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The USSR: The thwarted transition

by Ariel Dacal Diaz

Ariel Dacal Diaz is chief editor in the politics section of Social Sciences Publishers, a leading Cuban publishing house. Our translation relies largely on a translation by Ana Portela for CubaNews.

 

The attempted transition to socialism in the USSR has fostered a diverse debate since the Soviet collapse, with the ideological antagonism seemingly becoming more important than the actual subject at hand. Even though the final result was the rejection of a precious opportunity to uproot the basis of bourgeois dominion, to rethink, comprehend and absorb (above all, absorb) the characteristics of the Soviet process as a whole can offer substantial elements for the anticapitalist alternatives that the twenty-first century demands.

It is towards this end that we wrote this study, beginning by giving essential importance to understanding the history of the USSR, both domestically and internationally, and the following problems: who held power in the Soviet Union, what was their ideology, at what point can we speak of a rupture with the Bolshevik project? These pages attempt some notes on these questions.

The unforeseen class1

Stalin was the visible face and representative of the bureaucracy that gradually broke ties with the Bolshevik essence and broke the weak mechanisms of political participation of the masses.

It is then worthwhile asking: from what sources did the Soviet bureaucracy nourish itself? Second-rate figures rose to the main administrative posts within the revolution because, among other factors, many of the old combatants of the vanguard died during the civil war, or else they separated themselves from the masses in order to take up less important positions, getting comfortable in their new conditions of power. At the same time, Soviet power was forced to use individuals from the apparatus of the previous government, incorporating technicians and specialists, as well as proletarianised peasants. In this way Lenin's party was declassed—a party that had required new militants to undergo a long and rigorous process of testing, except for workers who had worked for more than ten years in industry.2

The formation of the Soviet bureaucracy was a complex process, taking previously unknown forms. It soon took over power, controlled knowledge and its dissemination, controlled the means of production of ideas, thereby guaranteeing its reproduction for decades. Bureaucratisation had its origins in the very beginning of the revolution, but its establishment as the dominant sector in society occurred during the 1930s.

Lenin explained the rise of the bureaucracy as a parasitic and capitalist excrescence in the institutions of the workers' state, born due to the isolation of the revolution in a peasant, backward and illiterate country.3 Of this new group of leaders who had their own ideas, feelings and interests, Trotsky noted, "These men would not have been capable of making the revolution, but have been the ones best adapted to exploit it".4

The raw material for the "ideological" activities of those who held power in the USSR was the great masses of illiterates who, undoubtedly, liberated themselves from darkness, and in the same manner were easily managed in name of something better, falling into the secondary ignorance that this was society's ultimate end. Except for the more politically advanced sectors, who were the minority, the ideas of socialism had not been taken up by the population, which had to be educated and prepared in revolutionary debate.

The unforeseen class that privileged itself with state power was, in theory, the representative of the interests of the masses, but in practice it administered public property for its own benefit. It is true that the members of the bureaucracy did not own private capital; but without any control by the rest of society, they directed the economy—extending or restricting any branch of production, fixing prices, organising distribution, controlling the surplus. In this way they maintained the party, army, police and propaganda that sustained them.

With the passage of time, predominantly towards the end of the 1970s, in the socialist camp they coined the phrase "them and us", reflecting the deeprooted differences that were being revealed, which had earlier been pointed out by many revolutionaries, and which exposed the stratification of the society, or, more precisely, the preservation of that stratification.

One of the most controversial sides of the analysis of the bureaucracy is the question of its ties to or autonomy from other classes. For some authors, the bureaucracy could not convert itself into the central element of a stable system, because it is able to express only the interests of another class. According to this analysis, in the Soviet case, the bureaucracy balanced between the interests of the proletariat and capitalists.

On the other hand, some authors affirm that the bureaucracy did not express foreign interests, and did not oscillate between two poles, but rather manifested itself as a social group conscious of its own interests.

Events reveal that the bureaucratic class completely monopolised both power and property. It prevailed in the power struggle, having crushed all its opponents. However, it revealed its diffuse interests in its artful discourse of pretending to represent the proletariat.

For decades, the dominant class did not dare return the means of production to private property, until in 1991, in a revealing manner, it began to knit ties with the Russian bourgeoisie. According to the Institute of Sociology of the Russian Academy of Sciences, more than seventy-five per cent of the "political elite" and more than sixty-one per cent of the "business elite" have their origins in the nomenklatura of the "Soviet" period. As a consequence, the same people retained the leading social, economic and political positions. It was the bureaucracy itself that transformed the political and economic forms of its domination, maintaining itself as owner of the system, but once again doing so on behalf of a class.

