Roger Keeran and Thomas Kenny. Socialism Betrayed: Behind the Collapse of the Soviet Union. (New York, International Publishers, 2004)

Empty and superficial minds quickly resolve issues and hasten to express their opinion, but anyone who is serious about a significant subject, reaches a satisfactory outcome only by studying it completely. This requires long and hard work, plunging into subject for a long time, and studying it in calm. Hegel (1).

Amidst the extensive literature devoted to the wrecking of the USSR and other Eastern European socialist countries is Roger Keeran and Thomas Kenny’s book, Socialism Betrayed: Internal Socio-economic Factors of the Destruction of the Soviet System, its Russian language title. The translation of the book from English into Russian was carried out by Blagovesta Doncheva and Professor Ivan Ivanov (2).

The same translation, severely abbreviated, served as a basis of a book published with the title, Socialism Sold.  (Roger Keeran and Thomas Kenny. Socialism Sold: The Shadow Economy in the USSR. Moscow; Algorithm, 2009, 304 pages, in the series, The Soviet Project).

But, inasmuch as my task was to review solely the judgments of the book’s authors, I am obliged to give the link to their primary text, accompanying it with my own translations.

I suggest that the reader examine this book without prejudice. This book differs from the superficial judgments often encountered in works by other authors on the subject of the destruction of the Soviet Union.

It differs not only in its wealth of factual material, but also in its deep penetration into the essential phenomena leading to disintegration of the USSR and the restoration of capitalism in the newly-formed “Commonwealth of Independent States.

The first of the authors, Roger Keeran, is a historian, a university professor in New York, and the author of the book The Communist Party and the Autoworkers Unions. The second author, Thomas Kenny, is an economist working in the trade union movement. The subject, the problems mentioned in the work, were outside the normal field of study of each author.

Especially to their credit is that, having undertaken study of a most complicated subject, Keeran and Kenny traveled along un-trodden paths and, at the end of their journey, they have provided a satisfactory interpretation of events and, on the whole, reliable conclusions.

The reader of this book will readily note that all the events which took place in the USSR and other Eastern European socialist countries filled the hearts of the authors with deep pain. Both are friends of the Soviet Union. Everything connected with the achievements of the USSR on its socialist road is dear to them.

This deep sympathy for the Soviet land, however, does not hinder Keeran and Kenny in their concern for the facts and the phenomena with an impartiality, which distinguishes serious researchers of social phenomena, above all, those who meaningfully apply Marxist methodology. This is necessary to note, especially because one can encounter even in the works of social researchers considering themselves Marxists, a revision of historical materialism, acting in fact from idealistic positions.

Nevertheless, it is necessary to say that, in some cases, the authors hesitate to use resolutely the methodology of Marxism. In the course of discussion I shall pay attention to this.

The reader who has taken up a copy of the book of Keeran and Kenny, will automatically stop and pay attention to its name. It was not employed by accident.  It was a result of laborious research to find out the reasons for the demolition of the USSR.

The conclusion, in brief, looks like this:

What caused the Soviet collapse? Our thesis is that the economic problems, external pressure, and political and ideological stagnation challenging the Soviet Union in the early 1980s, alone or together, did not produce the Soviet collapse. Instead, it was triggered by the specific reform policies Gorbachev and his allies (3).

As we see, Keeran and Kenny assign the responsibility for the restoration of capitalism on the territory of the USSR to the treacherous leadership of the CPSU led by M. Gorbachev. The authors’ argumentation for the defense of this conclusion I shall consider later.

Thus, they unconditionally accept, that the Soviet Union till the “perestroika” of Gorbachev and his circle remained a socialist country. The socialist country! It is not out of place to emphasize this, for among the so-called “left” supporters of the USSR and socialism, a wide section consider that the Soviet Union was a country of “state capitalism” and a “workers’ bureaucracy.” A similar position is reflected, for example, in A. Kolganov’s publication (4).

Concerning the Soviet Union, Keeran and Kenny argue in the introduction to the book:

… it embodied the essence of socialism as defined by Marx – a society that had overthrown bourgeois property, the “free market”, and the capitalist state and replaced them with collective property, central planning and a workers’ state. Moreover, it achieved an unprecedented level of equality, security, health care, housing, education, employment, and culture for all of its citizens, in particular working people of factory and farm (5).

