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 

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

We do not forget for a moment that we have committed and are committing numerous mistakes and are suffering numerous reverses. How can reverses and mistakes be avoided in a matter so new in the history of the world as the building of an unprecedented type of state edifice! We shall work steadfastly to set our reverses and mistakes right and to improve our practical application of Soviet principles, which is still very, very far from being perfect. (Lenin)1

As discussed in the previous article, the Soviet Union recorded world-historic achievements in many fields. Nonetheless, there were a wide variety of problems, limitations, weaknesses and failures to go with the victories and successes. Building the first socialist state in a world still dominated by aggressive, expansionist capitalism was a near-impossible task, analogous to a small child learning to walk while people stand nearby trying to push her over.

In this second article on the Soviet collapse, I will explore the history of the Soviet economic system, with a particular focus on the difficulties that emerged in the mid-1970s and the contribution of these problems to a decaying popular confidence in socialism as a system of production relations.

Economic performance up until the 1970s

Analysis of the available data indicates that, up until around 1975, the Soviet economy was working very well. Even Henry Kissinger was moved to declare in 1960 that, “starting from a position of substantial inferiority in almost all areas, the Soviet Union has caught up with and surpassed us in more categories than are comforting.”2

Economics professor Philip Hanson – by no means an ideological supporter of the Soviet Union – writes:

Well into the 1970s the Soviet Union was seldom described as failing. Its economy tended, up to the early 1970s, to grow faster than that of the United States. For a generation or more after the Second World War, the traditional Soviet aim of ‘catching up and overtaking’ the West was not patent nonsense… In the course of thirty years, from the end of the Second World War, the Soviet Union had recovered from wartime devastation and massive loss of life. It had made remarkable strides in military technology. It had broken the US monopolies of, successively, the atomic bomb, the hydrogen bomb and inter-continental ballistic missiles… And the lives of Soviet citizens had at the same time improved immensely.3

This was also a period of growth for the major capitalist economies, but the Soviet growth rate was significantly higher. Keeran and Kenny note that “between 1950 and 1975, the Soviet industrial production index increased 9.85 times (according to Soviet figures) or 6.77 times (according to CIA figures), while the US industrial production index increased 2.62 times”.4 In fact, “from 1928 to 1970, the USSR was the fastest growing economy except for Japan”.5 What’s more, the Soviet economy was not susceptible to the cycle of boom and bust that plagues capitalist economies.

Economic success was not manifested purely in terms of growth figures or scientific achievement; it was reflected in a steadily improving quality of life for ordinary people. After a period of extraordinary upheaval – World War I, the Revolution, the war of intervention, rapid industrialisation and agricultural collectivisation, and then World War II (in which the Soviet Union lost an estimated 27 million people) – the period from the mid-1940s to the mid-1970s was one of steady rebuilding, in a relatively peaceful external environment. For example, “in 1960 about one out of two Soviet families owned a radio, one out of ten a television, and one out of twenty-five a refrigerator. By 1985 there was an average of one of each per family.”6 Everybody had work – a vastly important quality-of-life indicator – and the quality of state-provided services such as education and healthcare continued to improve.

The key to early economic success: socialist planning

These successes were not built on the base of any deep-rooted strength in the pre-revolutionary Russian economy; Russia before October was in fact “in terms of every economic index among the most backward and poorest of European countries. Its per capita income in 1913 was about 102 roubles, compared to that of England, 463 roubles, France, 355, and Germany, 292.”7 The industrial working class constituted just 2 percent of the population. Following World War I and the war of intervention, the economy was utterly decimated.

In a resolution discussing the then-recent collapse of the USSR, the 14th Congress of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) described the extraordinary obstacles over which the Soviet people had to climb in order to modernise:

The relatively low level of productive forces and the associated backward production and social relations had to be substantially raised, and at a breakneck speed, bypassing the stage of capitalism, to levels that could sustain socialist construction. This had to be done relying purely on internal resources, without access to the higher techniques of production developed by capitalism and in an hostile international atmosphere when world capitalism tried all methods at its disposal to asphyxiate socialism. It is in fact a testimony to the superiority of the socialist system that such a gigantic task could be achieved.8

What drove Soviet economic success, allowing it to emerge from the chaos of war, quickly industrialise, develop to the level of being able to defeat the Nazi war machine, and establish a standard of living comparable to middle-income European countries was, first and foremost, the system of central planning set in motion in 1928 with the first five-year plan. Although this assertion flies in the face of established economic wisdom that “planned economies don’t work”, the facts are beyond dispute.

Kotz and Weir explain that the system of central planning “achieved a very high rate of investment, which made possible the rapid creation of a whole set of new industries. It was able to rapidly educate and train the population for industrial work and rapidly shift the population into better-paying, more productive urban industrial jobs… The highly centralised planning system also proved effective at the process of building at least the first stages of a modern urban society, with a reasonably high level of amenities and consumer goods for the population… Soviet central planning proved able to rapidly build urban infrastructure (transportation, communication, power, etc), construct new housing, and manufacture new consumer goods.”

The Soviet economic system was particularly well suited to the tasks of rapid industrialisation and preparation for war. A predominantly rural, technologically backward, poorly educated country was transformed into a modern industrial economy with a high level of education; a world power capable of defeating the Nazi war machine. Almost exactly ten years before the Nazis launched their attack on the Soviet Union, Stalin famously summed up the essential challenge of the era: “We are fifty or a hundred years behind the advanced countries. We must make good this distance in ten years. Either we do it, or they crush us”.9 The first and second five-year plans enabled the Soviet people to rise to that challenge. It is unlikely that any other economic framework would have allowed such rapid development; no capitalist economic programme has brought about large-scale modernisation in so short a period of time.

To everyone’s surprise, the early Soviet industrialisation was a big success, most graphically proven by its ability to repel the Nazi advance on the Eastern Front during the Second World War. Income per capita is estimated to have grown at 5 per cent per year between 1928 and 1938 – an astonishingly rapid rate in a world in which income typically grew at 1-2 per cent per year.10

Growth starts to slow down

Soviet economic performance remained strong through the 50s and 60s: the postwar construction was another heroic effort and a victory for socialism. Living standards increased rapidly, and the growth rate remained higher than the US. However, this trend didn’t continue. “From 20 percent the size of the US economy in 1944, [the Soviet] economy peaked at 44 percent that of the US by 1970 ($1,352 billion to $3,082 billion) but had fallen back to 36 per cent of the US by 1989 ($2,037 billion to $5,704 billion).”11

Siteram Yechury, General Secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), notes: “By the mid-1970s, the Soviet economy showed declining trends in growth rates. This is for the first time since the introduction of the five-year plan that such a trend becomes visible. During the decade 1976 to 1985 the growth rates of both the national product and industrial production declined. The plan targets were not achieved under the five-year plan of 1976-80 and 1981-85. In the earlier plan agricultural production grew at 1.16 per cent and the latter at 2.1 per cent, but both fell well short of the plan targets.”12

At a time when the geopolitical environment was starting to look relatively stable and promising – with the victory of the popular forces in Vietnam, Angola, Mozambique, Guinea Bissau, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, Laos, Cambodia, Ghana, Nicaragua and Afghanistan, and with the apparent possibility of a lasting detente between the US and USSR – internal economic problems arose in the Soviet Union that started to develop a creeping intractability. The reasons for this are manifold and disputed, but they centre around a failure of the existing economic system to produce significant gains in productivity from the mid-1960s onwards.

Depleted resources

One great advantage the Soviet Union had in its socialist industrialisation was the availability of huge quantities of fossil fuels. These continued to play an important role in Soviet economic growth, and furthermore helped to make up for weaknesses in other areas: difficult climate and soil conditions meant that food production had always been a challenge, and the changing needs and expectations of the post-war population made this problem ever more prominent; however, exports of primary goods generated sufficient hard currency to import food to supplement domestic produce.

