In the shadow of October -- Reflecting on the USSR and Soviet power
Updated: Nov 4
If we want to celebrate 1917 we must also look more deeply at what came after. There is much to celebrate there as well.
This piece was originally written to mark the 100th anniversary of the Great October Socialist Revolution.
The collapse of the Soviet Union was a catastrophe for the forces of socialism and anti-imperialism both within the USSR and its republics, and internationally, including here in the allegedly advanced capitalist west.
Despite the fact that this is a statement that is relatively easy to demonstrate with the benefit of nearly 30 years of hindsight, it is one that still stands in complete contrast to the narratives of not just the right and liberals -- with their "end of history" hyperbole -- but also to that of countless western leftists who reflect back the lies and myths of anti-communists in their ultimately facile analysis of the Soviet Union and its demise.
While many western leftists have and will celebrate the Great October Socialist Revolution itself, few are those who will look at the subsequent attempts to build a socialist society in the Soviet Union while under constant siege from the capitalist (and at one crucial point in history fascist) world with anything even approaching a fair and objective analysis.
It is as if they wish the USSR had failed in 1924 or 1929 or 1934 or 1956 or some subsequent date when they feel the Soviet communists somehow ruined a revolution that was continuing to evolve. Often they fixate on the crimes (and they were crimes) and excesses -- although these are often wildly exaggerated -- at certain points during the Stalin years as if this invalidates or negates the totality of the Soviet experience and its accomplishments both domestically and internationally.
Occasionally they will grant that the USSR defeated the Nazis through exceptional efforts and self-sacrifice on the part of the Soviet peoples though they will generally try to claim this was in spite of the leadership and the way socialism was organized at the time, which makes absolutely no sense. They will do this while also overlooking the deeply traumatic effect the war had on all levels and aspects of Soviet society.
If not engaging in pointless alternate histories that frame the Trotsky of Kronstadt as the figure who would have delivered their utopia they simply ignore what the USSR built during its seventy years of existence and what it represented internationally.
A full analysis of the history of the Soviet Union, its leadership and the reasons for its fall is well beyond the scope of this short essay.
But what we can do is try to move past the Cold War and anti-Communist propaganda of the United States that is still widely accepted on the left in the west and seek to encourage leftists to learn from and understand the lessons of the first country in the history of the world that sought to build a socialist future.
And, despite the best attempts of many on the anti-Communist right and left to claim otherwise, that is exactly what the USSR, its workers, republics, unions, and Soviets were doing.
Against astounding, almost impossible odds the Soviets by the 1980s had constructed a society that was technologically and industrially advanced, that had eliminated illiteracy, hunger and poverty, that had remarkable levels of social equality, that guaranteed jobs and housing by law, that had low retirement ages, free or inexpensive vacations, free education and healthcare, that was a nuclear and military power, and they did this out of the ruins of a backward, agrarian feudal society. They did this in spite of being invaded first by a coalition of imperialist powers seeking to "strangle the infant Bolshevism in its cradle" as Churchill put it and then by the Nazis and their allies.
In the wake of civil war the newly forming Soviet Union of 1922 accounted for only 1% of global industrial production, but by 1982 it accounted for 20%, a simply astonishing change.
And it accomplished this while supporting anti-colonialist and anti-imperialist movements politically and financially right up until the days of Gorbachev and his retreats. The USSR backed national liberation movements globally and played a key role in struggles like the fight of the ANC against apartheid in South Africa.
As with everything else, though, this long-lasting and unswerving commitment to ending racist colonialism was somehow portrayed as opportunistic or conniving as opposed to genuine. As Michael Parenti put it in his brilliant essay Left Anticommunism: the unkindest cut:
In the United States, for over a hundred years, the ruling interests tirelessly propagated anticommunism among the populace, until it became more like a religious orthodoxy than a political analysis. During the Cold War, the anticommunist ideological framework could transform any data about existing communist societies into hostile evidence. If the Soviets refused to negotiate a point, they were intransigent and belligerent; if they appeared willing to make concessions, this was but a skillful ploy to put us off our guard. By opposing arms limitations, they would have demonstrated their aggressive intent; but when in fact they supported most armament treaties, it was because they were mendacious and manipulative. If the churches in the USSR were empty, this demonstrated that religion was suppressed; but if the churches were full, this meant the people were rejecting the regime’s atheistic ideology. If the workers went on strike (as happened on infrequent occasions), this was evidence of their alienation from the collectivist system; if they didn’t go on strike, this was because they were intimidated and lacked freedom. A scarcity of consumer goods demonstrated the failure of the economic system; an improvement in consumer supplies meant only that the leaders were attempting to placate a restive population and so maintain a firmer hold over them. If communists in the United States played an important role struggling for the rights of workers, the poor, African-Americans, women, and others, this was only their guileful way of gathering support among disfranchised groups and gaining power for themselves. How one gained power by fighting for the rights of powerless groups was never explained. What we are dealing with is a nonfalsifiable orthodoxy, so assiduously marketed by the ruling interests that it affected people across the entire political spectrum.
