Socialism and the Soviet Union

Published: September 2020
Draft Topic for our ‘Transformation, a Manifesto for Democratic Socialism’

The socialist insurrection in October 1917 that created the basis for the Soviet Union was a genuinely popular revolution. Not an unrepresentative coup as critics of the revolution often maintain.

The new Soviet government was a two-party coalition made up of parties that had the support of a large majority of the working population. As such it was a partnership led by the Bolsheviks, the revolutionary wing of the social democrats, representing most Russian workers; with the Left Socialist Revolutionaries, who had majority support among the peasants. Along with their supporters in the intelligentsia and sections of the middle class, the new government expressed the wishes of a decisive mass of the Russian people.
   Russia’s October was also a democratic revolution. The revolutionary forces first had to win an elected majority in the Soviets which were the only democratic organs in the country. Then they had to persuade the military regiments in the capital to freely vote to follow the orders of the Soviet Military Revolutionary Committee rather than the military high command. These two steps formed the democratic basis for the transfer of power to the first workers and peasants government in history. 

The policies of the new government – land to the peasants, withdrawal from the War, food for the workers, a new Constituent Assembly – all had overwhelming support among the Russian population.

Problems for the New Revolution
From the outset, the revolution faced a myriad of problems. First and foremost, Russia was a backward, overwhelmingly agricultural country. Not the advanced industrial nation that Marx had envisaged in which to build a new socialist society. Capitalism had not been overthrown in its ripest rampart but as Lenin put it, had broken at its weakest link.

Moreover, Russia was a country that had faced three years of a devastating war with Germany and Austro-Hungary. A war that had killed 2.5 million Russian soldiers and civilians. And left the economy in a weakened state. 

Last but not least, the October Revolution, despite the best efforts of its participants to spark off a series of socialist revolutions in the more advanced countries, ended up isolated and on its own. The result was that Russia was faced with the very difficult task of building a socialist society in a backward society and encircled by a hostile capitalist world.

Quite apart from these severe objective difficulties that the new Soviet government faced, it soon went on to make major subjective mistakes that made its problems that much worse.

Constituent Assembly Elections
A major miscalculation was the decision of the new government to hold elections for the Constituent Assembly within weeks of the Revolution, instead of delaying them until the following summer. The masses of the population had not yet had a chance to evaluate the outcome of the revolution. Soviets were still being formed across the country and the media remained largely dominated by the capitalists and royalists.The predictable result was a wholly undemocratic outcome in the makeup of the new Assembly: a majority of the Deputies elected represented the exact opposite of what most of the population wanted. For example, a majority of the peasants voted for the Socialist Revolutionaries thinking that they were electing the people who had just given them the land and ended the War. But in fact, they had cast their votes for candidates from the Right of the Party who had recently broken away from the party and directly opposed the peasants’ interests. 

Thus, when the Constituent Assembly gathered in January 1918, instead of consolidating the Revolution and devising a new democratic constitution which protected the people’s rights, it became a focus of counter-revolution. This left the Soviet government with no alternative but to close down the Assembly. This made the new government look completely anti-democratic – holding an election for an assembly and then shutting it down because it didn’t like the outcome! 

This was like manna from heaven for the reactionaries and gave them a great propaganda victory. It formed the basis for all the political parties outside the government, who normally were deeply divided, to form a united front against the revolution and its government. And to launch a united civil war against it. Simultaneously, it helped the capitalist governments abroad to better justify supplying massive military and financial aid for the prosecution of this counter-revolutionary civil war.

War Communism
For three years Soviet Russia was plunged into a horrific civil war in which up to 12 million perished, the large majority of them civilians. This brutalised the Revolution forcing the use of all kinds of ‘special measures’ and undermining the very democracy that had achieved the Revolution in the first place. One of these mistaken measures was the introduction of ‘War Communism’. 

