Learning from the USSR

Image Copyrighted by Samuel Blanc under Creative Commons License

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.

18 Responses to “Learning from the USSR”

  1. Empror Penguin Says:

    The point is that the USSR was a sincere attempt to make communism work and it was a failure. Obviously it was not a SCA state in the ideal sense but it is what many penguins around the world assume an SCA regime will really look like. Sorry if I did not make that clear although I did admit at the start of my comment that I thought there was nothing wrong with the communist ideal and I did not mean that ironically. My issue was how to get there. Also it is a bit odd to use the USSR as your sole example. I meant every SCA revolution that was ever attempted.
    Lenin was an Anarchist in that he did not believe that the state would survive his revolution. Presumably our friend Bakukin reckoned you had to start as you meant to go on. I think that then or now it is highly unlikely Bakukin was correct in his judgement of the ability of the proletariat to administer the creation of ‘utopia’ without leadership. Just as I think economic planning, even if it is meant to be carried out in a non-coercive way, will, of necessity, become coercive and bring forth a new oligarchy of rulers.
    I cannot of course claim that communist regimes will always be worse than their capitalist opponents or that terrible economic consequences don’t follow from systems of private property ownership. Although I do not want to go through a myriad of examples it is always surprising how bad and nefarious these supposedly SCA regimes are.
    You are spouting bullshit as regards Cuba. In 1950 its GDP per capita was higher than most of the world, including the vast majority of european countries. It had more doctors per head of the population than Britian and America. It had the highest literacy rates in Latin America. Its infant mortality rate was already first world. It has maintained its lead in terms of literacy but that’s it, its gains in this regard are entirely commensurate with progress across the continent. But it improvements in agricultural productivity are almost non-existent while those of other contries like Mexico and Argentina have doubled countless times over. Until very recently what had once been a nation capable of feeding itself suffered a recurring balance of payment crisis in order to do just that. HDI is just a weasely formula used to disguise the appalling crappiness of the Castros and their wicked regime.
    You contradict yourself over your treatment of the USSR. You argued against directing resources into capitally intensive production at the expense of consumer goods the people are more needy of. It was largely because of just this policy (applied far more fiercely than in any capitalist state) that Stalin assembled a big enough industrial base to fight off the Wermacht. You credit him for what you presume to despise. Also he fed his people only 1/4 of the rations Hitler was good enough to furnish unto the Volk. Russian workers had a lot so much poorer than their western partners as to be almost unimagnable. In many cases they were kept under martial law permanently. Despite this tyrannical squeezing of the populace, a policy so inimical to the well being of the citizenry no western capitalist regime of the 20th century could ever have done it, the USSR was floated to a real extent on US aid which may have accounted for 1/5 of GDP in 1942. I do not know why you choose to praise such a regime as having an economy where something must be going right.

  2. Empror Penguin Says:

    Ah I forgot. When I said no western capitalist could afford to have done it, that can be taken as including the Third Reich. Old Uncle Joe really was just shocking.

  3. missivesfrommarx Says:

    Great post; thanks!

  4. Empror Penguin Says:

    Ok. When I have time. The point on the USSR’s economy sprang from your claim its success in WW2 proved state socialist economies could not be that bad. That it did survive, to the extent it did on its own merits, was because it surpassed almost any capitalist regime in sheer brutality, repression and callousness. Who cares whether they got a man into space. Capitalist economies are actually a lot better at providing consumables for the people than state planned economies in the main (which may be due to the planners generally being megalomaniacs rather than a problem with planning per se).
    On your idea that mass violence and repression is inherent in a state. Well yes. But because of their economic beliefs and their desire to destroy all elements in their society they regard as capitalist revolutionary regimes are often prone to more destruction than a cornered liberal capitalist democracy or even an old empire. So while all states repress, communists are liable to see enemies and subversives anywhere and read dissent in the most harmless of traditional thoughts and habits. Witness their horrible assaults on age old religions which are utterly unjustifiable in the face of the rather meagre threat they presented as a security risk (i.e. as they tended to support conservative factions). This is demonstrated in the case of Germany because the repressions of the Freikorps in Munich and Berlin are not in the least comparable to the slaughters of Lenin and Mao and the crew. In Germany it was not even necessary to ban communists under the Weimar democracy. Does Cuba treat its political dissents in the same way. I don’t think this is always the case but usually revolutionary regimes have to turn on particularly odious forms of repression, incomparable to more traditional states even though these face grave threats. Did William Pitt effect mass slaughter across England in the 1790s in order the suppress the threat of Jacobin revolution. Nope.
    I adore my picture at the head of the post by the way. Thanks for that.