By the 1970s, resource extraction was getting harder and more expensive. Existing oil fields became less productive, and new ones had to be found. Hanson writes: “The depletion of oil, gas, coal and mineral resources in the European part of the USSR was forcing new natural-resource extraction to move east of the Urals – mainly to West Siberia. Extraction costs per unit of output were not necessarily higher in these new locations (though in some of them, in the far north, they were). However, these new regional developments required investment in transport, communications, housing and other infrastructure and the transport westwards of most of the energy and materials extracted, since the great bulk of manufacturing and urban settlement remained west of the Urals.”13

On top of this, the supply infrastructure was starting to suffer from inadequate investment. Kotz and Weir point out that “by the mid-1970s the Soviet rail system had reached the limit set by its rail miles, and congestion began to slow deliveries. The failure to make timely investments in expanded rail miles and new sidings had created a serious bottleneck for the Soviet economy.”14

Another important factor here is the tragic human loss from the war; horrific in its own right, it also had a knock-on effect on the postwar economy. Sam Marcy writes that “instead of having millions of excess worker-veterans returning, a whole layer of society, 20 million workers and peasants, had been torn away. A mighty economic force had thus been wiped out. These included men and women, both skilled and unskilled. Those who were killed were generally younger, which left an older population to tend to industry and agriculture. The USSR was deprived of a tremendous source of labour power, most particularly among the young on whom future generations generally rely. This set the USSR far behind the US, which had suffered no destruction at home and had lost 400,000 troops, or about one-fiftieth of the Soviet war dead. As soon as the war ended, the US was able to begin the production of consumer goods. These had been scarce during the war, but not nearly as scarce as in the USSR, which suffered the full-scale invasion of the Nazi armies.”15

The need to increase labour productivity

To win the victory in economic competition with capitalism it is necessary to surpass the advanced capitalist countries in the level of productivity of labour.16

A large portion of the early success of the planned economy was based on mobilising vast human and material resources for a single project. Actual labour productivity – the level of output per unit of human labour – remained relatively low compared to the advanced capitalist economies. Jonathan Aurthur explains in his 1977 book Socialism in the Soviet Union:

The reliance on extensive (more of the same labour and means of production) rather than intensive (new technology) was another reflection of the historical conditions in which socialism was being built. Capital was very limited, help from the advanced capitalist countries was even more limited, and within the country there was a very small supply of skilled labour to build and operate sophisticated machinery, even if the capital to build or import it had been available. At the beginning of the period of real industrialisation (1927) the industrial proletariat was very small and its skilled sector even smaller. Eleven million peasants with virtually no technical or any other kind of training became industrial workers during the period of the First Five Year Plan. Under these conditions heavy industry could be built only by relying on large expenditures of human labour in the construction of big, basic, non-specialised factories set up to produce tractors one day and tanks the next day or the day after…

Further, capital expenditure on heavy industry had to be rigidly centralised in order to conserve as much as possible. Priorities within the capital goods sector had to be made. Thus less was spent on transportation than on the construction of factories. This is why even today the Soviet Union is very poor in paved roads and trucks. There was never enough capital to build what was necessary for the expanding economy. To get around the transportation “bottleneck” Stalin built universal production centres, huge industrial complexes in which different kinds of production were centralised in one place near sources of minerals or other necessary raw materials. Factories were not created as specialised units producing a particular product; rather they were made to build many different products. A given factory might produce heavy, large-scale machinery, as well as high quality steel, sewing machines, agricultural equipment, precision tools, elevators, and bicycles.

It is a law of technology that the more types of jobs a tool can do, the less specialised and productive it will be. Stalin’s universal production centres were the best solution to the needs of industrialisation under the existing conditions. But they could not and did not lead to the development of a highly technical, capital intensive industry.17

It was clear by the 1970s, with increasingly limited scope for expanding the use of raw materials or labour, and with a relatively advanced and complex economy, that a qualitative leap in labour productivity was needed if the Soviet Union was going to continue to catch up with the west in terms of development and living standards. Such was recognised by, for example, Yuri Andropov – then a leading Politburo member and head of the KGB (and later the General Secretary of the CPSU from 1982 until his untimely death in early 1984) – who stated in 1970: “We have reached a stage where the factors of extensive economic growth have largely been exhausted, so that high rates of economic development and, consequently, of raising the material wellbeing of the Soviet people can be maintained mostly by intensifying social production.”18

There are some obvious methods of increasing productive output per unit of labour employed: one is to get workers to work harder and more effectively; one is to reorganise the system of production so as to make it more efficient; one is to invest heavily in infrastructure related to production; another (typically the most important) is to leverage technology so that more work is done by machines and less by humans. The Soviet leadership tried all these methods and ultimately found them all extremely difficult. Rather than bringing about the steady increase in labour productivity that was so desperately needed, what actually happened was that, “after 1975, industrial labour productivity growth fell drastically – by nearly 50 per cent according to official statistics and by two-thirds based on Western estimates”.19

The prevailing planning system was no longer fit for purpose

The central planning system implemented from 1928 was, as described above, hugely successful; however, an economic framework that was appropriate in 1928 wasn’t necessarily appropriate a quarter of a century later, in significantly changed circumstances. Indeed, in the post-war period, central planning came up against several increasingly stubborn problems.

Compared to the late 1920s, the Soviet economy of the 1950s was infinitely more complex and therefore more difficult to tightly plan. In the aftermath of the devastation of war and a widespread feeling that the Soviet people had earned an easier life in a context of ‘peaceful coexistence’ (of which more in the next article), there was some re-focussing towards the production of consumer goods, meaning a far greater range of items to produce. A linear increase in the number of goods to produce meant an exponential increase in the complexity of the plan, which became increasingly fragile. Keeran and Kenny, strong supporters of the planned economy, accept that “planning became more difficult as the economy became larger and more complex. By 1953, the number of industrial enterprises reached 200,000 and the number of planning targets reached 5,000, up from 300 in the early 1930s and 2,500 in 1940.”

Michael Parenti outlines the issues in his excellent book Blackshirts and Reds:

Central planning was useful and even necessary in the earlier period of siege socialism to produce steel, wheat and tanks in order to build an industrial base and withstand the Nazi onslaught. But it eventually hindered technological development and growth, and proved incapable of supplying a wide-enough range of consumer goods and services. No computerised system could be devised to accurately model a vast and intricate economy.

No system could gather and process the immense range of detailed information needed to make correct decisions about millions of production tasks. Top-down planning stifled initiative throughout the system. Stagnation was evident in the failure of the Soviet industrial establishment to apply the innovations of the scientific-technological revolution of the 1970s and 1980s, including the use of computer technology. Though the Soviets produced many of the world’s best mathematicians, physicists, and other scientists, little of their work found actual application.20

One important problem highlighted by Parenti is that, with the prevailing system of planning based on ambitious numeric quotas, enterprise managers had very little incentive to introduce new technologies. “They maintained their positions regardless of whether innovative technology was developed, as was true of their superiors and central planners.” Furthermore, the plan tended to encourage a mindset of quantity over quality: “Under pressure to get quantitative results, managers often cut corners on quality… For instance, since state buyers of meat paid attention to quantity rather than quality, collective farmers maximised profits by producing fattier animals. Consumers might not care to eat fatty meat but that was their problem. Only a foolish or saintly farmer would work harder to produce better quality meat for the privilege of getting paid less.”

Persuading people to work harder

One of the drivers of decreasing productivity was labour discipline; put simply, a lot of people were not working very hard.

Maintaining labour discipline in an economy with guaranteed full employment is challenging. Work – particularly tough, physical work – generally has to be incentivised in some way. Under capitalism, work is incentivised through fear of starvation: if you don’t do a decent job, you can easily be replaced from among the ‘reserve army of labour’. This a cornerstone of capitalist economics. In fact, the advances in productivity in the capitalist countries in recent decades have been in no small part based on ‘rationalisation’: replacing workers with robots, leaving low-wage, low-skill jobs for which there is ever-increasing competition (in a global labour marketplace with fewer and fewer borders).

The Soviet Union never had a problem with unemployment; on the contrary it suffered from overemployment – there were more jobs to do than there were people to do them. Consequently it rarely made sense for managers to sack people (and furthermore it was legally very difficult to do so). But if people know they are very unlikely to be sacked, it makes it easy for them to game the system if they are inclined to do so. Parenti writes: “If fired, an individual had a constitutional guarantee to another job and seldom had any difficulty finding one. The labour market was a seller’s market. Workers did not fear losing their jobs but managers feared losing their best workers and sometimes overpaid them to prevent them from leaving.”21

The issue of overemployment was more pronounced in the aftermath of the war, for the obvious reason that so many workers had been martyred, at a time when reconstruction of the country – and taking care of the sick and injured – demanded huge amounts of work.

Going on the experience of the first century of building socialism, it appears that in the early period of a revolution, it is typically easier to mobilise people to work well on the basis of moral incentives; on the basis of common sacrifice for a better future. Not to mention that a revolution is profoundly empowering: it unleashes the creative energy of the masses, which feeds into more and better production. But clearly it is extremely difficult to maintain this momentum over the course of multiple generations. Raúl Castro brought this issue to life in his description (in the late 1970s) of the spread and effect of labour discipline problems in Cuba:

The lack of work discipline, unjustified absences from work, deliberate go-slows so as not to surpass the norms – which are already low and poorly applied in practice – so that they won’t be changed … In contrast to capitalism, when people in the countryside worked an exhausting 12-hour workday and more, there are a good many instances today especially in agriculture, of people working no more than four or six hours… We know that in many cases heads of brigades and foremen make a deal with workers to meet the norm in half a day and then go off and work for the other half for some nearby small private farmer for extra income… or do two or three norms in a day and report them over other days on which they don’t go to work… All these ‘tricks of the trade’ in agriculture are also to be found in industry, transportation service, repair shops and many other places where there’s rampant buddyism, cases of ‘you do me a favour and I’ll do you one’ and pilfering on the side.22

As mentioned earlier, in the postwar period in the USSR, there was an emerging popular sentiment that, having sacrificed so much and having established a new level of geostrategic security through the emergence of friendly socialist governments in seven of twelve bordering countries, life should get easier and society should move towards fulfilling the socialist promise of mutual prosperity. For the leading capitalist powers, an easier life was established through exploitation of the poorer sections of the working class and through neocolonialism. For the Soviet Union, however, these options weren’t available. The way to have more food, better housing, better clothes, cars and so on was to produce more, to work harder.

