Why doesn’t the Soviet Union exist any more? Part 3: Ideological deterioration and decaying confidence

A crisis of confidence

How do societies stick together? How do you organise the cooperation of millions of people – a modern challenge that humans have only had to face since the emergence of civilisation in Asia a few thousand years ago? At the root of any successful project of that kind is a set of beliefs and values shared by a large number of the population – beliefs and values that bind them to the existing order. Modern capitalism, for example, is strongly rooted in individualism, consumerism, the idea of the free market as being fundamental to human life, and a social hierarchy based on wealth. Colonialism and imperialism add the obscure concept of ‘race’ to this social hierarchy. Feudalism, by contrast, has less emphasis on the freedom of the individual (the capitalist ‘entrepreneur’), and more emphasis on obedience to a king, lord, priest or other patriarch, whose absolute powers are implicitly bound up with those of a divine entity (this helps to explain, incidentally, the pervasiveness of strongly hierarchical religions in all feudal societies).

Collective belief in the values and foundational stories of a given society is crucial for the survival of that society. This is why all societies go to great lengths to preserve these values and stories, to spread them via education and propaganda systems, and to present them as universal and correct. Modern capitalism, with its extraordinarily powerful media and sophisticated means of propaganda, heavily promotes its own beliefs and values, and we are exposed to these from the cradle to the grave.

What are the beliefs and values of a socialist society? The Soviet Union explicitly organised itself in accordance with a Marxist-Leninist ideology. Marxism is associated with values such as equality, universal prosperity, internationalism, elimination of exploitation and oppression, ending war, and empowering those layers of society that are most oppressed under capitalism (in particular the working class). Leninism extends these values and ideas of Marxism and applies them to the period of modern imperialism, to the period of actual socialist revolution, and obviously to the then-prevailing revolutionary situation in Russia. Lenin being Russian, Marxism-Leninism enjoyed an additional legitimacy among the Russians on account of its ‘homegrown’ nature.

The early generations of Soviet people had a strong feeling that they were the vanguard of world revolution, of a bright new future. As they achieved the fastest industrialisation in history, along with vastly improved living standards for the masses, and of course the historic victory over fascism in the Second World War, the superiority of socialism was assured. The spread of socialism to Europe, Asia and Cuba in the 1940s and 50s also fed into this feeling, as did the rise of the national liberation movements across Africa.

The immediate post-war years – with fascism defeated thanks to the heroism of the Soviet people, with the Cold War yet to make its full impact, and with a national leader (Stalin) who was very widely respected – probably constitute the zenith of Soviet pride and national spirit. Through the 1960s, 70s and 80s, however, more and more people lost their commitment to the official ruling ideology; society’s foundational stories were starting to lose their pull. By the time the Communist Party leadership itself started (under Gorbachev) to challenge the basic beliefs underlying the system, the masses were by-and-large sufficiently alienated from these beliefs that they were ambivalent in the face of this cyclopean act of social sabotage.

Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin

“We will not do to Chairman Mao what Khrushchev did to Stalin” (Deng Xiaoping)

After a lengthy and complicated power struggle between Nikita Khrushchev and Georgy Malenkov following Stalin’s death (in March 1953), Khrushchev had managed to consolidate power towards the end of 1955. One of his first priorities was to attack Stalin’s legacy in relation to excessive political repression, abuse of power, mass deportations, and the cult of the personality. His ‘secret speech’1 at the 20th Congress of the CPSU in February 1956 is a watershed moment in Soviet history.

According to Khrushchev and his allies, the speech was not intended to entirely negate Stalin (the speech starts by noting that “the role of Stalin in the preparation and execution of the Socialist Revolution, in the Civil War, and in the fight for the construction of socialism in our country, is universally known” and ends by admitting that “Stalin undoubtedly performed great services to the Party, to the working class and to the international workers’ movement.”); rather, its professed purpose was to expose Stalin’s errors and excesses with a view to improving and modernising the Soviet political system – doing away with personality cults and establishing a coherent system of socialist revolutionary legality.

To what extent some level of ‘destalinisation’ was needed at that time remains a controversial and difficult topic on the left. The fact that the CPSU leadership largely went along with Khrushchev’s line indicates that there was a fairly widespread feeling that the repression under Stalin had been excessive and that there was a need to create a more relaxed political environment.

Yet this same leadership had supported Stalin when he was alive. This disparity can at least be partly explained by the fast-changing political environment. Harsh repression and the personality cult both had their roots in political necessity, in a context where the young Soviet state was desperately struggling for its life. Unattractive as it may be, any socialist revolution requires repression in order not to be overthrown by its internal and external enemies. As Engels famously wrote in his article On Authority: “A revolution is certainly the most authoritarian thing there is; it is the act whereby one part of the population imposes its will upon the other part by means of rifles, bayonets and cannon — authoritarian means, if such there be at all; and if the victorious party does not want to have fought in vain, it must maintain this rule by means of the terror which its arms inspire in the reactionists. Would the Paris Commune have lasted a single day if it had not made use of this authority of the armed people against the bourgeois? Should we not, on the contrary, reproach it for not having used it freely enough?”2

