Communism and Self-Management

Against the Current, No. 195, July/August 2018

Catherine Samary

“He who controls the present controls the past.
He who controls the past, controls the future.” — George Orwell, 1984

COMMUNISM, DANIEL BENSAÏD said (2009), is “neither purely an idea, nor a dogmatic social model.” It remains “the name of a movement that continuously surpasses and suppresses the established order” and challenges all relations of domination and subordination. Such a communism has nothing to do with regimes where single-party, self-proclaimed socialist or communist parties have appropriated emancipatory aspirations and egalitarian mass movements, repressing them or coopting them in order to maitain their power and privileges.

As Enzo Traverso (2016) has pointed out, “(u)nlike other counterrevolutionary periods such as France after June 1848 or after the Paris Commune, the period opened up by events of 1989 could offer the vanquished only the memory of a disfigured socialism, the totalitarian caricature of an emancipated society.”

The big lie of a pseudo-democratic revolution that  “put an end to communism” must be exposed by putting the peoples concerned at the center of an analysis of the internal and external causes of the supposed “great capitalist transformation” that ended the bipolar Cold War world. We must oppose the Orwellian attempts of the ruling class to control the interpretation of past revolutions of the 20th century by reducing them to the gulag as a way to criminalize current and future resistance.

For those who refuse to accept capitalism as an insurmountable barrier, the worst would be to inadvertently participate in this reactionary offensive in the name of ideas of the last century. One of the main points here is to oppose responses such as “since that wasn’t really socialism, it doesn’t concern us,” or “those debates are passé.”

On the contrary, we must go back to the the rich debates of past revolutionary experiences from before the rise of the Stalinist bureaucracy, and update them in light of subsequent developments, both defeats and advances.

Continuity and Discontinuity

For Lenin and the Bolshevik Party of the 1920s, the USSR was “socialist” only in its aims, not in its existing form. It was a society in transition between capitalism and socialism, driven by a process of “permanent revolution” as analyzed by Trotsky and caricatured by Stalin. The starting point for that analysis was the notion of “combined and uneven development” of social formations on the capitalist semi-periphery, like Russia and its dependence on the imperialist countries.

The socialist transformation of such a society depended on three interelated processes: 1) the transformation of the democratic February revolution into an anti-capitalist rupture in October, solidly anchored in the dynamics of class struggle (David Mandel, 2016); 2) the radical transformation of the old society that benefited the ruling classes towards a classless society (without specifing how this would happen); 3) The spread of the world revolution against capitalism. Is such an analysis still valid? (Michael Löwy 2000)

Such an approach would draw all the lessons of imperalism while highlighting aspects of Marxist thought that Stalinism ignored. This method analyzed capitalism as a hierarchical system, rather than one where all states followed the same path to industrialization. Doing so would allow us to begin to update Marx’s observations about resistance from parts of the British empire. (K.B. Anderson, 2010)

After the isolation of the revolution and the Moscow purge trials of the 1930s, Stalin decreed that thanks to forced collectivisation, and the advent of centralized planning, complete with all the features of Great Russian national oppression, the USSR had become a socialist society. The repressive measures that Lenin had taken during the civil war were solidified, in spite of his last struggle against the drift toward a totalitarian Stalinist system. (M. Lewin, 2015)

It is impossible to understand the world of the 20th and 21st centuries if we ignore the longterm political, socio-economic and ideological damage caused by this Stalinization of the USSR and elsewhere, and the bureaucratisation of revolution. This step marked the solidification of Stalin’s strategic shift: world socialist revolution would henceforth be subordinated to the “building of socialism in one country.”

Communist parties were charged with playing the role of apologists for the USSR and advertising its accomplishments. The USSR might have supported the struggle against Franco in Spain, but it also assasinated those who pushed beyond the anti-fascist struggle, as portrayed in Ken Loach’s film Land and Freedom.

Likewise, we cannot understand this period if we think the Stalinist counterrevolution marked the end of revolution. Even before Stalin decided (in 1943) to replace the Communist International with a simple information bureau — at a time when Stalin was at Yalta (with Roosevelt and Churchhill) negotiating the carving up of the world by the great powers on the backs of its peoples — the rise of fascism and the political line followed by the CPs in the late 1930s had led Trotsky and his comrades to proclaim the Comintern dead and to found the Fourth International.

The Yugoslav Communists did not comply with the Yalta agreements. Similarly, the Chinese did not respect the framework of Moscow’s stagist theory. These revolutions would become sources of a major crisis of Soviet Stalinist hegemony in the Communist world, but without putting an end to the substutionism by which the party spoke on behalf of the workers, or of bureaucratism itself — evils that the entire working class and even the revolutionary movement has faced. (E. Toussaint 2017)

The Yugoslav revolution had an immediate and continent-wide impact on the Kremlin’s sphere of influence (as seen by the popularity of Balkan confederation projects). That is why Stalin decided to “excommunicate” Titoism in 1948, forcing a purge in the CP. But while Mao cited Stalin against Khrushchev and in doing so gained anti-imperialist support, the Yugoslav communists sided with Marx and the Paris Commune against Stalin through their implemenation of workers’ self-management in 1950. These experiences are a rich trove that must be mined for its lessons. (C. Samary 2010).

