Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Revolutionary Communist Party

The Nature of the Soviet Union – An Urgent and Decisive Question


First Published: Revolutionary Worker, May 8, 1982.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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The long raging debate over the nature and international role of the Soviet Union is intensifying again all over the world and needs to be made sharper and clearer still. The heightening is a product of important world developments over the relatively recent period, including both the reversal in China after Mao’s death and the sharpening of the conflict between the Soviet Union and U.S. imperialism.

Splits have emerged over this question within revolutionary movements, and long-standing alignments have broken with new ones forming. New research and theoretical work has been published and has been welcomed, provoking still newer controversy and debate. Some who claimed to be Maoist have “reevaluated” their stand on the Soviet Union–while the Chinese revisionists themselves, despite all their proclaimed anti-sovietism are unable to find anything in Mao’s revolutionary scientific analysis of the process of capitalist restoration that they can uphold.

Wherever revolutionary minded people gather, and wherever new forces break into mass struggle–the question pushes itself into the front; “Soviet Union: friend or foe; capitalist or socialist?” What is its underlying nature, its fundamental class relations, what laws of motion motivate its actions across the globe–and fundamentally, how does this superpower confront the revolutionary struggles of the world? As an ally? Or as one more imperialist power to be fought, overthrown and destroyed?

This debate is required because it is demanded by the very alignment of forces in the world, and by the quickening urgency of events. It is demanded because every revolutionary movement is inseparably linked with the developments on the international plane and emerges intertwined with the thrust and counter-thrust of international preparation for war. And it is demanded because the contradictory developments in the world revolutionary process sharply pose the question of the ultimate goal of revolution: is it possible to advance past one form or another of class society to the actual elimination of all oppression and class distinctions?

Exactly because the Soviet Union heads a world bloc, and because it at the same time claims to be socialist, the threads of a thousand political decisions and the struggle to understand the final goal constantly lead people back again to the controversy surrounding the USSR:

POLAND–millions of workers act boldly in instinctive rejection of the shit they have been force-fed for decades. Deep alienation and a violent chasm erupts between the rulers and the ruled– what question can have more importance than to scientifically understand the nature of Polish and Soviet society? Understanding that this is not the “failure of socialism” being acted out, but the explosion of capitalist contradiction is the key to understanding the events and their significance–for the Polish workers themselves, and for millions around the world.

CENTRAL AMERICA–guns blaze at the puppets and the death squads of the hated Yankees, and even as the junta totters a Pandora’s box of unsolved questions opens and defines the struggle of the future. Is it really possible to win liberation from the U.S. imperialists without the protection and aid of the Soviets, is it possible to build on victory and maintain independence without the continuation of that tie? A look at the Cuban road, at a revolution that has traveled toward an unmistakable version of neo-colonial dependency and economic lopsidedness – and for those who dream of more than formal independence and who dream of real emancipation, the question bounces back, ”Is it possible to imagine real liberation with such an alliance to the Soviets?”

IN WESTERN EUROPE AND NORTH AMERICA–millions mobilize against nuclear war and immediately the question poses itself: what is the source of the galloping war preparations? Spokesmen of every imperialist power, whether U.S., Soviet or European, produce the same ready answer–it is their rival’s fault. In cutting through this, grasping the literally imperialist nature of the Soviet Union and on that basis exposing its pretense of “a completely peace-loving and defensive posture” is a crucial part of understanding the real source of war– the crisis of the entire imperialist system itself.

New Questions Based in World Developments

It is a simple fact of the politics of this epoch, that vastly different ideologies and social movements, even systems, confront each other, each claiming the common banner of Marxism. Revolution cannot be waged without the class struggle in the theoretical realm – where repeatedly and inevitably revolutionary theory confronts the world view of the enemy, in the form of revisionism, as a barrier to the revolutionary way forward. It is the unprecedented development of the last decades, that revisionism is not just an ideology of capitulation within revolutionary movements, but emanates from countries where it actually holds power, and does so with the ability to offer a strategy based on the establishment of state capitalism, backed by the major military and economic resources of its state. Without being able to distinguish sham from genuine socialism where will we end up in today’s world?

