Shook the world

USSR: Getting the Soviet Union right

On the 96th anniversary of the October Revolution, Jack Conrad engages with the Russian question

The Soviet Union still matters. Though it passed into history in August 1991, the Soviet Union casts a distinct shadow. Indeed it is impossible to understand contemporary capitalism - that is, capitalism in the 20th and 21st centuries - unless you understand the USSR. The welfare state, Keynesianism, the mixed economy, state regulation, the promotion of bourgeois democracy as a universal elixir - all were, in their various ways, a response to the Soviet Union. Not merely the Soviet Union as a superpower with its 15 constituent republics, 10 time zones and Moscow capital. But crucially the manner of its birth. The October 25 1917 Bolshevik uprising shook the word (November 7, according to our Gregorian calendar). Since then capitalism has been managing its historic decline.

A mortified ruling class recognised that, because Russia had made proletarian revolution, so could Germany, France, Italy, Britain … even America. Capitalism saw death approaching and responded with a raft of concessions. Aspects of socialism were negatively anticipated. True, disciples of Friedrich Hayek malevolently advocate a return to their 19th century social ideal: a capitalism with money solidly based on gold; a capitalism relieved of trade unions, labour legislation and unemployment benefit; a capitalism unencumbered by business taxes; a capitalism where the law of value is unfettered. In all probability the Hayekian nightmare will remain a Hayekian nightmare because of the latent strength of the working class. Either way, contemporary capitalism is unmistakably shaped by the October revolution.

The shadow of the Soviet Union is with us in other ways too. Any Marxist, socialist or revolutionary who has sat in a pub, worked in a factory, waited at a bus stop, canvassed for a leftwing candidate or sold papers on a big protest demonstration - and talked to so-called ordinary people - will have been asked an elementary, but nonetheless profound question: ‘What about Russia?’ Almost without exception it comes with an instant follow-up: ‘If things went so disastrously wrong in the USSR, why will you lot be any different?’

The reason why that question is constantly asked is twofold. Firstly, there exists a genuine desire for serious answers. The soaring, thrilling, eminently reasonable aims upheld by classical Marxism are well known. So is the inspiration provided by the October revolution and subsequent establishment of the Communist (Third) International. By the same measure, however, anyone who has studied the course of the Soviet Union, especially after 1928, can only but recoil in horror.

Yes, there are fringe elements who look back fondly upon the Soviet Union’s “social ownership of the means of production” and who naively promise that their version of national socialism will produce altogether different results. Robert Griffiths, Harpal Brar, George Galloway, Alan McCombes and Kate Hudson come to mind.

Such figures discredit the left with their dreadful nonsense. And I think we can safely say that, while socialism remains contaminated by their Stalinite nostrums, we shall never gain mass traction. Quite rightly, so-called ordinary people have no wish to follow the path taken by the Soviet Union, even if it is invariably paved with the best intentions.

Understandably, in the main, national socialists try to keep moral distance from Stalin nowadays. His “mistakes” and even “crimes” are forthrightly condemned (see the CPB’s Britain’s road to socialism programme). Nevertheless, that is combined with all manner of excuses for the policy of forced collectivisation and rapid industrialisation. Omelettes, we are lamely told, cannot be made without breaking eggs.

There is another, second, reason why so-called ordinary people constantly ask the Russian question. Public opinion is manufactured and manipulated by the bourgeois establishment. From A-level history courses to TV documentaries, from newspaper opinion pieces to popular history books, the message is unremitting, utterly cynical and, when it comes to key facts, sneakily dishonest. The standard account goes something like this.

Tsarist Russia was experiencing rapid economic growth and this would surely have led to the flowering of liberal capitalism. Unfortunately, tsar Nicholas was not a gifted man and stayed morbidly autocratic. Exhibit one: the duma was kept powerless and treated with barely concealed disdain. While the common people yearned for change, they were childish and easy to manipulate. Ideal conditions for Lenin. A ruthless revolutionary, he was an elitist and a fanatical believer in the monolithic party. Exhibit two: What is to be done? Lenin’s dogmatic intolerance split the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party in 1903. Just like the British Labour Party the nice Mensheviks wanted to base themselves on the popular masses. Tragically, circumstances encouraged extremism. With the war against the central powers going from bad to worse, tsarism collapsed in February 1917. Liberals and moderate socialists lacked the gumption needed to consolidate democracy. Lenin seized his moment and imposed a Bolshevik dictatorship. Stalin took up the brutal methods of war communism. Exhibit three: the first five-year plan. By the time Stalin was interred in 1953, tens of millions had been killed, starved or otherwise driven to a premature death.

