The political revolutions of the bourgeoisie did not bring about the development of capitalism by accelerating the development of the productive forces, but by advancing the imposition of capitalist relations of production on the process of production. Indeed, the entire period from the middle of the 16th century to the mid-18th century, i.e., to roughly the onset of the ‘industrial revolution’, is one characterized by a series of struggles reflecting a gradual, but nevertheless thorough-going, imposition of the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. For some reason, such political considerations are entirely absent from Sen’s reading of the materialist conception of history.

Sen correctly links Bettelheim’s criticism of the thesis giving primacy to the development of the productive forces to the failure of this thesis to give ‘pride of place to the class struggle’, the other principle of classical Marxism. And at this point Sen commences the task of setting the record straight, beginning with the famous 1852 letter to Weydemeyer where Marx specifies what he considers to be his contribution to understanding the historical conditions giving rise to the existence of social classes. And what does Sen conclude from the passage? That ‘it is important to note that Marx links the existence of classes to stages of development of production,’ a ‘view which Bettelheim finds to be economistic’, even though it ‘is definitely linked to class struggle, revolutionary changes and ‘production relations’’ (p. 88). A ‘view which Bettelheim finds to be economistic’? Since he offers no quote from Bettelheim to sustain this claim, we can assume that Sen is drawing an inference, in which case we need some substance to support this assertion.

Although it may be self-evident to Sen, I for one need some help in seeing through those murky things that are readily transparent to him. That he is not forthcoming means we are left on our own to read his mind. So, why would Sen conclude that Bettelheim views the linking of classes to stages of production as an economistic thesis? Since Sen had just been not-discussing the primacy of the productive forces, can we assume that what he had in mind was that a rejection of this proposition is tantamount to a rejection of the notion that classes are defined in relation to an economic category, viz. production. That is, is a rejection of the thesis of the primacy of the productive forces at once a rejection of production as the site from which class relations are constituted in the first instance? If this is what Sen has in mind, it is ridiculous: production clearly cannot be reduced to the productive forces (although this is exactly what Sen tends to do!) and only a thorough misreading, or a dishonest reading, of Bettelheim could reach the conclusion that the latter performs such a reduction. A second possible interpretation of Sen’s accusation vis-à-vis Bettelheim is that since Marx grounds the existence of specific classes in the degree of development of various social forms of production, the site of this very grounding is what makes it economistic. If this is the view being attributed to Bettelheim, it is equally ludicrous and it too is the product of a thorough misreading, or a dishonest reading. These two ‘readings’ are as far as I can go in making sense of Sen’s accusation. For Sen to sustain either one of these interpretations requires more than a hollow assertion; we need some ‘evidence’ here, either a quote or an analysis. He provides neither and simply moves on, confident he has hit the mark again.

Sen is not finished; he has more to say about the class struggle. We’ll skip over his chiding of Bettelheim for drawing a distinction within the writings of Marx and Engels, between ‘one revolutionary and the other ‘not so rigorous’ (read economistic)’, although Engels himself acknowledged as much (at least with respect to the presence of economistic formulations) in his 21 September 1890 letter to Bloch to which I referred earlier. However, we won’t skip over Sen’s proposition that Bettelheim ‘dubs the view that links the existence of classes to stages of development of production and the ensuing class struggle as the immediate driving forces of history as mechanical materialism (note our [i.e., Sen’s] emphasis on immediate)’ (p. 89). Before we inquire into exactly whose ‘view’ this is, let’s be clear that there is no necessary connection between the two clauses joined by ‘and’. Sen is just resorting to one of his verbal tricks again. He implies that by claiming the latter, Bettelheim must necessarily be rejecting the former. However, one can readily accept ‘the view that links the existence of classes to stages of development of production’ (although I must insist, as I would think that every Marxist would, that every ‘stage of development of production’ presupposes determinant relations of production) and still hold the view, without contradiction, that characterizes the position which sees the ‘ensuing class struggle as the immediate driving forces of history as mechanical materialism’. Now, exactly, whose ‘view’ is this that Bettelheim is (supposed to be) contesting? According to Sen it is ‘the classical Marxist position’ expressed by Engels (and presumably shared by Marx). And the proof for this? Sen, again without comment, merely drops yet another self-evident quotation, an excerpt from Ludwig Feuerbach... ‘every class struggle is a political struggle [and] turns ultimately on the question of economic emancipation.’ It is pretty self-evident that Sen was not paying close attention to the matter at hand when he invited us to ‘(note [his] emphasis on immediate)’ because he produced a quotation that contradicted his own assertion! For Engels the operative word is ‘ultimately,’ not ‘immediate’ as Sen claims!

