Priesthood and Bureaucracy : Modern Echoes of Ancient Relations.

Priesthood and Bureaucracy : Modern Echoes of Ancient Relations.

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The rise of priesthoods – differentiated from the broader populus – in the river valley civilisations of antiquity was the first social expression of the beginnings of the differentiation of human society into antagonistic social classes or strata. The priest-caste was at first neither property-owning nor hereditary. It owned neither land nor the material infrastructure associated with its activities. Its emergence as a ruling stratum took place on the basis of the production of a surplus in agriculture which liberated a section of society from the need to labour. Land and infrastructure was owned by the whole of society. This form of land ownership was a carry over from the older tribal relations. Private ownership of land comes later with the emergence of a land-owning aristocracy.

It was, of course, no accident that the first great civilisations arose in river valleys. The high degree of fertility of the soils of their flood plains combined with the immediacy of a source of irrigation constituted the natural pre-conditions for the rise of such societies. Archaeologists have found – contrary to previously pre-conceived notions of ‘primitive tribalism’ – that even the Amazon Basin at one time hosted such a society, or perhaps its beginnings. Only its collapse ushered in a reversion to the previous modes of tribal life. In the Amazon, a process of soil enrichment was practiced which increased and maintained the fertility of the soils. Even today, these ‘black soils’ remain extremely fertile. The general thesis here is that the first great human civilisations arose within the mighty river valleys of the globe where all the natural and geographical conditions were favourable to their emergence and subsequent development.

The production of this surplus in agriculture must have resulted from innovations in technique and labour organisation and the consequent increase in the productivity of labour flowing from such changes. Such developments necessarily imply developments in human knowledge and their technical application. The fragmentation of earlier tribal societies (based on the common tribal ownership of the land) into a priesthood and populus was a prelude to their later differentiation into antagonistic social classes.

The ruling priesthoods of these societies (for example, in the ancient river valley civilisations of the Nile, Euphrates, Tigris, Indus, Ganges, Yellow River, etc) did not own the means of production as such. We still find echoes of this earliest social differentiation and arrangement in the caste system of India today. And it is still asserting its legacies. Very recently, an extremely reactionary and backward ruling of the highest court in India, in 2007, ruled that “caste” is inherited and unalterable.

From an initial position of being elected by the tribal councils, the priests gradually established themselves as a permanently ruling and privileged stratum with the transition from elected to hereditary status as the primitive communistic democracy of the early human communities was superseded. This also brought in its wake differentiation of the populus into different castes and sub-castes. The new status of this priesthood enabled them to pass on their positions of power and authority – associated with knowledge of engineering, mathematics, etc, and the processes of agriculture and material infrastructure – to their offspring. The caste system became hereditary and transfigured into justificatory forms of religious conception, practice and ritual.

The productivity of labour had risen beyond a critical point resulting in the production of a surplus over and above the immediate needs of the whole populus. The need for everyone to engage in the manual labour process became unnecessary. The priesthood gradually separated itself from manual labour and came to monopolise the management and direction of production, preoccupying itself with the mental side of labour. The further division of labour of society gave rise to different castes pre-occupied with specific tasks. For example, the different prescribed roles of the various castes and sub-castes in India and other parts of the world.

Caste organisation predated British rule in India. However, British colonialism exploited the social distinctions as a means of ‘divide and rule’. [1] The colonial regime codified and ossified the distinctions in the same manner as the Apartheid regime in South Africa did in relation to racial and ethnic differences. The British administration strictly enforced caste distinctions and regulated its hierarchy so that discrimination became more deeply entrenched. Naturally, the British colonial power used it as a lever of its rule by ‘elevating’ some castes and ‘criminalising’ others into pariah status. The old Roman tactic of ‘divide et impera’ applied to the British Empire. [2]



The priesthood could live off the surplus product created in the course of production by the labour of the populus. In ancient Egypt, the chief priest, of course, eventually became the Pharoah with his royal entourage, retinue and attendants. Even today the Christian priesthood lives off the surplus created by wage labour.

With the rise of these social relations, a whole series of practices, justifications and prohibitions were carved out and instituted in order to socially legitimise the parasitism of the priesthood and the role of other castes in society, especially that of the producers. The ideologies which had their roots in pre-class societies now became modified and transformed in both content and form in order to express the interests of this ruling priesthood which now differentiated itself from the mass of the populus.

