Contributions of Charles Bettelheim

Charles Bettelheim

Charles Bettleheim was one of the most creative, analytical and illustrious intellectuals and economists of the last century, who made a path breaking contribution.

Life Sketch

Charles Bettelheim was born on November 20, 1913 in Paris into a banker’s family, but he spent his early life in Switzerland and Egypt before moving back to Paris in 1922. In 1933, affected by the impact of the Great Depression and Hitler’s rise to power, Bettelheim joined the Communist Party. Despite his political commitments, Bettelheim studied widely, learning philosophy, sociology, law and psychology, and Russian. In 1936, he travelled to the Soviet Union for five months and first hand witnessed major show trials occurred Although startled by these events, he unflinchingly stood by his Marxist convictions. Following the Second World War, Bettelheim choose economics as his profession, and due to his knowledge of the USSR and economic planning he served in the Ministry of Labour, before, in 1948 becoming Director of Studies of the École Pratique des Hautes Études (EPHE) and a professor at the Institut d’Etutde du Developpement Economique et Social in 1968. By the 1950s and 60s, Bettelheim was working abroad as an economic adviser to many newly-independent countries in the Third World, such as Egypt, India, Algeria and Cuba. In the mid-1960s, Bettelheim supported Maoism, visited China several times and served as President of the Franco-Chinese Friendship Association until his resignation in 1976. He authored a number of books such as Soviet Planning (1945), The German Economy under Nazism, an Aspect of the Decadence of Capitalism (1946), Independent India (1962), Transition to a Socialist Economy (1968), Economic Calculation and Forms of Property (1971), Cultural Revolution and Industrial Organization in China (1973), multiple volumes of Class Struggles in the USSR (1974, 1977, and 1982) and China Since Mao (1978). Despite his international reputation, Bettelheim fell into obscurity after the mid-1980s, publishing little and died on July 20, 2006.

In the Fifties, Bettelheim began his international activities as an advisor to the governments of Third World countries. In 1958, he created an institutional base for his research by founding the CEMI. In 1963, Che Guevara invited him to Cuba, where he participated in a “grand debate” on socialist economics.

In 1966, Bettelheim developed a deep fascination in China. He helped the Union of Young Communists (Marxist–Leninist) with theoretical planning, without being directly affiliated with the organization. In his capacity as President of the Franco-Chinese Friendship Association (Association des amitiés Franco-Chinoises), he visited the People’s Republic of China several times, in order to make a comprehensive study of new methods of industrial development innovated  by the “Cultural Revolution After the death of Mao Zedong in 1976, Bettelheim was very critical of the new leaders (Hua Guofeng and Deng Xiaoping) who departed from  Maoist principles, and replacing them with a politics of modernization which Bettelheim considered reactionary and authoritarian.

From 1980 onward, Bettelheim fell more and more alienated —a result of the dramatic political changes in the Third World—and, in Europe, of the decline (and eventual failure) of “hard-line socialism“, which rejected debate over the paradigms of development in the Southern countries, in an atmosphere of planned economy independent of the world market—an economy to which Bettelheim had contributed so much. Bettelheim has written a book of memoirs which, as yet, has remained unfinished.

Until his death, Bettelheim lived in Paris. He did not publish anything in his later years. His student and long-time colleague Bernard Chavance is among the leading exponents of “Regulation” theory.

Departure from Marxist Orthodoxy

Despite his negative experiences in Moscow, Bettelheim adopted a positive approach towards Soviet socialism until the Sixties, citing the economic accomplishments of the Soviet Union, which he appreciated from an independent point of view. In 1956, he backed he “de-Stalinization” inaugurated by Nikita Khrushchev at the Twentieth Congress of the Soviet Communist Party, as well as the reforms conceived by Soviet economist Evsei Lieberman, propounding a decentralization of decisions made within the planning leadership.

