Taking the side of socialism

FRFI 211 October / November 2009

Moshe Lewin, The Soviet Century, Verso, 2005, 416pp, £25

9 November will mark the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. We can expect a barrage of propaganda proclaiming the failure of socialism and triumph of democracy and capitalist markets. It is not an accident that, precisely when capitalism is in open crisis and the working class is put under attack, the former Soviet Union and Cuba are targeted with insults and lies.* For the Soviet Union was an example, however problematic, of the only viable alternative to capitalism and that is socialism; Cuba represents that hope today. TREVOR RAYNE reviews Moshe Lewin’s analysis of Soviet history.

September’s 70th anniversary of the start of the Second World War was the occasion for bourgeois historians and eastern European political leaders to blame the Soviet Union for the war and to equate Stalin with Hitler in the annals of crime. This shameless distortion seeks to conceal the fact that since 1917 imperialism had connived at the destruction of the Revolution and to thwart every effort to construct socialism. The imperialists, including Britain, were content to see the Soviet Union invaded in 1941, just as they had invaded Russia in 1918. If the Red Army had not driven the Nazi forces back to Berlin, much of Europe might remain under fascist occupation today.

The final collapse of the Soviet Union in August 1991 was a heavy blow for the working class and oppressed worldwide. Not only did it harm socialism as a force in the world and provide capitalists with a means to discredit Marxism, it unleashed capitalism’s most barbaric tendencies: attacks on welfare, privatisation of services and key industries; the growth of racism, religious fundamentalism and reactionary political movements; intensifying inter-imperialist rivalries and increased readiness to wage war. The Soviet Union and socialist bloc provided a counter to imperialism in the world and a barrier to imperialist penetration: almost one-third of the world’s population were closed to imperialist exploitation. The Soviet Union supported and inspired anti-colonial and anti-imperialist struggles and it was critical to the survival of the Cuban revolution and Vietnam’s victory. We can say that it could have done more and that it sometimes backed national bourgeoisies at the expense of the oppressed but, on balance, it was a progressive force in the world and a restraint on imperialism.

Its demise turned the balance of global class forces against the working class and for that the capitalists are grateful. With the Soviet Union gone, the US ruling class has made a bid for global hegemony; launching wars in the Balkans, Middle East and Central Asia, resulting in an increase in militarism.

The collapse of the Soviet Union and socialist bloc was also a tragedy for these countries’ working classes. Between 1990 and 1999 the former Soviet economy shrank by more than 50%. In the early 1960s Soviet life expectancy matched that of Western Europe and the US. Male life expectancy in Russia dropped from 65 years in 1987 to 57 years in 1994, female life expectancy declined from 75 to 71 years in the same period. The health system was being destroyed and the population demoralised. Russia’s suicide rate rose 57% from 1990 to 1994 and the homicide rate rose by over 50%. In 1994 Russia had almost as many automobile deaths as the US, but with just 1% of the vehicles! Deteriorating roads and a decline in police discipline were responsible. Corrupt and virulently anti-working class regimes took power.

Stalin–Trotsky dichotomy

Professor Moshe Lewin was born in Poland, served in the Red Army, worked on a collective farm and is a foremost academic on the Soviet Union, holding posts at French, US and British universities. He has written influential books including Lenin’s Last Struggle (1967), Russian Peasants and Soviet Power (1968) and Political Undercurrents in Soviet Economic Debates (1974). The Soviet Century’s strengths are its weakness: it draws on archive material from government sources made available since the collapse of the Soviet Union and from Russian academics with access to these previously undisclosed records, but in doing so it neglects the context in which the evidence was produced. The focus is on Cheka, GPU, NKVD, MVD and KGB (state security forces’) documents. They are important, no doubt politically selective, but the book reads as though an exploration of Metropolitan Police Special Branch reports would tell us what was driving London for 70 years. As for a Soviet century, there is no analysis of the struggle for survival against imperialism, no analysis of the relationships between the Soviet Union and other socialist countries, no mention of Vietnam or Korea; China appears on one page and Cuba is referenced as the ‘Cuban missile crisis’ only. Without examining the existence of the Soviet Union in the context of imperialism it cannot be understood, and the Soviet Union’s contribution to the world is neglected.

