Hillel Ticktin’s contributions to Marxist theory

South African Trotskyist Hillel Ticktin first made a name for himself in the 1970s and 1980s, with a groundbreaking reexamination of the political economy of the USSR. Much of his work has been fragmentary, taking the form of short articles or occasional essays, quite often in polemical exchange with authority figures such as Ernest Mandel and Charles Bettelheim. Only two books have so far resulted from these efforts, published in close proximity to one another, both offering late reflections on systems about to collapse: The Politics of Race: Discrimination In South Africa (1991, on the old apartheid regime) and Origins of the Crisis in the USSR: Essays on the Political Economy of Disintegrating System (1992, on the Soviet Union).

You can download these, along with numerous pieces from his journal Critique and the CPGB’s Weekly Worker by clicking on the links below:

  1. “Towards a Political Economy of the USSR” (1974)
  2. “Political Economy of the Soviet Intellectual” (1974)
  3. “The Capitalist Crisis and Current Trends in the USSR” (1975)
  4. “The Current Crisis and the Decline of a Superpower”(1976)
  5. “The Contradictions of Soviet Society and Professor Bettelheim” (1976)
  6. “The USSR: Beginning of the End?” (1977)
  7. “The Class Structure of the USSR and the Elite” (1978)
  8. “Rudolf Bahro: A Socialist Without a Working Class” (1979)
  9. “Socialism, the Market, and the State: Another View: Socialism vs. Proudhonism” (1979)
  10. “The Ambiguities of Ernest Mandel” (1980)
  11. “The Afghan War: The Crisis in the USSR” (1980)
  12. “The Victory and Tragedy of the Polish Working‐Class: Notes and Commentary on the Polish Events “ (1982)
  13. “Is Market Socialism Possible or Necessary?” (1984)
  14. “Andropov and His Inheritance: The Disintegration of the USSR under the Banner of Discipline” (1988)
  15. “The Contradictions of Gorbachev” (1988)
  16. “The Transitional Epoch, Finance Capital, and Britain: Part 1, The Political Economy of Declining Capitalism” (1988)
  17. “The Transitional Epoch, Finance Capital, and Britain: Part 2, The Origins and Nature of Finance Capital” (1989)
  18. “The Year After the Three General Secretaries: Change without Change” (1989)
  19. The Politics of Race: Discrimination in South Africa (1991)
  20. Origins of the Crisis in the USSR: Essays on the Political Economy of a Disintegrating System (1992)
  21. “The USSR after Chernobyl” (1993)
  22. “The Political Economy of Class in the Transitional Epoch” (1993)
  23. “Mikhail Gorbachev and Margaret Thatcher: Allies in Crisis” (1994)
  24. “The Decline of Capitalism” (1995)
  25. “The International Road to Chaos” (1995) (1995)
  26. “The Growth of an Impossible Capitalism” (1997)
  27. “What Will a Socialist Society be Like?” (1997)
  28. “The Nature of an Epoch of Declining Capitalism” (1998)
  29. “The Political‐Economic Nature of the Purges” (1999)
  30. “Lessons of the Russian Revolution” (2001)
  31. “Where are We Going Today? The Nature of Contemporary Crisis” (2001)
  32. “Theses on the Present Crisis” (2002)
  33. “Why the Transition Failed: Towards a Political Economy of the Post‐Soviet Period in Russia” (2002)
  34. “The Third Great Depression” (2003)
  35. “Towards a Political Economy of War in Capitalism, with Reference to the First World War” (2004)
  36. “Paul Sweezy — Marxist Political Economist, 1910-2004” (2004)
  37. “Marxism, Nationalism, and the National Question after Stalinism” (2005)
  38. “Political Consciousness and its Conditions at the Present Time” (2006)
  39. “Decline as a Concept, and Its Consequences” (2006)
  40. “A Critical Assessment of the Major Marxist Theories of the Political Economy of Modern Capitalism” (2006)
  41. “Political Economy and the End of Capitalism” (2007)
  42. “Don’t Revive Absurd Slogans” (2007)
  43. “1956 as the Year of Stalinist Upheaval and the Iconic Transfer of Imperialist Power to the USA” (2007)
  44. “Notes on Zionism and Other Matters” (2007)
  45. “Results and Prospects: Introduction to Critique’s Issue on 1968″ (2008)
  46. “A Marxist Theory of Freedom of Expression” (2009)
  47. “A Marxist Political Economy of Capitalist Instability and the Current Crisis” (2009)
  48. In Defense of Leon Trotsky” (2010)
  49. “The Crisis and the Capitalist System Today” (2010)
  50. “The Myths of Crisis: A New Turning Point in History?” (2011)
  51. “The Theory of Capitalist Disintegration” (2011)
  52. “Stalinism, Its Nature and Role” (2011)
  53. “Marx’s Specter Haunts the Wealthy and Powerful” (2011)
  54. “The Decline of Money” (2012)
  55. “Rosa Luxemburg’s Concept of Crisis in a Contemporary Theoretical Context” (2012)
  56. “From Finance Capital to Austerity Muddle” (2013)
  57. “Mandela: He was a Bourgeois Hero” (2013)
  58. “The Permanent Instability of Capitalism” (2014)
  59. “What is the Capitalist Strategy?” (2014)
  60. “The Period of Transition” (2016)
  61. “The Permanent Crisis: Decline, and Transition of Capitalism” (2017)
  62. “A Marxist Philosopher: István Mészáros, December 19, 1930-October 1, 2017” (2017)

