Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 13, 2016

Is anything worth salvaging from the USSR’s legacy?

Filed under: Stalinism,ussr — louisproyect @ 8:53 pm

The other day I got a FB message from a comrade in Pakistan:

which reminds me, comrade, i wanted to ask you about Timothy Snyder’s work and some related issues

i read your critique very carefully (or at least i hope i did), and i do have his book – i haven’t read it in its entirety, but im familiar with his main framework

my question mainly is along these lines:

if we are to come to grips with the legacy of Stalinism, how do we do it?

where should we look for a damning indictment of stalinism that does not devolve into Nazi apologia?

and can we sustain such a damning indictment, as communists, while still salvaging ANY progressive/radical/revolutionary/virtuous/politically-worthwhile elements from the Bolshevik experience and the soviet union’s history?

or is it a mistake to look for anything worth salvaging from the USSR’s legacy?

i remember a discussion with xxx at one point, where he was basically saying (unless i got him wrong) that he agrees with Snyder’s framework broadly and that we cannot underestimate the brutality of soviet domination of the ‘eastern bloc’

can you point the way to some sort of way to approach all this?

To start off, I should mention that I launched a Yahoo listserv called The Soviet Legacy that was devoted to discussing exactly such questions. The list withered on the vine mostly for the right reason–namely that people got tired of trying to figure out when and why things went sour in the USSR. In fact I created the mailing list to shunt such conversations off of the Marxism list where I try to emphasize current events. It is not that I am averse to discussing Soviet history, only averse to hearing the usual litany from sect members bent on foisting their analysis on the rest of us.

For a different approach, I’d recommend Tony McKenna’s new book on Stalin titled “The Dictator, The Revolution, The Machine: A Political Account of Joseph Stalin” that I reviewed on August 21, 2016 and that will be available later this year.

It benefits from a wide range of sources both left, center and right. For me, it was a real eye-opener since my understanding of Stalinism emerged out of a fairly narrow part of the political spectrum, namely Leon Trotsky and his biographer Isaac Deutscher who the American Trotskyist leader regarded as a kind of crypto-Stalinist despite his obvious Trotskyist sympathies.

In terms of Snyder, I have to confess that I have never read any of his books. Some people who I have a lot of respect for speak highly of “Bloodlands” but I doubt that I will ever find the time or motivation to read it even though it obviously has a lot of scholarly material on the Ukraine, a subject that like Syria is of interest to me. I make a point of reading everything that Snyder writes about Ukraine for the New York Review of Books, where he is a regular contributor, but tend to rely more on my own interpretation of the Euromaidan drawn from reporting in the bourgeois press and Marxists both inside and outside of Ukraine such as Chris Ford.

But let me hone in on your key question: “is it a mistake to look for anything worth salvaging from the USSR’s legacy?”

This is probably the most complex question of the 20th century and one that piles contradiction upon contradiction as you begin to study the effect that the USSR had on world politics. For example, in the late 80s I was involved with a project called Tecnica that sent programmers and other skilled professionals and tradespeople to Nicaragua and then expanded into a program for Africa focused on the ANC, which was then in exile.

In the 1980s the USSR was supplying Nicaragua with most of the military aid it needed to fend off the contras who relied in turn on Reagan’s “legal” and illegal support network. Without such aid it is likely that the Sandinistas would have been ousted from power a lot sooner than 1991. That military aid helped the government defend clinics and schools that were designed to eliminate poverty in the countryside.

When the USSR began implementing “perestroika”, the first thing to go was solidarity with Nicaragua as I pointed out in an article I wrote about 20 years ago:

Sandinista embrace of the marketplace does not take place in a political vacuum. It takes place within the context of Perestroika. In October 1988 Andrei Kozyrev, a Soviet Foreign Ministry official, wrote that the USSR no longer had any reason to be in “a state of class confrontation with the United States or any other country,” and, with respect to the Third World, “the myth that the class interests of socialist and developing countries coincide in resisting imperialism does not hold up to criticism at all, first of all because the majority of developing countries already adhere or tend toward the Western model of development, and second, because they suffer not so much from capitalism as from lack of it.” It is safe to assume that high-level Soviet officials must have been talking up these reactionary ideas to the Sandinista leadership long before Kozyrev’s article appeared. Roger Chamorro of Barricada undoubtedly was privy to these discussions..

