Tag Archive for NEP

LENIN, MAO FACING THE CHALLENGES OF HISTORY

samir amin at WAPE honory member and lifetime achievement

The 11th Forum of WAPE took place from June  17. – 19, 2016 in Patiala, Punjab, India. At this event Samir Amin took part in the Forum and was a main speaker. He also became an honorary member of WAPE and received a lifetime achievement award. Below is his speech given to the event which we reprint with his kind permission.

Lenin, Mao Facing the challenges of history

Samir Amin

Lenin,   Bukharin, Stalin, and Trotsky in Russia, as well as Mao, Zhou Enlai, and Den Xiaoping in China, shaped the history of the two great revolutions of the twentieth century. As leaders of revolutionary communist parties and then later as leaders of revolutionary states, they were confronted with the problems faced by a triumphant revolution in countries of peripheral capitalism and forced to “revise” (I deliberately use this term, considered sacrilegious by many) the theses inherited from the historical Marxism of the Second International. Lenin and Bukharin went much further than Hobson and Hilferding in their analyses of monopoly capitalism and imperialism and drew this major political conclusion: the imperialist war of 1914–1918 (they were among the few, if not the only ones, to anticipate it) made necessary and possible a revolution led by the proletariat.

With the benefit of hindsight, I will indicate here the limitations of their analyses. Lenin and Bukharin considered imperialism to be a new stage (“the highest”) of capitalism associated with the development of monopolies. I question this thesis and contend that historical capitalism has always been imperialist, in the sense that it has led to a polarization between centers and peripheries since its origin (the sixteenth century), which has only increased over the course of its later globalized development. The nineteenth century pre-monopolist system was not less imperialist. Great Britain maintained its hegemony precisely because of its colonial domination of India. Lenin and Bukharin thought that the revolution, begun in Russia (“the   weak link”), would continue in the centers (Germany in particular). Their hope was based on an underestimate of the effects of imperialist polarization, which destroyed revolutionary prospects in the centers.

Nevertheless, Lenin, and even more Bukharin, quickly learned the necessary historical lesson. The revolution, made in the name of socialism (and communism), was, in fact, something else: mainly a peasant revolution. So what to do? How can the peasantry be linked with the construction of socialism? By making concessions to the market and by respecting newly acquired peasant property; hence by progressing slowly towards socialism? The NEP implemented this strategy.

Yes, but…. Lenin, Bukharin, and Stalin also understood that the imperialist powers would never accept the Revolution or even the NEP. After the hot wars of intervention, the cold war was to become permanent, from 1920 to 1990. Soviet Russia, even though it was far from being able to construct socialism, was able to free itself from the straightjacket that imperialism always strives to impose on all peripheries of the world system that it dominates. In effect, Soviet Russia delinked. So what to do now? Attempt to push for peaceful coexistence, by making concessions if necessary and refraining from intervening too actively on the international stage? But at the same time, it was necessary to be armed to face new and unavoidable attacks. And that implied rapid industrialization, which, in turn, came into conflict with the interests of the peasantry and thus threatened to break the worker- peasant alliance, the foundation of the revolutionary state.

It is possible, then, to understand the equivocations of Lenin, Bukharin, and Stalin. In theoretical terms, there were U-turns from one extreme to the other. Sometimes a determinist attitude inspired by the phased approach inherited from earlier Marxism (first the bourgeois democratic revolution, then the socialist   one) predominated, sometimes a voluntarist approach (political action would make it possible to leap over stages). Finally, from 1930–1933, Stalin chose rapid industrialization and armament (and this choice was not without some connection to the rise of fascism). Collectivization was the price of that choice. Here again we must beware of judging too quickly: all socialists of that period (and even more the capitalists) shared Kautsky’s analyses on this point and were persuaded that the future belonged to large-scale agriculture.   The break in the worker-peasant alliance that this choice implied lay behind the abandonment of revolutionary democracy and the autocratic turn.

In my opinion, Trotsky would certainly not have done better. His attitude towards the rebellion of the Kronstadt sailors and his later equivocations demonstrate that he was no different than the other Bolshevik leaders in government. But, after 1927, living in exile and no longer having responsibility for managing the Soviet state, he could delight in endlessly repeating the sacred principles of socialism. He became like many academic Marxists who have the luxury of asserting their attachment to principles without having to be concerned about effectiveness in transforming reality.

