Socialism Betrayed: Behind the Collapse of the Soviet Union

Roger Keeran and Thomas Kenny (International Publishers: New York, 2004)

Reviewed by Roger Perkins

For workers and oppressed peoples the highpoint event of the twentieth century was the Russian October Revolution of 1917. Likewise, the great tragedy of the century was the shocking overthrow of Soviet socialism and the demise of the USSR. Socialism Betrayed sets out to explain how such a terrible defeat was allowed to happen and succeeds better than most similar attempts.

This book is very well researched. Chapter six has 154 footnotes. Moreover, the authors utilize not only participant sources (documents, memoirs, etc) and various other left analyses, but also extensive bourgeois academic research. Even a study by Canada's far-right think tank – the Fraser Institute – is referenced in regard to the underground private economy that existed during Soviet times. Citing such sources does not necessarily diminish a work but may enhance it. To know a phenomenon is to know its all-sidedness, its interpenetrating opposites, including the class-based subjective interpretations

But it is not only the well-researched nature of this book that makes it stand out. Keeran and Kenny are not afraid to refute many revisionist illusions still influential, to a greater or lesser degree, in various sections of the international Communist movement. Those who, even now, admire the policies of the Gorbachev team and believe that things would have turned out for the better if only Gorbachev had proceeded at a slower pace, or if the policies he advocated had been introduced earlier in Soviet history, will find this book unsettling.

Also unsettling to some is the authors' linking up of the opportunism and revisionism in the Gorbachev period with trends in earlier Soviet history. Keeran and Kenny name forerunners Nikolai Bukharin and Nikita Khrushchev as having scouted out similar territory before. They state:

"Gorbachev did not invent his policies out of whole cloth, but rather his policies reflected trends in the Party that had earlier been represented, in part by Nikolai Bukharin, Nikita Khrushchev and others." (pages 14-15)

Thus, Bukharin-Khrushchev-Gorbachev make up the great troika of Soviet right revisionism. Fortunately, Bukharin was defeated by the CPSU led by Stalin. Khrushchev was sacked as CPSU General Secretary and was replaced by Brezhnev. Gorbachev and Gorbachevism was never defeated and was replaced not by a revived socialism but by the capitalism of Yeltsin and Putin. The tragic results of revisionism winning out are visible for all to see. Those who view, if not Gorbachev, then certainly Bukharin and Khrushchev as "Marxist-Leninist" role models will be disturbed by the authors' conclusions. For Keeran and Kenny, the Marxist-Leninist trend in Soviet history is decidedly not to be found in the Bukharin-Khrushchev-Gorbachev trend but in the Lenin-Stalin-Andropov trend.

This reviewer is withholding judgment on the extremely short Andropov period due to Andropov's early death while in office. The authors may be guilty of wishful thinking. But even though Gorbachev, at first, sounded like Andropov's twin, history may have propelled them in opposite directions with the result that the Soviet Union might still exist today if Andropov had lived longer, purged revisionism from the Party, revitalized Marxism-Leninism, and most importantly, restored democratic, decision-making political power to the Soviet working class. That is, if the Soviet Union really became a healthy workers' state. Perhaps, maybe, if, … if only!

But such historic turns require more than wise leadership. By Andropov's time it may have been too late. The qualitative point of no return may have been passed, and the Party was already saturated with the flood of opportunists, open or hidden, who joined and had rapid career advancements during the time of Khrushchev's anti-Stalin tirades and non-class policies of "state of the whole people" and "Party of the whole people". Any attempt at Party rectification may have been sabotaged by these new apparatchiks who would agree in words but ensure that few purges of revisionists and capitalist roaders would actually be carried out. We'll never know for sure and this is why any view of the short Andropov period can only be one of conjecture. All we can know is that which actually occurred – it was at this time that Gorbachev was carefully selected for career advancement.

