Working in the Tracks of State Socialism

By Burawoy, Michael | Capital & Class, Summer 2009 | Go to article overview

Working in the Tracks of State Socialism


Burawoy, Michael, Capital & Class


One of the most insistent laments of my teacher, anthropologist Jaap van Velsen, was aimed at Marxists who damned capitalism with utopian socialism. This, he averred, was a false comparison, comparing the reality of one society with an idealisation of another. He demanded the comparison of like with like--that capitalism-as-we-know-it should he compared with socialism-as-we-know-it. In his view, it was a categorical mistake to compare the reality of one society with the utopian version of another, and it was irresponsible of Marxists to let the Soviet Union or Eastern Europe off the hook. His voice boomed all the louder as Marxism became the fashion in the 1970s. When I completed my own study of the capitalist labour process, based on eleven months I spent working as a machine operator in a South Chicago manufacturing plant (Burawoy, 1979), he targeted his wrath at me. He was right: lurking behind my text was an unspecified utopian socialism.

His remonstrations were enjoined by Robert Merton, who reproached me for the false imputation that mistakes capitalism for industrialism. He was criticising an essay I had written in 1982 about the industrial sociology of his recently deceased student Alvin Gouldner. I claimed that Gouldner's classic text, Patterns of Industrial Bureaucracy, missed the specifically capitalist character of industrial bureaucracy. His mock bureaucracy and his punishment-centered bureaucracy were both shaped by the exigencies of wage labour and the competitive pursuit of profit, while his representative bureaucracy was simply unrealisable in capitalism. Merton responded by saying that I had not demonstrated my claims, which would require comparisons of industrial bureaucracy both within and between capitalist and non-capitalist societies (Goulder, 1954; Burawoy, 1982).

To atone for my sins of false comparison and false imputation, I resolved to take actually existing socialism far more seriously. I decided against the easy road of Western Marxism that dismissed the Soviet Union and its satellites as a form of statism or state capitalism, unrelated to the socialist project. Instead, I began a twenty-year journey into the hidden abode of actually existing socialism, the last ten years of which were unexpectedly devoted to following the painful Soviet transition to capitalism. Ironically, in evaluating this Soviet leap into capitalism--the experiments of shock therapy and big bang- I now turned the tables on the avatars of market freedoms. I accused them of false comparisons as they damned the realities of socialism with an idealisation of capitalism, and of false imputations as they assumed that the pathologies of Soviet societies would evaporate if its socialist character were destroyed. They forgot the transition costs, all the higher in a global order dominated by capitalism, as well as capitalism's very own pathologies. The economists thought they were shopping in a supermarket and could just grab whatever combination of institutions they wanted, then walk out without even paying. Indeed, the Russian transition proved to be looting on a grand scale. Having been under the heel of state socialism, the population at large colluded in this unrestrained expropriation to their own detriment. To be sure, they never saw themselves as being in a supermarket but in a prison. They had been there all their lives, so they assumed that life on the outside could only be better. It turned out to be another sort of prison.

The life-and-death costs of a capitalist transition, guided and justified by such false comparisons and false imputations, were no less horrific than those born of similar errors during the period of agriculture's collectivisation and the planned economy. Just as Stalinism eclipsed its atrocities by proclaiming the new order the realisation of 'communism' and by imputing perversions to pernicious capitalist legacies, so the neoliberal economists hid the horrors of the capitalist transition behind the labels of the 'free market' while imputing perversions to the obdurate inheritance of communism or totalitarianism.

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