The authors of the book do not shut their eyes to the existence in rather small volumes of private-ownership industrial activity in the USSR up to the beginnings of Gorbachev’s “perestroika.” Thus they, in fact, accept that the social and economic attitudes contained elements of the transition period from capitalism to socialism in the Soviet Union.

For myself, I shall say that, with reference to the solution to the problem of uncovering the reasons for the bourgeois counter-revolution in the USSR, it is relevant to characterize the Soviet Union as a country with early socialism. Though the basis of socialism in the USSR had been laid in the middle of the 1930s, for a lot of reasons not considered here, the country was not allowed to carry out a transition to a mature (developed) socialism.

Nevertheless, the analysis of the system of the socio-economic attitudes, carried out in the beginning of 1950s by R. Kosolapov showed that, by then, the USSR has achieved impressive progress by way of the elimination of commodity production and exchange, and the overcoming of class distinctions. R. Kosolapov discerns: ‘The given model (socialism in Soviet Union with commodity production eliminated – author’s remark) really developed in the 1950s, but it was not allowed to be expanded and developed.’ (7).

Attempts to ignore the fundamental views of the founders of scientific communism, K. Marx and F. Engels, as well as V. I. Lenin, about the liquidation of commodity-money relations in mature socialism — the defense of the idea of the compatibility of socialism with the market– are scientifically untenable. The position of Mechislav Rakovsky, who considers “a number of statements of Marx and Engels” regarding the liquidation of commodity relations under socialism to have become “outdated” is typical in this respect (8).

It is also incorrect to deny the socialist character of the social order in the Soviet Union since the Twentieth Congress of the CPSU in 1956 as, for example, Moni Guha does (9). To define the socio-economic order in the USSR mainly on the basis of alleging a revisionist course in the CPSU after J. Stalin’s death, or to the hypertrophy of the consequences of the 1965 economic reforms, treating them as tantamount to ‘market socialism’ is a superficial view which can please only those so-called ‘ left ‘ whо deny actual socialism.

In fact, in the social order of the Soviet Union until the second half of the 1980s,  public (state) property in the means of production and exchange, central planning, and the political power of the working class were typical.

The reforms initiated by the leadership of the CPSU led by the General Secretary M. Gorbachev, undoubtedly, made a  powerful contribution to a victory of bourgeois counter-revolution. But, as is convincingly shown by Keeran and Kenny, capitalism did not arise unexpectedly but was a result of the gradual slippage of the CPSU as the party expressing the radical interests of the working class, to social-democratic petty-bourgeois positions.  “Every stage of development, even when it comes to such catastrophic phases as revolution and counter-revolution, follows its  previous stage, has its roots in it, and adapts its known features.” (10)

From this point of view, we have to see the social and economic progress of the USSR from the point of view of the struggle between two adversarial tendencies: the proletarian (socialist) and the petty-bourgeois. “… 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” (11).

Generalizing the features of social development in Soviet Union in an initial stage of construction of socialism, Keeran and Kenny note:

In the 1920s, both tendencies ostensibly favored building socialism. The working class tendency, however, favored policies that strengthened the working class by rapidly building up industry and weakened the property – owning classes by collectivizing agriculture, and policies that strengthened the role of the Communist Party particularly in centralized economic planning. The petty bourgeois tendency favored building socialism slowly by maintaining or incorporating aspects of capitalism, for example maintaining private property, competitive markets, and profit incentives (12).

Keeran and Kenny portray Lenin as having an outstanding role in the development of policy, including the New Economic Policy. [NEP ended in 1929] This course continued in the 1930s and 1940s till 1953 (the year of the death of J. Stalin). Despite the huge losses in the Great Patriotic War, this same Leninist course, making for the transition to socialism, transformed the backward country into a mighty socialist power, which assisted the expansion of the world revolutionary process and the formation of socialist camp.

As Keeran and Kenny emphasize: “The widespread acceptance of Stalin’s approach to building socialism resulted mainly from its obvious success in bringing the Soviet Union within a short period out of semi-feudal backwardness into the front ranks of the industrialized nations” (13).