The Chinese communists appeared later on the revolutionary stage. Mao was able to learn from Bolshevik equivocations. China was confronted   with the same   problems as Soviet   Russia: revolution in a backward country, the necessity of including the peasantry in revolutionary transformation, and the hostility of the imperialist powers. But Mao was able to see more clearly than Lenin, Bukharin, and Stalin. Yes, the Chinese revolution was anti-imperialist and peasant (anti-feudal). But it was not bourgeois democratic; it was popular democratic. The difference is important: the latter type of revolution requires maintaining the worker-peasant alliance over a long period. China was thus able to avoid the fatal error of forced collectivization and invent another way: make all agricultural land state property, give the peasantry equal access to use of this land, and renovate family agriculture.

The two revolutions had difficulty in achieving stability because they were forced to reconcile support for a socialist outlook and concessions to capitalism. Which of these two tendencies would prevail? These revolutions only achieved stability after their “Thermidor,” to use Trotsky’s term. But when was the Thermidor in Russia? Was it in 1930, as Trotsky said? Or was it in the 1920s, with the NEP? Or was it the ice age of the Brezhnev period? And in China, did Mao choose Thermidor beginning in 1950? Or do we have to wait until Deng Xiaoping to speak of the Thermidor of 1980?

It is not by chance that reference is made to lessons of the French Revolution. The three great revolutions of modern times (the French, Russian, and Chinese) are great precisely because they looked forward beyond the immediate requirements of the moment. With the rise of the Mountain, led by Robespierre, in the National   Convention, the French Revolution was consolidated as both popular and bourgeois and, just like the Russian and Chinese Revolutions, which strove to go all the way to communism even if it were not on the agenda due to the necessity of averting defeat, retained the prospect of going much further later. Thermidor is not the Restoration. The latter occurred in France, not with Napoleon, but only beginning in 1815. Still it should be remembered that the Restoration could not completely do away with the gigantic social transformation caused by the Revolution. In Russia, the restoration occurred even later in its revolutionary history, with Gorbachev and Yeltsin. It should be noted that this restoration remains fragile, as can be seen in the challenges Putin must still confront. In China, there has not been (or not yet!) a restoration.

Since 1947, the United States of America, the dominating imperialist power of that epoch, proclaimed the division of the world into two spheres, that of the ‘free world’ and that of ‘communist totalitarianism’. The reality of the Third World was flagrantly ignored: it was felt privileged to belong to the ‘free world’, as it was ‘non-communist’.   ‘Freedom’ was considered as applying only to capital, with complete disregard for the realities of colonial and semi-colonial oppression.   The following year Jdanov, in his famous report (in fact, Stalin’s), which led to the setting up of the Kominform (an attenuated form of the Third International), also divided the world into two, the socialist sphere (the USSR and Eastern Europe) and the capitalist one (the rest of the world).   The report ignored the contradictions within the capitalist sphere which opposed the imperialist centres to the peoples and nations of the peripheries who were engaged in struggles for their liberation.

The Jdanov doctrine pursued one main aim: to impose peaceful coexistence and hence to calm the aggressive passions of the United States and their subaltern European and Japanese allies.   In exchange, the Soviet Union would accept a low profile, abstaining from interfering in colonial matters that the imperialist powers considered their internal affairs. The liberation movements, including the Chinese revolution, were not supported with any enthusiasm at that time and they carried on by themselves.   But their victory (particularly that of China, of course) was to bring about some changes in international power relationships. Moscow did not perceive this until after Bandung, which enabled it, through its support to the countries in conflict with imperialism, to break out of its isolation and become a major actor in world affairs. In a way, it is not wrong to say that the main change in the world system was the result of this first ‘Awakening of the South’.   Without this knowledge, the later affirmation of the new ‘emerging’ powers cannot be understood.

The Jdanov report was accepted without reservation by the European communist parties and of those of Latin America of that era.   However, almost immediately it came up against resistance from the communist parties of Asia and the Middle East.   This was concealed in the language of that period, for they continued to affirm “the unity of the socialist camp” behind the USSR, but as time went on resistance became more overt with the development of their struggles for regaining independence, particularly after the victory of the Chinese revolution in 1949.   To my knowledge, no-one has ever written the history of the formulation of the alternative theory, which gave full rein to the independent initiatives of the countries of Asia and Africa, later to crystallize at Bandung in 1955 and then in the constitution of the Non Aligned Movement (from 1960 defined as Asian-African, plus Cuba). The details are buried in the archives of some communist parties (those of China, India, Indonesia, Egypt, Iraq, Iran and perhaps a few others).

Nevertheless I can bear personal witness to what happened, having been lucky enough, since 1950, to participate in one of the groups of reflection that brought together the Egyptian, Iraqi and Iranian communists and some others.   Information about the Chinese debate, inspired by Zhou Enlai was not made known to us by Comrade Wang Hue (the link with the journal Révolution, whose editorial committee included myself) until much later, in 1963.   We heard echoes of the Indian debate and the split that it had provoked, which was confirmed afterwards by the constitution of the CPM.   We knew that debates within the Indonesian and Filipino communist parties developed along the same lines.

