Socialism Seminar #2: On the collapse of the USSR

This post is in two main parts. The first consists of a quick analysis of class in Soviet society (i will expand more on this in future posts) and an explanation for how right-opportunist ideology was able to be put into action leading to the collapse of the Soviet Union. The second part consists of an examination of alternate theories of collapse.

in Is The Red Flag Flying (1979), Al Szymanski examined empirical research on the Soviet Union and came to the conclusion that the USSR was socialist, but that technical and professional intelligentsia (those “who develop and disseminate knowledge and skills and who provide professional services”) had disproportionate influence over policy. However, “the managerial stratum appears to be significantly closer to the manual working class than is the scientific-technical intelligentsia”.

There appears to be a high level of political participation in the Soviet Union, both through formal governmental channels and through the process of public opinion formation in the mass media. Public debate on a wide range of topics is real and growing in depth and significance. Support for the government is especially high amongst the working class. Manual workers are playing a greater and greater role in the self-management of enterprises…The pressures to maintain legitimacy push the power elite to take egalitarian and democratic measures. In sum, there appear to be numerous mechanisms by which real control is exerted by the producing classes over the power elite. The only important qualification to this statement is that the centre of gravity of power within the producing classes lies with the skilled workers and the mechanical and professional intelligentsia who seem to play a disproportionate role in public debates, the Communist Party, the government apparatus, and the decision making processes in economic enterprises. While democratic life in the Soviet Union seems to be real, it is not dominated by the peasantry and unskilled and semi-skilled workers but rather by the upper levels of the working class and professionals and experts of various kinds.

Socialism Betrayed by Keeran and Kennan noticed that this intelligentsia was dominated by right-opportunists who wanted to introduce capitalist “reforms”.

Recognizing problems on the one hand and explaining their origin and devising their solution on the other hand were of course two entirely different matters, and matters on which Communists disagreed. In general, the analysis of the economic problems fell into the two traditional camps: the camp with ideological links to Bukharin and Khrushchev and the camp with links to Lenin and Stalin. The former saw the problems as due to over-centralization, and for it the solution was decentralization, the use of market mechanisms, and the allowance of certain forms of private enterprise….Soviet economics of this mind represented only a minority, but they dominated three of the four leading academic institutes. A leading economist in this camp was Abel Aganbegyan, who later became a key adviser to Gorbachev.

The large amount of wheeling and dealing that occurred outside the official socialized economy contributed mightily to the Soviet downfall. First it created or exacerbated the economic and political problems the Soviet Union faced in the 1980s that gave rise to the need for reform. Secondly, it provided an economic basis for the ideas and policies that Gorbachev eventually adopted that doomed Soviet socialism.

Instead of combating illegal economic activity, Brezhnev let illegal economic activity and the corruption it caused happen unfettered.

In the early 1980s, crimes of speculation accounted for only 2 percent of all reported crimes. According to one estimate, the actual amount of speculation was a hundred times great. In retrospect, few other mistakes of the Soviet leadership did so much harm as the indifference toward illegal economic activity.

Whatever small and temporary benefits Soviet society may have reaped from the second economy, the costs far outstripped them. Most important, the second economy damaged the first economy. If the second economy satisfied some consumer appetites and deflected some discontent, it simultaneously stimulated these appetites and increased discontent….Moreover, the larger the illegal economy became, the more it interfered with the performance of the legitimate economy. Since the second economy involved stealing time and material from the socialist sector, it impaired socialism’s efficiency….Furthermore, the second economy undermined economic planning. if an enterprise compensated for a misallocation of resources by resorting to informal purchases or trades, the planners had no reason to correct future allocations.

How did the second economy influence the Communist Party? In one word, the answer was corruption….The peasantry that provided a class basis for Bukharin’s ideas did not require the corruption of the Party for its existence, but the entrepreneurs of the second economy did. Simply put, to exist and thrive, illegal producing and selling required the bribery of some Party and state officials, and the more organized and widespread this producing and selling became, the more corruption they required.

This caused perestroika to take on a distinctly pro-capitalist political and class character. The policy of slashing state orders by 50% (encouraged by the right-opportunist academics mentioned before), caused inflation to rise by 80% and created incentive to hoard. Instead of using central planning, Gorbachev redefined the role of ministries as “developing enterprise autonomy”.

As perestroika failed in one sphere, the damage rippled in all directions. Starting in 1988, economic hardship and separatism reinforced each other. As consumer shortages worsened in 1988, the tendency for various republics to hoard production and to go it alone increased. The USSR planned economy had developed as a single grid with a precise division of labor and specialization among republics. For example, one industrial complex in the Baltic region supplied paper cups for the USSR….The economic disorder and uncertainty field separatist fires, as each union republic sought to protect its economic interests as best it could.

Gorbachev’s opportunism wasn’t just a domestic policy, it was the basis of his foreign policy as well. He capitulated in nuclear arms talks, slashed $5 billion in aid to Cuba, betrayed Nicaragua, and betrayed South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement, all in the name of appeasing imperialism.