Let’s move from Engels to Lenin for a moment. I do not recall EVER coming across ANYTHING where Lenin reduced his analysis of the various ‘current situations’ requiring a ‘concrete analysis of concrete conditions’ to the level of development of the forces of production, or the contradiction between the forces and relations of production, or between capital and labour, in short as a ‘the political struggle between classes as the direct and immediate result of economic contradictions’. Indeed, Lenin’s account of the Great October Revolution, predicated on the unevenness of capitalist development and the existence of Russia as the ‘weakest link in the imperialist chain,’ is UNTHINKABLE in terms of ‘the political struggle between classes as the direct and immediate result of economic contradictions’. This is not to say that these contradictions didn’t exist or that they never asserted themselves; they were always present defining the broadest parameters of the struggle (i.e., the ‘fundamental contradiction’, to use an statement from Mao that may not sit well with some or most readers). But it is precisely because the fundamental economic contradictions are always ever-present that they are insufficient unto themselves to induce those extremely rare historical conjunctions called ‘revolutionary situations.’ The Mensheviks read their Marx and Engels, too, much like Sen reads them, i.e., like Second International dogmatists. The latter did not embrace Lenin’s call, in 1905, for the ‘revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry’, a concept so thoroughly alien to the Second International’s ‘evolutionary’ Marxism which contently sat ‘waiting for Godot’, i.e., for capitalism to ‘mature’ (as defined by what criteria?) before placing a socialist revolution on the agenda.

Returning now to Sen. Not having realized that he produced a quotation from Engels that contradicted his own thesis, Sen thinks he has Bettelheim on the run, so now he can strip Bettelheim of his ‘fig leaf’ and clear everything up by exposing the latter’s genitalia. And how is he going to do that? By another quote. It was only a matter of time before Sen trotted out the 1859 ‘Preface,’ the crème brûlée of Sen’s Marxism. In the very early pages of his text Sen quoted Bettelheim’s misgivings as to whether the Preface was free of ‘ambiguity.’ You may recall that for Bettelheim the ‘ambiguity’ consisted of the manner in which the development of productive forces is conceived, that is, as autonomous (i.e., a ‘partly unexplained’ self-movement) or as a development predicated on a contradictory relation with ‘an other’, (i.e., the relations of production). For Sen, however, it is only an ‘alleged ambiguity’ because in fact ‘there is no ambiguity’ at all (p. 90). So, let’s see how Sen dispels Bettelheim’s misgivings for the reader.

But before showing how Sen accomplishes this, let’s see how he DOESN’T accomplish this. What he does not do is address the issue raised by Bettelheim straight on. The question of whether the development of the productive forces proceeds by way, even ‘partly,’ of an ‘autonomous movement,’ or solely in relation to the relations of production is merely ignored. Sen, in a manner that has become habitual, simply refuses to enter into the fray and tell us what’s wrong with Bettelheim’s reading. Is Bettelheim’s suggestion that in the Preface an ‘autonomous movement’ is attributed to the productive forces an incorrect reading? If so, why? What, then, is the impetus behind the development of the productive forces?

Since Sen doesn’t tackle Bettelheim head on, i.e., on the basis of the specific issues raised by the latter, let’s see what Sen does do to counter Bettelheim. Now that Sen has made it clear that ‘there is no ambiguity,’ simply because he says there isn’t (it is unusual, to say the least, that an author’s ‘appeal to authority’ would be to his own authority!), he then seeks to locate the origin of Bettelheim’s mistaken reading in the latter’s ‘r-r-revolutionary position which gives primacy to the productive relations.’ Sen refers to this as the "relations of production first’ fetish’. This characterization as a ‘fetish’ is not meant to aid the reader in understanding Bettelheim’s position (the better to criticize it); it is a brand, the negative connotations of which serve as a stand in for a cogent critical analysis. Given Sen’s standards, we might ‘dub’ his position as a ‘forces of production first’ fetish’. No knowledge is imparted; only misinformation since the Marxist concept of fetish is very specific. Sen is just employing yet another cheap trick (or should we write it off as literary license, also?); this is the mark of a true ‘charlatan,’ an intellectual pigmy if there ever was one. Before we look more closely at Sen’s discussion of Bettelheim’s ‘fetish’, perhaps it is not out of place to recall that Lenin, in his ‘Conspectus of the Book the Holy Family...’ characterized the social relations of production as ‘the basic idea of his [Marx’s] entire ‘system" (vol. 38, p. 30). (I understand Lenin’s quotation marks to be a rejection of the thesis that Marx developed a ‘system’, i.e., a complete and integrated structure of concepts and propositions from which one can easily extract formulas.) This should serve to temper any hasty acceptance of Sen’s characterization and perhaps even prompt some reflection.