These new ideas benefited US foreign policy needs in a dramatic way. In early 1989, a high- level meeting took place between Undersecretary of State Elliot Abrams and his Soviet counterpart, Yuri Pavlov. Abrams made the case that relations between the US and the USSR would improve if the Nicaragua problem somehow disappeared. Pavlov was noncommital but gave Abrams a copy of Kozyrev’s article. This telling gesture convinced the Reagan administration that the USSR would now be willing to sell out Nicaragua. (This meeting is described in Robert Kagan’s recently published “A Twilight Struggle: American Power and Nicaragua 1977-1990.” Kagan was a member of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff in the Reagan years and helped to draft key foreign policy statements, including the document that contained what has become known as the “Reagan Doctrine”.)

Analogously, when I traveled to Zambia in 1991 to consult with the ANC over the feasibility of Tecnica expanding into Africa, I was struck by the evidence of Soviet assistance to the liberation struggle that was mostly manifested by young members relating to our team about the education that they had received in Soviet colleges.

But in addition to the engineering and medical training they got there, it was obvious that they also got an education in class collaboration that facilitated the neoliberal turn of the ANC. So you get a bundle of contradictions. Soviet aid made it possible for apartheid to be abolished and for Jonah Savimbi’s contras to be defeated in Angola while at the same time it helped to consolidate a state power in South Africa that dispatches mostly Black cops to kill unarmed workers.

In the early 90s, the wing of the left that was most committed to “socialism from below” formulae saw the end of Communism (or Stalinism, if you prefer) to be an unqualified good. Susan Weissman wrote an article for Against the Current titled “The Russian Revolution Revisited” that epitomized this outlook:

The working class has been locked between the experience of Stalinism and Social Democracy, believing both were reformable. Today the working class needs a new liberatory mechanism that is consonant with the ends it promotes. On the other side, the demise of Stalinism leaves the capitalist class without a mediating force. With the end of Stalinism, its capitalist counterpart, social democracy, is also on the wane.

Statist containment, whether Stalinist, social democratic or fascist is over, yet much of the left pines for its return. Have they forgotten that Stalin and Mao made Hitler look like a bourgeois humanist? Do they really miss the Ceaucescus and Pol Pots?

That the zombies can’t be revived should give heart to those on the left who are filled with historical pessimism. It is impossible to resurrect Djugashvili’s monster, so why join the Volkogonovs, Pipes, Figes and their chorus in trying to keep it alive?

It is in the interests of world capital to encourage the idea that the debacle of Stalinism represents the inherent character of Marxism, or of working class revolution. It’s discouraging to see much of the left agree, especially given that conditions today put the question of socialism on the agenda.

I do not agree first of all that Stalin and Mao made Hitler look like a bourgeois humanist and find such comparisons invidious whether they come from a Marxist like Weismann or a liberal like Timothy Snyder. The key criterion is mode of production. Nazi Germany operated on the basis of a capitalism that required forced labor and totalitarian rule. In the 1930s the USSR had some of the same features but once WWII came to an end, many of the worst features of Stalinism began to decline and deepen further after Stalin’s death. For example, Khrushchev was committed to eradicating the worst features of the system while maintaining its underlying distortions that were necessary to ensure bureaucratic privileges. Could anybody imagine a softer and kinder Nazism? I can’t.

Gorbachev hoped to go even further. He conceived of a Soviet state that would resemble the Scandinavian system even though he never really came to terms with how it was based on its integration into the world imperialist system as I tried to point out in a series of articles on Sweden.

Even though Perestroika was responsible for the sell-out of the Nicaraguan revolution, I can easily imagine Gorbachev being far more responsive to the just demands of the nationalities Snyder writes about in “Bloodlands”. It was American imperialism that helped to create the economic disaster under Yeltsin that sapped Russia’s morale and led to the rise of Putin. This is not to speak of the encroachments of NATO that despite my identification with the Ukrainian struggle were provocations that enabled Putin to portray himself as a defender of Russian sovereignty.

