George Walford: Needs Under Dictatorship

Enthusiasts commonly claim to find support in the work of people who wrote with other intentions, and there is no good reason why IC should not join in the rush. Dictatorship over Needs, published in 1983, is written by Ferenc Feher, Agnes Heller and Gyorgy Markus, and published by Basil Blackwell, Oxford. It is an attempt to solve the enigma presented by the USSR: is it communist, socialist, capitalist, or what? The conclusion reached is that the Soviet system is closer to that established under the Nazis in Germany than to any other, and the book, quite without intending to do so, provides a weight of evidence to confirm principal features of the analysis of developed industrial society put forward by systematic ideology.

Parts of it are not easy reading. From their names and many of their, references the authors appear to be Hungarian and there is no mention of a translator, but the difficulty does not arise from, any inability to handle English; it is inherent in the approach taken. To give one example, this sentence appears on page 65:

In this respect it is perhaps noteworthy that Marx himself applied the concept of interest in a systematic sense only to capitalist society, that is, to a society where economic agents act free from institutional obligations, so that the institutional requirements of the system, the logic of capital (primarily the principle of profit-maximization) appear as the value-free principles of rationality in general – in the sense that their violation makes the corresponding action economically unsuccessful as a result of purely causal, seemingly natural mechanisms (and not because of intentional social sanctions), due primarily to the quasi-autonomous working of market mechanisms.

I managed to get a meaning out of that but it took an effort, and there are other passages of the same sort. Yet the authors say their work is addressed to the general public, they disclaim the pursuit of academic respectability and the use of language which might discourage readers with political interests but no special training. They write as Marxists themselves (with severe reservations, but most serious Marxists now admit to those) and they evidently envisage the general public, and the people with political interests, as sharing their own identification with esoteric vocabulary and subtle theorising, with highly-developed intellectualism.

The book opens with a vigorous dismissal of the idea that the states taken over by groups flying the red flag are in some sense socialist. Cuba is said to be a particularly nasty police state, dragooning its young people into a Foreign Legion for use in Soviet superpower politics, the ‘re-education’ camps of Vietnam are somewhere between internment camps and concentration camps, and North Korea shares with South Korea blatant disregard of human rights and nightmarishly rigid hierarchization of social life. In Afghanistan the Soviet military behave as the Germans did in the Ukrainian villages. The authors also condemn the European satellites of the but with one exception: they have reservations about Yugoslavia because it exhibits a “co-existence of contradicting social structures.”

The body of the book is a study of the Soviet system, and the conclusion reached is that it neither socialist nor capitalist but a “dictatorship over needs.” This is distinguished from socialism by the extraction of a social surplus which is appropriated by a limited group; it is distinguished from capitalism by the absence of overt competition and the nature of the ruling group, which in not class but the Communist Party apparatus, perpetuating itself mainly by co-optation. The apparatus controls the economy by means of bureaucratic planning, but this has no connection with the Marxian concept of planning except that both exclude regulation by the market. Soviet planning:

does not mean a forecast of basic future alternatives and an elaboration of guiding schemas of strategic decisions for these cases in view of present-day exigencies and needs, but an integrated system of binding orders which aims to determine the essential characteristics of the economic behaviour of all subordinate units for a longer period of time. (p. 77)

This is what the authors mean by “dictatorship over needs.” They prefer to describe it not as a planned but as a command economy, and it does not function smoothly. The absence of a free market in the capitalist sense means the planners are working without the feedback that permits adjustment of production to meet effective demand, with the result that resources are devoted to the production of unwanted goods; less obvious forms of waste and inefficiency also occur on a large scale. It is, in fact, only semi-legal arrangements, or sometimes outright illegal ones, such as manoeuvring by the managers of different enterprises, their accumulation of hidden reserves and the ‘trading’ of these with their colleagues, that enables the system to work at all.