Ticktin’s writings on the socioeconomic character of the Soviet Union have been immensely influential, inspiring groups like Aufheben as well as individuals like Neil C. Fernandez (whose dissertation he advised) and Christopher Arthur. He raises issues that every Marxian Sovietologist must work through, even if one disagrees with his conclusions. Below I will disaggregate his ideas in three parts, beginning with his politics vis-à-vis the CPGB (PCC), moving through his historic claims about the USSR vis-à-vis Fernandez and Paresh Chattopadhyay, and then finishing with some methodological and thematic notes again vis-à-vis Chattopadhyay.

On democracy, empty slogans, and political strategy

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Although Ticktin shares the CPGB’s commitment to rigorous debate and an open exchange of ideas, he differs from them in several important respects. First of all, with respect to their emphasis on democracy. Others have noted the way in which the CPGB has made a fetish of the democratic principle, even leading some erstwhile left communists to abandon their previous hostility to “the canons of formal democracy.” Mike Macnair, for instance, defends the organization’s official plank on this score: “Socialism represents victory in the battle for democracy.” Yet as Chris Cutrone has pointed out, Marx and Engels in fact championed the cause of the proletariat in the battle of democracy [die Erkämpfung der Demokratie], not in the battle for democracy: “Note well that for Marx this was the battle of democracy, which he took to be already established, and not the battle ‘for’ democracy as some yet unattained ideal.”

In one of Ticktin’s earliest articles for the Weekly Worker, he underscored precisely this ambivalence in the Marxian attitude toward democracy. Discussing the lessons of October, he declared:

How far can you have democracy within a civil war, a semi-war, etc.? Obviously in some senses all socialists are democrats, but in some senses socialists are not democrats either. Socialism goes beyond democracy, which is attacked from Marx onwards precisely because it requires a state. We must move beyond formal democracy and towards genuine self-determination, as it were: the freedom of the individual within society. This means that we obviously cannot get what we want while we are struggling. Secondly, capitalism ensures that we cannot have even formal democracy. We know that. We know the nature of elections. While we struggle with them and work with them — because we have to — what we are saying to people is that we want a lot more than this. More real control over society than simply the right to vote every few years.

This means that socialists, just as Lenin and Trotsky did, have an ambivalent attitude towards democracy, because they know the way it is controlled by the capitalist class. This was a necessary feature of what happened between 1917 and 1921. The defense of terror by Trotsky — with the endorsement of Lenin and the leadership of the Bolshevik Party — took place against a background where there was no alternative. You cannot have democracy in the middle of a battle. The kinds of democracy that were actually available were extremely limited. Of course, we have to say that we are in favor of maximum control from below and in principle we are in favor of the working class itself being in control. But if the conditions do not allow it, they do not allow it… It does seem to me that at the present time there is a considerable fetish for formal democracy. We are moving into a period where our struggle will be much bigger, much more important, and we shall have to fight with those people who see democracy in purely formal ways.