As part of the preparation of war an offensive has been launched – rooted not in strength but in necessity – where the Soviet Union and its political supporters are straining to herd various class forces, including rebel ones, throughout the world into their military and political camp. In the confrontation of blocs, they insist, there is no equality of evil. There is only the confrontation of socialism and capitalism – with the Soviet Union gathering around it all that is progressive in the world, bearing on its shoulders the heaviest burden of the “struggle for peace’’ and ultimately for the abolition of exploitation itself. Here after all, they say, is a superpower that has internally fundamentally abolished fragmented individual ownership, and with it the reactionary cravings bred by capitalist anarchy. Here is “socialism as it has actually emerged in the world”: certainly blemished and imperfect – but nonetheless a powerful and progressive political force, the “natural ally of the oppressed.” World revolution becomes in that perspective nothing less (certainly nothing more) than the extension of the “socialist camp” led (and dominated) by the Soviet Union.

To launch such an offensive, and to broaden some very real beachheads among revolutionary forces, these forces have had to openly confront the line of Mao Tsetung and everything he represented – and in particular what has come to be called his “capitalist restoration thesis,” his summation that the “rise to power of revisionism is the rise to power of the bourgeoisie” and that the Soviet Union today is thoroughly capitalist.

This, they claim, is a theory that stands completely in opposition to reality, based on a complete distortion of any facts of Soviet society and on a profound idealist revision of Marxism. It is the fantasies of Utopians and dreamers, fueled from underneath by the narrowest of nationalisms and implicit anti-communism.

There has been a material basis in the world for significant, if sharply contradictory, inroads by this pro-Soviet revisionist line. There is always after all a class basis for forces who seek pragmatic alliances in the hope of painless progress. But even more significant has been the result of shifts in world alignments over the last decade: the ebb in revolutionary struggle, and with it the reversal of some previous advances. These inroads made by the Soviet Union and some of the confusion caused by a lack of a broadly held scientific understanding get concentrated in questions like the following, posed to Bob Avakian in 1979 by an African student during a speech in Madison, Wisconsin (quoted from RW No. 21, Sept. 28, 1979):

I was provoked when you mentioned the question of the so-called social imperialism of the Soviet Union. And as far as I am concerned, I still take the Leninist definition of imperialism as being the highest stage of capitalism, and I associate imperialism with economic exploitation. By that definition, I still don’t see exactly how the Soviet Union, however expansionist their policy has been, has been able to entrench itself economically. In other words, when I look at such countries like Angola, like Vietnam, etc. I don’t see the multinational corporations from the Russian sector like we see them from the capitalist western areas which promote the cause of imperialism.

And secondly, for a long time we have associated the Soviet people as having sided with the liberation movements in Africa. While the western camp was arming the Vorster/Smith regimes it was only the Soviet people and the Soviet government that came to aid the liberation struggle until today. Now we find this orchestrated cry about Soviet social-imperialism as having been a dividing influence among the rank and file of the communist movement, especially among the working class and the people who are still trying to liberate themselves.

Now can you clarify this issue?

The Legacy of Mao Tsetung

All this is one, and only one, side of the picture politically. There is opposed to that a powerful reserve of experience and with it understanding of the reactionary nature of the USSR.

Wherever people dream of emancipation there is a deep and powerful revulsion at the thought of embracing the Soviets, even to defeat the U.S. Oozing through countless crevices are the signs that something extremely foul is concentrated within the Soviet system. A stench stretches from Afghanistan around the globe to the napalm in Eritrea. Even perceptually, the Soviet Union gives the impression of a web of jealously guarded lies: of exploitation disguised as socialism, of gross chauvinism disguised as internationalism, of a stultifying, suffocating, stagnant and cynical society masquerading as the hope of mankind.

Out of these conflicting pulls and impressions emerges the raging interest in digging deeper into the Soviet Union.