With further social development – for example, the taking of prisoners of war to be used as labour and inroads into communal ownership of the land – the priesthood eventually becomes a slave-owning and land-owning patriciate, giving it the wealth and state power to break up the remnants of any communal ownership of the land and acquire it as land privately-owned and worked by slaves who were themselves the property of this new ruling class.

The populus did not necessarily become slaves but they did take on the new status of a subjugated and ruled class with labour duties and obligations to the new ruling class. The emergence of the priesthood therefore stands historically as a transitional form between classless tribal society and the fragmentation of it into classes, rooted in the growth in the productivity of labour with the consequent production of a surplus in agriculture. The differentiation of the egalitarianism and fraternity of tribal relations into an hereditary ruling priesthood and ruled populus was therefore the first historic expression that such a social transition was actually taking place.

Essentially, before the emergence of an hereditary aristocracy, there was no private ownership of land or infrastructure in these societies. The tribe owned the land as “its” land vis-a-vis other tribes but internally it belonged to “the tribe” as such. Its land was not privately owned. However, later, we see the actual control and direction of production and distribution in the hands of a priesthood. It was this control – and not any form of ownership – which enabled this privileged stratum to appropriate, assign and manage the distribution of the surplus produced by the agricultural labour of the populus.

Control of production affords this privileged layer the right to appropriate a disproportionate share of the socially produced surplus but it does not afford it the right to do as it pleases with the means of production if control is not simultaneously based on ownership. It was only when actual ownership of land passed to this priesthood that it later became an hereditary aristocracy and slavery itself started to emerge. Then, of course, we have the emergence of class societies proper – based on actual ownership – and the development of ideologies to help to maintain the position of the ruling classes. Then the new rights and conditions afforded to it as a class mean it can alienate property since this property is now privately owned.

Thus, control of the means of production is not necessarily ownership of them. This control affords certain privileges but not comprehensively as in the case of ownership. It is worth mentioning that even ownership does not necessarily give complete control since, later on, state regulations can limit what owners could do with their property, taxation, building and land-use statutes, etc.

There are historical parallels in the relationship between the former Soviet bureaucracy and the dominated “socialist” peoples, on the one hand, and in the relationship between the ancient priesthoods of the river valley civilisations and populus of these societies, on the other. We can also see this type of relation replicated in the relationship between the trade union bureaucracies of capitalist countries and the rank and file members of the trade unions. These bureaucratic relations [Soviet and Trade Union Bureaucracy] rest on, and are mediated by, the existence of the wider class relations in existence. They could not subsist without the latter.

Of course, the comparison and analogy is not simple. History is temporally specific. But the parasitism of both the Soviet and trade union bureaucracy and the early priesthoods contains certain striking and remarkable similarities. None own the resources which they control. Each stratum has a privileged position in relation to peoples, members and populus respectively. Bureaucracies do not have the right to alienate the resources which they control for their own personal enrichment as with property-owning classes. That is, they cannot sell these resources with a view to the full compensation of their total value. However, they hold the position where they can manipulate these resources to ‘take their cut’ of the proceeds of the management and direction of them. Such bureaucracies are – as with the ancient priesthoods – ruling strata within their own social and organisational orbit. Unlike property-owning classes, they owe their position and privileges to control and not to ownership.

It may, in passing, be interesting to note here that the feudal nobility were tenanted. They were not “owners” as such. By a process of investitute and subinfeudation, they were awarded land as tenants of the Crown and then they proceeded to subinfeudate and dole out the land until it reached the stage of the serf’s plot at the base of the feudal pyramid. Feudal society – in England at least – was a society of tenants, not owners, in which lord and tenant were bound together in a mutualised system of rights and obligations.

The securing of a ‘position’ in these bureaucracies – a ‘career move’ – is usually dependent on satisfying all the conditions laid down which serve to maintain the privileged position of the stratum as a whole. The priesthoods had conditions and rituals for the accession of others to its body. In other words, once established, priesthood and bureaucracy develop and cultivate a consciousness of their own interests (separate from, and antagonistic to, those over which they rule) and which is embodied (or rather disembodied in alienated form) in a “code” or “rule book”, etc, which is separate from, and confronts, the current members of the priesthood and bureaucracy itself. It often seems that ‘constitutions’ and ‘codes’, etc, are not representational of its interests. Rather it seems that they represent the interests of ‘the whole organisation’. The truth of such ‘constitutions’ is soon revealed when conflicts of interest develop between the top stratum and the people or members. Without exception, the ‘top’ seeks to maintain them at all costs. And points to these codes and constitutions as a means of maintaining its own distinct interests as a ruling stratum.