Highly appreciating Stalin’s personal role in these really stupendous achievements, the authors of the book are not inclined to shut their eyes to the unjustified death of thousands of Soviet people during the repressions of 1936-1938.

Special attention is given by Keeran and Kenny to the controversial processes which took place in the CPSU and  Soviet society after the Twentieth Congress of the CPSU, during the Khrushchev leadership of the party and the state.

This is how the political course of the CPSU of this time is characterized:

The policy that most endeared Khrushchev to intellectuals and would serve as the precursor of Gorbachev’s glasnost was the relaxation of censorship. Though the Khrushchev “thaw” was inconsistent and episodic, it did lead for a time to a greater openness toward modern art and films, poetry, and novels critical of the Soviet past… This openness brought an inevitable underside in the spread of bourgeois economic ideas to Soviet academic circles…

On many other matters including his views on international relations, the party, the state, and communism, Khrushchev advanced ideas that caused controversy at the time and since among Communists inside and outside of the Soviet Union. It is beyond the scope of the present work to judge whether these ideas were creative applications of Marxism-Leninism to new circumstances or erroneous revisions of basic principles.

What was clear, however, was that Khrushchev’s ideas on these matters consistently leaned toward social democracy, sowed the seeds of later problems, and created a precedent for Gorbachev’s even more extreme views and policies. (14)

Based on this sweeping judgment of authors of the book about Khrushchev as the forerunner of subsequent leaders of the CPSU and the Soviet State, I consider it unnecessary to make detailed comments about the appropriate assessments of L. Brezhnev, and K. Chernenko. Under their leadership the political course was characterized by the accumulation of unresolved problems in internal and foreign policy. The weakened positions of the CPSU and socialism in society assisted the loss of confidence in socialism of the working class and all workers.

Keeran and Кеnny believe: “The Soviet Union had excellent chances to tackle these problems after the death of Brezhnev, when Yuri Andropov became the General Secretary of the CPSU.” (15)

It is difficult to agree with such an assessment. It is doubtful that a different person, heading the CPSU and the Soviet state, could change the course of events caused by the objective and subjective reasons even if Y. Andropov’s activity had not ended in fifteen months. Not without reason, after Andropov’s death the same disastrous political course went on. And Keeran and Kenny were compelled to note: “… most of the problems of the economy, Party, and foreign relations, which had worsened under Brezhnev, remained” (16).

One of the major questions which faced the theory and practice of the CPSU, was the attitude to the “second,” or shadow, economy. This economic private-ownership activity received an impetus for development from the measures undertaken during the leadership of Khrushchev, but especially after introduction of so-called economic reform of N. Kosygin in 1965.

Questions of the formation of ‘shadow’ economy and its influences on social development of the country are considered in detail in Chapter Three of the book. Leaning on the rich factual materials of the researches carried out by Gregory Grossman, Vladimir Treml, Michael Alekseev, Tatyana Koryagina, and other social scientists, Keeran and Kenny draw a conclusion about the pernicious character of these economic activities for fate of the socialist state:

“The second economy had profound and widespread negative effects on Soviet socialism. It created, or re-created, private sources of income and systems of distribution and production. It led to widespread corruption and criminality. It spawned ideas and sentiments to justify private enterprise. It became a source of funds for critics and opponents of system. It provided a material basis for social democratic ideas.” (17).

The appearance of petty bourgeoisie class in the process of the growth of ‘the second economy’ became real in 1980s,  conclude Keeran and Kenny: “The most corrosive product of the Khrushchev and Brezhnev eras resided precisely in this second, private economy and the stratum that benefited from it.” (18)

The footmen and henchmen of bourgeoisiе have declared triumphantly that the ruin of the USSR and the defeat of socialism were inevitable because of organic defects inherent to its social order. Keeran and Kenny in the most convincing way deny this myth. They write: “Though Gorbachev’s revisionism had a long gestation in CPSU politics and in Soviet society, the Soviet collapse was not foreordained.” (19).

And they go on: “Contrary to an idea widely propagated in the early 1990s by anti-Communists, the collapse of the Soviet Union showed most conclusively not that a socialism based on a vanguard party, state and collective ownership of property and a central plan was doomed, but that trying to improve an existing socialist society by following a social reformist Third Way was catastrophic.” (20).