The government of the time was keenly aware of the need to improve people’s immediate quality of life. Hanson writes that Nikita Khrushchev, in power from 1956 to 1964, “presided over a major switch of resources towards agriculture, improved incentives for food production, the launch of a badly needed housing programme, a shortening of the work week, a large cut in the armed forces and an easing of the priority for heavy industry… What all these improvements were not accompanied by was any serious reform of the economic system.” Hanson concludes that “the humane softening of the system that occurred under Khrushchev’s rule probably contributed to the later slowdown.”23

In addition to a reduced work week, the Khrushchev administration moved to reduce income inequality. Albert Syzmanski observed that, between the mid-1950s and 1970s, the Soviets “eliminated about half of the inequality in their income distribution (reducing the ratio of the highest decile’s to the lowest decile’s average wages from 8.1 to 4.1) – a radical reduction in inequality in a very short time”.24 During the same period in the US, there was practically no change in income equality. Although a more even wage distribution would have seemed more consistent with socialist ideals, the reduction of wage disparities also likely had the effect of reducing incentive to work and study.

Slowing innovation

From its first days, the Soviet government put a heavy emphasis on technical innovation as a means of modernising quickly and providing for people’s needs. Indeed, part of the promise of socialism is that it is a more advanced, more efficient path to development, freeing the realms of science and technology from the constraints imposed by profit, competition, endless intermediaries, exploitation and cyclical crises, and orienting them towards serving the people.

For over half a century, Soviet socialism largely lived up to this promise. In a few decades, Soviet science bridged the gap between the scientific backwardness of the old Russian empire and the heights of global progress. Great sacrifices were made in order to ensure scientific research received the level of investment it needed. A well-known Russian scientist, Boris Raushenbakh, complaining about the decline in research funding in post-Soviet Russia, remarked:

In 1918-19, Lenin organised a whole series of scientific institutes, including the Central Institute for Aviation and Hydrodynamics, the Leningrad Institute of Physics and Technology (which produced world-famous scholars Kurchatov, Kapitsa, and Semenov), and the Academy of Agriculture. These huge institutions were created at a time when … the entire country was consumed by the flames of civil war.

Under Stalin, a great number of institutes were created. In the mid-1930s, an independent Rockefeller commission, which had organised a philanthropic fund to finance science in poorly developed countries, visited our country. The commission’s report was published. Its conclusion: science was better financed here than in western Europe.25

In many key areas of science and technology, the USSR was able to catch up with the west, even becoming a global leader in some fields. However, by the mid-1970s the gap had stopped narrowing and then widened steadily until the collapse of the USSR. Computer technology was the most notable contributor to this yawning productivity gap. Computers and robotics were starting to penetrate all areas of the western capitalist economy, especially in the US. This led to significant gains in productivity; it dramatically increased the spread of information; and it fed into new developments in maths and other branches of knowledge. The Soviet Union, however, “largely failed to absorb the revolution in communication and information-processing brought by electronics and computers”.26 By the time of the Soviet collapse, use of computing in industry and military technology is reckoned to have been around 20 years behind the US.

It’s not immediately obvious why the Soviet Union would have lagged behind in the information revolution. Its education system – particularly in maths and science – was excellent; it invested heavily in research; scientists were among the best-respected (and best-paid) members of society; it was anxious to keep up with technological developments in the US; and its planning system stood to benefit massively from the improvements in statistics, logistics and information distribution offered by computerisation. While the working class in the capitalist countries has to a significant degree suffered from computerisation (through increased unemployment and reduced wages), the Soviet working class stood to enjoy unambiguous benefit.

Soviet government and academic circles certainly showed an early interest in computing and cybernetics, and considerable research went into this area. However, for a multitude of reasons, the gap between research and ground-level implementation was never bridged in the way it was in the US. At ground level, with a heavy emphasis on annual production targets, there was minimal incentive for risk-averse enterprise managers to introduce sweeping technological changes, and in the absence of a centrally-mandated and society-wide information revolution, computerisation was somewhat marginalised. This was recognised by some of the more economically-literate leaders, for example Andropov: “To introduce a new process or new technology, production should be reorganised one way or the other, and this affects the fulfilment of the plan. Moreover, one will be held responsible for failure to fulfil the plan, while all one will get for inadequate application of new technology will be just reproach…. It is necessary to see to it that those who boldly introduce new technology will not find themselves at a disadvantage”.27 No suitable means were found to resolve this problem. On top of this disincentive, there was a lack of resources to support those enterprise managers that were keen to innovate. Longstanding leader of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, Gennady Zyuganov, writes: “Without access to financial resources, industrial enterprises could not update their equipment, introduce new technologies, or take advantage of the most recent achievements in science and engineering. The scientific establishment itself, except for the defence branches, lost the stimulus for development that should have been provided by demand for new projects and technical innovations.”28

Apart from the direct economic advantages, the spread of computing proved to be a powerful advertisement for western capitalism. The US could point (not entirely without justification) to the interaction between hobbyists, scientists, universities, startup businesses and government departments as having provided an optimum environment for computing to flourish. Once computing hit the mainstream with the rise of mass-market PCs in the late 70s and early 80s, a virtuous cycle was created whereby millions of people ‘tinkering’ fed into rapid innovation and the further spread of the technology. It would have been difficult to replicate this success in the heavily centralised economic framework then in place in the USSR.

Once they realised they were falling behind, Soviet leaders hoped to catch up quickly through technology transfer – importing western computers and reverse-engineering them. However, US policymakers deliberately made that difficult by imposing tight trade embargoes. In US ruling circles, the tension between wanting to profitably trade with the Soviet Union and wanting to punish it and prevent its growth is one of the defining characteristics of the foreign policy debates of the 1970s and 1980s. The ‘hawks’ – those who favoured the punishment approach – won the argument more often than not. Their position was summed up by Reagan’s secretary of defence, Frank Carlucci, in 1988: “If the end result is that the Soviet Union modernises its industrial and technological base and if some time in the 1990s it ends up as a society that can produce enormous quantities of weapons even more effectively than it does today, then we will have made an enormous miscalculation”.29

It’s interesting to note that US capitalism still struggles somewhat with this issue today in relation to China. “To gain access to the Chinese market, American companies are being forced to transfer technology, create joint ventures, lower prices and aid homegrown players… The worry is that by teaming up with China, American companies could be sowing the seeds of their own destruction, as well as handing over critical technology that the United States relies on for its military, space and defence programmes.”30 Unfortunately for the US, and happily for China (and for the future of global socialism), attempts to get the technology-transfer genie back in the bottle are very unlikely to succeed.

International division of labour

The US had an unfair advantage over the USSR in terms of postwar development. It suffered very little impact from the second world war in terms of lives or infrastructure; in fact its manufacture of arms and supplies brought in handsome profits, along with the debt dependency it imposed on postwar Europe. All this meant that it was uniquely situated to invest massively in research and development, and to establish a very profitable domination over a large part of the developing world. Furthermore, via the so-called Washington Consensus, the US established itself as the unchallenged leader of an international division of labour that brought economies of scale and a wide-ranging interchange of ideas in the worlds of science and culture.

A useful article on the economic legacy of the October Revolution notes that, “in the post-World War II period, the capitalist world was reorganised and reintegrated under the leadership and dominance of the US. With many intervening twists and turns, that dominance later meant that in the 1980s the US was able to call on the surplus resources of the other capitalist powers in order to directly compete with the USSR – primarily using the savings of Japan. The chosen terrain of that competition was an arms race. The USSR lost the arms race in the way it would have lost almost any direct struggle with the US based on resources and technology, when the US integration in and dominance of the world market meant it was able to command vastly greater resources.”31

Further: “an emerging socialist society must participate in the international division of labour in order to survive and then prosper… The Soviet Union could compete with the most advanced capitalist powers individually. But it could not compete when it cut itself off from world markets and they collaborated within world markets.”

It’s not really fair to say that the USSR “cut itself off from world markets” – it was in fact actively cut off from world markets by the imperialist powers. The Soviet leadership had very limited options to force their way back into the international market, in spite of their desire to engage as equals with the west. China from the late 1970s developed an incredibly sophisticated means of levering itself into the global economy and thereby absorbing the latest scientific and technological developments in record time, but the circumstances that enabled this may not have been available to the Soviet leaders. China was able to enjoy a more stable international environment; it withdrew to a significant degree from geopolitical confrontation with the US; it wasn’t expected to take military and financial responsibility for the entire socialist world; it could rely on the resources, goodwill and connections of an affluent and patriotic diaspora; and it could offer a vast pool of cheap labour to entice companies with cutting edge technology to invest in China. A China-style ‘opening-up’ was probably not available to the USSR, even if its leadership had the vision and imagination to devise such a strategy.