  5. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    Some of the issues you raise require more discussion than I can give here, so I’ll content myself with a few points.

    “My issue was how to get there.”
    This is true, but this post didn’t really address that issue – I will happily devote another to it.

    “the USSR was a sincere attempt to make communism work and it was a failure.”
    Yes. This discredits the model of how to do so that employed, but that model was not representative of the whole, or even in many respects the bulk, of the communist tradition.

    “it is a bit odd to use the USSR as your sole example. I meant every SCA revolution that was ever attempted”
    Most of the countries that I imagine you were thinking of were the children of the USSR – they followed Leninist organisational models and adopted Leninist versions of communist thought.

    If you mean revolutions independent of that, I’d be interested to know why you think that, say, revolutionary Chiapas now is a brutal dictatorship.

    I didn’t ‘argue against’ prioritising industrialising over consumption – I said it was a heritage not so much of communist tradition as of ‘modernisation’ tradition, of capitalist societies who developed some parts of their economy while most of the inhabitants struggled for consumption.

    “the USSR was floated to a real extent on US aid which may have accounted for 1/5 of GDP in 1942”
    It also lost more people and equipment to WWII than any other country except China. If we’re just going to trade factoids we could do it all day. My point in putting in some factoids is to explain that the picture looks mixed to me. To show that it really is as simple and unambiguous as is argued, I’d need a more comprehensive account of what sort of economic indicators are to be prioritised and why, how they vary across time, where the figures come from, how to distinguish the effects of different factors, etc.

    Which your comments on Cuba come a bit closer to. Since I have only the results of a few bone-castings to go on so far, I’ll for now ask if you can link me to sources for the comparisons you make.

  6. Empror Penguin Says:

    Oops. I meant to say ‘Did William Pitt effect mass slaughter across England in the 1790s in order to suppress the threat of Jacobin revolution. Nope. Did Robespierre orchestrate a great terror in order to stave off a counter revolution. Oui.’

  7. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    “That it did survive…was because it surpassed almost any capitalist regime in sheer brutality, repression and callousness.”

    That’s a fair point.

    “communists are liable to see enemies and subversives anywhere and read dissent in the most harmless of traditional thoughts and habits…incomparable to more traditional states even though these face grave threats”

    Well, this is hardly a distinctive trait. Just look at the Central American death squads, who did exactly this, and did it with a fair bit of CIA help. Again, it’s about fragility: when most of the population hates you, you will find yourself killing a lot of them. William Pitt, I would hazard, didn’t have to effect mass slaughter because his fairly well-established political system provided various means to contain and reduce the risk.

  8. Empror Penguin Says:

    The amount of repression a state will inflict on its population will reflect the regimes fragility yes. But, as I was trying to prove some regimes resort to slaughter because of an iconoclastic desire to smash and destroy the old world they hate and also because they think the new system they are inaugerating is so wonderful lives expended in its name hardly matter. Perhaps some of the bloodletting of the Jacobins was due to a fear of fragility, the rest to the fact they were just demented. Afterall, what French king, even if faced with grave threats both from abroad and within the ranks of his own nobility resorted to mass bloodlettings on such a scale and extended the slaughter so far into the population. None that I can think of. Just as I can think of no Czar as wretched as the Bolsheviks. Perhaps it is the idea of class warfare itself that causes this mayhem because if you buy into it, everyone regardless of their own beliefs and the threat they really present is a potential enemy simply because of how they make their living. This partly explains I think the atrocious behaviour of the Bolsheviks to the Russian peasantry.