But, having fully arrived at the conclusion that the victory of bourgeois counter-revolution was the consequence of a victory of the frankly revisionist right-opportunistic leadership of the CPSU, the authors of the book do not dare to tell us that it became inevitable as a result of the direct betrayal of the CPSU as the party in power, due to its failure to carry out, in practice, the measures of the dictatorship of proletariat.

Having traced in detail a capitulatory, pro-capitalist course of a CPSU leadership led by Gorbachev, the authors of the book, in my opinion, have not given due attention to the changes in the balance of class forces in the country in the 1980s down to 1991.

And in fact this is very important, if a researcher adheres to the methodology of Marxism-Leninism.

… dialectical materialism commits one to nothing regarding a country … It does not specify a universal and ‘fixed’ path for all people and for all times … The further development of any given society always depends on the balance of social forces within it… Accordingly, that is why any serious person should not guess about supposed ‘necessities,’ but  should, above all, study this balance. Only such study can show what is necessary and unnecessary for the society. (21).

The counter-revolutionary coup in August 1991 was caused by the significant weight of the forces of the class opponents of the proletariat in the country, because of the betrayal of the CPSU to the class, the clearest demonstration of which were the decisions of Nineteenth All-Union Conference of the CPSU in 1988 and Twenty-Eighth Congress of the CPSU in 1990, which opened door to capitalist restoration.

This betrayal took hold of not only the leadership of the CPSU, but also a prevailing part of the 19-million membership of the CPSU. R. Kosolapov testifies: I listened to the report (Gorbachev at the Nineteenth All-Union Conference of the CPSU – a comment of author’s) and was amazed in what a slavish way, without a live reaction, the five-thousand person Congress swallowed this death sentence to the authority of workers.” (22).

Accordingly, there were no healthy organized groups and leaders in the CPSU, when the process of the degeneration of the revisionist CPSU passed to the phase of betrayal. Such a process, if it exists, will reach its conclusion. The arrow,  which has been loosed from a bow, will fly until it falls. The CPSU’s betrayal was a result of the long-term predominance of revisionism in the party.

One of the major lessons of Bolshevism, buried by the revisionist CPSU, was the constant study of public moods, taking proper account of the balance of class forces, by which study the Bolshevik Party acquired the skill to gain the confidence of its own class. Consequent to the hardest conditions of ruin in the Soviet republic caused by imperialist intervention and civil war, V. I. Lenin wisely asserted: “There is no class which can overthrow us, for we are the majority, the proletarians and the poorest people in the villages. Nobody can ruin us, except our own mistakes.” (23).

I shall mention some figures, which allow us to imagine the alignment of class forces in the country at the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s:

  • In the presidential elections to the RSFSR of December 6, 1991 the candidates A. Makashov and A. Sergeev, who defended interests of working class, were given only 3.74 % of the voices of voters while the proteges of bourgeois counter-revolution, B. Yeltsin and A. Rutskoy, got 57.3 % of voices.
  • Elections to the city administrations of Moscow and Leningrad brought victory to the adherents of capitalism, G. Popov and A. Sobchak.
  • The majority of the population of Leningrad, the hero city, the cradle of Great October, voted in a referendum for the renaming of the city to St. Petersburg.
  • It is impossible to treat the results of the referendum of March 17, 1991 for retaining of the Union of the Soviet states (76 % voted ‘for ‘) as a convincing victory of the supporters of the USSR as a unitary socialist state. The formulation of the question in the referendum was allowed to be handled arbitrarily.

The activity of the country’s organs of state power for the protection of the socialist order, by this time, had been paralyzed. It is no wonder that in these conditions the action of the State Committee for a State of Emergency, or GKChP, was undertaken in August 1991. Without a base in the organized workers, it became an act of despair and only accelerated the inevitable outcome. The victory of counter-revolution was inevitable.