The events of August 1991 are especially critical. A group of Soviet leaders dedicated to keeping socialism intact formed the State Committee for the State of Emergency. Gorbachev supported the state of emergency in its early stages, and the SCSE sent troops and tanks into Moscow. They made a declaration to the Soviet people that they would stop the theft of the people’s wealth which was causing the severe drop in the quality of life of the overwhelming majority of the population. This wasn’t a coup, this was a declaration of a State of Emergency that had the support of 70% of local officials in the Russian Republic according to Yeltsin’s own team.

However, the SCSE didn’t restrict the virulently anti-Communist media, and the media was able to frame the struggle as one between “democrats” and “conservatives”, when it was actually a struggle between counterrevolutionary capitalists and socialists. However, Gorbachev capitulated and withdrew his support at a critical moment, likely to please the US and European powers. Gorbachev was completely delegitimized, and resigned 6 months later, signing over the Soviet Union’s powers to the Russian Republic

In many ways the most disturbing aspect of the Soviet collapse was not that Gorbachev’s opportunism arose within the Soviet Communist Party. What was disturbing was that the Communist Party proved unable to thwart Gorbachev’s opportunism as it had thwarted that of his forerunners. Why was the CPSU less able to deal with Gorbachev in 1987 and 1988 then with Khrushchev in 1964, or Bukharin in 1929?

The Party failed to maintain vigilance against the second economy, corruption, was lax in its political education of its members, and democratic centralism deteriorated. The Party itself needed reform.

Part 2

there are 6 common misconceptions over the cause of the collapse

1. an inherent flaw of socialism

2. popular opposition

3. external factors

4. bureaucratic counter-revolution

5. lack of democracy/over-centralization

6. its all gorby’s fault

1. an inherent flaw of socialism

Socialism, as is defined by Lenin, was doomed from the start because it was based on mistaken assumptions about human nature

Jack Matlock, US Ambassador/professional hack

the main problem w/ this theory is that it views Soviet history as unfolding towards its collapse due to human nature. historical determinism based on human nature is considered by most historians to be total bullshit. this theory doesn’t take into account that the soviet union survived collectivization and world war 2, both of which were far bigger challenges than the 80s.

the evidence overwhelmingly suggests that it was Gorbachev’s policies of destabilizing the Party, turning over the media to right-wing forces, rash changes in state purchases, and a domestic and foreign policy that is primarily defined by opportunism that were the cause of the crises that led to the collapse.

2. popular opposition

there’s a saying, glasnost gave Soviet citizens the right to criticize, perestroika gave them something to criticize. while there was some unrest, it came after gorby’s market reforms that were laying the groundwork for a transition to capitalism.

polls were taken in 1990 and 1991 showing that the majority of Soviet citizens were satisfied with their lives and satisfaction with the Soviet system was comparable to american satisfaction with theirs. Soviet citizens supported public ownership, price controls, and the maintenance of the Soviet Union by large majorities.

3. external factors

this theory puts it all on reagan for Defeating The Communists with his brilliant plan of throwing a shit ton of money at his weapons manufacturer buddies.

the problems with this is that the increase in military spending in the us had no effect on the USSR’s military spending according to Soviet insiders. while Soviet society never had the luxury of focusing on internal development without the threat of annihilation, it was not a direct cause of the collapse.

4.bureaucratic counter-revolution

this theory basically argues that the bureaucracy formed into a possessing class
and the breakup was a result of the Yeltsin faction of the bureaucracy defeating the Gorbachev faction. however, this doesn’t explain why the bureaucracy apparently backed Andropov’s Marxist-Leninist point of view in 83, gorbachev’s revisionist reformist ideology in 87, and yeltsin’s free market cannibalism in 93. this is highly inconsistent, and since theft from the state by the bureaucracy was embyonic in 87 and became more and more blatant in the 90s suggests that outside class forces were causing the collapse and opportunists within the bureaucracy jumped on board.

An authoritative, in-depth study based on interviews with the Party elite showed that the bureaucracy was incapable of collective action to save or hurry the dismantling of the system.

5.lack of democracy/over-centralization
this theory attempts to save socialism by distancing it from the Soviet Union. It argues “The Soviet Communists screwed up, but we are different and smarter. They were too bureaucratic, undemocratic, and over-centralized, but we know better than that.” This explanation doesnt have any explanatory power, whatsoever, but that hasn’t stopped it from becoming a common anti-Communist staple. It makes up for analysis with lofty utopianism and tries to explain history by the degree to which a country conforms to an ideal, instead of looking at the material conditions behind the collapse.

6.its all gorby’s fault

while the role of gorbachev can’t be ignored, many writers see a long-term plan behind gorbachev’s actions. however, this view disregards the fact that his beliefs in weakening the Party, expanding private property and capitalist market relations reflected the interests of the growing illegal private sector. one of gorbachev’s main characteristics was opportunism, he capitulated to imperialist pressures abroad as well as corrupt interests at home.


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