A concoction of fact and fiction, which not only blames Lenin for Stalinism, but conveniently allows Marxism and fascism to be bracketed together in the same ‘totalitarian’ category. The operative conclusion being, of course, that revolution leads to chaos and should be avoided at all costs.

Interestingly, a not dissimilar message was pumped out during the rise of capitalism. Clerics and court chroniclers, moralists and philosophers, poets and playwrights condemned those who would meddle with the natural order. God had ensured the proper functioning of society by ordaining mutual, feudal duties and obligations upon lord and villein alike. Love of money and a life of trade corrupts the spirit and invites usurpation, faction and murder. Whereas today it is Russia which serves as the quintessential warning against radical social change, then it was Italy. Eg, Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice demonstrates how proto-capitalist society undermines natural human values. He who controls money controls power. Shylock is not only deemed a “Jewish dog” by those amongst whom he lives. He embodies the dependence of Venetian aristocrats (Bassanio) and respected citizens (Antonio) on moneylenders. Notoriously the only human value Shylock holds dear is exchange value ... and he wants his “pound of flesh”.

The long decline of feudalism and the rise of capitalism is an acute embarrassment for the modern establishment. After all, what it reveals is not a seamless transition from one social system to another. Rather, there was economic dislocation, counterrevolutionary reversals, foreign invasions … and a prolonged propaganda war. Those with a vested interest in the old order deployed every available ideological weapon against the new. There is a dangerous inference that can be drawn. Those with a vested interest in capitalism likewise use the first attempt to establish socialism as an object lesson, a warning, a means of associating anyone who dares challenge the existing order with oppression, bureaucratic rule, grinding poverty, mass killing and inevitable failure.


Stalin’s national socialism now only makes sense in the counterfactual world of ‘if’. And, admittedly, the Soviet Union would find historical vindication if it had evolved to become ever more democratic, if its people had enjoyed ever more prosperity, if socialism was at long last becoming real. Something Isaac Deutscher imagined was actually beginning to happen in the 1960s. Not only did the dizzying figures claimed for Stalin’s five-year plans deceive. Deutscher was thoroughly seduced by Nikita Khrushchev’s de-Stalinisation and the grandiose promises contained in The road to communism (1961). Eg, economic growth would proceed at “locomotive” speed and US national income would be surpassed in 1970. By 1980 the Soviet Union was to leave the US “far behind” and begin to realise the “higher phase” of communism.

Obviously the precedent lodged in Deutscher’s mind was bourgeois society. British capitalism began with piracy, the transatlantic slave trade, expropriating the peasantry and killing off the first generation of factory hands through superexploitation. Nevertheless, capitalism revolutionised the means of production and thereby laid the material foundations for the rule of the working class and in due course general human freedom.

Was Stalinism a barbaric latter-day equivalent? Many eggs were broken, yes, of that there can be no doubt. But even by 1980 there was no omelette. Historically, the Soviet Union proved incapable of matching the west in terms of labour productivity. National income always lagged “far behind” the US. Moreover, in the 1970s the Soviet Union began to stagnate. In the 1980s absolute decline visibly set in. True, a working class was created out of deracinated peasants; a class that was subject to a brutal regime of absolute exploitation during the 1930s and 40s. But this class was atomised to an extraordinary degree and therefore it could neither think nor act as a class.

Say, however, the Soviet Union still existed and was at last realising Khrushchev’s goals, then, under those circumstances, the programme of national socialism would be able to make a claim on the future. Naturally, some of the basic propositions of Marxism would have to be severely modified or completely abandoned. Eg, socialism requires the conquest of political power by the working class in advanced countries; socialism entails the most extensive democracy; socialism sees the withering away of the state machine and the absorption of its necessary functions by society at large. But the historic experience of the Soviet Union does not disprove Marxism. The Soviet Union did not chart a non-Marxist road to socialism. What we saw emerge in the 1930s was an unsustainable, ectopic social formation, a society which, at the cost of terrible suffering and huge waste, has to all intents and purposes returned to type.