Quality and availability of goods and services

One relatively humdrum problem faced by Soviet citizens is that non-essential consumer goods and services were often either difficult to find or not terribly good quality (or both). “Many Soviet products, particularly consumer goods, were of low quality. Shoppers often faced long lines for ordinary goods in the notoriously inefficient system of retail distribution. Consumer services, from haircuts to appliance repair, were abysmal, if they were available at all.”32

This issue was partly related to an egalitarianism that aimed to produce low-cost goods in large numbers in order to make them widely accessible. As such, everybody had food, clothes and housing, to go with the substantial social wage – education, healthcare, recreational facilities, libraries, and so on. Contrast this to western capitalism, where rich people can enjoy unbelievable luxury while poor people struggle to feed their families.

However, the problem was also partly a function of the way the Soviet economy worked. Central planners could mandate the production of a million hair-dryers, but in the absence of competition and with a guaranteed market, there was little incentive for an enterprise to produce good hair-dryers. Hanson writes: “Producers were concerned above all to meet targets set by planners. They had no particular reason to concern themselves with the wishes of the users of their products, nor with the activities of competitors. Indeed the concept of competition was absent: other producers in the same line of activity were simply not competitors but fellow-executors of the state plan.”33

This was at a time when consumerism was reaching absurd new levels in the west. Intense marketing had pushed utilitarianism well and truly into the past, and middle-class people in the US, western Europe and Japan increasingly expected their hair-dryers and cars to be lovely rather than simply functional. Huge sums of money were being thrown at ‘user-centred design’ and similar concepts.

In the early postwar years, shoddy goods didn’t constitute the biggest problem for Soviet families, but expectations started to change, in no small part due to the increasing availability, penetration and sophistication of US propaganda. Many Soviet citizens felt envious of the consumer goods apparently enjoyed by people in the west, perhaps not always thinking about how the idealised picture painted by the movies had its counterpart in horrific poverty and in the ruthless domination of the neocolonies by monopoly capital. The higher echelons of Soviet society – doctors, scientists, academics, bureaucrats – recognised that their counterparts in the west enjoyed a higher standard of living, and many started to feel that socialism was an obstacle to further wealth.

In the grand scheme of things these should be fairly trivial concerns, but if a large section of the intelligentsia stops believing in the basic philosophical and economic underpinnings of society, this constitutes a quite serious problem for ‘actually existing socialism’ – a system which is always fragile in a historical epoch in which capitalism still dominates. Ideally, after half a century of socialist government, people would have developed a communist morality that wasn’t much concerned with material wealth; but the experience of all socialist countries to date shows that breaking the cultural and ideological prejudices of thousands of years of class society is not something that can be achieved in the matter of a few years. Attempts to rapidly dismantle the cultural/ideological legacy of class society – most notably the Cultural Revolution in China – have not achieved their aims. Marx described this problem decades before it became a reality: socialist society doesn’t emerge “on its own foundations, but, on the contrary, … from capitalist society”. It is therefore “in every respect, economically, morally, and intellectually, still stamped with the birthmarks of the old society from whose womb it emerges.”34

Rising second economy

Poor quality of goods and services, along with shortages of key consumer goods and the repressed inflationary pressure of high wages, low prices and insufficient supply, all served to create a vibrant unofficial ‘second economy’, outside the central economic plan and largely illegal. In a context where there is too much money chasing too few products, speculation and black market activity become almost inevitable.

Because activity in the second economy was better rewarded than normal work, it served to undermine the rest of the economy. Parenti gives the following example: “The poorer the restaurant service, the fewer the number of clients and the more food left over to take home for oneself or sell on the black market. The last thing restaurant personnel wanted was satisfied customers who would return to dine at the officially fixed low prices.”35

Keeran and Kenny’s Socialism Betrayed provides an authoritative description of the Soviet second economy and its knock-on effects:

The second economy included the practices of managers reporting the loss or spoilage of goods in order to divert them to the black market. It embraced a common practice in state stores of salespeople and managers laying aside rare goods in order to secure tips from favoured customers or to sell them in the black market. Consumer durable goods like automobiles for which waiting lists existed presented ‘considerable opportunity for graft,’ as well as for ‘speculation,’ that is, for resale at higher prices…

Repairs, services and even production constituted other avenues of illegal gain. This included household repair, automotive repair, sewing and tailoring, moving furniture, and building private dwellings. This work, illegal in itself, often involved material and time stolen from regular employment…

The home production of grape and fruit wine and beer, the illegal resale of state beverages, and the sale of stolen ethanol accounted for as much as 2.2 percent of the Gross Domestic Product in 1979.36

Keeran and Kenny argue that the second economy reached a level where it created “a layer of people who depended upon private activity for all or a substantial portion of their income” and that such people “could rightly be considered a nascent class of petty bourgeoisie”. With the formation of an economic class comes the demand for political representation. Zyuganov writes that “the shadow economy was running out of space for expanded reproduction; consequently, its bosses raised the question of how to weaken political restraints by influencing the state and Party apparatus, including the CPSU Central Committee, from the inside. It was under such pressures that perestroika came into existence.”37

The growing second economy served to further reduce the effectiveness of the primary economy, contributing to shortages of goods and labour. All of this contributed to the undermining of Soviet socialism.

The arms race and the cost of friendship

By the early 1980s, the USSR was dedicating vast resources to aiding socialist and progressive states around the world, most notably Vietnam, Cuba, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Nicaragua, Angola and South Yemen. In many cases, such support was critical for the survival of these states. Bhalchandra Ranadive of the CPI(M) correctly remarked that “but for this help the economies of many newly liberated countries would have been helplessly dependent on Western aid.”38 The rising cost of this support – and particularly the waging of a long, difficult war in Afghanistan, which will be discussed later in the series – coincided with the period of economic difficulties. Arne Odd Westad writes: “The global role that the Soviets had taken on meant that both military expenditure — already in the late 1970s just slightly less than 25 percent of GDP — and support for socialist states continued to increase into the 1980s, although it was clear to the leadership that the additional shortages this created at home were socially harmful and unpopular.”39

An anecdote reveals the dilemma for the Soviet leadership: “When East German state planning chairman Gerhard Schürer appealed to his Soviet counterpart Nikolai Baibakov for more fuel in 1981, Baibakov responded, ‘Should I cut back on oil to Poland? Vietnam is starving … should we just give away Southeast Asia? Angola, Mozambique, Ethiopia, Yemen … we carry them all. And our standard of living is extraordinarily low'”.40

In addition to the obvious economic cost, Soviet military support for its allies in Angola, Ethiopia and Afghanistan in particular were nails in the coffin of US-Soviet detente, and Cold War tensions reached new heights. The US forced the USSR to divert huge resources into an ‘arms race’ that it could ill afford. Capitalism is actually far superior to socialism when it comes to the industry of death and destruction: in an economy aimed at furnishing profits for corporations, a large market for high-value single-use products like nuclear bombs is a wonderful thing, hence the position of the military-industrial complex at the heart of US government. In an economy focused on serving the needs of the masses, devoting scarce resources to military technology means diverting resources away from producing food, housing, infrastructure, clothing, art, education and consumer goods. As Michael Roberts observes, “the militarisation of the economy because of the cold war used up valuable productive investment potential.”41

Failed attempts at solutions

By the early 1960s it was obvious to Soviet policy-makers that the economy was in need of renovation. Growth rates at this point were still high, but agricultural production was insufficient, there were complaints about the quality and availability of goods, and the leadership was concerned about the continuing dependence on extractivism for generating foreign exchange. Furthermore the various “hare-brained schemes, half-baked conclusions and hasty decisions”42 pursued by Nikita Khrushchev (Soviet leader from 1956 to 1964) had been singularly unsuccessful, leading his successors in the Brezhnev-Kosygin leadership to pursue a more systematic, less erratic, course of economic change.

In 1965, a fairly wide-ranging reform was introduced, designed principally by the economist Evsei Liberman and sponsored politically by Alexei Kosygin. The reform argued that the central planning system was becoming less effective and more expensive as economic relations became more complex. It sought to increase productivity, dynamism and growth. Enterprises were given greater autonomy over use of resources, and a concept of profitability was introduced. The wage levelling of the Khrushchev era was partially reversed, in an attempt to incentivise professional training. The reform included attempts to increase the use of computerisation in planning, and to encourage technical innovation.

Controversially, the reform included some market measures, for example “letting enterprise managers keep more of the return on their sales to the state and investing it in improving their machinery” and allowing managers to “spend more of this additional capital on material incentives for the production workers, to encourage them to cut waste, find hidden reserves of productivity in the existing machinery, and so forth.”43

The reform had some limited success, and growth in the second half of the 1960s (the first few years of the Brezhnev period) was higher than it had been in the first half (the last few years of the Khrushchev period). However, the positive effects didn’t last more than a few years, and it became clear that the Kosygin reforms had not solved any long-term problems. A similar reform in the late 1970s had similarly uninspiring results.