This history should be written as it will help people to understand that Bandung did not originate in the heads of the nationalist leaders (Nehru and Sukarno particularly, rather less, Nasser) as is implied by contemporary writers.   It was the product of a radical left wing critique which was at that time conducted within the communist parties.   The common conclusion of these groups of reflection could be summed up in one sentence: the fight against imperialism brings together, at the world level, the social and political forces whose victories are decisive in opening up to possible socialist advances in the contemporary world.

This conclusion, however, left open a crucial question: who will ‘direct’ these anti-imperialist battles?   To simplify: the bourgeoisie (then called ‘national’), whom the communists should then support, or a front of popular classes, directed by the communists and not the bourgeoisies (who were anti-national, in fact)?   The answer to this question often changed and was sometimes confused.   In 1945 the communist parties concerned were aligned, based on the conclusion that Stalin had formulated: the bourgeoisies everywhere in the world (in Europe, aligned with the United States, as in the colonial and semi-colonial countries – in the language of that era) have “thrown the national flag into the rubbish bin” (Stalin’s phrase) and the communists were therefore the only ones who could assemble a united front of the forces that refused to submit to the imperialist, capitalist American order.   The same conclusion was reached by Mao in 1942, but only made known (to us) when his New Democracy had been translated into Western languages in 1952.   This thesis held that for the majority of the peoples of the planet the long road to socialism could only be opened by a “national, popular, democratic, anti-feudal and anti-imperialist revolution [the language of the day], run by the communists.”   The underlying message was that other socialist advances were not on the agenda elsewhere, i.e., in the imperialist centres.   They could not possibly take shape until after the peoples of the peripheries had inflicted substantial damage on imperialism.

The triumph of the Chinese revolution confirmed this conclusion. The communist parties of South East Asia, in Thailand, Malaysia and Philippines in particular, started liberation struggles inspired by the Vietnamese model.   Later, in 1964, Che Guevara held similar views when he called for “one, two, three Vietnams.”

The avant-garde proposals for initiatives by the independent and anti-imperialist ‘countries of Asia and Africa’, which were formulated by the different communist groups of reflection, were precise and advanced. They are to be found in the Bandung programme and that of the Non-Aligned Movement, of which I gave a systematic presentation in my L’eveil du Sud (Awakening of the South).   The proposals focussed on the essential need to reconquering control over the accumulation process (development which is auto-centred and delinked from the world economy).

It so happens that some of these proposals were adopted, although with considerable dilutions in certain countries, as from 1955 to 1960, by the governing classes as a whole in both continents. And at the same time the revolutionary struggles waged by all the communist parties of South East Asia were defeated (except in Vietnam, of course).   The conclusion would seem to be that the ‘national bourgeoisie’ had not exhausted its capacity for anti-imperialist struggle.   The Soviet Union also came to that conclusion when it decided to support the non-aligned front, while the imperialist Triad declared open warfare against it.

The communists in the countries concerned were then divided between the two tendencies and became involved in painful conflicts that were often confused.   Some drew the lesson that it was necessary to ‘support’ the powers in place that were battling imperialism, although this support should remain ‘critical’.   Moscow gave wind to their sails by inventing the thesis of the ‘non-capitalist way’.   Others conserved the essentials of the Maoist thesis, according to which only a front of the popular classes that was independent of the bourgeoisie could lead a successful struggle against imperialism.   The conflict between the Chinese communist party and the Soviet Union, which was apparent as from 1957 but officially declared as from 1960, of course confirmed the second tendency among the Asian and African communists.

However, the potential of the Bandung movement wore out within some fifteen years, emphasizing – if it should be needed – the limits of the anti-imperialist programmes of the ‘national bourgeoisies’.   Thus the conditions were ripe for the imperialist counter-offensive, the ‘re-compradorisation’ of the Southern economies, if not – for the most vulnerable – their recolonization. Nevertheless, as if to give the lie to this return imposed by the facts to the thesis of the definitive and absolute impotence of the national bourgeoisies – Bandung having been, according to this vision, just a ‘passing episode’ in the cold war context – certain countries of the South have been able to impose themselves as ‘emerging’ in the new globalization dominated by imperialism.   But ‘emerging’ in what way?   Emerging markets open to the expansion of capital of the oligopolies belonging to the imperialist Triad? Or emerging nations capable of imposing a genuine revision of the terms of globalization and reducing the power exercised by the oligopolies, while reconducting the accumulation to their own national development?     The question of the social content of the powers in place in the emerging countries (and in the other countries of the periphery) and the prospects that this opens up or closes is once again on the agenda.   It is a debate that cannot be avoided: what will – or could – be the ‘post-crisis’ world?

