The Soviet Union’’s Place in History

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The 90th anniversary of the Russian revolution is being used by western commentators and historians to repeat old lies and distortions about the revolution and its aftermath. An exception is The Soviet Century by Moshe Lewin, which NIALL MULHOLLAND reviews as one of the few books published in recent years to shed new light on the subject.

The Soviet Century, by Moshw LewinMoshe Lewin is rare among post-war academic historians of the former Soviet Union. Rejecting both the cold war anti-communist ideologues and Stalinist apologists, he attempts to honestly and objectively analyse the USSR. His historical works often confirm Leon Trotsky’s brilliant analysis of the Soviet Union, which has been further developed by genuine Marxism.

Lewin does not give a chronological history of the Soviet Union but a “presentation to general aspects of the system”. He covers the periods of Joseph Stalin’s rule, from Nikita Khrushchev to Yuri Andropov, and the Soviet era as a whole. Although heavy in style, the book is packed with instructive facts and figures – often the fruits of Lewin’s original research in Moscow archives.

Lewin condemns the attempts by most western historians to “perpetuate Stalinism, by backdating it to 1917”. He also attacks Russia’s “new power-holders – most of them from the old nomenklatura but now re-baptised ‘democrats’, ‘liberals’ or ‘reformers’,” who “not content with looting and squandering the nation’s wealth… embarked on a massive propaganda campaign against the old Soviet system… from the original sin of October 1917 right up to the failed coup d’état by conservative party stalwarts against Gorbachev in August 1991”.

Lewin rejects the argument that the October 1917 Russian revolution was a ‘conspiracy’ made behind the backs of the Russian people which thwarted the evolution of peaceful capitalist parliamentary democracy. He shows the real alternatives in 1917, a socialist revolution or right-wing, bloody reaction. This was clear to even pro-capitalist ‘liberals’. “Although they were supporters of a constitutional monarchy, the Cadets – the Liberal party – believed that even that degree of liberalisation was excluded in Russia for the time being; and for this reason, they defended a dictatorship”.

The “anti-Bolshevik left”, the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries, who “in principle [were] committed to a democratic solution” held ministerial positions in the Provisional Government in 1917 and became “champions of a strong state”. These left parties “never stopped ‘yearning for Miliukov’,” a Cadet leader, who, in turn, “was yearning for the ‘iron fist’ of a monarchist”.

Lewin details how the Bolsheviks took power in a country devastated by war. By the start of 1917 five million Russian soldiers had died, were taken prisoner or invalided out – one in three of the total Russian armed forces. The ravages of war, revolution, famine, disease and civil war (after imperialist armed intervention against the young Soviet state), had an enormous impact. In January 1923, the population of the USSR was six to nine million below the January 1914 total. The economy was in ruins: the output of large-scale industry was only 13% of the 1913 total, grain output no more than two-thirds of the 1909-13 level, and foreign trade collapsed.

Lewin writes that the 1917 “proclamation of a ‘socialist revolution’ in October meant above all that socialists were taking power and believed the situation to be revolutionary”. However, the “starting point of Trotsky’s theory of ‘permanent revolution’ was the premise that Russia on its own was far from ripe for socialism”. For Lenin too, “the prospect of socialism could only be envisaged on a European scale”.

The clash between Lenin & Stalin

Lewin gives important details about the degeneration of the Bolshevik party (renamed the Communist Party), in the 1920s. Important sections of the most politically advanced and self-sacrificing working class were lost during the civil war years. Between 1917 and 1920 the combined populations of Petrograd and Moscow fell from 4.3 million to 1.96 million. New waves of Communist Party members – careerists and poorly educated new members with little or no political experience and without the ethos or ideas of the Old Bolsheviks – flooded the party, particularly after 1924. For the “old Bolsheviks… the party was no longer recognisable; it was no longer a party of revolutionaries totally devoted to the cause of socialism”. This milieu served as the “social background for the politics and ideology of Stalinism”. Lenin “noted with regret that entire sections of the tsarist administration remained in operation under the new regime… [which] was obliged to turn not just to the expertise of some specialists but to whole agencies”.

