Paper Presented to Second International Congress, 
“Marx in May”
Grupo Estudos Marxistas
Faculty of Arts and Letters

University of Lisbon, Portugal
May 10, 2014

The Collapse of the Soviet Union Reconsidered

by Roger Keeran and Thomas Kenny

In 2004, Thomas Kenny and I wrote Socialism Betrayed: Behind the Collapse of the Soviet Union. Since 2004, the book has been published and reviewed in Bulgaria, Russia, Iran, Turkey, Greece, Portugal, France, Cuba and Spain. One or both of the authors have been present for discussions of the book in Greece, Portugal, France and Cuba, and a number of critics have reviewed the book in leftwing journals. In this presentation, Kenny and I will respond to two criticisms and one question prompted by the book. In the book, we put forth an explanation for the collapse of the Soviet Union. We used the words “collapse” and “betrayal” in the title in spite of the possible misleading connotations of both words.

Still, there was no doubt as to what we were trying to explain, namely the radical transformation that displaced the political power of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, abolished most state ownership, centralized planning, and the system of social services, and fragmented the multi-national state. We argued that the Soviet Union did not collapse because socialism failed. Rather, the system of socialism based on collective or state ownership of property and state planning proved a remarkable success, particularly from the point of view of working people. The system proved itself capable of providing sustained 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 external invasion, sabotage, and threats, and offering economic aid, technical assistance, and military protection to other nations struggling for independence and socialism.

The Soviet Union nonetheless had problems—some related to political and ideological ossification, some related to the quantity and quality of its economic output, and some related to the ongoing struggle with imperialism. These problems, however, did not cause the system’s collapse. What brought down Soviet socialism were the policies pursued by Mikhail Gorbachev. These policies emanated from a belief that the problems of socialism could be solved by making unilateral concessions to imperialism and by incorporating into socialism certain ideas and policies of capitalism. Gorbachev’s ideas had roots in Soviet political discourse, but they had never triumphed so completely as they did under Gorbachev.

What allowed these ideas to gain ascendancy was that in the previous thirty years a petty bourgeois sector rooted mainly in the illegal, private economy had developed within the Soviet Union. This so-called second economy had damaged the first economy, demoralized some of the population, corrupted segments of the Communist Party and government, and provided a social basis for the policies pursued by Gorbachev. Instead of curing the problems of socialism, Gorbachev’s policies in short order wreaked complete economic havoc and eventually toppled socialism.

Criticism #1

Some critics maintain that our explanation ignores a deep reason for the collapse, namely that the attempt to build socialism in the Soviet Union was doomed from the beginning by the insufficient development of the productive forces.

This is not a new idea. In 1918, Karl Kautsky had said that Russia was not ready for socialism. This idea drew on Karl Marx and Frederick Engels who believed that only the full development of the productive forces under capitalism would create the pre-conditions for the abolition of classes and on Engels’s description in 1875 of the backwardness of Russia. According to this view, the Soviet Union could have moved to socialism only by first allowing private enterprise to flourish and by developing the productive forces by joint ventures with foreign capitalists, both of which would have happened if the Soviet Union had continued the so-called New Economic Program (NEP) which Lenin introduced in 1921. A corollary of this idea was that the Soviet Union could only have avoided a collapse by pursuing the path of China and Vietnam today, the path of “a market economy with socialist orientation.”

Major problems exist with this explanation. It is not at all clear what Marx and Engels would have thought was the appropriate course for Soviet Communists in the 1920s. Though the Soviet conditions may not have been ideal to build socialism, Marx was well aware, as he said in 1853, that “men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted by the past.”

Moreover, in 1917 Russia was not quite so backward as the country described by Engels in 1875. It possessed some of the largest industrial factories in the world, and 10 percent of its population worked in industry. Admittedly, the new Soviet Union remained a mainly peasant country, and Soviet leaders like Viacheslav Molotov later acknowledged that backwardness “adversely affected socialism.” Nevertheless, those who think backwardness not only adversely affected socialism but doomed it must confront three challenges. First, however backward the Soviet Union was in the early 1920s, it did not remain so. Having the advantage of rich natural resources, a resourceful leadership, and a motivated population, the Soviet Union steadily overcame its backwardness. By the 1980s, the Soviet Union had become an economic power second only to the United States. In 1984 the economist Harry Shaffer wrote: “The United States is still ahead of the Soviet Union in total and per capita output, in consumption, and in living standards. But the Soviet Union has been steadily gaining on the United States.”