Would the results be better now, when a second ‘Awakening of the South’ is on the horizon?   Above all, will it be possible this time to build convergences between the struggles in the North and in the South?   These were lamentably lacking in the Bandung epoch. The peoples of the imperialist centres then finally aligned behind their imperialist leaders.   The social-democrat project of the time would in fact have been difficult to imagine without the imperialist rent that benefited the opulent societies of the North.   Bandung and the Non Aligned Movement were thus seen as just an episode in the cold war, perhaps even manipulated by Moscow. In the North, there was little understanding of the real dimensions of this first emancipatory wave of the countries of Asia and Africa which, however, was convincing enough for Moscow to give it support.

 

Interview with Thomas Kenny co-author of Socialism of ‘Betrayed Behind the Collapse of the Soviet Union, 1917-1991′

Socialism Betrayed

Given the instability and anarchy we have seen and are still seeing in the market capitalist system what do you see as the merits of a planned economic system? 

 

Only when the class character of the state has changed after a socialist revolution and when a working-class, revolutionary party sets the basic direction of policy, can there be a comprehensively planned system.

Capitalism sometimes claims to “plan.” But state-monopoly capitalism, capitalism’s current form, must leave undisturbed the privileges of private monopoly. Therefore it cannot plan comprehensively except to some extent in a wartime emergency when private capital is willing to cede some powers to the capitalist state.

The 20th century is a fair basis for comparison. The system of socialism based on working class rule, collective or state ownership of property and state planning proved a remarkable success in comparison with capitalism.

The younger generation needs to hear this truth. The socialist system proved itself capable of providing sustained, rapid economic growth over six decades, notable technical and scientific innovations, unprecedented economic and social benefits to all its citizens, all the while defending itself from invasion and other forms of military pressure, combatting subversion, sabotage, and threats, and offering economic aid, technical assistance, and military protection to other nations struggling for independence and socialism.

Consider socialism in relation to the evils of the US capitalist economy, the economy I know the best. For more than a century the US economy has been  dominated by giant monopolies. Monopolization grows ever more extreme.  The dominant world power since 1945, US imperialism is now in a state of permanent, global war. The US military is in action in scores of countries. Overseas US military bases number about 1000 by some reckonings. A $600 billion yearly military budget pays for this.

Capitalism’s boom-bust economic cycle has become more violent in recent decades. The recovery from the 2008 crash is still weak and tentative in the US. The unrestricted export of capital and jobs has de-industrialized many industrial areas, resulting in good union jobs in manufacturing being replaced by low-wage service jobs often held by undocumented immigrants, alongside the fabulous wealth of a tenth of one percent. There is homelessness for millions.

Ugly political features stem from these economic realities: a tendency to restrict (bourgeois) democracy, e.g., the US Supreme Court decision to end all restriction on corporate donations to election campaigns; the Republican Party campaign to roll back the Voting Rights Act. There is the growing paralysis of Congress, an institution that seemingly can muster the will only to authorize tax cuts for corporations, fund new wars, and strive to make the tax system more regressive.

Racism is an old US evil. It creates monopoly superprofits from high unemployment rates and low wages for most Black workers. Today, it is still expressed in police violence in Black urban areas, and mass incarceration of young Black men.

The Leninist law of uneven development operates on so many levels. Vast regions of the US South and US West, largely non-union, are home to  the most backward forms of  political belief and religiosity. The political representatives from these regions are now dominant in Congress.  We have a culture sick with gun insanity and resultant frequent mass shootings of innocents. The gun lobby always blocks reform. There is brutal treatment of undocumented immigrants. The present Administration deports them on a greater scale than the  Bush Administration did.  The vaunted health care “reform” of 2010 was written by the private insurers. We have a corporate media degraded to mindless “info-tainment. “ It excludes dissenting voices.

We have a “justice” system that operates along blatant class lines. Torture in Guantanamo and the rendition “black sites”? Nobody goes to prison except a few corporals. An aggression against Iraq based on a Big Lie by top US officials? Nobody goes to prison. A trillion-dollar bailout for banks whose illegal, fraudulent practices were the proximate cause of the crash of 2008? Nobody goes to prison. Secret NSA spying on the world? Nobody goes to prison. Pollution of the environment to the point of triggering climate change? Nobody goes to prison

A socialist economy’s superiority should be discussed concretely. Look at the main socialist country over most of the 20th century, the USSR. Bahman Azad’s fine book Heroic Struggle, Bitter Defeat summarizes its accomplishments.

