Red Theory: On the restoration of capitalism in the USSR
How is it possible that the Soviet Union, bastion of socialism and proletarian internationalism, collapsed in 1991? What factors led to its collapse, and what were the results? We should look at both the material and ideological basis for the restoration of capitalism in the USSR. As Marxist-Leninists, what lessons can we draw from the experience of the fall of the Soviet Union?
Capitalism was restored in the USSR in 1991, but the process that led to that point began much earlier. Nikita Khrushchev came to lead the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) shortly after the death of Stalin in 1953. Under his leadership, the 20th Congress of the CPSU in 1956 marked the first major turning point towards revisionism in the USSR. Revisionism, in the name of “revising” Marxism, advocates for Marxism in words, but opportunism in deeds.
Ideologically, Khrushchev’s revisionism attacked the foundations of Marxism-Leninism in a number of ways, namely by advocating the transformation of the proletarian dictatorship into a “state of the whole people,” the party of the working class into the “party of the whole people,” by advocating for “peaceful coexistence between capitalism and socialism,” and by advocating for the “peaceful transition from capitalism to socialism.”
Like Trotsky before him, in the name of attacking “Stalinism,” Khrushchev set about to attack Marxism-Leninism. In his so-called “secret speech” Khrushchev launched his campaign of “de-Stalinization.” Of course, this didn’t go without resistance, so in order to carry this out, he maneuvered to defeat the revolutionary left in the party leadership, which made up the majority in the politburo. Molotov, Malenkov, Kaganovich and the rest of the left were all sidelined by Khrushchev as an “Anti-Party group.”
From there, the communists of China and Albania led the way in criticizing the errors of Khruschev’s revisionism and the dangers it posed to the international communist movement. As the Communist Party of China wrote in “On the Question of Stalin'' in 1963, “In repeating their violent attacks on Stalin, the leaders of the CPSU aimed at erasing the indelible influence of this great proletarian revolutionary among the people of the Soviet Union and throughout the world, and at paving the way for negating Marxism-Leninism, which Stalin had defended and developed, and for the all-out application of a revisionist line.” By attacking Stalin’s leadership and the history of the CPSU, Khrushchev struck a blow at Marxism-Leninism itself, weakening the confidence of the international communist movement in Marxism-Leninism.
In a significant article from 1992 entitled “An Assessment of the Collapse of the Soviet Union,” the outstanding Belgian communist leader, Ludo Martens, wrote, “the revisionism of Khrushchev opened a transitional period from socialism to capitalism. Old and new bourgeois elements needed thirty years to grow strong enough to capture and consolidate their power in the fields of politics, ideology and the economy. The process of degeneration, begun in 1956, took three decades to finish off socialism.”
Practically, as Keeran and Kenny emphasize in their 2004 book Socialism Betrayed, “Khrushchev favored incorporating a range of capitalist or Western ideas into socialism, including market mechanisms, decentralization, some private production, the heavy reliance on fertilizer and the cultivation of corn, and increased investment in consumer goods.” After this, the Kosygin Reforms in 1965 further liberalized the economy, emphasizing profitability, material incentives and commodity production to an even further degree. Guided by revisionism instead of Marxism-Leninism, these policies had a corrosive effect on the socialist system.
In those ensuing decades, we see first Brezhnev and then Gorbachev as the principal leaders of the USSR. While Brezhnev corrected some of Khruschev’s worst errors, he continued down the path that Khrushchev set out upon in the 20th Congress. The Soviet Union during the period of his leadership saw the party further divorce itself from the masses of the people as bureaucracy grew. Furthermore, the U.S. made every effort to destabilize the USSR during this period, most successfully by funding the Mujahideen to bog the Red Army down in Afghanistan, draining the Soviet Union’s resources.
Bad leadership, and a lack of Marxist-Leninist scientific clarity, only exacerbated the problem, leading to Gorbachev’s liberal “Perestroika” and “Glasnost” reforms, and finally to the open liquidation of the CPSU and the USSR, against widespread protest, under Yeltsin. In a 1991 referendum, the Soviet people overwhelmingly voted against dissolving the USSR. Nearly 80% wanted to maintain the Soviet Union, but Yeltsin and Gorbachev defied both the Soviet constitution and the Soviet people.
Like Khrushchev before him, Gorbachev put forward his attacks on Marxism-Leninism as an attack on “Stalinism.” The result was “shock therapy” and impoverishment for the masses of the people, total privatization, the rampant plundering of the state and national economy, and the unbridled hegemony of U.S. imperialism no longer counterbalanced by the USSR.
