Understanding the Soviet Union

Phil Watson reviews 'Rethinking the Soviet collapse: Sovietology, the death of communism and the new Russia', edited by Michael Cox (Pinter Publishers 1998, pp294, £15.99)

Despite some of the dubious formulations in its title, this book is an excellent study of the theoreticians responsible for analysing the growth and decline of the USSR alongside the birth of the ‘new’ Russia. The question that Michael Cox and other authors attempt to answer is a simple, yet damning one. Why is it that Sovietologists - from neo-conservative to Trotskyite - by and large failed to foresee the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991?

In a penetrating opening (pp13-31) Cox contemplates some of the structural reasons for this failure, drawing our attention to a contemporary academic world that prioritises the footnote over the text. He argues that the doctoral system discourages breadth in favour of specialisation. An understanding of the dynamics of the USSR and its subsequent theorisation is thus a non-starter in the ivory towers. These epistemological problems are carried over into an unwillingness on the part of writers to countenance scientific prediction. Far from being crystal-ball gazing, prediction is an important by-product of a positive engagement with the outside world.

Cox goes further and draws attention to the fact that many western academic, military and governmental personnel relied for their living on the Soviet Union which had became a serious object of study after the opening of the Cold War. The intellectual atmosphere of the Cold War, which demanded recognition that the USSR was intent on world domination, further inhibited a recognition of key Soviet weaknesses. Western Soviet studies also fell victim to the influence of the ‘totalitarian’ school which tended to focus on the methods of control at the disposal of the regime; structural defects were therefore much less likely to be acknowledged.

In his essay on Russian economics in the transition period (pp219-240) Bob Arnot points out that mainstream economists were unable to predict the demise of Stalinism because of their “static, partial and ahistorical methodology” (p220). Capitalist political economy’s classic flaw is its inability to account for decay and transformation. Viewed through this ideological prism, the USSR became another immovable object.

What is so striking about this material is the manner in which the Sovietological establishment followed a peculiar form of inverted apologetics. Obviously western mainstream theorists were for the most part opposed to the Soviet Union (to varying degrees) and yet their superficial investigations follow exactly the same course as those who had socialist illusions in the USSR.

We can include in the latter camp the hapless ‘orthodox’ Trotskyites who argued that the USSR was a ‘degenerated workers’ state’, thereby elevating the form of the ‘nationalised’ economy over the actual contradictions involved in bureaucratic ‘planning’. Hillel Ticktin argues plausibly that Trotskyite theories “were not in fact theories at all”: they were

“either static characterisations ... or at worst political statements whose ultimate function was not to explain the dynamics of the Soviet system, but to hold this or that group together” (p86).

One could go further and argue that the various Trotskyite gurus had illusions in the Soviet Union not entirely dissimilar to those of the Stalinists. Even the best of these theorists were unable to pick out the real contradictions involved in the Soviet ‘planned economy’. Ernest Mandel, for example, naively characterised Soviet accumulation as “an accumulation of means of production as use values”. Whilst Mandel was prepared to acknowledge the anarchy and irrationality of the centralised bureaucratic plan, he argued that the role of such factors was “comparable to that of the elements of ‘planning’ in the capitalist economy: they modify, but do not abolish the fundamental social characteristics of the economy”. Thus for Mandel, Soviet planning was “real planning” because the means of production were nationalised and regulated by the state (E Mandel Marxist economic theory London 1971, p561).

In classical ‘orthodox’ fashion Mandel goes on to locate the major contradiction between a “non-capitalist mode of production” and its “bourgeois norms of distribution” (ibid p571). Even where Mandel stumbles on production reports of waste and unsaleable stocks (pp571-572), he is unable to appreciate that the bureaucratic plan did not in fact represent an accumulation of ‘use-values’, but of ‘plan-values’. Such values, stripped of democratic working class content, had but a tenuous relationship to use-value. The paucity of Mandel’s method means that he ends up by giving a critical blessing to those he is apparently in opposition to.

