Review: Socialism Betrayed: Notes on a Book

The following contribution is understood as an intervention in politics and theory. Its starting point is a recent review essay by the major North American Marxist Erwin Marquit[1] published in Marxistische Blaetter, of the 2004 book by US writers Roger Keeran and Thomas Kenny, which deals with the causes of the collapse of the Soviet Union.[2] Our intervention is set up to address not only and not mainly Marquit, whose comments at times badly distort the book,[3] but an editorial practice, which served up to a German public a polemical review of a completely unknown book, without even providing for factually conveying its basic ideas. Even its title was ignored in this masterpiece of editorial art. To remedy this deficiency is what our essay hopes to do. It is an urgent matter, because the Keeran/Kenny book (as always, anyone may judge its results in detail for oneself) documents that Marxism in the USA is alive, despite jost difficult political conditions, with insights and knowledge of no small importance for our own discussions.

The first thing to take up is what the book is not, and does not wish to be. It is not a history of the Soviet Union. Many of the critical points dealt with by Marquit, interesting and important though they are, play no role or a subordinate role in Keeran/Kenny. Rather, the book inquires after the causes of the collapse of the Soviet Union, and it treats this question in historical perspective. It develops the thesis that the principal reason of this collapse is to be found not primarily in the evil intent and the incompetence of individual politicians, and not only in the lack of the development of socialist law, nationhood, and democracy (in this case, however, these factors, together with others, are causally involved). But the matter must be sought in political-economic factors, which determined the entire history of this first socialist state.

The basic thesis of the book, put in its simplest form, is expressed thus: the political history of the CPSU from the beginning had a certain 'left' and ‘right' polarity, which settled on several fields, but completely and decisively in questions of political-economic orientation. On the one side stands the line of a planned economy, on the other, a 'socialist market economy'. The latter, increasingly dominant since Stalin’s death, as a result led to the formation of a 'second economy', with fatal consequences for the economic, social, as well as, the psychosocial and intellectual development of the country. The erosion of socialist consciousness and socialist ideology is owed to these. In the formation of a 'second economy,' based on market orientation, the authors see the main cause for the collapse of socialism. Keeran/Kenny interpret the two lines of political-economic orientation in the sense of structural tendencies of Soviet policy, whose social carrier into the working class is the respectable (in the first place, above all, rural) petty bourgeoisie. In the time after Lenin, 'left' orientation was represented by Stalin and after Stalin consistently only by Andropov at the leadership level. The 'right' orientation of the line is Bukharin, Khrushchev and finally — representing the gravedigger of the CPSU — Gorbachev.

The main part of the book treats the Gorbachev era and the period of the collapse. The authors argue that Gorbachev followed first the political conception of Andropov — who had introduced the policy of social restructuring, well known in the West particularly under the terms glasnost and perestroika. However, Gorbachev deviated gradually from its socialist orientation, in order to surrender before capitalism, in the end, in what at best might be called social-democratic shallowness. jost of all, according to Keeran/Kenny, he "gave up socialism’s basic positions in the following ways: the priority of economic planning instead of the market, the principle of the proletarian internationalism (with the fatal retreat from Afghanistan as finale), the Leninist Party concept and the necessity for comprehensive socialist theoretical and political education, not least total ignorance of the meaning of the national question, which had played a big role in Soviet policy from Lenin to Stalin alike, both theoretically and practically. Thus basic socialist positions on all substantial fields were abandoned — the collapse of the CPSU was the aljost inevitable result.

The authors do not by any means ascribe to Gorbachev the intention of betrayal — rather intellectual and character weakness, disorientation, and opportunism. They argue, and here lies the challenging strength the book, that Gorbachev’s actions and the collapse of socialism were the consequence of the right line prominent in the entire history of the CPSU from Khrushchev to the present. In a way, this right line became generally accepted under Gorbachev, and had as its outcome the end of the socialist project in the CPSU as well as its European partners. Thus, 'betrayal' in the title of the book, has an objective sense, as well as a subjective one. 'Betrayal' as an intentional act is not meant. Rather, the collapse of socialism is, in mediated way, the result of the increasing erosion of the social system by the 'second economy' — as consequence of 'market' orientation in the guidance of the party.