The Soviet working class, having seized power, found itself having to contend with a ruthless and well-connected former elite; a peasant majority that was a long way from being a stable ally; and an intelligentsia that was largely suspicious and disparaging of the upstart Bolsheviks. Lenin and his comrades had been convinced that the Russian Revolution would help to spark a series of socialist revolutions throughout the continent, thereby replacing powerful European enemies with powerful European allies. This European revolution failed to materialise; instead of the European working class coming to the aid of its Soviet brothers and sisters, the European ruling classes came to the aid of the White Army of deposed capitalists and landowners in order to destroy the Soviet project. The Soviet state was forced to withstand a bloody civil war, followed by an extensive programme of espionage and destabilisation conducted by the western powers and Japan throughout the 1920s and 30s; and finally the genocidal war and horrific devastation wrought by the Nazis. Clearly, the USSR wouldn’t have survived without repression, and it’s not particularly difficult to understand how this repression could have got out of control.

Michael Parenti describes the practical inevitability of an over-centralised state in a socialist country struggling to preserve its existence and independence in a hostile imperialist world:

For a people’s revolution to survive, it must seize state power and use it to (a) break the stranglehold exercised by the owning class over the society’s institutions and resources, and (b) withstand the reactionary counterattack that is sure to come. The internal and external dangers a revolution faces necessitate a centralised state power that is not particularly to anyone’s liking, not in Soviet Russia in 1917, nor in Sandinista Nicaragua in 1980.3

Al Szymanski contextualises the harsh features of the Stalin-era Soviet state as follows:

The policies in the period of Stalin’s leadership, as well as the mechanisms for decision making and mass involvement, were dictated in their broad outlines by the situation and were not the product of Stalin’s personal motives or psychological state. On the contrary, the personalities and motives of Stalin and the other leaders were socially formed according to the requirements of the situation, and the leadership itself was socially selected on the basis of the effects of these two elements… The process of socialist transformation is not the best of all possible worlds; in fact it is simply the necessary stage to create such a world – communism. As a result, some people unjustly suffer and there are negative consequences of otherwise positive developments. Abuses of the personality cult and the danger of arbitrary decision making were the most serious of these negative consequences.4

Even the personality cult served a purpose:

The personality cult around Stalin (and that around Lenin) served the function of winning the support of the peasantry and the new working class. In lieu of the peasants’ fundamental involvement in making the socialist revolution, the Bolshevik regime had to be personalised for it to win their loyalty. Even in China and Cuba, where there was authentic massive peasant support, the charisma of Mao and Fidel have played important roles… The personality cult serves a key social function when circumstances don’t allow for the much slower development of the class-conscious understanding and struggle needed to win people to a socialism without individual heroes.5

Szymanski explores this question further in his 1984 book Human Rights In The Soviet Union:

The ‘cult of personality’ served the vital social function of symbolising the unity and solidarity of Soviet society, a unity and solidarity essential in the 1930s and 1940s, and that could best be quickly created by personalising it in the form of the celebration of a single individual ‘father figure’ who was portrayed in a Christ-like fashion as omniscient and benevolent. The cult of Stalin, in fact, took on many of the characteristics of the Russian Orthodox religion, that was the easiest route for the Party to follow in order to secure legitimacy among peasants and ex-peasants.6

Khrushchev himself recognised that the deficiencies of the political apparatus in the Stalin era did not arise out of madness or malice but out of a commitment to the working class and the struggle for socialism: “Stalin saw this from the position of the interest of the working class, of the interest of the labouring people, of the interest of the victory of socialism and communism. We cannot say that these were the deeds of a giddy despot. He considered that this should be done in the interest of the Party, of the working masses, in the name of the defence of the revolution’s gains.”7

That aside, personality cults and excessive centralisation of power constitute distortions and they bring their own dangers. Relatively crude political measures were surely a necessary response to the real threats faced by the nascent socialist state, but they couldn’t but have a detrimental long-term effect, and therefore it was important to make political changes when circumstances allowed. Bhalchandra Ranadive writes: “The conditions under which power was captured and the continuing resistance of the exploiting classes, helped from abroad, demanded strict punitive measures. It is now known that these were continued even when the situation ceased to warrant them… The cult of personality under Stalin and Mao led to the erosion of inner party democracy, and also complicated the relationship between the party and the masses.”8

In the changed political context of the postwar years, there was a good case for doing away with personality cults, widening popular democracy, increasing freedom for public debate, and building new norms of socialist legality. At the subjective level, changes were obviously needed in order to restore revolutionary optimism; there was a sense of wanting an easier life, of needing to rebuild the country and develop a modern, prosperous socialism. Plus Soviet society was by now in its second or third generation, forty years removed from the uprising of the St Petersburg metalworkers. Notwithstanding the horrible trauma they had experienced during the war, the average soldier returning from the battlefields of Europe had grown up in a society that valued equality, community, education, progress and peace; this Soviet citizen had been to school, was literate, knowledgeable and cultured. His or her expectations must have been fundamentally different to the expectations of the first generation of Soviet revolutionaries.

External circumstances also seemed to support a loosening of the political system. The USSR was no longer isolated: the socialist camp had expanded to include a large part of Asia and Europe, and important countries such as India and Indonesia had broken free from the grip of European colonialism and were being transformed into independent powers, more-or-less friendly towards the Soviet Union. The country’s vast borders were less vulnerable now that they were now largely shared with friendly states: China, Mongolia, DPR Korea, Poland, Romania, Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan. Meanwhile the arrival of the era of nuclear weapons meant that both the USSR and USA had more to lose from outright war between the two superpowers; peaceful coexistence became plausible, indeed necessary.