We therefore end up with conservatives, Stalinists and Trotskyites all fostering illusions in the USSR and its long-term viability. What unites these various schools of thought is their formalism - something that precludes anything other than skimming the surface of Soviet reality.

The major exception to this rule was the work of Hillel Ticktin - and the journal Critique (founded in 1973) - who consistently pointed out that the Soviet Union was historically unviable. Using the method of Marxism, Ticktin broke free of Trotsky’s formalistic shackles to grasp the atomised nature of Soviet society, whereby the bureaucracy’s plan was unable to control either the ‘command’ economy or an alienated working class. Ticktin saw in the USSR’s waste and inefficiency a prophecy of its decline and fall. As Ticktin himself makes clear in this volume, Critique existed at the left pole of Sovietology, “barely tolerated at times by those in the academic mainstream” or by Trotsky’s epigones (p75).

Perhaps the most disappointing part of this work is its failure to provide the materials for a rounded theory of Soviet ideology. Michael Cox points out that the USSR’s passing “has effectively destroyed the credibility of the socialist left”, even going so far as to erode vacuous ideas of ‘progress’ (pp13-14). Understanding the Soviet Union’s ideological impact on the world is thus a key means by which we appropriate the current period of reaction and the varied dimensions of the Soviet collapse.

Terry McNeill provides us with a short synopsis of the varied ways in which Sovietologists sought to comprehend Marxism-Leninism (pp59-60). Writers such as Daniel Bell denied that ideology motivated the actions of the CPSU: pragmatism was the focal point of its political control. In contrast Solzhenitsyn saw it as one of the fundamental motors of the Soviet experience. Hans Morgenthau circumvented this essentialist view by arguing that Marxism-Leninism provided a key source of the regime’s legitimacy. The social theorist, Barrington Moore, took a more subtle standpoint. Ideology did perform a role in the formation of Soviet politics, but not in an unmediated manner: the political usage of Marxism-Leninism tended to mould its particular ideological contours.

All of these various theories contain an element of the truth. The task then is to proceed toward a generalised analysis that can properly explain the origins and development of Marxism (and ‘Marxism-Leninism’) inside the Soviet Union.

In the USSR, production clearly did not take place under the democratic control of the working class: the political control of the economy was usurped by a distinct bureaucratic caste that steadily developed its own political and material interests. In contradiction to this the Soviet bureaucracy owed its legitimacy, and hence its privileged position, to the October 1917 revolution. Its ideological symbols were those of Leninism, working class revolution and the soviets. It is this paradox - between a material process that negates the proletarian revolution and an ideological one that affirms it - that explains why Marxism became a negative, dysfunctional ideology, only fleetingly related to practices beyond its material remit.

The fundamental causes of this prostration were lodged in the very foundations of bureaucratic socialism. Jack Conrad has argued that

“the Soviet system had no social lever which consumers could use in order to impose their will on producers. Under capitalism the consumer’s refusal to purchase useless products means, sooner rather than later, the producer will either improve the product or go out of business. With real socialism the transparency and direct control provided by mass participatory democracy will ensure that producers satisfy the needs of consumers. In the Soviet Union the absence of both the law of value and democracy robbed its products of quality and allowed the production of non-use values ...” (J Conrad Towards a general theory of the USSR unpublished 1995, p24).

Therefore bureaucratic production, initiated by the first five-year plan, became defined by its extreme voluntarism - a surreal world of irrational plan targets, command allocation and prodigious amounts of waste: “The bureaucracy might have been in the driving seat, but the economy had no brakes, no lights, no steering wheel” (ibid p27). It is precisely this voluntaristic outlook, rooted in the emergence and codification of bureaucratic socialism, that came to define its ideological, artistic and scientific spheres (we can note here the pseudo-science of Lysenko).