So, even if the productive forces started in a state of underdevelopment, they hardly remained there by 1985. While Soviet industrial development could not be disputed, some believed that the original backwardness nonetheless fatally weakened the system. Erwin Marquit asserted that the original backwardness led the Soviets to resort to “the utopian model of a centrally planned economy” and that the centrally planned economy “proved unable to match the pace of market-driven technological development in the West.” This is not convincing. Indeed, the exact opposite was true. Through state ownership and planning, the Soviet economy made remarkable strides not only economically but also technologically. By the 1980s Soviet technological development did not equal that of the U.S., but it remained not far behind and was gaining. In a book on socialist science and technology published in 1989, John W. Kiser III argued that the whole idea of a “technology gap” was an overstatement born of “America’s belief in the inherent inferiority of the Soviet system.” Because the Soviet system lacked an incentive to commercialize its technological achievements, the West had “a persistent tendency to underestimate them.” Kiser pointed to technological breakthroughs the Soviets and eastern Europeans made in metallurgy, chemistry, food processing, biomedicine and elsewhere.

As for computer technology, in 1986 the CIA concluded that a software and hardware gap existed between the Soviet Union and the West, but that “the Soviets will still be making rapid progress in absolute terms” and that in ten to fifteen years “the top Soviet scientific institutions will probably have equipment comparable to that of the best US national laboratories at present.” In other words, technological gaps were small and narrowing. Thus, technological backwardness hardly provided a compelling explanation of the collapse. A second problem with the backwardness explanation was its assumption that the New Economic Program (NEP), i.e. fostering development through encouraging private enterprise and foreign investment, provided a live option. This was like arguing that the American Civil War could have been avoided had the North simply allowed slavery to die out naturally. Though this idea may appeal to those who wanted to blame the abolitionists for the carnage of the Civil War, few, if any, historians think that was a live option in 1860. Similarly, sticking with the NEP did not represent a live option for the Soviets in the 1920s. In 1921, the Soviets had turned to the NEP to deal with problems created by the policies of “war communism,” particularly the alienation of the peasants caused by the confiscation of their grain. In a short time, however, the NEP developed its own problems.

In explaining why the Soviets abandoned the NEP, the historian E. H. Carr pointed to three grave problems. First, in 1922-23, the so-called “scissors” crisis occurred, in which wildly fluctuating grain prices led to food shortages, unemployment and the suffering of poor and middle peasants. Second, most Soviet leaders came to realize that the NEP condemned the Soviet Union to a long period of industrial backwardness, and this was a fearsome and intolerable prospect in the face of the growing threat from external enemies. Third, in 1927-28 falling agricultural prices caused peasants to hoard their produce creating starvation in the cities. For these reasons, reliance on the market and private incentives became untenable. Thus, real economic problems, as well as ideological preferences, compelled Soviet leaders to adopt new policies and to embrace public ownership and centralized planning. Under these circumstances, to call the Soviet move to state ownership and central planning “utopian” is preposterous. By making this move the Soviets industrialized quickly, defeated the Nazi invasion, and rebuilt quickly after the war.

Moreover, they did so while steadily increasing the standard of living of Soviet workers. To imagine that the Soviets could have achieved the same results by continuing the problematic policies of the NEP constitutes wishful thinking in the extreme. The backwardness explanation of the Soviet collapse contained a third weakness. This weakness is exposed by examining the lessons inferred by this explanation. It is entirely appropriate to judge an explanation by its lessons. For example, if a shepherd died by falling off a mountain cliff, only a fool would draw the lesson that people must avoid sheepherding and mountains. If, however, at the time of the accident, the shepherd was drunk, a reasonable person would draw the lesson that one should avoid drinking while tending sheep on mountain cliffs. Some who subscribe to the backwardness explanation of the Soviet collapse, drew the lesson that the Soviet Union should have avoided central planning and followed the path of China. But this lesson was no more reasonable than that of avoiding sheepherding or mountain climbing. At the very least, this conclusion is rash. Not even the Chinese themselves draw this conclusion from the Soviet collapse. According to Arthur Waldron, “Today’s official China believes that nothing deep or fundamental was wrong with the Soviet Union even in the late 1980s. According to the official narrative, the failure of the Soviet regime to continue is not attributable to a broad systemic phenomenon, but rather to a very specific failure of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.”