The hidden mentality

By which norms of political culture was the Soviet bureaucracy able to dominate? Let us begin with the fact that the masses that carried out the 1917 revolution had a mentality of servitude, without any democratic experience, and that the development of a consciousness amongst the proletariat, the class called on to lead the revolution, was in the hands of a small group of people. The rural masses, who were the majority at that time, brought in the most conservative elements, resulting from the high level of illiteracy.

The usurper bureaucracy that held power was another historic example of the winners incorporating the mentality of the defeated. In this case, they inherited norms of domination such as absolute control, political elitism, the idea that the "crowd" did not know how and was unable to lead—all reasons that they needed a figure who would synthesise the destiny of the country. It should be taken into account that one of the most admired features of leaders by the average Russian was the image of a strongman, capable of confronting with determination the crucial difficulties of the country.

Linked to this, the norms of the dominators broke with previous ideas of the responsibility of the leading figure in regard to problems, creating a mystical environment around him. Together with this, the social imagination formed an opinion that responsibility for the existing state of things lay with the middle layers of the dominators.

Even though the Bolshevik uprising conceived of new principles of politics and the participation of the masses—not only as the driving force in the subversive explosion but also as elaborator and executor of political decisions as reflected by the soviets, spontaneous organs of the class struggle that acquired the functions of the state—the concrete result was that the rise of Stalinism meant that such principles were destroyed and the opportunity to achieve the political participation of the masses, including real and autonomous mechanisms for mobilisation, was closed. In this process, the political and mass organisations suffered a considerable weakening.

This same mentality was manifested in the "Great Russian pride" that Lenin warned of. The bureaucracy carried out its imperial policies during the Soviet period, for which the phrase "big brother" was coined in Eastern Europe, as well as the doctrine of limited sovereignty placed in black and white by Brezhnev.

On the other hand, these facets of the Russian mentality are the basis for understanding why the living conditions of the ruling Soviet class were similar to those of the bourgeoisie. As early as 1936, Trotsky gave an illustrative example that revealed the maintenance of stratification. A marshal, the director of a business and the child of a minister all benefited from an apartment, vacation villas, cars, schools for their children, reserved medical clinics and many other benefits which were not accessible to the maid of the first, the farmhand of the second and the vagabond. For the first group, this difference was not a problem. For the second, it was the most important one.

An individual in Soviet society who yearned for the features, goods and way of life that were part of capitalist culture was the most evident proof that the new socialist mentality, the new individual and the new perception had not flowered in him. Soviet socialism after Lenin, a symbol of real socialism, was never a valid, articulate or viable alternative in the face of the previous system. The necessary cultural replacement was not reached—understanding that socialism is, above all else, sustained by a new culture. Therefore, the outcome was not "a socialist society (nor a capitalist one, of course) but rather a new form—statist, bureaucratised—of domination and exploitation, opposed to the emancipatory, just and libertarian nature of socialism."5

The rupture

The political practices of the Soviet bureaucratic class were a rupture with Leninist ideas in the most diverse spaces of soviet society. The following are some points that corroborate this hypothesis.

The leader of the October Revolution explained:

In our struggle we must remember that Communists must be able to reason. They may be perfectly familiar with the revolutionary struggle and with the state of the revolutionary movement all over the world; but if we are to extricate ourselves from desperate poverty and want we need culture, integrity and an ability to reason. 6

The bureaucracy impeded the revolutionary polemic, obstructing the effective political participation of the masses. The Soviet leaders ignored that socialism could not triumph against freedom of thought, against hunger, but on the contrary, only through freedom of thought and improving the living conditions of human beings.

The dogmatism that Marxism suffered, the persecution and discrediting by those who attempted to defend such dogmatism, the erroneous Marxism-USSR identification (including its disastrous international consequences) and the impossibility of developing other lines of thought, caused generations of Soviet people to lack the necessary conceptual theoretical experience to confront the challenges of contemporary history.

It is above all in the authoritarian nature of the Soviet bureaucracy that we must look for the brake on the cultural transition proposed by the Bolshevik project. The lack of real participation, of civic spaces for the contestation and control of power, affected all the levels of social life, from economic performance to ethnic conflicts.

