All socialist-minded people should be encouraged to discuss Sam Webb’s “Season’s Reflections on Socialism.” It is a rich and provocative outline of ideas that need to be elaborated and fleshed out. In particular, I wish to comment on reflection #1 concerning the “implosion of the Soviet Union,” where I believe too much was left unsaid and the door was left open to one-sided, idealist interpretations.
The overthrow of Soviet socialism, the destruction of the USSR and the establishment of a kleptocratic group of exploiters as the new ruling class cannot be consigned simply to the realm of an abstract discussion of socialist theory. These were the result of real historical events involving clashes of real social forces and direction from real historical figures.
No serious assessment can exclude discussion of the role of Mikhail Gorbachev and his group. The fact that Gorbachev went from head of the CPSU to being a sycophant for the most right-wing extremist forces in the capitalist world, including Margaret Thatcher, Jesse Helms and the Republican National Committee, cannot just be ignored by partisans of the working class and socialism. While his role should not be exaggerated, it cannot be minimized either. The widespread view of Gorbachev among Communists that he was an “opportunist,” “traitor” or “defector” cannot be dismissed without discussion.
Similarly, the overthrow of one social class by another cannot be seriously discussed without recognizing the role that those classes and their representatives played. In particular, the role of the criminal elements of the underground capitalist economy in the Soviet Union cannot be left unmentioned. It’s absurd to imagine they just woke up one day to read a telegram from the Kremlin congratulating them for being selected to take over the means of production and inviting them to come down, choose an industry, and sign the necessary property transfer documents. Power and wealth have to be fought for, and anyone who denies that this group played a important role has to explain how they ended up in charge. The fact is, they had a political representative, Boris Yeltsin, who led a core of corrupted officials of the CPSU to privatize the economy and impose capitalism.
But, it is argued, even if the changes were engineered from the top and the Soviet people weren’t actively involved, they didn’t complain or resist the overthrow of their socialist system and the leadership of the CPSU, and that means this is what they wanted all along.
There is little evidence to support this view. Aside from sections of the intelligentsia and the criminal underground, there is no evidence of any deep disaffection among the masses of the Soviet people. Like everyone else in the world Communist and progressive movements, they responded positively to claims that the intentions of the Soviet leaders were to strengthen, improve and reform socialism. “Who could oppose that?” Fidel Castro asked. Thousands of tourists, including many Communists, repeatedly visited the USSR prior to 1991 and never returned with reports of seething discontent among the Soviet people, that they were clamoring to dump socialism and join the capitalist free-for-all. On the contrary, they reported that people were leading rather tranquil, secure lives, seemed optimistic about their futures and fervently supported their government’s efforts for peaceful coexistence. The Soviet people were never seriously engaged in any discussion about overthrowing their socialist system, and when Gorbachev’s opponents in the CPSU realized what was afoot, they were forcibly denied access to the media to voice their concerns by the “democratic reformers.”
Contrast that with the several years-long discussions held in every publication, every trade union and civic group of the Soviet Union to discuss the new Constitution adopted in 1977. Tens of thousands of meetings were held, involving the majority of the citizens and the original draft was drastically revised.
In hindsight, it is clear that better democratic reforms should have been enacted, but no one, not even the CIA, imagined what was coming and, in any case, that was for the Soviet people to decide, not outsiders, even foreign proponents of socialist theory.
Major reforms have been enacted in other socialist countries, including Cuba, Vietnam, and China, without overthrowing the leading role of the ruling Communist parties or discarding the ultimate goals of socialism and communism. There is no reason to believe that, with better and more honest leadership, this could not have happened in the USSR. The fact is, the destruction of the Soviet Union was primarily the handiwork of opportunist and corrupt top-level forces hostile to socialism, which were able to exploit inadequacies in the institutions of popular democracy to promote their anti-working class aims.
A disaster for humanity
Finally, no criticism of Soviet socialism can be seriously presented by Communists that does not explicitly recognize that the destruction of the USSR has been an unmitigated disaster for humanity. Not only was socialism uprooted in Eastern Europe with the establishment of right-wing capitalist governments, but millions of lives have been lost, far more than ever killed by Stalin, in the horrific mass slaughters and ethnic genocide, committed with the support and instigation of western imperialism, in the dismemberment and destruction of Yugoslavia and several former Soviet republics, and in the never-ending neocon wars in Iraq and Afghanistan which continue to spread throughout the Middle East. None of this would have occurred if the Soviet Union had not been destroyed.
Similarly for the genocidal conflicts in many African countries and the massive assault by Israel on the Palestinian people. The destruction of Soviet socialism has given a huge boost to right-wing extremism in Europe, where harsh austerity measures have been imposed on the people, as well as in the U.S., where basic democratic rights and living standards are under unprecedented siege. Capitalist ruling classes kept these forces in the closet and had to make significant social and economic concessions to the people so long as free education and health care, low-cost housing, utilities and food, and full employment were provided to the residents of Eastern Europe and the USSR. Now the demons have been freed. The exploiters, polluters, racists, torturers, and war mongers are on the loose.
The U.S. recently established a far-reaching agreement with China to control climate change. How much more would have been achieved if the USSR had been involved!
I am not trying to idealize Soviet socialism, engage in nostalgia, or deny any lessons and shortcomings that should be recognized in building a future society. But things must be put in their actual historical context; there’s little value in utopian thinking. It is certainly worthwhile to formulate our values and long-range vision, but we are obviously far from constructing or designing a new humanistic democratic socialist society. We have to acknowledge that the destruction of the USSR fundamentally changed the ground on which we fight. We are now struggling not, as we did in the past, for the overthrow of corporate monopoly power, but for the survival of elementary bourgeois democracy and to defend the basic living standards of the people. Our strategic goal and immediate challenge is to help build a broad democratic coalition to rout right-wing extremism. It is only out of this real process that a better future can and must be built.
Photo: Mikhail Gorbachev, former head of the CPSU. | Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP