Soviet Socialism: Utopian or Scientific [Sam Marcy]

Was Russian Revolution utopian?

Now that the counterrevolution is fully in the saddle in the USSR, and its wrecking crews are breaking down every progressive and revolutionary reform shall we say that this too was a form of utopianism? Was not the Soviet Union in reality as isolated as was New Harmony? Was it not an attempt to build an oasis within a world imperialist environment that was rent by malignant class contradictions?

To begin with, the architects of the proletarian revolution and the dictatorship of the proletariat in the USSR, particularly its leader, Lenin, could never be described as visionaries. On the contrary, their assessment of the prospects for the USSR following the victory of the October Revolution was as realistic as any social and political analysis could possibly be.

The architects of the revolution were not inclined to rely on the inherent goodness of the bourgeoisie — the Achilles heel of the Owenites. The Bolsheviks had been schooled in the scientific socialism of Marx and Engels. They had absorbed the experience of earlier progressive anticolonial and proletarian struggles.

They fully understood the objective tendencies of the bourgeoisie, the imperative need of capitalist monopolies to expand, their inability to solve their own contradictions. Above all they understood the contradiction between the collective character of production — that is of collective labor — and the individual private appropriation of the labor of others by the bourgeoisie.

They understood that the one true ally in the world arena that could keep the wolf from the door was the world proletariat — which at that moment was especially strong and revolutionary in Western Europe. But they didn't neglect to proclaim an alliance of the working class with the mass of the oppressed peoples in what is now called the Third World. Lenin amended the fundamental slogan of communism to: "Workers of the world and oppressed peoples, unite." It was clearly and unmistakably aimed at the ruling classes in the imperialist countries.

For those who doubt that such was the perspective of the architects of the Soviet state, it is only necessary to remind ourselves of some of Lenin's most important speeches. They contained the sternest warnings regarding the encirclement of the USSR and the danger to its very existence.

Lenin said it again and again:

These quotes from Lenin are in sharp contrast to Owen's naive conception of getting the bourgeoisie to cooperate and allow the building of socialism.

Lenin's view was also, of course, diametrically opposite to the conceptions of Mikhail Gorbachev. Though Gorbachev came over 150 years after Owen, he appropriated the Owenist conception of winning the collaboration of the capitalists, even though by then they had degenerated into a regressive and utterly decadent social category.

Gorbachev in his much-vaunted theses on a "new world order" and "universal human values" preached a reactionary utopianism that turned Owen upside down. After 150 years of bitter struggles against the working class, after the crushing of the Paris Commune, after innumerable imperialist interventions against the Soviet Union and every other country where the masses attempted in any way to alleviate imperialist oppression — from Guatemala to Cuba, Grenada and Nicaragua, from the Congo to Angola and Mozambique, from Korea and Vietnam to Afghanistan, from Iran to Egypt, Lebanon, Libya and Iraq — after decades of nuclear intimidation and finally Star Wars, Gorbachev preached harmony with the capitalists, as though it all depended on the good will of the oppressed. It was nothing less than treachery and a surrender to imperialism.

Isolation of first socialist revolution

The socialist revolution unexpectedly broke out first in Russia, not in an advanced capitalist country. The USSR was to a large extent an isolated phenomenon in a world still dominated by capitalism. Although it covered one-sixth of the earth's surface, it was surrounded by a world imperialist environment.

The Bolsheviks had a revolutionary and scientific approach to building socialism but they were no more immune to the social environment, to the domination of monopoly capitalism on a world scale, than was New Harmony in its day.

In attempting to analyze the developments that led to the counterrevolution in the USSR, the many discussions that took place in the Second International before the First World War on the prospects of proletarian revolution are of greatest interest. Jean Jaur├Ęs, the French socialist leader, had written about the problem of the isolated socialist state even before the turn of the century:

In the present condition of Europe, and insofar as the course of events can be foreseen, it is no longer possible to hope, unless one is blind, or to assert, unless one is a traitor, that socialism will be achieved in the advanced nations by peaceful means. The nation which first achieves socialism will see all the frenzied powers of reaction hurled against it at the same time. It will be lost if it is not itself prepared to seize a sword, to answer bullet with bullet so that the working class of other countries may have time to organize and rise in its turn. (Quoted in Stalin — A Critical Survey of Bolshevism
Boris Souvarine, New York: Octagon Books, 1972)

This problem engaged the attention of the opportunist elements in the Second International as well as of the revolutionaries. They drew divergent conclusions. The opportunists concluded from the Paris Commune that collaboration with the bourgeoisie was necessary. That led them to the ultimate treachery — support for the First World War. The revolutionists drew the essential lesson of the Commune from the writings of Marx that the working class could not lay hold of the ready-made machinery of the capitalist state, but had to smash it and erect a state of its own, of which the Commune was an embryo. Lenin elaborated on this in State and Revolution.

Throughout the period of the growth, flowering and development of social democracy in Europe, the issue of whether an isolated workers' state could long exist was the subject of continual discussion.

Lenin, the realist with a dream

A communist must dream, said Lenin. But he was no builder of castles in the air. He was a realist to the marrow of his bones and the most profound student of Marxism, which he applied to the conditions of old Russia.

Here we find a difference between utopian socialism and scientific socialism. The utopians' impractical, imaginary schemes were based on the good will of the ruling class and the prospect of thriving in a stable, peaceful social system. But this system has since undergone two monstrous world wars, innumerable counterrevolutionary interventions, and genocidal attempts to crush any who dare rebel.

One aspect of Soviet history was undoubtedly utopian; that was the period of War Communism. However, it was forced upon the regime by internal counterrevolution, civil war, and intervention. Under those conditions the Bolsheviks leaped over any intermediate forms and moved directly to an enforced kind of equality in which food was rationed, grain was requisitioned from the farmers, and the market was abolished.

While it saved the revolution, it led to economic disaster, as the rebellion at Kronstadt showed. At the 10th Party Congress, what should have been a gathering of triumphant victory for socialism turned into something else amid a confused debate on how to organize the new Soviet republic. The economy was utterly devastated; production had reached its lowest point ever. A temporary retreat was necessary.

As soon as peace returned, the Bolshevik government went back to the market for a limited time in order to rebuild the industries and the working class itself, which had been decimated in the armed struggles.

Objective and subjective conditions

Marx and his successors were able to see what was not clear to the utopians: that people "make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past." (The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte).

All the USSR's problems must be seen in this objective context. The revolutionaries could not make history out of their own materials but had to make do with the conditions that prevailed in Russia.

First and foremost among these conditions was that the workers' state in the USSR only succeeded because of its alliance with the much more numerous peasantry. The alliance was correct, principled, and indispensable in the overthrow of czarism. But it presented an enormous problem. The proletariat as a class is supremely interested in the socialization of property and production, which the bourgeoisie has in fact already started. But the peasants are concerned with private property, their private plots. The alliance showed its difficulties right from the start of the revolution. How to keep the loyalty of the peasants?

This led to the next problem. It was not a pure workers' state in the sense that the proletariat was a majority of the population or was able to organize a new social system on its own. The truth of the matter, as Lenin, Trotsky, Bukharin and Stalin all saw and agreed, is that it was necessary to rely to a large extent on the old czarist administrative apparatus — a bitter pill to swallow. This was true even in the military sphere. Former czarist officers were recruited, even though they had to be guarded by communist civilian cadre, the commissars.

The Russian proletariat, truly one of the great wonders of the world in their class-consciousness and adherence to Marxism, could go through innumerable sacrifices, face famine and civil war, subversion, counterrevolution, as well as intervention. But the Bolsheviks had promised peace, and peace is what they most wanted and needed. Weariness was setting in.

Relying upon elements of the old state apparatus in all fields of life held not only obvious dangers but a hidden one: These elements knew how to show eagerness and servility to the state, as in czarist times. The Communist Party, which they had previously scorned and feared — not to speak of imprisoned and banished — now could become a source of privilege if they showed support for the government and party.

The question before the Bolsheviks was how to deal with these layers — the old bureaucracy, the officialdom, remnants of the old educated classes — who now sensing the victory of the revolution tried to find an easy entrance into it.

Bourgeoisie grows up inside USSR

Just as during the lengthy feudal period the bourgeoisie grew up in the crevices of feudal society, so in Soviet society the bourgeoisie accommodated itself to the workers' state and, after the death of Lenin, to the leaders. They fortified their position within the society, now and then offering a challenge of a minor character, until they had become strengthened and went from servility to domination.