Concerning all this, analysing the approval of the Soviet constitution, Trotsky pointed out:

To be sure, in June the draft was submitted to the "consideration" of the people of the Soviet Union. It would be vain, however, to seek in this whole sixth part of the globe one Communist who would dare to criticize a creation of the Central Committee, or one non-party citizen who would reject a proposal from the ruling party.7

An example of this catastrophic blunder was the attempt to dilute individuality into a collective, ever more abstract, and with a marked lack of respect for differences, schematising the model of a strong, inflexible citizen, as if the person dreamed of could be realised by decree. Behind this was a very simplistic conception of human beings, ignoring completely psychology and modifications by different environments. The Soviet leaders not only revealed their incapacity to keep alive the revolutionary spirit when confronting the historical circumstances in which they acted, but they also crushed any vestiges of thought that was diverse, critical or defiant of authority.

Under the pretext of being the guiding light in society, the CPSU converted itself into a machine that halted, undermined and violated the natural processes of society. The difference between Lenin and Stalin, among many others, was that the latter, using some of the conditions created in the life of the great revolutionary leader, deflected the party's direction towards authoritarianism.8 Lenin had prepared the Bolshevik Party to lead the workers, not to dominate and subjugate them.9

With the hypercentralised economy that followed this process, the Soviet bureaucracy, as part of preventing control by the masses, managed the lines of production, including the smallest details, by means of a mediocre framework of intermediate levels made up of technicians, managers and specialists, which became a real plague that was impossible to clear away during the existence of the USSR. The historian Eric Hobsbawn recalls that "shortly before the [second world] war, there was already more than one administrator for every two manual workers".10

From that time on, the Soviet model presented two essential problems that are proof, from the Marxist theoretical viewpoint, of the breach between socialism as a superior state of development of the productive forces and the relations of production, and the reality of the Soviet experience. On one hand, the rest of the socioeconomic forms, which could have converged to build the basis for a new society, were arbitrarily eliminated (1928). On the other hand, "economic islands" (industrial, mining and agrarian complexes) were created, violating the social division of work, at the same time as the necessary cooperation between sectors and branches of the economy was ignored.

This practice acted as a brake on specialisation and the introduction of new techniques, which impeded the rational use of resources. Due to the vertical and voluntarist structures that were imposed on the productive process, the development of one sector came at the detriment of another, without the necessary integration of both. In this scheme, the productive units, far from being autonomous, were prisoners of the uncontrollable primacy of political judgment over economic necessity.

The workers continued separated from the means of generating wealth. They did not become real owners of those means, because the bureaucraticadministrative elements prevented their effective ownership. It was adulteration to identify state ownership of property with socialisation, limiting the complexity and profundity that Marx had understood as the surpassing of the capitalist mode of production.11

Similarly, on the question of gender, there was a rupture of the ideas of the October Revolution. The new workers' state granted wide-ranging legal and political rights, such as the rights to divorce and abortion, the elimination of marital authority, equality between legal marriage and civil union etc. Alexandra Kollontai was the first woman elected to the Central Committee of the Bolshevik Party in 1917 and the first to occupy a government position in the new state: people's commissar of health, and later the first woman ambassador in history.

In 1926, under the regime of Stalin, civil marriage was once again instituted as the only legal union. Later, the right to abortion was abolished, together with the suppression of the female section of the Central Committee and its equivalents in the different levels of the party organisation. In 1934, homosexuality was prohibited and prostitution became a crime. Not respecting the family "bourgeois" conduct or "leftism" in the eyes of the bureaucracy. Illegitimate children returned to that status, which had been abolished in 1917, and divorce was converted into a costly transaction, full of difficulties.12

Police institutions also began to function for the benefit of these new interests. In its beginnings, the Security Committee of the State (KGB)13 had as its objective combating counterrevolution, sabotage and speculation, objectives that were legitimate defences against the reactionary opposition which the revolution had generated. But these aims were increasingly modified with the rise of the bureaucracy to power, until it converted itself into an organ for the preservation of the interests of the bureaucratic state, its objective being to eliminate the opposition of the revolutionary forces.14

In addition, officials of the KGB received higher salaries as well as travel to attractive destinations overseas and comfortable homes, and benefited from other privileges inside the USSR that also affected their morality. Without a doubt, it was a privileged sector of society, which makes it understandable why its real function was as a guardian of the interests of the bureaucracy.

