By Aleksandr Buzgalin
The break-up of the Soviet Union, which began long before 1991, is only now beginning to be recognized as one of the most important events of the last century–ten years after the official “date” of the disintegration of that unique social, economic, ideological and geopolitical system. The optimism of the “victors”–who proclaimed the final triumph of Western liberal values and the “end of history” which this supposedly entailed–very quickly faded, to be replaced by Huntington’s predictions of a clash of civilizations. We did not have to wait long for these theoretical forecasts to begin to manifest themselves in the form of wars, one of which flared up not just “anywhere”, but on the doorstep of the civilized world–the Balkans. Another is still raging in the North Caucasus. Other wars might be brewing elsewhere–but that is not the subject of this article.
DID IT REALLY EXIST?
The birth of the Soviet system was for a long time seen purely as a chance political-economic blip on the historical timeline. In the opinion of most liberals writing in the early years following the 1917 revolution, the system would collapse in a few months or, at the very most, a few years. But decades of successful development (based on certain objective indicators, such as growth in GNP–one of the highest in the world–progress in science and education, and success in forming around itself a favorable, friendly geopolitical environment) were crowned, following the victory of the Soviet Union and its allies in World War II, with the creation of nothing less than a second world superpower.
This was a phenomenon that could not be dismissed. Moreover, not one serious Western mainstream analyst predicted that the world socialist system–with the Soviet Union as its kernel–would disappear from the scene in the near future. From the 1960s onwards, the particular way of life established in these countries began to be accepted as a given, a phenomenon of nature–a “natural habitat” in international economic, political, ideological and cultural life. And this is despite the fact that not just the “hawks” but also serious theoreticians, including committed Marxists such as Leon Trotsky and his followers, had in the past predicted the collapse of the Soviet system, even pointing out its self-destruct mechanisms.
Nevertheless, twenty or thirty years ago the possibility of the break-up of the Soviet Union was not seriously considered an important theoretical problem, let alone a relevant geopolitical or practical problem (though there was of course constant activity deliberately designed to change the Soviet system and bring about the disintegration of the Soviet Union).
Looking back on it now, from the vantage point of 2001, the ahistorical euphoria of both adherents and opponents of the Soviet system might seem astonishing. But the main reason that I recall all this now is that our current outlook is equally ahistorical, though it has been turned inside out: The history of the Soviet Union is over–forget about it. Forget it as you would a bad dream. Forget it as you would a chance occurrence…
But is it possible to dismiss as a “chance occurrence” the existence and development of a fundamentally different system–noncapitalist, nonmarket, nonindividualist? (A system which exhibited monstrous contradictions, of course: I am not one to “forget” the crimes of Stalinism, the authoritarian nature of the Soviet system, the “economic deficit”… but everybody is now familiar with the real and imagined evils of the Soviet system, and there is no need to enumerate them again here). In the space of a few short decades it created, on an international scale, a unique ideology, culture and type of person. (I do not attach value judgments, I am merely stating that there are qualitative differences). The fact that the Soviet people were different from Westerners was already obvious in the 1920s and 1930s. Any objective examination of history would show that it is nonsense to talk of the “chance” development of such a phenomenon.
So it really did exist. Moreover, in some sense we can say that it still does. In many respects, there is life after death for the Soviet system.
THE SOVIET UNION: LIFE AFTER DEATH
The first thing that strikes you is that significant features of the Soviet system have been preserved in the post-Soviet states. Most transition-period specialists now agree that hopes for a successful completion of democratic market reforms and the creation, in a matter of years, of effective market systems and a democratic political system in the post-Soviet space were completely unfounded. The transition systems that have taken root in these countries are highly idiosyncratic, combining deformed shoots of capitalism with pre-bourgeois relations and fundamentally important relics of the old system.
In the socioeconomic sphere in these countries (particularly Russia, Belarus and Ukraine), there are still no free labor markets or money markets. This is evidenced by the dependence of both labor and capital on the state, paternalist traditions and much more.
In politics, ideology and culture, the legacy of the Soviet era is even more significant. It exists not only in authoritarian tendencies and galloping bureaucracy, or in Soviet films and nostalgia for the past (a phenomenon that over the last few years has also been observed in young people who never lived in the Soviet Union). It also exists in the “genetic code,” instilled by Soviet culture, of collectivism and rejection of individualism and market fundamentalism.