Moreover, where the Chinese path will ultimately lead and what it will mean for the working class remain open questions. In the short run, the Chinese path has produced economic growth and increased income for the urban population. Nonetheless, since 2008 both the decline of economic growth rates and the entanglements of the Chinese economy with a stagnating world market cast doubts about this model’s continued viability. According to the New York Times in March of this year, China’s “growth has decelerated to its slowest pace in more than a decade.”

Moreover, the Chinese working class is paying a high price for a path that steadily diverges from socialist goals. For a decade, unofficial urban unemployment has consistently been over 8 percent. Foreign ownership and investment as a share of total manufacturing sales in China has gone from 2.3 percent in 1990 to 31.3 percent in 2000. Since direct foreign investment in China ($124 billion in 2011) has been increasing yearly and is now second only to the United States, the percentage of foreign ownership is undoubtedly much greater now than in 2000. Moreover, according to a recent study, “the inevitable outcomes of China’s capitalist development” has included “growing unemployment, inequality, and insecurity; the cutbacks in communal health care and education; worsening oppression of women; the marginalization of agriculture; and the multiplication of environmental crises.” To the extent that a market economy with a socialist orientation remains a dubious path to socialism, so it remains a dubious lesson to draw from the Soviet collapse.

In sum, the backwardness explanation must be rejected for three reasons. First, however backward the Soviet Union was in 1917, the productive forces did not remain undeveloped by 1985. Second, the explanation implied that the Soviet Union should have and could have continued the NEP. This idea was untenable at the time and is entirely fanciful in retrospect. Third, whether the Chinese path to socialism is more reliable than the Soviet one remains to be seen.

Criticism #2

A second criticism of our book arose from the treatment of Joseph Stalin. For some critics, the failure to denounce Stalin as a paranoiac, a criminal, an anti-Semite, a demon, a dictator and a mass murderer, constituted a fatal flaw. For some critics nothing would have been satisfactory short of subscribing to what Domenico Losurdo calls “une legende noire.” For some critics, our failure to condemn the cruelty under Stalin was an unpardonable omission. To this we would like to respond as Lenin did when Maxim Gorky’s expressed concern about “the cruelty of revolutionary tactics.” Lenin said, “‘What do you want?….Is it possible to act humanely in a struggle of such unprecedented ferocity? Where is there any place for soft-heartedness or generosity? We are being blockaded by Europe, we are deprived of the help of the European proletariat, counter-revolution is creeping like a bear on us from every side. What do you want? Are we not right? Ought we not to struggle and resist? We are not a set of fools….What is your criterion for judging which blows are necessary and which are superfluous in a fight?”

The truth is that we did not provide an overall assessment of Stalin, because we thought it too important to do in a cursory fashion in a study devoted to something else. As any historian, we raised a specific question—in this case the causes of the Soviet collapse—and confined ourselves to trying to answer it. We dealt with Stalin’s ideas and policies only as they related to our explanation.

To the extent that criticism of our treatment of Stalin relates to our explanation of the collapse, it deserves a response. Here a distinction must be made. As is well-known, a line of thought stretches from the 1920s to the present that socialism in the Soviet Union began an inexorable decline ever since it rejected the ideas of Leon Trotsky on the need to pursue a permanent, worldwide revolution and the futility of trying to build socialism in one country. From this point of view, the Soviet Union did not constitute socialism, and its collapse represented no more than a footnote to the exile of Trotsky. Only those who accepted these premises about the importance of Trotsky and the lack of socialism in the Soviet Union (which are really more political than historical judgments) could be satisfied by a Trotskyist explanation of Soviet history.

There are, however, other views of Stalin and his role in the Soviet collapse. One such view claimed that the Soviet collapse resulted from a “Stalinist deformation,” a kind of delayed result of Stalin’s policies. This view held that the Soviet Union built a socialist society based on public ownership and planning that worked well at delivering economic growth, securing military defense, and providing employment, economic security, health care, education and a high cultural level for workers. Nevertheless, coping with its own backwardness and with internal and external threats as well as other challenges led to anti-democratic deformations. These deformations took the form of “the cult of the individual personality, the authoritarian incorporation of all social activity under the disciplined control of the CPSU, and the subordination of all scientific and cultural thought and practice to political ideology.”