Szymanski notes that, by the middle of 1953, “an armistice was finally signed in the Korean War. In 1954 the Geneva Agreements ending the war in Indochina were signed. In 1955, the first summit meeting since 1945 was held between the top leaders of the USSR and the Western powers, and the treaty permanently neutralising Austria and providing for the withdrawal of Western and Soviet troops was signed. Peaceful co-existence was in the air and the pressure on the Soviet Union was relaxed. No more under a state of external siege as intense as that in the 1928-53 period, the level of political repression in Soviet society never again approached the level of those years. Further, with socialist reconstruction and collectivisation complete, and a high level of legitimacy of the Soviet system achieved, never again was there the extraordinary need for domestic mobilisation or for deliberate creation of unifying symbols such as had existed over the previous 25 years of almost permanent crisis.”9

So it’s reasonable to assume that Khrushchev’s criticism of Stalin was motivated by a desire to introduce progressive political changes consistent with developing socialism in changed circumstances. His methods, however, were disastrous. It should have been possible to make political changes without launching a severe frontal attack on Stalin and all that he represented. After all, Stalin was the most prominent Soviet leader from 1924 until his death in 1953; that is, 29 of the 39 years of the Soviet Union’s existence at the time Khrushchev made his ‘secret speech’. To criticise him so harshly, to tear down a personality cult so suddenly, meant to cast doubt on the entire Soviet experience to that point; it meant to seriously delegitimise the extraordinary achievements of the CPSU and the Soviet people during the Stalin era. Even Vladislav Zubok – an anti-Stalinist by any measure – observes that “the destruction of Stalin’s cult wounded the Soviet ideological consensus.”10

The situation demanded a more balanced, nuanced assessment of the Stalin period (although I’d note in passing that, even now, such a thing is rare). The post-Mao leadership in China had criticisms of Mao that were not entirely dissimilar to the Khrushchev leadership’s criticisms of Stalin. Some of the changes they introduced had parallels with those envisaged by Khrushchev. And yet it didn’t occur to the Chinese leadership to try to destroy Mao’s legacy. Deng Xiaoping made an insightful comment on this subject in an interview given to the Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci in 1980:

We will make an objective assessment of Chairman Mao’s contributions and his mistakes. We will reaffirm that his contributions are primary and his mistakes secondary. We will adopt a realistic approach towards the mistakes he made late in life. We will continue to adhere to Mao Zedong Thought, which represents the correct part of Chairman Mao’s life. Not only did Mao Zedong Thought lead us to victory in the revolution in the past; it is – and will continue to be – a treasured possession of the Chinese Communist Party and of our country. That is why we will forever keep Chairman Mao’s portrait on Tiananmen Gate as a symbol of our country, and we will always remember him as a founder of our Party and state… We will not do to Chairman Mao what Khrushchev did to Stalin.11

Nearly four decades later, Mao’s portrait still occupies pride of place on Tiananmen Gate.

Khrushchev’s speech created widespread confusion and doubt; anger, in some places. A report on a recently-rebuilt statue of Stalin in the village of Eski Ikan, Kazakhstan, contains a thought-provoking quote from a World War II veteran who, along with his fellow villagers, had resisted attempts by the local authorities to dismantle Stalin’s statue in the late 1950s in the wake of Khrushchev’s speech:

We fought the Nazis with the battle cry ‘For the Homeland! For Stalin!’, and they wanted to pull down the statue. Over our dead bodies, we said. We stood firm, and we won.12

Anticommunist historian Orlando Figes opines that the speech “changed everything. It was the moment when the Party lost authority, unity and self-belief. It was the beginning of the end. The Soviet system never really recovered from the crisis of confidence created by the speech”.13 This is an exaggeration, but it contains a kernel of truth. Khrushchev’s clumsy and inept ‘destalinisation’ had a profoundly damaging effect and would be more accurately called ‘delegitimisation’, not only of Stalin but of the whole record of Soviet socialism.

The post-Khrushchev leadership of Brezhnev and his team rolled back the attack on Stalin’s legacy to some degree, settling on a more balanced assessment that emphasised Stalin’s historic role in guiding the construction of Soviet socialism and leading the war effort, whilst decrying abuses of power. However, the first steps towards undermining Soviet ideology had been taken, and these laid the ground for the generation of right-wing and liberal intellectuals who, in the Gorbachev era, made their way to the heart of government and led the dismantling of socialism.

The end of the global communist movement

The adverse effects of Khrushchev’s speech were felt beyond the borders of the USSR. The British Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm wrote that “to put it in the simplest terms, the October Revolution created a world communist movement, the 20th Congress destroyed it.”14

In reality, significant cracks had been observable in the world communist movement for quite some time. Failing to understand the strategic necessity of the non-aggression pact signed between Germany and the Soviet Union in August 1939 – incorrectly perceiving it as a capitulation to fascism, rather than an unavoidable act of self-defence forced on the USSR by western Europe’s accommodation of Hitler and its desire to push Germany into attacking the USSR – communist parties in Europe and the Americas suffered deep divisions and waves of resignations. Many longstanding communists who had fought against fascism in the streets of London or Paris – or in the Jarama valley – felt confused and betrayed, and the local communist leaderships struggled to promote solidarity with the Soviet Union whilst simultaneously maintaining the fight against fascism on the ground.