In geopolitics, the legacy is the persistent determination among various political forces (and, far more seriously, among a significant section of the public) to form another superpower in place of the Soviet Union. Of course, the economic and political conditions for this do not exist at the moment, and an ahistorical view may quietly overlook these intentions. But a historical view, which attempts to draw lessons from the past, raises the question: Why, in these objectively unfavorable conditions, is there an increasing determination to resurrect a superpower–a determination that has powerful ideological and cultural foundations (which in the Soviet Union, we remember, were often just as important as the economic basis).
Yet the survival of important traditions from the past in these countries is not the only aspect of the post-Soviet existence of the Soviet system. Equally important, many features of that system still exist on an international scale.
The Soviet system (for all the arguments about its nature, which I do not propose to reproduce here) developed under the banner of ideas and principles for a noncapitalist, socialist system of relations. And this system is still alive as a tendency; it did not completely die out with the death of the Soviet Union (though it was weakened). Moreover, I would venture to assert that the whole of the 20th century–with the eight-hour working day and social welfare systems; powerful trade unions and mass voluntary organizations; social, humanitarian and ecological restrictions on the market and capital; the victory of anticolonial movements in the struggle against the civilized democracies of France, Britain and other countries, which attempted to use any means possible (including wars, claiming millions of lives) to preserve their colonial oppression–the whole of the last century represented an attempt to move towards a noncapitalist system. Remaining true to my paradoxical dialectic style, I shall ask a question which many consider sacrilegious: Is it possible that the fact that the Soviet Union with its Gulags and monstrosities has passed into history has also cleared the way for new postcapitalist tendencies?
Furthermore, the 21st century, with its antiglobalization movements and reemerging left-wing ideological and political tendencies (particularly, though not only, in the new industrial countries) may produce–indeed probably will produce–a new type of Left as an important element of international economic, political, ideological and cultural life. While capitalism survives, so the anticapitalist tendency engendered by its contradictions will persist; in other words, the tendency that brought the Soviet Union into existence will persist.
In contemplating life after death for the Soviet Union, it should also be mentioned that there are other countries that uphold the fundamental principles of the Soviet system (whether formally or in reality is another question). I shall begin, predictably enough, with Cuba, because this is the country where Soviet traditions are strongest. It could be said that Cuba is a minor exception to the rule, that there is crisis in Cuba, and that she may have to abandon her continuation of the Soviet experiment. But without idealizing the realities of life in Cuba, it is possible to present these problems in a different light. If the system manages to survive (and even show rapid development in recent years) after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when it is blockaded and exists in international isolation, with no natural resources of its own, then is there not some life force at its heart?
Then let us look at the largest and most dynamic country in the world: China (and not only China–there are also Vietnam and others). For all the market-based and capitalist aspects of Chinese development, for all its powerful internal contradictions, in its social life (for I stress again that the economy is not the only thing; in the Soviet system, ideological and political elements were always equally significant) China remains in many ways more like the Soviet Union than any bourgeois country (especially if one looks deep into the system, not stopping at the window displays in Beijing or Shanghai supermarkets). Even the internal contradictions in China are very similar to the contradictions within the Soviet Union. Did these contradictions blow our country apart? Yes. Might they do the same to China? Yes again. But this is exactly what I am trying to show–that the rise and fall of the Soviet Union was not a chance phenomenon, but a fundamentally important one for understanding the patterns of social evolution in the 20th century (and also the 21st century, bearing in mind our “life after death”).
In drawing this section to a close and presenting the next set of problems, I would offer the assertion, which only seems paradoxical at first sight, that the reasons for the emergence of the Soviet system and the reasons for its crisis are one and the same. The same contradictions brought the Soviet Union and its particular socioeconomic, political, ideological and cultural system into existence, and then blew it apart. What, then, is the source of the life force (and the cause of death) of this system? The next article will examine this topic.
Aleksandr Buzgalin is a doctor of economics and a professor at Moscow State University. He is a leader of Russia’s Democratic Socialist Movement.