Lewin demolishes another right-wing myth: that the Stalinist party was a ‘continuation’ of the Bolshevik party. In Lenin’s time, “policy discussions were a normal procedure… ideological debates were a normal feature”. Congresses and conferences were held even during the civil war years, when party cadres had “to come straight from the front”. The “founder and leader of the party and the state, Lenin, never behaved as a despot or dictator in his party… he enjoyed genuine authority”. Yet, however “highly respected”, Lenin was “frequently subjected to strenuous attack” at party meetings.

Lewin describes how Stalin, politically and culturally inferior to all other Bolshevik leaders, and “secretive, intensely self-centred, cautious and scheming”, was well suited to represent the interests of the rising bureaucracy. The civil war conditions gave “free rein” to “features of a profoundly authoritarian personality”.

Lewin concludes that the ending of the civil war saw two divergent orientations surface in the Bolsheviks. One based around Stalin, whose “clear and simple vision” was to create “an untrammelled, unfettered, ultra-centralised and self-serving power”. In contrast, Lenin and Trotsky represented genuine socialist internationalism “that concentrated on equipping Russia with a state that defended the interests of the majority of the population”.

Documents that were only available after Gorbachev’s ‘perestroika’ of the 1980s “contain the most revealing material about the clash between Lenin and Stalin… it ran virtually the whole gamut of system building: ideology, the respective roles of party and state, economic policy, and especially the strategically crucial issue of policies towards the peasantry”.

Letters between Lenin and Stalin show “Stalin’s hostility towards Lenin and Lenin’s growing irritation with Stalin – a deepening personal and ideological divide”. Lewin believes Stalin’s “total lack of respect, and soon, hatred, for Lenin were indirectly fed by his obsessive hatred of Trotsky, who stood in the way of Stalin’s self-image as a great military strategist and statesman”. Lenin “relied on Trotsky and his prestige… he worked closely with him”.

Stalin’s undemocratic conduct, particularly towards national minorities, and his tendency to represent the interests of state officialdom over the interests of workers, led Lenin to send a letter to the politburo on the eve of the twelfth party congress demanding Stalin’s removal from the powerful post of party general secretary. But Stalin was charged by the central committee with supervising Lenin’s medical treatment, which “allowed him unabashedly to spy on the sick man”. Stalin successfully manoeuvred and Lenin’s wishes were not brought to the party congress.

Lewin contests that Trotsky did not act decisively against Stalin and “lost his sense of reality”. Citing a report by five doctors, in June 1922, Lewin speculates: “was illness or extreme fatigue a factor in this massive failure of political acumen on Trotsky’s part?”

Isolation & exhaustion of the Soviet Union

Lewin does allude to “broader configurations of social and political forces, and the available alternatives at a given moment, are the framework in which leaders can win or lose”. The truth is that the struggle for power could not be reduced to a personal struggle between Stalin and Trotsky, but was a struggle of living forces. The Russian working class was exhausted and decimated after years of civil war. Russia was isolated due to the betrayal of workers’ revolutions in the west by social democracy.

The 1923 German revolution offered the possibility of the working class coming to power in a major industrialised country, which would have rejuvenated the Russian revolution. But due to the mistakes of the German Communist Party leadership, and the Stalin-Zinoviev dominated Comintern (Communist International) leadership in Moscow, the German revolution was defeated. This strengthened reaction in Russia and a sense of demoralisation and defeat among the Russian working class. These events, and later defeats like the 1926 British general strike and the Chinese revolution of 1925-27, prepared the way for the coming to power and consolidation of Stalinist reaction.

In 1924 Stalin announced ‘socialism in one country’, which was anathema to genuine Marxists but reflected the interests of the privileged tops. In reply, Trotsky pointed out that while the Soviet Union must industrialise and modernise, generally, this was a long way from socialism; a society with higher labour productivity and standards of living than in the most advanced capitalist societies. This presupposes the working class taking power internationally and establishing a world socialist planned economy.

Stalin’s ‘theory’ of socialism in one country, Trotsky correctly warned, would lead to disastrous policies within Russia (including forced collectivisation of agriculture) and transform the Communist International into a counter-revolutionary tool of Stalin’s foreign policy.