In the Cuban debate of 1963, Bettelheim was opposed to the voluntarism ideas of Che Guevara, who wanted to abolish free market and the production of merchandise applying a very hasty  and centralized industrialization, morally galvanising “the new man.” Bettelheim took a position against this plan .Che Guevara and Castro preferred the monoculture of sugar as the basis of Cuban economy, rather than a strict analogy to the economy of the Soviet Union. In Cuba, Bettelheim recommended a diversified economy, based on agriculture, prudent industrialization, broad central planning, mixed forms of property ownership with market elements—a pragmatic strategy similar to the “New Economic Policy” in 1922. Opposing Guevara, Bettelheim argued (in line with the last writings of Stalin) that the “law of value” was a reflection  of objective social conditions which could not be confronted  by wilful decisions, but only by long-term method of undertaking social transformation.

This debate demonstrated the profound differences which, from then on, distinguished Bettelheim from Marxist “orthodoxy”, which considered Socialism as a product of “the development of maximum centralization of all forces of industrial production”. For Bettelheim, socialism is rather an alternative voice in development; a process of transformation of social understandings. Inspired by the Chinese Cultural Revolution and the thought of Mao  Zedong, and in cooperation with the Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser, Bettelheim was a stanch opponent of  “economism” and to the “primacy of the means of production” of traditional Marxism: against the idea that socialist transformation of social bonds was a creature  of the development of the forces of production (liberating those bonds from them, according to Marxist orthodoxy, since private property dominates them in “bourgeois” society), he affirmed it was imperative  radically  transforming social connections. In his book Economic Calculations and Forms of Ownership (Calcul économique et formes de proprieté), Bettelheim re-evaluated the problems of transition to socialism, while criticizing the supposition that nationalization and state ownership of the means of production was already “socialist”—it is not the legal form of property, but true socialization of the web of production, which defines  such a transition ; the crucial problem in socialist planning is the replacement of the form of “value” with the development of a method of measurement which takes into account the social utility of production.

Analysis of USSR

In China, Bettelheim underwent a process of witnessing  a process of transformation., unparalleled .More specifically, he marked  that the Cultural Revolution—a revolution of the political, ideological and cultural superstructure—made a dramatic metamorphosis of  the industrial organization integrating it by a general participation by the workers in all decisions, and eradicating  the division of “manual” and “intellectual” labour.

Adopting a “Maoist” approach, Bettelheim began his magnanimous work on the history of the Soviet Union: Les luttes de classes en URSS (1974–1982) (Class Struggle in the USSR (1974–1982)), where he investigated the reasons for the distortions of soviet socialism, which, according to Bettelheim, is nothing more than a “State Capitalism.” Bettelheim derived at a position   that after the October Revolution the Bolsheviks had not succeeded in establishing any long-term stabilization of the alliance between workers and poor peasants which had earlier been conceived by Lenin. During the 1920s, this alliance was replaced by an alliance of elite workers and technological intellectuals against the peasants, resulting in the forced collectivization of agriculture in 1928. “Economistic” ideology (the “primacy of the forces of production”), with roots  in social-democracy and patronised by  the interests of the “worker aristocracy” and progressivist intellectuals, was revived  by the role of the Bolshevik Party, promoting  new technocratic elites which rekindled d the same hierarchies, divisions of labour and social differentiations, which capitalism..  However, the “legal” mirage, according to which the property of the State is defined as “socialist,” hides the actual exploitation.

Finally, Bettelheim rejected the socialist character of the October Revolution, interpreting it as a seizing of power by a radical branch of the Russian intelligentsia, which stole a popular revolution.

Bettelheim was a leading exponent of the thesis that “development” in the countries of the “Third World” necessitates a political rupture with imperialism and departure from the clutches of dependency on the unequal international division of labour of the world market.

This position also includes a sharp criticism of the international role of the Soviet Union whose politics of development Bettelheim gauged as just another variant of capitalist accumulation models. This theory saw an opportunity for a rupture from   the political groundwork to carve out an alternative development model, one that was not designed towards accumulation and profit, but rather towards an economy serving the everyday requirements of the people, with a balanced proportion allocated between agriculture and industry.