According to this view, a planned economy presented no problem in the Soviet Union, rather the problem resided in a legacy of Stalin’s authoritarianism. Stalin’s authoritarianism undermined attempts to decentralize control and responsibility, sapped initiative, and kept the socialist economy from realizing its potential. Anyone casually acquainted with the Western historiography of Stalin and the Soviet Union would hardly be surprised that some would blame him for the collapse of the Soviet Union, since one writer or another has held him responsible for nearly every calamity of the twentieth century. Any figure as complex as Stalin, the leader of a vast country going through numerous crises over an extended period of time, was bound to leave a complicated legacy. Thus, one can readily grant the existence of the problems adduced by those who hold the theory of Stalin deformation. For example, in a planned economy where the nature and size of production are set from above, there is an endemic problem of stifling initiative and responsibility below. The Soviet Union grappled with this problem for years, and Cuba grapples with it today. This problem did nor uniquely result from Stalin. Moreover, without giving them the name Stalinist deformation, we acknowledge that the size and methods of the repression “undoubtedly left a legacy of bitterness, timidity, servility, shame, and heaven knows what else.”

That, however, is not the end of the story. In evaluating Stalin’s legacy, one must distinguish between moral and political judgments—that is, whether certain behavior or policy was good or bad, justified or unjustified, positive or negative—and historical judgments about causation and consequences. Both kinds of judgment have a legitimate place, but the question before us is a matter of historical judgment. That is: did Stalin’s policies actually figure in the Soviet collapse? Frankly, those who hold the Stalin deformation view have done little to move the discussion from moral outrage to historical explanation. Stalin left a contradictory legacy on the question of authoritarianism and democracy. Those who subscribe to the Stalinist deformation explanation see only one side, that Stalin undermined socialist democracy and demoralized and demobilized the Soviet people and that this ultimately undermined the efficiency and productiveness of the socialist system and hence led to the collapse. But where is the evidence of this demoralization and demobilization? The great accomplishments of the Soviet people between 1930 and 1950, the collectivization of agriculture, the rapid industrialization, the raising of the educational and cultural level of the people, the defeat of Hitler’s invasion, the reconstruction of the country in four years after the devastation of the war, hardly suggested the work of a demoralized and demobilized population. The very opposite. These achievements required active, popular participation. Moreover, a clear-eyed view of Stalin’s legacy must admit that it contained elements of democracy and popular participation as well as autocracy and repression. The Soviet Constitution of 1936 symbolized this ambiguous legacy.

On the one hand, despite the Constitution’s democratic promises, the Soviet Union would remain a state where power was concentrated in the Communist party and increasingly in the leader of that party, where nominations for office and other initiatives came from the top, and where other institutions including the Soviets and trade unions served a consultative and implementing function at best. On the other hand, the Constitution represented an attempt for the first time in history, and under unfavorable circumstances, to give meaning to the idea of socialist democracy. The Constitution resulted from a two year process of discussion that involved large segments of workers, peasants and others in a nationwide debate of a draft document followed by a national referendum. The Constitution expanded the democratic rights of Soviet citizens by lifting voting restrictions on people associated with the tsarist regime, and while legitimizing the Communist Party’s exclusive role, it also called for multi-candidate, secret-ballot, direct elections. In a revolutionary departure from bourgeois constitutions, the Soviet Constitution included economic rights including: the rights to employment, annual vacations with pay, free medical services, free education up to and including seventh grade, equal pay, state aid to mothers of large families and unmarried mothers, maternity leave with full pay and maternity homes, nurseries and kindergartens. [1]

The 1936 Constitution reflected another democratic legacy, namely Soviet policies toward national minorities.   Historian Terry Martin characterized the Soviet Union as “the world’s first Affirmative Action Empire.” What Martin meant by that was that the Soviet Union “created not just a dozen large national republics, but tens of thousands of national territories scattered across the entire expanse of the Soviet Union. New national elites were trained and promoted to leadership positions in the government, school, and industrial enterprises of these newly formed territories. In each territory, the national language was declared the official language of government. In dozens of cases, this necessitated the creation of a written language where one did not exist. The Soviet state financed the mass production of books, journals, newspapers, movies, operas, museums, folk music ensembles, and other cultural output in the non-Russian languages. Nothing comparable to it has been attempted before…and no multiethnic state has subsequently matched the scope of Soviet Affirmative Action.”[2] In an opinion survey of several hundred Soviet citizens done by the Harvard Interview Project in 1950-51, the “overwhelming majority” of those asked about the 1936 Constitution agreed that its guarantees of national equality were in fact true.[3]

