The Soviet Union Revisited

My parents visited the Soviet Union in the 1930s, my wife and I went there for a visit in the 1960s, and for some reason I am now feeling the need to revisit the Soviet Union in my thoughts and try to understand what went wrong.


Most people feel that they already know the answer to that question: Communism was just no good.  They seem to think that if the Bolsheviks had not come along, Russia would have evolved into a liberal democracy following the overthrow of the czar.  I am quite sure that they are mistaken on this point.  The choice Russia faced in 1917 was not Bolshevism or democracy but rather Bolshevism or fascism.  The Russian liberal democrats and moderate socialists did not have a military force of their own capable of standing up to the Czarist generals who were determined to restore the rule of the landed aristocracy.  Had the generals been successful they would have instituted a fascist regime similar to that later imposed by Franco in Spain, one in which the army rather than a fascist party was the dominant force.  Only the Bolsheviks were both willing and able to meet force with force to the extent necessary to prevent the restoration of the old regime in a fascist form.


Some people seem to think that even if it were true that the choice was between Bolshevism and fascism, the Bolsheviks were so ruthless that it didn’t really matter which one won.  I can’t agree with this point of view for many reasons, the most important being that I am a Jew.  The old regime in Russia not only had a long history of persecution of the Jewish people, but during the Russian civil war between 1918 and 1920 the anti-Communist White armies slaughtered something like 100,000 Jews in the areas under White control.  The Bolshevik Red Army was not always entirely correct in its dealing with the Jewish population, but on the whole it shielded Jews from the White armies and treated anti-Semitism as a reactionary ideology.  For Jews in Russia which side won in the civil war clearly made a big difference, a difference between life and death.


Nonetheless something obviously did go wrong.  If anti-Semitism is a reactionary ideology then the Russian Communist party must be a reactionary organization because it is thoroughly permeated with anti-Semitism and has been for a long time.  And in general Soviet style Communism has been completely discredited, in part by its collapse as an economic system at the end of the 1980s, in part by the revelation of the full extent and sheer injustice of the purges and deportations of the 1930s.  Yet I continue to identify with the former Soviet Union for one simple reason: it was the main force in the wartime alliance that defeated the Nazis in World War Two.  You have only to realize that some 80% of the German army was engaged in fighting the Soviets throughout the period from 1941 to 1945 in order to understand that the American and British contribution to the war effort, important though it was, was not the decisive element in the victory of the Allies.  No doubt much went wrong in the Soviet Union before the war, but something must have also gone right to make the Soviet victory over Nazism possible.


Two things that definitely did go right were creating a modern industrial plant and teaching the Soviet population how to read and write.  Modern industry, much of it set up in the Ural region out of reach of an initial German offensive, provided the tanks, planes and artillery needed for modern warfare.  And teaching formerly illiterate people how to read and write enabled them to manufacture and operate the modern weapons which the Soviet government needed to defeat the Germans.  There was perhaps an additional factor.  It is generally recognized that after a series of initial fiascos, Soviet troops fought very well, but most historians see this as simply a reflection of traditional Russian patriotism, something which Stalin went to great lengths to cultivate, downplaying the theme of proletarian internationalism in the process.  All the same I doubt that the Red Army would have fought as well as it did if the soldiers did not feel that on some level the government which led them derived a certain  legitimacy from its proletarian class background.


It is surprising how little attention has been paid by students of Soviet history to the fact that not only Stalin but also most of his close associates and the great majority of the Communists who implemented his policies came from working class or peasant backgrounds.  Opinions differ as to whether “socialism” is the exact right word to describe the Stalinist system, but whatever you may choose to call it, it was a system run by former proletarians.  Even Trotsky in exile still called the Soviet Union a “workers’ state” and declared it must be defended against its enemies on that account.  Did not the soldiers of the Red Army feel the same way?  Statistical proof is lacking but I strongly suspect that a sense of working class solidarity with Stalin’s government was a significant factor in the willingness of Soviet soldiers to fight and die on its behalf.