It is only fitting that the theories of Mao Tsetung should stand at the center of the controversy. Exactly when it was becoming clear that something had gone very, very wrong within the Soviet revolution, and when the Soviet leaders were coming out in open opposition to revolution throughout the world–it was Mao who dared to scientifically analyze this literally unprecedented event: the reversal of the first socialist revolution, and draw far-reaching conclusions about the nature of transition to communism– pathbreaking conclusions which were founded on, but also further developed, the theories of Marx and Lenin.

What had happened here was not the inevitable outcome of socialist revolution–but the seizure of power of a bourgeoisie forged within the very state and party created through revolutionary struggle. Socialism, Mao concluded, cannot be seen simply as a machinery of institutions and legal property-forms erected by a victorious revolution which would thereafter tick away contentedly. It would be a revolutionary transition period, riddled with contradictions and struggles and the real chance of temporary reversals, defined by the bitter war to eliminate that dead hand of class society which still has its stamp on everything, even the new socialist relations of production themselves.

Applying that revolutionary understanding to the class struggle in China, Mao led the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. What revolutionary then, in the 1960s, would have dreamed of saying that the Soviet Union was “socialism as it has actually emerged in the world”?!

Who could embrace this “socialism” where the highest goal is to produce more to get more, and who could defend the Soviets’ Swan Lake ballets in tu-tus, or their generals caked in medals? Certainly not when the sharp contrast of revolutionary China existed with its mass upheaval to transform society in every sphere, where peasants met in the fields to discuss art, rebel students brought revolutionary politics into hushed laboratories, where the eyes of workers were fixed on cardinal questions of society and the world. What contrast could have been sharper than that between Soviet tanks clamping the “limited sovereignty” of the Brezhnev Doctrine onto Czechoslovakia, while Mao’s China acted as a vast internationalist base area of world revolution, as both a beacon of revolutionary ideology and as a reliable source of material aid?

World events, including the fact that unprecedented revolutionary opportunities are shaping up in a historic conjuncture, have given new fuel and a new context to the great polemics that raged in the 1960s. There is new and even richer experience to understand and synthesize and there is even more urgency to the questions. Two sharp and bitterly opposed poles present themselves: the line of the Soviet social imperialists and the revolutionary Marxist-Leninist line associated with Mao–sharply representing the two opposing summations of the -nature of the Soviet system, and with that sharply opposed summations of the world situation and of the very nature of revolution, of socialism and the transition to communism.

In addition, there has been the development of new work, posing new questions and theoretical problems– demanding that theory be developed and not just enshrined. A lively, exciting atmosphere exists around this question. Clearly this eruption of debate and interest is an excellent thing. It is itself a part of the awakening of new forces to political life, drawn there by the intensification of world contradictions. The fact that old verdicts (even correct and revolutionary ones) are subject to new scrutiny, new questions, and challenges in light of new experiences–is also quite a fine thing; it creates exactly that kind of arena in which further theoretical advances can be made, and in which broad forces are trained, and are either won to revolutionary understandings or are lost to reactionary ones.

Not only does this confrontation need to be supported and joined – above all, it needs to be far more sharply concentrated, with clear representatives of opposing lines clashing openly in principled debate in front of numbers of politically awakened forces.

The Revolutionary Communist Party issues an invitation, and a challenge, to join with us to organize and intensify this debate, and to raise the theoretical level of principled struggle. We call on people to join with us in organizing a conference with workshops on many questions and a formal two-sided face-to-face debate focusing on the question “Soviet Union: Socialist or Social-Imperialist?” and in the process of building toward that conference, through polemics, position papers and other vehicles, to provide an arena for the struggle along the entire range of political and theoretical issues raised by that question.

Our Basic View

For our part, it is well known that the Revolutionary Communist Party has struggled for the view that the Soviet Union is thoroughly imperialist. We have the particular task of presenting that stand, and we intend to answer straight on the sharp questions that have been raised:

–How is it possible for capitalist relations of production to exist within a state-owned and planned economy? Where in Soviet society is the fragmentation of ownership into competing capitals that inevitably accompanies generalized commodity exchange and the enforced sale of labor power as a commodity?

