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).

Book review: Samir Amin – Russia and the Long Transition from Capitalism to Socialism

This is a slightly expanded version of an article that appeared in the Morning Star on 4 January 2017.


In this short book, the renowned Egyptian Marxist Samir Amin presents an overview of the world’s first large-scale experiment building socialism – the Soviet Union – and contextualises it within what he describes as the “long transition”: the extended, overlapping processes of capitalism’s death and socialism’s birth. The idea of the long transition is essentially a response to the end-of-history narrative prevailing in mainstream politics, ie that socialism has failed and that capitalist liberal democracy is permanently established as the pinnacle of social and economic organisation. Amin writes:

“In the same way that capitalism first developed within feudalism before breaking out of it, the long transition of world capitalism to world socialism is defined by the internal conflict of all the societies in the system between the trends and forces of the reproduction of capitalist relations and the (anti-systemic) trends and forces, whose logic has other aspirations – those, precisely, that can be defined as socialism.”

In this framework, the retreats suffered by the socialist world – particularly the collapse of the European socialist states between 1989 and 1991 – should not be considered as the death of the socialist project, but rather as part of the inevitable ebb and flow of a complex historical trajectory that could take hundreds of years but which nonetheless has an inexorable tide.

If we accept the idea of an ongoing global struggle between capitalism and socialism, then we must also consider the need to create conditions in which socialist ideas can take root; and furthermore to create a geopolitical space in which socialism could conceivably succeed. Therefore the idea of “building up a multipolar world that makes possible the maximum development of anti-systemic forces” assumes critical importance in the struggle for socialism. A unipolar world in which US is the uncontested economic, military and cultural leader (ie in which the Project for a New American Century has succeeded) is a disastrous situation for the masses of every region. The great promise of multipolarity, on the other hand, is that it frees countries and regional blocs to experiment with economic and political forms that suit them, rather than having to submit to the diktat of what Amin refers to as the Triad – US, European and Japanese imperialism.

One example of multipolarity in action is the emergence over the last 16 years of a wave of progressive states in Latin America; although our side has suffered defeats recently in Brazil and Argentina, there are still more-or-less socialist-oriented governments in Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Uruguay, El Salvador and Chile. Without the existence of powerful allies (most importantly China, but also Russia and Iran) this situation would have been frankly unthinkable; it would have been impossible to break the grip of US neoliberal domination. Another pertinent example is the imminent defeat by Syria of the imperialist-coordinated regime change operation being pursued against it – a victory which would at least have been much more difficult without the support of a Russia that has, in the Putin era, shaken off its assigned role at the fringes of US global hegemony.

Hence Amin’s important thesis that multipolarity is a key component of the ongoing global struggle for socialism.

Amin also reiterates his longstanding critique of the Soviet Union and puts forward a vision for an alternative socialism that is less autocratic, more democratic, less bureaucratic and more egalitarian. This critique (which Amin has put forward for the best part of half a century, and which owes a little too much to the Chinese Communist Party’s Cultural Revolution-era evaluation of the Soviet Union) should, in my opinion, be taken with a pinch of salt. It is comprehensively and effectively answered by studies such as Al Szymanski’s “Is The Red Flag Flying?” (Zed Books, 1979).

Nonetheless, the book’s flaws shouldn’t detract from its overall valuable contribution, and indeed its urgency in a situation where the capitalist ruling classes are increasingly turning to far-right political forces in the face of a profound economic crisis.

“In an age such as ours – when there are enough weapons to destroy the whole Earth, when the media can tame the crowds with frightening efficiency, when short-term egoism or anti-humanist individualism is a fundamental value threatening Earth’s ecological survival – barbarism may be fatal. More than ever, the choice we face is not capitalism or socialism, but socialism or barbarism.”

An important book.

From the Chinese Marxist viewpoint: an interview with Professor Deng Chundong

This interview with Professor Deng Chundong, President of the Institute of Marxism, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, was conducted by Jenny Clegg in London on 5 December 2016. A slightly condensed version appeared first in the Morning Star.

Over three decades ago, Deng Xiaoping famously likened China’s reform path to a process of ‘crossing the river by feeling the stones’. On this journey, China has not been unaided: Marxism has been its fundamental guide. As China continues to undergo momentous changes as reform deepens, its president, Xi Jinping has put much emphasis on the country’s ideological orientation. In a nationally televised speech last July on the 95th anniversary of the CPC, he warned that “Turning our backs or abandoning Marxism means that our party would lose its soul and direction”. And he went on: “…what we are building is socialism with Chinese characteristics, not some other -ism.”