Further confusion, disunity and disillusion was created when the Soviet leadership advised the French and Italian communist parties not to attempt armed revolutionary uprisings in the late 1940s. This advice was given on the basis of level-headed strategic reasoning about the relative balance of forces in Europe (most importantly the permeation of US troops in Western Europe and the inability of the Soviet Union to provide direct military support to those countries); however, it generated resentment and divisions that would grow and spawn further problems in the decades to come.

In the early postwar period, serious disagreements emerged between the Yugoslav and Soviet communist parties over a number of issues: the establishment of a stable peace in Europe, the possibilities for supporting the communist side in the Greek Civil War, and the economic mechanisms of building socialism in Eastern Europe. Whichever side was right or wrong in the initial disagreements, the Soviet leadership responded to Yugoslavia’s assertion of independence in a heavy-handed way that this served to inspire distrust of the USSR.

The Soviets, in March 1948, began taking strong sanctions against Yugoslavia. On March 18 all Soviet military advisers were withdrawn, and on March 19 all economic advisers. An embargo was placed on trade with Yugoslavia by the Soviet Union and all the other socialist countries. This threatened the collapse of the Yugoslav economy, which was heavily dependent on trade with the East European countries because of the West’s hostility to recent Yugoslav nationalisations and the friendly relations since 1945 among the East European countries. The Yugoslav Communist Party was expelled from the world communist movement and its leaders compared to fascists. Leading communists were put on trial throughout Eastern Europe and charged with treason for being Titoists. The Soviets also tried to overthrow Tito’s leadership inside his own country by supporting alternative leadership within the Yugoslav Party. Although never carried out, the Soviets also made threats of military intervention against Yugoslavia.15

Yugoslavia was by no means an insignificant country, and Tito and the Yugoslav Communist Party had earned enormous respect around the world for their heroic defence against Nazi occupation. Tito had been known to many European communists and anti-fascists before World War II, when he managed the Paris centre recruiting anti-fascist volunteers to fight in the Spanish Civil War. The Yugoslavs’ sudden expulsion from the Information Bureau of the Communist and Workers’ Parties (which had been established in 1947 in order to coordinate actions between communist parties, and which ironically had its headquarters in Belgrade) and the severe measures taken against it shocked many people in the west European parties.

The unity of the world communist movement was even more profoundly shaken by the Sino-Soviet split, which started to quietly emerge in 1957 and which by the early 1960s became a full-scale ideological conflict. Initially, Mao Zedong and his comrades had cautiously welcomed Khrushchev’s policies of destalinisation and peaceful coexistence; but from 1957, driven in part by a resentment of Soviet hegemonism and in part by their own turn towards a more radical domestic agenda (particularly the Great Leap Forward, which represented a major break with the economic programme proposed by the Soviets), they started to voice their opposition to these policies. The Soviets once again over-reacted to the questioning of their authority over the global communist movement, and punished China by unilaterally withdrawing their (thousands of) advisers and by criticising Chinese ultra-leftism in international forums. The Chinese side took to increasingly bitter polemics against Soviet revisionism, and actively challenging the USSR’s leadership of the global communist movement.

By the mid-1960s, with Mao preparing his last and most extreme campaign against what he considered capitalist roaders16 in China, ie the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese came to define the Soviet Union as a capitalist country that had capitulated entirely to US imperialism. Increasingly, the Chinese Communist Party based its relations with foreign communist parties on the basis of their willingness to denounce the Soviet Union. From this point, practically every country outside the socialist camp had mutually hostile pro-Moscow and pro-Beijing communist parties. Arne Odd Westad observes that the split “made it possible to tack between the two self-proclaimed centres of communism and get support from both, but it also signalled an internal split in many parties, which in some cases reduced them to political irrelevance (if not infantility).”17

Soviet prestige – and, presumably, self-esteem – was much affected by China’s loud denunciations, particularly in relation to Soviet support for national liberation struggles. The USSR prided itself on giving extensive support to fraternal countries and parties (not least China, which was the recipient of an extraordinary level of aid from the USSR between 1950 and 1959), but its support for military struggles against imperialism was limited by its desire not to incite any wider conflict with the US. Although ‘peaceful coexistence’ was presented by the Chinese as an example of Khrushchev’s revisionism and capitulation to capitalism, in reality it was an extension of the postwar realpolitik that emphasised the need for peace, stability, security and recovery. Canadian political analyst Stephen Gowans writes: “The USSR desperately needed space to develop its economy, free from the continual threat of military aggression from the United States and its Nato allies… The Soviet Union could ill-afford a war with the Americans, and Stalin therefore refused to support revolutionary movements in his allies’ sphere of influence and acted with caution in supporting revolutionary movements elsewhere. There is a considerable continuity in Stalin’s efforts to keep the hostility of capitalist powers at bay, and Khrushchev’s call for peaceful coexistence.”18

Increasingly, the Chinese Communist Party was able to point to lukewarm Soviet support to militant national liberation movements as proof that the USSR had given up on the fight against imperialism and that China was the natural leader of the global anti-imperialist struggle. This argument resonated in much of Asia, Africa and Latin America.