A key issue was the absence of an effective feedback loop. The economic reforms launched by Deng Xiaoping in China in the late 1970s achieved infinitely greater success than anything the Soviets attempted. There are a number of reasons that China could succeed where the USSR failed in terms of renovating its economy, but one factor that stands out with the Chinese approach is the mantra of “crossing the river by feeling the stones” – taking small steps, gathering feedback, learning lessons, and taking more steps. Allen Lynch writes that “Deng pursued a strategy of incremental reforms in a pragmatic manner, building on economic success that he converted into political capital and gradually enlarging the reform process from farming to associated enterprises in the countryside, special economic zones along the southern coast and larger and larger regions of the country and sectors of the economy.”44 The Soviet approach was much more top-heavy and less sophisticated.

By the late 1970s, very little progress had been made in reforming the economy, leading Leonid Brezhnev (Soviet leader from 1964 to 1982) to reiterate that, “in order to carry out successfully the diverse economic and social tasks facing the country, there is no other way than that of promoting the rapid growth of labour productivity in achieving a steep rise of efficiency in all areas of social production… This is chiefly due to an aggravation of the problem of labour resources. We shall have to rely not on enlisting additional labour power but solely on increasing labour productivity. A sharp reduction of the proportion of manual labour and comprehensive mechanisation and automation of production are becoming an indispensable condition of economic progress.”45

Brezhnev died in November 1982, after 18 years as General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. The early period of his rule, from 1964 to around 1973, is generally considered as having been rather successful in terms of economic growth and geopolitical consolidation. After the economic experimentation, political instability and geostrategic brinkmanship of the Khrushchev era, the relatively conservative, steady leadership of Brezhnev and his team (including capable Marxists such as Andropov, Mikhail Suslov, Andrei Gromyko, Dmitriy Ustinov and Boris Ponomarev) reaped good results. Quality of life increased; Soviet-supported national liberation movements overthrew colonial/neocolonial powers; the threat of nuclear war with the US seemed to wane a little. However, the period from the mid-1970s through to Brezhnev’s death is widely regarded as the ‘era of stagnation’, reflected in a politburo whose average age was pretty close to the prevailing Soviet life expectancy.

The election of KGB chief Yuri Andropov to CPSU General Secretary on 12 November 1982 inspired optimism. “Andropov had admirable personal qualities, a solid grounding in Marxist-Leninist theory, rich leadership experience, a broad grasp of the problems facing the Soviet Union, and clear and forceful ideas about reform… Under Brezhnev, when old age, infirmity, and laxness eroded ‘Leninist norms’ among many at the top, Andropov lived modestly and gained a reputation as a workaholic”.46 Moreover, Andropov understood the need for systematic reform of the economy, particularly in clamping down on corruption, bringing in labour incentives, improving labour discipline, and modernising production through the introduction of computer technology. He was also keen to improve Soviet democracy, through widened participation in management and decision making; although unlike Gorbachev, he would never have attempted to weaken the CPSU or delegitimise its rule. In summary, Andropov seemed to understand the problems facing the Soviet Union and to have a sensible vision for addressing them.

Sadly, Andropov didn’t have time to turn his plans into reality. Only a few months after becoming General Secretary, he suffered renal failure. In August 1983 he was admitted into Moscow’s Central Clinical Hospital, where he remained until his death on 9 February 1984. Andropov was succeeded by Konstantin Chernenko, who in the 13 months before his own death didn’t show much of Andropov’s vision and drive. Chernenko was succeeded by Mikhail Gorbachev, whose disastrous contributions to the Soviet economy will be discussed in a later article.

Poor economic performance led to disaffection and disillusion

Given fifty or sixty years, we certainly ought to overtake the United States. This is an obligation. You have such a big population, such a vast territory and such rich resources, and what is more, you are said to be building socialism, which is supposed to be superior. If after working at it for fifty or sixty years you are still unable to overtake the United States, what a sorry figure you will cut!47

Slow economic growth wasn’t the central, direct cause of the Soviet collapse. Even with sluggish growth, limited innovation and poor quality goods, the Soviet Union could have survived – plenty of countries in the world suffer these (and indeed far worse) problems and remain relatively stable. But the economic problems fed into a general sentiment of dissatisfaction that reduced the masses’ confidence in socialism and, therefore, their willingness to fight for it when it came under attack. The economic problems also created a strata of people who felt they would do better under conditions of capitalism: people running small businesses in the informal sector who would benefit from freer markets; and managers and intellectuals who saw socialism as an impediment to a life of privilege.

Jude Woodward writes: “It was the US’s economic superiority, not its military threat, which eventually created the conditions for the defeat of the USSR. By the 1980s the USSR’s economic problems meant it was impossibly squeezed by Reagan’s new arms race. Rather than carry out a fundamental economic reform – as China had been doing for a decade – Gorbachev and then Yeltsin capitulated to the West, dissolved the Communist Party, accepted shock therapy and the break-up of the USSR.”48

In the next article in the series, I will examine the mounting problems of ideological decay and dissatisfaction in the last few decades of the USSR’s existence.

  1. Lenin, Fourth Anniversary of the October Revolution, 1921 

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

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

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

  5. Michael Roberts: The Russian revolution: some economic notes, 2017 

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

  7. Irfan Habib, in Red October: The Russian Revolution and the Communist Horizon, LeftWord Books, 2017 

  8. CPI(M) resolution: On Certain Ideological Issues, 1992 

  9. History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Bolsheviks), Chapter 11, 1939 

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

  11. Jude Woodward, The US vs China: the new cold war?, Manchester University Press, 2017 

  12. Article in Red October, op cit 

  13. Hanson, op cit 

  14. Kotz and Weir, op cit 

  15. Sam Marcy: Perestroika: A Marxist Critique, 1987 

  16. Textbook on Political Economy, prepared by the Economics Institute of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR, 1954 

  17. Jonathan Aurthur, Socialism in the Soviet Union, Workers Press, 1977 

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

  19. Kotz and Weir, op cit 

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

  21. ibid 

  22. Cited in Parenti, ibid 

  23. Hanson, op cit 

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

  25. Cited in Inside Gorbachev’s Kremlin: The Memoirs Of Yegor Ligachev, Westview Press, 1996 

  26. Kotz and Weir, op cit 

  27. Andropov, op cit 

  28. My Russia: The Political Autobiography of Gennady Zyuganov, Routledge, 1997 

  29. Cited in Marcy, op cit 

  30. New York Times: How This U.S. Tech Giant Is Backing China’s Tech Ambitions, 2017 

  31. Mark Buckley: The economic legacy of October 1917, 2017 

  32. Kotz and Weir, op cit 

  33. Hanson, op cit 

  34. Marx: Critique of the Gotha Programme, 1875 

  35. Parenti, op cit 

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

  37. Zyuganov, op cit 

  38. Red October, op cit 

  39. Westad, op cit 

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

  41. Michael Roberts: The Russian revolution: some economic notes, 2017 

  42. Cited in RFE-RL: Now That The Thaw Is Over, 2013 

  43. Aurthur, op cit 

  44. Allen Lynch: Deng’s and Gorbachev’s Reform Strategies Compared, 2012 

  45. Cited in Aurthur, op cit 

  46. Keeran and Kenny, op cit 

  47. Mao Zedong, Strengthen party unity and carry forward party traditions, 1956 

  48. Jude Woodward, op cit 

Why doesn’t the Soviet Union exist any more? Part 1: Introduction

This is the first in a series of eight articles regarding the collapse of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR, or Soviet Union). Although a distance of more than 25 years separates us from that fateful day in 1991 when the USSR ceased to exist, the left’s understanding of the Soviet collapse is still limited and many of the important themes are poorly understood.

Why dig up these particular old bones? Because we must reflect on, and learn from, history. The world’s first socialist state no longer exists, and nor do the European people’s democracies that were its close allies. If mistakes were made, it’s crucial that they aren’t made again. Existing socialist states face many of the same external pressures that the Soviet Union faced; future socialist states almost certainly will too. Additionally, socialist states so far have had great difficulty maintaining revolutionary momentum through the second, third and fourth generations of the revolution; this is as true of contemporary Cuba or China as it was of the USSR. Addressing these problems is obviously essential, and the details of the Soviet collapse constitute some of the most important raw data for any such analysis. The more our movement can learn about the Soviet collapse, the better prepared we will be to prevent historic reverses and defeats in future, and the better equipped we will be to develop a compelling, convincing vision of socialism that is relevant to the here and now.

Needless to say, I don’t claim to have definitive answers. The disappearance of the USSR is a vastly complex subject, incorporating history, politics, economics, sociology, philosophy, military science, social psychology and more. Others know more and have done more thorough research than I have. The idea here is simply to present the historical outline, raise some questions, put forward a couple of hypotheses, and contribute to the ongoing debate. In terms of digging deeper into the subject, I’d point the reader towards the following very useful books. Each has its own strengths and weaknesses, but all contain valuable insight on the topic of the Soviet collapse and have been of inestimable help in terms of forming my own opinions.