In order to feed and finance the new Red Army that was being brilliantly created from scratch by Trotsky, the Bolsheviks forcibly requisitioned food from the peasants, abolished money and paid workers in kind. The results were disastrous. Industrial production further declined to one-fifth of the prewar level, and real income per capita dropped by 60 percent. The workers had no choice but to accept this. But, the peasants now having control of their own means of production simply refused to cooperate. They stopped ploughing, hid their grain and slaughtered their animals for their own consumption.The inevitable result was agricultural crisis and a famine in which several million starved to death.

Accompanying these measures of war communism was the nationalisation of all business and trade. Inspired by the victories of the Red Army, much of the Bolshevik Party began to believe that through forced collectivisation of agriculture and coerced direction of labour they could somehow jump rapidly from a peasant-based economy to an advanced industrial society. The problem with this was that the masses were simply not willing to accept the sacrifices and compulsion involved. When the Civil War finally came to an end in 1921 the victorious Bolsheviks ironically found themselves very unpopular both among the workers and the peasants. Strikes broke out across the USSR and peasant uprisings occurred in some areas. The best known of these protests being the Krondstadt Rebellion.

New Economic Policy (NEP)
In light of the widespread discontent, Lenin recognised the need to step back. He persuaded a reluctant Communist Party Congress in 1921 to accept a New Economic Policy (NEP). Under the NEP the Bolsheviks replaced arbitrary grain requisitions with a tax in kind. And allowed the peasants free use of the state-owned land as long as it was cultivated. Lenin’s original intention was to limit the reform to barter between farmers and the state in the local areas. But by the autumn normal buying and selling had swept across the country. As a welcome result, the food crisis quickly eased.

The government also reintroduced money and allowed private ownership and capitalistic practices in the retail trade and light industry. While the state retained control of banking, foreign trade, transportation and heavy industry. This was a mixed economy where 100 million peasants on 25 million small holdings were allowed to sell their produce in markets and a multiplicity of small private businesses free to operate. Side by side with this, the government continued to control the ‘commanding heights’ of the economy with state industries employing 85% of the urban workforce. Further, the state leased factories to cooperatives, as well as to foreign capitalists which it was encouraging to bring in their technology and participate in the Soviet economy. 

At first, Lenin conceded that the NEP was a “retreat” and a “turning back toward capitalism”. But he and Nicolai Bukharin, who was to become the chief theoretician of NEP, soon began to see it as an obligatory policy for a socialist government in a largely agricultural country. As the best way of combining socialist and capitalist economic forms in the transition to a fully socialist society. 

In addition, they came to understand that such a society could only move forward by forming a long-term alliance between the workers and the peasants. As Lenin put it: “in our Soviet Republic the social order is based on the collaboration of two classes: the workers and the peasants.” A “split” between these classes, Lenin concluded, “would be fatal.” 

This was a major change for the Bolsheviks who had seen the peasants only as a temporary ally. Helping to make the revolution in order to gain the land. But as a potential enemy as they sought to grow their farms and develop a capitalist agriculture. In order to avoid this danger Lenin and Bukharin developed a cooperative strategy to bring the farmers together, and link them to the socialist state. These cooperatives would combine the peasants together for the purchase of seeds, animals and equipment; for marketing of their produce; and for negotiating credit from the state banks. 

Lenin’s new approach was also based on a voluntary approach to economic management in place of the coercion involved in the previous period of War Communism. Unfortunately, he did not combine this more democratic approach with an appreciation of the danger that was threatening the internal life of his own party, and through its one-party rule that of the whole of Soviet society.

The Decline of Democracy in the Party & the State
The problem of democracy emerged less than a year after the governing role of soviets were enshrined in the 1918 constitution. The other socialist parties made attempts to violently overthrow the soviet government and so were banned from standing in elections within the soviets. This had the effect of introducing one-party rule in the USSR. And unintentionally of emasculating the soviets. After all, if everything was now decided by the Party what role did the soviets have? This naturally focused the question of democracy solely on the Bolsheviks. And very quickly democracy started to fall short in the Party and bureaucracy to replace it. 

This was soon reflected in the emergence of opposition factions inside the Bolshevik party which protested against this process. First off were the Democratic Centralists which formed in 1919 to organise against the increasing centralism and decreasing democracy in the running of the Party. Then the Workers Opposition in early 1921 emerged to campaign on similar issues. The main leaders of the Communist Party responded to these complaints and other divisions in the Party by banning the organisation of factions at the 1921 Congress. This was initially thought of as a temporary measure to hold the country and the revolution together at a moment of severe danger. But Lenin in response to a question from one of the Congress delegates declared it to be a permanent ban. This turned out to be a serious mistake – the ban on factions became a crucial noose around the neck of internal democracy in the Party. 

In the same period, Lenin unwittingly proposed that Stalin become General Secretary and also be put in charge of other key administrative posts. 

Finally, the 1921 Congress saw the emergence of slates in the election of the Central Committee. Previously elected on the basis of individual performance, the new slate system potentially allowed the existing leadership to decisively influence who was elected to future Central Committees.

Taking full advantage of all three of these developments, Stalin began a ruthless and stealthy bid to take over the Party. Within a year, he had already placed his supporters as officials across the Party. 

Lenin, the undisputed leader of the party and the government, quickly began to sense Stalin’s growing power behind the scenes. And to identify the coarse and brutal aspects in his character that made him a danger to the future of the Party. He sought to form alliances against Stalin. But, fortunately for Stalin, Lenin suffered a series of strokes that progressively reduced his abilities until his death at the beginning of 1924. 

Trotsky, still leader of the Red Army and the second most important leader of the Party, also began to be alarmed by the bureaucratisation of the Party. And unlike in earlier years, from 1923 onwards he started to openly campaign against it. But he, like most of the Party underestimated Stalin who they saw as a second rate organiser. A key turning point came soon after Lenin’s death. On the eve of the following Congress Trotsky and the other leaders agreed in the name of maintaining party unity to suppress Lenin’s Last Testament calling for Stalin’s removal as General Secretary. This was effectively their last chance to stop Stalin but they were not to know it until five years later.

Divisions over the Economy
After Lenin’s death, major factional struggles developed within the Party. 

A central issue was the future of the Soviet economy. In Lenin’s absence, Bukharin became the leading defender of the NEP which had achieved great success in its initial period. Both peasants and workers were eating better. Rations had been replaced with real wages which now rose to higher than prewar levels. Working hours had decreased from ten hours a day to eight. Access to welfare benefits, free medical care and education were starting to become available. 

But there were many problems too. Emigration from the countryside to the towns was creating widespread urban unemployment and a lack of housing. The operation of private enterprise was leading to growing inequality, profiteering and corruption. Some ‘Red partisans’ had even become Soviet millionaires. In the cities there was widespread prostitution, gambling and drug trafficking. 

Some workers started to label the NEP as the “New Exploitation of the Proletariat”. All of this led to resentment among many Communist Party members who saw this as a betrayal of the Revolution. Fears began to grow of a potential capitalist threat from the richer peasants and Nepmen, as the industrialists, middlemen and speculators came to be known. 

Trotsky’s Left Opposition came to politically represent these fears. Their chief economic theorist, Preobrazhensky, developed his “primitive socialist accumulation” theory, which argued for the rapid expansion of state industrial capital by squeezing the peasantry through taxation and higher prices for their industrial products. Thus, they proposed that the Soviet Union should launch an industrialisation “offensive” as part of a five year plan.    

No-one in the Communist Party leadership disputed the need to industrialise but disagreed over at what speed it should be carried out, and how it should be paid for. Bukharin, in particular, disagreed with the Left Opposition arguing that industrialisation could not be carried out at the expense of the peasantry who would simply refuse to cooperate as they had in the war communism period. That given the dominance of agriculture in the Soviet Union, the proletariat “is compelled, in building socialism, to carry the peasantry with it.” 