The Sino-Soviet split also opened a path for the US to ‘triangulate’ in its war on the socialist camp, siding with one against the other in order to avoid facing a united socialist bloc.

After taking power in 1964, the Brezhnev leadership significantly stepped up Soviet solidarity with national liberation movements and the post-colonial states of Africa, and Soviet prestige also benefited to some degree from the chaos that reigned in the Chinese Foreign Ministry in the late 1960s during the Cultural Revolution. However, the Soviet Union would never regain its place as the undisputed leader of the oppressed masses of the world. Jeremy Friedman writes that “revolutionary energies exploded in the developing world. The grievances that motivated these revolutionary outbreaks were often expressed in terms of identity — racial, ethnic, or national — more than class, while in the industrialised world the insurrectionary ferment of the now largely sated working class was replaced by the alienation of students and racial minorities.”19 The Soviet Union was less experienced in dealing with these movements than it was with the traditional organisations of the industrial working class, and Soviet socialism had a less obvious appeal for them.

The interventions of the USSR and its allies to quell uprisings in Hungary (1956) and Czechoslovakia (1968) had a further detrimental effect on popular opinion of the Soviet Union. In both cases, Soviet intervention served to prevent the overthrow of socialist governments by a motley crew of social democrats, liberals, religious fundamentalists and fascists (financed and mobilised in part from Wall Street20); nevertheless they inevitably strengthened Cold War accusations of a ‘communist empire’. Even within the left, these interventions were highly controversial. One reflection of the trajectory of the Sino-Soviet split is that the Chinese strongly encouraged Khrushchev to intervene in Hungary in 1956, but denounced the intervention in Czechoslovakia as an example of ‘social imperialism’. In terms of the reaction of the western communist parties, Friedman writes that the Czech crisis led these parties “to decide that their chances of political success did not lie along the road laid out by Moscow”.21

Whereas the Soviet Union in the 1920s and 1930s had been the apple in the eye of the global working class movement, by the late 1960s it was viewed in a negative light by many of the progressive elements outside the socialist camp – due to the various issues outlined above, and also to the extraordinary intensity of Cold War propaganda and McCarthyite repression from the late 1940s onwards. When hundreds of thousands came out into the streets of 1968 in Paris and elsewhere, they didn’t carry portraits of Brezhnev.

The Western European and American students who demonstrated in the streets and occupied their universities in the late 1960s found the ‘old’ Left — both socialists and Communists — too timid on domestic reform and too placid in dealing with the problems of the Third World. Only ‘direct action’ from below, through an alliance of students and workers, could break the impasse in Western politics, the New Left radicals believed. The NLF [National Liberation Front of Vietnam] or Che Guevara — or even China’s Cultural Revolution — became symbols of the impassioned action demanded by student protesters. ‘The Third World taught us the concept of an uncompromising and radical policy, different from the shallow, unprincipled bourgeois Realpolitik,’ Hans-Jürgen Krahl, one of the leaders of the West Berlin student revolt, told his judges from the dock in 1968. ‘Che Guevara, Fidel Castro, Ho Chi Minh, and Mao Zedong are revolutionaries who teach us the political ethics of the uncompromising policy, which enables us to do two things: first, to reject the policies of peaceful coexistence, such as is being conducted as Realpolitik by the Soviet Union, and, second, to see clearly the terror that the United States, assisted by the Federal Republic of Germany, is carrying out in the Third World.'”22

The seemingly unstoppable tide of progressive opinion in the west away from Soviet-style socialism even prompted many of the CPSU’s closest allies in western Europe to distance themselves from Moscow, cultivating a variety of socialism they hoped would be more palatable to western tastes and which emphasised ideological independence from the Soviet Union.

The global transition to socialism loses momentum

As the world sank into depression and politics radicalised across the ideological spectrum in the 1930s, the prospect of working-class revolution in the industrialised nations, where traditional Marxism had always envisioned it, seemed very real indeed. With bread lines, mass unemployment, and violent, racist, authoritarian politics the order of the day in much of Europe and North America, the explosive economic growth of Stalin’s USSR seemed to provide a tempting alternative. By the 1960s, though, the global revolutionary battleground had shifted. The West, to the shock not only of Moscow, but of many in Washington and London as well, had failed to return to depression after the war, and the prospects for Marxist revolution in the developed world began to recede.23

The onset of the Great Depression, which lasted from 1929 until the outbreak of World War II in 1939, led Soviet economists to conclude that the western capitalist countries had entered a period of ‘general crisis’. They theorised that this crisis had pushed capitalism into terminal decline and would therefore ignite a global shift to socialism. The general crisis “embraces an entire period of history, in the course of which take place the breakdown of capitalism and victory of socialism on a world scale… While the capitalist system becomes more and more entangled in insoluble contradictions, the socialist system develops on a steadily upward-moving line, without crises and catastrophes”.24

The general crisis meant that capitalism had lost its economic vigour and would no longer be able to innovate; it was no longer capable of generating progress, of developing the productive forces: “A characteristic feature of the general crisis of capitalism is chronic under­-capacity working of enterprises and chronic mass unemployment.”