  9. Empror Penguin Says:

    I should point out the point of the terror of the evil swinish Jacobins was that it was largely pre-emptive. If the old regime decided to massacre its subjects it tended to only do so with them already being in revolt first. Under Robespierre even sounding ambivalent about his wretched new programmes in the bread line could get you the chop.

  10. Empror Penguin Says:

    And come to think of it who the fuck just goes and slaughters most of his leading generals and officers for no reason whatsoever. I struggle to think of many leaders who were that crazy. I am not saying only SCA folk are like this but I do think there is often something qualitatively different about their methods of repression.

  11. Empror Penguin Says:

    ‘conservative regimes…German Third Reich,’ whatever Mr Warm-Fork whatever. I’m not commenting anymore on this. I look forward to your next post on this subject though.

  12. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    I hear what you’re saying, but I think your choice of examples is selective. There have been communism-inspired regimes that have shed blood “on such a scale”; there are conservative regimes that haven’t. There are also conservative regimes that have done so, such as the German Third Reich and the central American death squads who I mentioned. And there have been communism-inspired regimes that have not.

    If you have no problem accepting that double-dissociation, then I don’t think there’s too much left outstanding between us that we will resolve in comments.

  13. despicable Says:

    A “leftist ideology” is as natural in the scheme of things as a “right wing ideology!”
What gives an “ideology” it’s particular character of being good or bad is the basic nature and character of the particular environment that the ideology inhabits.
The “Right Wing” fundamentalist’s strict adherance to rules, dogma and doctrine and the traditions of the past is as natural as a left wing ideology that challenges the traditions of the past and attempts to incorporate into the environment a more relevant way of thinking and doing.
The sin of left wingers is to attempt to bring about progressive change prematurely, before the conditions exist that makes progressive change necessary.
The methods that are used to hold on to power and to gain power by both the right wing and the left wing are similar. It is only the “centrist” political parties that attempt to prevent clashes between the right and left wing opposing views by attempting compromise. Eventually compromise becomes “sell out” and without a political center to keep the antagonists apart, a clash ensues between the old no longer relevant past and the new more relevant future. Eventually the war between the opposing forces stop when a new more relevant center is born that is able to compromise the differences between those that represent the still relevant traditions of the past and those that represent the new emerging progressive traditions that will exist in the future.
It is impossible to stop this process. It has been with us fom the beginning of time.

  14. Empror Penguin Says:

    I am in complete concurrance with Alderson’s second critique.
    I think your schema fits Revolutionary France quite well. Not so much the USSR and PRC unless one does the old Stalin = Thermidor slight of hand. If only Stalin’s rise did presage an end of terror! Besides the whole progress business you outline only works for someone who assumes that society tends towards ends socialist types assume to be progressive. One man’s progress is another man’s madness.

  15. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    If one inserts an account of when and why you get “the conditions…that makes progressive change necessary”, then this is pretty close to standard Marxism – though with ideologies seen as veils covering the interests of contending social groups (and with the suggestion that in a classless society the process may become more harmonious). I do wonder though, whether such an attitude is 1) any help in practice, since there are often plenty of people all claiming to represent either ‘the new’ or ‘the old’, or 2) needlessly restrictive, assigning a false and unjustified necessity to the changes that happen and which then supposedly had to happen.

  16. ehquionest Says:

    I think you forgot the copyright on this picture, please can you add it ???
    Thank you !

  17. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    Done, hope that’s ok. Apologies for the oversight.

  18. ehquionest Says:

    It’s perfect, thank you for that !

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