The Lenin component of the authors' Marxist-Leninist troika (Lenin-Stalin-Andropov) will generate little controversy. Unlike Bukharin, Lenin viewed the New Economic Policy (NEP) of the 1920s as only a temporary retreat forced on the new Soviet Russia by the immense destruction of civil war and imperialist intervention. Bukharin, however, saw the market-orientated NEP as the preferred long- term path to be followed by the Soviet economy. "Peasants, enrich yourselves!" he exclaimed. A modest tax on a prosperous, private-property peasantry could then be used for a modest industrialization.

The Stalin-led CPSU rejected Bukharin's strategic reliance on private enterprise and modest industrialization and put an end to NEP with the collectivization of agriculture and the initiation of crash, state-directed five-year industrialization plans. Stalin said in February 1931:

"We are fifty to one hundred years behind the advanced countries. We must cover this distance in ten years. Either we do this or they will crush us."

We now know the outcome. It was Hitler and the Nazis who were crushed by the newly industrialized Soviet Union and the socialist fighting spirit of its citizens. Would the Soviet Union have fared as well if it had been guided by the unplanned, peasant-orientated spontaneity of Bukharin's "market socialism"?

But it is the bellwether question of evaluating the role of Stalin in Soviet history that will cause some to become outright angry with the authors. Keeran and Kenny have gone a long way towards rehabilitating Stalin to Marxist-Leninist status. Without ignoring many, but not all, of Stalin's serious mistakes, the authors attempt to give a more balanced view than that found in Western propaganda, Trotsky's diatribes, Khrushchev's diversionary fulminations or Roy Medvedev's 566 page social-democratic, anti-Stalin polemic, Let History Judge. All militant "anti-Stalinists", be they found on the Right or within the Left, will react with fanatical hostility to any attempt to rehabilitate, even partially, one whom they believe to be primarily a heinous criminal and killer, Yes, Stalin did exceed the formal boundaries of socialist legality. But for those on the Left to single out a single facet of a complex reality and then flog it unceasingly is more characteristic of dogmatism than an attempt at making a concrete analysis of a concrete situation. Yes, Stalin was indeed a killer. He killed Hitler and for this we must be thankful.

A balanced communist evaluation of the Stalin period has to come to the conclusion that on most of the important decisions that would determine the immediate future of the Soviet Union, Stalin not only held the correct Marxist-Leninist position but also led the struggle to ensure this position would win out. The errors of the Stalin period were, for the most part, not those of strategic line but those of implementation. Stalin's personal side (rude, crude and not always able to exercise power properly according to Lenin) combined with a not too favourable objective situation (an isolated, backward, predominately peasant, war-torn Soviet Union surrounded by determined enemies), resulted in excesses and methods of work that fell well short of Marxist-Leninist standards. The presumed infallibility of the Party or its supreme leader substituted for a collective worker-based procedure of Marxist-Leninist error correction.

The mistakes of the Stalin period, not all of them initiated by Stalin himself, also include crude, inflexible, mechanical applications of policy accompanied by insufficient legal safeguards to differentiate friend from enemy or the guilty from the innocent. A hierarchy of command became entrenched, the purpose of which was to implement orders originating at the top. Workers' eyes began to look more and more upwards rather than at each other for solutions to problems. The empowering dialectic of "from the masses, to the masses" morphed into a top-down commandism, thereby stunting worker creativity. Leadership is indeed important – it can be fatally decisive – but a wise leadership encourages a vital, informed, active working class with decision-making authority. Unfortunately, top-down commandism reached the shop floor level in the late 1930s with the proclamation of a Soviet decree law that drastically altered the relationship between shop-floor workers and factory management. Henceforth, a trend set in whereby managers managed and workers worked. A meaningful workers' power was emaciated and a mechanical division between mental and manual labour became fixed.

While correcting the pariah status assigned to Stalin by his enemies – and for this the authors must be thanked – Keeran and Kenny still ignore certain mistakes of the Stalin period itself, especially those that became institutionalized, survived, flourished and became the norm of the post-Stalin "style of work". The truth is Stalin was brilliantly correct in his defeat of Trotsky and Bukharin and in his building up of the Soviet Union to vanquish the military might of Nazi Germany and fascism. The immediate survival of the Soviet Union was at stake and thanks to Stalin's leadership it did survive. But the seeds of long-term defeat were also sown during this period. On this the authors are mainly silent.

