Perception, pretence and reality
The old system did not collapse, argues Hillel Ticktin: the elite decided to kill it off
Let me begin by referring to a few surprises I encountered when I first went to the Soviet Union in January 1961. As someone on the left who was highly critical of the USSR, I knew it was not the happiest place in the world to be and did not expect to be surprised by its defects. Nonetheless, I was simply amazed by some of what I experienced. I had read critiques, including by Trotsky, but I simply had not recognised just how backward it actually was (obviously Trotsky could not write about it after August 1940).
When I arrived, I was met at the airport and taken from Moscow to Kiev - Moscow was already full of foreign students, after Khrushchev had opened it up and there was a new university being built specially for them. As a PhD student I was sent to Kiev, where I spent the next eight months learning Russian.
There are odd incidents I remember which illustrate my own lack of understanding about the relative backwardness of the country. One of the things I needed as a student was a pen. It never occurred to me that I would have a problem getting one, but I did. I walked into a department store and asked for a ball-point pen. I soon had a large crowd around me trying to discover what I wanted - I could not speak Russian at that point, other than a few words. ‘What on earth does he want?’ They just did not have any ball-point pens. One or two people understood what I was talking about, but were afraid to say, ‘We don’t have any’. I was simply amazed.
I went back to the hostel and in a few days I was ill and spent the next three weeks in hospital. I had underestimated the severity of the climate and did not realise just how thick a coat I would need. Had it been in the west I would not have been in hospital for three weeks. I was introduced to Soviet medicine, including ‘cupping’ - putting hot cups on your back according to the theory that it brings the infection in the blood to the surface and so helps you survive. I did not have leeches, but I was introduced to the idea. This was completely serious Soviet medicine. Not all of it was like that, but such backwardness was generally accepted, as was incompetence in general, which is what I continually experienced.
Taking the bus back to the hostel where I was staying was another such experience. It was full - they always seemed to be. Citizens jumped onto the side of the bus and held on - that was just accepted. This illustrated not so much backwardness as underdevelopment, and the acceptance of it: the structure, the form of oppression, the form of control one can observe over time. Obviously, since I had read various articles and books on that, I was not surprised. But I was really surprised by the overall backwardness and acceptance of it. The main problem was a very low level of productivity, particularly in relation to what was possible (in fact that situation has continued, even though the Soviet Union no longer exists).
Another thing I learnt very quickly was the importance of keeping your mouth shut (or of ‘speaking without speaking’). One had to learn to do this, of course - something I did not do for a few years! This was very much part of a society where direct criticism was not tolerated. However, the way you expressed something often allowed the person you were addressing to grasp a large part of what you were thinking. That became a habit that people learned.
After Stalin had been renounced by Khrushchev that was no longer present in quite the same way, but before that it was just considered normal. Surprisingly perhaps, that kind of ‘non-language language’ is still not written about very much, even though it was very much part of the society. Not everybody behaved in that way, of course - many completely suppressed their real feelings, but it was very difficult not to see the defects of society on an everyday basis - everybody saw it. It was in your face.
And it was not just the permanent system of queuing, the shortages, the constant problems of everyday existence. I remember one person of some authority telling me that the only way he could go through the day was by getting up at 6am and having a really cold shower. In other words, it was not an easy society to live in - people were forced to accept that they could not really express what changes they would like to see.
As I say, I arrived in 1961, which was just before Khrushchev’s second major speech which changed the climate. In 1956, you remember, he came out with his first open attack on Stalin. In fact he had been issuing statements internally in the party. So it was no surprise that the Communist Party itself, or a substantial section of it, had huge doubts. For those higher up, of course, it was not that much of a surprise. But that is what you would expect, because if Khrushchev had suddenly came out with a statement that effectively Stalin was an enemy of the people (although he did not put it that bluntly) it would have been a tremendous blow at the time. It had first come out within the party and Khrushchev’s speech had obviously been discussed, albeit probably at the top level only.
But it did shake up society at the time and there were various movements in Moscow University which I witnessed after I had returned from Kiev. Like proposing to stand somebody else in an election - when, of course, only one candidate, approved by the Communist Party, was permitted. Various people were dealt with as a result.
The point is that in 1961 Khrushchev made his second speech about Stalin and removed his body from the Lenin mausoleum. By now, there was a degree of openness which had not been there before. I always remember walking around Red Square one day and witnessing a whole series of discussions going on about the situation that now existed and what was possible.