The ambiguity Stalin’s autocratic and democratic legacy even manifested itself in the repression of the 1930s.   The campaign against Trotskyites and wreckers in 1937, which sent millions to prison and thousands to death, corresponded with a mass movement in the trade unions and workplaces for greater democracy. The head of the trade unions, Nikolai M. Shvernik, launched this movement in order to bring to the trade unions the promises of the 1936 Constitution, that is to say, secret ballots, multi-candidate elections, greater involvement of the rank and file, and greater accountability of trade union leaders. This movement went hand in hand with a campaign to end leadership cults and get rid of corrupt leaders, secret oppositionists and other “enemies of the people” who were embezzling union funds, violating safety rules, and wrecking housing, social services and production. As a result of this upsurge from below, by the end of 1937, “more that 1,230,000 people had been elected to positions in 146 unions in hundreds of thousands of union groups and shop committees….Final election returns showed a serious shake-up of personnel. More than 70 percent of the old factory committee members, 66 percent of the 94,000 factory committee chairman, and 92 percent of the 30,723 members of the regional committee plenums had been replaced.”[4] What took place in the trade unions in workplaces in 1937 embodied nothing less than a mass democratic movement from below to remove and punish certain trade union leaders.  Historian Wendy Goldman called it “democratic repression,” and said, “repression was not something done to the Soviet people by an evil ‘other.’ It was actively supported and spread by people in every institution….”[5]

In short, if one looks at the Stalin legacy objectively, no direct line runs from Stalin to authoritarianism to popular demobilization to Soviet collapse. At least in the formulation of the 1936 Constitution, in the policy toward nationalities, and in the trade union democracy movement of 1937, Stalin mobilized rather than demobilized the masses. Moreover, if Stalin’s policies had really served to demobilize and demoralize the Soviet people, one would hardly have expected the Soviet people to have mourned his passing as they did or to have continued to revere him fifty years after his death. Yet, this is precisely what polls showed.[6]

In short, one can readily acknowledge that Stalin’s democratic legacy was ambiguous.   Still, only a very one-sided and distorted view of Stalin could lead one to think that a Stalinist deformation so politically demobilized the mass of Soviet workers that it above all else caused of the Soviet collapse.

A Third Reaction
A third reaction to our book was not so much a criticism as a question expressed like this: why didn’t the Communist Party and the Soviet working class oppose the policies of Gorbachev and rise to the defense of socialism? In the book, we discuss this question on pp. 268-273. Certainly, the fact that rank and file resistance was not greater and more successful than it was constituted the most disturbing aspect of the whole process of Soviet dissolution. However disturbing, this fact in and of itself did not warrant jumping to the conclusion that there was something fundamentally amiss in Soviet socialism or that Soviet socialism had failed the Soviet workers in some fundamental way.  

Gorbachev’s whole approach was one of trying to solve the problems of socialism by making concessions to the imperialists and by incorporating capitalist ideas into socialism.   Part of this involved introducing aspects of bourgeois democracy while undermining and circumventing the traditional institutions of socialist democracy.  To understand the ineffectuality of working class resistance, one does not have to look much beyond this. Soviet Communists and workers were denied traditional outlets of expression while their nominal leader steadily introduced capitalist ideas under the befogging notion of perfecting socialism.   We argue that it did not have to be this way.   Different reforms and a different process of reforms that mobilized the Communist Party and working class might have produced different outcomes. This had been attempted by Yuri Andropov, but the effort was cut short by his sickness and death.

Two recent trips to Cuba and a study of the recent Cuban reforms called “actualization” or “updating” have reinforced our conclusion about the fate of Soviet socialism. 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.[7] Without the boycott, the Cuban standard of living today might well equal that of Western Europe.[8]

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 currencies 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.” [9]

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 proposed in 2011.  For example, both reforms 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. [10] Discussion of the guidelines also occurred in the letters page of Granma, radio phone-ins, internet blogs and trade unions.[11]  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.”[12]  

In the Soviet Union, 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. Otherwise we would not be wondering today where were the Soviet Communists and workers?