For his principled revolutionary opposition, Trotsky was “systematically vilified and had every possible calumny heaped on his head… he [Stalin] also wished to erase him [Trotsky] from Soviet history – via censorship, obviously, but also (astonishingly) by ascribing Trotsky’s achievements to himself. The country would thus be offered films in which the military exploits of his sworn foe – for example, Trotsky’s role in the defence of Petrograd against General Yudenich’s army in December 1919 – were attributed to Stalin. This is only one example of his incredible pettiness and envy”.

Stalin eventually became “sole ruler”. The party was “stripped of the ability to change its leadership through elections”. The “lack of equality and democracy inside the party ranks was one of the key issues raised by the opposition while it could express itself. But it was met with demagogic denials…”

GPU (secret police), trade union and party archives “contain a mass of material” on the “mood and opinions of specific social groups”, particularly of disgruntled workers. Lewin comments: “During the 1920s, GPU reports on labour disputes were mainly critical of both administrative and party bosses, who were accused of indifference and incompetence when it came to dealing with workers’ grievances”.

From 1922 to 1935, approximately, “one and a half million members left the party, mostly by failing to pay dues and thereby letting their membership lapse. Others drifted away and many of them were subsequently expelled”.

The Stalinist counter-revolution created a new type of regime: “the USSR was not capitalist; ownership of the economy and other national assets was in the hands of the state, which in practise meant the summit of its bureaucracy”.

The Stalinist terror

Trotsky described Stalinism as a ‘transition’ between the camps of capitalism and socialism, which would either progress towards socialism (which would require a political revolution in Russia and social revolutions in capitalist countries) or regress to capitalism. The ruling bureaucracy was not a ‘ruling class’ but a parasitic excrescence, and the Soviet Union was a ‘degenerated workers’ state’, in which the nationalised, planned economy remained (a fundamental conquest of the October revolution) and which Marxists defended. The monstrous show trials and physical liquidation of all opposition to Stalin’s rule saw most “yielding to Stalin. Trotsky, forced into exile, was the main exception”.

Although Lenin was safely dead, by 1924 Stalin had to move against the other Old Bolsheviks and the working class. The Cheka police, created by the Bolsheviks to resist capitalist counter-revolution, “fought for a great cause, risked their lives and died for it”. The NKVD secret police, under Stalin, “tortured and killed masses of innocent people”.

The scale of the Stalinist terror is disputed by historians and Lewin avails of new available archive documents to try to reach an estimate. According to some sources, 1937-38 saw the arrest of 1,372,392 people, of whom 681,692 were shot. Sources for 1930-53 indicate 3,778,000 people arrested, of whom 786,000 were executed. “The majority of delegates to the 1934 seventeenth congress – 1,108 of them – had been arrested and 848 shot”. Between 1937-39, “Stalin and Molotov personally signed around 400 lists of people to be executed (a total of 44,000 names)”. The purges saw the extermination of “most of the old cadres”. Over 30 years, around four million people were sentenced for political crimes and 20% were shot.

‘Justice’ was brutal and swift. In most instances the ‘accused’ were not even present at their ‘trail’, which typically lasted ten minutes, resulting in sentences of five to 25 years hard labour or immediate execution. The regime created the dreaded ‘gulag’ system of labour camps and prisons. This produced huge slave labour armies, which became a key component of the Stalinist economy. From 1934-53 about 1.6 million inmates died in captivity.

As the bloody 1930s wore on, “any organised opposition, whether open or clandestine, was now impossible”. Yet “individual demonstrations, as well as politically charged collective reactions – disorder, strikes, withdrawal from the party (however discreet) – allows us to suggest that the populace and many party members were not exactly mute… One of the forms of protest [was] a wave of suicides” which, Lewin believes, were “not always desperate acts by the powerless; they were also courageous gestures of protest”.

Many more people died under Stalin as a result of “demographic losses in the broadest sense”. Forced industrialisation “led to excess deaths in peacetime of the order of ten million or more”, many during the 1933 famine.

While showing the enormous numbers of deaths under Stalinism, Lewin rejects what he regards as the grossly inflated figures given by anti-communist western historians, who often included peacetime and wartime deaths from 1914-45 (74 million). These cold war historians provide “fictitious body-counts in which anything goes as long as the record of ‘communism’ is drenched in ever more blood. When, for example, 80 million corpses are laid at its door, we might wonder: why not twice as many?”