In the first two five-year plans, industrial production grew at an average annual rate of 11 percent. From1928 to 1940, the industrial sector grew from 28 percent to 45 percent of the economy. Between 1928 and 1937, heavy manufacturing output’s share of total manufacturing output grew from 31 percent to 63 percent.

The illiteracy rate dropped from 56 percent to 20 percent. The number of graduates from high school, specialized schools and universities jumped. Moreover, in this period, the state began providing free education, free health services, and social insurance, and after 1936 the state gave subsidies to single mothers and to mothers with many children. These accomplishments, Azad notes, were “impressive and historically unprecedented.”

Between 1941 and 1953, the Soviet Union defeated fascist Germany and rebuilt after the devastation of the war. By 1948 overall industrial output exceeded that of 1940, and by 1952 it exceeded 1940 by two and a half times. The Soviet Union developed and forced the imperialist West into a Cold War stalemate.

But at what cost, both human and environment, does that kind of growth come?

 

Admittedly, problems existed, notably acute agricultural shortages, and even the achievements, made in conditions of hostile encirclement, exacted a certain cost in terms of lives, living standards, socialist democracy, and collective leadership, but the achievements had occurred nonetheless.

Social reformists love to sneer at the phrase “real, existing socialism,” a term that Soviet writers often used.  Reformism usually puts the phrase in quotation marks, holding it up to scorn.  In so doing they reveal their own political limitations. They prefer to discuss socialism as an imagined ideal, not what really developed in the harsh reality of 20th century class struggle and all its contradictions.

Twentieth-century socialism came into being amidst the most trying historical circumstances. What were those circumstances?  Imperialist war, civil war, invasion, blockade, arms race, subversion, making a beginning on socialist construction from a low level of development.

Who or what imposed those circumstances? Imperialism imposed the cost, created the emergency, created the choice: either breakneck industrialization or defeat.

The deformities and distortions that existed in 20th century socialism were due to the imperialist onslaught against the new revolutionary states, not to the intrinsic nature of socialism. I can’t prove this by pointing to a historical example, because we have no example — yet — of a socialist revolution that had an easy birth and a conflict-free childhood.

But we can find other, indirect evidence for the truth of this point. As for one kind of human cost, consider the repression that took place in the late 1930s. I like the point made by Hans Heinz Holz  “the despotic aspects of Soviet socialism occurred in the period of its encirclement.” In the late 1930s the Soviet leaders were not imagining the threat of pro-fascist Fifth Columns, which were coming to power in one country after another, financed and orchestrated by German imperialism. Austria 1934; Spain 1936-1939, and many other places. Harsh measures were necessary

Another example: the forced collectivization that took place after 1929. Its speed was dictated by the necessity of accelerating industrialization.  The industrialization would be paid for out of the heightened agricultural efficiency. The Soviet leaders would have preferred to collectivize slowly and by persuasion and example. They said so at the time.  They did not have the luxury of a slow pace.

I remember that after 1989 as Western journalists toured Eastern Europe they delighted in pointing out the mixed environmental record of, say, the GDR. But the same considerations apply. Under pressure, GDR economic planners cut corners on environmental protections. There was no internal private capitalist profit motive driving socialist enterprises to pollute.  When they were not under external pressure, the environmental record of the socialist states was superb.

Apologists of capitalism claim that, whatever its other shortcomings, capitalism is more “democratic.” Nonsense. If the word “democracy” means the empowerment of working people, then the Soviet Union had democratic features that surpassed any capitalist society. The Soviet state had a greater percentage of workers involved in the Party and government than was the case with parties and governments in capitalist countries.

The extent of income equality, the extent of free education, health care and other social services, guarantees of employment, the early retirement age, the lack of inflation, the subsidies for housing, food, and other basics, and so forth, made it obvious that this was a society run in the class interests of working people. The epic efforts to build socialist industry and agriculture and defend the country during World War II could not have occurred without active popular participation. Thirty-five million people were involved in the soviets (councils).

Soviet trade unions had powers over such things as production goals, dismissals, and their own schools and vacation resorts that few, if any, trade unions in capitalist countries could claim. Unless there is enormous pressure from below, capitalist states never challenge corporate property. Advocates of the superiority of Western democracy ignore class exploitation, focus on process not substance, and give credit for capitalist democracy to capital, not its real defender and promoter, the modern working class. They compare capitalist democracy’s achievements to its past, but, asymmetrically, compare socialist democracy’s achievements to an imagined ideal.

Similar glowing accounts could be given with respect to other socialist countries. Cuba, China, North Korea, Vietnam, Laos. Specific national conditions (isolation, blockade, partition, invasion) have affected each one of them, slowing or distorting development. In each country, the balance between the planned and the unplanned sector has been different at various stages of development.