Bukharin further argued that the threat of a restoration of capitalism was unreal given the small number of wealthy farmers, a fact that was later proved to be correct. He called for balanced growth and a slower tempo than the Left. That in a largely agricultural country industrial growth should spring first from the countryside generated by the demands of the farmers for implements and household products. That the processing of agricultural products and demand for more complex producer goods such as tractors would naturally lead to the development of light industry and then to heavy industry.

But events seemed to support the super-industrialisers, as the Left Opposition became known. Shortfalls in grain collection caused by artificially low state prices caused severe shortages in the cities in what became known as the ‘scissors’ crisis. In response, Bukharin moved towards some of the Left Opposition’s positions. He came to see that a Five Year Planning system was required and more investment in heavy industry. Plus, he started to accept the Left’s argument for the development of voluntary collective farms. But, unlike the Left Opposition he was confident that the resources for all this could be found without squeezing the peasants. 

Stalin removes all opposition
During this debate over the future of the soviet economy, Stalin was busy building up his forces and taking steps to destroy all opposition within the Party. From a position in the centre of the Party, Stalin first allied with the Right against the Left Opposition. Utilising the ban on factions and the majority he had built up in the Central Committee, he accused Trotsky and his supporters of breaking party discipline and organised his removal first from the leadership of the Party and then from the Soviet Union itself. With Trotsky out of the way, he turned on Zinoviev and Kamenev who were removed from their leading positions and forced to recant. Then he turned on Bukharin and his supporters. This left him in undisputed control of the party.

As Bukharin’s biographer concluded: “Part of the tragedy of the old Bolsheviks lay here: for seven years they fought among themselves over principles, while an intriguer gradually acquired the power to destroy them all.

Even Trotsky missed what was really happening and for a time saw Bukharin as the main threat. During the early part of the struggle between Stalin and Bukharin in 1928 he predicted that Bukharin and Rykov would shortly “hunt down Stalin as a Trotskyist, just as Stalin had hunted down Zinoviev.” Then when Bukharin began to put out feelers to the opposition, Trotsky responded “With Stalin against Bukharin? Yes. With Bukharin against Stalin? Never!” 

Bukharin, of course, being on the inside understood the balances of forces far better. As he communicated to Trotsky, he had discovered that “the disagreements between us and Stalin are many times more serious than all of the disagreements we had with you.”

Stalin Turns to the Left
The continuing crises of grain deliveries became the occasion for Stalin to take a dramatic turn to the left. In doing so he adopted much of the Left Opposition’s economic programme but in an extreme and brutal form. He pushed through the new line ending the NEP and launching a war against the peasantry. He adopted the Five Year Plan and included highly ambitious targets for the industrialisation of the country. 

Sections of the Left Opposition including Preobrazhensky welcomed Stalin’s new policy and actually moved over into his camp. In a secret visit to Kamenev, Bukharin hastened to warn others in the opposition against joining forces with Stalin: “He is an unprincipled intriguer, who subordinates everything to his thirst for power… He will kill us all. He is another Genghis Khan and will strangle us.

Stalin also included a new policy: a programme of compulsory agricultural collectivization that would force the peasants from their 25 million farms into 250,000 collective farms owned by the state. It was effectively a return to war communism but on an even larger more permanent scale. 

The peasantry responded in the only way they knew, slaughtering their own livestock to prevent them being requisitioned by the collective farms. By 1934, half of the country’s 33 million horses, 70 million cattle, 26 million pigs, and two-thirds of its 146 million sheep and goats had disappeared. Twenty-five years later, livestock herds had still not recovered.

In the process of collectivisation Stalin identified the richer peasants, the so-called Kulaks, as a major threat to be eliminated. The only problem was the number of kulaks had been grossly overestimated and the threat they were supposed to represent virtually non-existent. It became a ludicrous task of ‘find the kulak’. But, in their absence officials expelled millions of the country’s most industrious peasants from the land, ultimately leading to the terminal decline of the Soviet agricultural sector.”