You embrace the code when you become part of the structure. If you do not or cannot, then you are excluded from the structure. Paradoxically, it can operate unconsciously but is operative nevertheless and arises directly out of the social character, structure and relations of priestly and bureaucratic organisation itself. People come and go, pass in and out, up and down, join and retire, go through, etc, the structure, but the structure itself, its organisation as socially congealed privileged, remains in place. Its determinate character is not fundamentally altered. The old adage that ‘it is who you know and not what you know‘ sometimes applies in climbing the ladder of the structure. The children of the priests become the next generation of priests or, at least, are provided with the ‘benefits’ of their parents’ position and experience. Leading figures in a bureaucracy “edge” their children – by hook or crook – into the bureaucracy and set them on an ascending path. Here we have resemblances to the inheritance or passing on of class privileges. Nepotism is already pre-established and arises directly out of privileged ‘position’.

The trade union leaders today manage and control strikes (if they must call them) – never forgetting their own indispensable caste interests whilst doing so – in a parallel way in which the priesthoods controlled agricultural production and infrastructure construction in ancient times and the Soviet bureaucracy controlled the state economy of nationalised property prior to its break up after 1989. The general secretary of the Trade Union Congress being the Pharaoh of organised labour and the general secretary of the CPSU being the Pharoah of the nationalised economy.

Because bureaucracy controls but does own the resources which it manages, it is not a property owning class. Likewise, the ancient river valley priesthoods were not property-owning but rather controllers of the social property. The Soviet bureaucracy controlled the nationalised property but did not own it. As a stratum, it owned nothing but controlled everything. All the resources in the old Soviet system, the land, factories, infrastructure, etc, were owned by the state as social property and could not be bought or sold by bureaucrats no matter how ‘big’ or ‘influential’ they were. In a similar way, all the resources of a trade union are owned by the trade union itself. The trade union is run by a bureaucracy but this stratum does not actually own the resources of the union. It controls them as a ruling group. It cannot sell them in order to fill its own pockets like a property-owning class could. And it is this control that affords this layer its privileged position in the same way that the position of the Soviet bureaucracy secured its privileges vis-a-vis the rest of the population. The restoration of capitalism after 1989 has essentially taken place by means of the bare-faced theft of state property dressed up as a purchase of shares. It was the bureaucracy itself that engineered and drove forward this period of appropriation with the devastating consequences on the lives of millions of people.

The Soviet system was, according to Meszaros, neither “capitalist” nor “state capitalist”. Trotsky himself (1936, Revolution Betrayed, Chapter 9) insisted that the Soviet system was not a form of “state capitalism”. In this respect, Meszaros and Trotsky coincide. Later some so-called “Trotskyists” described it as “state capitalist”. And this description was proffered not that long after Trotsky wrote Revolution Betrayed. Trotsky remarks (I paraphrase) that the characterisation of the Soviet Union as “state capitalist” was an attempt to squeeze the living reality of the historically novel and unfamiliar into the formal categories of the familiar in order for metaphysical thinking to comfortably apprehend and ‘box’ the nature of the Soviet Union. In this way, the living reality of the Soviet system eluded their conceptual grasp.

There is not a single, convincing analysis and discourse of the late Soviet system which gives us an adequate characterisation of it being a form of “state capitalism”. Moreover, there is no legitimate and ‘sound’ historical study of how it was, ab initio, or became, “state capitalist” either before or after Trotsky’s study in his 1936 Revolution Betrayed.

Capital existed in the Soviet system in a different mode to the way it exists in capitalist society. In the Soviet system, it existed as an overarching “mode of control of the whole social metabolism” which is distinct from its existence under capitalism itself as a more intrinsic, organic and more widely and deeply embracing and economically entrenched controlling “social relationship of production” which also incorporates within itself this latter function of “metabolic control”.

[See Istvan Meszaros, Beyond Capital, Political Power and Dissent in Post-Revolutionary Societies, p.898. Merlin Press, 1985. And specifically, section 6. Breaking the Rule of Capital, pp. 911-914 where he gives a fundamental characterisation of the nature of the Soviet system.]

