What went wrong in Russia?
The degeneration of the Soviet Union into a brutal dictatorship - albeit one based on a distorted form of planned economy - has been used to argue that socialism is doomed to failure. The ruling class has milked the collapse of the Soviet Union for everything it is worth in order to bolster its own system. This is reflected throughout society. Owning and controlling much of the planet, the capitalists have enormous power to influence ideas. It is fashionable to believe that it is naive or dangerous to dare to try and change anything. Of course, this suits big business which does not want anything to change. But for the rest of us, fashionable 'detachment' means accepting that we are powerless.
Capitalism has only existed for something over 300 years. On the scale of human history that is nothing, a tiny speck of time. It is true that during that time capitalism has transformed the planet - bringing incredible technology alongside devastating want - yet it is no more permanent than any other means by which human society has been organised.
Despite the fact that the Soviet Union collapsed, writers still churn out books by the truckload, attempting to show the 'irrelevance' of the Russian revolution, which are systematically taught in school history lessons. This first successful attempt to overthrow capitalism still evokes enormous fear for the capitalist class. We should not despair at its failure. We should, rather, learn the lessons from what went wrong.
Russia 1917 was the first time that capitalism was overthrown by the working class with the support of the poor peasantry. The revolution was led by the Bolshevik party. However, it was organised through the 'soviets' - elected councils of workers, soldiers and peasants. The basic demands of the Bolsheviks were for 'bread, peace and land', but they explained that only by breaking with capitalism were these demands achievable. The Bolsheviks won the leadership of the working class of Russia, not by force but by patiently explaining their ideas within the soviets. Alongside the leadership of the Bolsheviks the Russian working class was able to come to power. How did this wonderful movement - in which millions of downtrodden people were genuinely empowered because they took power in their own hands - end up in what the Soviet Union tragically became?
Karl Marx had thought it most likely that capitalism would be defeated first in the most economically developed countries. It was here, after all, where the working class was at its most powerful and the industrial basis existed for the transition to socialism. Instead, in October 1917, the chain of world capitalism broke at its weakest link. The Soviet government inherited an underdeveloped society in a state of disintegration, exhausted by three years of world war. This made the building of socialism far harder than it would have been in a more economically advanced country. The task of spreading the revolution internationally, therefore, took on a burning urgency.
There were massive revolutionary movements in other countries, such as Germany, but they were defeated. The primary reason for this was that, for particular historical reasons, in no other country did a party with a similar authority or outlook to the Bolshevik party exist. The Russian revolution was therefore left isolated. And this was the principal cause of its degeneration. Vladimir Lenin, just before the Russian revolution, had laid out four safeguards to protect a fledgling workers' state from the rise of a privileged bureaucratic elite. They were:
1. Free and democratic elections with the right of recall of all officials.
2. No official to receive a higher wage than a skilled worker.
3. No standing army or police force, but the armed people.
4. Gradually, for all administrative tasks to be done in turn by all: "Every cook should be prime minister...when everyone is a 'bureaucrat' in turn, nobody can be a bureaucrat".
If implemented, these guidelines would have protected Russia from degeneration. But it was impossible, despite the efforts of the revolutionaries, to fully implement them in such an isolated and impoverished country. Economic backwardness has a devastating effect, causing food shortages and a lack of basic necessities. Leon Trotsky, a key leader of the Russian revolution who went on to oppose Stalinism and fight for international socialism, compared the development of a bureaucracy to a policeman controlling a queue: "When there are enough goods in a store, the purchasers can come when they want to. When there are few goods, the purchasers are compelled to stand in line. When the lines are very long, it is necessary to appoint a policeman to keep order. Such is the starting point for the Soviet bureaucracy. It 'knows' who is to get something and who has to wait." In this situation it was inevitable that a bureaucratic caste would develop and take control. Joseph Stalin was a hideous dictator, but he did not create the bureaucracy; rather he was a living expression of it. Stalin created a river of blood between the revolution and Stalinist dictatorship. First to be murdered were the old Bolsheviks who had played central roles in the revolution. As a consequence of brutal purges it is estimated that Stalin's murderous toll in the 1930s totalled 12-15 million people.
Today capitalist historians are most eager to bury the true history of 1917 under a pile of slander. It is the job of socialists to look more closely and discover the real story, the lessons of which can help guide our struggles today. The importance of building an international struggle for socialism is crucial. Today the Socialist Party is part of the Committee for a Workers' International, which currently organises in more than 40 countries worldwide.
The other aspect of the Soviet Union that is usually ignored is the extent to which the planned economy - even grossly distorted by dictatorship - was able to develop the economy. Up until the early 1970s the nationalised economies of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe produced impressive advances, especially in heavy industries, though consumer goods were generally in short supply and of poor quality. Despite their many shortcomings, they also provided basic education, healthcare, and other social amenities to the majority of the population. For the Soviet Union, which in 1917 was an extremely economically backward country, these were major advances unparalleled in any capitalist country.
Capitalism has provided the tools which could enormously aid the genuine, democratic planning of an economy. Firstly, there is a far higher level of education among working-class people than there was at the beginning of the last century. And capitalism has developed all kinds of technology that could be used to assist in planning. We have the internet, market research, supermarket loyalty cards that record the shopping habits of every customer, and so on. Big business uses this technology to find out what it can sell. A socialist planned economy would be able to harness these tools to find out what people need and want.