When, in 1978, the People’s Republic of China, under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, rejected the “Maoist” strategy of independent and self-sustaining development, guided by political priorities, in order to integrate with the world market, the sheer bliss or egalitarianism of autonomous development met a serious retreat, completely losing it’s earlier impact. Marxism receive a setback, especially in France, where anti communist hysteria succeeded in discrediting not only the “archaeo-Communist” orthodoxy, but also Marxist critics such as Bettelheim. Bettelheim, who had never abandoned Marxist thinking, was pushed into oblivion. In 1982, he published the two volumes of the third part of Class Struggles in the USSR, covering critique “of Stalinism, but the Marxist environment, in which Bettelheim had been rooted before, had dissolved.

Cultural Revolution and Industrial Organization 

In Cultural Revolution and Industrial Organization in China Bettleheim with incisive and illustrious detail, summarised how  during the Chinese Cultural revolution a new chapter was written in production methods or a new epoch in term so self governance. He summarised how the revolutionary committee’s inculcated spirit of workers management taking mass democracy to scale never penetrated.

In 1978 Bettleheim in the very core exposed how China embarked on the course towards capitalism, and undid every feature of the Socialist line. Methodically, he elaborated how the pat of the Cultural Revolution was completely reversed.

This book derived some theoretical conclusions regarding the implications of the changes the Cultural Revolution has crystallised in the factories of China.

. First, the changes in question came to light only because of the defeat of Liu Shao-chi’s bourgeois political line. The exponents of this line had morally begun to challenge similar changes initiated in 1958 during the Great Leap Forward. On the other hand, these transformations were the product of an ideological revolution marking the beginning of a metamorphosis in manners and customs which gave birth to a new proletarian morality

Furthermore, the massive changes that occurred in the Chinese countryside after the formation of people’s communes in 1958 continued and were intensified during the Cultural Revolution. Between 1960 and 1966, the adherents of Liu Shao-chi’s line had tried to obliterate the economic and social changes initiated in the countryside during the Great Leap Forward. The Cultural Revolution that followed paved the path for a massive socialist counter-offensive, especially in the area of rural industrialization, which has already substantially transformed Chinese village life. Here, too, the Cultural Revolution waged an offensive against the division of labour and, notably, to the division between town and countryside, that underlies the divisions between social classes.

The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution manifests ideological and political struggle the effects of which bear both on the economic base and on the superstructure, destroying the old social relationships and giving rise to new ones. The very ebb and flow of the struggle which crystallised during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution evidence the degree to which its outcome depended both on the mass movement and on its correct orientation by a revolutionary leadership.

At each stage of the Cultural Revolution, the adherents of Mao Tse-tung’s revolutionary line had to undertake an enormous labour of discussion. It took several months for the workers to rebel against the existing methods of management and the division of labour and against the diehard supporters of the existing relations in the factories. It was only gradually, through the exchange of prolonged discussion, that they began to realize that the old relations were hampering progress along the road to socialism. When he visited China in 1967 the members of various revolutionary factory committees told the author e that during its initial stages they believed the Cultural Revolution to be concerned only with literature and the arts, and that they had distrusted the critics of the situation in their own factories. Eventually they came to understand that the prevailing conditions in the factories had to be radically changed before further advances along the road to socialism could be made.

Later, when confronted with the task of establishing new relations, the workers were often confused in the manner they had to interpret the slogans of the revolutionary line. Months and even years of discussion and struggle were required to achieve the unity indispensable to the success of the Cultural Revolution].Through discussions and struggles involving millions of workers and vast sections of the population, a  new road was paved  in the struggle for socialism.. It represented a distinctive achievement, as path breaking as any scientific or social experiment which penetrated new processes or new objective laws.

Part 1discusses the essential characteristics of the changes that have occurred both in the management of industrial enterprises and in the division of labour within these enterprises. It is largely an account of his conversations with the members of the revolutionary committee at the General Knitwear Factory in Peking. This factory witnessed a 360 degree social transformation.

Part 2 is a relatively brief outline of the guiding political principles of Chinese planning. Although these principles were functioning before the Cultural Revolution, their application often received a jolt by the “centralizing” tendency abetted by Liu Shao-chi’s line. Now local and provincial authorities were given licence to the broadest possible initiative, and to facilitate the workers to play a substantial role  in decision making during the planning stage.

Part 3 discusses the significance, principles, and perspectives of the main goal or accent of the Chinese Revolution — the gradual extinction of the distinction between performance tasks and administrative tasks, between manual labour and intellectual labour, and between town and countryside. This is the road outlined by Marx and Engels.

