January 2017        

The USSR: A loss to peoples everywhere

Nicola Lawlor

This year, workers and people all over the world will celebrate and look back to the great Russian Revolution of 1917, the victory of the Bolshevik Revolution, and the creation of a people’s socialist state.
     Socialist Voice will no doubt publish many articles analysing the USSR and socialism more generally in the twentieth century, while the mainstream media will roll out a host of politically motivated anti-communists, concentrating on some real faults and failings but more often than not just spreading outright lies.
     But in some ways we have to start the year by beginning at the end of its existence: at the victory of the counter-revolution. On 25 December 1991 President Gorbachev announced his resignation and essentially the dissolution of the Soviet Union, a process that had been under way for some time, arguably for decades. So not only is this year the 100th anniversary of the birth of the socialist state but it is also the 25th anniversary of its dissolution and counter-revolution. And what a 75 years it had!
     The Soviet Union’s contribution to progress is momentous, its achievements many. While this will no doubt be a feature of more detailed articles, let us just think for a moment about these victories: the first country to achieve the full literacy of all its people; free and universal education and health systems; life expectancy doubled and infant mortality reduced to one-ninth of what it was; the first state to give full equality to women, both formally and in reality; the electrification of a massive multi-ethnic state; the defeat of Germany in the Second World War and saving Europe from Nazism; sending the first satellite and the first person into space.
     A lot more could be said. And all this was achieved under both hot and cold attacks from imperialism.
     So what went wrong? How did this all fall apart?
     The short answer is that the reforms introduced by Gorbachev unleashed class forces, allied to American and European capital, that took advantage of national and ethnic differences to tear the state apart, for their own gain. But how and why this happened requires a longer, more complex answer.
     Over the recent Christmas period Conor O’Clery of the Irish Times wrote of the hours after the Gorbachev announcement:
Others were seeking to exploit the chaos. The same afternoon, in a dacha in Vedentsovo, a region outside Moscow, 30 or so tattooed men were completing the task of dividing the prostrate USSR into regions of influence. They were leaders of Vorovskoy Mir (Thieves’ World), professional criminals anticipating vast profits from the imminent sell-off of state assets.
      This class of capitalists had already existed in the Soviet Union; and that is the key to understanding the victory of the counter-revolution. A counter-revolutionary class existed—and not only existed but occupied leading and powerful positions within both the party and the state apparatus.
     The best available book on this is Roger Keeran and Thomas Kenny’s Socialism Betrayed. (An interview with Thomas Kenny is available at politicaleconomy.ie.) In essence, they see the right wing of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union having won leadership of the party and the state through the policies of Nikita Khrushchev and through decades of the “reforms” and changes that were allowed, even encouraged, including an illegal black market (one that was virtually wiped out by Stalin) allowed to grow and develop. This gave rise to an increasingly powerful capitalist class, which was essentially legalised and then established as the ruling class through the Gorbachev reforms and later the programmes of privatisation introduced by the International Monetary Fund and the European Bank for Development.
     The counter-revolution was completed.
     Understanding this and how this happened will make the construction of socialism in this century better and stronger. Why did the CPSU become virtually inseparable from the state? What were the consequences of this merger or blurring of lines? What happened to internal party education? How did the party become so far removed from ordinary citizens? How did the right wing win? And where was the opposition to Khrushchev and, later, Gorbachev?
     These are all important questions to ask and then try to answer. But it seems a further reminder that there is no other capitalism, no nicer, more friendly social-democratic version, than monopoly capitalism.
     There is no going back to competitive capitalism; there is no de-financialising the system; there is no better “third way”: there is just monopoly capitalism, in all its brutality, or else the difficult, contradictory task of building socialism out of its ruins.
     The right wing, the social-democratic political wing, of the CPSU unleashed monopoly capitalism in Russia, taking on a gangster-capitalist form, given its conditions; but that is the reality of monopoly capitalism. And in doing this their achievement is the weakening of workers all over the world and the strengthening of this rotten system.
     The loss of this great state was enormous. Telesur produced an excellent short video over the Christmas period on this subject, available at www.facebook.com/telesurenglish; and a few facts from this are telling.
     Within two years, 15,000 state companies—that is, the citizens’ wealth—were privatised, at a small fraction of their value, immediately turning a small number of gangsters into billionaire thieves.
     Today 110 individuals control 35 per cent of Russia’s wealth. The country’s GDP dropped by more than 40 per cent in four years. Money was moved offshore, and tax avoidance was rampant—all done with the co-operation of global banks and accountancy firms.
     It’s no surprise, then, that surveys and opinion polls in Russia (and eastern Europe) increasingly point to a desire to return to socialism, and an appreciation that life under socialism was better than life under monopoly capitalism.
     Rarely talked about here in Ireland or elsewhere in Europe was the reality that the existence of socialism was the bulwark upon which the European “social model” existed. This was the real-life threat to capital everywhere. It strengthened workers’ and people’s movements, materially but also ideologically, all over the world. Capital compromised to avoid socialism.
     No such threat exists today on this scale, and so capital is free to operate more as it wishes. Workers’ rights and employment conditions are attacked everywhere. The environment is increasingly commodified and sucked into the realm of capital, with no consideration for its reproduction and consequently for the reproduction of humanity.
     Socialism in the twentieth century had many faults. Serious mistakes were made. People died unnecessarily. But its contribution to humanity and progress is unmatched, and its loss has set our struggle back significantly. Those who fail to recognise this will repeat again and again the mistakes of social democracy, strengthening the very system that is killing us.

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