The authors do, however, realize that the fuel for the counterrevolutionary explosion that destroyed the Soviet Union was provided by the accumulation of uncorrected mistakes and that the detonator was the complete capture of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) by revisionism. But Keeran and Kenny are not always clear as to which mistakes were decisive and in which period of Soviet history they first appeared. New investigations must be made, either by Keeran and Kenny or by others, which give priority to this line of inquiry.

The fact that the Soviet working class was not able to stop the restoration of capitalism is, to Keeran and Kenny, "a great puzzle" (p 220). Russian workers did make revolution in 1917. But by the Gorbachev period this ability, while still a potential, was not expressed in actuality. How and when did this loss of working-class skills come about? The authors do not pursue this line of inquiry, but the demise of the Soviet Union can only be adequately explained by doing so. The two questions are intertwined and the answer to one is necessary for the answer of the other.

Another weakness in this otherwise fine book is that it has a tinge of elite managerialism to it and neglects that class which has the power to actually determine historical outcomes. The authors may, if they choose to do so, claim or declare that factory managers, Party apparatchiks and elite "nomenklatura" elements were in fact advanced strata of the Soviet working class and that the intelligentsia were in fact mental workers. But it is the vast majority of ordinary Soviet workers on the shop floor, construction sites and toiling in mines that are slighted as if their opinions or political development do not have determinative value.

The authors chose to erect their observational platform not adjacent to the clanking machinery of an assembly line or even from the elevated glass-walled office of the factory manager who views the workers from on high, but from within the windowless boardroom where Politburo CEOs make decisions on the future fortunes of the Soviet working class. Correct decisions and we get socialism, leading to communism. Incorrect decisions and capitalism comes back. The authors are certainly correct when they state: "The subjective factor is vastly more important in socialism than in capitalism." And further: "Capitalism grows; socialism is built" (p 200). But it is the Soviet working class that must build socialism. To view the locus of subjective wisdom as residing at the top of the CPSU has proved disastrous.

The authors compare Soviet socialism to an airplane that crashed because it had a bad pilot. True, but why was a bad pilot allowed into the cockpit? Somewhere between Lenin and Gorbachev, strict, honest, working-class vetting was replaced by an unhindered, dishonest and opportunist careerism.

A major defect of Soviet society was a top-down, political commandism. There existed no movement or desire on the part of Soviet workers to bring in so-called "market socialism". Nevertheless it was ordered and implemented by those at the top anyway. Accepting the fact that commandism had become the Soviet norm, the authors of Socialism Betrayed believed that by focusing their inquiry at the highest levels they can gain insight into which mistakes brought down the Soviet Union. Correct, but not correct! The question that should have been asked is: How did the Soviet Union become so hierarchically structured and command-orientated that decisions taken by the top could destroy a new mode of production that negated the previous class systems of slavery, feudalism and capitalism? And further, why did such fatal decisions result in a very concerned, but only timidly organized opposition instead of a massive working-class rebellion led by Marxist-Leninists? What process had burned out working-class initiative and Marxist-Leninist understanding from the institutions of Soviet power?

For those who still look to the top for salvation we should ask this question: would a different configuration of top-down orders have saved socialism in the USSR? Or would the "collapse" have only been delayed, occurring later, configured differently, but with the same results? Could it be that "top-downism" and the socialist mode of production are incompatible? The socialist transition period – the "lower stage of communism" – must be more than public ownership and a planned economy, but also a period of ever-growing workers empowerment. The Soviet Union was deficient in this third necessary element for building socialism.

The dictatorship of the proletariat must be precisely that, a dictatorship of the proletariat. Its political functions cannot be outsourced to other strata but must be utilized by the working class itself every day, every hour, every minute and every second, until classes no longer exist. The dictatorship of the proletariat is not a "thing" but a dynamic process of continual renewal similar to the dynamic stability of a bicycle – stop peddling and it topples over.