Three phases of Stalinism

All elements of workers’ democracy were destroyed by the new rulers. The Bolshevik party, Lewin remarks, was transformed into a bureaucratic apparatus. “The old party principle of the ‘party maximum’ (whereby a member, whatever his position in the hierarchy, could not earn more than a skilled worker) was abandoned as early as 1932, along with other remnants of the initial egalitarianism”. Stalin and his henchman, Molotov, made “all decisions”, via a “completely secret channel of communication”.

The character of the dictatorship had extreme consequences: “A highly centralised state, taking on a mass of tasks that are often simply not feasible”. With disastrous consequences, Stalin imposed his opinions on the fields of science, industry, agriculture, art, literature and education.

In 1937, Stalin destroyed the Red Army high command, as a result of his fear of opposition being expressed through it. In the run up to world war two, Marshal Tukhachevsky “virtually bombarded Stalin with memos and articles about the need to prepare for a war that would require massive technological resources and in which mobile armies would play an unprecedented role”. Tukhachevsky’s advice was ignored, and he was arrested, “atrociously beaten” and dragged before Stalin. At the start of the war, the German army employed such a strategy against Soviet troops to devastating effect. Lewin remarks, “with the likes of Tukhachevsky, the tragedy could have been avoided”.

Lewin outlines three phases of the development of Stalinism: the “elimination of Leninism and taming of the party”; the “extermination of the historical party via the purges and the rewriting of its history”; and “dispensing with ideological liabilities and switching to a nationalist ‘great power’ ideology, comparable to tsarism and adopting its attributes”. The reference to ‘Great and Holy Russia’ in the Soviet Union’s national anthem “rounded off this new-old rhetorical format”.

However, the system’s “absolutist features, befitting another age, were profoundly incompatible with the effects of forced industrialisation in response to the challenges of the new times”. The ruling bureaucracy realised things had to change after the death of Stalin in 1953. The coming to power of Nikita Khrushchev and ‘de-Stalinisation’ saw the eventual dismantling of the gulag camps and industrial slave labour complex and changes in the penal system. Charges like ‘counter-revolutionary crimes’ or ‘enemy of the people’ were removed from the criminal code.

Despite the ending of some of the most draconian repression, Soviet workers were still denied basic labour rights. When the Bolsheviks came to power, labour laws were a prominent part of the government’s agenda: the eight-hour working day, two weeks’ paid holiday, pensions, unemployment, sickness and disability insurance. The “principle of equal pay for equal work was proclaimed”, comments Lewin. But the rise of Stalinism meant that “between 1930 and 1940 most of the 1922 labour code had been rendered obsolete”.

Workers were forced to take any measures in their struggle against state managers, such as by “changing jobs”. KGB documents record major workers’ unrest at Novocherkask, in the Rostov-on-Don region, between 1-3 June 1962, where “protest exploded in an important factory and spread to the whole city”. This witnessed mass demonstrations, blockades of trains, attacks on party and KGB officers, and soldiers fraternising with strikers. Moscow sent troops to quell the protests, killing 23. Events at Novocherkask convinced the central committee to strengthen the KGB secret police.

Post-war economic development…

Lewin traces post-war Soviet economic development, which saw big economic gains and improvements in living standards. Between 1950-60, agricultural output grew by 55% and urban housing stock doubled. Healthcare saw “great improvements”, with infant mortality rates dropping from 182 per thousand live births in 1940 to 81 in 1958 and 27 in 1965. Education levels rose: the numbers in higher education trebled from 1.25 million students to 3.86 million from 1950-66. Peasant incomes grew rapidly, pensions rose and wage differentials narrowed. The Soviet Union enjoyed “some spectacular successes, especially in aerospace”. Lewin quotes another historian: “By 1965 the Soviet Union faced the future with confidence, observed by the capitalist powers with considerable alarm”. (RW Davies, Soviet Economic Development from Lenin to Khrushchev, Cambridge 1998)

These spectacular economic achievements were as a direct result of the nationalised planned economy, despite the dead weight of the bureaucracy. Today, pro-capitalist commentators rubbish and dismiss the achievements of the Soviet Union. Yet it has to be emphasised that Russia was one of the most underdeveloped countries in the world in 1917 but, in a matter of a few decades, it became a modern, industrialised country, a ‘superpower’.

