Lessons From the Soviet Union

The Soviet Union was the world’s first workers’ state and at its beginning was a beacon for all the poor and downtrodden throughout the planet. However, by the time of its collapse more than ten years ago, it had not only failed economically it was also a byword for ecological devastation. Massive regions of central Asia were made deserts by unsustainable intensive agriculture, and the Aral Sea, one of the earth’s biggest inland water sources virtually ceased to exist. Toxic air and water pollution had reached such extremes that whole areas were uninhabitable, with the picture being completed by the world’s worst nuclear disaster at Chernobyl. Such evidence, critics will argue, shows that even if the socialist program put forward here seems plausible, the experience of ‘actual existing socialism’ in the Soviet Union proved otherwise.

It would however be wrong to describe the Soviet Union as socialist in any way, apart from in its early years. Real socialism must be based on both a planned economy and active, democratic bodies controlling all aspects of society, including harmonising the needs of producers, consumers and the environment. (under capitalism there will always be antagonism between them). Democratic organs are needed, not for abstract reasons, but as the essential mechanism that will decide how to allocate resources efficiently and in an environmentally friendly way. Leon Trotsky described the Soviet Union as a bureaucratically deformed workers’ state, meaning that although capitalism had been overthrown, and therefore technically society belonged to the working class, it was actually in the grip of bureaucrats who had destroyed all vestiges of democracy and who ruled to preserve their own interests.

This totalitarian dictatorship came about in the mid-1920s when Stalin moved to crush all the elements of workers’ democracy that were established by the October 1917 revolution that overthrew capitalism. This was possible because the country was devastated by years of imperialist war and externally imposed civil conflict, and was persecuted and isolated as the only socialist society in the world. In these circumstances of total impoverishment, a new layer developed in society, represented politically by Stalin, whose aim it was to secure for themselves the small resources that were available. However, even in these terrible conditions, this political degeneration was not inevitable, because a successful workers’ revolution in a richer country, something that did not turn out, but was possible, would have lent the USSR the material support it needed to survive as a viable socialist state.

Despite the huge dead weight round its neck due to the bureaucrats, the Soviet Union grew at rates unprecedented anywhere, before or since, due to the advantages of planning. This was though at a cost of staggering waste and environmental destruction due to the mismanagement and indifference of the new ruling caste. Like their capitalist counterparts, the new rulers had no reason to consider the effect of industrialisation on the environment, because their focus was purely on enriching themselves.

When socialism is established in the future, it is extremely unlikely that a Stalinist degeneration would happen again, because the situation in Russia in the 1920s was so overwhelmingly unfavourable, due to a unique combination of circumstances. This was recognised by Lenin and Trotsky, the leaders of the revolution, who had a perspective of holding on until help came from the workers in the West. It is much more likely that the next socialist society will begin from a point much closer to the standard of living of the advanced capitalist countries, as originally envisaged by Marx. Also the lessons of Stalinism have been learnt, which will lead to increased vigilance to prevent any vestige of bureaucratic degeneration developing. Lenin understood this danger and proposed that no Soviet official should receive more than the average workers’ wage, and that elected representatives should be subject to immediate recall and replacement. Similar rules will be necessary in a future socialist society as a guarantee against any repeat of the past.