In Soviet Russia the state is controlled by the Communist Party; the two are distinct but the differences do not affect our concerns here and for the sake of brevity I shall speak only of the party, without specifying when it works directly and when through the state. The official Soviet view is that, ownership and control of the means of production having been vested in the party which represents the workers and peasants, the system is effectively one of collective ownership and control. It is not communist, for as yet it is possible to supply requirements only according to the contribution made, not according to need; but it is socialist. It is held to be a system operating on the principle of economic collectivism, and if this is so then Soviet society is radically different from capitalism, it has crossed the great divide on the way toward that liberated and humane society Marxism declares to be its ultimate objective. But is it so?

The everyday experiences of Soviet life suggest no. The Soviet bureaucracy — it is a tendency Lenin was already protesting against — is even more powerful and pervasive than the British one. A Soviet bureaucrat is not a remote faceless figure making decisions in the background and occasionally met when collecting pension or dole; he or she is in charge of you at work and looking you in the eye over every shop counter, ready both to make difficulties about serving you and to lecture you on correct behaviour for consumers. And since there is in the main no other source of supply, unless you possess superior authority you have to smile and take it. That does not look like a negotiation between two joint owners and controllers; it cannot feel like it either, and when we turn from subjective experience to consider the system this impression is confirmed.

At this point I depart from our authors, continuing to accept their facts but suggesting a different, non-Marxist interpretation of them. This is called for, if only by their recognition that the Marxist scenario does not fit the events; they go so far as to say it does not even show who did what:

according to our firm conviction it was not the proletariat that created the new social order and it was not the realm of any bourgeoisie that came about but rather the elitist dictatorship over needs. The social protagonists remain unidentified, the result of their efforts mysterious. (p. 224, emphasis added)

The key to an understanding of the fundamentals of the Soviet system is the recognition that an individual does not have to be a human being. When we speak of an individual we usually mean a person, but we can also speak of an individual team, an individual firm, or nation, or party, and so on. We can speak of social as well as personal individuals, and this means that a system not controlled by any one person may still be an individualistic one. It can be under the control of a social individual, and if so it is still operating on the principle of individualism, not of collectivism. This is what has happened in the Soviet Union. The economy is under the control of the Communist Party, which stands as one gigantic individual displacing all others. As our authors put it: “The Party leadership is the source of all power… all other powers depend on it” (p. 167). They develop this theme:

Everything that a subject may get (consumer goods, a flat, heating, clothes, theatre tickets, etc.) is ‘due to the state;’ it is not granted as a right or given in exchange for something else, but provided as an amenity that can he revoked. It goes without saying that it is the citizen’s duty (legally as well as morally) to experience and demonstrate his gratitude for such magnanimity. And since the state is but an emanation of the Party, the good Soviet subject has to have the same obedient and grateful attitude to the state as a good Christian has to God and the Church.

Collectivism functions by co-operation, individualism by competition, and it does not sound as if there is much competition in the USSR. But – I think it was George Orwell who said it – the trouble with competitions is that somebody wins them. The professedly competitive systems of Western capitalism suffer from this; they tend toward monopoly. Much effort is expended in controlling this tendency and it meets with some degree of success; these systems can perhaps be described as economic oligarchies but they are not entirely monopolistic; except in the ‘nationalised’ industries competition is not allowed to reach the conclusion toward which it tends. The minor individuals – small firms and even individual people – retain not merely some rights against the big ones – multi-nationals and the like – but also some degree of actual independence of them, independence ensured by their multiplicity. This is not so in the USSR, where there is (with minor exceptions) only one source of supplies and only one employer. There Competition, particularly during the Stalin years, (“the Stalinshchina“) has been almost unrestrained, with the losers (such as the peasants who attempted to resist ‘collectivization’ – i.e. having the Party take.Control of their land) being not merely bankrupted, as happens under capitalism, but physically eliminated by death or the Gulag, and the outcome has been the concentration of economic power under the control of one supreme individual, which from different viewpoints may be either the Party or the small elite which controls it.

