The Soviet Union: a no-party state?

Review by Alex Miller

The Soviet Century
By Moshe Lewin
Verso 2005
416 pages

The standard view of the Soviet Union promulgated by the corporate media and capitalist intellectual elites traces a direct and continuous ideological line from the Bolshevism of the 1917 revolution, through the totalitarianism of the Stalinist period between the mid-1920s and 1953, and on to the post-Stalinist period from 1953 to the final collapse of the Soviet regime in 1991. This view is normally used to discredit Bolshevism and indeed any form of revolutionary Marxism: the stagnation and decline of the post-Stalinist period, and the massacres and purges of the Stalinist period, are used to construct a reductio ad absurdum of the original aspirations of the 1917 revolution.

There are a number of pitfalls for contemporary socialists attempting to construct an alternative to this standard view. If the thesis that there is ideological continuity between Bolshevism and Stalinism is accepted, sympathy with the aspirations of 1917 can lead to a downplaying of the monstrous crimes committed in the name of socialism in the USSR. On the other hand, awareness of the yawning gulf between Stalinist society and that envisaged by the October Revolution can result in a denial of any sort of continuity between the earlier and later periods of Soviet history, resulting in an utterly and unjustifiably negative characterisation of the USSR (in some versions as embodying just another -- state-based -- form of capitalism).

In this fascinating book, Moshe Lewin – himself a former collective farm worker and Red Army soldier -- proposes an alternative to the standard view, one that seeks to avoid both of these pitfalls. In the same vein as his famous 1968 study Lenin’s Last Struggle, Lewin takes us through the various sharp ideological discontinuities existing between Bolshevism and Stalinism: the dispute between Lenin and Stalin concerning the relationship between Russia and the other republics of the USSR, the state monopoly on foreign trade, and the need to prevent the temporary restrictions on political debate within the Bolshevik Party (necessitated by the special and temporary circumstances of the New Economic Policy) from turning the party into a hollow shell of its previous vibrant self.

Lewin details the various factors in the period after the end of the civil war that led to the ascendancy of the bureaucratic strata that formed the social base for Stalin’s dictatorship. The survival of Stalin’s bureaucratically based dictatorship was incompatible with the survival of any vestiges of Bolshevism: hence the frenzy of the purges, the extent of which Lewin outlines in quite shocking detail: 3,778,000 arrests and 786,000 executions between 1930 and 1953, with arrests and executions often carried out to satisfy pre-ordained quotas.

There is absolutely no attempt to whitewash or excuse Stalin or his henchmen. Indeed, Lewin suggests that for the damage done to the USSR, Stalin himself deserved to be executed. Speaking of his having Tukhachevsky – ``the best military mind of them all’’ – put to death on entirely fabricated charges of treason, Lewin writes: ``We are dealing here with a maniac who breaks a precious object to show that it can be broken. Preferring an incompetent but obsequious Voroshilov to Tukhachevsky and the rest, and destroying the military high command, were monumental blunders. This purge alone would warrant the death penalty.’’

Lewin rejects the claim that the Soviet Union was an example of a one-party system. Instead, he suggests that it is best described as having been a ``no party system’’: ``In the 1930s, the organization calling itself the ‘party’ had already lost its political character; it had been transformed into an administrative network, wherein a hierarchy ruled a rank and file”. Indeed, by the latter years of the regime, the party had literally become “a corpse.’’

Neither did the USSR exhibit a form of state capitalism, either before or after Stalin’s death. In fact, the USSR was neither socialist nor capitalist.

Not socialist, because ``socialism involves ownership of the means of production by society, not by a bureaucracy. It has always been conceived of as a deepening – not a rejection – of political democracy. To persist in speaking of ‘Soviet socialism’ is to engage in a veritable comedy of errors. Assuming that socialism is feasible, it would involve socialization of the economy and democratisation of the polity. What we witnessed in the Soviet Union was state ownership of the economy and a bureaucratisation of economy and polity alike”.

But not capitalist either, since ``ownership of the economy and other national assets was in the hands of the state, which in practice meant the summit of its bureaucracy’’. That the bureaucracy did not constitute a class of capitalists is clear from the fact that the raison d’etre of the economic system under its supervision was not the conversion of capital into larger quantities of capital, but rather the preservation and extension of the material and consumer privileges of the bureaucracy: access to ``products and services’’, health spas, dachas and booze were favourites (for example, between October 1967 and July 1968 a single department of a government ministry ``drained 350 bottles of cognac, 25 bottles of vodka and 80 bottles of champagne’’).

Lewin explains in detail how the ``bureaucratic maze’’ in which the state-owned economy had to function put the brakes on Soviet economic development, and encouraged a large-enough segment of the bureaucracy to decide to cash in its consumer privileges for the chance to pursue capitalist profit. Interestingly, he also claims that another segment of the bureaucracy intended a return to the pre-Stalinist socialist course, and cites Yuri Andropov’s seeming readiness to re-politicise the ``party’’ by creating ``freedom of inquiry, information and discussion, and free trade unions’’.It is hard to know what to make of Lewin’s suggestion that on becoming leader in 1982 Andropov was intending to return the Communist Party to something like its pre-Stalinist existence, let alone his hint that there was at least a chance that he might have succeeded if he had lived longer than a year or so in post.

Despite the claim that the Soviet Union was not socialist (it might have been better to characterise it as only partially socialist), Lewin recognises the achievements as well as the failures of the attempt to ``build a new society in record time’’: in particular the creation of a modern urbanised society whose members had a high degree of culture and education, from the starting point of an extremely backward and peasant-based country utterly devastated by war and famine.

Lewin rejects the idea that the post-Stalin USSR should be seen as a ``totalitarian’’ extension of Stalinism: it was undemocratic and authoritarian, but did provide a degree of ``genuine emancipation’’ for its citizens. And he points out that in post-Soviet Russia ``decreasing numbers of people go to the theatre, concerts, the circus or libraries; the reading of literary works and subscriptions to newspapers are in sharp decline … The whole structure of leisure activity has been transformed because of increased workloads. Television has become the dominant leisure activity, with especially deleterious effects on children who, left to their own devices in the afternoon, sit glued to bovine broadcasts.’’

Lewin is scathing about the Yeltsinite ``democrats’’ and their ilk: ``Not content with looting and squandering the nation’s wealth, the ‘reformers’ also mounted a frontal assault on its past, directed at its culture, identity and vitality. This was no critical approach to the past: it was sheer ignorance.’’

Lewin reminds us that the Soviet system saved Russia from disintegration in 1917-22, that despite the internal wounds inflicted by Stalin it saved Europe from Nazi domination in World War II, and ``measured by 20th century criteria for defining a developed country, Soviet Russia scored quite well on demography, education, health, urbanization, the role of science – so much capital that was to be squandered by the lacklustre reformers of the 1990s.’’

No brief review can do justice to this book. Lewin confirms the broad lines of the account of the degeneration of the 1917 revolution outlined by Leon Trotsky in The Revolution Betrayed, and provides much useful source material for extending that account in an intelligent and balanced way as far as the final days of the Soviet regime. The book makes compelling reading for anyone interested in the history – and future – of socialism.

[Alex Miller is a member of the Scottish Socialist Party and of the Democratic Socialist Perspective in the Australian Socialist Alliance.]