Commenter Empror Penguin wrote in response to a recent post:
“Thus far history teaches us that to a greater or lesser extent a coercive hierachy always emerges in states that have had revolutions, exploits the people and most often screws up the economy.”
He further says that “Building the new society gives the select few the chance to exert a totally unprecedented tyranny over the lifestyles, habits and modes of thought of the populace as they try to bring the new society out from the womb of the old, a tyranny very rarely mirrored in regimes steadfast in their devotion to the ideals of their forefathers”.
And finally suggests that “people can claim it has never been tried (it has of course but seeing as it was rubbish [socialism] is redefined as not rubbish and thus rubbish [socialist] regimes were not [socialist])”.
Since this kind of objection is quite common, I figure I might devote a post to talking about the USSR and the other countries in its cru bloc. So the first thing I want to say is that I think the implied history of the communist movement is false. The implication is of a kind of bad faith: communists spend a hundred years chatting about building socialism, then it gets put into practice and it’s crap, and then they shift the goalposts. I think this is a mistake because the USSR was not simply the application of 100 years of communist theory – it was an innovation.
So for a start, there had always been a strongly anti-state strand in the communist movement, which to some extent predicted in advance the failure of the USSR, and struggled against it from the very beginning. Bakunin was writing in his debates with Marx that state socialism would mean merely “a new class, a new hierarchy of real and counterfeit scientists and scholars, and the world will be divided into a minority ruling in the name of knowledge, and an immense ignorant majority“. So to suggest that all communists were pushing the statist line until it went so badly in Russia is false.
But moreover, even among the (admittedly often more numerous) statist communists, the ideas of democracy and political freedom were simply assumed as obvious components of human freedom. The idea that the authority of the Marxist party stands higher than the authority of the democratic will of the proletariat and/or the masses, was a distinctive innovation on the part of the Bolsheviks. In many respects, of course, it drew on communist heritage – but in many respects it also drew on the heritage of existing models of capitalist states – such as with the powerful desire to prioritise industrial investment over present consumption (i.e. GDP growth, with most people seeing no immediate benefits, which is happening all over the world).
And the final thing to add is that it’s unfair to suggest that the USSR was regarded as ‘not socialist’ just because of a self-serving redefinition. It did not fit most of the pre-existing definitions: it was not a society controlled by the proletariat and/or toiling masses. It was not a society in which the majority owned and controlled the economy. So calling it not socialist isn’t a redefinition, it’s resistance to the USSR’s own attempted redefinition.
If the point is pressed, it can always be turned around to reveal it’s absurdity: given that it was north Korea and East Germany that called themselves ‘democratic’, doesn’t their failure as states condemn democracy?
- Anyway, that was the first thing I wanted to argue. Rejection of the USSR as a model for socialism was not a cynical goalpost-shift, it was the consistent application of positions that had been held before 1917, during 1917, and after 1917.
The other thing to say, though, is that obviously that doesn’t mean we can’t learn anything from observing what happened there. We can for one thing learn that people like having an existing model to look up to, even if they have to deceive themselves about it to do so.
But let’s get to the substance: the claim that post-revolutionary states “most often screw up the economy” and display an ‘unprecedented’ tyranny, “a tyranny very rarely mirrored in regimes steadfast in their devotion to the ideals of their forefathers”.
I would suggest the following generalisation: that the destructiveness of a state is a product of its weakness: that it will unleash greater violence when 1) it is, in political and social terms, more fragile, and 2) it feels more threatened. A society with a history of violent rule will also be more prone to violence, and a society with a history of periodic famine will be more prone to famine.
To elaborate: since the nature of the state is violence, since it is by definition the use of (actual and threatened) violence to carry out it’s day-to-day tasks, it will under situations of stress express this nature through megaviolence.
Now this would suggest that revolutionary states are prone to being highly destructive: they are fragile, they are threatened. And when they emerge in poor and despotic societies (like Russia and China), the ingredients for some pretty big death tolls are there. And this is what we observe.
Yet at the same time, this generalisation would also suggest that we should expect the same response when revolutionary movements are defeated – that the revolutionary situation will produce the sort of fragility and threat to both revolutionary and reactionary states, that will prompt megaviolent repression. And this is, again, what we observe – in Central America, or in Germany, for example.
But there’s more. We would also expect that in societies which are by nature divided and contain antagonistic elements (like, say, classes), this sort of thing would be a general tendency most of the time – that is, that more decades than not, many capitalist states will feel the need to exert megaviolence in order to stabilise themselves and keep the logic of domination ticking over. Of course inwardly-directed massacres tend to be de-stabilising to some extent, so we might expect that this violence would be directed outwards. It might produce things like
1) totally pointless wars, where millions of people are blown to bits or die in the mud for no appreciable purpose, like the first world war – which the Bolsheviks, to their credit, were almost alone in opposing and trying to withdraw from;
2) occupying random other parts of the world and governing the somewhat surprised natives with liberal use of low-level everyday humiliation, torture, and murder, like the French Empire.
Again, all of these things have been observed. Now, if that is the right context in which to look at the death tolls in Russia and China, then it appears to carry two lessons: firstly, revolutions are better off not setting up a coercive hierarchy but rather trying to function without one (or rather, that this natural tendency, observed to varying extents in most revolutions, should be defended against anyone trying to subordinate it to them and their secret police force) – but secondly, that everyone ought to try to get away from this ubstable maniac called ‘statehood’ if at all possible. Sure he’s friendly now, but if circumstances change he’s gonna flip and someone’s gonna get killed.
- So that’s the second take-home message: the destructiveness and tyranny of the USSR et al is not a baffling product of radical aspirations, but can be easily predicted from a model of states in general as prone to destructive tyranny when frightened and cornered (rather like an underfed mongoose).
The final issue I want to talk about is the ‘screw up the economy’ thing. Now I think there’s something of a bias here: when things go wrong in the USSR, it’s socialism’s fault, but when they go wrong elsewhere it’s just bad luck. I think looked at properly the evidence is very ambiguous.
On the bad side: really amazingly big famines. On the good side: after one massive one, no further famines, in countries where periodic famines had a long history. Compare this with the modern world, where close to a billion people don’t have enough food to keep their bodies healthy. Who’s fault is that? *shrug*
North Korea is a basket case now, but for a long time was doing better economically than South Korea. Cuba has a lower GDP/capita than many Latin American countries, but a higher HDI, because its citizens have things like healthcare, housing, and a basic income pretty much guaranteed. Generally speaking, revolutionary states have a good record on increasing literacy rates.
The USSR was able to rival the USA as a world superpower, and was able to defeat the Nazi war machine. It was the first country to put a man in space. These are not things that happen in an economy where nothing at all is going right.
- So the third take-home message is, even non-socialist state-directed economies are not unambiguous bad things: they have a lot of real acheivements to compare with their shortfalls. I’m open to being persuaded that they were actually utter crap, but that’s not how it looks to me.