Charles Bettleheim

Harsh Thakor

November 20, 2013 marked the 100th birth anniversary of the great Marxist economist Charles Bettleheim. Without doubt he was one of the most remarkable economists of the 20th century in light of his works on USSR and China. Bettleheim made a comprehensive study of the USSR in 'Class Struggles from 1917-1923' and 'Class Struggles from 1923-1930' and did invaluable research in analyzing the base and superstructure of Soviet Society. In his writing he displayed remarkable insight on the ultimate degeneration of a Socialist Society into a revisionist one in Soviet Russia. True, he differed from the orthodox Leninist perspective and was harshly critical of Stalin unlike many Maoists. However even if one disagrees with him he made some valid points and staunchly combated Trotskyism or its tendencies. In his work 'China Leaps Backward' Bettleheim greatly praised the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution and Mao's line which opposed Trotskyite thinking and made corrections of the Soviet mistakes. Bettleheim's ideology was bent towards Maoism if one reads his works on Mao's experiments and his condemnation of Deng Xiaoping's policies after 1978. Above all he was a great admirer of Soviet Russia and Socialist China and in certain writings reflects a subtle admiration for Stalin. He probably made some wrong judgements and conclusions but it is immensely useful for communist revolutionaries to read Bettleheim's writings.

What is most teasing is how can one ideologically define Bettleheim. He was neither a Trotskyite nor a Maoist . Both camps have been critical of Bettleheim. To be a Maoist one has to defend Lenin and critically Stalin in adequate proportions as opposed to Bettleheim's analysis which sees the roots of Leninism in the way the Bolshevik Revolution took place in the 1st place and in his treating Mao tse Tung's policies and methods as a separate entity from the ideology of Lenin. He called China 'Socialist' but morally never gave USSR from 1917-56 the Socialist tag. This reflected the 'new left' ideology in his writings. His doubting of the very Solicalist nature of the Bolsheik Revolution was un-Marxist. His writings were attacked by both Stalinist and Trotskyite camps.

Claude Varlet in his " Critique de Bettleheim…" exposes Bettelheim in the years that he supported the Twentieth Congress of the CPSU, adopted the economic views of Paul Baran, absorbed the philosophical effusions of the revisionist Althusser, and applauded the  Khrushchev—Liberman reforms. It is evident that Bettelheim brought a lot of revisionist-trotskyite baggage with him when he embarked upon his 'analysis' of the class struggles in the USSR.

While reviewing Bettleheim's 'China Leaps Backward', Monthly Review states: Nonetheless, Bettelheim argues successfully that, if the CCP is to be able to develop the appropriate revolutionary theory to continue to guide the Chinese revolution, an up to date class analysis is a prerequisite. But there is no up to date class analysis of China. Not only is there no up to date class analysis of China, but the present leadership has even gone so far as to attack the "four" for proposing a new class analysis.

It is at this point that Bettelheim turns his attention back to the Shanghai Commune in an effort to demonstrate how the class forces operative at that time were decisive in subverting the Cultural Revolution and providing the class and social basis for the present revisionist leadership. While Bettelheim's approach here is very useful, his actual theoretical product here is one of the most disappointing in the whole article.

Bettelheim argues that the "defeat" of the Shanghai Commune in favor of the more dominated-from-above Revolutionary Committees, supported by Mao, Chang Ch'un ch'iao, Yao Wenyuan and Wanq Hungwen among others, was a consequence of the limits imposed by China's social formation at the time—limits which even Mao's tremendous theoretical development, insight and prestige could not overcome. Bettelheim argues that, the hierarchical relations in the party and state; the departmenta-lization of the party and state machinery; and the separation of the party's local organizations which allowed them only vertical but not horizontal communication; allowed for the continuing domination of the production process by a small group of leaders and specialists, despite the fact that certain of these leaders may have been working towards eliminating just such elitist control. Thus, he argues that the domination of the social formation by such groups effectively blocked the fundamental transformation of the process of reproduction of the social formation as a whole, despite the fact that it allowed certain limited changes in the immediate process of production. That is, relations between leaders and led at the point of production were improved, but the basic nature of the contradiction between leaders and led, itself, i. e. the basic mental/manual division of labor, was not resolved due to the intervention of certain strata of this leadership element. Thus, he argues, the very elements which subverted the Shanghai Commune are the same elements which form the basis of the present revisionist leadership.

However, it is just at this crucial point that Bettelheim's argument falls short. His rather cavalier equation of cadres, specialists and the intelligentsia with a state bourgeoisie (pp. 53, 75) defines out of existence the crucial problem of the transition from a strata into a class. Similarly, his simple linkage of hierarchy to a bourgeoisie of a new kind obscures the very process in which bourgeois tendencies are realized or defeated as a result of class struggle; it effectively denies the need for analysis of the process by which class strata with bourgeois tendencies may be transformed into a class. It is just this shortcoming in his analysis which makes Bettelheim's analysis of the Shanghai Commune unsatisfying and incomplete. What alternatives would he offer to the compromise Mao made with regard to the Shanghai Commune? If Bettelheim is to offer anything more than pat answers that incorrect policies and mass movements "must have been" more based at the mass level, he must begin to provide criteria for distinguishing the various groups that existed in Shanghai at the time of the Commune and for evaluating the transformation of these various strata into classes, as well as for evaluating mass movements themselves.

Thus, although Bettelheim has identified certain policies, practices, theoretical positions and social structures (formations) which help communist revolutionaries to develop the problematic necessary to understand the present conjuncture in China, and thereby has assisted the movement; by stopping short of analyzing the very process whereby these tendencies are realized, e.g. how a revisionist tendency is able to execute a seizure of power and when such a revisionist leadership would be able to execute capitalist restoration per se, Bettelheim fails the simplify to complex situation.

Vol. 46, No. 23, Dec 15 -21, 2013

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