The Institute of Marxism at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences is one of China’s premier institutions, serving at the highest level as a research centre, a government think-tank and one of the foremost academic institutions. Its scholars and researchers not only absorb the Marxist classics but also apply Marxist theory to contemporary conditions, using Marxism to develop the concepts and practices of the socialist market economy, whilst critiquing capitalism to understand and learn from the mistakes of the West.

I was able to learn more about the Chinese Marxist viewpoint when I met up with Professor Deng Chundong, the Institute’s President, who was on a visit to London with a small delegation of political economists. We started by discussing the October Revolution in China, given the upcoming centenary next year. Professor Deng explained:

“The 1917 October Revolution signified a new era of human history. It was a great inspiration to the Chinese people – its great success showed the way forward to establish a socialist system in our country with the proletariat holding state power.

“At that time, China was oppressed by the forces of imperialism, feudalism and bureaucrat capitalism. China was in big trouble. Many of our most advanced thinkers of the time – scholars, students, businessmen – had tried to tried to figure out how to save China from its predicament. The success of revolution in Russia brought some sunlight during that dark period – it meant a great deal.

“Now to commemorate the October Revolution, we must commit to pursuing communist ideology and follow strictly the route of achieving socialism with Chinese characteristics”.

I then asked about his views on Fidel Castro’s main achievements and contributions to the world struggle for socialism.

“Fidel Castro gave his whole life to fighting for his people in Cuba. From the Chinese viewpoint, there are two major contributions he made which were helpful for China in setting a model for achieving socialism.

“In the first place, Cuba is a very small country in Caribbean close to the most powerful country in the world, the biggest capitalist country, the US. That such a small county could continue to follow a socialist path under the severe blockade of the US demands our great respect.

“In the 1990s, the whole of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union collapsed, but Fidel Castro continued in his belief and continued to promote socialism in Cuba. All communists around the world should show our admiration and our gratitude to Fidel.

“The reasons that socialism in Cuba advanced so far despite such great pressure from the US were firstly, the firm determination of Fidel, and secondly, that Cuba sought to explore its own unique way forward. It followed its own path and did not copy the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe but – and this is the most important thing – adapted to the actual circumstances of the country and found its own practices to advance society, developing socialism with its own characteristics.

“Cuban socialism is very popular, it is a great attraction around the world. It has gained the confidence of the people and this is its advantage – its people are in favour of the Communist Party and this means Cuba will have a bright future”.

Although he had never visited Cuba, Professor Deng had had the opportunity for discussion with the Cuban ambassador to China on a number of occasions. Four years ago, he told me, China, Cuba and Vietnam had agreed to set up an annual forum for scholars to share the experiences of building socialism in the different countries and to exchange views and opinions.

We then moved on to the question of Marxist education in China. The rise of western thinking in university degree courses, alongside the waning of Marxist content, has become a particular concern among Marxist scholars in China. The westernisation of economics, it has been argued, was one of the reasons for the Soviet Union’s collapse. As Professor Deng pointed out, starting with China’s reform and opening up from the end of the 1970s, values and ideas from US and Europe have had a huge impact on China in terms of culture, education and economic thinking.

“The textbooks used in universities, the mindset, values and ideology of the teachers, the setting up of courses and curriculum design – all are influenced by Western values to a great extent.

“In the long term this will have a negative influence in undermining Marxist education and this is a situation which must be changed.”

To make the change, Professor Deng, identified three key measures.

“First it is necessary to educate the teachers in particular those teaching Marxism in schools and universities. Their mindset must not be influenced by Western values, they need to take Marxism as the core in terms of their stance, view and methods.”

The Ministry of Education has the responsibility here, organising workshops and seminars for university teachers. The Institute of Marxism has also held summer schools in Marxism for teachers from other provinces.

“The second thing that needs to be changed is the textbooks. Originally lots of textbooks used in universities to study economics, law, history, social sciences, journalism and media and so on, were all just copied from Western university textbooks. This situation has to change. Of course there is some content from Western learning that we should learn, but we need to select what is appropriate for China and not simply copy wholesale”.

Thirdly, Professor Deng pointed out that although Marxist education is compulsory in universities, in recent years the total curriculum hours devoted to this has been significantly reduced sometimes by up to a half or even two thirds.

