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In Struggle!

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Readers ask: was the U.S.S.R. ever really socialist?

First Published: In Struggle! No. 241, March 10, 1981
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Malcolm and Paul Saba
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Was the U.S.S.R. ever really socialist? Our recent article on the U.S.S.R. (see issue 232) has caused a number of our readers to raise this contentious issue. In a letter published in issue no. 237 of the paper, a reader in Windsor argued that there had never been socialism in the U.S.S.R. and criticized us for implying the contrary. A second article on the U.S.S.R. (See IN STRUGGLE!, no. 238) brought more feedback, this time from people worried because the article seemed to suggest that the U.S.S.R. has never been socialist. One conclusion to be drawn from these contradictory reactions is that we should render explicit some of our implicit assumptions.

What are we trying to learn from our study of the Soviet experience?

The debate raised by our readers is undoubtedly as old as the U.S.S.R. itself. Kautsky [1], for example, insisted that the October 1917 Revolution was only a bourgeois revolution. In contrast, the international communist movement spent a great deal of time and energy – especially from the 1930s on – trying to prove that the U.S.S.R. was the homeland of socialism.

Two apparently conflicting viewpoints, but both of them in fact reflect the same approach to the question. For our part, we think that this approach is a rather sterile way of dealing with the problem, at least at this stage of our research. Sterile, because of the conclusions reached by those who use it. The reader from Windsor feels obliged to “condemn” the Soviet experience. He seems to think that what was attempted in the Soviet Union was out-right capitalism, corresponding to capitalism as described by Marx in the 19th century. On the other hand, the staunchest defenders of the “U.S.S.R.– was-a-true-Red-socialist-country” line find it rather hard to fit in troubling phenomena such as the repression of the working class that occurred into their analyses. At best, they explain them away as “political errors” or, the work of the “Khrushchovites”; at worst, they simply ignore them. All that counts is to follow in the glorious footsteps of the socialist Soviet Union – a conclusion hardly any more satisfying than being told that there is nothing to be learned from the experience of the U.S.S.R.

Moral criteria are not scientific criteria

If we want’to try to study the situation scientifically, the first thing we have to do is to set aside our moral indignation about anything that seems to violate the principles of liberty, equality, fraternity,. etc. Human societies after all have the nasty habit of not being governed by these kinds of considerations in their development. What is the point in condemning the existence of slavery it Ancient Greece or Rome, given the prevailing conditions at that time? It is much more useful to try and understand why slavery emerged at that time and why it eventually disappeared. This is the way we are trying to approach the history of the U.S.S.R.; we assume that some of the things that happen in the process of developing a backward and isolated country will undoubtedly be offensive to our “moral” values.

But this is not the main point highlighted by the differences about what happened in the Soviet Union. The main point is that what our reader in Windsor takes for granted, his starting point, is precisely what we are trying to examine. Our reader BEGINS with the assumption that Marx and Engels long ago solved the problem of what conditions must be met to achieve socialism, just as he TAKES FOR GRANTED a certain conception of what socialism is even though he only makes indirect allusions to this conception in his letter. But since he asserts so confidently that the U.S.S.R. was never socialist, we ought to be justified in concluding that he has a fairly clearcut viewpoint on what socialism is.

The problem with this approach is that all these questions of the transition from capitalism to communism, and the nature of socialism, are some of the most controversial questions facing us today. To take the answers to these questions for granted and use them as basic assumptions is rather audacious, to say the least. Of course we have to examine carefully and seriously what communists have already said and written on these questions. In the third part of Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, for example. Engels views the coming of socialism as a process in which individual capitalists are gradually expropriated by the capitalist State. The State thus takes control of all the socially advanced major productive forces. Conditions are then ripe for the proletariat to seize State power and use the productive forces nationalized by the bourgeoisie in the interests of society as a whole. (Notice the similarity between this conception of the transition and the viewpoint that the Windsor reader attributes to Lenin.)

Since Engels, much has been said and written on how to achieve socialism. There have also been many different opinions expressed about what socialism is. There is much talk about the necessity of establishing “socialist relations of production”, but no one seems to agree just what this means; sometimes they are simply equated with communism. Our reader in Windsor is a case in point: he seems to think that a society can only be considered socialist if all laws of capitalism no longer operate.

Curiously enough, this puts our reader in the same position as the people who always presented the U.S.S.R., and later China, as heaven on earth for the workers. Socialism equals heaven on earth, and you just have to read the literature of the Workers’ Communist Party (WCP) to realize it. Until, that is, you realize that there are a lot more contradictions in these countries than you had supposed. Then you have a choice. You can stick to your ideas about heaven and condemn the reality on earth, an example of which we cited above. Or you can analyse reality so as to arrive at a better understanding of how societies in fact progress towards socialism.

Study the reality of these societies

The answers to our questions about socialism and how to achieve it cannot be made up out of our heads. They can only be found by studying the real evolution of human societies, including the societies said to be on the road to socialism, and by acquiring a more thorough understanding of the reality of contemporary imperialism. In this connection, Marx said something that is worth thinking about: “Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality (will)have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things. The conditions of this movement result from the premises now in existence.”[2]

The problem with our Windsor reader’s approach is that he ignores this real movement. The U.S.S.R. was certainly not a carbon copy of the Great Britain that Marx studied many decades earlier. We clearly do not understand everything about how the laws of capitalism worked in the U.S.S.R., but we do understand enough to see that there were differences between the Soviet Union and capitalist countries going through comparable periods of industrialization. In the 1930s, for example, economic planning meant that the role of the law of value, a fundamental law of capitalism, was reduced to almost nothing in the Soviet Union, although subsequently it was gradually reintroduced. These differences between Soviet society and capitalism are precisely what we have to succeed in understanding and appreciating, for this is perhaps a way to understand how we will be able to move beyond capitalism. The U.S.S.R. is not a unique situation. China went through a similar experience when Soviet aid was cut off in 1958, and since then there has been growing debate on the road to follow. One of the questions that must be examined is whether the economic laws that shaped the development of Chinese society after the revolution were not, in the final analysis, the same as those that determined the development of the Soviet Union, albeit taking on different forms and going through different twists and turns. And if people succeed in identifying these laws as correctly as possible, would that not be a precious asset in the struggle of the peoples of the world for socialism and progress? For most peoples, the problem of how to overcome chronic economic backwardness is an acute question, they are faced with much the same kind of problems as was the U.S.S.R. in the 1920s and 1930s. Surely we can learn from its experience.

No doubt this does not constitute a very direct answer to’our initial question: was the U.S.S.R. ever socialist? First, though, we have to identify and understand all that this question implies. We also have to understand the method to employ in answering it. We hope our readers will help us to pose these questions correctly and explore them more fully. For our part, we intend to work on the whole question of socialism and socialist relations of production, and we will be dealing with this topic further in the next few months. Perhaps we will have a more complete answer at that point....


[1]Kautsky, Karl. The Dictatorship of the Proletariat.

[2]Marx and Engles, The German Ideology International Publishers, New York, 1976, pp. 56-7