The State and Classes

Camillo Berneri

Guerra di Classe, 17 October 1936[1]

Lenin in 1921 defined the Soviet Russian State as “a workers’ State with a bureaucratic deformation in a country with a peasant majority.” This definition must today be modified in the following way: the Soviet State is a bureaucratic State in which a bureaucratic bourgeoisie and a petit-bourgeois working class are in the process of formation while the agrarian bourgeoisie still survives.

Boris Souvarine in his book on Stalin (Paris, 1935) gives this portrayal of the social aspect of the USSR:

So-called Soviet society rests on its own method of exploitation of man by man, of the producer by the bureaucracy, of the technician by the political power. For the individual appropriation of surplus value is substituted a collective appropriation by the State, a deduction made for the parasitic consumption of functionaries… official documentation leaves us no doubt: the bureaucracy takes an undue part of the produce, corresponding more or less to the old capitalist profit, of the subjugated classes, which it submits to an inexorable sweating system. There has thus been formed around the Party a new social category, interested in maintaining the established order, and perpetuating the State of which Lenin predicted the extinction with the disappearance of classes. If the Bolsheviks have not the legal ownership of the instruments of production and the means of exchange, they retain the State machinery which allows them all the spoils by varied circuitous means. The mere freedom from restriction in imposing retail costs several times higher than manufacturing costs, contains the true secret of bureaucracies technical exploitation, characterised moreover by administrative and military oppression.

Bonapartism is no more than the political reflection of the tendency of this new bourgeoisie to conserve and enhance its own socio-economic situation. In the 1935 appeal to the world proletariat by the Bolshevik-Leninist Tambov, one can read:

The aim of the party bureaucracy consists solely of the isolation and torture of opponents until they publicly become worthless, that is to say apolitical wretches. The bureaucrat, in fact, does not wish you to be a true Communist. He does not need that. For him that is harmful and mortally dangerous. The bureaucrat does not want independent Communists, he wants miserable slaves, self-seekers and citizens of the worst sort…

Would it be possible that under a true proletarian power the struggle against bureaucracy, against the thieves and brigands who appropriate with impunity the goods of the soviets, who are the cause of the loss of hundreds of thousands of men through cold and famine; would it be possible that a struggle or a simple protest against these wretches be considered as a counterrevolutionary offence?

The cruel struggle between the “revolutionary” oppositions and “conservative” orthodoxy is a phenomenon that is quite natural in the setting of State Socialism. The Leninist opposition has good reason to point out to the world proletariat the deformations, deviations and degenerations of Stalinism, but if the oppositional diagnosis is almost always correct, the oppositional aetiology is almost always inadequate. Stalinism is only the consequence of the Leninist set up of the political problem of the Social Revolution. To oppose the effects without going back to the causes, to the original sin of Bolshevism (bureaucratic dictatorship as a function of the dictatorship of the Party), is equivalent to arbitrarily simplifying the chain of causality which leads from the dictatorship of Lenin without any great breaks in continuity. Liberty within a party which denies the free play of competition amongst the progressive parties within the soviet system would today be a spectacular miracle. Workers’ hegemony [over the peasant majority], Bolshevik absolutism, State Socialism, industrial fetishism: these seeds of corruption could only produce poisoned fruit such as the absolutism of a faction and the hegemony of a [new] class.

Trotsky in the role of Saint George struggling with the Stalinist dragon cannot make us forget the Trotsky of Kronstadt. The responsibility for current Stalinism goes back to the formulation and practice of the dictatorship of the Bolshevik Party in the same way as to the illusion of the extinction of the State as a fruit of the disappearance of classes under the influence of State Socialism.

When Trotsky wrote (6 September 1935): “The historical absurdity of an autocratic bureaucracy in a ‘classless’ society cannot and will not endlessly endure,” he was saying an absurd thing about the “historical absurdity”. In history there is no absurdity. An autocratic bureaucracy is a class, therefore it is not absurd that it should exist in a society where classes remain: bureaucratic and proletarian. If the USSR were a “classless” society, it would also be a society without a bureaucratic autocracy, which is the natural fruit of the permanent existence of the State.

It is because of its function as the party controlling the State machine that the Bolshevik Party became a centre of attraction for careerist petty bourgeois elements and for lazy and opportunist workers.