–If the Soviet Union is a capitalist society, then where are the “classic” and characteristic signs of capitalism–recurring and worsening crisis, unemployment, sharpening impoverishment of the masses, profound class differences?

–And how could a counter-revolution happen relatively peacefully without an armed uprising, without the forcible dismantling of the institutions created by the socialist revolution? And in particular without the broad masses sensing the destruction of their dictatorship and fighting to the death to prevent the restoration?

–How can new relations of production and all-round restoration emerge from changes in political and ideological line, within a ruling party, and obviously concentrated in the superstructure of the society? Isn’t this in its very essence a reversal of the correct understanding of the relation between thinking and being, a denial of materialism and an idealist revision of Marxism? And even if not, couldn’t that change in line then be reversed, and the emergence of a more “hard-line” anti-U.S. position in the Soviet Union be taken as a return to the socialist road?

–How can an imperialist Soviet Union still support struggle against the U.S., wouldn’t the underlying logic of their common social system lead them to unite against every spectre of genuine communism and against the threat of revolution everywhere?

–And where is the evidence that there is a material basis in the process of production and accumulation in the Soviet Union, for an international compulsion to wage a war of world redivision with the U.S.-led bloc of western imperialists?

–Wasn’t in fact the theory of capitalist restoration the first step for the Chinese Communist Party to the reactionary three-worldist conclusions that the Soviet Union was the main (and basically the only) reactionary force in the world, and that capitulation to the U.S. was required?

Obviously this article is a statement of our intent, and our plans, and there is no room here to sketch out even the outlines of our answers. We simply want to say that it is a fact that the Soviet base operates as capital–it is provable and we will prove it. And scientific analysis of history and of Soviet reality proves that wherever the revolutionary process of social transformation is stopped in a society, the structure of society (no matter what its legal form) will in essence become nothing other than the form through which blocks of capital confront each other in competition for the extraction of surplus value.

The obvious fact that Soviet social-imperialism is a capitalism with some unique and historically unprecedented features is not at all surprising, and should not be allowed to continue as a major source of confusion. It has all the particularities of an exploitative society that has emerged out of the state-owned forms created by socialism, rather than emerging out of feudalism and competitive capitalism. And it is an imperialism whose necessities, and appearances internationally, are shaped by the fact that it arose in a world already carved up by competing imperialist interests – meaning that it is both “innocent” of the last century of plunder in the colonial world and to a great extent cut off from the bulk of that plunder today.

Despite all these particularities, it is a major form of imperialism “as it has actually emerged in the world today.“And with such a restoration, all the contradictions inherent in capitalism are inevitably unleashed including in particular the objective necessity driving the Soviet ruling class (along with all other imperialists) to ever more consciously prepare to wage war to redivide the world. And finally a scientific understanding of the nature of the period of transition to communism is completely different from the viewpoint the above questions betray–because the process of world proletarian revolution does not proceed fundamentally by the securing of one country after another in a straight ahead fashion with the erection of inherently stable and established structures–but rather it develops through a worldwide epoch of revolutionary transformation, where, while the restoration of capitalism in any one country is not inevitable, the process on a world scale is a vast and complex spiral of advances and retreats, victories and defeats developing inevitably toward final victory.

There will undoubtedly be forces who attack the very idea of sharpening the struggle over the Soviet Union. And we anticipate the charge that such struggle only aids U.S. war preparations, because the socialist nature of the USSR should be axiomatic, because even to raise such questions shows infection with anti-communism, and because such discussion can only be a diversion from the real “concrete” concerns of the masses. But in fact there is not only an objective need to air and thoroughly examine these questions; there is, among revolutionary and progressive minded people, tremendous interest and enthusiasm for doing exactly that. And for this reason alone, this debate and conference will happen. To be sure, the imperialists of any stripe dread the prospect of people taking up these questions with this kind of urgency and sweep. But the struggle to topple imperialism demands it.