If both criticism # 1 “Soviet backwardness” and criticism # 2 “the Stalin deformation” are unpersuasive, why do they remain so popular? We would suggest that the reason for the continued popularity of these explanations is that they draw upon and depend upon the ubiquitous ideology of anti-Stalinism and anti-Communism. Anti-Communism and anti-Stalinism are not merely disagreements with the socialist system or the policies of Stalin, but rather the treatment of this system and this man as the main evil in the world. Among most Western intellectuals, the Stalin-as-Monster dogma is not up for discussion. It is axiomatic. Even worse, it is a shibboleth. It is a passkey into the family of writers acceptable to the ideological establishment. U.S. academics, even those with unorthodox views, routinely include hostile references to Stalin in their work, even work unrelated to Soviet history, as a way of ensuring political acceptability.

Why anti-Stalinism remains such a touchstone deserves more attention than it has received. Recently, such scholars as Domenico Losurdo and Grover Furr[13] have shed light on this question. One factor, surely, is that the Stalin demonization has the support from the “Left,” a “Left” cover, thanks to Trotsky and Khrushchev. Another reason is that Stalin serves as a handy personal symbol of the USSR in 1924-53, the time of its successful construction and also the time when the Soviet state was the main enemy of imperialism. Whatever the reason, for Marxists, like some of our critics, to indulge in anti-Stalin stereotypes and to press them into polemical service, is best understood as an opportunist concession to the pressure of ruling class ideology. Of course, the undoing of anti-Stalinism will not come about by beatifying Stalin, by heaping praise on him, or still less by ignoring the problems associated with his leadership. It will come about, rather, by patient scholarly work that uses the same standards to evaluate him as would be used to evaluate any 20th century leader.


The major criticisms that have been advanced against the argument of Socialism Betrayed do not stand up under careful scrutiny. The idea that the Soviet Union was done in by a birth defect, namely the backwardness of the productive forces, appeals mainly to those who dream of an easy and gradual path to socialism and those who think the Chinese have found the golden pathway to the future. It, however, requires ignoring the problems that beset the NEP in the 1920s and the Chinese today, and it means underestimating the hard choices the Soviets faced in the 1920s and 1930s and the tremendous progress they made in overcoming backwardness.

The idea that the Soviet collapse in 1991 was due to Stalin’s authoritarianism in the 1930s rests on a mountain of prejudice against Stalin and a one-sided reading of his legacy that ignores its strong, democratic elements.   Finally, the ineffectuality of rank and file Communists and workers in resisting the destruction of socialism did not provide evidence of deep-seated problems of Soviet socialism.   It did show, however, 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 collapse, it is that Cuba seems to have learned this lesson.


[1] Leonard Schapiro, The Communist Party of the Soviet Union (New York: Vintage Books, 1971), 409; Kenneth Neill Cameron, Stalin: Man of Contradiction (Toronto, NC Press Limited, 1987), 80-81.
[2] Terry Martin, The Affirmative Action Empire: Nations and Nationalism in the Soviet Union, 1923-1939 (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2001), 1-2.
[3] Martin, 387-389.
[4] Goldman, 14.
[5] Goldman, 19.
[6] Richard Pipes, “Flight from Freedom: What Russians Think and Want,” Foreign Affairs (May/June, 2004), 14.
[7] Cuba vs Bloqueo: Cuba’s Report on Resolution 65/6 of the United Nations General Assembl entitled “Necessity of ending the economic, commercial and financial blockade imposed by the United States of America against Cuba” (July 2011), 54.
[8] Interview of Manual Yepe, Havana, Cuba, February 18, 2014.
[9] Interview of Marta Nunez, Havana, Cuba, February 18, 2014.
[10] “Information on the results of the debate on the Economic and Social Policy Guidelines for the Party and the Revolution,” translated by Marce Cameron, [], 2.
[11] Steve Ludlam, “Cuba’s Socialist Development Strategy,” Science & Society 76, no. 1 (January 2012), 47.
[12] Ludlam, 51.
[13] Domenico Losurdo, Staline: Histoire et Critique D’Une Légende Noire and Grover Furr, Khrushchev Lied (Kettering, Ohio: Erythros Press and Media, 2011).