Contemporary economists, sociologists, political scientists and even philosophers tend to focus their analyses solely on the reasons for the break-up of the Soviet Union and the collapse of what we called “developed socialism,” or what the West called “communism.” This is understandable: It is this collapse that satisfies today’s dominant ideology: The “evil empire” had to fall, and fall it did. Correspondingly, the reasons usually cited for the collapse are those features which distinguished the Soviet system from developed western countries: The predominance of central planning and state ownership (which is by definition inefficient), an overdeveloped military industrial complex, and also the dominance of an authoritarian system and the power of the nomenklatura, a nomenklatura which itself then went on to betray “communism.” In other words, “everything you had was different from us, that’s why you found yourself in crisis.”
But I would propose a different approach to the problem: In the early 20th century a new post-capitalist social system had to emerge, and emerge it did: A system which at the same time was destined to collapse in a short period of time (in historical terms, seventy years is not very long). Framing the question in this deliberately dialectical manner allows us to identify the reason behind the unique phenomenon that was the Soviet system.
In general terms, I would dub this reason the “20th century catch.” The world as a whole had reached a stage in its development when its internal contradictions clamored for the emergence of a new social system (the previous model of colonialism and the ten- to fourteen-hour working day, which gave rise to the Great War, the Great Depression, Fascism and so on, had demonstrated its limits very clearly), but the last century failed to create the conditions necessary for the birth of a new, more efficient, socially progressive and humane system, capable of better responding to the challenges of the global era.
In the 20th century the world found itself, roughly speaking (for any historical analogy is naturally limited), in the same position as during the period of the early bourgeois revolutions of the 15th-17th centuries, when the contradictions of the feudal system called for the creation of the market, capital and republics, but the necessary preconditions were not yet in place for the triumph of the bourgeois system.
Adopting a Hegelian approach, I would express this paradox as follows: In the 20th century a new postcapitalist system could not fail to emerge, because the contradictions of the world capitalist system were too profound; but equally it could not truly emerge, because the preconditions for the establishment of a more progressive social system were too weak. As a result, we got the Soviet system, which was doomed to failure (although at the same time fated to enjoy a reasonable life after death).
I would also stress that these preconditions for a post-capitalist system (a phrase I have borrowed not from socialist political economics but from Drucker, Bell, Peccei, Fromm and many others) should have included, first and foremost, not so much advanced technologies but new “human qualities,” as the dawn of the new century demonstrates; but this is the subject for a completely different discussion.
Returning to the reasons for the emergence of the doomed but not accidental Soviet system, we may conclude that the “catch” described above resulted in the emergence of the only thing that could emerge: The Soviet system. An economic, social, political and ideological system which objectively strove to “catch up and overtake” capitalism, achieving genuinely new social relations in certain respects, but achieving them at such a price and in such forms as not merely devalued the attempts, but deformed them and doomed them to failure.
It was because of this catch, and the absence of the preconditions necessary for progress towards a qualitatively new social life, that the notorious contradictions of our past arose (and it is no coincidence that these are cited by most researchers as the reason for the collapse of the Soviet Union).
Thus the attempts to create a mechanism more efficient than the market for coordinating and allocating resources–central planning–within the framework of a state bureaucratic dictatorship led on the one hand to the rapid development of late industrial and even post-industrial sectors, thanks to the targeted concentration of resources in key areas, but on the other hand, simultaneously engendered a “deficit economy” and the deliberate concentration of these achievements in the most state-oriented sector–the military industrial complex (incidentally, this overdeveloped military industrial complex is also a source of ambiguity: The Soviet people were proud of the superpower status of their country and today most of them yearn to restore it).
In exactly the same way, the determination to move away from private ownership and hired labor generated, on the one hand, genuine mass enthusiasm and collectivism (nonmonetary and nonegoistic values and motives were truly no less important than private wealth for many Soviet people) and one of the world’s most developed social security systems (especially for the 1920s, when it first appeared). It was this that gave generations of Soviets “confidence in the future,” a developed education system and reasonable mass healthcare, a very high level of culture and the emergence of a broad stratum of the intelligentsia. This list is easy to reproduce, because opinion polls show that these are the features of the old system which most CIS citizens are nostalgic for. On the other hand, the country was dominated by closed shops for the elite, passivity, an affinity for protectionism, and, perhaps most importantly, the authoritarian power of the nomenklatura and forced labor.
