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Whatever Happened to the Soviet Union?

Irwin Silber, Socialism: What Went Wrong? An Inquiry into the Theoretical and Historical Sources of the Socialist Crisis. Pluto Press, London 1996. Paperback, 309pp.

Reviewed by Alistair Mitchell

From New Interventions, Vol.6 No.2, 1995

IRWIN SILBER’S book Socialism: What Went Wrong? An Inquiry into the Theoretical and Historical Sources of the Socialist Crisis is in the opinion of this reviewer the best attempt at understanding the background to the collapse of the Soviet empire that has been published since the momentous events of 1989-91. Socialists have been in need of such a book written with the necessary range and in an easily understandable style.

Silber has been active on the American left for over 50 years and has written extensively on numerous subjects. He joined the US Young Communist League in 1941 and later the Communist Party. This background might explain certain weaknesses in the book.

Firstly, the title of the book "Socialism: What Went Wrong?" should perhaps have been "The Soviet Union: What Went Wrong?", as other forms of socialism are given little treatment. Social democratic reformism, for example, is merely mentioned in passing on a couple of pages. The weaknesses of the US left lead him to viewing the Soviet system as the be-all and end-all of socialism. The struggles of American workers or the movements outside the Soviet bloc are rarely mentioned.

Secondly, the middle-class orientation of much of the US left clearly influences Silber’s thinking and most especially one of his conclusions, which is that class-based politics should take a back seat to "universal human interests", with ecological, gender, race, sexuality, etc. issues acting as the "cutting edge of politics" (pp.247-49).

Silber’s enthusiasm for middle-class fad issues shouldn’t be used, however, to disregard the valuable study he makes of his main subject: an assessment of the Bolshevik experiment that started in 1917 and ended in 1991.

A key theme in Silber’s book is that the Soviet attempts at introducing socialism were premature because, as Marx said, "No social order ever perishes before all the productive forces for which there is room in it have developed" (p.65). The argument that it was the attempt to introduce socialism in one country that was the root of the problem fails to adequately explain why there weren’t socialist transformations elsewhere. Silber criticises the erroneous view of the Bolsheviks, and others, that the end of capitalism was nigh: "What Lenin did not anticipate was the extent to which capitalism would continue to revolutionize the forces of production, including the development of new technologies which in turn would stimulate a resurgence of entrepreneurial activity, open vast new markets and drastically alter the labor process" (p.54). Silber points to Lenin’s exaggerated predictions of monopolisation, saying that non-monopoly enterprise has remained significant, and to the question of war, where Silber highlights the number of international regulating bodies to reduce conflicts. Even the freeing of the colonies had helped rather than weakened capitalism by opening them up to the other capitalist powers.

Even in the present age capitalism has continued to revolutionise the productive forces many times over: energy (nuclear power); production (computerised automation); information technology (computers); communications (television and satellites) (p.64). Silber traces the premature predictions of capitalism’s demise right back to Marx and Engels themselves: "sometime around the middle of the nineteenth century both Marx and Engels quite incorrectly concluded that capitalism had arrived at – or was rapidly approaching – the end of its developmental potential; and that the material conditions necessary to bring into being a working class-led co-operative social order had already matured in the capitalist womb. Considering that this conclusion was arrived at when the industrial revolution was still in its infancy – capitalism had not yet even harnessed electricity to either industry or its products, nor had such productive forces as the internal combustion engine and the wireless telegraph yet been developed – the magnitude of this error is hard to overstate" (p.200). "In 1848 Marx and Engels believed that capitalism had reached the point ‘when the class struggle nears the decisive hour’ and that the socialist revolution in Europe was ‘imminent’. They went so far as to predict that the coming ‘bourgeois revolution in Germany will be but the prelude to an immediately following proletarian revolution’ (emphasis added)" (p.45).

The Transition to Socialism
Silber quotes Marx as saying "the proletarian revolution, which in all probability is impending, will transform existing society only gradually, and be able to abolish private property only when the necessary quantity of the means of production has been created" (p.106). Yet the Bolsheviks broke with this after seizing power. Lenin himself said: "In attempting to go straight over to Communism we, in the spring of 1921, sustained a more serious defeat on the economic front...", and War Communism "assumed that there would be a direct transition from the old Russian economy to state production and distribution on communist lines" (pp.91, 92). So whereas Marx stipulated a gradual transition and the necessary bases for socialism, Lenin had attempted an immediate transition straight over from backward Russian society.