From the mid-16th to the mid-19th century Russia supplied the Atlantic powers with primary raw materials - grain, wood and furs. In return it got high-tech military knowledge and hardware. Hence, though Russia was formally independent and could deploy a powerful army in the European arena, it was in effect a semi-colony. Economically Russia was dependent on imperial sponsors (Netherlands, France, but mainly Great Britain). There was another dimension to Russia perceptively captured by Trotsky in his History of the Russian Revolution (1930). Because of tsarism’s policy of southern and eastward conquest - and therefore its large, non-Russian subject population - Trotsky described Russia as a “colonising semi-colony”.

Anyway, today each of the Soviet Union’s 15 successor states is characterised by varying degrees of neo-colonial dependency. The Russia federation, for example, possesses an arsenal of nuclear weapons, a huge conscript army and a permanent UN security council seat. But, as under tsarism, economically it languishes towards the bottom of the feeding chain. Russia once again relies on the export of primary raw materials - oil, gas, metals and timber.


The October revolution can be equated to Russia’s 1642, 1776, 1789 … and yet it was something more. Tsarist militarism, aristocratic landlordism and clerical reaction had to be swept away. And the Bolsheviks were certainly committed to modernising the country. Russia needed democracy, electrification, industrialisation, education and secularism. Lenin called this “completing the bourgeois revolution”.

Originally the plan was to carry out a proletarian-led revolution which would put into power a coalition government of working class and peasant parties. Capitalism not only remains, but especially in the countryside is given greater scope to develop. Hence the “revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry” was designed to be a temporary state of affairs. The Bolsheviks were committed to a provisional revolutionary government. After 10 or 15 years Russia was expected to have been economically and socially transformed. There would then be free and fair elections and, depending on the results, the party of the working class should be prepared to constitute itself as the opposition.

While in 1916 Lenin began to couch plans for Russia’s modernisation in terms of opening up the road to socialism, the international dimension should never be forgotten. Making revolution in Russia was always placed in the context of sparking working class revolution in Europe. In other words, Russia’s revolution was to be the first great battle in the global transition to the communist mode of production. So the ambition was far higher than the English, American and French revolutions. True, they came with the uplifting promise of freedom, liberty and equality. But in reality this translated into the freedom for capital to dominate, the liberty of capital to exploit, the legal equality of capital and labour in the marketplace.

By the 20th century capitalism was pregnant with a new social order. The October revolution was the first attempt to return humanity to humanity, an attempt whose aspirations compare with the human revolution in Africa that occurred 200,000 years ago (or thereabouts). A subject explored by Chris Knight and popularised by this paper. Doubtless after many failures and false starts our ancestors made the transition from nature to culture. Over many thousands of years humanity lived in conditions of abundance, militant egalitarianism and original, or ur communism. The October revolution was intended to begin the transition from class back to classless society (only on a far higher material level).

Lenin was though painfully aware that within Russia itself, while it was quite feasible for the working class to take power, there was absolutely no chance of leaving behind the state, the division of labour, women’s oppression and all the other baggage of class society. Russia was a peasant country and that necessitated or reproduced the state, the division of labour, women’s oppression, etc. Nevertheless, there was every reason to believe that revolution in Russia would set Europe alight. Tsarism was falling apart under the pressure of military successive defeats and all the evidence indicated that the German and Austro-Hungarian empires were in an advanced state of decay too. The war opened up deep contradictions and it was obvious that the domestic peace agreed by the treacherous social-chauvinists could not hold much longer.

That is what Lenin gambled on - Russia sparking revolution first in Germany, Austria and Hungary, then throughout Europe. And socialist revolution in Europe would allow the Russian Revolution to proceed from the tasks of “completing the bourgeois revolution” uninterruptedly to the tasks of socialism. Instead of the working class party retreating into opposition and biding its time, such conditions would allow Russia to join the European Socialist Republic. And a revolution uniting Europe and half of Asia had every chance of rapidly spreading to every corner of the globe. Hence Russia was to be the vanguard of the communist revolution.

Lenin’s grand strategy must be borne in mind when assessing subsequent events. Trying to locate some original Bolshevik sin that explains first the eclipse of soviet democracy under war communism and then the 1928 counterrevolution within the revolution is surely both foolish and misplaced. Not only did Britain, France, Japan, America and other capitalist powers aid, abet and actively intervene in the 1918-22 civil war (Winston Churchill wanted to “strangle the Bolshevik baby in its cradle”). After Trotsky’s Red Army had decisively beaten the Whites, Russia was subject to blockade, subversion and constant threats of renewed invasion. Crucially, however, the revolutions in Germany and Austria-Hungary were stopped short due to ‘official’ social democratic timidity, short-sightedness and willingness to be bribed. In return for substantial concessions the Russian Revolution was left impoverished, ravaged and isolated.

