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Book Review: The Long Transition

R. Burke

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union it has been fashionable to proclaim that the struggle between capitalism and socialism is over, and that capitalism has won. What if this is not the case? Could it be instead that we are in the midst of a long-term transition from capitalism to socialism that extends over several generations? If this is the case then perhaps our ability to recognize this reality has been obscured by the fixation of attention on short and medium term events. In his new book Russia and the Long Term Transition from Capitalism to Socialism Samir Amin, director of the Third World Forum in Dakar, Senegal, argues that this is precisely what is happening.

Amin is particularly concerned to counter anti-Russian rhetoric. This rhetoric has been remarkably persistent for more than a century despite the many changes Russia has undergone: from czarism, to Marxist-Leninism, and to the restoration of capitalism since the end of the 1980’s. All along the way Russia has been depicted “ as a horribly despotic and aggressive nation against which the civilized peoples of Europe have always had to, and still must, protect themselves.” That such a depiction has persisted over such an extended period of time, regardless of the social upheavals that have occurred in Russian history, is a striking clue to what are in reality long duration tendencies and trends in the capitalist world-system. Russia it seems is the enemy that, if it did not exist, would have to be invented.

Mr. Amin’s analysis of the situation takes in both historical and geographic factors regarding the relation of Russia to the West. Up until the 16th century the most advanced civilizations were in India and China. Then Western Europe began to advance, and the foundations of the capitalist world-system were laid. Western European nations began to increasingly covet the wealth of Asia, seeking a way of access to its goods. Russia was located along the land routes to India and China, and began to be seen as an obstacle to the ambitions of the Europeans. This was exacerbated by the fact that, at this time, the Czarist Empire itself had begun its own period of expansion. Amin asserts that the dominance of Russia over Central Asia was different from the colonialism of the West in that the Russians sought political and cultural control rather than economic exploitation. At any rate the seeds of an enduring rivalry were sown in the conflict between the economic interests of Western Europe and the political interests of Czarist Russia.

Amin holds that the Soviet Union was not truly socialist. “ I had from the beginning regarded the ruling exploiting class (and I do mean class) as a bourgeoisie. This class, the nomenklatura, saw itself in the mirror of West it aspired to replicate.” As a result the Communist Party depoliticized the masses, reducing them to clients “through control and distribution of all social benefits, even the slightest, thus paralyzing their potential revolt.” For him the collapse of the Soviet Union and the restoration of capitalism was not the repudiation of socialism, but merely the fall of what Amin calls "the Soviet mode of production." Hence his reference in the title of the book to the "long transition from capitalism to socialism;" it is an ongoing process.

One place where Mr. Amin may be criticized is his claim that Trotsky, had he come to power, would not have done better than Stalin. A Trotskyist could reasonably claim that not only would Trotsky have industrialized the U.S.S.R. with less violence, but that a number of foreign-policy blunders might not have occurred: perhaps German communists and social-democrats would have cooperated to prevent the rise of Hitler in the 1932 elections, a policy rejected by Stalin; perhaps the Chinese communist party would not have seen its membership massacred after being instructed to cooperate with the Kuomintang; perhaps Franco might have been defeated in the Spanish Civil War had Soviet assistance to the Loyalists not been conditioned upon the suppression of Anarchists, Trotskyists, and independent Marxists. Of course such speculations are counterfactual and can never be conclusively proved. Amin is however on target in his claim that Trotsky’s “attitude toward the revolt of the Kronstadt sailors and his later equivocations demonstrate that he was no different than the other Bolshevik leaders in government.”

One area of concern for Amin is in the current Ukrainian crisis and the return of fascism. He considers fascism to be "not synonymous with an authoritarian police regime that rejects the uncertainties of parliamentary electoral democracy. Fascism is a particular political response to the challenges with which the management of capitalist society may be confronted in specific circumstances.” Mr. Amin considers that the Ukrainian crisis has its roots in the West’s long-duration conflict of interests with Russia, most recently expressed in the continued expansion of NATO eastward into former Soviet territory. In the process fascist elements become naturalized into "nationalists" and mobilized to meet the West’s objectives. The only way for Russia to escape being reduced to a colonial status, he argues, is for it to reject neoliberalism and escape financial globalization. Putin however “remains a partisan of the ‘market economy’,” and a “conservative motivated by confused rightist thought.”

At the time of this writing there is now a growing controversy over allegations of Russian hacking of the Democratic Party to influence the 2016 presidential election, and even conscious collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian intelligence services. Assuming for the sake of argument that these allegations are true, there is still massive hypocrisy on the part of US politicians and media in their reactions. Placed in historical context the collective response seems to be: “how dare they do unto us what we do unto them!” There is great danger that if these allegations prove to be true it will be used as propaganda for further aggressions against Russia that could prove to be dangerous for the future survival of the human race. In order to resist such ideological manipulations there is a need for a long-term analysis of historical trends within the capitalist world-system to place these events in their proper context. Thus Samir Amin’s Russia and the Long Transition from Capitalism to Socialism is a necessary and timely contribution to our understanding.

Russia and the Long Transition from Capitalism to Socialism

By Samir Amin

ISBN 9781583676011

Monthly Review Press, New York, 2016

142 pages, Paperback, $23.00