In highlighting these references Silber challenges the widespread myth that War Communism was merely forced on the Bolsheviks by the requirements of the Civil War. Also interesting is the fact that Preobrazhensky, the author of socialist accumulation and the economist of the Left Opposition, was a strong supporter of War Communism. Silber sees the move to the New Economic Policy (NEP) not, as legend has it, as an enforced temporary retreat but, in Lenin’s words, "a radical modification in our whole outlook on socialism" (p.94). NEP was a stage, not an end in itself, but Lenin saw it as longer whereas Trotsky stressed its temporary nature. Lenin became an advocate of a mixed economy, co-operatives and the worker-peasant alliance, or as Lenin put it: a "combination of private interest, of private commercial interest, with state supervision and control of this interest" (p.94).

The fascinating debates on Soviet economic policy in the 1920s have far more than historical interest; they reflect a central theme in this book. According to Silber, "the principal underlying cause of the stagnation and ultimately overall failure of the Soviet economy as a whole" was "the view that new socialist relations of production precede the development of society’s productive forces ... even before the material basis for a socialist society exists" (p.102).

Silber sees "Marxism-Leninism" as idealist and voluntarist, because it saw the eradication of capitalist production relations as the main aim, rather than the development of the country’s productive forces to lay the material basis for socialism.

"Actually Existing Socialism"
Silber’s CP background leads him to use the official Communist term "actually existing socialism" to describe the Soviet Union and its replicas. Asking the question, "But was it socialism?", he replies that it was because it was built by a movement that advocated socialism and because "the USSR was generally referred to as a socialist country and much of the world accepted this as a legitimate descriptive term" (pp.6, 7). According to this logic any myth must be true if it is widely believed in. The Greek and Roman gods were real, unicorns existed and Father Christmas too! Surely it would be better to see the USSR not as socialist but as a result of an attempt at a socialist transformation.

As Victor Serge put it, Bolshevism had many seeds – one of them was Stalinism. It was Stalin’s "revolution from above" in 1929-30 that established the command economy, although its origins could be traced to the earlier War Communism. Under Stalin’s "revolution" all the private companies and co-ops which had emerged under the NEP were transformed into state property. Silber contrasts Stalin’s approach to that of Marx and Engels, for whilst the founding fathers favoured the abolition of private property and economic and political centralisation, they did not see this happening all at once or regardless of the material conditions. Under Stalin changes in the relations of production were intended to lead to the material basis of socialism, rather than the other way around.

Silber challenges the common assumptions about Stalin’s "revolution" that although it was brutal it was effective. He compares economic growth under NEP, which he measures at an average of 18% per year, with an annual growth of 5-7% through the 1930s (pp.120-1). Under the command economy enterprises exaggerated their requests for resources so as to be sure of getting enough, so leading to waste. Overproduction in some areas was accompanied by under-production in others without any formal market mechanism to rectify this. A vast shadow economy developed to fill the gaps left by the plan characterised by massive pilfering, theft of state property and shortages (p.128). Whereas plan targets were often not really achieved in some areas, they were in others largely because the targets were set at too low a level to ensure easy completion,

Agriculture was always the Achilles heel of the Soviet economy. Collectivisation eliminated not only the kulaks but the entire peasantry as a social class, replacing them with an agricultural labouring class who were worse off than the old peasantry. Private agricultural plots developed from the mid-1950s into a significant part of the economy – showing an impulse towards a mixed economy (p.118). Whereas in the USA 3% of the population worked in agriculture, it was 25% of the Soviet people. Yet whilst the Americans exported food, the USSR imported it! (p.130)

For this reviewer a great strength of Silber’s book is the significance he gives to new technology as a factor in the Soviet collapse: "Perhaps the most telling evidence of the command economy’s failure. however. was its inability to absorb and apply the latest developments in science and technology to the Soviet economy" (p.138). A Gorbachev statement from 1987 reproduced in the book is very revealing: "At a time when the Western countries started a large-scale restructuring of their economies with the emphasis on resource saving, the latest science and state-of-the-art technology, scientific progress slowed down [in the Soviet Union] ... mostly because the economy was not responsive to innovation" (p.138).

Advanced technology came up against the command economy. New methods using fewer resources weren’t used because the plan already dictated what should be used (pp.139-40). Although the Soviet Union did well in space, "it lagged far behind in the development (and, even more, the application) of computer technology, cybernetics, robotization, new energy sources, chemically-created construction materials, biotechnology and the like" (p.140). The much-heralded nuclear parity with the USA that was achieved (at enormous cost) by the early 1970s showed the strength of the Soviet arms lobby and its success in influencing the planners. However, "Research, development and especially production in the civilian economy" were another story. Here, where the bureaucratic mechanism wielded unchecked power, stagnation and inertia prevailed. And nowhere was this lethargy more evident or more costly than in the systematic failure to utilise adequately the scientific and technical revolution. For it was on this battleground perhaps more than any other that "‘actually existing socialism’ lost the economic competition with capitalism" (p.140).