This theory, voiced with such certainty by Soviet economists and their global allies, must have seemed like an absolute truth in the 1930s, when the Soviet economy was growing at 5 per cent a year while in the US “output fell by 30 percent and unemployment increased eightfold, from 3 percent to 24 percent”.25 And yet the theory of the general crisis severely underestimated postwar capitalism’s ability to cheat death. The Soviet Union won World War II, but in so doing it sustained the most horrific human and economic losses. The US, meanwhile, had been able to attach itself to the winning side and turn a profit at the same time, in an early example of the military-industrial complex.

Separated from the main theatres of war by the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, the US emerged from the war with comparatively little destruction and loss of life. As a result, by the time the war ended in 1945 it was far and away the strongest economic power, and it leveraged this power to establish hegemony over a new capitalist order. Jude Woodward notes that “the US had a good war; as a result of vast state investment to deliver the materials and goods needed for war, its economy doubled in size between 1939 and 1944. In 1945 its economy was larger than the sum of all 29 countries of Western Europe as well as Japan, Canada, New Zealand and Australia; and it was only marginally smaller than all these and the USSR. Its share of industrial production was even greater. And the bombs that fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki had announced it as the greatest military power yet seen on Earth”.26 Five years later, in 1950, its GDP “was higher than all of Europe’s put together, and possibly equal to that of Europe plus the Soviet Union”.27

Enormous investment in western Europe via the Marshall Plan provided lucrative avenues of investment for US capital, whilst establishing a solid anticommunist bloc to counter the huge prestige of the Soviet Union, and creating an economic bond that would force western Europe to unite behind US leadership. The establishment of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) added a military factor to this new-found imperialist unity, and the Bretton Woods system instituted an international monetary order that was controlled almost exclusively by the US.

In short, the US was able to breathe new life into the capitalist system after World War II by using its economic dominance to reduce inter-imperialist rivalry, give a kick-start to economic globalisation, introduce some Keynesian reforms, prevent several countries from adopting socialism (via bribery, coups and/or military intervention), and unite efforts to isolate and destabilise the socialist camp. As a result, far from languishing in ‘general crisis’, western (and particularly US) capitalism entered something of a golden era, during which it was able to realise undeniable advances in science and technology, as well as raise living standards and create opportunities for large sections of the population.

In the Soviet Union it had been taken for granted that, with the defeat of fascism and the continuing economic crisis and political disunity in Europe, the socialist path would become irresistible. Khrushchev turned the idea of “catching up with and surpassing America” into a national obsession. In China, Mao framed the Great Leap Forward in terms of “closing the gap between China and the US within five years, and to ultimately surpass the US within seven years”.28 This was a rather drastic raise on his bid just a few months earlier to catch up with Britain within 15 years (this latter goal was in fact achieved rather later than planned, in 2005, using economic methods somewhat different to those envisioned by the Great Helmsman).29

These goals were not as hair-brained as they might seem now. “Positing alternative US growth rates of 2.5, 3 and 4 per cent per annum, and Soviet growth rates of 6, 7 and 8 per cent, they generated nine catch-up dates. The earliest was 1973, the latest 1996. Hypothetical though the exercise was, the fact that it was conducted at all, and the range of Soviet growth rates chosen, reveal that Khrushchev’s talk of catching-up did not at the time seem entirely ridiculous.”30

And yet closing the gap proved difficult. As discussed in the second article of this series31, the US had a number of advantages that enabled it to sustain steady growth throughout the 50s and 60s: unlike the Soviet Union, it was not devastated by war; unlike in the Soviet Union, wars and military expenditure constituted an economic boost rather than a drain; unlike the Soviet Union, it benefited immensely from the exploitation of people and resources in the developing world; and unlike the Soviet Union, it felt no particular obligation to privilege the basic needs of the masses over the exploration of new markets and technologies.

Furthermore, the other countries in the capitalist camp were for the most part advanced industrialised economies, and their integration into a bloc provided an important impulse for scientific collaboration. Meanwhile, the countries newly incorporated into the socialist camp were the poorer and less-developed countries of Eastern and Central Europe, along with the barely (if at all) industrialised nations of East Asia.

But once an expectation is set, the failure to meet it creates disappointment. The Soviet Union continued to grow at an impressive rate well into the 1970s, but so did the US and the major economies of western Europe and Japan; therefore the gap did not close. By the late 1970s, Soviet growth was grinding to a halt, just as the US and Western Europe were starting to experiment seriously with neoliberal economics – dialling up their attacks on the organised working class, privatising, globalising, deregulating, lowering wages, and leveraging technology to stimulate a redefined economy with the balance of power tipped even further in favour of the capitalist class.

With the gap in living standards between the US and USSR growing wider, frustration started to take hold in the socialist countries. After all, as Deng Xiaoping pointed out, “the superiority of the socialist system is demonstrated, in the final analysis, by faster and greater development of the productive forces than under the capitalist system”.32

Ideological deterioration and deepening dissatisfaction

Why did the Soviet Union disintegrate? Why did the Soviet Communist Party collapse? An important reason was that their ideals and beliefs had been shaken. (Xi Jinping)33

As it became increasingly clear that US-led western capitalism was not on the verge of collapse; as the CPSU started to lose its undisputed leadership role in the global movement for a better world; and as the Soviet economy started to show signs of old age, nihilism began to creep into the popular mindset. The official line found in the pages of the party’s newspapers and textbooks was that the plan remained on-track – that the Soviet economy was going from strength to strength and that imperialism was wheezing its way to a long-overdue death. This narrative simply didn’t ring true to a lot of people any more. Rather than presenting and attempting to understand/explain the changed global situation, the party increasingly found itself shouting slogans that were out of touch with reality.

