- Capitalism and Alternatives -

Reassessing the U.S.S.R.

Posted by: Barry Stoller on October 01, 1999 at 11:01:25:

If there is one charge that occupies progressives on this board again and again, it is the statement that 'socialism doesn't work.' Often this claim is refuted by asserting that the U.S.S.R. (etc.) wasn't 'really' socialism and that socialism has 'yet to exist.' This defense of socialism is a negative one and, I believe, a weak one. After all, furthering the communitarian cause, even I once asked: why is it thatso many countries got Marx 'wrong'?---was it due to poor writing or poor thinking on Marx's part? Or was it simply disingenuousness on the part of these countries to call themselves Marxist? That also leads back to the other question. A quandary!

For the sake of argument , let us momentarily assume that the Bolsheviks initially got it right---considering the conditions in which they found themselves. According to Trotsky, Lenin said: 'We have got a certain equilibrium, although extremely fragile, extremely unstable, nevertheless such an equilibrium that a socialist republic can exist---of course not for long---in a capitalist environment.'(1) 'Of course not for long' he said. Clearer perhaps was the ‘official’ Bolshevik position: 'If a state of affairs arose in which one country was ruled by the working class, while in other countries the working class, not from fear but from conviction, remained submissive to capital, in the end the great robber States would crush the worker's State of the first country.'(2)

Perhaps that sentiment should again be emphasized---instead of washing our progressive hands of the late, great attempt to create the first worker's state. What I'm getting at here is the thought that the imperialist drive---first in the form of World War and then as the Cold War---contributed essentially to the downfall of 'actually existing socialism.' Consider these words of Khrushchev, who presided over the most prosperous economy Russia has ever had:

It’s time for us to realize that the teachings of Marx, Engels, and Lenin cannot be hammered into people's heads only in the classroom and newspapers and at political rallies; agitation and propaganda on behalf of Soviet power must also be carried on in our restaurants and cafeterias. Our people must be able to use their wages to buy high-quality products manufactured under socialism if they are ultimately to accept our system and reject capitalism.(3)

So... perhaps the arms race (and various CIA schemes)---in combination with trade blockade---ultimately did the trick for the capitalists instead of 'internal problems' with socialism, etc. Let us imagine that intentional communities (such as Twin Oaks) have 'worked' since the late 1960s (which, in truth, they have) but imagine now that they feel necessitated to spend, say, a quarter of their surplus on defense instead of leisure goods. Perhaps in that instance most of their citizens would abandon these communities that until threatened, 'worked' rather well. It is a contrived sort of triumphalism that says something doesn't intrinsically work after the claimant has actively destroyed it.

Even the most immature understanding of the profit system reveals how accumulation is abetted by military expenditures; aside from the obvious savings to capital in having the workers finance the 'protection' of overseas capital assets (through taxes), military (Dept. 1) expenditures are a 'rich' field for investment since the 'free market' does not apply even remotely to these investments. Indeed, Baran & Sweezy's Monopoly Capital thesis has been rather substantiated by the otherwise illogical increase in Pentagon budgets since the Cold War (allegedly) ended. On the other hand, military expenditures will not 'profit' the economy of a state that produces 'according to need.' The Soviet Union, as conventional wisdom has stated more than once, had no alternative in either going bankrupt or living dangerously. Is this to say that the capitalist system---an economy bolstered by the production of useless products such as all the nuclear armaments that we never even used---is superior to the socialist system? Only from the perspective of the minority who have profited from them can one reasonably make such a claim.

I also add in passing that the U.S.S.R. was not only forced to compete with the West in a futile economic race, but that it also was ideologically and institutionally colored by the threat posed to them. Consider Isaac Deutscher's grudging, final analysis of Stalin:

The truth was that the war could not have been won without the intensive industrialization of Russia, and of her Eastern provinces in particular. Nor could it have been won without the collectivization of large numbers of farms... 'We are fifty or a hundred years behind the advanced countries. We must make good this lag in ten years. Either we do it, or they crush us'---so Stalin had spoken exactly ten years before Hitler set out to conquer Russia.(4)

Perhaps Trotsky was right: perhaps only one economic system can prevail! If Rosa Luxemburg's accumulation thesis is correct, then capitalism equally demands total hegemony---with one salient difference: capitalism---once it has transformed all nations into capitalist countries---will atrophy into a successive series of internal contractions (and imperialistic confrontations).* Socialism, on the other hand, if internationally dominant, would simply function smoothly (RD, I'm sure you would be pleased to hear this).

Yet I would challenge the notion that socialism is dead! I suspect socialism is more alive right now in Russia than it ever has been, operating ideologically at the grass roots where it should have been several decades ago. And thinking dialectically, who can credibly say that socialism should have worked out its vast problems when inheriting the uneven development of a country like Russia at the turn of this century in the span of only seventy years? Seventy years! Capitalism, most of its apologists concede, wasn't such a pretty picture during its first seventy years either. Yet, unlike the Bolshevik revolution, English capitalism survived to spread throughout the globe most verdantly. And perhaps it owed its survival to being even more ruthless than the Soviets ever were.

I suspect that the next wave of socialist revolution (and Russia certainly is the most likely place) might not be quite so magnanimous regarding the capitalists as it was in the past. Those burned by the voodoo economics of the Milton Friedman/Chicago school, living literally on the streets selling scraps of tin, will no doubt be merciless in rooting out all suspected causes of their misery should they ever get the chance. And who is to say that they won't? Recalling those dark days of October 1917, when the toiling masses had nothing to lose, they did something most extraordinary. One must understand starvation in order to understand the Bolshevik revolution---and this understanding, I am sure, escapes all of us here.


* See Luxemburg, The Accumulation of Capital [1914], Monthly Review Press, 1968, and Luxemburg, The Accumulation of Capital: An Anti-Critique [1919], Monthly Review Press, 1972.

1. Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution, vol. 3, Simon and Schuster, 1934, appendix 2, p. 397. To substantiate that position, Lenin is on the record saying:
'When the Bolshevik Party tackled the job alone, it did so in the firm conviction that the revolution was maturing in all countries and that in the end---but not at the very beginning---no matter what the difficulties we experienced, no matter what defeats were in store for us, the world socialist revolution would come---because it is coming; would mature---because it is maturing and will reach full maturity. I repeat, our salvation from all these difficulties is in an all-Europe revolution.' (Lenin, 'Political Report of the Central Committee, March 7 [1918],' Selected Works, vol. 2, Progress, 1975 edition, p. 532.)
2. Bukharin & Preobrazhensky, The ABC of Communism [1919], University of Michigan Press, 1966, p. 138.
3. Khrushchev, Khrushchev Remembers: The Last Testament, Little, Brown & Co., 1974, pp. 146-7.
4. Deutscher, Stalin: A Political Biography, Oxford University Press, 1966 edition, p. 550.

Follow Ups:

The Debating Room Post a Followup