Institutionalized commandism became dominant during the Stalin period and was not, in practice, corrected after Stalin's death. The verbal condemnations of such practices were directed backwards at one individual –the dead Stalin, and did not apply to non-consultative orders issued by the Politburo and upper-Party hierarchy. Viewed from the top, commandism had, of course, been corrected – power no longer resided in a supreme leader, but in a collective Politburo. Viewed from the working-class bottom, little had changed. It was the same old, same old.

From the time of Stalin the serious error of commandism began to weaken the dictatorship of the proletariat by centralizing decision making upwards to various levels of the Party hierarchy where "administrative means" were used to solve problems, thereby depriving the Soviet working class of valuable and empowering experience. After the Stalin period Khrushchev went so far as to declare the dictatorship of the proletariat abolished and replaced by a "state of the whole people". Gorbachev engineered the demolishing of the remaining planned economy and the remaining shell of a hollowed-out superstructure and the USSR was no more. Keeran and Kenny turn a deaf ear to the concept "dictatorship of the proletariat". They mention it only in passing, for example, noting the fact that Khrushchev declared it abolished, but they elaborate no further. The authors obviously do not view this absolutely necessary institution as very important. They have either temporarily forgotten their ABC Marxism or, even worse, disagree with Lenin's statement that "Only he is a Marxist who extends the recognition of the class struggle to the recognition of the dictatorship of the proletariat" (Collected Works, Volume 25 , page 412; emphasis added).

Another befuddled argument of Socialism Betrayed is that the Soviet Union was not done in by a lack of democracy. There is a facet of truth in this because even a truncated workers' democracy is a thousand times more democratic than the "democracy" of the most "democratic" bourgeois state. Democracy exists not in the abstract but in the concrete and is always class based. Bourgeois "democracy" and workers democracy are qualitatively different. Democracy is not some sort of linear fluid that flows out of a spigot into any shape or size of container and can be measured quantitatively – one litre, two litres, etc. So the authors are correct in criticizing bourgeois, social democratic and euro-"communist" views which claim that the Soviet Union did not have "enough" democracy.

But was there indeed a "democracy problem" in the Soviet Union? Was the quality of Soviet workers' democracy such that the Soviet working class was not able to effectively exercise the dictatorship of the proletariat? It is this reviewer's opinion that that was indeed the case. Soviet workers' democracy had been qualitatively restrained and crippled since the time of Stalin. There existed a growing contradiction between its democratic content and the form of its expression. Firstly, the voice of shop floor workers gave way to managerial fiat. Secondly, the soviets in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, while continuing to exist and in theory able to initiate action, became in reality mainly perfunctory and ceremonial organizations. Thirdly, real power was held by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union – in practice, by the Politburo. Originally the party of the Soviet working class, the CPSU had become, since the time of Khrushchev, the "party of the whole people". It became less and less the vehicle of workers' democratic expression and more and more the preferred target of infiltration by opportunist, careerist, and petty-bourgeois elements. The CPSU changed into its opposite – from the Party of building socialism to the party of capitalist counterrevolution. All members of Gorbachev's last Politburo became anti-Communist millionaires. The Soviet working class no longer had any form through which to express its democratic content.

The authors investigate little of this and the operative command seems to be "don't go there". Let us hope that Keeran and Kenny don't envisage some sort of future Soviet Union that would look very similar to the old Soviet Union only, this time, a "good" pilot would be in the cockpit. The demand for democratic workers' power should not be left to the syndicalists but should be a priority Marxist-Leninist demand. The Lenin of State and Revolution certainly thought so.