Keeran and Kenny observe that “in many respects ideology became complacent, formalised, and ritualistic. As a result, ideology repelled many of the best and brightest”.34 Some of the more astute theoreticians within the Soviet leadership – people such as Mikhail Suslov and Boris Ponomarev – worked to adapt Marxism-Leninism to the new circumstances of the 1960s and 1970s, indicating that the party at least acknowledged the growing problems of ideological stultification and popular alienation. Ultimately however these efforts didn’t have the desired results. The CPSU’s ideology was never able to recover the relevance, urgency, utility and currency that it enjoyed in the pre-war era.

A number of other factors fed into this. For one thing, Soviet society had become more open to external influence. US propaganda was more sophisticated and easily available than ever before. Broadcasts from Voice of America were directed to the USSR from 1947 onwards, in order to “give listeners a picture of American life”.35 The VOA and other radio stations worked feverishly to destabilise Soviet society, painting a rosy picture of life in the west whilst at the same time exaggerating the extent of the problems faced by the USSR. Keeran and Kenny write that “as détente, travel, and communication brought greater awareness of how citizens lived in the West, the gap in living standards challenged the claims that socialism was leading to a better life.”36

Khrushchev had also introduced a cultural ‘thaw’ which saw an increase in the number of foreign books, movies and records, and which allowed an unprecedented level of open criticism of the state by Soviet writers. This was most famously manifested in Khrushchev’s personal approval of the publication of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, a much-sensationalised account of life in Soviet prisons, written by the obsessively anti-communist tsarism-nostalgist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

Over half a century later, it’s difficult to judge the extent to which the ‘thaw’ was a mistake on Khrushchev’s part or a more-or-less inevitable response to the popular demand for a more open society at that time. As discussed earlier, the need to widen democracy and allow greater individual freedoms is a complex problem for socialist states under siege. In a world dominated by imperialism, a socialist leadership has to carefully balance responding to the legitimate demands and needs of the people with not creating structures that can easily be leveraged by hostile states to destabilise and to spread disinformation. Khrushchev probably got characteristically carried away with his own idea and went too far too soon. The Brezhnev leadership partially reversed the ‘thaw’, but by that point the critics of the system had established themselves as personalities, had built a following, and were in contact with one another; driven underground, the ‘thaw’ transformed into a dissident movement that would become a major cause célèbre in the west and served to further undermine the confidence and prestige of the Soviet people.

Another problem faced by all socialist societies (at least, all those that survive longer than a single generation) is how to maintain revolutionary zeal through multiple generations. As discussed above, the average Soviet citizen of 1967 was a very different person to the average Soviet citizen of 1917; she had an entirely different experience of life and understanding of the world, along with different expectations, motivations and aspirations. She hadn’t been inspired directly by the steelworkers standing up defiantly against ruthless bosses or the humble peasants demanding land and peace. Her education told her that the struggle against capitalism and for socialism was important, but she hadn’t necessarily learnt it from life experience in the same way that her parents or grandparents had, so how can she be persuaded to fight like they did? This remains a tough problem for the socialist world to solve; after all, what revolution thus far can claim that its second or third generation has been able to match the revolutionary passion of its first generation? The Soviet leadership attempted to dodge this particular bullet by maintaining power largely in the hands of the earlier generation of revolutionaries and, particularly in the Brezhnev period, keeping people in top positions for longer rather than seeking to introduce younger people. “The average age of Politburo members rose from fifty-five in 1966 to sixty-eight in 1982.”37 One unintended result was the deepening ideological alienation of young people.

David Shambaugh cites Chinese scholar Hu Yanxin in relation to the failures of CPSU propaganda and leadership in this era:

  1. Propaganda was tedious in content, monotonous in form, and disconnected from reality.
  2. The authorities concealed the truth by only reporting good news, which lost the people’s trust.
  3. The CPSU dealt with intellectual circles by administrative and repressive means.
  4. Real information had to come from abroad, but this only made Russians further disbelieve their own media.
  5. The CPSU failed to accurately analyse the new changes in the West objectively, thus losing the opportunity to develop in line with the new scientific and technological revolution.38

With a declining communist and collectivist mentality, a capitalist and individualist mentality reappeared quickly to fill the gap, fuelled by western propaganda and by the habits preserved in the social fabric through many centuries of class society pre-1917. Yuri Andropov somewhat wistfully observed: “The people who have accomplished a socialist revolution have for a long time yet fully to grasp their new position as supreme and undivided owners of all public wealth – to grasp it economically, politically and, if you wish, psychologically, developing a collectivist mentality and behaviour… Even when socialist production relations are finally established, some people preserve, and even reproduce individualist habits, a striving to profit at others’ expense, at the expense of society. All this, to use Marx’s terminology, are consequences of the alienation of labour and they do not automatically and suddenly evaporate from the mind, although alienation itself has already been abolished.”39