The emergence and consolidation of the rule of the Soviet bureaucracy expressed the resistance of capital in the struggle for socialism. The differences between priesthood and bureaucracy reflect differences in concrete historical conditions and circumstances. However, both were essentially parasitic and neither owned the means of production and therefore were not property-owning ruling classes as such. In the same way, the trade union bureaucracy is not a property-owning ruling class but a controlling bureaucratic caste.

In the Soviet system there was, as in the first stages of the river valley civilisations, no private ownership of the land, production, infrastructure, etc. But the Soviet state bureaucracy controlled and directed production and lived a privileged existence off the surplus created and extracted from the producers. The producers had no control over their product which was controlled and directed by an alien body hovering over society. The fundamental question in the Soviet system was one of control and not of ownership. And this corresponds to the conception that the controlling collective in that system was not constituted as a property-owning class but rather as a controlling caste. This bureaucracy did not own but controlled.

The bureaucratic system of control was in dissonance with the post-capitalist forms of ownership or its historic tendency of development beyond these forms of ownership. Either restoration of capitalism, on the one hand, or taking the whole system beyond the constricted form of bureaucratic control which corresponded to, or resembled, capitalist forms of control, on the other hand, was the contradictory pivot on which the whole Soviet system precariously balanced. 1989 and after gave the impetus to the process of restoration. If the forms of ownership and control do not correspond to, and compliment, each other, the whole social structure becomes animated with a structural contradiction which has to be resolved one way or the other i.e. either control has to bow to the developmental tendencies of ownership or ownership must be reversed in favour of the character of the forms of control.

The way forward for the producers in and beyond the Soviet system was to rid themselves of bureaucratic control so that it was they who not only produced but also controlled and directed production and distribution rather than an alien state bureaucracy hovering menacingly above society. A system of state management which still connected Soviet society to the age of capital, threatening restoration of capitalism. And, of course, after 1989 this is what has actually proceeded. The Russian Revolution – as a result of the impact of world capital and its state powers on it – never resolved the posited conflict between ownership and control. Under such circumstances, the possibility of capitalist restoration was always a mediating factor animating the whole social structure.

In the Soviet system, the state form of ownership of the means of production and distribution corresponded to the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ and pointed beyond the age of capital. However, because these means of production and distribution were controlled and managed according to the norms and parameters of a system of capitalist production, their operation, but not there ownership, corresponded to the rule of capital. This is not to assert that the means of production and distribution in the Soviet system were capital. Only in their state management and control could they possibly be described as exhibiting the characteristics of capital. Only in their external bureaucratic mode of state management from the “outside” so to speak. The extraction of a surplus and its distribution were carried out under the concerted direction and control of the bureaucratised state structures but not, as in capitalist countries, under the private ownership and control of a distinct ruling capitalist class and its state power. The ruling echelons of the state bureaucracy were not a new ruling property-owning class but rather a ruling controlling stratum. Under capitalism, a fundamental pre-condition for the operation of the productive forces is the continual expansion and augmentation in their value, i.e. valorisation and accumulation are an actual precondition for their actual existence. This was not the case in the Soviet system.

The Cuban system, dominated as it is by a privileged bureaucracy, exhibits more or less the same structural characteristics as the old Soviet system. And now recent events in Cuba (February 2012) – especially in the ranks of the Communist Party – are indicating that restorationist trends are emerging in both party and bureaucracy. The origin of these trends, of course, are to be located in the deepening of capital’s global crisis. The opening of an offensive by the Cuban proletariat to wrest control of production and distribution from this bureaucratic caste would undoubtedly accelerate the trends towards restoration.

Of course, the capital relation (commodity capital and money capital) actually operated in pre-capitalist societies just as commodity production and exchange did. It was not, of course, capitalist commodity production in these societies. The capital relation did not (and could not) reach its ‘classical’ form until capital became the dominant relationship of production. In antiquity and in the feudal period, merchant and money capital emerged and developed in the form of trade and usury. For example, the oft-quoted example is Carthage in the Mediterranean but trading and usury were common amongst the other developed peoples such as the Greeks, Romans, etc, and in the ‘interstices’ of feudal society. In feudal society, the Jews were excluded from the feudal order itself and lived by trade and usury.