Life expectancy declined dramatically after 1991. The economy of the former Soviet Union suffered a crisis worse than the Great Depression. Indeed, despite all of its flaws during the period from 1956 to 1991, the collapse of the USSR was a disaster for the masses of the people of the USSR and the whole world.
We can draw at least four important lessons from this experience.
First, adhering to the principles of Marxism-Leninism is vital. Marxism-Leninism is the scientific analysis of our concrete conditions and summation of our practical experiences that lets us navigate the complex contradictions with which we are faced. If we abandon Marxism-Leninism for revisionism, accepting ideas like “peaceful transition from capitalism to socialism,” counter to objective laws, we disarm ourselves for the tasks ahead of us. The opponents of socialism love to claim that “socialism is great in theory but doesn’t work in practice.” On the contrary, when the Soviet Union united their revolutionary practice with Marxist-Leninist theory, socialism worked wonders. Indeed, when the USSR held to Marxist-Leninist principles, from 1917 to the mid-1950s, they piled success on top of success. When they cast Marxism-Leninism aside at the 20th Congress, they set about piling difficulty on top of difficulty.
Second, the party and the state must maintain its class character: the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat. The revisionist theories of “party of the whole people” and “state of the whole people” opened up the party and state to the influence of the class enemy. The working class is the only class with no material interest in the exploitation of others, and only the working class is capable of guiding the transition through socialism from capitalism to communism. Furthermore, the dictatorship of the proletariat is a weapon necessary to resist the forces of reaction and capitalist restoration from bourgeois forces within and without. The party of the working class must lead the proletarian state to construct socialism, restrict bourgeois right, and combat the forces of counterrevolution and reaction.
Third, classes and class struggle do not end with the establishment of socialism. This experience confirms what Lenin said in 1919: “The class struggle does not disappear under the dictatorship of the proletariat; it merely assumes different forms.” The communist party must persevere in carrying out the class struggle under socialism in order to restrict and overcome bourgeois right and guide society towards the goal of communism. According to Lenin, the socialist state is tasked with “creating conditions in which it will be impossible for the bourgeoisie to exist, or for a new bourgeoisie to arise.” Starting in the mid-1950s, the USSR took the opposite approach, but there were errors even earlier. Ludo Martens, in his important book Another View of Stalin, writes, “After 1945, the struggle against opportunism was restricted to the highest circles of the Party and did not assist in the revolutionary transformation of the entire Party.” Thus the broad masses and party as a whole were unprepared to resist the revisionist turn of the mid-1950s. Proletarian democracy, mass education in Marxism, and criticism and self-criticism are safeguards to the working class’s success in the class struggle under socialism.
Fourth, capitalist restoration is a protracted process, that ends with a sudden leap. Some in the international communist movement mistook the rise of revisionism in the USSR for the complete restoration of capitalism. This led them to see the Soviet Union as an enemy. Some even went so far as to claim that the USSR was “social-imperialist.” Against this view, Harry Haywood wrote in 1984, “Without a monopoly capitalist class and without capitalist relations of production there is no fundamental and compelling logic in the Soviet economy that creates a need to export capital and exploit other countries through trade. As a result, it also has no colonies and no empire to sustain.” On the contrary, the reality is the USSR was a bulwark against U.S. hegemony and a powerful ally to movements for revolution and liberation all over the world.
We have to understand this from a dialectical materialist point of view. Marxism holds that material reality isn’t simply determined by the ideas of a few leaders, and while those ideas can affect material reality, that is a process that takes time. Socialist revolution follows dialectical laws. According to those dialectical laws, the principle and secondary aspect of a contradiction can exchange places in a qualitative leap. Under socialism, the proletariat in power is the principal, determining aspect of this contradiction, and the bourgeoisie is secondary. Quantitative accumulation of strength by the bourgeoisie can flip this relationship, which is exactly what happened over the course of 30 years in the USSR. Revisionism weakened the socialist state and disarmed it against the threat of capitalist restoration. But the Soviet Union’s course towards capitalist restoration wasn’t irreversible, and its final collapse was a tragedy for working and oppressed people everywhere.
Despite the fall of socialism in the USSR, we have the People’s Republic of China, Democratic Korea, Vietnam, Laos and Cuba, which all continue to advance and are a beacon to working and oppressed people everywhere. Imperialism is in decline and the movements for revolution and national liberation are today gaining ground. Socialism may face attacks from within and without, and those attacks may lead to setbacks, but in the long view, the victory of socialism is inevitable. As Mao Zedong once put it, though the road is torturous, the future is bright!