Part 4 discusses the political principles that were enforced during the Cultural Revolution, and formulates some theoretical conclusions regarding the revolutionizing of the social relations of production.

Bettleheim with incisive and illustrious detail, summarised how  during the Chinese Cultural revolution a new chapter was written in production methods or a new epoch in term so self governance. He summarised how the revolutionary committee’s inculcated spirit of workers management taking mass democracy to scale never penetrated.

Bettleheim in the very core exposed how China embarked on the course towards capitalism, and undid every feature of the Socialist line. Methodically, he elaborated how the path of the Cultural Revolution was completely reversed.

China   Great Leap Backward

In the Great Leap Backward Bettleheim in the very core unravelled how China embarked on the course towards capitalism, and undid every feature of the Socialist line. Surgically unravels how China followed a path diametrically opposite of what it did in till 1976.

Most praiseworthy is his analysis of the reversal of the Shanghai Commune, in terms of the ineffective synthesis of the party with the revolutionary committees, glaring inconsistencies in genuine mass democracy, and roots of capitalist reversal in mistakes in the 1960’s itself. It resurrects the very vision of Marx and how bureaucracy was not eradicated, with history of USSR experience, repeated.

Below I am quoting parts of sections.

Ending of Cultural Revolution

“The first question that needs to be examined is that of the relation between the present situation and the Cultural Revolution. On this point we must note straightaway that the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party has now proclaimed that the Cultural Revolution is ended. This statement is certainly correct. It amounts to recognition that a change has taken place in the relation between social and political forces, resulting in the extreme restriction of the activity of the masses, and of the freedom of initiative and expression that the Cultural Revolution was to have enabled them to conquer.

In fact, when we look back and analyze what has happened since 1965-66, we can say that this change in the relation of forces was already apparent in the first months of 1967 when the political form of the Shanghai Commune was created and then abandoned and that thereafter it continued, with zigzags in the same direction. The announcement of the end of the Cultural Revolution was thus the culmination of a historical process that lasted for several years, a process of class struggle requiring protracted analysis. The way in which this announcement took place calls for two observations.

It is to be noted, first, that the announcement was not accompanied by any systematic striking of the balance of the Cultural Revolution as a whole. The failure to do this means that no distinction has been made by the new leadership of the Chinese Communist Party between changes of a positive kind, from the standpoint of the working people, which have taken place thanks to the Cultural Revolution, and those changes or practices that may have had negative consequences. The door is thus left open for a de facto challenge to everything contributed by the Cultural Revolution. This is so even though homage is paid, in words, to the Cultural Revolution, and it is said that there will be other such revolutions. Without a clear analysis of the past, as thoroughgoing as possible, it is very difficult to find one’s way correctly in the future.

Secondly, alongside the announcement that the Cultural Revolution is over, the measures which have been taken since more than a year ago, and the themes expounded in official speeches and in the press, constitute a de facto negation of the Cultural Revolution. There has been a veritable leap backward. These two aspects of the present situation are obviously not accidental. They are the product of profound tendencies, the result of a certain relation of forces between classes and also of a political line which forms part of this relation of forces and reacts upon it.

Agricultural Policy

Since the end of 1976 a new orientation in agricultural matters has become apparent. Basically, this reduces the initiative of the peasant masses and increasingly subordinates them to a highly centralized leadership over which the working people exercise no real control. It tends to impose on the people’s communes work norms that are decided externally, and to promote technological changes that are also mainly inspired by organs situated far away from the immediate producers.

The class content of this new orientation is clear. On the one hand, it is a matter of favouring the development of a production process that subordinates the peasant masses, to the utmost degree possible, to domination by the cadres, local and central, and so to a bourgeoisie of a new type. On the other hand (but the two aspects are interconnected), it is a matter of creating conditions enabling the maximum amount of surplus labour to be extracted from the peasantry, so that they may pay the highest possible amount of tribute to finance the “four modernizations” which are indispensable if the power of the state bourgeoisie is to be consolidated.