In the meantime, let’s see what substantive points Sen has to offer. First, we are told that Bettelheim’s ‘fetish’ ‘discards the basic dialectical materialist understanding which led Marx to his materialist conception of history’ (p. 90). For which you may ask, ‘And how is that?’ Since the thought expressed in the above phrase is never developed and no connection ever made between ‘basic dialectical materialist understanding’ and ‘materialist conception of history,’ one cannot possibly know how Bettelheim’s ‘fetish’ was an act of ‘discarding.’ What EXACTLY is ‘the basic dialectical materialist understanding’? How does a focus on the relations of production result in a violation of ‘the basic dialectical materialist understanding’? Sen is merely spewing out phrases here; reciting a catechism. This is the price to be paid by the reader for the following series of rhetorical questions which culminate in a climatic answer.

‘The question which Marx asked,’ Sen begins, ‘was why certain social relations existed at a certain age and not other ones. Why do men establish certain types of social relations among themselves and not other ones? Are these social relations (relations of production) established by men in accordance with their sweet will? What does Charles Bettelheim’s ‘production relations first’ fetish signify then?’ And before you know it, the answer is at hand: ‘It signifies chance, arbitrariness and an appeal to things like ‘elevated human nature of selflessness, collectivism’ etc. In short, it grounds political economy and the materialist conception of history in to the quicksand of subjectivism’ (p. 90). Here we go again. ‘Chance’. How so? Arbitrariness’. How so? ‘Subjectivism’. How so? Where are the arguments to back up these assertions? Sen apparently thinks he has done his job by merely imputing a position to Bettelheim via a rhetorical question: ‘Are these social relations (relations of production) established by men in accordance with their sweet will?’ What is the evidence, textual or interpretive, that it is ‘sweet will’ (understood literally or figuratively) at work in Bettelheim’s emphasis on the relations of production? In place of an analysis demonstrating that ‘chance, arbitrariness and... the quicksand of subjectivism’ is where Bettelheim’s "relations of production first’ fetish’ ultimately lead us, Sen thinks it is enough merely to string together numerous quotations where the relations of production are not emphasized.

It is at this point, after having covered (albeit only schematically) roughly one-half of Sen’s ‘text,’ that my ‘comment’ comes to an abrupt halt. It is here that Sen ceases any direct reference to Bettelheim’s work, having completed, at least to his satisfaction, his task of stripping Bettelheim of his ‘fig leaf’ and exposing him and his ‘r-r-revolutionary position’ as mere ‘charlatanism’. And so it is here that I abandoned commenting on Sen’s essay. Suffice it to say that the last part of Sen’s ‘text’ is, just as the first, an excellent example of the very ‘economistic’ reading of Marxism that Bettelheim (et al) criticized so many years ago! For, as the reader must undoubtedly have noticed, there is NOT ONE place where Sen EVER managed to find an opportunity to mention, let alone find a place for, the importance of politics in his zealous defence of a dogmatic reading of the materialist conception of history.

Let me close this brief ‘communication’ by placing ‘Marxism and Mr. Bettelheim’ in the broader context of this journal’s treatment of theoretical issues, after which I will try to illustrate my point with an example. This piece, like all of the articles I’ve read involving a discussion of theoretical questions in RD (at least since 1998 when my subscription began), is so rife with dogmatism that it vitiates any claims that Marxism-Leninism is a science always in the process of development. It is quite clear that for the contributors to RD Marxism-Leninism hasn’t taken a step forward since Stalin (roughly fifty years), when what has really happened is that the contributors to RD have not gone beyond Stalin. From the 1998 publication, without comment, of the sycophantic piece by Mitin, Kammari and Aleksandrov dating from 1949 (‘The Contribution of Stalin to Marxism-Leninism’), though Vijay Singh’s ‘Stalin and the Making of The Political Economy of Socialism,’ Inter’s ‘J. V. Stalin and the Theory of Socialist Reproduction,’ and now Sen’s ‘Marxism and Mr. Bettelheim,’ there has NEVER once been a critical engagement with the material at hand. Suffice it to say that this ‘attitude’, this uncritical ‘requisite fidelity’ to Stalin, while it is to be expected of those who are young and still learning to stand on their own, is absolutely reprehensible when expressed by ostensibly seasoned Marxist-Leninists. One does not honour Stalin (nor anyone else) by refusing to critically engage his writings.