Another reason for the failure to develop computer technology effectively may have been the bureaucracy’s fear of the population being able to exchange ideas and news more freely (p.169).

Silber cites Alec Nove as saying that the Soviets managed with the simpler goods, but as products became more complex the problems grew (p.124). By the early 1980s the situation was very serious. The "years of stagnation" under Brezhnev ended with his death; the new leader Andropov was pro-reform. He received a secret report in 1982 which said that the command economy could no longer ensure "full and effective use of the society’s intellectual and labor resources" (p.123). However, Silber fails to emphasise the significance of the fact that Andropov had been the leader of the KGB – the one organisation that had the sources to know quite how critical the situation really was.

Silber argues that the USSR had been stagnating since about 1960. He quotes a confidential report from 1965 by a senior Soviet economist which describes slower rates of growth, especially in agriculture, the most backward industry in the developed world, poor quality of manufactured goods, mass wastage in production ranging from timber to steel. The report was ignored. The problems continued to worsen through the Brezhnev years which added "a wage-leveling process which was sapping individual incentive and promoting absenteeism and alienation" (p.124).

Gorbachev’s perestroika and glasnost were too late and the system was arguably unreformable. The technological revolution was probably the final blow, especially as it threatened a whole new arms race. The USSR was already spending twice the percentage of its national income on defence as the USA. Soviet aid to sympathetic countries in the Third World (including trade deals and arms sales to the disadvantage of the USSR), bailing out Eastern Europe and keeping up with the arms race were costing a fortune. By the early 1980s the USSR approached breaking point (pp.225-6).

In conclusion, the Soviet Union stagnated and collapsed because the absence of any market mechanism left it dependent on the subjective judgements of its planners. This encouraged both shortages of some products and overproduction of others, waste, bad investment policies, ecological damage and the subsidising of inefficient enterprises at the expense of efficient ones. "The price exacted for these violations of basic economic logic was measured in the growth of parasitism, lack of concern for property and resources. loss of initiative, poor work habits and, of course, staggering budget deficits" (p.134). "The system’s fundamental flaw, in Marxist terms, was that its relations of production – reflecting a voluntarist communist utopianism – were in contradiction with the level of development of its forces of production" (p.144).

Revolutionary Strategy
Although Silber’s book is mainly about Soviet "socialism", he also looks at Communist strategy abroad. I have already mentioned how Silber traces the Bolsheviks’ overly optimistic expectations of revolution to earlier errors by Marx. Lenin explained the lack of revolutionary consciousness amongst the workers in the developed countries as being because of a prevalence of bourgeois ideas – but didn’t these ideas reflect the underlying strength of capitalism? Lenin also misunderstood liberal democracy, seeing it as just a sham. Silber presents strong criticism of Lenin’s notion of a "labour aristocracy" which was the top layer of workers who had been bribed by the superprofits of colonialism into reformism and opportunism. Silber notes that nowhere was social democratic reformism stronger than in Germany, yet Germany had hardly any colonies! Silber correctly argues that reformism is not just the outlook of the top layer of workers, but of the majority of the working class.

The fundamental flaw in Lenin’s theory of opportunism was his assumption that capitalism had reached its end. If revolution was on the cards and opportunism was its last obstacle, then it made sense to advocate the first revolution in the one country where opportunism was weakest: Russia. Thus Lenin reversed Marx and Engels’ view that socialist revolution should start in the most developed countries (pp.179-204). The result of a socialist revolution in a country not possessing the material basis for it is the subject of the rest of this book.

Silber argues that the universalising of Bolshevism and in particular democratic centralism through the Comintern was disastrous (p.79). He argues that the formation of parties separate from the existing mass workers’ parties contradicts the famous advice given by Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto. For Silber democratic centralism was not merely an organisational mistake – it reflected a thoroughly false attitude of the leaders to the led: "the communist movement was attracted to and embraced totalitarianism because revolutionary zealots have what can only be characterized as an overpowering natural affinity for totalitarian methods of organization and absolutist modes of thought. Believing that their perspective was rooted in an all-embracing truth to which others were not privy" (p.259).

Silber concludes that in the long run the socialist cause is better off for the demise of the Soviet bloc (p.11). He writes that: "the material conditions for a proletarian-based socialist revolution have not appeared in any capitalist country in all the years when Marxist-Leninists were proclaiming its imminence – nor do they prevail anywhere in the world today" (p.245). Silber argues that only if/when the system proves unwilling to accommodate workers’ demands for reforms will socialist transformation win mass support (p.267). Revolution involves a transition from reform to a struggle for power, but it must start in the fight for reform (p.255).

Silber’s book is a major contribution to tackling the crisis in socialist ranks and I encourage everyone to read it.