Ideological contradictions were equally important, whereby the Soviet system produced great writers, poets and musicians who genuinely supported it (Sholokhov, Mayakovsky, Shostakovich and dozens of other figures of international stature) and created the right conditions for turning the Russian empire, which was 80 percent illiterate, into the most widely read country with a high level of mass education and so on. Yet at the same time, the Soviet Union was notorious for its harsh censorship, widespread suppression of artistic freedom, oppression of the intelligentsia and so on.
This point is worthy of particular attention: As we have seen, the background to and one of the reasons for both the emergence and the demise of the Soviet system was the initial mass “enchantment” of the cultural elite with socialist ideas and then the equally widespread disillusionment with them (it was this soil that fed Gorbachev’s perestroika, with its democratization, glasnost and “new thinking”; and it was from the ranks of those who wielded most influence that the leaders of the “democrats” emerged).
Thus, it was the internal contradictions of the Soviet system as a product of the “20th century catch” (when a new postcapitalist system could not fail to emerge, but also could not truly emerge) which were the cause both of the emergence and of the disappearance of the Soviet system (though its presence is still felt in the contradictory realities of the 21st century). These very contradictions lie behind all the other reasons which are justly cited for the collapse of the Soviet Union–from the top-heavy economy and the arms race to the self-destruction and betrayal of the nomenklatura.
As I mentioned at the beginning of Part 1, the initial euphoria at the collapse of the Soviet Union and the world socialist system (which was celebrated by many theoreticians and practitioners of the political right) was quickly replaced by pessimism. The world has not become more peaceful, democratic or economically stable. Moreover, the arms race, local wars, geopolitical contradictions and social conflicts have become if anything more potent in the new “monopolar” world. The illusions both of cynical right-wingers and of romantic social democrats are fading to a great extent. There is increasing disappointment among western analysts and–more important–most former Soviet citizens at the results of the “reforms.” Sociological surveys show that most Russians have a negative attitude to the results of the reforms and consider the Brezhnev period to be the best period in their country’s history, although they do not want a return to the past (another of these post-Soviet paradoxes!).
Was it all in vain then, the birth and death of the Soviet Union? Was it all for the worst in this worst of all possible worlds? Let us not completely reject the optimism of Voltaire’s Candide, who claimed that all is for the best even in the worst of situations. The rise and fall of the Soviet Union, its heritage and its history, is too complex a phenomenon to make categorical assessments. For the time being it provides material for serious, unhurried analysis and discussion.
But ten years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, there are some important conclusions which can be drawn and should not be postponed. I would include the following among them:
First, we should understand and acknowledge that the birth, death and “life after death” of the world socialist system and the Soviet Union were not chance occurrences.
Second, we should recognize that the Soviet Union was part of the global contradictions of the 20th century; its passing into history has not resolved these contradictions but conversely exacerbated them. Although we were harsh critics of the contradictions of “real socialism,” I and many other analysts of a left-wing democratic leaning harbored no illusions about the Alter Ego of the world socialist system: The disappearance of the Soviet Union has not made the international community more peaceful, socially oriented, humane and democratic. On the contrary, its contradictions have been exacerbated. This is not a “lost illusion,” but an outcome that was entirely predictable.
Third, our analysis of the reasons for the birth and death of the world socialist system shows that this new system (just like its contradictions) did not arise by chance. We have now entered an era when mankind must find answers, one way or another, to the challenges which the Soviet Union was unable to meet. It is crucial that we do not repeat the tragedies and crimes committed in the past, while inheriting the genuine achievements of the Soviet past.
Aleksandr Buzgalin is a doctor of economics and a professor at Moscow State University. He is a leader of Russia’s Democratic Socialist Movement.