Much of the left’s analysis of the Soviet Union derives from the Stalin– Trotsky dichotomy of the 1920s. Out of these analyses are produced theoretical positions that are used to interpret experiences as diverse and particular as those of China and Cuba. This is both ahistorical and Eurocentric, and it is not a scientific approach: the point is to test and develop theories against new evidence and to recognise that social forces are not homogenous across countries or time and that history is dialectical and not recurrent – it changes. To characterise the Soviet Union, China, Cuba and others as ‘Stalinist’ is to either propose that there was a conjunction of class forces in the Soviet Union in the 1920s that was replicated across the world and in time, or that a set of ideas and political institutions determines society, in this case Stalin’s ideas and institutions – and this is idealism. To his credit, Lewin shows that the Soviet state was always in a process of change: it was not ‘Stalinism’ from the 1930s onwards to its downfall. However, despite this recognition, Lewin’s loathing for Stalin draws him towards a form of reductionism. ‘A label is not an argument,’ Che Guevara is reported to have said; the label ‘Stalinism’ is used to prevent analysis and often covers up for an alliance with social democracy, opportunism and downright reaction. Fidel Castro said that ‘blaming Stalin for everything that occurred in the Soviet Union would be historic simplism, because no man by himself could have created certain conditions…I believe that the efforts of millions and millions of heroic people contributed to the USSR’s development and to its relevant role in the world in favour of hundreds of millions of people.’ Lewin verges on this simplism and his important work subsequently provides ammunition to those, like the contemporary Trotskyists, who would defame all efforts at building socialism.

Oriental despotism

Lewin writes that the Soviet Union saved Europe from Nazi domination and says that Tsarist Russia could not have done this. 26-27 million Soviet people died achieving victory in the Second World War. This is profoundly important for humanity. For Lewin, what he calls ‘Stalinism’ ‘rested on two historical imperatives: catching up with the West industrially as a precondition for building a strong state’ (p149). But these were also the preconditions for defeating the Nazi invaders and for the Soviet state’s survival against imperialism’s constant threat. They could not have been achieved without a series of Five Year Plans, commencing in 1928. However, Lewin does not analyse the functioning of the plan in Soviet society – a major omission.

Lewin seeks to trace the historical changes in Soviet society that explain ‘why the regime disappeared from the historical stage without firing a single shot’. He says that it was not a failure of socialism ‘because socialism was not there in the first place’ (p308). Instead he compares the Soviet Union with Karl Wittfogel’s concept of ‘Oriental despotism’; a bureaucratic system with a central role for a priestly caste (the party) headed by a monarch with supernatural powers. At its social base is a vast rural proletariat. Lewin says he prefers the depiction of ‘agrarian despotism’ because of the priority given to industrialisation and he finally decides on ‘bureaucratic absolutism’: ‘The term “bureaucratic absolutism”...is borrowed from an analysis of the Prussian bureaucratic monarchy in the eighteenth century, wherein the monarch was in fact dependent on his bureaucracy despite being its head. In the Soviet case, the party’s top bosses, putative masters of the state, had actually lost any power over “their” bureaucrats’ (p383).

Lewin is not defining a mode of production in the Marxist sense. For Lewin and for many Trotskyists there was no attempt to build socialism in the Soviet Union, just an extension of Oriental or agrarian despotism. Asiatic revolutions cannot be real revolutions since they perpetuate Asiatic despotism. The term nomenklatura, used by Lewin and others to describe a self-serving bureaucracy, is taken from Wittfogel. Lewin says, ‘Socialism involves ownership of the means of production by society, not a bureaucracy.’ However, the bureaucracy did not own the means of production. Evidence Lewin produces shows the Soviet state in transition and he argues against his own conclusions, thus, ‘After [Stalin’s] death [5 March 1953], what happened to it [the bureaucracy] can best be described ... as “the emancipation of the bureaucracy”’ (p217). The question is that if the bureaucracy was emancipated, from what was it emancipated? The answer must be, as Lewin’s evidence indicates, from the Communist Party and the working class.