However, what distinguishes capital in antiquity and the feudal period from its existence in contemporary society is that it was not the dominant/preponderant relationship of production and distribution. It was merely a subsidiary, peripheral aspect of these societies which were essentially subsistence societies with the ruling classes living on the extraction of a surplus from the labour of serfs/villeins, slaves, coloni or conquered peoples or from the plunder, tribute and taxes in kind or coin arising out of such conquests. The parasitism of the ruling classes was founded upon their ownership and/or control of the land or the military domination of the subjugated populations. The general form of labour was not wage labour but rather slave or bond labour. And this simple truth necessarily meant that the means of production, even those utilised to produce commodities, were not forms of capital.

Extraction and distribution of the surplus in the Soviet system was controlled and managed politically. But that, in itself, does not render the means of production ‘capital’ any more than the extraction of a surplus by the priesthoods of the ancient river valley civilisations from its populus rendered the land privately owned by them as a ruling layer. Private ownership would have made them a propertied class rather than a controlling caste. Here, as in the Soviet system, the controlling relation was political and not economic. In other words, in the Soviet system, the appropriation of the surplus by the state was not based on, did not arise out of, the operation of capital as the controlling social relation of production and distribution in the same mode as it does under capitalism. Rather this appropriation of a surplus arose on the basis of the direct political domination of the state bureaucracy – backed up by military force – over the producers. The means of production and distribution were controlled and managed according to capitalist norms [“the mode of metabolic control”] but this, in itself, did not make them forms of capital. The fundamental contradiction was between the form of ownership and the form of control. In a similar fashion (not identical, of course), the ancient (non-property owning) priesthood of the ancient river valley civilisations extracted its surplus from its human hinterland. It did not need to actually own the land in order to carry this out.

The forms of appearance serve to furnish some with the conception that the Soviet system was ‘state capitalist’. As if the means of production in the Soviet system were owned and operated on the same basis as the former nationalised industries in Britain before their privatisation by the Thatcher governments. Further investigation would reveal that the relations of ownership of the nationalised industries in pre-Thatcher Britain were fundamentally different in their characterisation to the forms of ownership of the means of production in the Soviet system. In Britain, before privatisation, these were actually forms of state capital in their very nature whereas in the Soviet system the means of production were only managed according to capitalist norms but were not subject to the relations of capitalist ownership either by state or capitalist class.

Meszaros cites four basic pre-conditions by means of which “capital maintains its – by no means unrestricted – rule in post-revolutionary societies…” [p.913, Beyond Capital]. In none of them can we find any indication that what existed in the Soviet system was a new form of capitalist or state capitalist ownership but rather that capital exerted its control by means of a system of bureaucratic management and the prioritisation of ‘material imperatives’; through the continuation of the division of labour inherited from capitalism; through the ‘structure of the available production apparatus’ and the ‘restricted form of scientific knowledge’ and through the Soviet system’s ‘links….with the global system of capitalism’. It exerted its rule as a “mode of control of the social metabolism” but not as a fundamentally animating and governing social relationship of production and distribution – economically extracting surplus value – as in capitalist society.

Needless to say, the age-old division of labour will still be with us in a sublated, more fluid, form for a circumscribed period even after the capital relation and commodity production have been eliminated from society. Only the further evolution of society will see it progressively diminish and disappear. The ‘available production apparatus’ and ‘form of scientific knowledge’ will always be ‘restricted’ in the sense that both are historically conditioned and ‘limited in their actuality but unlimited in their disposition’ (Engels). To focus on these in order to provide evidential criteria for the “maintenance of capital’s rule” in the Soviet system is not fetishistic but it is somewhat departing from a characterisation of the nature of social relations in the Soviet system in order to explain capital’s continued “influence”.

Only points [1] and [4] [p.913., Beyond Capital] are really fundamental and are actually related and interconnected. If anything the ‘material imperatives which circumscribed (SM) the possibilities of the totality of life-processes’ were inextricably connected to the historical ‘links and interconnections’ which the Soviet system had ‘with the global system of capitalism’. The real “influence” of capital and the forms of state bureaucratic control and management corresponding to this “influence” arose from the daunting pressures of the world capitalist order on the Soviet system. From the very start, and before, this was the fundamental condition and reason why a technically isolated and capitalistically encircled ‘post-revolutionary’ society was degraded and degenerate in nascendi. It reinforces the overall conception that the commencement of the destruction of the global capital order and its state powers must be posited as nothing less than a continuously unfolding global process. And only temporarily halting when this is absolutely unavoidable according to conditions and expedience.

Shaun May
September 2014

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