However, Khrushchev himself was removed in 1964 and they began to clamp down again. I have already described the way people were controlled when I described how they could not really speak to each other openly and if they really wanted to point to something controversial did so in a disguised form. However, by the time Khrushchev had made his speeches, people would no longer be automatically jailed, as might have happened under Stalin. A critical comment might simply be ignored - or else it might count against them in their future life or their job; or if it was sufficiently serious they might be paid a visit.
There was no question of the continuing major role of the secret police. It was quite clear that if you formed a grouping, certainly in the major cities, you would expect it to be infiltrated. I do not think you could form a group of even three people without the likelihood that one of them would report it. Some students believed they had to criticise what existed because you couldn’t not criticise it - at least in your head or by implication. If you were satisfied with everything as it was, most people would regard you as a complete idiot.
Many foreign communists came to see the marvels of Moscow. But the kind of nonsense that a student might get up to was to stand up and shout about how the Communist Party was loved as a kind of joke, assuming they would be listened to and perhaps what they said would be recorded.
In other words, what I very quickly got was a picture of control which was not accepted, but lived with, and of the way people had adapted as a result: they generally found some way to exist within the system.
The one advantage the Soviet Union had was full employment, which may or may not have been in the ‘doctrine’, as it were. It actually came about because of the inefficiency of the system: it required an increasing number of people, as it grew (or even if it did not grow). By the time the system was coming to an end, it was employing people from other countries, such as Vietnam. The logic, if the USSR had survived, was that it would draw in enormous numbers of people from elsewhere just to deal with its supreme inefficiency.
Why was it so inefficient? In a sense it is not different from any capitalist country, where competition for profit generates inefficiency through duplication. But in the Soviet Union the inefficiency was on a society-wide scale. That was because it had no incentive system which would actually work. Under capitalism it basically takes the form of the money people are paid. If your work is inferior, you are paid less or you lose your job, and generally you are trained to be able to work to the level of the job - both in school and/or university and on the job itself.
But in the Soviet Union it was not very clear what could be done to raise the level of productivity, except by everybody working very hard for very little and there did not seem to be any point in that. Technically there were trade unions, of course, but it was impossible to form a genuine union to fight for workers’ interests. Not that there were no strikes, but if they took place, even under Khrushchev, those taking part could be shot down. By the 1980s that was no longer happening and there were indeed major strikes.
For most of the existence of the Soviet Union, the conditions were that you had to accept the rules which you were subject to and the nature of production, or whatever else you were engaged in - you were stuck with the way things were. And, as any reward was minimal, what was the point of working hard? The natural result of such conditions is that collectively the working class simply does not work very hard, without this being consciously determined by a union, of course. People would work to the minimum level without actually sabotaging production and that is what usually happened.
The consequence was general atomisation - the result of the fact that the overwhelming majority of the population disliked what existed from top to bottom. They disliked the overall political form; they disliked the place where they were working; they disliked what they were doing. Whatever the inherent attractions had been, things had been turned into their opposite under a form of semi-forced production.
A situation of overall discontent and low productivity exists in one form or another under capitalism too. But in the USSR this was the system and the entire society was affected. As always, you could find exceptions: for example, people involved in research might gain satisfaction from what they were doing, whether they were paid or not. Similarly, people who were highly skilled might also gain satisfaction from the work they were doing: for instance, if they were able to overcome certain challenges. So, although a scientist may not have liked what existed overall, they might not have had quite the same sort of difficult life as an ordinary worker, who had no interest whatsoever in the work they were doing.
So it was hardly surprising that there was very little cooperation. In fact as a result of the complete subjugation of the population it was absolutely obvious that the vast majority would throw out the Communist Party if they got the chance. Workers would hear them repeating what Lenin said word for word, when everyone knew they did not even believe it, or perhaps did not even understand what they were saying.
Before I went to the USSR I had no idea of the extent of the subjugation - one had to interrelate with and understand what was really happening. But I did learn over time. Having got married there and having a child actually made a very big difference: I was accepted in a way I would not have been otherwise, which allowed me to see what was really happening. It was not exactly difficult to grasp that nobody accepted the system. True, Communist Party members from other countries could not see it and thought how wonderful it all was. Similarly, other people who were met and greeted by officials might also not see it. But, once you were actually within the society, you just could not miss it.
I remember how about after a year I bought a record of Lenin’s speeches, which cost 17 kopeks - in other words, practically nothing. I have actually still got it and I think it is useful. But I remember how I was disparaged for buying it - I was just laughed at. Who on earth would want to do such a stupid thing? Obviously this was in private.