Similarly, attempts to resuscitate long-dead slogans about the “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry,” which Lenin advanced from roughly 1905 to 1912, are pointless and misguided. “Don’t Revive Absurd Slogans!” counseled Ticktin, responding to Jack Conrad (though also implicitly to Macnair). John Eric Marot has since took Lars Lih to task for asserting in his 2011 biography that “Lenin took a dangerous step when he moved beyond Old Bolshevism’s strategy of democratic revolution alongside the whole peasantry.” Furthermore, Jim Creegan weighed in last year for the centenary: “[Conrad and Lih] would both like to deny that Lenin (and eventually through him the Bolshevik Party) abandoned their earlier concept of the revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry, and — in deed, if not in word — embraced the theory of permanent revolution elaborated by Trotsky in 1906.”

Personally, I suspect the CPGB’s attachment to this old formula stems from their enthusiasm for Old Bolshevism, especially as contextualized by Lih in his close study of What is to Be Done? This enthusiasm even led Lih to surmise that October 1917 represented something like “the curious triumph of Old Bolshevism,” despite Lenin’s explicit repudiation of its core principles in the April Theses. Incidentally, I think this is why the CPGB disparages State and Revolution and Left-Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder: these works undermine the naïve democratism of Lenin’s earlier programmatic text. Ticktin’s Trotskyist orthodoxy insulates him from such revisionist readings, fortunately, as well as from tailing activist fads like the “Boycotts, Divestments, and Sanctions” campaign with regard to Israel. Here Ticktin is consistent with his own prior opposition to similar measures being taken toward apartheid South Africa, writing in 2007 and 2009:

Much has been made of a comparison [of Israel] with South Africa before 1990… Such a comparison is invalid. The political economy of South Africa was based on the superexploitation of the majority of the population and the so-called black homelands were little more than a propaganda ploy and a means of control over black urban workers. In contrast, Israel has dispossessed the Palestinian population of their land and turned the Israeli state into an exclusive ethnic and religious entity. Nor is it true that the boycott against South Africa caused the South African government to change its attitude. South Africa changed when the US capitalist class decided that it would no longer sustain that country’s racist attitude by lending to the South African state and when it was clear that the opposition had been defeated. It helped that the Communist Party, which effectively controlled the ANC, took an increasingly conservative line. For many, the settlement consecrated with the elections of 1994 was a classic sell-out, in which the majority of the population could gain little if anything. Such has been the result. The standard of living of the majority may even be lower than it was in 1994, while a wealthy black bourgeoisie has formed in association with a growing “middle class.” The point is that boycotts have played a particular class role in the past. While not actually pressurizing change, they propel “elites” to power. It can, however, be different if the boycott is called by trade unions on a trade union basis, calling on trade union members to put forward left-wing demands.

The emergence of a boycott movement will certainly embarrass the Israeli regime, though it is unlikely to have much more of an effect… However, the argument that a boycott of Israel will achieve very much is dubious. In the first instance, the comparison with South Africa is simply wrong. The boycott of South African goods had little or no effect on the Nationalist Party in South Africa or on the supporters of racial discrimination in general. It did not help to change South Africa. That came as a result of the uprisings in South Africa and the decision of the US ruling class to come to a deal over the issue. Many people do not realize that the US was discussing the issue of South Africa in the middle to late 1980s with the Soviet Union in Geneva, or that the US had limited the extension of loans to South Africa.

Unlike many who endorsed the boycott motion, Ticktin further drove home that “the left must come out clearly both against antisemitism and Islamic fundamentalism. It cannot be forgotten that it was the antisemitism of the Arab regimes which drove out around one million Jews from their countries and into Israel [in 1948]. If not for this action, Israel might have had difficulty continuing to exist… Trotsky was… right when he said that in every economic crisis antisemitism grows. As we argued in the last issue, antisemitism has to be condemned and fought wherever it exists and, unfortunately, some of the movers of the [boycott] motion failed to condemn the real antisemitism in Hamas and Hezbollah… Sections of the left have unfortunately abandoned class politics in the Middle East, preferring to go along with Hamas or others of the Palestinian right. They excuse the widespread use of antisemitism.”