What I have been saying needs to be qualified. The Communist Party of the Soviet Union is not completely monolithic and the economic system it controls is not entirely without independence. The party incorporates a number of tendencies and the economic system is constituted of industries, these of enterprises and these of people, and each of these components tends to function as a competitive individual, developing its own attributes and striving to ensure its own survival. (“The reality of planning… represents a very complicated process of semi- institutionalized competition and bargaining” p. 79). But this only confirms the point being made, that the Soviet economic system is individualistic to the almost total exclusion of any element of collectivism.

Dictatorship Over Needs does not speak in this way of individualism versus collectivism, but the authors do recognise that the Soviet economic system is radically different from socialism or communism as envisaged by Marxists – this is indeed their theme, it is what gives them their title – and this presents them with a problem. There are dissidents in the USSR but they are a small minority, and although popular uprisings do occur (the strike at Novocherkass for example) and are thus shown not to be impossible, they are rare; by and large the Soviet system functions without meeting serious overt resistance, somehow other it gets itself accepted. It managed to do so even after Stalin, when there was not even the degree of flexibility exhibited by the Soviet government today, and our Marxist authors have to provide an explanation of this. How does it come about that the Soviet workers and peasants, whom Marxism claims as its power-base, accept this emphatically non-Marxist, non-socialist system? Accept it, moreover, after they have been exposed to both Marxist propaganda and the chain-breaking turmoil of revolution?

Our authors speak, consistently with their main argument, of the Party leadership as “the sovereign.” Taking (with acknowledgments) a phrase from Rosa Luxemburg, they say: “Indeed, ‘His Excellency the Central Committee’ became the first sovereign of Soviet Russia” and they say, quite directly, that after the October Revolution:

The new sovereign abruptly and brutally overpowered not only the party members but the whole population. (p.211)

This suggestion is repeated on p. 204 where, noting that the party does not regard mere submission as enough but demands also “the expression of positive consent at every minute and in all matters” they speak of “forced consent.”

In commenting on the suggestion that a group as small as the Committee of the Communist Party of the USSR is or ever able to ‘overpower’ the hundreds of millions that populate the Soviet Union there is no need to exercise restraint. It is absurd, and our authors do not in fact hold themselves to this attempt at an explanation; they speak, on p. 149 and elsewhere, of Stalin having legitimised himself and his regime by charismatic means, and to seek legitimation is to recognise that the power of decision lies with those who want it, in this case the Soviet people. To speak of Stalin achieving legitimation is to contradict the assertion that or his regime overpowered the Soviet people, and of the two explanations our authors sensibly rely more upon the legitimation one. There was, certainly, a great deal of overpowering, but it was applied to the minority of deviants, and resisters and those who were thought capable of becoming such, or gave offense in other ways, not to the population as a whole.

When the suggestion, that the leadership of the Communist Party was able to overpower the Soviet population, is looked at more thoughtfully, it is seen to be even more absurd than it appeared at first sight, for over many years that leadership consisted effectively of one man: Stalin. “The First Secretary alone became the actual sovereign” p. 169. When our authors depart from their Marxist assumptions about how ‘the masses’ will behave, and attend to the way in which the bulk of the Soviet people did behave, they find themselves constrained to admit that they accepted Stalinism without being themselves overpowered. This is not to say the Soviet people approved the slaughter or condemnation to forced labour of some twenty million mostly innocent people (Conquest’s estimate seems to be at least as well based as any other), for Stalinism was not a system that announced what it was doing. What they did was to accept a system in which they had no right to know what was being done; they accepted that it was for them to attend to their own affairs, they accepted the absence of an effective press and opposition; on p. 281 of Dictatorship Over Needs is mentioned the “general ignorance” regarding the dimensions of what is being done that is “all-important for a regime of mass extermination.”

These acceptances are exhibited by the general body of the people all over the civilised world; when governments are held responsible and compelled, to some degree at least, to divulge their actions and their purposes, this is accomplished not by the people generally but by the minority concerned to ensure that the behaviour of the society to which they belong shall be governed by principle and not wholly by interest or expediency; it was that minority (along with many almost random victims) that was overpowered in Soviet Russia. It was the tragedy of the Soviet people (and also of the German and Chinese people among others) that in their historical circumstances their lack of interest in political matters and their concentration upon their own affairs, features innocent in themselves, had the results they did.