Lewin presents elements in the state apparatus emerging as a class for themselves; state ownership of the means of production was eroded into a series of fiefdoms inside ministries. ‘This process must be called by its name: the crystallisation of a proto-capitalism within the state-owned economy...

it emerged through the pores of central planning ... Thus it was that the nomenklatura metamorphosed from covert owner of state property into its overt owner’ (p369-370). As the bureaucracy did not own the means of production, what socialists need to understand is how did elements of the bureaucracy achieve control of their use for their own interests, rather than those of

the mass of the people? For these elements to become capitalists they had first to disrupt the operation of the Five Year Plans, usurp their role and then destroy the state. We ask, how did they emerge and why did they begin to flourish?**

Lewin’s description of the Soviet Union in the 1920s and 1930s shows that the Communist Party and state apparatuses were drawn from the working class. Lewin specifically notes that ‘the broadly plebeian orientation of this recruitment remained a source of strength throughout the 1920s. The policy of comprehensive industrialisation in the 1930s brought the party additional popular strata with a stake in the regime and were also instrumental in the victory of 1945’ (p290).

Party and state apparatuses

Lewin quotes Nikolai Bukharin in 1928: ‘The party and state apparatuses have merged and it is a calamity.’ This fusion has deliberately been avoided in Cuba. Addressing the Eleventh Congress of the Russian Communist Party (Bolshevik) in 1922, Lenin said that the Party must free itself from administrative tasks and concentrate primarily on political leadership. Until the end of the 1920s the battle against ‘bureaucratisation’ of the state administration was officially authorised. Many seasoned Bolsheviks were killed in the 1918-22 Civil War when a dozen foreign armies invaded Russia and up to nine million people died. By the end of the 1920s the Party had over one million members. However, between 1922 and 1935 approximately 1.5 million members had left the Party. This high turnover of members had a detrimental impact on political consciousness and discipline.

The average industrial worker in Russia in 1929 had 3.5 years education rising to 4.2 years by 1939. In 1929 just 3.2% of urban dwellers and 0.3% of the rural population had any higher education. With the drive for industrialisation and agricultural collectivisation from 1928 onwards there was a shortage of people capable of functioning effectively in the state apparatus. From 1926 to 1939 the Soviet Union’s urban population grew by almost 30 million. Approximately 450 new towns were created in 13 years. This was a break-neck speed of development, creating massive problems for housing, water supplies, sewerage and administration. Subsequently, given the shortage of educated and trained people, there were pressures for the Party and administration to fuse. This reduced the ability of the Party to lead in ideological debates and make self-criticisms of the Revolution. Lewin’s evidence confirms this analysis.

Material incentives

The principle of the ‘Party maximum’, whereby a Party member could not earn more than a skilled worker, was dropped in 1932, as an incentive to encourage people to seek promotion in the state apparatus. Membership of the Party became a means of career promotion and income enhancement. The emphasis on material incentives as a source of weakening consciousness and jeopardising socialist construction was identified and analysed by Che Guevara (see Helen Yaffe, Che Guevara: the Economics of Revolution). Guevara’s criticism of using capitalist methods to try and build socialism is an important contribution to socialism; he developed it from a study of the Soviet Union and from Cuba’s own experiences.