Perhaps the contributors to RD simply couldn’t find anything for which to be critical?! Is it a blind eye or slothfulness in matters theoretical that could allow, for example, the very notion of ‘socialist relations of production’ to go unexamined? At the very least, this concept implies the existence of a distinct ‘socialist mode of production,’ that is, distinct from the capitalist and the as-yet-to-be-born communist modes of production, and as such this conception introduces a slight ‘modification’ (perhaps even a ‘revision’) in the ‘traditional’ understanding of socialism. No longer are we dealing with a transitional ‘phase’ between capitalism and communism, wherein socialism is but the first step in the development of a communist mode of production that has yet to advance on its own foundation. With the elevation of socialism from a transitional phase to a distinct form of social production (which the notion of ‘socialist relations of production’ entails), it becomes a member of the handful of historically constituted modes of production. Such a conception of socialism does not figure in the works of Marx or Engels, nor in those of Lenin, if memory serves; it is a relatively new formulation that does not enjoy a long history in the annals of Marxism-Leninism.

Before jumping to embrace this new conception, we would do well to consider the following, which is intended to be illustrative, not exhaustive. If, as Marx demonstrated, capitalism is the last possible mode of production where the relations of production are relations of exploitation, which necessarily entail class relations, what are we to make of the relations of production of a ‘socialist mode of production’? Is it a new form of exploitation? Of course not. But if there is no exploitation, how can we speak of the existence of classes? Marxism is unequivocal in maintaining that class relations are relations of exploitation, that the existence of classes is at once the existence of class struggle (however developed or backward its forms may be). And if there are no classes, is this not communism? How then would a socialist mode of production differ from a communist mode of production? Moreover, if we recall Marx’s remarks in the Critique of the Gotha Progamme (with respect to paragraph 3 of the programme), where he is quite emphatic in making the point that under socialism it is still bourgeois right (and the limitations thereof) which regulate the relation of the workers to the means of production and to the product of their labour, some effort will be necessary to reconcile the existence of a socialist mode of production as something founded on bourgeois right. And what are the developmental contradictions of this mode of production? Then there is the matter of the dictatorship of the proletariat; how does it fit into the scheme of things? Is it the means of transition from capitalism to socialism? Or is it the class character of a state existing on the basis of a non-exploiting mode of production, that is, is it the character of the state ‘corresponding’ to a non-exploiting socialist mode of production (which is a rather non-Marxist formulation)?

One can seek to avoid such knotty questions by re-introducing the sense of ‘transition’ back into the ‘traditional’ characterization of socialism and re-christening the latter as a ‘transitional mode of production’. This is sort of like having one’s cake and eating too. It is doubtful, however, whether this characterization of socialism can satisfy the objections raised against the notion of socialism as a non-transitional mode of production, for the problems turn on the content of the concept of mode of production, not on whether the latter is of one type or another, ‘transitional’ on ‘non-transitional’.

As for the ‘transitional’/‘non-transitional’ distinction itself, this also raises a number of issues which in the end will doom the notion of a ‘transitional’ mode of production to a state of non-existence. For instance, does the concept of a ‘transitional mode of production’ impart any explanatory value to a scientific analysis of determinant social formations? Or is it merely a pseudo-concept, an eclectic marriage between an adjective and a noun, wherein the scientific status of the concept of ‘mode of production’ is presumed to be sufficient to impart a like status to the notion of a ‘transitional mode of production’? Before this can be added to the fundamental concepts of Marxism-Leninism, there are many questions that have to be answered (or argued away). For example, how does a ‘transitional’ mode of production differ in some fundamental way, i.e., in terms of its internal structure of relations, from a non-transitional mode of production, while at the same time maintaining its character as a mode of production? Assuming for the moment that there is a difference in the internal structure of relations, does this mean that class relations are constituted in fundamentally different ways in ‘transitional’ and ‘non-transitional’ modes of production? Is the relationship between ‘base’ and ‘superstructure’ different in significant ways? And how are we to think about the transition from a ‘transitional’ mode of production to a ‘non-transitional’ mode of production? And these are just a few of the obvious questions.

The foregoing remarks make no pretence to being even a satisfactory examination of a problematic concept. The intent has been merely to suggest that there is a theoretical can of worms attending an unexamined use of the notion of ‘socialist relations of production’. Before this concept can be routinely employed in analyzing any feature of ‘socialism’ in general, and more importantly, that of the former Soviet Union or any other ‘actually existing socialism’ in particular, there are some fundamental problem areas that need to be addressed. Although I am sceptical that the statement ‘socialist relations of production’ designates a reality that helps us understand the internal contradictions of socialist social formations in East Europe and Asia that culminated in the defeat of the dictatorship of the proletariat and the subsequent restorations, I remain reasonably certain that a dogmatic and uncritical acceptance of the concept will yield nothing beneficial. For when all is said and done, in the end, as Mao remarked in an interview in 1965, ‘dogma is less useful than cow dung.’

Click here to return to the September 2001 index.