How did the planned socialist economic approach fare in the Soviet Union?  How did it work and what were its characteristics?

 

The merits of a planned socialist economy are many. Faster growth of the productive forces being one. Most socialist revolutions so far have occurred in countries of medium and low development. Standards of living rise steadily. There is stable, proportionate development of the economy, instead of anarchy. Soon there is low or no unemployment. There is no economic boom bust cycle. Socialism ends the fear of technological unemployment. It is egalitarian with regard to national minorities, women, and other oppressed groups. Socialism has a massive commitment to science and culture. It ends the colossal wastefulness inherent in competition. It overcomes poverty and homelessness.

The Soviet Union, for example, not only eliminated the exploiting classes of the old order, but also ended inflation, unemployment, most racial and national discrimination, grinding poverty, and glaring inequalities of wealth, income, education, and opportunity.

In fifty years, the country went from an industrial production that was only 12 percent of that in the United States to industrial production that was 80 percent and an agricultural output 85 percent of the U.S. Though Soviet per capita consumption remained lower than in the U.S., no society had ever increased living standards and consumption so rapidly in such a short period of time for allots people. Employment was guaranteed. Free education was available for all, from kindergarten through secondary schools (general, technical and vocational), universities, and after-work schools. Besides free tuition, post-secondary students received living stipends.

Free health care existed for all, with about twice as many doctors per person as in the United States. Workers who were injured or ill had job guarantees and sick pay. In the mid-1970s, workers averaged 21.2 working days of vacation (a month’s vacation), and sanitariums, resorts, and children’s camps were either free or subsidized. Trade unions had the power to veto firings and recall managers. The state regulated all prices and subsidized the cost of basic food and housing. Rents constituted only 2-3 percent of the family budget; water and utilities only 4-5 percent. No segregated housing by income existed. Though some neighborhoods were reserved for high officials, elsewhere plant managers, nurses, professors and janitors lived side by side.

The government included cultural and intellectual growth as part of the effort to enhance living standards. State subsidies kept the price of books, periodicals and cultural events at a minimum. As a result, workers often owned their own libraries, and the average family subscribed to four periodicals. UNESCO reported that Soviet citizens read more books and saw more films than any other people in the world. Every year the number of people visiting museums equaled nearly half entire population, and attendance at theaters, concerts, and other performances surpassed the total population. The government made a concerted effort to raise the literacy and living standards of the most backward areas and to encourage the cultural expression of the more than a hundred nationality groups that constituted the Soviet Union. In Kirghizia, for example, only one out of every five hundred people could read and write in 1917, but fifty years later nearly everyone could.

In 1983, American sociologist Albert Szymanski reviewed a variety of Western studies of Soviet income distribution and living standards. He found that the highest paid people in the Soviet Union were prominent artists, writers, professors, administrators, and scientists, who earned as high as 1,200 to 1,500 rubles a month. Leading government officials earned about 600 rubles a month; enterprise directors from 190 to 400 rubles a month; and workers about 150 rubles a month. Consequently, the highest incomes amounted to only 10 times the average worker’s wages, while in the United States the highest paid corporate chieftains made 115 times the wages of workers. Privileges that came with high office, such as special stores and official automobiles, remained small and limited and did not offset a continuous, forty-year trend toward greater egalitarianism.

The opposite trend occurred in the main capitalist country, the United States, where by the late 1990s, corporate heads were making 480 times the wages of the average worker. Though the tendency to level wages and incomes created problems, the overall equalization of living conditions in the Soviet Union represented an unprecedented feat in human history. The equalization was furthered by a pricing policy that fixed the cost of luxuries above their value and of necessities below their value. It was also furthered by a steadily increasing “social wage,” that is, the provision of an increasing number of free or subsidized social benefits. Beside those already mentioned, the benefits included, paid maternity leave, inexpensive childcare and generous pensions.

Szymanski concluded, “While the Soviet social structure may not match the Communist or socialist ideal, it is both qualitatively different from, and more equalitarian than, that of Western capitalist countries. Socialism has made a radical difference in favor of the working class.”

There were two broadly different approaches to Soviet planning, 1) War Communism and 2) the New Economic Policy (NEP).  What emerged was the planned economy in the so called Stalin era, 1929-1953. Can you explain what these were, why they came about and what were their merits?

 

“War communism, ” in my opinion, is really a misnomer (though widely used) for the improvisational, emergency measures taken  in 1919-21 by the Soviet state when the Russian economy was staggering from defeat in the First World War and the chaos of the Civil War. It involved, in part, forcible appropriation of peasant production by the Bolshevik state to feed the starving cities. Peasant anger at such confiscations (and peasants were about 80% of the people) threatened the peasant support for the revolution. In 1921 Lenin replaced it with NEP which partly restored normal market relations in the countryside and allowed for expansion of capitalist relations of production in many areas of the economy, until such time as the economy recovered to pre-war levels.