The few years of peace that began in the mid-1920s, a relatively stable period in the capitalist world, sowed illusions of incredible proportions in the USSR. The perspective on the world revolution was abandoned in what seemed like an endless period of coexistence.

The period of stability strengthened the hold of bureaucracy and led to endless repression of both left and right. This quenched much of the revolutionary idealism, not just in society in general but above all among the mass of communists who bore the brunt of the indiscriminate repression.

The rise of bureaucratism and the undemocratic crushing of party discussion and debate opened the door to bourgeois elements who were utterly indifferent to socialist ideology but willing to espouse it in order to ingratiate themselves. All this set in motion a train of developments that has finally led to the undoing of the party and the capture of the government and party apparatus by a social grouping hostile to communism. This inner corrosion was the Achilles heel, which, from a subjective point of view, strengthened the internal forces of capitalism and led to the great debacle.

When the Gorbachevs, the Yakovlevs, the Yeltsins, the whole kit and kaboodle of the new reformers came out into the open in full view of the world at the 19th Party Conference in June 1988, the U.S. bourgeoisie gave them gavel-to-gavel coverage. It showed that the party had been captured by a social grouping hostile to socialism, anxious to propitiate the new bourgeoisie and accommodate itself peacefully with the imperialist oppressors.

IMF imposes neocolonialism

It is utterly incredible that today the republics of the USSR are in a neocolonialist position, having to beg for aid from the imperialists. How did they get that way? It couldn't happen without internal corrosion of both the party and its institutions. We may differ on just how this happened, but it is absolutely incontestable that inner decay sapped the proletariat's revolutionary strength and vigor.

It is now reported (New York Times, Jan. 11, 1992) that after the recent disastrous increases in consumer prices had already begun, throwing the USSR into chaos, a team from the International Monetary Fund, "acting with the endorsement of the United States," actually went to Moscow to demand that the government of Russia take "drastic additional steps, chief among them a sharp increase in oil prices.

"The IMF wants President Boris N. Yeltsin of Russia, where most of the commonwealth's oil is produced, to raise petroleum prices to 10 to 15 times their present level, and they have already quadrupled in the last week.

"Such a rise would increase gasoline and heating-oil supplies by pricing them beyond the reach of many people — a measure not tried in the old Soviet Union."

In other words, the IMF is now openly dictating economic policy to Russia and presumably the other republics. We won't refer to the so-called "commonwealth" — it is only a group of counterrevolutionaries who have seized the governmental apparatus. (To refer to them as the commonwealth concedes legitimacy to the counterrevolution, which was a usurpation of power.)

What is the IMF? It is the concentrated financial power of the imperialist bourgeoisie of the whole world. It is the instrument by which imperialism has obtained economic and, in most cases, political domination over all the oppressed countries of the world.

The IMF controls the financial levers of a given country, telling them how much to spend and how much to save. Most Third World countries as a result are deep in debt, and their debtor position worsens each year. If a country the size of the USSR, with its enormous natural and industrial resources, should become indebted to the tune of $65 billion and must borrow to pay interest on the debt, there can only be one explanation: The governing group has become completely subordinate to the will of the imperialist bankers. They in turn are working hand in glove with the U.S. government.

The IMF was founded in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, in 1944. The U.S. sponsored it because it was the only country to come out of the Second World War virtually unscathed. The purpose was to stabilize the currencies of the imperialist allies.

But instead it turned out to be the means to achieve hegemony within the imperialist camp and control the economies of the Third World. The IMF decides what economic programs, what social and even political legislation should be enacted. In order to get credit from the IMF or World Bank, the given country's books have to be inspected by staff officials from the bank or the IMF. They specify the conditions of the loan and "recommend" how the operations of the economic and financial system should be conducted.

To think that the USSR should submit to such conditions in the name of educating its personnel on how to transform socialist projects into competitive, private entities! It is submitting to colonial subjugation. How else can it be explained?

Of course, these plans have not yet been executed. But it is reported that $35 billion worth of gold bullion has already been transferred out of the country, either to pay for imports, defray expenses or pay interest on loans. This in a country that before Gorbachev was considered the most credit-worthy in the world. Private banks competed with each other to tender loans to the USSR.