The Red Army was created from the grassroots in January 1918. The workers' state needed its own armed institution to defend its interests, primarily due to the aggression from the fourteen countries that soon followed. As new concepts, the policies of the Bolshevik leaders were open to constant debate, in which those in uniform had an important role and, naturally, the army professed the same ideas as the party and state.

But the Red Army did not escape the reactionary attacks of the bureaucracy, which immediately began to transform it into a defender of its interest, gradually rooting out its popular basis. The measure which reflected this process with most clarity was the decree which reestablished the officer corps, dealing a crushing blow to the revolutionary principles that gave rise to this armed institution, one of whose pillars was the liquidation of the officer corps and giving importance to the command that is won by capability, talent, character, experience etc.

This measure had a political objective, giving officers a social importance. In this manner, they were brought closer to the groups of leaders, weakening their unity with the troops, which led to a rupture of channels of communication from the troops to the political leadership. The officer corps carefully watched over the "purity" and loyalty of those in uniform for the "party" and the "socialist state". Similarly, this weakened the spirit of freedom and debate inside the ranks of the army, the corollary of the view that "no army can be more democratic that the regime which nourishes it".15

One of the most sensitive breaks was with one of the basic principles of the Bolshevik program: that the wages of higher functionaries should not surpass the average worker's salary. By 1940, when a worker earned 250 roubles a month, a deputy earned 1000 roubles, a president of a republic 12,000 roubles and the president of the Union 25,000 roubles.16 During the years of perestroika, there existed the wellknown "special supply" that increased the purchasing power of members of the nomenklatura well above that of a worker or engineer.

The Bolshevik leader, based on events that he had to face in the last months of his political life, foresaw the dangers that were inherited from the "Great Russia" of the years of tsarist domination and exploitation, and which remained in the politics of the new state.

In such conditions—said Lenin—it is natural that the freedom to separate from the union … will be a simple piece of paper unable to defend the non-Russians from the attacks of that real Russian … that oppressor who is a typical Russian oppressor. There is no doubt that the Soviet and Sovietised workers, who constitute a small percentage, will drown in this ocean of great Russian chauvinism like a fly in milk.17

The real facts, despite what appeared in the constitution and other regulations, indicated the impossibility of affirming that the republics that made up the Soviet state coordinated their activities with the centre; rather, they were directly subordinated to Moscow. Stalin named from above the responsible politicians. The elites of the republics, although occupying important republican positions, rarely could obtain similar positions at the Union level, where Russian dominance carried the fundamental weight.18

The leader of the Russian Revolution paid special interest to the concepts of political practice in terms of the Union:

One thing is the need to unite against the Western imperialists, defenders of the capitalist world. No one is in doubt of this .. another thing is when we ourselves fall, even if it is only in questions of detail, into imperialist attitudes towards the oppressed nationalities, undermining our sincere principles, all of our defence of principles in the fight against imperialism.19

Final notes

Soviet socialism after Lenin was not a valid, articulated and viable alternative to capitalism, because the usurper bureaucracy was not, nor could it be, a carrier of a superior ideology, of a cultural project understood as a surgical instrument to realise the new society, or create the conditions to achieve it.

The people who took power were not the reflective and educated communists that Lenin foresaw as the primary material essential to confront and achieve the great historical challenge that Russia assumed in 1917. In reality, the political practice was a rupture with this principle. These people who gradually extended throughout society and converted themselves into the dominant sector were a byproduct of the revolution and revealed their inability to guide history towards the ultimate objective: the creation of socialism.

The current Russian politicians are the human face of the bourgeoisie, hidden for decades by the Soviet bureaucracy. The Yeltsin regime converted the members of the party, members of government and the security forces into businesspeople and property owners.

Despite the postponement of the transition to socialism which the events of the USSR presupposed for Russia, the irreversible importance of the triumph of the October Revolution remains, which Lenin explained in 1922, when he wrote:

It is possible that our state apparatus may be defective, but they say that the first steam engine was defective as well. Not only that, it is not even known if it ever functioned, but that is not what is important; the important thing is that it was invented. It does not matter that the first steam engine was useless; the fact is that today we have the locomotive. Although our state apparatus is poor, what is important is that it was created; a state of the proletarian type was created.20

This is the necessary reference point, in order to elaborate and carry out the anticapitalist alternative in the twentyfirst century.