The example of the Russian Revolution was a blow to the United States, which having initially presented itself as anti-colonialist, as part of its competition with the old European powers, now became the self-proclaimed “defender of the free world.” The Cuban revolution seemed to justify the fear of communism, while U.S. interventionism radicalized the revolutionary process leading to anti-capitalist break and Cuba’s alignment with the USSR in 1962.

The struggle against communism was the immediate reason behind U.S. intervention in Vietnam after the French defeat in 1954, supposedly justifying “civilizing” imperialist wars, while actually radicalizing anti-colonial and anti-imperialist struggles.

The Moroccan leader Mehdi Ben Barka (1965), who chaired the preparatory committee for the 1966 Tricontinental conference in Havana and was assassinated before it was held (R. Galissot, 2005, S. Bouamama, 2016), summed up the historical significance of this conference by noting that “the current that arose with the revolution of October and of the national liberation revolutions” were both represented at the conference. The Cuban revolution linked these two currents.

This conference was far more important and politically radical than the Bandung conference of non-aligned countries, which postcolonial studies today incorrectly consider more significant. (Robert J.C. Young, 2005) Che’s call at the Tricontinental “to create one, two, three Vietnams” captured the dynamics of the revolution, which was to seek to overcome imperialist aggression and extend the revolution — rather than the “peaceful coexistence” of different social systems sought by the Kremlin.

Writers like Saïd Bouamama remind us of the impact of that conference against colonialism, neo-colonialism and imperialism, both in the third world and even in the heart of the imperialist powers that were simultaneously facing the rise of the antiwar movement, the radicalization of the Black movement, and May 1968 in France.

The shock waves of 1968 were felt as far as Belgrade, Yugoslavia where strikes and student occupations of the university took place in 1968. French writings on the May events were read, and posters of Che Guevera and slogans calling for victory for the Vietnamese National Liberation Front displayed. In Yugoslavia there were also demands for self mangement from below, and against the “red bourgeoisie.”

In Czechoslavakia at this time, workers’ councils supported by the pro-self management wing of the CP and the unions mounted resistance against the Soviet tanks following the Prague Spring which had raised demands for “socialism with a human face.” (Les années 1968; Contretemps, 2008). The 1968 period across the world was characterised by this “dialectic of world revolution and the intensification of struggles.” (QI, 1963)

What Have We Learned?

The so-called neoliberal counterrevolution that began at the beginning of the 1980s was a response to the structural threats facing the international capitalist system in the previous decade. But it cannot be analyzed without taking into account the clash between the two opposed systems in the 1970s. We must also take into account the counterrevolution and international class struggle from 1989 on, and the entry of China and Russia and Eastern Europe into the international capitalist system.

The choice of socialism or barbarism is more relevant than ever in these radically changed conditions which requires us to consider strategy. (C. Samary, 2016).

In this transitional period in Eastern Europe we saw the transformation of an important part of the communist nomenklatura into a comprador-like bourgeoisie, like Yeltsin in Russia. This was a separate development from the emergence of new imperialist powers in China (Au Long Yu, 2010) and in Russia under Putin. (Samary, 2015)

The arrival of China and Russia onto the world capitalist scene has served to sharpen the mulitipolar dimensions of the capitalist world, while bringing global labor competition to historic levels.

In Russia, although capital accumulation developed in an opaque fashion through the carving up and expropriation of saleable industry and the placing of money in tax havens, the use of barter as the chief means of exchange between factories, along with low unemployment, lasted until the crisis of 1998. That crisis revealed the persistence of archaic planning and the important role played by a non-monetary “social wage” (housing, child care, shops, health clinics, etc.) linked to the awful working conditions in the big factories.

A solid analysis of the privatizations of the 1990s allows us to draw the following conclusions, especially for the USSR:

• Economic turbulence reflected poor production of use values, the lack of market checks on factories (because factories couldn’t go bankrupt), full employment labor market conditions, the lack of thorough cost accounting, and the absence of market adjustment mechanisms and investment options.

• A key feature of the “mass privatization” without capital was the free distribution of stock to workers in order to “give them what their due” (shares that could then be bought up cheaply by the oligatchs — ed.). This was a way to allow the privatization of basic industry by the state. From 1989 on, Russia and China could be characterized as state capitalist. This has involved a fundamental change in the use of money as capital and market relationships, notably in attacks against labor protections inherited from the previous regime, a point made by A. Artous (2015, page 24).