  • David Kotz and Fred Weir: Revolution From Above1
  • Roger Keeran and Thomas Kenny: Socialism Betrayed2
  • Vijay Prashad: Red October3
  • Michael Parenti – Blackshirts and Reds4

I make no apologies for taking a partisan perspective; of defending the achievements of the Soviet Union; of being on “the workers’ side of the barricades” in the global class war between imperialism on the one hand and, on the other, the socialist countries, the exploited nations, and the workers and oppressed masses in the imperialist heartlands. If the reader is looking for a triumphalist, anticommunist account of the Soviet demise, such a thing can easily be found, but not here. My starting point is that the immense problems faced by humanity cannot be solved within a political-economic framework of capitalism; that the transition towards socialism and, ultimately, communism is both desirable and necessary.

The broad themes that will be covered in this set of articles are: the positive achievements of the Soviet Union; mounting economic difficulties in the 1970s and 1980s; ideological decay and dissatisfaction from the 1950s onwards; Reagan, Afghanistan, the arms race and the ‘full-court press’; Mikhail Gorbachev and his perestroika and glasnost; the events of the chaotic last couple of years of the USSR’s existence (1990-91); the effects of the counter-revolution both in the former USSR and throughout the world; and whether the People’s Republic of China is likely to suffer the same fate as its socialist forerunner.

But wasn’t the Soviet experiment a dismal failure?

Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter. (African proverb)5

Over a quarter of a century after the collapse of the USSR and the end of the Cold War, the history of that country as told by mainstream historians is that it was a horrific, criminal enterprise; that Soviet socialism was the very antithesis of freedom and democracy; that the whole experiment was an unmitigated failure that has its clear antithesis in the success of western free market democracy. This is all received wisdom in Western Europe and North America, to such a degree that when anyone in the media spotlight questions this purported truth, they’re treated like members of the Flat Earth Society.6

All this rather helpfully feeds into what is surely the most important theme of modern politics, economics, history, philosophy and sociology: communism is a wrongheaded and illogical ideology that contradicts the very essence of human nature.

Even within the political left, few are those that bother defending the record of the Soviet Union any more. We throw up our hands and say “we still believe in socialism, but the Russians got it wrong”. Perhaps true socialism has never been built; perhaps early 20th-century Russia, with its economic backwardness and vast peasant majority, wasn’t a suitable environment for such an ambitious project; perhaps socialism was perverted and destroyed by the venality and ruthlessness of the Soviet leadership, in particular Joseph Stalin.

Whichever variant of the ‘failure’ narrative you choose, you’re left with no special difficulty explaining why, on 31 December 1991, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics ceased to exist: it was a failed experiment, and failed experiments must eventually come to an end.

In many respects, the USSR was incredibly successful

The path traversed by the Soviet Union over the last sixty years is equivalent to a whole epoch. History perhaps has never known such a spectacular advance from a condition of backwardness, misery and ruin to the grandeur of a modern great power with highly advanced culture and steadily growing welfare of the people.7

In reality, the task of understanding the Soviet implosion is not so simple. The Soviet Union has several world-historic achievements to its name. In the Soviet period, the peoples of the territories of the Soviet Union experienced an unprecedented improvement in living standards. Feudal property relations and backwardness were wiped out, and the Soviet Union emerged as a superpower – the second biggest economy in the world, at the cutting edge of science and technology. For the first time in Russian history, the curse of famine was defeated. European fascism was defeated, largely through the efforts, sacrifices, heroism and creative brilliance of the Soviet people. Soviet people built and enjoyed the world’s first comprehensive welfare state. Nobody that was willing and able to work went without work. Education and healthcare were comprehensive and free. Housing was often cramped, but universal and inexpensive. For the first time in history, the political and cultural supremacy of the working class was established: the government derived its credibility on the basis of how well it served the masses, not the wealthy. With the aid of the Soviet people, liberation movements around the world were able to break free from the shackles of colonialism and imperialism.

Mocking the histrionic anticommunism of mainstream historians, Michael Parenti writes:

To say that “socialism doesn’t work” is to overlook the fact that it did. In Eastern Europe, Russia, China, Mongolia, North Korea, and Cuba, revolutionary communism created a life for the mass of people that was far better than the wretched existence they had endured under feudal lords, military bosses, foreign colonisers, and Western capitalists. The end result was a dramatic improvement in living conditions for hundreds of millions of people on a scale never before or since witnessed in history… State socialism transformed desperately poor countries into modernised societies in which everyone had enough food, clothing, and shelter; where elderly people had secure pensions; and where all children (and many adults) went to school and no one was denied medical attention.8

Socialism in practice conclusively solved many of the worst of humanity’s problems; problems to which capitalism had not (and still has not) been able to resolve. Boris Ponomarev, a leading theoretician of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (and one of its more insightful representatives in the 70s and 80s), summarised in the following terms:

Socialism has ended for good the problem of unemployment which is the worst and most insurmountable social problem in the capitalist world. The countries of the socialist community have introduced blanket social security schemes covering the entire population, free medical care and education, guaranteed housing along with many other social blessings and economic rights enjoyed by one and all. Socialism has guaranteed equitable distribution of material and cultural benefits… Socialism has ended unequal pay for women and youth… The record of the Soviet Union as a multi-national socialist state convincingly demonstrates that the socialist system assures equal rights for all peoples, establishes relations of fraternal friendship among the peoples for dynamic economic and cultural progress.9

Starting from an extremely low base

In assessing the achievements of the Soviet Union, it’s important to recognise the low base from which it started. Pre-revolutionary Russia was characterised by widespread hunger, stark authoritarianism, obscene inequality, pervasive racist and antisemitic scapegoating, and brutal exploitation. Workers and peasants were denied access to even basic education. The bankrupt tsarist regime (and indeed the provisional government after the February 1917 revolution) thought nothing of sacrificing the lives of millions of ordinary people in the name of colonial expansion. As Kotz and Weir note in Revolution From Above:

In 1917 the Russian economy lagged far behind the dynamic capitalism of the great powers. In 1980, some sixty years after the Russian Revolution, the Soviet Union was one pole of a bipolar world. It had been transformed into an urban, industrialised country of 265 million people. By such measures as life expectancy, caloric intake, and literacy, the Soviet Union had reached the ranks of the developed countries. It gave economic and military aid to many countries around the world. It was a leader in many areas of science and technology. It launched the first space satellite. In some more prosaic fields, ranging from specialised metals, to machines for seamless welding of railroad tracks, to eye surgery equipment, it was a world leader. Its performing artists and athletes were among the world’s best. With its Warsaw Pact allies, it was the military equal of the United States-led Nato alliance.

For us, by us: ordinary people at the head of society

The Soviet Union was the first state to explicitly represent the demands of the working class and oppressed people. As Lenin put it, the significance of the revolution “is, first of all, that we shall have a Soviet government, our own organ of power, in which the bourgeoisie will have no share whatsoever. The oppressed masses will themselves create a power. The old state apparatus will be shattered to its foundations and a new administrative apparatus set up in the form of the Soviet organisations.”10

At the most basic level, the benefits of economic growth were directed towards ordinary people rather than a capitalist class. While GDP growth was generally respectable in the US, Western Europe and Japan in the post-war period, it had its clear counterpart in ever-widening inequality. The rich became much, much richer; conditions of life for the poor improved little. According to Albert Szymanski, “over the entire 1940-1980 period the real wages of Soviet factory and office workers increased by a factor of 3.7 times. By way of comparison it should be noted that the real wages of all US workers declined by about 1% a year over the 1970s and early 1980s.” Furthermore, in the Soviet Union, basic foodstuffs, housing and transport were all heavily subsidised. “Housing, medicine, transport and insurance account for an average of 15% of a Soviet family’s income, compared to 50% in the US, while such services as higher education and child-care are either free or heavily subsidised.”11

The Soviet Union was incomparably more egalitarian than the capitalist countries: “The income spread between highest and lowest earners in the Soviet Union was about five to one. In the United States, the spread in yearly income between the top multibillionaires and the working poor is more like 10,000 to 1.”12

Ending unemployment was a momentous breakthrough. The individual’s right to productive employment is recognised in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and yet it is near-impossible to guarantee such a right under capitalism, which demands what Marx described as a ‘reserve army of labour’ (ie a significant number of unemployed workers) to exert downward pressure on wages. Conversely, in a socialist system, where the fruits of labour are shared by the people rather than being monopolised by the owners of the means of production (ie the capitalist class), the existence of unemployment is an unambiguous waste of resources, helping nobody. The Soviet Union was therefore the first modern industrial economy to eliminate long-term unemployment. The consequences of this in terms of people’s wellbeing are huge; after all, unemployment is widely regarded as the number one socio-economic problem in the capitalist world.13 The ‘The Red Dean of Canterbury’, Hewlett Johnson, spoke of the social impact of full employment and a welfare state in his classic study, The Socialist Sixth of the World, based on his numerous tours to the USSR in the 1930s:

The vast moral achievements of the Soviet Union are in no small measure due to the removal of fear. Fear haunts workers in a capitalist land. Fear of dismissal, fear that a thousand workless men stand outside the gate eager to get his job, breaks the spirit of a man and breeds servility. Fear of unemployment, fear of slump, fear of trade depression, fear of sickness, fear of an impoverished old age lie with crushing weight on the mind of the worker. A few weeks’ wages only lies between him and disaster. He lacks reserves.