But when my parents visited the Soviet Union in 1936, I am sure that class solidarity was not the force that drew them there.  They were both social workers from middle class backgrounds and went as part of a tour of left leaning social workers organized by the American Communist party of which they were at that time members.  I think that they went in part to see what a socialist society might look like and in part to show their support for the Soviet Union, which they viewed as the main force opposing fascism in Europe.  I have the impression that they were neither greatly inspired nor greatly disillusioned by their visit; in any case they remained in the Communist party until 1939 when they quit right around the time of the Nazi-Soviet pact.  However, unlike many ex-Communists, they never disavowed their past, continued to have friends in the Party and remained committed to a “progressive” point of view for the rest of their lives.  Even though they no longer regarded themselves as Communists, they still adopted what might be called an “anti anti-Communist” position.  Anti-Communism in their eyes had no redeeming features; it was an expression of right wing and fascist ideology.


I can well understand why my parents thought as they did.  The American Communist party was a small organization with no chance of acquiring state power, whether by legal or illegal means, any time soon.  In practice it pursued a liberal agenda not very different from that of the rest of the left and in this context made a significant contribution to both the trade union movement and the struggle for civil rights for African-Americans.  Once the Cold War began it was subjected to unrelenting persecution resulting in many people losing their jobs and some being sent to prison.  My parents had every reason to question the motives of those who did the persecuting and to refuse to disavow their friendship with those who were being persecuted.


Had my parents a clearer idea of what was happening in the Soviet Union in the 1930s they might have thought a little differently, but at that time most people, whether Communists or non-Communists, were not very well informed about the purges which were then taking place.  Even after Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin in 1956 it still took some time before the full extent of the purges was brought to light.  I had always thought that the purges were mainly directed against Stalin’s actual or potential political opponents, but in recent decades it has become clear just how random and arbitrary they became.  In a number of cases the secret police were assigned a quota, running sometimes into the tens of thousands, for how many people were to be arrested and then either executed or sentenced to slave labor camps.  It was the responsibility of the police to find enough people to meet the quota and to invent crimes for which those arrested could be charged.  The only conceivable motive for such a procedure was to inspire fear, and inspire fear is most certainly what Stalin did.  It is still not entirely clear whether on balance Stalin’s system of terror helped or hindered the Soviet war effort, but one thing it definitely did not do was to create a firm foundation for a viable socialist society.


However it took some fifty years for this to become evident.  In the interim for about ten years after Stalin’s death came the regime of Nikita Khrushchev.  Khrushchev is remembered today as something of a buffoon whom Kennedy forced to blink but he was much more than that.  The son of peasants who then went to work as a machinist in his teens he had the perfect class background for advancement in Stalin’s system.  After Stalin’s death he was the one who organized the arrest and execution of Beria, Stalin’s secret police chief, effectively bringing to an end the reign of terror in Soviet society.  He subsequently not only denounced Stalin for the purges but permitted information about Stalin’s slave labor system to be published.  He greatly reduced the size of the Soviet army and made the improvement of Soviet living standards the main priority of his regime.  In foreign policy he advocated “peaceful coexistence” between communism and capitalism with ultimate victory going to the one who could best deliver economic prosperity.  And so it transpired, although not in the way that Khrushchev had hoped.


Khrushchev’s efforts to tone down the Cold War have been largely forgotten in part because of the belligerent attitude which he often adopted in his dealings with the West and above all because he placed Soviet missiles in Cuba.  Also forgotten has been his main motive for doing so, which was to prevent a US invasion of Cuba.  He was convinced, whether rightly or wrongly is hard to say, that after the Bay of Pigs fiasco an invasion was imminent, and made withdrawal of the missiles contingent on obtaining a public pledge from Kennedy not to invade Cuba.  He did in fact obtain this pledge, as well as an oral agreement from Kennedy to withdraw missiles which the US had only recently placed in Turkey.  Khrushchev thought he had won but the public perception was that Kennedy had forced him to back down and this perception was a factor in his removal from power by the Soviet Politbureau a few years later.