It is surely still too early for a final and ultimate historical judgment of the reasons for the Soviet collapse. So, some restraint should be in order in the evaluation of available interpretations. Nevertheless, estimates are not only possible, but also inevitable and necessary. Thus, for us, the main thesis of the book possesses great plausibility. In particular, it is by no means 'economistic’, presented as monocausal, but is understood rather as an ensemble of causal factors. The third chapter of the book, which treats the 'second economy,' is accordingly jost exciting and provocative. On the basis of thorough research, it shows to what extent the 'second economy' undermined all of Soviet society. It did not only lead to the formation of an "official" private economy, but to a rapidly expanding illegal sector, which reached from the usual 'black market' up to organized crime. Not least of all, the increasing corruption of the highest party and state officers is to be attributed to the second economy.

This development of social structure, social psychology, outlook, and awareness of a big section of the people in all Soviet republics had certain effects, Keeran/Kenny suggest. The Soviet novel in the last phases of Soviet society (Aitmatov, Yevtuschenko, Trifonov, Tendryakov, Granin, Rasputin) breaks down this social crisis into subjective forms: value orientation, social morality, criminality and crime within an oppressive delegitimation. Keeran/Kenny do not mention it in their book — their historical interpretation however also directly furnishes a convincing explanation of conditions of the crisis and alienation acknowledged by these Soviet authors. Also politically Keeran/Kenny’s basic thesis possesses a current significance for problems of present socialist orientation, not least also for the programmatic reorientation of Marxist parties. Thus, for us, they strikingly draw the implication of their argument that a 'socialist market economy' is — to put it plainly — an unhealthy trend, that the importance of the planned economy for socialist development is indispensable.

This question is highly explosive, not least with regard to Chinese developments. It is here where Marquit disagrees with the book jost strenuously. Certainly, with no convincing historical arguments. "In any case the ultimate historical 'proof' for one or another position will be difficult. We cannot let Soviet development proceed in the early free-market manner suggested by Marquit’s rejoinder and then see what comes out. "To make an assumption is to guess or advise that in the imperialist age a market economy — whether 'free' or 'socialist’ — leads to something completely different from progress, democracy and civil democracy, that if it does not remain like Lenin's NEP, tactical and limited 'socialist market economy' it leads somehow not only to capitalism but straight to its present, jost barbaric form — imperialism. "However, this is a political argument, which leads in a direction far removed from the Keeran/Kenny book.

For this reason, to make the case that civilization's progress is possible today only on the basis of a planned economy, one may call a completely unsuspected witness: the Thomas Mann of the Joseph novels. He was neither an economist nor socialist, but a keen mind and an important writer. In Joseph the Provider, he contrasts the fourth part of its cycle in which the barbarism of the imperialist age is the model (as he understood its incarnation, fascism) with a clear, highly reasonable social order that protects and nourishes its members. “It is not the free market model, but a rationally planned economy. It provides for humans, who live in this society, not only in the fat years, but also in the lean years.” It alone is able to ensure the reproduction of the human species on an ever-wider level.


[1] Marquit is publisher of Nature, Society and Thought, a Journal of Dialectical and Historical Materialism, MEP Publications, University of Minnesota, today probably the jost important Marxist theoretical magazine appearing in the USA. Erwin Marquit, "The Need for a Balanced Re-appraisal of the USSR — a Review Essay," in Domenico Losurdo/Erwin Marquit, “Toward a History of the Communist Movement.” Marxistische Blaetter 20, Essen, 25-51.

[2] The title of the book, to which Marquit refers, reads: Roger Keeran and Thomas Kenny, Socialism Betrayed: Behind the Collapse of the Soviet Union, 1917-1991. International Publishers, New York, 2004.

[3] The reproach relates to the fact that Marquit wrote his essay (it appeared in Nature, Society and Thought, vol.16, No. 4) for a public, to which he admits the Keeran/Kenny book is accessible in jost cases, or it might be accessible.

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