The bureaucratic wound has not been opened and infected by Stalinism: it is contemporaneous with the Bolshevik dictatorship.

Here are some news items from 1918 and 1919, published by the Bolshevik press. Vetsertsia Isvestia of 23 August 1918 talking of the disorganisation of the postal service, states that despite the 60% decrease in correspondence the number of employees had increased by 100% compared to the period before the Revolution.

Pravda of 11 February 1919 points out the continual creation of new offices, of new bureaucratic institutions, for which officials are named and remunerated before these new institutions begin to operate. “And all these new employees,” says Pravda of 22 February 1919, “overrun and occupy entire palaces, when, seeing their number, a few rooms would be enough.”

Work is slow and obstructionist, even in offices with industrial functions. “An employee of the Commisariat of Lipetzk,” relates Isvestia of 29 November 1918, “in order to buy nine boxes of nails at the price of 417 roubles had to fill in twenty forms, obtain ten orders and thirteen signatures, and he had to wait two days to get them as the bureaucrats who should have signed could not be found.”

Pravda (No. 281) denounced “the invasion of our party by petty bourgeois elements”, making requisitions “for personal use.” In the 2 March 1919 issue, the same paper states:

We must recognise that recently comrades who are in the Communist Party for their first year have begun to make use of methods that are inadmissible in our Party. Making it their duty not to take any notice of the advice of local organisations, believing themselves charged to act personally on the basis of their rather limited authority, they order and command without rhyme or reason. From the imposing of a number of abuses with their individual dictatorship comes a latent discontent between the centre and the periphery.

Speaking of the province of Pensa, the Commissary of the Interior Narkomvnudel said:

The local representatives of the central government conduct themselves not as representatives of the proletariat, but like true dictators. A series of facts and proofs asset that these strange representatives go armed to the poorest of people, taking from them the necessities of life, threatening to kill them, and when they protest, they beat them with sticks. The possessions they have thus requisitioned are resold, and with the money they receive, they organise scenes of drunkenness and orgies. (Wecernia-Isvestia, 12 February 1919)

Another Bolshevik, Meserikov, wrote:

each one of us sees each day innumerable cases of violence, of abuse of power, of corruption, of laziness etc. All of us know that into our soviet institutions, cretins and incompetents have entered en masse. We all regret their presence in the ranks of the Party, but we do nothing to clean ourselves of these impurities.

…If an institution chases out an incompetent, they straight away find another to replace him, and they entrust him with a responsible post. Often instead of punishment he gets promotion. (Pravda, 5 February 1919).

In a speech given at the Eighth Congress of the Russian Communist Party (18-23 March 1919) Lenin acknowledged:

In places careerists and adventurers have attached themselves to us like leeches, people who call themselves Communists and are deceiving us, and who have wormed their way into our ranks because the Communists are now in power, and because the more honest government employees refused to come and work with us on account of their retrograde ideas, while careerists have no ideas, and no honesty. Their only aim is to make a career.

The Bolshevik government revealed itself to be powerless in the face of a bureaucracy which is super-abundant, parasitic, despotic and dishonest.

Five million bureaucrats [in 1921] became nearly ten million. In 1925 there were 400,000 officials in the Co-operatives (Pravda, 20 April 1926), In 1927 the Russian Federation of Food Workers had some 4,287 officials for 451,720 members, and the Moscow Metalworkers Union some 700 officials for 130,000 union cards. (Truda, 12 June 1928).

This plethoric bureaucracy does not correspond to intense and efficient administrative activity. “The directorate of the soviet system from the bottom to the highest degree has a function of paper-shuffling. The provincial committee usually sends out one or two circulars every day on every possible and imaginable question and judges that it has thus fulfilled its obligations.” “The number of circulars giving directives which are received by local cells varies between 30 and 100 per month.” (Pravda, 7 June 1925).

Another official, Dzerjinsky, wrote:

They demand from enterprises the most varied sort of information, reports and statistical facts, which in our system form a torrent of paper which obliges us to employ an excessive number of personnel and damages our real work; a sea of papers is created in which hundreds of people are entangled; the situation of the accounts and statistics is quite simply catastrophic; businesses wearily bear the burden of providing information on dozens and hundreds of different forms; the accounts are now measured in poods. (Pravda, 23 June 1926).