Nothing strikes the visitor to the Soviet Union more forcibly than the absence of fear… No fear for maintenance at the birth of a child cripples the Soviet parents. No fear for doctors’ fees, school fees, or university fees. No fear of under-work, no fear of over-work. No fear of wage reduction, in a land where none are unemployed… So long as work is needed, work is free to all. Workers are in demand in the Soviet Union; and wages rise.14

Russia’s long and admirable traditions of music, literature and theatre were combined with the rich store of folk traditions from around the Soviet Union, producing a culture that was inclusive, accessible, innovative and proud. Most importantly, cultural life was not the preserve of the rich or the intellectuals, but was the collective property of the masses.

UNESCO reported that Soviet citizens read more books and saw more films than any other people in the world. Every year the number of people visiting museums equaled nearly half the entire population, and attendance at theatres, concerts, and other performances surpassed the total population. The government made a concerted effort to raise the literacy and living standards of the most backward areas and to encourage the cultural expression of the more than a hundred nationality groups that constituted the Soviet Union. In Kirghizia [Kyrgyzstan], for example, only one out of every five hundred people could read and write in 1917, but fifty years later nearly everyone could.15

Constructing a successful multinational state

Breaking with the brutal colonialism of the tsarist empire, the Soviet government succeeded in uniting dozens of nations and ethnicities into a multinational state based on mutual respect and tolerance. “Complete equality of rights for all nations; the right of nations to self-determination; the unity of the workers of all nations”16 was a highly advanced slogan anywhere in the political context of the early 20th century, but particularly so in Russia, that ‘prison house of nations’.

The resolution of the national question in the Soviet Union was a historic achievement. At the root of the Soviet approach was Marx’s famous teaching that “any nation that oppresses another nation forges its own chains.”17 Different nations, with their varying religions, ethnicities, histories and traditions, were brought together in a multinational state that actively worked to overcome the Russian chauvinism and domination constructed over centuries under the tsars. Formerly proud nations such as Azerbaijan and Georgia – vibrant centres along the Silk Road that had suffered tyranny and enforced backwardness as part of the Russian Empire – became equal players in a socialist union, in the process experiencing extraordinary improvements in living standards, education levels, access to cultural facilities, and so on. Samir Amin notes:

The Soviet system brought changes for the better. It gave these republics, regions, and autonomous districts, established over huge territories, the right to their cultural and linguistic expression, which had been despised by the tsarist government. The United States, Canada, and Australia never did this with their indigenous peoples and are certainly not ready to do so now. The Soviet government did much more: it established a system to transfer capital from the rich regions of the Union (western Russia, Ukraine, Belorussia, later the Baltic countries) to the developing regions of the east and south. It standardised the wage system and social rights throughout the entire territory of the Union, something the Western powers never did with their colonies, of course. In other words, the Soviets invented an authentic development assistance, which presents a stark contrast with the false development assistance of the so-called donor countries of today.18

Once radical movements in the Central Asian and Caucasian areas of the Russian Empire had established Soviet power, the new regimes immediately got on with the job of undoing the legacy of Russian domination, engaging in radical land distribution and giving land that had been seized by Russian settlers to local peasants. This was combined with “a wide range of economic, social and cultural improvements in people’s lives, including mass literacy campaigns, universal education, modernisation of agriculture, industrialisation, and the provision of basic medical and welfare services.”19

Held in a state of perpetual backwardness and colonial dependency by the tsarist regime, the eastern republics of the USSR experienced a period of unprecedented economic and cultural advancement, shared by the whole population. “Before the Bolshevik Revolution, the vast majority of the peoples of Soviet Asia were illiterate. Even in 1926, a decade after the Revolution, only 3.8% of the people in Tajikistan, 11.6% of those in Uzbekistan, 14.0% of those in Turkmenistan, and 16.5% of those in Kirghizia were literate; a high proportion of the literates were in fact Russian immigrants. By the end of the 1930s most people throughout the USSR were literate, and by the end of the 1950s literacy was virtually universal”.20 Compare this with capitalist India, where even today the literacy rate is only 74% – or perhaps more pertinently with Afghanistan, which shares a border and many cultural similarities with Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, where the literacy rate today is among the lowest in the world at 31% (17% for women).

Defeating racism

The Soviet people attempted to build a society free from racism. Just as “you can’t have capitalism without racism” (Malcolm X), the Soviet Union was built on the premise that you can’t have socialism with racism. The constitution was unequivocal: “Any direct or indirect restriction of the rights of, or, conversely, any establishment of direct or indirect privileges for, citizens on account of their race or nationality, as well as any advocacy of racial or national exclusiveness or hatred and contempt, is punishable by law.” The most palpable difference in these terms was the treatment of Jewish people before and after the revolution. Under the tsarist period, Jews had been subjected to vicious, violent anti-semitism, including officially-sanctioned pogroms. Russia had been a centre of the age-old European anti-semitic scapegoating that gave rise to the horrors of Nazism. “Jews were systematically excluded from privileged positions, and many were driven out of the country by discrimination and pogroms in the generation before the 1917 Revolution, large numbers of whom settled in the USA.”21

After the revolution, expression of anti-semitism was made a criminal offence. Indeed, “Jewish intellectuals and workers were disproportionately active in the revolutionary movement in the Russian Empire. In 1922, Jews represented 5.2% of Communist Party membership (about five times their percentage of the population).”

Soviet newspapers gave significant attention to the plight of black people in the US. Many prominent African-Americans visited the Soviet Union and were moved to comment on how much better they were treated there than in the country of their birth. The legendary African-American civil rights activist and Pan-African, W. E. B. Du Bois, wrote that “the Soviet Union seems to me the only European country where people are not more or less taught and encouraged to despise and look down on some class, group or race. I know countries where race and colour prejudice show only slight manifestations, but no white country where race and colour prejudice seems so absolutely absent. In Paris I attract some attention; in London I meet elaborate blankness; anywhere in America I get anything from complete ignoring to curiosity, and often insult. In Moscow, I pass unheeded. Russians quite naturally ask me information; women sit beside me quite confidently and unconsciously. Children are uniformly courteous.”22

The emancipation of women

In the course of two years, Soviet power in one of the most backward countries of Europe did more to emancipate women and to make their status equal to that of the “strong” sex than all the advanced, enlightened, “democratic” republics of the world did in the course of 130 years.23

The Soviet Union was for many decades the world leader in developing women’s rights. Article 122 of the 1936 constitution established not only the principle of gender equality but the means by which the state would facilitate it: “Women in the USSR are accorded equal rights with men in all spheres of economic, state, cultural, social and political life. The possibility of exercising these rights is ensured to women by granting them an equal right with men to work, payment for work, rest and leisure, social insurance and education, and by state protection of the interests of mother and child, pre-maternity and maternity leave with full pay, and the provision of a wide network of maternity homes, nurseries and kindergartens.”

Family law was written to create a context for a flourishing of women’s rights. Subsidised childcare was made universal, with the result that, by the late 1970s, the percentage of women in work was 83% – compared with 55% in the US – and over 40% of professional scientists were female. Szymanski writes that “in 1970, there were more women physicians in the USSR than throughout the rest of the world, with about 20 times more than in the US.” He concludes that “women are considerably more independent of men, and far greater opportunities are open to them than ever before, or that exist for women in comparable capitalist countries.”24 These are remarkable achievements, particularly in view of the patriarchal backwardness of the Russian Empire under the tsars.

Supporting the global struggle against colonialism and imperialism

In comparing the progress made in the Soviet Union between 1917 and 1991 with the progress made in the capitalist world in the same period, it’s crucial to bear in mind that capitalist progress was built on a bedrock of colonialism and imperialism. Industrialisation and modernisation in Britain would not have taken place without the grand-scale theft of productive land in the Americas, the transatlantic slave trade, and the colonial subjugation of India, Ireland and much of Africa. US-led economic progress in the 20th century rested on the profits of neocolonial exploitation of the larger part of the globe. Not only was Soviet progress more impressive in absolute terms, but it was many times more impressive for having been achieved without recourse to imperialism. Yegor Ligachev (Gorbachev’s deputy in the mid-1980s, deposed because he didn’t want to get rid of socialism) observes:

It should be kept in mind that everything we achieved was the result of our own efforts, whereas the developed capitalist countries accumulated much of their wealth by the open plunder of colonial peoples in the past and by ferrying cheap natural resources out of Third World countries today, exploiting their cheap workforce. In this way the capitalist countries have secured a relatively high standard of living for their populations.25

More than the Soviet Union not engaging in imperialist exploitation; it engaged in the opposite of imperialist exploitation, seeing itself as a key engine of the global anti-colonial and anti-imperialist movement – an all-weather friend to the oppressed and struggling peoples of Asia, Africa and Latin America. This position wasn’t taken purely out of goodwill and socialist morality but also as a means of developing the broadest possible unity against imperialism. In Lenin’s words: “[The European working class] will not be victorious without the aid of the working people of all the oppressed colonial nations, first and foremost, of Eastern nations.”26