The sections of the population most affected by disillusion and ideological deterioration were academics, managers and party bureaucrats – the “party-state elite”, as Kotz and Weir refer to them.40 Not only were they more aware than others of how the country’s economic position was declining vis-a-vis the west, but they had to suffer in the knowledge that their counterparts enjoyed far greater perks and privileges. A Soviet factory worker enjoyed far greater prestige than his western counterpart, and had a comparable quality of life – even with a less varied diet and lower quality consumer goods, he or she had access to a comprehensive social welfare system that the US couldn’t compete with. A scientist, university lecturer or technocrat, on the other hand, could feel decidedly resentful at her relative impecuniosity. “Despite the material benefits accruing to the elite, those benefits paled by comparison to the material advantages enjoyed by their counterparts in the elite of the Western capitalist countries… The Soviet system had a much smaller gap between the top and bottom of the income distribution than do capitalist systems. The general director of a large Soviet enterprise was paid about four times as much as the average industrial wage. By contrast, the average American corporate chief executive officer’s pay is nearly 150 times that of the average factory worker.”

Such people stood to gain from a transition to capitalism. “A shift to capitalism would permit them to own the means of production, not just manage them. They would be able to legitimately accumulate personal wealth. They could assure their children’s future, not just through contacts and influence, but through direct transfer of wealth.”41

In a context of rising alienation, economic stagnation and ideological deterioration, it was easy enough for the seeds of counter-revolution to sprout.

The next article will describe how the US attempted to take advantage of the USSR’s growing economic and ideological problems, ramping up military and political pressure with a view to winning a decisive victory in the Cold War.

  1. Nikita Khrushchev, Speech to 20th Congress of the CPSU, 1956 

  2. Engels, On Authority, 1872 

  3. Michael Parenti, Blackshirts and Reds, City Lights Publishers, 2001 

  4. Albert Syzmanski, Is the Red Flag Flying?, Zed Press, 1979 

  5. ibid 

  6. Albert Syzmanski,  Human Rights In The Soviet Union, Zed Books, 1984 

  7. Cited in Evan Smith: Khrushchev gives ‘secret speech’ to 20th Congress of the CPSU, 2014 

  8. Red October: The Russian Revolution and the Communist Horizon, LeftWord Books, 2017 

  9. Szymanski, Human Rights In The Soviet Union, op cit 

  10. Vladislav Zubok, A Failed Empire: The Soviet Union in the Cold War from Stalin to Gorbachev, University of North Carolina Press, 2009 

  11. Deng Xiaoping: Answers to the Italian Journalist Oriana Fallaci, 1980 

  12. BBC News: Kazakhstan: Villagers put Stalin back on pedestal, 2015 

  13. Orlando Figes, Revolutionary Russia, 1891-1991: A History, Pelican, 2014 

  14. Eric Hobsbawm, Interesting Times, The New Press, 2002 

  15. Szymanski, Is the Red Flag Flying?, op cit 

  16. See for example Peking Review: Criticizing the Unrepentant Capitalist-Roader, 1976 

  17. Arne Odd Westad, The Global Cold War: Third World Interventions and the Making of Our Times, Cambridge University Press, 2011 

  18. Stephen Gowans, Khrushchev’s Revisionism, 2012 

  19. Jeremy Friedman, Shadow Cold War: The Sino-Soviet Competition for the Third World, University of North Carolina Press, 2015 

  20. For more detailed analysis, see Workers World: What really happened in Hungary, 2006 

  21. Friedman, op cit 

  22. Westad, op cit 

  23. Friedman, op cit 

  24. Academy of Sciences of the USSR: Political Economy – A Textbook (1954) 

  25. Ha-joon Chang, Economics: The User’s Guide, Pelican, 2014 

  26. Jude Woodward, The US vs China: Asia’s New Cold War?, Manchester University Press, 2017 

  27. Westad, op cit 

  28. Cited in Mingjiang Li, Mao and the Sino-Soviet Split, Routledge, 2014 

  29. The Economist: Catching Up – China’s economy is overtaking Britain’s, 2005 

  30. Philip Hanson, The Rise and Fall of the Soviet Economy: An Economic History of the USSR 1945-1991, Routledge, 2003 

  31. Why doesn’t the Soviet Union exist any more? Part 2: Economic stagnation 

  32. Deng Xiaoping, Building a Socialism with a Specifically Chinese Character, 1984 

  33. CNBC: Xi Jinping: No Reformer After All, 2013 

  34. Roger Keeran and Thomas Kenny, Socialism Betrayed – Behind the collapse of the Soviet Union, International Publishers, 2004 

  35. Russia Beyond: How the USSR and U.S. battled each other with radio waves, 2017 

  36. Keeran and Kenny, op cit 

  37. Glenn E. Curtis (editor), Russia: A Country Study. Washington: GPO for the Library of Congress, 1996 

  38. David Shambaugh, China’s Communist Party – Atrophy and Adaptation, University of California Press, 2008 

  39. Yuri Andropov, Speeches and Writings, Pergamon Press, 1983 

  40. David Kotz and Fred Weir, Revolution From Above – The Demise of the Soviet System, Routledge, 1997 

  41. ibid 

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