A forestry bureau demands within a week the numbers of partridges, hares, bears, wolves, etc. living in the sectors of the officials asked (Krasnaia Gazeta, 14 May 1926). The provincial directorate of agriculture of Viatka stipulates that the cantonal executive committees count the earth worms found in the fields (Pravda, 1 March 1928).

The Leather memo by the Commissariat of Trade contained 27,000 questions; a Ukrainian agriculture memo contains 20,000 (Isvestia, 11 December 1927). A local executive committee sends a questionnaire to village soviets with 348 questions, and this during the wheat harvest (Pravada, 18 April 1928). The Institute of Experimental Agronomy issues a 6-metre-long survey full of questions about tractors (Diednota, 14 April 1929).

At the Fifteenth Party Congress, Stalin cited the case, amongst many others, of a maimed man who had to wait seven years for a prosthetic limb. A worker who makes a complaint against the management of a company must pass through 24 bureaucratic procedures (Trud, 14 January 1928) A workshop has to complete 210 forms for every worker hired, and it is known that the workforce has a high turnover. (Trud, 5 August 1928) A watch imported into the USSR has to go through 142 items of paperwork (Isvestia, 9 December 1928) An inventor, who went to Moscow to test his discovery, does the paperwork to obtain a room. After a year and a half, he did not get it but he put together a collection of the bureaucratic forms related to that process: 400 documents (Vetchernaia Moska, June 1929).

Party officials are overburdened with duties, Kamenev, before being expelled, was a member of the party’s Central Committee and Politburo, president of the Council of Labour and Defence, president of the Moscow Soviet, deputy chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars, member of the collective presidency of the Supreme Economic Council, member of the Central Executive Committee of the Union and the Executive Committee of the Soviet Republic, Director of the Lenin Institute, co-editor of Bolshevik, the party’s official magazine, and certainly this list of his positions is not complete. Even younger leaders are overworked. A young communist had 16 positions. (Pravda, 21 March 1925).

With such a plethora of bureaucracy, with such a complicated administrative machine, with so little control, it is natural that theft is one of the characteristics of Russia’s bureaucratic life. Another union official, Dogadov, reported to the central union council in 1925 that nearly half (47%) of the Russian trade union confederation’s budget (70 million roubles) had been devoured by officials (Pravda, 9 December 1926). In one year, 5 million 323 thousand roubles were squandered in the co-operatives (Torgovo-Promychlenaia Gazeta, 23 May 1926) All the Bolshevik press in the following years is full of reports on bureaucratic waste in the co-operatives. Tomsky, then president of the Russian trade union confederation, said at the eight congress of the Central Union:

Where is it stolen… Everywhere: in factory committees, in mutual help societies, in clubs, in regional, departmental and district branches; everywhere, in a word. There is even an entry entitled “unknown”, which means it is stolen somewhere, but we do not know where. And who steals? For most of our trade unions, I must say that the presidents are capitalists. How are the thieves divided from a political point of view? The division is almost equal between communists as amongst people whose political orientation is “unknown”. As far as the youth are concerned, the situation is distressing. Union activists do not include more than 9% of young people in any echelon, but amongst thieves it is 12.2%.

In November 1935, Il Risveglio de Ginebra published a letter from a hotel employee which, amongst other things, said:

In March 1925, during an international fair in Lyon, I was at the Nouvel Hotel, where the owner, a hundred percent fascist, had received with honours the Soviet mission. They occupied the best rooms, which the owner charged 120 francs per person per day, prices which at the time were exorbitant, but which the Bolsheviks paid without discussion. And, well, I can verify that they had the same vices as the Russian nobility. At dinner, at the table, they were drunk with congac, and in the name of the dictatorship of the proletariat they were served the best wines from Bordeaux.

“Decorum” leads to lavish and extravagant habits: these habits lead to corruption.

Pravda of 16 October 1936 reported two cases of bureaucratic corruption worth mentioning: “Foreign Industry”, a part of the People’s Commissariat of Foreign Trade, had received money for illicit purposes from the Ukraine trust, from the fuel department of the Commissariat of Roads and Communications, and from other economic organisations; “Light Industry”, a part of the Commissariat of the same name, had received money, also for illicit purposes, from the administration of Kiev’s local industry, from the cotton department of the Commissariat of Agriculture, from the cotton trust and the trust of hides and skins.

