From Wed Dec 17 06:45:05 2003
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Date: Wed, 17 Dec 2003 06:30:49 -0500

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Date: Wed, 17 Dec 2003 05:34:41 -0500
Subject: [WW] The Soviet Union and the struggle for socialism

The Soviet Union and the struggle for socialism

Based on a talk by Fred Goldstein to the December 6–7, 2003, Workers World conference in New York

Since the theme of this conference is reviving the struggle for socialism, I would like to turn to a subject that is ideologically and politically highly essential to that effort-that is, taking back our own history from the capitalist class on the question of the Soviet Union.

The socialist movement has long been laboring under a cloud of demoralization and doubt because of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Of course, the collapse was arguably the greatest setback for the working class movement in history. The political and economic gains were enormous for world imperialism. It reaquired one sixth of the globe. It gained a free hand to make war and intensify its plunder among the oppressed countries, which used to rely on the USSR as a partial shield against imperialism. And it intensified imperialism's assault on the labor movement everywhere.

But the demoralization and weakening of the socialist movement is not confined to concern over material and political setbacks. It goes deeper than that. It is a matter of having lost confidence in the revolutionary socialist goal itself.

Much of the movement has consciously or unconsciously accepted the bourgeois interpretation of the collapse of the USSR as a proof that socialism—socialism in the communist sense of establishing the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat and organizing a planned economy—is fundamentally flawed. The movement has been in a defensive posture in the face of a bourgeois ideological onslaught. It has retreated on this question in the face of a mountain of bourgeois lies and distortions. The most common response of those who do not simply jump on the bourgeois bandwagon is to remain embarrassed and silent or ambiguous and apologetic on the whole subject.


Thus, this question has everything to do with the future of the movement. The question of dealing forthrightly with the collapse of the USSR from a Marxist point of view is not merely a matter of setting the historical record straight for posterity, but rather it has become a measure of the degree of confidence in Marxism, historical materialism, the doctrine of the class struggle and the outlook for the struggle for world socialism and communism. The movement must retake the initiative on this question, dispel the clouds of confusion and doubt, and renew its confidence in Marxism and especially in the teachings of Lenin, the architect of the Bolshevik Revolution.

In a talk of this length it is only possible to propose a framework for what must be a thoroughgoing discussion and analysis. So the first thing to establish is that there is not one iota of historical evidence that the collapse of the USSR represents the failure of socialism as a social system. On the contrary, the extraordinary achievements of the first victorious workers' state in history are a living demonstration of the potential of socialism to lift the world out of the morass and nightmare imposed by private property, once socialism can be built on a strong economic foundation and be freed from the destructive influences of world imperialism.

The Bolshevik Revolution took place on a foundation of poverty in the poorest capitalist country in the West. It was isolated in its poverty and backwardness once the revolutionary attempts by the European working class to seize power were crushed by the European ruling classes after World War I. Yet, amidst the devastation caused by imperialist intervention and bloody civil war, the revolution finally expropriated the means of production from the capitalists and landlords, instituted the monopoly on foreign trade and inaugurated the planned economy.


The revolution overcame the near-total collapse of the productive forces and raised Russia and its colonies from a semi-feudal region to the second industrial power in the world. The USSR led the world in steel and coal production. In the sphere of science and engineering, the USSR inaugurated the space age, built the largest construction projects in history, and, most importantly, from a class point of view, it did all this while lifting the peasants and workers out of poverty, bringing literacy, medicine, vacations, early retirement, and numerous other social benefits to the people.

The planned economy eliminated economic crises. Not once in its history, save during the Nazi invasion, did it suffer a decline in production. The five-year plans brought a steady growth in the economy while the capitalist world went through boom and bust, including a world depression in the 1930s. Unemployment was abolished. The present horrendous living conditions of the peoples of the former USSR are sufficient testimony to what was lost.

The revolution gave the oppressed nations who were in the tsar's “prison house of nations” the right to self- determination and created the first legislative house of nationalities in history. In its early years the Soviet government exposed the secret treaties of imperialism and called upon the oppressed peoples of the world to overthrow their colonial masters. It supported anti-imperialist governments and liberation struggles around the world and inaugurated a foreign policy of internationalism.

These accomplishments of the USSR took place in the face of a constant war by world imperialism, including intervention by 14 imperialist countries in 1918, the Nazi invasion which killed over 20 million people and wrought massive destruction on socialist industry and agriculture, and the 45-year military, economic and political Cold War by the U.S., NATO and Japanese imperialism.