The Yugoslav case is also an example of the contrast between the more or less market reforms that had been introduced beginning in 1950, up to the last constitution under Tito in 1973 that expanded self-mangement rights, and the 1989 reforms that aimed at dismantling social property. It is important to distinguish internal conflicting tendencies within the dominant anti-capitalist state from capitalist restoration subsequently imposed by a new kind of state power.

Finally, concrete analyses makes it possible to understand how the bureaucracy oscillates between classes and the ways it integrates into the capitalist order.

The Experience of Self-Management

It is significant that the concept of a society in transition between capitalism and socialism used by Soviet Marxists in the 1920s, before Stalinization (Boukharine et al, 1972), has been used afterward against apologetic Stalinist arguments that claimed social conflict was absent from so-called socialist countries.

Yugoslav Marxists have also taken up the question in their analyses of the contradictions of social property (R.Supek dir. 1973; E.Kardelj, 1976), as did Che Guevera (1965). Ernest Mandel and Charles Bettelheim also pondered it, as did Bukharin and Preobajansky in spite of their differences on the role of the market in a non-capitalist framework.

For all of these Marxist thinkers the societies in transition to socialism were at once conflict-laden and fragile, and were under capitalist pressure from within and outside, and had different forms of juridical property whose future was not guaranteed. For all of them, a capitalist restoration was possible, although the actual forms were not predictable because the various scenarios took place in a context without historical precedent. This is a very relevant realm of analysis today. (C. Samary 2008a)

All of the Marxist thinkers cited here affirmed their support for communist goals but had differences over the means to attain them under varying conditions. Advancing towards socialism involves the collective management by the workers (the means are not specified) to fulfill needs through production for use. This raises the question of economic calculation of the “socially necessary labor” to meet the needs of society, a point stressed by Charles Bettelheim. (C. Samary, 1988)

The notion of a society in transition to socialism must be examined on several levels. On the one hand, the mechanist notion of distinct stages must be fought. As has often been said, if the communust goal is not clear at the beginning it has little chance of being realized. The satisfaction of needs must be integrated into an appreciation of the ecological stakes concerning the exhausation of planetary resources and the need not to waste — requiring us to rethink the vision of communism as a society of unlimited abundance.

The use of prices (and therefore of currency) could remain under socialism, while implementing an equalitarian policy about incomes and resources, without domination of commodity relations. Finally, we must critically examine the domination of money and market relations more than ever before, and the need to put the use value of goods and services at the heart of planned choices. This does not mean, however, that we can skip a socialized market under social control, a point made by Diane Elson in the debate between Ernest Mandel and Alec Nove. (C. Samary, 1997)

But we must also revisit and update the great Cuban debate on moral and material incentives. (C. Mesa-Lago 1971, E. Mandel 1987) The debate began in 1963-64 in the context of the market reforms carried out in the Soviet Union by Liberman and in Czechoslovakia by Ota Sik, which involved financial autonomy of factories and the fiscal responsibility of factory directors, and the use of bonuses if they lowered production costs.

Bettelheim supported these polices on the grounds that the level of productive forces didn’t really allow for central planning. Che Guevera disagreed. Citing the Cuban case, he argued that the country was small enough for central planning to work. But above all, he was against monetary incentives which damage social solidarity and thus cut across the aims of socialism.*

Ernest Mandel supported Che, stressing as did Che the need to go beyond moral rewards toward material but non-monetary incentives that increase cooperation between workers — such as general improvements of labor conditions and living conditions.

The dynamics and contradictions of the reforms advocated by Ota Sik have since been analyzed (C. Samary 1988), but the important thing is that a third way existed in both Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia (the self-managing wing of the CP and the trade unions), inspired by the Yugoslav (but not Cuban) debates. The Yugoslav Marxists of the magazine Praxis in the late 1960s (J.M. Palmier, 1973, C. Samary 2008b) proposed the following:

1) Creation of Self-Managing Parliamentary Organs of producers, consumers and state officials with stakes in the production of various goods or services (schools, child care centers, hospitals, roads, etc.). They would have to jointly manage the production and distribution of these goods or services with funds allocated at the appropriate territorial level, supplemented by social service funding. Such a vision of self-management offered a broader perspective than one based solely on the producers;

2) Introduction of self-management planning at various territorial levels on the basis of cooperation between “basic units of associated work” would expand the scope of social property management against both statism and particular industrial or group interests;

3) Establishment of self-management bodies at the local, regional and federal levels, working alongside legislatures to create a political space for the self-managing development and control of major planning objectives.

The aim of all these proposals was to create frameworks for the common management of social property at the various levels in which it took shape — an approach that resonates with contemporary debates.


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July-Augut 2018, ATC 195