“So it is necessary to adopt some measures to strengthen education in Marxist theory throughout the country.”

At the Institute, the study of Marxism centres on the works of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Mao Zedong but covers the whole body of Marxist debate, and not only the basic theory of Marxism but also as applied for example to Chinese political economy, law and regulation. Its journal, International Critical Thought, includes articles by both Chinese and Western Marxists on both contemporary and theoretical issues.

On the question of globalisation, Professor Deng pointed out that the important thing is who is in the dominant position and leading the process of internationalisation.

“Currently, of course the advanced Western countries are playing the dominant role – Chinese thinking here is that world affairs should not be determined by only one country, instead we should proactively promote pluralism and multi-polarisation. That is, all countries in the world should have the equal opportunity to get involved in decision-making; all countries should have equal involvement and engagement and should consult with each other and discuss with each other to try to resolve those important issues that affect the whole world and our human destiny.

“And as part of this process, China will gradually get more involved and contribute more to global governance, playing an active role by setting out our own plans and suggesting ways forward for world development.”

As a final point, I raised the issue of Donald Trump’s denial of global warming, to which Professor Deng commented:

“How the US chooses to deal with the issue and with the Paris Agreement, is their own affair, we won’t meddle in this. But for our part, China is committed to cooperating with the international community making our own contribution to tackling this serious problem.”

Fifty years on the frontline: the revolutionary contributions of Ho Chi Minh

People of Ho Chi Minh’s calibre don’t come around often. One of the great revolutionaries of the twentieth century, he excelled as a leader, a teacher, a journalist, a strategist, an internationalist, a unifier, a guerrilla fighter, a negotiator, a creative thinker, a poet. He endured decades of exile and then decades of war. He suffered prison and torture in China in the early 1940s (by which time he was already in his fifties). As a guerrilla leader and then as the president of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam under attack from French colonialism, he lived with his comrades in the most basic possible conditions in the caves of Cao Bang, often having to forage for food. And yet, his dedication to the causes of Vietnamese independence, Vietnamese unification, and global socialism never faltered. With relentless energy, profound intelligence and undying passion, he led his people through every up and down over the course of half a century.

Continue reading Fifty years on the frontline: the revolutionary contributions of Ho Chi Minh

The C-word: comm**ism. What is it, and why is everybody so afraid of it?

Let’s talk about the C-word: Comm**ism. So much more shocking than the other C-word. What is it, and why is everybody so afraid of it?

You’d think it’d actually be pretty popular. I mean… it makes quite a lot of sense. What does it mean? It means a classless society, built on common ownership of the means of production, that by definition works to overcome the worst inheritance of human history: poverty, starvation, war, racism, sexism, national oppression, social alienation, inequality, exploitation. A collaborative, participatory society that seeks to elevate the oppressed to the highest levels of happiness, education and culture; that builds upon all advances in human understanding in order to create a qualitatively new way of being. This isn’t the place to dive into the theory, but let’s face it, it sounds great.

And yet, in the collective mind, ‘communism’ is a dirty word. When we think of communism, we don’t think of progress, literacy, economic uplift, culture, national reconciliation, peace, creativity, diversity. Rather we think of secret services, prisons, indoctrination, brainwashing, stale uniformity, dictatorship, militarism, bread queues, ration books. We think of the world described by George Orwell and Aldous Huxley. We think pretty much exactly what senator Joseph McCarthy wanted us to think about communism: that it is the enemy of freedom.

This image is of course unfair, and represents a massive propaganda victory for the real enemy of peace and freedom: the imperialists. Ever since the Bolsheviks took power in 1917 – almost a century ago – the media and education systems in the ‘free world’ have made anti-communist propaganda one of their most central tasks. The wretched of the earth rising up and expropriating the oppressors? That’s the sort of contagious idea that has to be nipped in the bud. Hence the endless and intense slander campaign against any socialist country that ever existed, from the Soviet Union to Cuba, from Vietnam to Venezuela, from China to Albania, from People’s Korea to Yugoslavia. Any progress made by these countries is totally ignored; any problems and failures are magnified out of all proportion; issues are distorted and lies are spread.

Am I saying that these socialist countries, led by communist parties, were/are perfect models of this new type of society? Clearly not. There were, and are, massive problems in the building of socialism and laying the foundation for a future communism. However:

1) All of these problems are exaggerated by a well-funded western media and academia, and all too often the ‘statistics’ about socialist history are based on the claims of highly dubious McCarthyite ‘scholars’.