The Soviet Union made significant sacrifices in order to support liberation movements (including the ANC in South Africa, the MPLA in Angola, PAIGC in Guinea-Bissau, Frelimo in Mozambique) and progressive states (including the people’s democracies of central and eastern Europe, Cuba, Vietnam, Korea, Mongolia, Afghanistan, Angola, Mozambique, Mali, Guinea, Ghana, Ethiopia, India, Egypt, Libya, Grenada, Nicaragua, Indonesia, and more). This support was not simply tokenistic; indeed in many cases – including the historic victory of the Vietnamese patriotic forces – it was decisive. Fidel Castro went so far as to say that, “without the existence of the Soviet Union, Cuba’s socialist revolution would have been impossible… This means that without the existence of the Soviet Union, the imperialists would have strangled any national-liberation revolution in Latin America… Had the Soviet Union not existed, the imperialists would not even have had to resort to weapons. They would have strangled such a revolution with hunger. They would have liquidated it by only an economic blockade. But because the Soviet Union exists, it proved impossible to liquidate our revolution.”27

The Soviet Union served as a key support base for the other projects of socialist transformation in the 20th century, including the Chinese Revolution, which over the course of the last eight decades has comprehensively rejuvenated the Chinese nation, putting an end to feudal backwardness and colonial domination and making China a great world power. As Mao Zedong himself said, soon after the victory of the revolution: “If the Soviet Union did not exist, if there were no victory of the Anti-Fascist Second World War and no defeat of Japanese imperialism, … if there were no sum-total of these things, could we have won victory? Obviously not. It would also be impossible to consolidate the victory when it was won.”28

Paul Robeson remembered the USSR’s principled support for Ethiopia against Mussolini’s Italy, and for the native population of South Africa against the white supremacist government, concluding that “the Soviet Union is the friend of the African and the West Indian peoples”.29

A step forward in history

After the Paris Commune of 1871, which lasted only two months, the October Revolution was the world’s first attempt to build a socialist society, to put an end to the brutality, inequality and inefficiency of capitalism. As such, October “dispelled the myth of capitalism’s immutability as a ‘natural order of things’. It demonstrated that capitalism was not eternal and its replacement by socialism was on the agenda of history.”30

In its 74-year existence, the Soviet Union succeeded in creating a completely different type of society: one that deeply valued equality, shared prosperity, social justice, solidarity, culture and education. It made greater economic, social, scientific and cultural progress than its competitors in the capitalist world during the period of its existence. And this was done in spite of the extraordinary human and economic losses it sustained defending itself against foreign aggression (in the ‘civil war’ of 1918-21 and the German invasion/occupation of the Soviet Union, 1941-44). Gennady Zyuganov, veteran Russian communist and current leader of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, notes with justifiable pride:

The socialism that was built in the USSR and a number of other countries was, of course, far from perfect. But it exhibited some historic achievements. The socialist system enabled us to create a powerful state with a developed national economy. We were the first to venture into the cosmos. Our culture reached unprecedented heights. We were justly proud of our achievements in science, theatre, film, education, music, ballet, literature, and the visual arts. Much was done to develop physical culture, sports, and folk arts. Every citizen of the USSR had the right to work, free education and medical care, and a secure childhood and old age. Appropriate budgetary allocations subsidised housing and provided for the needs of children. People were sure of their tomorrow. A workable alternative to capitalism was created in our own country and in other socialist countries… And these changes were made in the shortest period recorded in world history for such a transformation.31

Like any country, the Soviet Union suffered its fair share of complex problems and was guilty of its fair share of mistakes, but by no reasonable measure can the Soviet period be deemed a failure. The ‘failed experiment’ hypothesis of the Soviet collapse is merely an extension of old-fashioned Cold War propaganda. In the next article, I will explore the economic stagnation that appeared in the early 1970s, and will discuss how this fed into a sense of disillusionment that contributed to the weakening of the socialist project.

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

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

  3. Vijay Prashad (editor), Red October – The Russian Revolution and the Communist Horizon, LeftWord Books, 2017 

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

  5. Paris Review: Chinua Achebe, The Art of Fiction No. 139, 1994 

  6. See for example Daily Mail: Key Corbyn ally who helped run election campaign is speaking at event to celebrate the Russian Revolution, 2017 

  7. Yuri Andropov, Report on 60th anniversary of the USSR, 21 December 1982 

  8. Blackshirts and Reds, op cit 

  9. Boris Ponomarev, Marxism-Leninism in Today’s World, Pergamon Press, 1983 

  10. Lenin: Meeting Of The Petrograd Soviet Of
    Workers’ And Soldiers’ Deputies
    , 1917 

  11. Albert Szymanski: Human Rights in the Soviet Union, Zed Books, 1984 

  12. Parenti, op cit 

  13. Brookings: Long-term Unemployment Is #1 Social and Economic Problem in America, 2014 

  14. Hewlett Johnson: The Socialist Sixth of the World, Victor Gollancz, 1939 

  15. Keeran and Kenny, op cit 

  16. Lenin: The Right of Nations to Self-Determination, 1914 

  17. Marx: Confidential Communication on Bakunin, 1870 

  18. Samir Amin: Saving the Unity of Great Britain, Breaking the Unity of Greater Russia, 2014 

  19. Szymanski, op cit 

  20. ibid 

  21. Szymanski, op cit 

  22. Cited in William Mandel, Soviet But Not Russian: The ‘Other’ Peoples of the Soviet Union, Ramparts Press, 1985 

  23. Lenin: Soviet Power and the Status of Women, 1919 

  24. Szymanski, op cit 

  25. Inside Gorbachev’s Kremlin: The Memoirs Of Yegor Ligachev, Westview Press, 1996 

  26. Lenin: Address to the Second All-Russia Congress of Communist Organisations of the East, 1919 

  27. Fidel Castro: Speech at Red Square, 1963 

  28. Cited in Li Lisan: The Chinese Labour Movement, 1950 

  29. Philip S Foner, Paul Robeson Speaks: Writings, Speeches, Interviews, 1918-74, Kensington Publishing Corp, 1998 

  30. Ponomarev, op cit 

  31. My Russia: The Political Autobiography of Gennady Zyuganov, Routledge, 1997 

Book Review: Geoffrey Swain – A Short History of the Russian Revolution

This article first appeared in the Morning Star on 19 July 2017.

In this compact book of just over 200 pages, Geoffrey Swain does a surprisingly good job of presenting a historical overview of the October Revolution – the defining event of the 20th century, the centenary of which we celebrate this year. The writing is necessarily dense, but not to the point of impenetrability, and most readers will find something of value here, although many Morning Star readers will undoubtedly find some things to disagree with.

Swain offers two key ideas that are relatively controversial in terms of mainstream October historiography. The first is that October was not, as has so often been claimed, a Bolshevik coup, but rather “a popular revolution against a discredited Provisional Government which restored the revolution to the path it had been on when the Tsar was overthrown in February [1917]”. This assessment, for which Swain gives ample and compelling evidence, flies in the face of what has become received opinion among western academics.

The Russian Revolution was rolled back in 1991, and its history has written predominantly by the victors, who have portrayed it as an anti-democratic power-grab leading inexorably to dictatorship, decay and demise. They have been ably assisted in this counterfactual view by Mikhail Gorbachev who, having presided over the tragic collapse of the USSR and paved the way for a decade of unprecedented poverty and social catastrophe in Russia, came to believe that the February Revolution should have been allowed to “continue its course”.

Swain does a commendable job of describing the revolutionary traditions of the Russian working class, pointing out that the Provisional Government failed precisely because it sought to put the brakes on a popular revolutionary process. Ultimately it was only the Bolsheviks – and, for a while, the Left Socialist Revolutionaries (representatives of the radical peasantry) – who were willing to ride the wave of mass discontent and struggle seriously for “peace, land and bread”.

Swain’s second key idea, that the revolution turned from a broadly popular “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and poor peasantry” into a Bolshevik autocracy due to the collapse of the coalition with the left SRs, is less convincing and, in the present writer’s view, not substantiated by events.

One of the key promises of the revolution had been to pull Russia out of World War I – it’s not an accident that peace appears in the slogan even before land and bread. Although they claimed to want to end the war, the left SRs would not accept the terms of Brest-Litovsk treaty – a situation that puts one in mind of Theresa May’s bizarre “no deal is better than a bad deal”. The left SRs therefore aimed to undermine the peace and continue fighting the war, which is precisely why they lost the confidence of the masses and won the confidence of the deposed ruling classes. Their removal from government had nothing to do with Lenin’s supposed aversion to power-sharing.

Criticisms notwithstanding, A Short History of the Russian Revolution is a useful book, which should be read in conjunction with John Reed’s classic Ten Days that Shook the World and Lenin’s writings from the time (in particular the April Theses, Letters from Afar, The Tasks of the Proletariat in Our Revolution and The Immediate Tasks of the Soviet Government).