What About Russia?
Is the Soviet Union socialist?
Of course not. Nobody believes that any more, do they?
But didn’t they try socialism and it failed?
No. The Soviet Union has never at any time been socialist. Socialism has always meant a society based on the common ownership and democratic control of the means of production where goods and services are produced directly to satisfy people’s needs, not for sale on a market with a view to profit. Since 1917 the Soviet Union has always had state ownership not common ownership and this under a one-party dictatorship with goods and services still being produced for sale and profit. Lenin, whose government introduced this system, called it “state capitalism”. It was an accurate description. What has failed in the Soviet Union is this state capitalism not socialism.
But they called themselves socialists, didn’t they?
Yes, but that is not enough to make someone a socialist. All sorts of people have called themselves socialist, including Hitler, Idi Amin and Colonel Gaddaffi, without anybody taking their claims seriously. The claims of the Soviet dictators should have been dismissed in the same way, and probably would have been if parties like the Communist Party which once had some influence amongst workers in Britain had not talked about “the socialist sixth of the world” and painted the Soviet government as governing in the interests of the workers.
So you say that this wasn’t true?
Yes, that’s right. It was a lie, and we exposed it right from the start earning ourselves the undying hatred of the Communist Party. The Soviet Union has never been socialist and the workers have never held power there. Socialism means a classless society but ever since their coup of 1917 power has been exercised by the Party bosses. Over time these evolved into a new ruling class, collectively owning the means of production and enjoying a privileged lifestyle—the notorious nomenklatura.
OK, you say the Soviet Union was state capitalist tat whatever it was it failed, didn’t it?
Sure, but don’t forget that all forms of capitalism in all countries have always failed to solve the problems facing wage and salary workers, and always will because capitalism is based on exploitation, whether the exploiters are rich private capitalists or privileged state bureaucrats. It is true that by the 1950s the centrally-planned state-capitalist economy completed under Stalin after Lenin’s death did begin to show signs of stagnation. Sections of the Soviet ruling class did realise this and under Khrushchev some reforms allowing market forces more freedom to operate were tried, but when the political implications of this for the rule of the Party bosses became clear Khrushchev was removed. Brezhnev took over and so began “twenty years of stagnation”. Then came Gorbachev.
Wasn’t Gorbachev forced to abandon Marxian economics and embrace the market?
No. You can’t abandon something you never accepted in the first place. Marx, who always insisted that socialism had to be democratic, would turn in his grave at what has been done in his name in the Soviet Union. It is quite true that he was against the market since it represented everything that he as a socialist saw as wrong with capitalism: impersonal forces controlling people’s lives instead of their own conscious democratic decisions; relations between people reduced to the cash nexus; profits being put before needs. Nor did Gorbachev have to restore the market in the Soviet Union since it has never ceased to exist there. Workers have always had to work for wages and purchase their needs. Enterprises have always tried to make a profit and have supplied each other on a buying and selling basis. It was these market relationships that the state tried to plan, with the aim of maximising profits not necessarily at enterprise level but on the economy as a whole.
So what was perestroika about then?
What Gorbachev inherited from Brezhnev was a stagnating state-capitalist economy where the attempt to control the market by central state commands had failed, resulting in a fall in the rate of profit in the Soviet Union—a serious matter in a profit-seeking economy such as the Soviet Union has always had, since profits are the source of funds not only for the privileges of the nomenklatura but also for re-investment in the more up-to-date productive equipment and techniques needed to remain competitive by international standards. To restore the rate of profit in the Soviet Union and make the Soviet economy more competitive, Gorbachev proposed abandoning the central command economy and allowing enterprises much more freedom to respond to market forces and profits.
So why did they overthrow Gorbachev?
Gorbachev represented that section of the Soviet ruling class who realised that things could not go on as before if the Soviet Union was to remain a powerful state in the capitalist world. They were prepared to move in the direction of western-style capitalism, even if this meant abandoning the dictatorship of the Communist Party and finding some other way of maintaining the power and privileges of their class. Those who overthrew him represent another section of the Soviet ruling class who are not prepared to surrender their political and economic privileges under the nomenklatura system.
So do you support Gorbachev?
What about Yeltsin?
Not him either.
So who do you support?
We are always on the side of the workers in any situation. Gorbachev and Yeltsin are capitalist politicians who represent one section of the Soviet ruling class. They merely have a different programme for increasing working class exploitation in the Soviet Union and restoring the rate of profit there from that of the military junta who seized power. Workers should not follow leaders in Russia any more than they should in any country. Instead they should look to their own democratic self-organisation both to defend their interests within capitalism and, once they have become socialists, to get rid of capitalism and replace it by real socialism. This means a society of common ownership and democratic control of the means of production by all the people with goods and services being turned out to satisfy people’s needs not for the market and profits.