The problem with the Assadist/Putinite left, of course, is that it can’t see the conflict between the USA and Russia dialectically. Because Ukraine now seeks closer ties to NATO (in the years before Euromaidan all Ukrainian politicians opposed joining NATO), the “anti-imperialist” left justifies Russian troops operating in Luhansk and Donetsk. A more nuanced analysis is required.

Let me conclude with a passage from the conclusion to Tony McKenna’s book that I urge everybody to read:

The single, underlying motivation of this book has been the attempt to show that Stalinism was the product of the clash between the forms of an old world and the possibilities of a new one. The workers’ democracy carried the form of a new society latent within the womb of the old order, and for this reason, those classes whose social power was predicated on the exploitation of labour by capital, both nation- ally and internationally, recognized in it the germ of their own dissolution. Thus they hastened to perform the most bloody, back alley abortion; they sought to mutilate the developing democracy in utero so to speak, and like the titan Cronus hungrily devouring his son, they hoped to put off in perpetuity the historical moment of their own usurpation. It was a critical juncture indeed; the old world was, in a fundamental sense, dying – but the new one was not yet developed enough to fully force its way into the light. The “white” counterrevolution, aided and abetted by the powers of the capitalist West, was sufficiently strong such that it could drag the Soviet democracy into the mire, that it could drown it in blood – by decimating the proletarian masses who had provided its backbone in the fury and frenzy of civil war; but at the same time the revolutionary movement, the child of the new epoch, still had enough vim and vigour in its organism to kick out and push back its antagonists. Reaction was unable to restore the old regime, but revolution was unable to secure the new one. The Bolshevik Party had remained in power, had survived the civil war, but was now bereft of the living proletarian democracy which had breathed life into it; hence the party structures, bled dry of the social substance which once infused them, immediately began to ossify. A bureaucratic caste began to develop which was in some way able to raise itself up above the competing class interests of the revolutionary proletariat and bourgeois and feudal reaction – interests which had fought each other to a standstill.

This then, was the historical genesis of Stalinism; it was the effects of the counterrevolution channelled through what was left of the beleaguered structures and remnants of proletarian power which then, in a truly necrotic fashion, began to revive and assume new form; the sclerotic, remorseless, murderous aspect of a zombified bureaucracy. I have also hoped to demonstrate, in the course of this book, that Stalin’s political persona cannot be apprehended outside this context.



  1. I’m inclined to think that the question you pose in your title is the wrong question. Virtually everyone coming from one or another wing of Trotskyism, or the anti-Stalinist far left more broadly, assumed that the USSR could go on and on as it was unless there was a working-class revolution which would lead it towards socialist democracy. Aside from Hillel Ticktin and his milieu around the journal *Critique*, nobody was saying that the USSR’s “laws of motion” were so contradictory and screwed-up that it was doomed to collapse — and even Ticktin and co. got some details wrong.

    The point is that the Stalinist social system was a mess, a “historical abortion,” and even if in certain ways it was preferable to the most likely capitalist alternative (which we see today in Russia, though even here a significant part of the Russian economy still works along the lines of “we pretend to work and they pretend to pay us”), it simply wasn’t viable. Given the political drift of the last 25 years in both Russia and Eastern Europe I don’t feel joy at the USSR’s demise but I don’t feel nostalgia for the world before 1989-1991 either.

    Comment by jschulman — October 13, 2016 @ 11:41 pm

  2. “Virtually everyone coming from one or another wing of Trotskyism, or the anti-Stalinist far left more broadly, assumed that the USSR could go on and on as it was unless there was a working-class revolution which would lead it towards socialist democracy.”
    “Virtually everyone” except Trotsky;

    “…either the bureaucracy, becoming ever more the organ of the world bourgeoisie in the workers’ state, will overthrow the new forms of property and plunge the country back to capitalism; or the working class will crush the bureaucracy and open the way to socialism.”