By the end of the Soviet era “modernisation had progressed quite far towards western models”. Lewin observes “the remarkable development of education and intellectual culture as a whole”. Soviet citizens became renowned for being great readers of quality works of world literature, “not to mention their passion for poetry”. Since capitalist restoration, Lewin laments “such qualities have almost entirely vanished”.

The country’s economic model “remained basically Stalinist [and] contained dangerous disequilibria”. The ruling bureaucracy prioritised heavy industry and armaments, but was incapable of developing a modern, complex economy. That required democratic workers’ planning, control and management.

With 200,000 enterprises and 100,000 construction sites spread across the country, the central committee decided in 1957 it had to “enhance republican and local powers”. But efforts to reduce and rationalise the “command-administrative system”, to make it “more efficient, less expensive and more responsive to leadership and public opinion, had been ineffectual”.

A Russian academic, Nemchinov, warned officialdom in 1965, “a system which is so harnessed from top to bottom will fetter technological and social development; and it will break sooner or later under the pressure of the real processes of economic life”. Lewin believes Nemchinov and others represented a “ferment of considerable intellectual and practical import”, but this came to an end with the debilitating Brezhnev years. By the time Gorbachev launched perestroika, the “men of the 1960s” were “already worn out”.

… but massive waste & mismanagement

The fundamental problem was the ruling bureaucracy, whose size – estimated in 1970, as a two million-strong layer of nachal’ niki (‘bosses’) – and insatiable drive for perks, power and privileges, increasingly seized up and strangled the economy.

Reports to the ruling elite in the 1960s detailed enormous “wastage and loss of raw materials”, fuel and electricity and the “production of goods that were too heavy and/or too primitive on account of obsolescent production techniques and methods”. Losses due to shortages of stock and misappropriation of goods in commercial organisations and the food industry were legion. Research and culture facilities were underused.

Lewin concludes, “the system was approaching the critical point where ‘waste’ was going to render it a historical aberration; a system that produced more costs than goods… if it continued to limp along, it was because the country possessed immense resources”.

Some ‘experts’ thought the costly arms sector (40% of all new machines manufactured in the USSR were intended for ‘special purposes’) could help revive the civilian sector. Lewin describes this as “another pipe dream”. The military-industrial complex saw “technological progress rooted in waste and utter disregard for costs”, and exacerbated by “excessive secrecy”. The cold war propelled the USSR “into an arms race that helped to perpetuate the worst, most conservative features of the system and to reduce its ability to reform itself”.

The Soviet ‘planning’ system, Lewin concludes, “whose targets were almost exclusively quantative”, failed to meet social needs. The entire economic and social system was in “disarray and decaying”. Labour shortages grew and labour productivity declined. Labour productivity rates did increase 7.7% per annum between 1951-60, but only by 5.6% between 1961-65. Although the rate of growth in some industries was “still high”, overall it lagged substantially behind the advanced capitalist countries. US labour productivity was 2.5 times higher in industry and services and 4.5 times higher in agriculture.

Reforms: too little too late

Yet the bureaucracy fiercely resisted attempts at ‘reform’. One of the reasons Lewin gives for the plot to remove Khrushchev in 1964 were some of his “dangerous ideas for the apparatchiks, especially the proposal to introduce mandatory rotation of officials at all levels after a certain age”, as well the hostility Khrushchev earned from ‘conservatives’ for ‘de-Stalinisation’ and the loss of prestige and disorientation it caused. Lewin believes that some later Soviet leaders, in particular Yuri Andropov, were keenly aware of the problems of the economy and the need to tackle the bloated bureaucracy. Andropov “purged a whole layer of powerful, backward looking apparatus officials that had been the lynchpin of the previous leadership”. But by 1985 Gorbachev, “who was Andropov’s heir, [and] had many of the right ideas… was destined for a downfall that was as pitiful as his rise had been meteoric…”

Neither Andropov nor any other Soviet leader could have ended the crisis through ‘reforms’. Economic stagnation forced the Soviet leaders to strike blows against the most conspicuously greedy sections of the bureaucracy and to try to stave off potential social explosions from below. But bureaucratic control and domination of society, as a whole, was the problem. Only a political revolution, where the working class would throw the bureaucracy off its back and re-introduce workers’ democracy, could have liberated the enormous potential of the nationalised economy.

