September 1, 2013
The Soviet experience with socialism
It is particularly important to assess the experiences and draw certain lessons from the development of socialism in the first workers’ state – the Soviet Union – and to understand why socialism was overturned, and capitalism restored, after more than seventy years. The question demands the most searching thought and discussion, for two reasons.
On the one hand, understanding both the great achievements of the Soviet people and the external and internal causes responsible for their grave setback can help Canadians in building socialism while avoiding the repetition of what went wrong there.
Secondly, the defeat of socialism in the USSR is a powerful ideological weapon in the hands of monopoly capitalism, which it uses in order to convince workers and progressive-minded people that socialism does not work. By negating socialism as the revolutionary alternative to capitalism, big business seeks to discourage the workers and weaken their class struggle, and instead lead them to find an accommodation with the prevailing capitalist order.
We reject the bourgeois contention that socialism is a failure, that it is an inherently inferior and unworkable alternative to capitalism. Socialism was weakened and ultimately crushed in the USSR (and in other former socialist countries) as a result of a complex combination of interrelated internal and external circumstances and contradictions which culminated in its defeat and the temporary victory of counterrevolution.
The October 1917 Socialist Revolution in Russia marked a genuine new dawn in human social development. For the first time in history, workers set out to build a new society free from exploitation and oppression. The Soviet Union scored many great social achievements, overcoming unemployment, illiteracy, starvation, homelessness, and deep alienation. Socialism in the Soviet Union transformed an economically and culturally “backward” country to one of the world’s leading powers, and made great advances in culture and science.
These achievements were all the more remarkable, considering the relentless imperialist pressures against the USSR throughout its history. In its unflagging efforts to crush socialism, imperialist powers twice undertook direct military invasions (in the first of which Canada participated). They applied harsh economic sanctions, and precipitated an immensely expensive and dangerous nuclear arms race to bleed the USSR white, while sustaining a prolonged ideological and propaganda war, and resorting to outright subversion and sabotage.
Socialism also benefited the working class in the advanced capitalist countries, greatly strengthening the pressure on the ruling classes to grant substantial concessions to working people in the form of labour rights, the forty-hour work week, unemployment insurance, women’s rights, health care, public education, and pensions.
The internal causes of the crisis and defeat of socialism in the Soviet Union were not rooted in the intrinsic nature of socialism, but rather involved distortions and outright departures from socialist theory and practice. They arose, in part, from the extremely difficult conditions under which socialism was built.
Pre-revolutionary Russia was a sprawling, but economically under-developed country. It had a massive peasant population, but a relatively small working class. Poverty and illiteracy were rampant. The First World War, and Civil War that followed, worsened the conditions which confronted the young Soviet republic. However, owing to the unslacking hostility of imperialism – not least, from Nazi Germany, which invaded in 1941 – it was necessary to bring about modern industrialization at a stupendous pace.
In large measure, the adverse objective conditions forced the Soviet government to accelerate the socialist transformation of economic and social life, rapidly jumping over many transition stages in building socialism which would have made for a much more balanced process of development. One of the serious errors was the failure to retain the independent character of Soviet trade unions as the self-defence organizations of Soviet workers.
In these conditions, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union had to assume the task of comprehensively representing the leading role of the working class. The Soviet working class itself was battered and massively decimated by the two brutally destructive wars fought on Soviet soil, with the places of the fallen and the administratively promoted being taken by inexperienced new workers recruited from the countryside.
This partly explains, but does not justify, the way that the operations of the Party increasingly merged with the functions of the state, in particular with the administrative-bureaucratic apparatus which necessarily arose to centralize and tightly control the country’s scarce and depleted resources. Nor do these difficult conditions justify the serious violations of socialist legality, purges, and serious crimes against innocent people.
Important economic successes were achieved with central economic planning for several decades. It was not planning as such, but rather stifling rigidities and a myriad of other distortions in the principles of socialist construction, combined with external imperialist pressures, that undermined the ability of socialist societies to master the scientific and technological revolution.
As a result, the USSR and other socialist countries fell dangerously behind the developed capitalist countries in labour productivity and the material standard of living. This had destabilizing consequences.
The Party itself became ever more integrated into the administration of the state. The functions of the elected Soviets (people’s governing councils) became increasingly formal in character. Genuine popular governance with open criticism gave way to bureaucracy and commandism.
Over time, the political connection between the Party and the working class and people as a whole suffered. Inner-party democracy was also eroded, too often replaced by careerism and opportunism inside the Party.
Great strides were made in advancing the conditions of Soviet women, especially on the job. But sexist limits to the emancipation of women were allowed to pass unchallenged.
All these negative developments reflected a degeneration of the central role of socialist democracy in the construction of a workers’ state, and stunted the development of the political role of the working class and its allies in leading this transformation and the building of a new socialist society.
Indeed, the violation of socialist democracy and legality was a major factor in eroding the people’s participation in the government and in the state, and led to widespread cynicism and social alienation.
There was also a dogmatic ossification of theory which increasingly sapped the Party’s dynamism and prevented a real analysis of concrete conditions and problems in the building of socialism.
Serious theoretical errors resulted – in estimating the world situation, in underestimating the resilience of capitalism, in proclaiming the irreversibility of socialist advances and relying on a military balance of forces between socialism and capitalism, as well as errors and insensitivity.
For instance, the national question was proclaimed to have been fully “solved,” and socialism was all but declared to have eliminated the need for any ecological concern. The shutdown of public and inner-party debate on such questions adversely affected the foreign and domestic policies that flowed from these mistakes.
The most costly result of the stagnation of Marxist-Leninist theory was the weakening of the Party itself, including its ability to identify and combat the rise of bourgeois, reformist and openly counter-revolutionary ideology within and beyond its own ranks.
In the presence of these internal and external factors, opportunist and counter-revolutionary forces gained the upper hand within the leadership of the Party, and finally brought about the collapse of the Soviet system and with it the other socialist states of Europe. Since the collapse of socialism, working people in these former socialist countries face massive privatization and the theft of social property, mass unemployment and poverty, the drastic erosion of education, health care and other social rights, the rise of organized crime and corruption, and the rise of ethnic and racial hatred.
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