I opened this article with the statement that Dictatorship Over Needs, without intending to do so, provides confirmation of conclusions reached by systematic ideology. That assertion has been partly justified by what has been said above, but something more can be added in conclusion. Marxism maintains that consciousness is governed by social existence, and it interprets this to mean that those who belong to the same economic class will exhibit the same political attachment; as Marx put it in the Communist Manifesto: “This organisation of the proletarians into a class and consequently into a political party” (emphasis added). But some four generations after that prediction was made the proletarians still do not form one political party and show no signs of doing so. The economic class of proletarians extends over the whole of the ideological range, and different sections of it associate with this or that party, or with no party at all, according to their ideology. The largest single ideological group among the proletarians (as among every other economic class) is the group mainly concerned with satisfying its personal and familial requirements, direct in its action, taking no interest in social theorising and with no intention of obtaining what it by the roundabout route of working for the common good. This is much the largest ideological group in every viable society, and every regime that is to survive has to make meeting the expectations of this group its primary and laminating concern.

This usually happens almost automatically, since most regimes are composed of people close to this ideology themselves, but when the state power has been seized by a Marxist group this is not so; the ideology of which Marxism is one expression is far removed from that of the largest group and it is the efforts of Marxist regimes to close this gap that lead them into their excesses. They are convinced that they are expressing the true interests of the masses; if the masses do not appreciate this, if they do not eagerly support the efforts of the regime, then they must have been misled. This has to be corrected, and if the correction involves the use of forced labour, secret police, and mass extermination, that is a regrettable necessity. But social action can eliminate or seriously weaken this primordial ideology, for it is this that provides the assumptions, the ideas and beliefs, that are needed for the maintenance of society in the face of its environment; to eliminate it would be to eliminate society.

Eventually the patent failure of the Marxist regime to establish the liberated, humane society which is its declared objective, leads to its replacement by one (often continuing to operate in the name of some variety of Marxism) consisting of people who are themselves ideologically close to the largest group and consequently able to accept that the primary and dominating task of society is to satisfy the requirements of that group. (Dictatorship Over Needs describes the present Soviet regime as conservative and says it is legitimated by tradition; conservatism and tradition, although not themselves constituents of the primordial ideology, are closer and more acceptable to it than the abstruse theoretical complexities of Marxism).

The new regime re-establishes, private enterprise and economic competition and ceases to stress the cosmopolitanism, anti-militarism, egalitarianism and intellectualism inherent in Marxism, emphasising instead the value of patriotism, strong defences, respect for leaders and a practical, down-to-earth approach. Already in the nineteen-twenties the Bolsheviks had been compelled to accept many of these changes in practice – the New Economic Policy is the best-known evidence of this – but the change was regarded as only a temporary expedient and the disastrous course of Soviet history during the thirties was the outcome of a continuing attempt to force economic collectivism upon a population who, wide as their range of acceptance was were mostly unable to accept that. But as departures from-Marxist prescription come to be accepted as an enduring necessity the regime finds itself more in harmony with the main structure of its society and consequently more secure; it no longer needs to suppress every appearance of divergent opinion but can afford to allow some freedom of expression to ideologies other than its own.

The latter part of Dictatorship Over Needs records the progress of this change .after the death of Stalin; it took a big step forward with Kruschev’s ‘secret’ speech (it must be one of the world’s best-publicised secrets) at the Twentieth Party Congress, and although much of that advance has since been lost, yet there has not been a return to the almost unmitigated brutality of the Stalinshchina. Soviet peasants are no longer tied to their villages, their “third serfdom” is nearing its end, and although the freedom allowed to dissidents. is still harshly restricted, yet it is well to remember that banishment to the West, or even captivity in a psychiatric hospital, would have been welcomed by millions of victims of the nineteen-thirties, condemned to a Siberian death-camp or a bullet in the hack of the neck.

from Ideological Commentary 13, September 1984.