On this point, Ticktin’s recent writing reconnects with subjects he explored in decades past. Namely, the widespread antisemitism of the old Soviet Union, which made use of antisemitic tropes and language despite officially disavowing the ideology. “Antisemitism is undoubtedly condemned by Marxism and is hence officially regarded as reprehensible [in the USSR], and there has been no official doctrine of antisemitism, yet the regime has promoted antisemitism since the time of Stalin. Similarly, the regime condemns chauvinism, but it clearly promotes Russian control.” Ticktin investigated these contradictory facets of Soviet reality over the course of the seventies and eighties, even spilling over into the nineties.

Theory of the USSR

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Broadly speaking, Ticktin falls into the “neither-nor” school of Marxian interpreters of the USSR. In other words, he held that the Soviet Union was neither socialist nor capitalist in nature. Rather, he maintained that the mode of production which prevailed within its borders lacked any coherence whatsoever. “The form [of the USSR] is not one of a dominant and subordinate mode of production. On the contrary, it is one of contradictory laws operating throughout every aspect of the society. A system has evolved in which price and the residual forms of value that exist have been subordinated to the interests of the individual or the administration.” Elsewhere, Ticktin explained the difficulties in discerning the “laws of motion” governing such a society: “The problem [of determination] is particularly complex because of the nature of the society, which, not being a mode of production, is at a higher level of contradiction than a mode of production. No general rules of the kind that ‘economics does not determine politics’ can be deduced.”

Significantly, Ticktin nowhere uses the phrase “non-mode of production,” which the Aufheben group coined to characterize his view of the USSR. He grounds this view historically already in a 1974 text: “It appears to me more useful and correct to regard the USSR as a society which historically overthrew capitalism but which then had its own dictatorship of the proletariat removed. The result is the existence of remnants of both formations, creating an economic system of its own kind where survivals are clearly traceable but which also lacks the fundamental drives of both formations. Consequently it possesses a higher level of contradiction than any socioeconomic formation before or since.” Rephrasing this a bit some two decades later, Ticktin wrote:

What I am arguing here is that the USSR is not a viable social formation, that it is not a mode of production, comparable to capitalism or feudalism, as indeed follows from the above discussion; but this does not imply that the USSR will break down tomorrow. On the contrary, the USSR has its own form of limited stability as well as its own form of decay. The USSR is a regime that cannot permit opposition to exist, and hence its decline can only take the form of disintegration of the system. The pulling apart of the poles of the system, so that the social groups, factions, and economic categories each stand in opposing and noncooperating forms, is the form of disintegration. There is no mature form of the USSR. It is an historical accident, an accident brought about through the defeat of the October revolution in the form of the seizure of power by a bureaucratic ruling group. Just as Neanderthal man could never become man, so the USSR can never reform to become socialism or capitalism. It is an unfortunate deviation of history, which is now, under Gorbachev, coming to an end.

Nevertheless, capitalism — that is, the mode of production par excellence — is from the outset global in its logic, even if it is empirically localizable both in terms of its origins in England (after some nonstarters in the Italian city-states and the Low Countries) and eventual spread to Western Europe, the Americas, and the rest of the world. In its spread, some locations may be said to be peripheral to or outside of the sphere of generalized commodity-production, but once it encompasses a virgin territory or opens up a new market its distinctive dynamic takes hold. Russia in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century had only begun to develop the social and economic structures characteristic of capitalism, pace Marot, even if these were largely imported from abroad by the tsarist state. Lenin, Trotsky, and their Bolshevik comrades gambled that a revolutionary seizure of power in Russia could provide the “spark” that would then ignite the flames of social revolution throughout Europe.