2) Issues regarding repression must be seen in the context of socialist states having to protect themselves within a hostile international atmosphere where the enemy spares no effort to destabilise and attack them (just look at the 600+ attempts by the CIA to kill Fidel Castro).

3) Building a new society and getting over the inheritance of feudalism and capitalism is never going to be easy.

4) Most accusations pointed at the socialist countries generally speaking apply in much greater measure to the capitalist countries. For example, no socialist country in history ever had anything like the incarceration rate of the modern day USA.

5) Whilst it’s popular to talk about the “crimes of communism”, what about the “crimes of capitalism”? Such as, for example:

  • The transatlantic slave trade
  • The genocide of the native populations of the Americas and Australia
  • The numerous famines in India and Ireland brought about by British colonial policy
  • Apartheid
  • The dispossession of the Palestinians
  • The killing of 10 million Congolese by Belgian colonialism
  • The 13 million that die every year due to malnutrition (wholly preventable but for capitalist greed)
  • The rape of Africa
  • The wanton destruction of Vietnam and Korea
  • The Opium Wars
  • The Nazi holocaust
  • Systemic racism
  • The cult of the individual and the breakdown of community
  • The destruction of cultures across the globe
  • The monopolisation of wealth by a small handful of implausibly rich people

It’s quite obvious to any thinking person that, even if we accept the extremely dodgy and dubious claims of CIA-payroll historians like Robert Conquest, the “crimes of capitalism” far outweigh any “crimes of communism”.

6) Meanwhile, in the face of great difficulties, socialist countries have achieved some pretty extraordinary things.

Let’s take China for example. Pre-revolution life expectancy was around 35; now it’s around 74. Literacy was under 20%; now it’s 93%. It has witnessed the most rapid poverty alleviation in history. Its people were looked down upon as the scum of the earth. As WEB DuBois said in a broadcast on Radio Peking:

“What people have been despised as you have? Who more than you have been rejected of men? Recall when lordly Britishers threw the rickshaw money on the ground to avoid touching a filthy hand. Forget not the time when in Shanghai no Chinese man dare set foot in a park which he paid for.”

And who doesn’t know that Cuba provides by far the highest standard of living for ordinary people anywhere in South America and the Caribbean; that it has a life expectancy of 79 and literacy rate of 99.8%, in spite of a cruel economic blockade; that it has done more to eradicate the scourge of racism than any other country in the western hemisphere?

And who doesn’t know that the Soviet Union brought about a profound improvement in the living standards of the vast majority of its people; that it defeated Nazi Germany and saved Europe; that it provided crucial support to the liberation movements in Africa, to Cuba, to Nicaragua, to Vietnam, to Korea; that it brought about a transformation of the republics of Central Asia, ground down for centuries by competing colonial interests? When we think of communism, why isn’t it all this that we think of?

Certainly, many individuals have suffered unfairly in socialist countries. But why is the blame always assigned to ‘communism’? If I want to see oppression and repression, I can take the briefest of walks down Tottenham High Street. If I want to see corruption, bureaucracy and the centralisation of power, I can observe the proceedings at Westminster. But these things don’t get attributed to ‘capitalism’. Most people who walk past dozens of homeless people each day don’t turn into zealous anti-capitalists (more’s the pity). Anti-communism is the dominant narrative, and so it’s easy to adapt to. Anti-capitalism is not at all the dominant narrative, and to adapt to it is to face isolation and abuse.

The question is: can the C-word be re-claimed, or has the propaganda war already been lost? Are sensible, progressive people so put off by any mention of communism that they immediately disregard anything associated with it? Do we need new terminology for the basic principles of equality, people’s power and social justice? I have come across quite a few very decent and principled people putting forward such an argument – that the C-word is beyond the pale. I’m not convinced. Imperialist cultural hegemony isn’t going to broken unless people who oppose it stand up confidently and loudly for what they believe in. Are we simply going to allow free reign to slander and disinformation? Should we leave prejudices intact? To use a parallel from the world of religion: could Muslims get rid of islamophobia by changing the name of their religion to, say, Democratic Mohammedanism?

Prejudices need to be attacked. Disinformation needs to be exposed. People’s psychological/ideological/cultural reliance on imperialism needs to be broken. That won’t happen if we keep playing by the enemy’s rules.

Like Malcolm said:

“If you’re not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.”