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July 20: Charles Bettelheim vs. Marxist “Economism”

Lawrence Bush
July 19, 2016
bettelheimFrench Marxist economist and historian Charles Bettelheim, who wrote the voluminous Class Struggle in the USSR, published between 1974 and 1982, which determined the Soviet system to be a form of “state capitalism,” died in Paris at 93 on this date in 2006. The son of a French banker, he spent his early years in Switzerland and Egypt. By 1933, radicalized by Hitler’s rise to power in Germany, Bettelheim was a member of the French Communist Party. In 1936, he spent half a year as a tourism guide in Moscow, during which time Joseph Stalin began to execute his cohort of Bolshevik veterans in a purge that swept away his rivals and all Marxist dissenters. In the 1950s, Bettelheim served an influential advisor to the governments of developing non-aligned as well as socialist countries, including Nasser’s Egypt, Nehru’s India, Ben Bella’s Algeria, and Castro’s Cuba. In the 1960s, he visited China numerous times, identified as a Maoist, and studied the Cultural Revolution. He was critical of the leadership that replaced Mao Zedong in the late 1970s, whom he considered to be pursuing their own model of state capitalism. Generally speaking Bettelheim was a critic of Marxist “economism” and was concerned about building “the revolution” through political power and cultural influence. “[C]ontrol by the producers over their conditions of existence,” wrote Bettelheim, “requires the development of entirely new social relations, and that to the extent that these new relations are not developed, the old relations which permit exploitation and class domination continue to reproduce themselves.” “What characterizes socialism as opposed to capitalism is not ... the existence or non-existence of market relationships, money and prices, but the existence of the domination of the proletariat, of the dictatorship of the proletariat. It is through the exercise of this dictatorship in all areas -- economic, political, ideological -- that market relations can be progressively eliminated by means of concrete measures adapted to concrete situations and conjunctures.” --Charles Bettelheim

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.