As you suggest, there was a two-sidedness. But it would be more accurate, I think, to say that there were two main tendencies in all of Soviet politics and economic policy, a right-wing tendency and a left-wing tendency.

This two-sidededness had class roots. Two revolutionary classes made the Bolshevik revolution, the working class and the petty bourgeoisie (i.e., the middle and poor peasants). Throughout the history of the Soviet Union two trends always battled in politics: a right wing, which incorporated the ideas and methods of capitalists, and a left wing which supported class struggle, a strong communist party, and an uncompromising defence of working class leadership. These two currents appeared even before the October Revolution: the Menshevik trend, on the one hand, and the Bolshevik trend on the other. Later, this fight polarized around Bukharin and Stalin, Khrushchev and Molotov, Brezhnev and Andropov, and Gorbachev and Ligachev. The whole history of the USSR can be seen in the light of the struggle between these two trends. However, in the late 1980s, Gorbachev, along with the right wing, won a complete victory.

Your book with co-author Roger Keeran,  Socialism Betrayed Behind the Collapse of the Soviet Union,  1917-1991 has a unique understanding of the collapse of the Soviet Union, can you explain briefly how you see this historic event?

 

Others saw that the Soviet downfall stemmed directly from Gorbachev’s policies rather than from some structural crisis. This means that the word “dismantling” is actually a more accurate metaphor than “collapse.” Others saw that two trends had existed in Soviet politics from the revolution through Gorbachev. Still others saw that a second economy (private, illegal) had developed and grown strong in the bowels of socialism in the 30 years before 1985.

Our more or less singular contribution was to see that these phenomena were linked, that they both explained the Soviet collapse and showed that the collapse was not at all inevitable.

In the aftermath of 1991, Marxists and Communists had  trouble applying their usual, scientific  method of historical materialism to the Soviet downfall,  given the axiom, pushed since the Khrushchev era, that there was no longer a class struggle in the USSR, there was no exploiting class, that corruption and black markets  were survivals from the past, if they existed at all, and that, therefore, there was no material basis for pro-capitalist consciousness .

It turns out, we discovered, there was such a basis — the second economy. But Marxist economists had not studied it.

Our thesis was that the Soviet collapse occurred in the main because of the policies that Mikhail Gorbachev pursued after 1986. The deeper question is where did these policies come from? These policies did not drop from the sky, nor were they the only possible ones to address existing problems. They derived from a debate within the Communist movement, nearly as old as Marxism itself, over how to build a socialist society.

In order to explain the lineage of Gorbachev’s policies before and after 1985, we discuss the two main tendencies or trends in the Soviet debate over building socialism. The ongoing debate centered on this question: under the particular circumstances obtaining at any given time, how should Communists build socialism? The left position favored pushing forward class struggle, the interests of the working class and the power of the Communist Party, and the right position favored retreats or compromises and the incorporation of various capitalist ideas into socialism. In this sense, “left” and “right” were not synonyms for good and bad. Rather, the correctness or appropriateness of a policy had to do with whether it best represented the immediate and long-term interests of socialism under existing conditions. The history of Soviet politics was thus a complex matter.

On the one hand, Vladimir Lenin, who fearlessly pushed forward the class struggle for socialism, at times, favored compromise, as in the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk and the New Economic Policy. On the other hand, Nikita Khrushchev, who often favored incorporating certain Western ideas, at the same time favored a “leftist” policy of greater wage equality. We did not provide a full history and evaluation of Soviet politics but rather a useful, if simplified, backdrop for the later argument that Gorbachev’s early policies resembled the leftwing Communist tradition represented in the main by Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin, and Yuri Andropov, while his later policies resembled the rightwing Communist tradition represented in the main by Nicolai Bukharin and Nikita Khrushchev.

After 1985, Gorbachev’s policies moved to the right, in the sense that they involved what might be called a social democratic vision of socialism that weakened the Communist Party, compromised with capitalism, and incorporated into Soviet socialism certain aspects of capitalist private property, markets, and political forms.

We argue that Gorbachev’s shift in policies had a material basis. The reason for Gorbachev’s shift was the development within socialism of a “second economy” of private enterprise and with it a new and growing petty bourgeois stratum and a new level of Party corruption. The growth of the second economy reflected the problems of the “first economy,” the socialized sector, in meeting the rising expectations of the people. It also reflected the laxness of the authorities in enforcing the law against illegal economic activity, and the failure of the Party to recognize the corrosive effects of private economic activity.

