It seems like the starting point in any serious political activism these days (especially anarchist-flavored) is the acknowledgement that the Soviet Union was a failed model and that we shouldn’t replicate that model. Is the Soviet Union so terrible such that any consideration of emulating parts of it must be immediately discounted?
I don’t think that any consideration of the Soviet Union should be immediately discounted. A communist version of Godwin’s law is just as bad as a Nazi one; the only thing worse than embracing such dark episodes of history is to refuse to ever consider them in full horrendous detail. Thought stares into the pit of hell and is not afraid!
The “Soviet Union”, whatever it was, was a very complicated thing. A sixth of the land mass of the earth, nearly 300 million people by the time it dissolved, for three-quarters of the most tumultuous century of human history. If we’re serious, it’s not something to be dismissed in a sentence. It encompassed vast apparatus of state repression, massive bureaucracies, and an attempted hierarchical central planning mechanism covering the entire project. One can easily argue that the rise and fall of the Soviet Union was the central development around which the whole history of the century turned. No small thing, and not something merely to be wished away.
I know people, especially left libertarians and the like, tend to say things like we don’t want a repeat of the Soviet Union. That’s a kind of shorthand I think, and necessarily sloppy. After all, any language is sloppy when talking about social affairs; and it’s usually an offhand statement; the main place you will hear a specific discussion on the Soviet Union, outside a university or think tank, is at a Trotskyist party meeting or the like. Anyway, depending on context, this shorthand of “we don’t want to replicate the Soviet Union” might be a shorthand for something like “I don’t want to scare you off, new activist, we’re not crazy bolshies!”; or “we must avoid having a repressive State apparatus like the USSR did”; or “we must avoid planning the economy”. I suppose it could mean many other things too.
Well, the first suggested interpretation is just a socialization/comforting mechanism mostly devoid of content; the second is pretty obvious political common sense; but the third, which I think is equally commonly intended, I am not entirely comfortable with. Because I think we need to think hard about what economic systems are possible and what system we would like. It’s by no means an obvious question, to me at least, and the USSR is a useful, even crucial, historical data point. It’s a hard question, in which history, economic data, scientific modelling, political-economic theory, anthropology, and philosophy all have a role to play.
One does often hear that the USSR was a “failed model”. And in almost all, perhaps all, respects it was. And it was so terrible, not just “failed” but epically calamitous, that we need to be quite careful in saying anything positive at all. Saying anything positive without mentioning the mass repression, the mass famines, the civil war, the second world war, the purges, the show trials, the paranoia, the assassinations, the rewriting of history, the propaganda and censorship, the gulags, the destruction of socialism, the brutal collectivizations, the extermination of the Kulaks, the anti-Semitism, the crushing of national rebellions, the geopolitical aggression, the lunatic nuclear brinkmanship, and everything else, is morally impossible. We cannot gloss over a near-century full of these horrors. The weight of history still hangs like a nightmare over the minds of the living, and we cannot overlook it.
Having said all that, however, I think it is possible to isolate some aspects of the economic system of the Soviet Union which are not entirely catastrophic — even though they were deeply intertwined with the political and military situation. Or at least, even if still entirely catastrophic, these aspects are things to consider as we ask what sort of economic system we would like to build.
Because there is a certain sense in which the USSR was a great “economic success story”. This is a limp and insipid phrase applied today by the IMF and its approving mandarins to approved pupils, and by those same pathetic neoliberal third-world governments baying as lambs to the corporate slaughter. As a left third-world government falls under the weight of external pressure (or the US embassy) and is followed by a “sensible” neoliberal government, the World Bank and establishment press will cheer on any positive economic growth figures as evidence of this spectacular “economic success story”, even if it means that families are thrown off their farms as trade liberalization wipes them out, even if it means that indigenous peoples are thrown off their traditional land by mining interests, even if it means that inequality skyrockets as an elite corporate/expat/bureaucratic/patronage class accrues that growth to itself.
So the above is a disgusting usage of the word “success”, to be sure: in standard neoliberal-economic-necrophiliac style we fall in love with a number which increases, while the human beings suffering behind it are invisible. But so it goes, and so it was with the Soviet Union; if any of the received stories of economic success are to be believed, the Soviet Union must be many times over. This massive country, a sixth of the earth, achieves massive economic growth and development and industrialisation, from “backwards” peasant society to leading industrial power and #2 military power in the world — in a generation. Those tractors and steel plants, and the now-amusing 5-year-plan over-excitement and Stakhanovites and “communism = Soviet Power + Electrification of the whole country!” — there actually was something material behind it. It scared the shit out of Western elites. So in this very specific sense — possibly a terrible sense, but a sense which is widely used by elites — the USSR was, at least for its first 50 years or so, an economic success story. It was not a failure.