At the time of the Cuban missile crisis I was in France doing research for a PhD thesis on the role of various popular organizations (as opposed to political parties) in the Paris Commune of 1871.  Not long after the crisis was over a chance came my way to visit the Soviet Union from France.  I learned of a commercial tour advertising two weeks in Moscow and Leningrad.  Visiting Russia from France was no big deal in the eyes of the French and it had the great advantage of avoiding the attention of the FBI which I most likely would have attracted had I tried to go from the United States.  I had not come to France with the thought of visiting the Soviet Union in my mind, but when the opportunity presented itself, it seemed like a good idea.  I was not precisely an admirer of Khrushchev but I thought him a big improvement on Stalin and, like my parents, wanted to see what a socialist society was like.  So at some point in the late spring or summer of 1963 my wife and I boarded a train in Paris and off we went.


Looking back over that trip some fifty years later it’s only highlights that stand out in my mind.  I remember being pleased and surprised when arriving at the Russian border to be transferred, at no extra cost, from the uncomfortable second class coach in which we had been travelling to an all one class sleeper train.  I remember discovering, when we arrived in Moscow, that the official exchange rate was exactly one dollar to one ruble.  I saw this as a political statement of equality with America and only later realized that it was also a way of obtaining US currency at bargain rates.  The main thing that I remember about Moscow is Gorky Park, which I liked very much and where I successfully ordered “dva pivo”, meaning “two beers”, thereby getting to flash almost the whole extent of my Russian vocabulary.


I think it was in Leningrad that we visited a church that had been converted into a museum of the follies of religion, but I no longer recall the exhibits that got this message across.  Leningrad was a study in contrasts between the stately town houses dating from Czarist times situated on canals in the center of the city and the miles of rubble still left over from the war in the outer boroughs.  I’m not sure whether it was in Leningrad or Moscow that we boarded a trolley only to find that we did not have the right change to pay our fare.  Seeing our plight, one of the passengers paid our fare for us, which struck me as a fine example of socialist culture.  But it is only now, while thinking back to that trip, that I realize that the most clearly socialist thing we saw was something we didn’t see, namely obviously wealthy people or obviously poor people.  Now it is claimed that actually almost everyone was poor, but at least in Moscow and Leningrad, they didn’t look it.  People were decently dressed and we didn’t see any beggars or homeless people.  I now know that there was a terrible housing shortage and people were living under very cramped conditions, but since we didn’t visit anyone at home we didn’t see that either.


In any case it is clear that there was relatively little improvement in Russian living standards during the decades following the ouster of Khrushchev in 1964.  The gap in living standards between the Soviet Union and the West became much larger rather than smaller during this period.  Various explanations have been advanced for this fact including: the conservatism and fear of innovation of the neo-Stalinist leadership that took over after 1964; the burden of a large military budget; and the alleged inefficiency of the highly centralized Russian economic planning system.  In my view the main factor promoting economic stagnation in the Soviet Union was the emergence and consolidation of a managerial and governmental class which was more concerned with enhancing its own privileges than promoting economic growth for the country as a whole.


The roots of this class went back to the Stalin era, but the purges had the effect of slowing its emergence as a coherent force by preventing its potential members from forming long term mutual relationships of trust and convenience.  Khrushchev too was a problem for the managerial class; he didn’t have people shot but he did fire them and constantly shake up the bureaucracy trying to improve its economic performance.  It was only under Brezhnev that a stable managerial and governmental class emerged.  The members of this class were still not permitted to accumulate or inherit wealth but they could enjoy a privileged life style and provide their children with the education and contacts necessary to follow in their footsteps.  So long as they followed orders their position was secure, and they were increasingly able to supplement their income through graft and corruption.  In short they had every incentive not to rock the boat, and so the boat sailed along, neither slower nor faster, while the ship of state of the West pulled ever further ahead.