As for the collective farms, for many years they turned out to be a pathetic failure run by unqualified managers. Few even had tractors to replace the horses the peasantry had destroyed. 

The inevitable outcome was widespread famine with between 4.6 million and 8.5 million people dying of starvation or disease between 1930 and 1933.

Industrialisation and the Five Year Plans
There can be no question that the Five Year Plans and the drive for the industrialisation of the Soviet Union brought impressive results which compared very favourably to the Western capitalists economies which were going through the years of the Great Depression. Industrial output in the First Five year Plan increased 118%. The Second Five Year Plan begun in 1933 yielded impressive albeit slower growth. Then a Third Plan was cut short by the invasion of Germany in the Second World War.

But this rapid economic expansion came at great cost. And not just for the peasants. In the cities, housing space fell dramatically and consumption of meat declined by two thirds. Workers lost all rights. Real wages dropped by up to half. Rationing and queues became commonplace with consumer goods and services non-existent. 

Worse still, many of the big construction projects for power stations, dams etc. were carried out by slave labour from a massively expanded system of labour camps, many of whom were worked to death. Millions of camp inmates, condemned for decades as ‘enemies of the state’ were used to fell the forests and mine raw materials in the freezing and remote areas of Northern Russia. 

Stalin’s Great Purge
Stalin became increasingly unpopular and constantly feared revolts against his brutal methods from within his own Party. To prevent this he began to eliminate his rivals and organise the arrest of communist activists from the end of 1934. This reached a peak in the years from 1936-8 when millions were arrested, tortured and shot. Show trials were organised of the ex-leaders of the Party in which they were forced to confess to ridiculous crimes in order to save their families. By the time that an agent of Stalin assassinated Trotsky in Mexico in 1940, only Stalin was left alive from the Bolshevik leadership who had made the Revolution.

Even the Red Army leaders, the most experienced and able military leaders in Europe, were caught up in the purge and executed. This greatly helped Hitler’s war against the Soviet Union in 1941. 

Second World War
The growing industrial strength of the Soviet Union was clearly demonstrated in the Second World War. Despite serious mistakes by Stalin – first in the Stalin-Hitler Pact which greatly helped the Germans in their drive to conquer Europe; and then in his unwillingness to listen to the warnings of the coming German invasion – the Soviet system was able to hold and then drive back the mighty nazi war machine. 

The power of the planned economy meant that soviet industry was able to be relocated beyond the reach of enemy air attack, and rapidly built up to match and then overcome the German armaments. In time, the Red Army was able to drive the German invaders all the way back to Berlin. And in the process to occupy the eastern half of Europe. Once there, they imposed a system of state ownership and planning along with the stalinist system of repression and control. 

After the Second World War
Despite the devastation of the War and its 25 million Soviet victims, the post-war period in the Soviet Union was one of successful reconstruction. Indeed, in the 50 years up to 1963, Soviet industrial output multiplied more than 52 times over. In contrast, over the same period, industrial output in the US grew just six times, while in Britain it barely doubled. In 1917, Russia had been at the same economic level as India. By the 1960s, it had risen to become the world’s second industrial and military superpower after the United States.

This was reflected in a massive increase in general living standards with full employment and many public utilities and services provided free.

But increasingly, economic growth began to slow. Central planning worked reasonably well when the main task was to produce a relatively small number of key products in large quantities. However, as the economy became more complex planning from above became less effective. The absence of any democratic control by the population resulted in the priorities of the planners being towards heavy industry and the military rather than light industry and consumer goods. Plus the lack of any input from the workforce or consumers meant that there were frequent shortages and queues, and that the quality of consumer products was lacking.

Most soviet workers were alienated, cared little about the quality of what they produced or about improving production, often worked as little as possible, and used the time and energy they had left over to function in the informal sector. 