This is largely believed to one extent or another by many Western leftists as well.
So too is the flagrant falsehood that the Soviet Union was a "totalitarian" society akin to the Nazis.
As Roger Keeran and Thomas Kenny put it in their book, Socialism Betrayed - Behind the Collapse of the Soviet Union:
Democracy in the USSR could have been more advanced than it actually was but that is no reason to identify "lack of democracy" as the main cause of the end of the Soviet Union. Many observers have little understanding of the actual features of socialist democracy. If the word "democracy" means the empowerment of working people, then the Soviet Union had democratic features that surpassed any capitalist society. The Soviet state had a greater percentage of workers involved in the Party and government than was the case with parties and governments in capitalist countries. The extent of income equality, the extent of free education, health care and other social services, guarantees of employment, the early retirement age, the lack of inflation, the subsidies for housing, food, and other basics and so forth, made it obvious that this was a society run in the interests of working people. The epic efforts to build socialist industry and agriculture and defend the country during World War II could not have occurred without active popular participation. Thirty-five million people were involved in the soviets. Soviet trade unions had powers over such things as production goals, dismissals, and their own schools and vacation resorts that few, if any, trade unions in capitalist countries could claim. Unless there is enormous pressure from below, capitalist states never challenge corporate property. Advocates of the superiority of Western democracy ignore class exploitation, focus on process not substance, and give credit for capitalist democracy to capital, not its real defender and promoter, the modern working class. They compare capitalist democracy's achievements to its past, but, asymmetrically, compare socialist democracy's achievements to an imagined idea.
Another key issue is the fallacious and bizarre notion that the Soviet Union should have emerged from the revolutionary process in global conditions of counter-revolution as some kind of paradise within a generation or two or after the cataclysm of the Nazi invasion.
The point is not that the USSR was "perfect" or without flaws. Of course it had issues and internal contradictions or it would still exist. The periods of excessive authoritarianism or the use of widespread terror internal to the party during the purges are inexcusable except for the blindest apologist or ideologue. Yet the collapse of the USSR, on a number of levels, had terrible consequences economically and socially for many of the peoples of the former USSR, had disastrous reverberations internationally in the fight against capitalism and imperialism globally, and was the exact opposite of the triumph of "freedom" and "democracy" that it is generally presented as.
A simple mind exercise can display this.
Is the world more democratic since the collapse of the USSR?
Is it less driven by retrograde nationalism and religiosity?
Have workers rights benefited? Has inequality not gotten far, far, far worse?
These questions barely scratch the surface though they do prove the point.
It is not a coincidence that the fall of the Soviet Union coincided with the entrenchment and triumph (for a time) of neo-liberalism and with the largely successful attempts of the capitalist class to role back workers rights and salaries. With the beginning of the era of perpetual austerity.
The actuality of the USSR used to scare the capitalists and imperialists to their core. It was a constant bulwark against their uninhibited power and a potential promise for workers in non-socialist countries that had to be countered, undermined and destroyed at any cost.
The United States has and continues to use any means to destabilize, undermine and destroy any socialist, communist or even statist regime that does not play ball from the USSR, to the Afghanistan of the Saur Revolution, to Iran, to Cuba, to Guatemala, to Honduras, to Venezuela and on and on and on.
They will use any means however ugly, from selling the Soviets faulty microchips, to the use of Agent Orange to destroy Vietnamese crops, to funding Afghan "freedom fighters" who literally started their fight against the Saur Revolution in the late 70s by murdering teachers trying to teach young girls to read.
The depth of this depravity and hypocrisy knows no bounds.
With the USSR gone, this imperialist hypocrisy and depravity no longer has serious limits on it.
This is not a call for "nostalgia" for the first society in the history of the world to eliminate capitalism, and large scale private ownership, it is a call to see it become reality again having learned objectively and honestly from the Soviet experience.
It is fundamentally uninteresting to honour or talk of the revolution as a leftist without seeking to take a more nuanced and analytical -- though always critical -- look at the state that flowed from it and its very real, and very important, accomplishments both domestically and internationally. In an historical sense the absence of the Soviet check on the whims of global capital and imperialism is more greatly felt and more easily seen as time passes, putting the lie to many of the myths of those from conservatives to social democrats that have poisoned the discourse with shallow and baseless re-writings of history that act as a form of apologism for the triumph of imperialism and reaction.
In the shadow of October we need to acknowledge and embrace the tremendous efforts and achievements of the working people and revolutionaries of the Soviet republics over the course of the entire history of the USSR and not just mythologize its early years.
While the fact of working class and socialist power as expressed in the Soviet Union raises basic questions about the limits of violence, the state and the nature of hierarchical parties and vanguards, these questions are not answered by dismissive falsehoods or platitudes.
The Soviet people and revolutionaries sought to build the better world we want in the face of savage reaction, terrible conditions and real world limitations and they did so right up until the collapse. If we want to celebrate 1917 we must also look more deeply at what came after.
There is much to celebrate there as well.