Notes

1 This subheading was suggested by an article by Alexei Goussev, "The unforeseen class: Soviet bureaucracy as seen by Leon Trotsky", <www.herramienta.com>.

2 Robert Weil, "Bureaucratization: The problem without a class name", Socialism and Democracy, Spring/Summer 1988. The author makes a detailed analysis of this social group, its origins, its characteristics and the manner in which it took power, providing a useful commentary for those who want more information to understand the Soviet process.

3 Taken from Ted Grant and Alan Wood, "Lenin and Trotsky, what they really stood for", <www.engels.org>.

4 Leon Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed: What is the Soviet Union and where is it going?, Pathfinder, New York, 1992.

5 Adolfo Sánchez, "¿Vale la pena el socialismo?", Revista El viejo topo, No. 172, November 2002.

6 Vladimir I. Lenin, "Political Report to the Eleventh Congress of the RCP(B)", Collected Works, Vol. 33, p. 296.

7 Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed, p. 211.

8 A regime in which the leaders forcefully impose a unique system for all society and penalise even the idea of an alternative. Robin Blackburn (ed.), After the Fall: The Failure of Communism and the Future of Socialism, Verso, London, 1991, p. 177. Domination of a party of the masses led by a charismatic leader, an official ideology, the monopoly of the mass media, the monopoly of the armed forces, a terrorist police control, a centralised control of the economy. Philippe Bourrinet, "Victor Serge: totalitarismo y capitalismo de Estado (Deconstrucción socialista y humanismo colectivista)", <www.lrpcofi.org>.

9 The Bolsheviks, against their better intentions, were forced to establish a monopoly of political power. This situation, considered extraordinary and temporary, created great dangers at a time when the vanguard of the proletariat was subjected to a growing pressure of other classes. Grant and Wood, op. cit.

10 Eric Hobsbawn, Historia del siglo XX, 19141991, Serie Mayor, Espa±a, Barcelona, 1998, p. 383.

11 Jorge Luis Acanda, Sociedad civil y hegemonía, Centro de Investigaciones y Desarrollo de la Cultura Cubana "Juan Marinello", Cuba, 2002, p. 264.

12 Adriana D'Atri, "An analysis of the role of socialist women in the fight against oppression and of working women at the beginning of the Russian Revolution", October 20, 2003, at the alternative electronic daily, Rebelión, <www.rebelión.org>.

13 Until the death of Stalin, the secret services of the USSR functioned under different names: Cheka, GPU, OGPU, NKVD, KGB, MGB. In 1935 the MGB (Ministry of State Security) fused with MVD (Ministry of Internal Affairs) and took over the command of the new Komitei Gosudarstvennoi Bezopasnosti (KGB).

14 Although this institution never abandoned its function as the regime's political police, its most aberrant period, in terms of crimes and contempt for human life, was that headed by Stalin, who relied on one of the most despicable persons during the tragic period of Stalinism: Beria, who headed the KGB for 15 years, accumulating a criminal file that filled fifty pages, for which he was tried after the death of his boss and sent to face the firing squad. He was the man who guaranteed the security of Stalin and, perhaps, his most efficient collaborator, endowed with a unique moral rottenness that helped him to stay for such a long time at the side of the General Secretary of the CPSU. For more information, see Ala. Maximovich, "Lavrenti Beria", Sputnik, Moscow, No. 12, December 1988.

15 Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed, p. 184 [in Spanish edition].

16 Suzanne Labin, Stalin el Terrible, Edicion Huarpes, Buenos Aires, 1947, p. 136.

17 Lenin, Lenin's Last Fight, p. 204.

18 Often, within the territories that were not a part of the Russian Federation, Russian representatives were favoured with the better posts in key sectors of the economy and in politics that, according to Bárbara Sarabia, subtly inclined the balance in favour of the centre because of the extraction of important raw materials from the surrounding republics, concentrating industrial development in the Slavic regions and the Baltic, which thereby benefited from the economic and technological backwardness that was gradually the fate of Soviet Asia. Bárbara Sarabia, "Reflexiones en torno al desmonte de la URSS", in La Perestroika en tres dimensiones: expediente de un fracaso, Investigaciones, Centro de Estudios Europeos, La Habana, 1992, p. 108.

19 Lenin, Lenin's Last Fight, p. 210.

20 ibid., p. 70.

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