The Russian newspapers are lacking relevant news about the corruption of the bureaucracy and are full of reports concerning “the purge of the party”. Indeed, the purge involves the elimination of elements that were not “following the line”. Here are some typical cases, excerpted from the Bolchevistskaia Petchat (numbers 13 and 14 of 1935). The chief editor of the Saratov Kommunist, secretary of the local branch of the Communist Party, was dismissed, not only because that newspaper followed a “wrong political line” but also because the chief of staff, Davidodov, had demonstrated “criminal neglect” by hiring proof-readers and editors of a non-proletarian or prejudiced origin: Goverdovski “whose parents had been expelled from Moscow”; citizeness Znamenskaia, “daughter of a white officer killed during the civil war”; the citizeness Gonciarenev, expelled from Moscow as a counter-revolutionary; the scholar Landi,“expelled from the party for complete degradation (sic), ex-noble, having an aunt in Poland”; the photographer Kruscinski, expelled from the party for going to Latvia without authorisation and having relatives in that country; the citiziness Rounguis, relative of a women imprisoned for participation in a banned association.

The somewhat independent officials, and they are the most honest and most capable, are systematically eliminated, while the opportunists, almost all corrupt and incompetent, remain in their post.

Even party positions have become reliable sinecures. The rotation of leaders is now abolished. While the statutes of the Russian Communist Party stipulate that the leaders of the party, the unions and the soviets should change every year, a certain Kakhiani was secretary of the Central Committee of the Georgian Communist Party for eight years in a row.

This state of affairs encourages the consolidation of the bureaucracy and the technocracy as a class.

In his book Vers l’autre flame (Paris, 1929), Panait Istrat put relevant numbers to this situation, describing the different proportions which the different classes of the Russian people had saved and deposited in bank accounts in 1926: 12% were workers’ savings, 3.6% were peasants’, while officials and other unspecified categories had deposited 56.7%

The new technical-bureaucratic bourgeoisie is supported by the category of foremen and dedicated workers or “stakhanovites”.

Unskilled workers constitute the true industrial proletariat. In 1935 the average wage of that category varied from 100 to 150 roubles per month, a starvation wage when you consider food prices in the same year. In Moscow, for example, a kilogramme of white bread cost from 2 to 6 roubles, meat cost from 10 to 15 roubles per kilogramme and a kilogramme of butter from 28 to 30 roubles. A tram ticket [cost] from 10 to 25 kopeks (i.e., a quarter of a rouble) and an underground ticket 50 kopecks.

The Isvestia of 9 May 1935 announced that a head of the blast furnace workshops of Krivoy Rog (Ukraine) had received 3,300 roubles as a salary (April). Humanité, the Paris Bolshevik newspaper, in its issue of 16 December 1935 spoke of a worker who had received 4,361 roubles in 24 days and of worker who had received 233 roubles for a single working day. On 15 December 1935, Humanité announced that the USSR savings bank had a reserve of 4,256,000 roubles more than that of 1 December 1934. In 1936 (from 1 January to 11 May) total savings increased by 403 million roubles, compared to 261 million for the corresponding period of 1935: Messrs Lewis and Abramson, who were in Russia on behalf of B.I.T., recently published a report confirming the increasing differentiation in industrial wages:

In the metallurgical industry, the wage scale most often applied comprises eight classes (or categories). The rate of the least qualified worker is represented by the coefficient 1, that of the next class by the coefficient 1.15, and, progressively, 1.32; 1.52; 1.83; 2.17; 2.61; finally, 3.13.

Piecework, wage scales, bonus systems: all this is creating a petit-bourgeoisie that supports the technical-bureaucratic bourgeoisie and delays the “third revolution”, predicted by the revolutionary opposition, consolidating the dictatorship of a coterie.

This phenomenon of the reconstitution of classes “by means of the State” was foreseen by us and virulently denounced by us. The Leninist opposition did not succeed in deepening their aetiological examination of the phenomenon, and it is because of this that they did not come to revise the Leninist position in the face of the problems of the State and revolution.

End Notes

[1] “The State and the Classes”, The Cienfuegos Press Anarchist Review, No. 4, 1978. We have revised the translation and included the two-thirds missing from the original. (Translator)