    “The USSR and the problems of the Transitional Epoch” 1938

    Comment by prianikoff — October 14, 2016 @ 9:20 am

  3. Trotsky certainly got the timetable wrong. His judgment that the USSR was still a workers’ state was tied to his belief that the Stalinist elite would be overthrown during the Second World War. Of course, that didn’t happen.

    Trotsky also thought that the workers of the USSR would resist any attempt to privatize state property. That didn’t happen either.

    The vast majority of post-Trotsky orthodox Trotskyists clearly didn’t expect that “proletarian property” in the USSR would be privatized without mass protest by its workers. And none of them expected that China and Vietnam would evolve (!) towards capitalism with no mass resistance.

    Comment by jschulman — October 14, 2016 @ 3:07 pm

  4. I think a number of things mentioned are right – that the mode of production is important, that the USSR had a contradictory effect on world affairs, that the conflict was between a power past its prime in some ways versus a power too young and unformed in some ways.

    I think you have to go back to Lenin arriving in Finland Station. He was not only unique among Russians, or non-Russians, in seeing April 1917 as a time for a worker’s government in Russia, he was unique among Bolsheviks. So here we begin to diverge from the Marxist mainstream. If Marxism is scientific in Engels’ sense, then such experiments are useful, whether or not they’re misguided.

    Even if Lenin’s aim was a divergence, he said Russia was not very important, that the revolutions in Hungary (temporarily successful) and Germany (failed) were what was important. Some say Bela Kun and other Marxists were too over-eager in collectivizing farms, which alienated some farmers and helped them lose power. So there is data to learn from in all this. It is not Russia but Germany where the important lessons are to be learned. Perhaps the German Marxists did the best they could in the Third Period which led to their success – taking over half of Germany in 1945. Of course Krupp etc. bankrolled a lot of awful stuff prior to 1945.

    The capitalists took over from royalty over the past few centuries. We still have de jure royal power in places like England, which had one of the most advanced capitalist advances. We have to expect the power transition to socialists to be similar in some ways, different in others.

    Rod Holt seems to be a standard socialist worker, and bankrolls useful things in San Francisco. He said his first glimpse of labor with less alienation, producing products beyond a commodity was done under – Steve Jobs and the Apple corporation. I think he is right in some ways. These things are dialectic and contradictory. The advance of the forces of production under capitalism should lead to its own gravedigging.

    Speaking of San Francisco production, out there a company copying another company is called “following tail lights”. The derivative company is following the initiative of the innovator in front of them. With the USSR, their industry just copied the West and there is not much qualitative difference there. It was Sputnik, and Gagarin, which rattled the West. Innovation with no connection to the profit motive. Even the capitalist west walked on the moon due to the banner raised by the communists. Sputnik also prompted US government STEM funding that helped launch are modern world of Internet-connected smartphones.

    One task of the western left is to criticize and resist the expansion of NATO, western military involvement in Syria, the Ukraine etc. No matter how many Syrian liberal college professors write pleas for Samantha Powers and Netanhayu in the Golan Heights to liberate Syria by bombing them. The notion that western leftists should be spending time trying to help Syrians sort out their problems with the help of the French, Israeli and US military is absurd.

    Comment by Adelson — October 15, 2016 @ 8:51 am

  5. re #3

    1) Trotsky may have got the timetable wrong, but he was a Marxist, not a fortune teller.

    2) Marxists distinguish between the state and the mode of production.
    A workers’ state can coexist for some time with peasant production and capitalism.
    But it can’t do so indefinitely because international capitalism won’t tolerate the existence means of production outside of its control, even if they’re managed by a bureaucratic caste.

    3) “State Capitalism” (or “Bureaucratic Collectivism”) aren’t historic modes of production.
    They’re unstable, hybrid social formations produced by a stalemate in the international class war.
    When the governments of such countries try to reach historic compromises with international capitalism, it’s almost always the first stage in their overthrow. This should be clear from the recent history.