Another major problem in the bureaucratically planned system was a lack of innovation. At one time the Soviet Union had the most scientists of any country on earth. This reflected its emphasis on higher education in science and engineering. As a result great basic science was done which was utilised in heavy industry, military technology and space. But these scientific developments were rarely applied to light industry and consumer products. And this was reflected in the failure of the Soviet Bloc to produce attractive products for the world consumer market.

Contrast this to the experience of Japan. In the 1970s Japan was spending 2.5% of its GDP on research and development compared to the Soviet Union’s 4 per cent. Yet it grew much faster because this funding was spread across a wider variety of economic sectors. Crucially, the Soviet Union did not have organisations through which to commercialize the technologies developed by the state. Moreover, Japan had strong user–producer linkages which produced popular hi-tech products. Japan also encouraged innovation with incentives provided to management and the workforce of companies, rather than mainly focusing as the USSR did on bureaucratically-run scientific academies.

Stagnation and Collapse
The decade of the 1980s saw the Soviet economy stagnate which created an increasing political crisis that soon led to the collapse of the whole system. 

The reasons for this collapse were manifold. The rise in military spending in response to the provocations of the US meant that the USSR ended up spending 40% of its annual budget on defence. This included the disastrous war in Afghanistan. The agricultural sector was never sorted out, and the Soviet Union ended up having to import larger and larger amounts of grain. All the while, rampant bribery and corruption had spread throughout society. The ruling caste of officials was rapidly losing confidence in their own system and beginning to look to the West as a superior alternative. 

The reforming government of Gorbachev that took office in 1985 tried to open up the system with a policy of ‘glasnost’ (openness) which enhanced freedom of speech and the press. And to implement perestroika (restructuring) of economic decision-making. This included steps towards some elements of the old NEP. But Gorbachev was paralyzed by indecision and constantly reversed decisions.

From 1989 the states in Eastern Europe that formed the Soviet Bloc began to break away.  Finally, in 1991 following a failed coup the Soviet Union itself began to rapidly unravel. Various national parts of the Union declared independence leaving behind a smaller Russian Federation.

Then began a rapid economic transformation of Russia into a capitalist state. Once the planning network which had coordinated the economy was removed, what occurred was not the spontaneous self-organisation of the economy promised by the neo-liberal advisers, but a domino process of collapse. One industry after another closed down. An industrial system that had been designed to work as an integrated whole, was split up by national barriers and simply ceased to operate.

Accompanying the dismantling of central planning, came the wholesale privatisation of state industries. This was carried out on such a scale and so rapidly that there was no class of citizens wealthy enough to buy up state companies by legal means. Thus, the best pickings of the economy passed into the hands of ex-soviet officials and gangsters. 

Instead of delivering the promised land, this process impoverished the country. From having been the world’s second superpower, Russia was reduced to the status of a minor bankrupt economy with a huge decline in industrial production and in living standards. Even life expectancy fell, with the population actually declining by nearly six million. 

Conclusions
With the benefit of hindsight, especially that of the spectacular performance of the Chinese economy after Mao’s death, we can now see that Lenin and Bukharin’s New Economic Policy approach was the most likely to succeed if it had been allowed to proceed from the end of the 1920s. In a largely agricultural society, socialists needed to focus first on agriculture in order to solve the food problem for the farmers and the urban population. From this first step, rising productivity in the countryside and the resulting surplus could have been used to develop light and then heavy industry in an organic and balanced way.

Integral to such a policy would have been the need for the workers and peasants to work together in a cooperative alliance. Tragically, Stalin chose the opposite path of coercion; a “revolution from above” as he put it at the time. And this created a top-down repressive system that was unable to provide the dynamism and efficiency needed for continuous rapid development of Soviet society. Thus, the collapse of the Soviet Union was never an inevitable process but one that had been prepared many decades earlier. And never repaired in time. Fortunately, China was able to learn from this experience and take a different road. As we clearly lay out in our Topic: ‘China’s New Economic Policy 1977 – today’

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