To be sure, the demise of the USSR was immeasurably aided by the leadership's eventual abandonment of socialist norms and Leninist practices. The growth of excessive material privilege and social inequality under the guise of material incentives, the abandonment of revolutionary proletarian internationalism, and the use of repressive measures which went beyond the justifiable repression of the bourgeoisie and landlords to include the party and loyal communists, helped to undermine the revolutionary spirit of the workers-the fundamental asset of the revolution. The disastrous split with the People's Republic of China during the PRC's revolutionary phase, caused by the Soviet leadership and fostered by U.S. imperialism, was one of the truly historic setbacks to building a strong, united socialist camp that could hold the imperialists at bay.

But these reactionary retreats from socialist norms took place under crisis conditions imposed by imperialism and under conditions of extreme material hardship. These setbacks had nothing whatever to do with socialism and everything to do with imperialist encirclement, a world imperialist embargo on technology, and a 24-hour-a-day threat of nuclear attack during the Cold War. This permanent state of war constantly disrupted socialist construction, exacerbated social tensions, promoted bourgeois elements fearful and conciliatory to imperialism, and undermined the development of socialism in the extreme.

None of the setbacks caused by bourgeois influence can nullify or disqualify the extraordinary world-shaking achievements in production, science, economic stability, rational planning for human need while raising the material and cultural level of the workers and peasants. The great strides forward in affirmative action for formerly oppressed peoples and support for the world liberation struggle were strictly due to the establishment of the dictatorship of the working class and socialist institutions.

On balance, it was the combined forces of material insufficiency and the campaign of aggression and pressure by imperialism that were the dominant factors in the demise of the USSR, not its attempts to build socialism.

In analyzing the development of the USSR, communists should take the approach of Lenin. After the collapse of the international working class movement known as the Second International, millions of workers were pitted against each other in a great imperialist war and the bourgeoisies of all the countries were riding high. In the midst of that war, in 1916, Lenin wrote his book “Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism,” in which he showed that world imperialism was preparing the way for world socialism.

Lenin could do this amidst the horrendous collapse because he had a profound scientific understanding of capitalism and its historical development that led to his confidence in the decisiveness of the class struggle. Lenin viewed the immediate situation as so bleak that in January 1917 he gave a speech in Switzerland stating that he would probably not see the revolution in his lifetime. Yet he was confident in the inevitability of the revolution.


Karl Marx himself never let victorious counterrevolution force him to abandon his scientific view of history, and consequently never lost faith in the struggle. After the revolution of 1848, in which he and Frederick Engels were participants, the workers in Paris were slaughtered and the Prussian and Austrian monarchies, with the aid of the Russian tsar, crushed the revolutions in their realms. Revolutionaries all over Europe were executed, jailed or exiled. By 1852, reaction reigned supreme.

But in the midst of reaction, on March 5, 1852, Marx wrote a letter to a friend in New York, Joseph Wedemeyer, in which he calmly said that “… no credit is due to me for discovering the existence of classes in modern society or the struggle between them. … What I did that was new was to prove: (1) that the existence of the classes is only bound up with particular historical phases in the development of production, (2) that the class struggle necessarily leads to the dictatorship of the proletariat, (3) that this dictatorship itself only constitutes a transition to the abolition of all classes and to a classless society.”

This was written 20 years before the Paris Commune and 65 years before the Bolsheviks established the dictatorship of the proletariat in the Soviet Union.

The collapse of the USSR, as catastrophic as it was, has not changed the fact that capitalism creates its own grave diggers, the working class. A setback in the workers' struggle, no matter how bad, does not change the laws of historical development nor can it rescue capitalism from its fatal contradictions. To regard the Soviet Union as an historical anomaly would be to abandon materialism altogether. We must regard it as the first and crucial phase in the struggle for world socialism, which arose out of the fundamental contradiction between private property and socialized production.

The same forces of capitalist exploitation that drove the Russian workers to make the Bolshevik Revolution are now operative on an even broader global scale, and will eventually propel the entire working class to make the world socialist revolution and lay the basis for communism.

The achievements of the USSR in its attempts to build socialism showed that society could be planned in a rational way to meet human need and could make enormous progress without private property, without the profit motive and without bosses. In a word, when the socialist side of the USSR is separated out from the regressions induced by world capitalism, it showed that the capitalist class is historically unnecessary, parasitic and an obstruction to the progress of society.

The two fundamental impediments that distorted and strangled socialist development and brought the USSR down—the material insufficiency of the productive forces to support advanced socialist relations and the weight of world imperialism—would both be removed with the socialist revolution in the United States. It is the revolution in the developed imperialist countries that lays the basis for an era of true peace and solidarity to begin, that is, the beginning of human history.