    4) The subjective factor is always a limiting condition in this process.
    e.g.Cuba & Venezuela, which are significantly less bureaucratised and more egalitarian than the USSR was after the 1930’s, are better placed to resist privatisation than Russia wasin the 1990’s.
    However, such was the chaos created by Perestroika and its aftermath that sections of the former Soviet bureaucracy were forced to re-nationalise key sectors of the economy.
    Putin, who was on the neo-liberal restorationist wing of the bureaucracy was part of that process.

    5) Inasmuch as such figures are involved in a conflict with imperialism (see 3), they should be supported against it.
    This obviously doesn’t mean supporting them against a genuine socialist internal opposition.

    Comment by prianikoff — October 15, 2016 @ 11:35 am

  6. Hi

    I prefer to follow Hillel Ticktins analysis: f.e. https://de.scribd.com/document/60029506/The-Contradictions-of-Soviet-Society-by-Hillel-Ticktin

    One of his books made it already very clear in the german title: “Planlose Wirtschaft – Zum Charakter der sowjetischen Gesellschaft” 1981 (“An Economy without a plan -.The character of the soviet society”)

    It was neither a “bureaucratically degenerated worker’s state” nor the “Restauration of Capitalism”. Marx’ categories of commodity production and the law of value don’t fit to describe the soviet society from its beginning to the end. The mode of production was wastefulness, waste of human lifes and ressources, waste of nature and natural ressources etc. Ticktin hadn’t to wait for Tchernobyl to say that. No plan at all. It was the attempt of an adminstrative central coordination of economic and political processes only on the societies’ surface which then gave birth to more an more sharp contradictions between all sectors and subsectors of society to finally explode in a hopeless attempt to still manage the worst – Tchernobyl.

    I also recommend Karl Schlögel “Terror und Traum – Moskau 1937” (Terror and Dream) 2008, don’t know whether it has been translated into english already. During mass detentions and illegal processes in the late 30ies gigantic buildings, channels, new aircraft fighters, subways etc. change the face of the society and the country with the forced labour of detainees, ten thousands died, but other ten thousands got their freedom back, were released from the Gulag after a successful completion of a gigantic project. Again you won’t discover any rational economic socialist worker’s led plan except gigantonomy in the so-called “5 year plans”. USSR survived with gigantonomy for 8 decades and then implode / explode (what’s the right term anyway?).

    Comment by Thomas Siepelmeyer — October 16, 2016 @ 3:47 pm

  7. “Inasmuch as such figures are involved in a conflict with imperialism (see 3), they should be supported against it.”

    Except that Putin’s quasi-capitalist Russia is…imperialist. If there was ever a time in which “Neither Washington nor Moscow” was apt, it’s right now.

    I agree with Thomas that Ticktin had a better understanding of the how USSR “worked” than anyone else associated with Trotskyism. The only problem is that he never specifies the class character of the Stalinist state. If it’s not proletarian or bourgeois (or “bureaucratic collectivist”), what is it? I’d argue it was a sort of peasant and petty-proprietor Bonapartism (rather than “workers’ Bonapartism” a la Ted Grant).

    We’ll see about Cuba, but there was clearly no workers’ revolution in Venezuela (the words in the Bolivarian Constitution don’t matter in practice — it’s a capitalist state) so the idea that it’s better placed to resist privatization, etc., doesn’t follow at all.

    Comment by jschulman — October 17, 2016 @ 12:41 am

  8. “where should we look for a damning indictment of stalinism that does not devolve into Nazi apologia?”

    You could have answered this question in five words – Lev Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed. He predicted that if the bureaucracy was allowed to continue existing as it did in his time, and passing on their privileges and titles to their children, in the future when faced with the choice of making democratic reforms and giving up their power or switching to capitalism to preserve it, they would do the latter. Which is exactly what happened.

    Comment by mancini — October 19, 2016 @ 1:50 pm

  9. […] Is there anything worth salvaging from the Soviet legacy? (October 13, 2016) […]

    Pingback by Another way to access my posts, including those that predate my blog | Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — October 6, 2017 @ 4:42 pm

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