Are there lessons for Cuba today from this, given some of the ‘reforms’ it has introduced?

My co-author Roger Keeran and I visited Cuba in 2011 and 2014. The two articles we wrote after the trips to Cuba — and further study of the recent Cuban reforms — have reinforced our conclusion that there are lessons. But Cuba seems to have learned the lessons.

Obviously, the Soviet Union and Cuba represent two entirely different countries with very different histories and situations. A significant difference has been the economic, commercial and financial blockade imposed by the U.S. on Cuba.  Though the Soviet Union also experienced an economic blockade for two decades, the Cuban blockade has lasted longer and cost comparatively more. Now over fifty years old, the blockade has cost the Cubans by conservative estimates more than $104 billion in current prices and, if one takes into account the devaluation of the dollar against the price of gold,  $975 billion. Without the blockade, the Cuban standard of living today might well equal that of Western Europe.

Nevertheless, there are general laws of socialist construction. In spite of obvious differences, Cuba and the Soviet Union shared some features. Both the Soviet Union and Cuba had economies based on public ownership and centralized planning and had the political leadership of a Communist Party, and both Soviet society in 1985 and Cuban society in 2011 faced some similar problems, though to different degrees.

For example, both societies had two currencies, a hard currency geared to international trade and a domestic currency. The Soviet hard currency, whose use was illegal for most citizens, was limited to tourists, diplomats and a few others and was used only in hard currency shops. The Cuban hard currency, however, is not illegal, and many Cubans earn it legally by working in the tourist industry, by earning it as bonuses in certain workplaces, or by receiving it legally as remittances from relatives abroad. The existence of two currencies creates more problems in Cuba than it did in the Soviet Union.

The great disparity in value between pesos (CUP) and hard currency (CUC) (25 to 1) led to a number of problems including a growing inequality between those with access to hard currency and those without, and a brain drain from the professions without access to hard currency to those like tourism with such access.  Driving a cab and receiving hard currency tips could gain more income than teaching.  This was clearly demoralizing and inefficient.

In another example, a second economy, or black market existed in both societies.   In the Soviet Union, however, it represented a greater problem than in Cuba.  Compared to the second economy in Cuba, that in the Soviet Union had  existed  for a longer period, was more widespread and highly developed, and was often linked to national minorities and an organized “mafia.”

In some ways, the Cuban and Soviet problems resembled each other. There was a lack of productivity and efficiency, an insufficiency of quality consumer goods, a shortage of initiative and sense of ownership and responsibility in the workplace, an inadequate diffusion of computer technology, and so forth.

Moreover, one could easily find similarities between the economic remedies proposed by Yuri Andropov in 1983 or even the early Gorbachev policies and the Cuban program of actualization (“updating” in English) proposed in 2011.   For example, both reform efforts hoped to increase efficiency, productivity, motivation and quality by linking compensation to effort, by decentralizing control and responsibility, developing joint ventures with foreign capitalists, encouraging cooperatives, and allowing more latitude to private enterprise.

The Soviet and Cuban situations differed in one outstanding way. The Cuban   process of reform involved rank and file Communists and workers to a much greater extent than the Soviet one. In Cuba, from the development of the reform guidelines in 2010 through their ongoing implementation in 2014, the entire process embraced  mass involvement and the building of mass consensus. The process began in December 2010 through February 2011 with discussions by the people as a whole, followed by discussions by the party in every province, and then followed by discussions at the Sixth PCC Congress in April. In total 163,079 meetings occurred, involving 8,913,838 participants. These discussions modified or incorporated with others 68 percent of the original 291 guidelines, modified 181 others, and created 36 new guidelines. Discussion of the guidelines also occurred in the letters page of Granma, radio phone-ins, internet blogs and trade unions. One observer noted:  “A key point here is that the drafting of new employment law involves a process of consultation with the CTC (the central confederation of trade unions) so detailed and extensive that unions have a de facto veto.”

In the Soviet Union, in 1983 Yuri Andropov initiated economic reforms with workplace discussions.  Under Gorbachev, however, rank and file discussion of changes took the form mainly of public relations and photo opportunities. The broad discussions, encouragement of criticism, and building of consensus were mostly missing from the Gorbachev reform process.

Our book did show that undermining socialist ownership, planning, social benefits and internationalism required the simultaneous erosion of the authority of the Communist Party and the institutions of socialist democracy.

If any “good” has come of the Soviet downfall, it is that Cuba has learned this lesson. Cuba translated and published our book Socialism Betrayed (Socialismo Traicionado) in 2014, with a foreword by one of the now free Cuban Five, Ramon Labanino and we were invited to speak at the book launch at the Havana Book Fair.