It was not generally known outside the USSR how few people accepted the system and how many were opposed to Marxism (and Leninism). It was not because they understood what it really was and thought it was fundamentally wrong. They were simply opposed to it because they identified the appalling system under which they lived with Marxism. So one could hardly be surprised by what happened in the 1990s or by the fact that there is no genuine Marxist party in Russia today.
It is obvious that over time machinery and methods of production have to be replaced, simply because they get worn out and need to be updated. But that was a major problem for the Soviet Union. While it is a problem elsewhere too, the incentive system under capitalism ensures that it is done. That is to say, in this sense the profit motive works. In the Soviet Union there was no profit motive and, although there were attempts to introduce it in a limited form. It hardly acted as a major incentive.
The result was that nobody wanted to bring in a new production system which they would then have to learn, with all the necessary adaptations. The cost of introducing new plant was several times that in the west and there would have to be new factories too.
In other words, productivity was low and costs were considerably higher than they would have been in a capitalist society. While, as I have stated, those features apply at some level under capitalism too, a system such as the one I have described is obviously limited in its continuity and is not likely to last very long - everybody can see what is wrong with it. Nobody likes a system which is controlled by secret police, which was a gigantic organisation. It has been suggested that at one point it included a million people in one way or another. Overall, you have to conclude that the system could not last.
The only surprise is that it came to an end in the particular way it did. There was no immediate necessity to end it and one has to conclude that the Soviet elite itself decided to do away with it rather than see it collapse. In fact, if you look at those now in positions of power, studies show that about 70% of the elite actually survived. So, from the point of view of the old ruling bureaucracy, the old privileged elite, it was a very sound move.
Some of them made a fortune and are now multi-billionaires, while mostly they simply have a very nice lifestyle. For the majority of the population, however, the decade from 1990 to 2000 was a complete disaster. Large sections of the population lost out on a major scale. That was particularly true of women, because many simply lost their jobs, thanks to the ending of the old system of job allocation. Nominally in the Soviet system there was equality, but that was not the case in reality. Women were mainly employed in jobs with lower prestige. For example, being a doctor was not regarded as prestigious - doctors were very poorly paid and 80% of them were women. Much of the work within light industry was done by women, but a good part of that was destroyed.
One can go through the different negative effects, but overall the result was a drop in the standard of living for the majority of the population. The so-called reforms moved in the direction of capitalism - if anything, it was a step sideways. But that does not mean it was not a disaster for the majority. A direct coup by a section of the elite who are now in power - that is what it amounts to.
There was a kind of counter-coup under Putin, but no return to the old system, of course. Putin did not come to power by accident. It is not that Yeltsin put him in power, although Yeltsin backed him. But Putin had been - and nobody believed he had stopped being - a member of the KGB. It seems to me that a particular section of the KGB decided to bring in Putin because by 1999 the new system they were hoping for had effectively failed. They wanted to find a more stable form and Putin was their man. So in reality it is a new elite, which derived from the old elite, that is in power, not just Putin. He is there with the backing and assistance of the KGB – that is its successor, the FSB.
The exiled businessman and former oligarch, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, has said there are about 150 people around Putin who are crucial and I think that is what we are talking about - people of influence and control, and Putin is effectively responsible to them. So it is wrong to say he is just a dictator and the fact that the west treats him in that way is just absurd.
All this means that what replaced the Soviet Union is most certainly not a solution - it cannot last. At some point there is going to be a coup or revolution. The logic would be that what results would fit into the more general movement that we are likely to see in the west: that is to say, the population will turn to the left - which is what people expected before 1914. Unfortunately, the world - including in particular the people in the Soviet Union - has had to go through an awful experience, in which the revolution was effectively defeated. Not 100% defeated, because the legacy of the 1917 Russian Revolution still survives.
We need to understand exactly what happened - failure was inevitable, once the Soviet Union turned to what was called Stalinism, and we will just see a repeat of that if people try to take the same road again. Clearly, unless there is control from below, which is absolutely necessary, there can be no advance towards socialism.
Unfortunately the system resulting from the revolution was overthrown by Stalinism in the early 1920s, while the terror of the 1930s and 40s continued to play an important role until the 1980s. The situation after 1991 resulted in substantial change, but in no way was it progressive. The genuine left hardly existed, in conditions where there was a secret police force with pulverising powers. The result has been tremendously costly, with the old elite effectively remaining in power.
For a deeper study of this question see Hillel Ticktin’s Origins of the crisis in the USSR: essays on the political economy of a disintegrating system