Not all adherents of socialism in the USSR see the principal reason for the restoration of capitalism in the USSR in the betrayal of the CPSU. An attempt at another explanation was undertaken by A. Prigarin. You be the judge:

… the contradictions penetrating all of the political system, its partly ‘bourgeois’ character,  created in the USSR an objective possibility of the restoration of capitalism. Just a possibility, not a necessity. That this possibility  turned into an actual threat, and then was carried out in practice, required the influence of other factors, both internal and external, both objective  and subjective, down to the clearly personal. (24)

Who created a threat of restoration of capitalism? Who failed to repel the bourgeois turn of political power? Prigarin keeps silent. Strangely enough, here we deal with the same “theory of factors” which has external appeal, but cannot be suitable for scientific analysis.

Keeran and Kenny, as a whole, are right considering the restoration of capitalism in the USSR to be a result of revisionist course of the CPSU.

Nevertheless, going on with the narration, they make a concession to a narrow-minded way of thinking, putting forward the person of Gorbachev almost as the motive power of the counter-revolutionary process.

Gorbachev, certainly, possessed the known capacities which have allowed him to become the General Secretary of the Central Committee of the CPSU. But he took this position amongst a number of mediocre revisionist members of the Central Committee. Gorbachev who chose the way of the destruction of socialism in the USSR, in some respects is similar to Herostratus, who burnt the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus. (25)

The “significance of Gorbachev is connected solely with the fact that he was the leader of the great socialist power, which headed the forces of peace, progress, socialism.

V. N. Chechentsev

V. N. Chechentsev is a leader of the Russian Communist Workers Party and a journalist. 

August 30, 2012

Translated by Irina Malenko

1. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Preface to the third edition of the Encyclopedia of Philosophy. In Hegel ,  G.W.F.  The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Vol.  #1, USSR Academy of Sciences Publishing House, socio-economic literature, “Thought” (Mysl), Moscow, 1974, page 78.
3. Socialism Betrayed, p. 184
4. Kolganov, A. I. The USSR as Un-Socialism: the Evolution of the Internal Contradictions of the Soviet System as the Cause of the Fall of ‘Real’ Socialism. (Alternative, #2, 2011, pp. 68-91.
5. Socialism Betrayed, p. 3-4
6. Kosolapov, R. I.  “On the Dialectics of Commodities under Socialism.”  In Kosolapov, R. I.,  Ideas of Mind and Heart. Moscow, 1996, pp. 92-139.
7. Ibid., page 94.
8. Rakowski, M.  Changes and Chances of Socialism in the Competition with Capitalism in the Twentieth Century and in the Near Future.
9. Moni Guha. The Collapse of Socialism NSC ,  vol. 22. № 17 – May 2012.
10. L.D. Trotsky, “Bolshevism, Stalinism, Trotskyism,” Bulletin of the Opposition (Bolshevik-Leninists) #66-67. In Leon Trotsky: World Revolution, p. 226.
11. Socialism Betrayed, p. 12.
12. Socialism Betrayed, p. 15-16.
13. Socialism Betrayed, p. 21.
14. Socialism Betrayed, p. 31.
15. Socialism Betrayed, p. 38.
16. Socialism Betrayed, p. 46.
17. Socialism Betrayed, p. 52.
18. Socialism Betrayed, p. 52.
19. Socialism Betrayed, p. 186.
20. Socialism Betrayed, p. 188.
21. G. V. Plekhanov, The Development of the Monist View of History. Selected  Philosophical Works in Five Volumes,  Vol. 1, Moscow, State Publishing House for Political Literature, 1956, pp. 707.
22. Kosolapov, R. I.  “Gorbachevschina”
23. Lenin, V. I.  “On the Role and Tasks of the Trade Unions” at a meeting of Second All-Russian Congress of Miners. PSS, 42, p. 249.
24. Prigarin, A. A.  Socialism: the Dispute about the Past and the Future.
25. In 356 BC, seeking notoriety through an act of arson, Herostratus burned down the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus in ancient Greece. The temple had been constructed of marble and built by King Croesus of Lydia to replace an older site destroyed during a flood. The temple honored a local goddess conflated by the Greeks with Artemis, their goddess of the hunt, the wild, and childbirth. Measuring 426.5 feet long and supported by columns 60-feet high, it was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The name of Herostratus, henceforth, became associated with those who commit a criminal act in order to become famous.