We have written extensively on how the counterrevolution has not yet succeeded in destroying the social foundations of the USSR — the socialized properties and enterprises. But if this goes on for any length of time without resistance strong enough to oust the counterrevolutionary governing group, then, of course, the process of restoring capitalism will ultimately succeed.

Superficial democracy

With all the talk of democracy and freedom of choice and so on, were the people of the Soviet Union — the workers and peasants — ever given an opportunity to vote on the fundamental issue? Were they ever given a clear choice: to vote for either capitalism or socialism? Was it ever clearly stated that that's what the choice was?

On the contrary, the masses were never given a direct political choice between capitalism and socialism. That was never presented to them. The capitalist reforms were smuggled in on glittering promises of plenty instead of scarcity. The matter of raising prices was never submitted to a referendum. Neither was the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Some of the republics voted for independence, but they did not disaffiliate from the USSR.

The USSR was broken up not by the will of the masses but by unscrupulous renegade socialists.

This does not exhaust the problem. It does not answer all the questions, nor can that be done at this time.

It is necessary first to thoroughly examine the objective situation in order to understand the inner regression, the rise of bureaucratism, the erosion of revolutionary spirit, repression, the forced character of collectivization, the decimation of both left and right tendencies in the party.

The cold war and capitalist restructuring

During the long decades of the cold war, under the military and economic pressure of imperialism, the leaders of the USSR felt the urgency to expand its geopolitical influence. While this strengthened the USSR on the one hand, it weakened it economically. It contracted to do more in its external affairs — or gave the appearance that it did. In reality it could not sustain it.

Seen in retrospect, launching Sputnik in 1957 was a tremendous advance in science that demonstrated the prowess and viability of a planned economy and its superiority over capitalism. But at the same time it was an enormous diversion of the USSR's resources from the consumer sector to the military-industrial complex. It impeded orderly development and the indispensable balance between agriculture and industry.

It also enhanced the political influence of the upper layers, especially those engaged in higher technology, at the expense of the proletariat and lower echelons. It reinforced social inequality.

While there are broad historic forces that must be overcome to build socialism in a Third World country, there are also immediate reasons why the counterrevolution captured the governing apparatus in the USSR. The most important one was the leap taken by capitalist development in the U.S. — the development of the scientific-technological revolution.

Beginning in the late 1970s, the U.S. launched an extremely intensive restructuring of capitalist industry. Its essence was a most onerous anti-labor offensive that rivals the struggles of the 19th century. It all began with the Carter administration and has continued through three successive terms of Reagan and Bush. (See High Tech, Low Pay, by Sam Marcy, WW Publishers, 1986)

Restructuring became a world phenomenon. It swept the USSR into a competitive race that took an enormous toll on the mass of the population, coming as it did on top of the burdens of the military-nuclear challenge by U.S. imperialism. The planned economy has a certain pace precisely because it is based on planning. It can't suddenly change its tempo in response to external pressures. That disrupts the planning. The leadership in particular has to be on guard and awake to all the possibilities of imperialist intrigue, from the military challenge to such matters as the development of the computer revolution. Unfortunately, the USSR got a very late start in the computer revolution and underestimated its significance. Moreover, the imperialists maintained a tight blockade that kept out high technology, even what other countries routinely pirate.

The USSR leadership proved unequal to the task of maintaining the social system in the light of this furious offensive, which eventually undermined the position of the workers.

Red Flag will rise again

The counterrevolution has hauled down the Red Flag, the flag of the oppressed, of the workers. Even in ancient times, the Red Flag was the emblem of the slave rebellions. It symbolized the red blood that flows in the veins of all humanity, with no distinction as to race or nationality, sex or social position.

How fitting that the Yeltsins have raised the blue flag. For centuries it was the flag of oppression, representing the "blue blood" that is supposed to distinguish aristocrats from the common folk.

The Red Flag has been taken down many, many times before, only to be hoisted again. Why? Because it is the flag of the oppressed, the flag of those deprived of their freedom, their nationality, their labor, who are forced into slavery and eventually into rebellion. We see it raised now by the crowds protesting in Red Square. It will be raised again in a thousand places as the workers' struggle for socialist emancipation revives across the breadth of the Soviet Union.

1. Utopian socialist experiments | 2. Was Russian Revolution utopian?

Last updated: 15 December 2017