I think one can fairly easily see, at a broad level, how this was possible: having a powerful central government that can order people what to do can get a whole lot of things built and produced. Capitalism had not really developed to a great extent before the revolution, and so once having cleared away the relics of feudalism and having won the civil war, the Bolsheviks were able to impose new economic structures on something closer to a blank slate. Capital-intensive development of heavy industry and infrastructure was possible since the state could impose deprivation by force on the population — indeed, starving unfavoured elements of the population in the process.
There’s not much at all to admire here. The central planning mechanism was crude, violent, and brutal. It was used as a political weapon, to the extent of exterminating whole classes by force and starvation. Nor is it even really accurate to say the economy was planned: certain parts were, but certain parts (especially in agriculture) continued on their own accord. Even in the industrial sectors that were supposedly following plans, shortages and bottlenecks choked production regularly. Shortages of consumer goods were endemic. And there wasn’t much socialist about it, if by socialism we mean something about economic democracy. The worker in the Soviet factory was on similar terms with his “employer” as a worker under capitalism; except perhaps without the ability to form an independent union. The old saying went “we pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us”. Nor was the planning mechanism democratic: rather, managers provided information to the top, and orders came back down. Nor were planning goals particularly progressive: they altered a bit as theory shifted, but usually were based on production targets or “profit” maximization (as calculated by some accounting mechanism). One can easily argue that the Soviet economy was State capitalist rather than socialist in any form.
Still, at a very broad level, I think there is support for a very weak proposition: that planning mechanisms — even ones such as the present case, which are horribly incompetently administered, enforced without democratic consent, setting impossible tasks, not followed in practice, and prioritising favoured classes and military- and capital-oriented heavy industrial development over the general wellbeing — can develop an economy in a very short period of time. One can certainly argue about it, and how desirable it is, but this is one way to look at it.
Indeed, as I recall, the USSR barely suffered from the Great Depression: many elites and intellectuals in the west were convinced that the depression had showed capitalism was unworkable, that some form of planning was necessary, at least for economic stability, if not more. And the USSR, despite all the above massive problems, not only managed to avoid the depression and to industrialise rapidly; there were also some minimal economic safeguards put in place, such as guaranteed (enforced) employment, and food security (famines and kulaks and Ukrainians etc aside). General standards of living were rising. These are not insignificant matters.
Later on, the economy stagnated more and one can argue — seems to me pretty credibly — that the Soviet economy was collapsing by the 1980s, quite independent of Reagan chest-thumping and the like. Central planning and heavy industrialisation only gets you so far; any argument one can apply to a capitalist economy about a declining rate of profit leading to stagnation applies also to a State capitalist economy. Except that a capitalist economy can get out of it by various crisis mechanisms (austerity, Keynesian spending, war, emerging new technologies, squeezing the workforce); while a State capitalist bureaucracy, where political authorities run the economy but are bankrupt in all of technology, finance and authority, is much more vulnerable to a total political collapse. Which, of course, is what happened.
So, it’s a (slightly) mixed picture. To regard the historicalexperience of the Soviet Union at the broadest level, it must be considered an unmitigated catastrophe on any political/economic/moral level. But as it is the modern world’s greatest experiment yet in a large-scale economic system other than corporate capitalism, then if we want to find an alternative to corporate capitalism, we have to pay attention. And when we do, I think we see not only lots of indications of what to avoid, but also some small morsels of information and suggestions about how to proceed in the next experiment.
I should add that I have not said anything about ideology. Hysterical and by now intuitive anti-communist propaganda, “communism doesn’t work”, et cetera ad nauseam, is now not a historical relic of McCarthy but something deeply buried in the contemporary psyche. But these are just content-free slogans, and for our purposes here we should put them aside and just look directly at the experience of the USSR by what happened there. It’s a whole separate question how to deal with the legacy of this propaganda. But one important conclusion of the above is that the most recognisable imprint of that propaganda — “communism doesn’t work” — is precisely the wrong criticism to make, at least if we apply the same (despicable) standards of economic judgment as we do to other nations. In which case, about the only positive thing we can say is that Soviet communism did work, and was an economic success story, for half a century.

No Godwins, Left or Right
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