We can identify a further contradiction within the structure of Soviet ideology. Boris Kagarlitsky argues that under Stalin Marxism became shrouded by “a set of ideological dogmas” that were designed to neuter its critical and emancipatory core in favour of an adjustment to the realities of bureaucratic rule (B Kagarlitsky The thinking reed: intellectuals and the Soviet state from 1917 to the present London 1988, p95). Kagarlitsky qualifies this observation with an admission of the contradictory nature of this ideological formation:

“Although in the schools and institutes they still teach, in the guise of Marxism, the dogmatic utopia of ‘state socialism’ and barracks-communism ... they have not yet forbidden people to read The German ideology, or to study The economic and philosophical manuscripts of 1844, or to become acquainted with Gramsci’s Prison notebooks ...” (ibid pp96-97).

We can therefore see how the Soviet bureaucracy was enmeshed in a web of ideological contradiction. The politics of genuine Marxism had no material base on which to stand, resulting in the rigidifications of so-called ‘Marxism-Leninism’. However, the effective legitimacy of the USSR’s rulers was best served by their usurpation of the traditions of Marxism in their entirety. The fact that much of that legacy was to be alien to the daily ‘pragmatism’ required by the bureaucracy was not necessarily out of step with the voluntaristic premises by which Soviet society was ‘planned’ and run.

Such contradictions proved to be problematic for the Soviet bureaucracy. Rolf Hecker provides an interesting illustration of this ideological process in a Critique article on the publication of Marx and Engels after World War II. Undertaken by Berlin and Moscow educational institutes, these projects were in effect receiving state patronage. However, as Hecker notes, there was always a degree of disapproval emanating from the ruling elite. In particular, the goals of authenticity and completeness posed particular difficulties to the “aim of finding support in Marx for the political and economic decisions of the party leadership”. These tensions found their way into the completed editions, which according to Hecker functioned somewhere between science and dogma (R Hecker, ‘The MEGA project: an edition between a scientific claim and the dogmas of Marxism-Leninism’ Critique 30-31, p193). This sums up very well the bureaucracy’s fraught relationship with Marxism: its instinctive reaction is to neuter and circumvent, something partly prescribed by its need for historical legitimacy.

The residual emancipatory core of Marxism that the Soviet leaders were obliged to tolerate was no obstacle to the collapse of the USSR in 1991, precisely because of its negative character. ‘Marxism-Leninism’ on the other hand became the vehicle from which Gorbachev and his ideologues proclaimed the market as the potential saviour of socialism. The destruction of the Soviet Union merely confirmed the dysfunctional character of Marxism in relation to the system as a whole.

Understanding the nature of the present period and its ideological connection with the collapse of the USSR is something that has thus far escaped the pen of Hillel Ticktin. In a recent article on contemporary crisis he blandly reasons that,

“whereas the end of Stalinism has meant that some sections of the working class and peasantry, particularly in the third world, regard the end of Stalinism as the defeat of socialism, the removal of the controls associated with it has made and will make an enormous difference to consciousness” (H Ticktin, ‘Where are we going today? The nature of contemporary crisis’ Critique 30-31, p45).

Ticktin gives us a grudging admission that the Soviet Union was intellectually related with ‘socialism’. However, his comments on consciousness beggar belief. It is certainly correct that the departure of ‘official communism’ from the political scene represents the objective potential for working class advance. Nevertheless, the disappearance of Stalinism has ushered in a period of widespread political reaction for the proletariat: advances in consciousness have been negligible, if not non-existent. This is precisely because the ideological effect of Stalinism simply cannot be squared with the brutality of bureaucratic control.

Rethinking the Soviet collapse is something of an object lesson for those wishing to understand the historical phenomenon of the USSR. This is particularly true for Marxist thinkers. This ‘Marxist’ school has been seen to serve up either the theoretical abominations of the Trotskyite/Stalinist variety or the relatively creative developments of Hillel Ticktin and Critique. It is with this contradiction in mind that the next wave of Marxist thinkers will deepen their understanding of the Soviet Union and its rather brutal fall from grace.

Phil Watson