Obviously, despite uprisings in nearly thirty countries across the world between 1917 and 1923, the revolution stalled out. Encircled and blockaded by hostile powers, the communists beat a temporary retreat, reintroducing limited markets and autonomous civil society during the NEP. Following Trotsky, upholding the classical Marxist outlook, Ticktin doesn’t believe it is possible to ever achieve “socialism in one country.” “Socialism cannot come into existence, qua socialism, as opposed to surrogate forms, usually monstrous forms, until capitalism has effectively been defeated on a world scale,” he writes. Ticktin forgot to add that, absent this defeat, any endeavor to inaugurate transitional measures leading to socialism would be doomed to failure. At best, the measures taken by the USSR after 1929 merely created a temporary zone of exclusion wherein the normal laws of commodity production were suspended for the duration. The USSR was an island lost in a sea of capitalist accumulation, surrounded on all sides, imperfectly quarantined from what went on without.

6 thoughts on “Hillel Ticktin’s contributions to Marxist theory

  1. I am at least one of the men and women on this thread who are so old we probably won’t have enough time left to read the entirety of Ticktin’s body of work.

    Anyhow to what end?

    The volume of Marxist tomes available on Ross Wolfe’s site alone could engage us in a lifetime of interpreting the world, “…. the point however is to change it.”

    Here is one of Ticktin’s essays and my response.

    https://thecharnelhouse.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/Hillel-Ticktin-Political-Consciousness-and-its-Conditions-at-the-Present-Time-2006.pdf

    In fact, we have a dwindling working class losing political weight and power at a shocking pace because of automation and it is no longer up to the task. In the one essay above that piqued my particular interest, Ticktin spends more than 17 pages describing the rather bleak prospects for organizing the proletarian masses:

    Quote: “There is the difference between the positions of workers in the imperialist countries and the Third World, that between skilled and unskilled workers, between white collar workers and blue collar workers, between one sector and another, between the employed and unemployed and finally between the exploited and superexploited workers, usually on the basis of racism.”

    He spends the opening section reiterating Marxist interpretations of “real” objective class consciousness and the barriers to such a goal erected by ideological false consciousness created by the manipulating power of the ruling class from cradle to grave, through the education system to the never-ending stream of supportive propaganda from the mainstream media surrounding our daily lives.

    He then talks about the “proletarianisation” of all workers in, for example, an academic setting, where universities essentially define all employees as fitting into gradients on a scale of workers from professors, to teaching assistants, down through the ranks to custodial workers that somehow leads him to conclude:

    In other words, far from the working class being at an end, it has never been so all embracing as today. To the extent that these divisions are lessening, so too the formation of the class becomes easier.

    Really? I think that notion would make Pollyanna blush. The reality is a dwindling number of tenured professors are live-streaming their lessons to thousands of students at a time; many teaching assistants bear the burden of marking papers and one-on-one tutoring for pitiful remuneration; as for the janitors, those jobs are likely filled by new immigrants have been contracted out to some sleazebag private company. That reality is ripe for the possibility of internecine battles alluded to earlier in the essay’s paragraph quoted above when one sector is brave enough to take on the university brass and thereby inconveniences the others.

    And, what nostrums does he provide in the concluding section on page 18? Well really, not very much at all. Just the usual platitudes that you will see on any radical activist Marxist website:

    Quote: “However, socialist ideas cannot simply emerge from an elite group of people. The fundamental ideas must already be the property of ordinary people before they can be theorised, turned into a strategy, and widely disseminated in all their complexity. This implies a process of mounting struggles from which people can learn as well as the development of a broad layer of intellectuals who are able to genuinely refute the propaganda of the established order and expand the knowledge and theory necessary for the working class to take power. Only in this way, with the dialectical interaction of theory with struggle, can the population as a whole make socialist ideas their own. This is all the more necessary given the way objective and subjective conditions for the formation of the class are merging into one another.”

    Well, in light of everything else he has said in the body of this essay, good luck with that.

    • Re: The dwindling numbers of the working class.

      Though it’s worth considering what will be left of property relations based on work and earning in a society in which there are so few workers and so much wealth. I’m thinking on lines of “workers without even their labour to sell” here. Isn’t that polarisation or what?

  2. Re: democracy. It all depends on what you think that word means.

    If democracy is merely a type of state — a definition I consider very outdated, at best — then no, socialist/communist society won’t be democratic.

    But if democracy means “equality in collective decision-making” — as it should, since we describe organizations, not only states, as “democratic” or “not democratic” — then yes, socialist/communist society will be democratic.

    Bordiga simply isn’t useful here (or anywhere else, IMO).

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