 Dissolving of Shanghai Commune

It was not until February 5 that the commune was proclaimed, at a meeting attended by a million workers. The speakers declared that “the municipal party committee and the city council of Shanghai had been destroyed and that a new organ of power had been established, in keeping with the doctrines of Chairman Mao and the principles of the dictatorship of the proletariat. . .

“However, the Shanghai Commune was not hailed in the central press, any more than was the formation of communes in other cities, such as Taiyuan. Without being officially repudiated, the commune was not, so to speak, “recognized” by the central authority. Some twenty days afterwards, it ceased to exist, with the birth of the Shanghai Revolutionary Committee, presided over by Chang Chun-chiao, who had taken part in the work of the Shanghai Commune, in accordance with the suggestion of the central group and with the approval of all the founding organizations. “

“Thus, in Shanghai as in other cities, the commune form, though it had been mentioned in the sixteen-point declaration, was dropped and replaced by that of the revolutionary committee. “

“No real argument justifying this change has ever been set forth. A variety of reasons have been given, mainly in Chang Chun-chiao’s speech of February 24, in which he alluded to Mao Tse-tung’s remarks on the creation of the Shanghai Commune. According to Chang, Mao Tse-tung did not question the principle of the commune, but he did question whether the correct procedure had been followed in forming it. He doubted, moreover, whether the model inspired by the Paris Commune could be adopted anywhere but in Shanghai, China’s most advanced working-class center. He also wondered about the international problems that would result from the proclamation of communes all over China.    Actually, the principal problem raised by Mao was that of the party. He seems to have been very disturbed by the role assigned to the cadres, and by the tendency of some of the rebels to “overthrow all those in responsible positions.” He asked the question: “Do we still need the party?” And he answered: “I think that we need it because we need a hard core, a bronze matrix, to strengthen us on the road we still have to travel. You can call it what you like, Communist Party or Socialist Party, but we must have a party. This must not be forgotten.”

“The question arises as to how the revolutionary leaders of the Chinese Communist Party, who had supported the political form of the commune, went back, in practice, to their previous attitude, claiming that China was not “ready” for this political form. How did they thereby open up a new course, which was to be marked by a series of retreats interrupted by partial, but increasingly less effective, counteroffensives? “

“In terms of the concrete unfolding of the Cultural Revolution, two sets of facts need to be taken into consideration. First, the various revolutionary organizations (in Shanghai and elsewhere) were apparently incapable of uniting. They tended to clash, often and violently, and to engage in efforts to outdo each other, efforts which risked causing confusion and mass elimination of honest and devoted cadres. Mao Tse-tung described this situation in July 1967, when he remarked on the inability shown by the most militant supporters of the Cultural Revolution to unite and to ally with all those with whom they ought to come to an agreement.”


Charles Bettelheim’s unconventional or creative Marxist thinking paved the road for resurrection of classic Marxism promoting ascendancy to “alternative” thinking, which not only gave birth to the idea of “social emancipation from industrial growth” as an end in itself, but aimed to place productive development within the periphery of social consciousness. Even if departing from the conventional paths of Marxism, his writings were congeal and relevant, giving deep insight to a reader.

Bettelheim’s Cultural Revolution and Industrial Organization in China in 1973 and Great Leap Backward 1978 were masterpieces. No intellectual cultivated such an illustrative analysis of the democratisation within the Industrial working class in China during the Cultural Revolution. and the manner China embarked on a regressive economic path., later.

However he was eclectic on work on Class Struggles in the USSR. No doubt he traced the germinating of bureaucracy within Lenin’s period itself and diagnosed how Stalin administered no steps in checking it. Still he applied a Trotskyite perspective on USSR; giving no credence to 2 line struggle within the party and how earlier New Economic Policy manifested the very essence of Marxism. Bettleheim’s negating of proletarian dictatorship before 1953 in Russia was an aberration. Redeeming parts in exposing serious errors, but misleading from Marxist perspective. He joined the club of writers who treated Maoism as an independent entity, and not an integral part of Leninism. In September 2000 issue of Revolutionary Democracy journal of  Claude Varlet and George Gruenthal make an analytical refutation of it’s deviation from  Marxism. .

Harsh Thakor is freelance journalist who has undertaken extensive research on Marxist history

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