The rate of growth of national income fell as economic crisis grew: 5.7% in the 1950s, 3.7% in the first half of the 1970s and 2% in 1980-85. From the mid-1970s, gross national product was increasing less rapidly than in the US, and much less rapidly than in several ‘newly industrialised countries’. By the early 1970s, the Soviet Union entered into a downswing, before sinking definitively into ‘stagnation’.

As the economy stagnated, wages lost their purchasing power, and many in the population were forced to find some additional economic activity on top of their state job. It is estimated that the ‘shadow economy’ multiplied 18-fold from 1960-90; one third of it in agriculture, a further third in commerce and catering, and the rest in industry and construction. By the end of the 1980s, around a fifth of the population was engaged in the shadow economy and it made up 30-50% of parts of the service economy.

Trotsky & political revolution

In the late 1980s to early 1990s, the regime “died after exhausting its inner resources and collapsed under its own weight”. Lewin speculates that the “country’s inability to embark on the new scientific and information revolution must have engendered a sense of powerlessness in some ruling circles”. He discerns the “crystallisation of a proto-capitalism within the state-owned economy” as the “uncontrollable bureaucracy, free of all curbs” began to “attack the sacrosanct principle of state ownership of the economy”. State ownership of assets and the means of production were “slowly eroded, initially in the formation of veritable fiefdoms inside ministries, and then in the de facto privatisation of enterprises by their managers”.

Lewin correctly states the “imperative to resolve the problem of growing labour shortages and arrest economic decline by a dramatic rise in labour productivity… implied nothing less than a revolution”. He asks: “Can bureaucracy be controlled by another bureaucracy or even by itself? Our answer is a categorical ‘No’. Control can be exercised by a country’s political leaders and citizens. It is for them to decide the relevant tasks and the means required to implement such control”. Lewin states that “socialism involves ownership of the means of production by society, not a bureaucracy. It has always been conceived as a deepening – not a rejection – of political democracy”. In contrast, “what we witnessed in the Soviet Union was state ownership of the economy and a bureaucratisation of economy and polity alike”.

Trotsky talked concretely about the class forces involved in overthrowing the ruling bureaucracy and the character of a genuine workers’ state. He advocated political revolution to end Stalinism, ie independent workers’ organisation and action to overthrow the rule of the bureaucracy and to re-introduce workers’ democracy.

Lewin stresses the Soviet Union needed to end economic crisis by “switching to a mixed economy”. Technological and economic reforms “were inextricably bound up with political reforms… only a revitalised political force could compel the bureaucracy to make the transition to a mixed economy”. Trotsky is cited as providing authority for the call for a mixed economy in the early 1920s. Lewin writes that Trotsky held socialism in Russia to be “a long-term project” and to “realise it” required “following in the footsteps of the market economy”.

Trotsky referred to what became the New Economic Policy (NEP) which was introduced in 1921 as a temporary measure to replace ‘war communism’. It allowed limited growth of free trade inside the Soviet Union and foreign trade concessions alongside the nationalised and state-controlled sectors of the economy. Both Lenin and Trotsky warned that the ‘NEPmen’ – petty traders, merchants and swindlers, who benefited from the policy – were a potential base for capitalist restoration.

In a socialist economy there would be room for the ‘market’ (involving small producers, artisans, etc) but to meet the basic needs of all, and to transform living standards and society, requires the nationalisation of the main pillars of the economy, under the democratic control, planning and management of working people.

Understanding the history of the Soviet Union is not an academic exercise. It is vital for the new generation of workers and youth to learn all the lessons from the Russian revolution, and why and how it degenerated, as a guide to future revolutionary opportunities. Already, many of the same issues are posed in Venezuela, where Hugo Chávez has pronounced a ‘socialism of the 21st century’. Alongside the indispensable writings of Trotsky, Lewin’s The Soviet Century – for all the differences revolutionary socialists hold with it – is an important addition to the historical analysis of the former Soviet Union.