Lewin focuses on the security services and their persecution and imprisonment of those dubbed opponents of the state. He does not discuss the constant efforts of imperialism and its class allies within the Soviet Union to subvert the state. Lewin recognises that from the Civil War onwards the workers were engaged in a life or death struggle to preserve the state, but he castigates that state as being insufficiently democratic. Lewin’s detailed description of its authoritarian methods is misused by Trotskyists and social democrats to denounce the Soviet Union, but this is a trend that hailed Solidarnosc in Poland and the mujahedeen in Afghanistan as being on the side of freedom and applauded the collapse of the Soviet Union; Lewin does not.*** Democracy is a concrete question: democracy for whom? For as long as imperialism exists the ability to construct socialism will be limited and the socialist state must retain a repressive ability if it is to survive. For the Soviet Union, with a relatively undeveloped economy at its inception, compared to the imperialist countries, class opponents of socialism had a natural ally abroad. In 1920 Lenin said that, ‘Our existence depends, first, on the existence of a radical split in the camp of the imperialist powers.’ After 1945 the imperialist camp was united against the Soviet Union, but this does not figure in Lewin’s analysis. The necessary diversion of considerable resources into defence (‘the arms race’) restricted the ability to advance socialism in the socialist countries, exactly as imperialism intended.

The fusion of the Party and state apparatuses contributed to removing checks on Stalin’s and the security services’ powers. Lewin dwells on the abuses of these powers, including extra legal excesses, but often describes them in terms of their being a function of Stalin’s personality, that of the quintessential Oriental despot. Repression in the Soviet Union cannot be understood without considering the failure of the working class movement in Europe and the strength of opportunism and anti-Soviet parties in the West. Any weaknesses in the Soviet system made the state doubly vulnerable; authoritarian measures were used to suppress class enemies, but did not remove their source.

From January 1953 to January 1959 the numbers of people detained at various institutions in the Soviet Union fell from 5.223 million to 0.997 million; numbers classed as ‘counter-revolutionaries’ dropped from 580,000 to 11,000. By the early 1960s arbitrary persecution ceased to be widespread, restraints were introduced into the legal system and prisoners given the right to challenge the prison administrators.

The imperialist ruling classes were forced to provide their own working classes with welfare services and concessions in order to maintain their loyalty against socialism and the Soviet Union as it achieved economic and social advances.


Lewin describes a country where the planned economy begins to stall by the 1970s: factories are paid bonuses for exceeding targets of products that are not wanted and state resources are siphoned off into private hands. In the 1970s, ‘90% of cadres accused of breaking the law got off with a light reprimand from the Party’ (p364). So, even the attempt to suppress proto-capitalist elements was dropped. To try and boost production, bonuses would be paid to administrators and engineers equivalent to six years’ of their normal wage. Party secretaries and other officials ‘wanted their share, like other people, even if their actual contribution to production was virtually nil’. Favourite perks and privileges included going to seminars and conferences in Moscow, banquets and parties, elite and separate health care, education at home for children and the dachas. A privileged life-style was anticipated by the successful Party and state functionaries who were far from being socialists. All of this added to the demoralisation and demobilisation of the working class.

As the demise approached, ‘such was the style of the system, in which everything functioned via personal contacts, exchanges of services, deals, promotions and so on’. Around the official and visible economy was a network of providers and sellers; ‘a shadowy proto-market economy’. This network enveloped agriculture, industry and construction; in house building and home and car repairs, it was estimated to amount to 30-50% of the work done. One fifth of the work force was engaged in this shadow economy (pp361-376). Unofficial and parallel elites emerged and maintained close links with the official elites, lobbying and pressuring for their particular interests. At the end they no longer had to pretend to be capitalists, they became capitalists.

*The Financial Times has recently carried reviews of books on the Soviet Union and socialism: David Priestland, The Red Flag: Communism and the making of the Modern World; and Archie Brown, The Rise and Fall of Communism each providing it with the opportunity to slander the socialist alternative.

** This analysis and critique of The Soviet Century draws upon some of Che Guevara’s own analyses and practice.

*** See The Legacy of the Bolshevik Revolution (1992), (ed. Eddie Abrahams) available from Larkin Publications.


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