This background provides the main explanation for the replacement of election by appointment in the Communist Party, the ditching of the militia system for a conscript army, the hollowing out of the soviets, the seizure of peasant grain, the Kronstadt and other mutinies, the promotion of one-man management, etc, etc. All of which happened under Lenin’s leadership.

There are those who think everything would have been different had Trotsky been decisive and taken charge in 1924. Some things would undoubtedly have been different. However, objective conditions were bound to asphyxiate the revolution sooner or later. Unless isolation was overcome, there could be no other possibility. Perhaps the last chance was Germany in the late 1920s. Yet the fact of the matter is that Stalin had already secured his hold over the Communist Party apparatus. In 1926 what is called ‘socialism in one country’ became official policy. The umbilical cord with internationalism was cut.

An astute politician and an energetic organiser, Stalin adapted to backwardness and isolation. The second edition of his famous Foundations of Leninism (1924) symbolised this. Whereas the first edition unhesitatingly maintained that it was impossible to build socialism in one country, the second, ‘corrected’, edition, issued a matter of only months later, insisted on the exact opposite. The proletariat “can and must build the socialist society in one country”. Showing the slide into scholasticism, a couple of quotes from Lenin were provided to prove the ‘theory’.

We can legitimately discuss whether or not Lenin, Trotsky, Zinoviev and other communist leaders were right to hang on in Russia when they knew that working class rule was shrivelling, becoming a mere formality. In 1919 Lenin was prepared to countenance a retreat. He successfully won the Communist Party’s 8th Congress to retain a minimum section in the new programme. Yes, the communists had to be prepared once again to operate as an opposition party. However, the civil war and the emergency measures required to secure victory burnt all their bridges. Driving the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries underground, alienating the peasants with grain seizures, fixing soviet elections left them with no option but to carry on. There was no civilised route back. Either they had to rule as a minority and accept the consequences or go down in a counterrevolutionary conflagration. The unexpected historical paradox being, of course, that Stalin combined minority rule with a counterrevolutionary conflagration. The counterrevolution came from within, not from without.


Why did the October revolution go from being the hope for humanity to a counterrevolutionary bloodbath? We on the left need honest and convincing answers. Certainly there has to be an explanation that relies on something more substantial than vague subjective “mistakes” and “bureaucratic” methods (Britain’s road to socialism). Here ‘official communism’ cannot produce anything worthwhile, not least because it promoted those very “mistakes” and yearned to emulate those very “bureaucratic” methods. Hence ‘criticism’ of Stalin is always balanced by apologetics. Eg, “central planning” abolished unemployment - which is as true as it is irrelevant. After all, no slave-owner in ancient Athens or Rome would have left their slaves idle. Nor did Stalin and his successors.

What about Trotsky? Was the Soviet Union a degenerate workers’ state in the 1930s? Surely not. The last shreds of democracy had long been discarded, trade unions operated as a transmission belt for the regime, living standards were being mercilessly forced down, police spying was ubiquitous and the purges were in full swing. Millions were to perish. Add to that the ignominious collapse in 1991 and Trotsky’s theory is surely impossible to sustain.

Of course, Trotsky lacked the mass of reliable information we can now access. Moreover, he was assassinated in 1940. There is no reason to believe, however, that he would have stuck to what he called a “provisional” designation had he lived. Indeed Trotsky declared himself open to the idea that the Soviet Union could evolve towards an altogether new kind of exploitative social formation. Nevertheless, there are all manner of epigones who, speaking in his name, dogmatically insist that the USSR was a workers’ state right up till 1991 (some even bizarrely argue that it was a workers’ state under Yeltsin). Displaying complete theoretical bankruptcy, they equate a workers’ state or/and socialism with nationalisation. A position which owes everything to clause-four Fabianism and nothing whatsoever to authentic Marxism.

What about the Soviet Union being an example of state capitalism, as variously argued by Karl Kautsky, Amadeo Bordiga, Paul Mattick and Tony Cliff? Yes there was international competition, draconian labour laws and slave labour (State capitalism in Russia). But no money, no wage labour, no capital. What this school does therefore is not only fail to explain the Soviet Union. It fails to grasp the basics of capitalism.

Clearly we must reject guilty evasion, apologetic excuses and the twisting of facts to fit the label. Marxists have an obligation to come up with a coherent, scientific, fully theorised explanation of the Soviet Union.