While holding to the inadequate "bad pilot" theory the authors of Socialism Betrayed are also, and at the same time, able to reject the idealist Great Leader (or misleader) theory of history. They correlate ideological trends and leaders with social and economic forces – that is, they correctly seek out a class explanation. In their opinion the Gorbachev counterrevolution was led by a counterrevolutionary petty-bourgeois formation. The authors state that by the 1970s:

"the social group with a stake in private enterprise had become the petty entrepreneurs in the second economy. Such elements had thrived under the New Economic Policy (NEP) of the early 1920s, shrank drastically with the collectivization of property under Joseph Stalin, re-emerged under Khrushchev's so-called liberalization, increased greatly in size under Brezhnev's laxness, and ballooned under Gorbachev's reforms." (page 15)

Keeran and Kenny convincingly show that these anti-Soviet elements were no longer relegated to the margins, but had infected markedly the Soviet economy, government and the CPSU itself. Thus, to explain the Soviet demise, the authors are indeed correct in seeking out and identifying, within Soviet society itself, the economic base of those class forces hostile to the building of socialism and communism.

But the question must be asked: in an epoch of advanced capitalist globalization can the petty bourgeoisie, acting on their own, lead a counterrevolution (or revolution)? Marxists have previously always answered in the negative. This vacillating class must ally with and trail behind, either the proletariat or the bourgeoisie. The authors do not document any newly consolidated, large bourgeoisie in the Soviet Union at that time, only "petty entrepreneur" elements. So where does one look to find a consolidated, determinative, powerful bourgeoisie? It is the opinion of this reviewer that it is to be found outside the boundaries of the Soviet Union – in world imperialism, led by US imperialism.

The historical materialism of Keeran and Kenny has been weakened by a somewhat crude mechanical determinism when they attempt an exact, internally confined, one-to-one correlation between a petty entrepreneur group and the overthrow of Soviet socialism. To restrict the interpenetration, struggle and unity of the component parts of contradictions to an abstracted scene "inside" Soviet territory only, or to the present time only, is to forget dialectical materialism. After all, Marx did say that the dead hand of the past weighs heavily on the mind of the living. Moreover the geographical boundaries of the Soviet Union may have been very well guarded militarily but were porous to the lapping waves of the surrounding capitalist sea and the sweet lies of the Voice of America. The internal "second economy" entrepreneurs did not, on their own, overthrow Soviet socialism but rather acted as proxies for the external imperialist bourgeoisie.

The Soviet petty-bourgeois strata, by their very nature desirous of becoming bigger bourgeoisie, found their source of inspiration and encouragement in the slick bamboozlement and real power of the external bourgeoisie. The external imperialist bourgeoisie found its internal Soviet reflection via the illusionary and real aspirations of the legal and illegal petty bourgeoisie and from within the ranks of a corrupted intelligentsia and opportunist Party, government and managerial elements. Thus, the Soviet "collapse" was neither entirely internal nor entirely external but an interacting dynamic of the two. The importance of this internal/external dialectic should not be slighted as the authors seem to have slighted it.

But in the final analysis internal factors are decisive. Had there been a much reduced and disappearing entrepreneur element instead of a growing and influential one, the external bourgeoisie would have found only a tiny and impotent ally. The most important lesson of this book is that legal and semi-legal "second economies" and officially promoted "market socialism" schemes serve as scab hatcheries of capitalist restoration.

Finally, in this reviewer's opinion the word "collapse" does not adequately describe what happened to the Soviet Union. The socialist USSR was overthrown, conquered, by hostile class forces that restored capitalism. The word "collapse" implies some sort of engineering problem – shoddy construction due to an improper proportion of sand and cement (or if you wish, plan and "market"). The house of socialism did not fall down on its own due to the using of too much of this ingredient or too little of another. It was, on the contrary, demolished by an anti-socialist wrecking crew. The CPSU accumulated a lethal dose of revisionist poison, which caused the socialist heart to go into terminal, chaotic fibrillation, thereby no longer being able to pump vitalizing red blood throughout the body politic. What a tragedy! And it was not inevitable!

This valuable book, despite its weaknesses, will help us to avoid many of the roads wrongly taken and should be of great value to all sincere revolutionaries who want to identify and defeat today's ideological descendants of Bukharin, Khrushchev and Gorbachev.

Failure to carry out such a rectification within the international Communist movement will lead to even greater tragedies. Only this time, the continued existence of homo sapiens on planet Earth will be at stake.

Spark #19, Summer 2007