All the same it is far from obvious why the system collapsed so rapidly after Gorbachev took over in 1985.  It was stagnant but still functional at that time.  Gorbachev had what seemed to many a realistic program to reform and revitalize it.  He carried de-Stalinization much further than Khrushchev had done, making possible the emergence of a small but influential democratic opposition.  At the same time he initiated a series of measures aimed at decentralizing the economy and making it more efficient.  But once the grip of centralized planning  was relaxed, individual managers ceased to cooperate with one another and began functioning in a totally anarchic amd dishonest way.  The result was that by 1990 food stocks had become dangerously low in the major cities, to the point where a real threat of famine arose.  It was this crisis which totally discredited Gorbachev’s leadership and resulted, after an unsuccessful neo-Stalinist coup, in Yeltsin’s rise to power on the basis of a program of privatization and a market economy.  This program simply legalized  what the managerial class had already begun to do in a covert way once Gorbachev tried to decentralize the system.


So far as I am concerned, the best way of understanding the transition from socialism to capitalism in the Soviet Union is by recognizing that socialism in Russia was always first and foremost a Jewish ideal.  It was the Jewish socialist Bund which popularized the socialist concept in Russia prior to the Revolution of 1905.  At a time when both Bolsheviks and Mensheviks were small sects the Bund had a mass following and played a leading role in the wave of strikes that triggered the revolution.  As the socialist ideal spread among non-Jewish Russian workers after 1905 the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks became more influential, but the leadership of the Mensheviks was in large part Jewish.  So too was the leadership of the Social Revolutionary party, the main alternative to the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks for leadership of the Russian left  after 1905.  Even the Bolsheviks, who were the least Jewish identified of all the left wing parties, had a significant Jewish minority in leadership roles.  Jewish leadership of the Russian socialist movement was symbolized by the leading role of Trotsky in the revolutions of both 1905 and 1917.


For most Jewish socialists, socialism was essentially a system of economic democracy to be built on the foundations of political democracy.  Unfortunately in Russia the middle class was too small and weak to establish a stable system of political democracy.  The Cadets, the party of the liberal middle class, ended by aligning themselves with the Czarist generals in 1917 out of fear of the socialist left.  The Bolsheviks came to dominate this left because they were the only ones capable of organizing a military force strong enough to stand up to the fascists on the right.  But the more Bolshevik rule evolved in the direction of dictatorship, the more anti-Semitic it became.  This trend was already apparent in the campaign against “Trotskyism” starting in the mid 1920s, and it became even more obvious in the public purge trials of the 1930s, a large proportion of whose victims were prominent Jewish Communists.  Nonetheless the fact remains that it was the anti-Semitic Stalinist dictatorship that defeated the far more lethal anti-Semitism of the Nazis and made possible the continuation of Jewish life in Europe.


However anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union did not diminish but rather increased following the defeat of the Nazis.  Shortly before his death Stalin was considering the mass deportation of Soviet Jews to Siberia.  Although this plan was abandoned by his successors they continued in a less murderous form Stalin’s policy of barring any hint of Jewish influence on Soviet culture.  Jews could still find employment in various technical and scientific fields but were rigidly excluded from any position which might enable them to influence the opinions of others.  Even Stalin had permitted a few Jews in high places, such as Kaganovich and Litvinov, but under his successors there were none.  Fear and suspicion of Jews was openly stimulated by the Soviet governmnt under the guise of a campaign against Zionism and the state of Israel.  The main purpose of this campaign was to prevent the emergence of Israel as a model of democratic socialist development in the eyes of Soviet Jews and non-Jews alike.


Starting already with the suppression of the Mensheviks during the civil war era, advocacy of democratic socialism was viewed by the Bolsheviks as a dangerous threat to their concept of proletarian dictatorship.  And since this threat was Jewish identified, cultivation of anti-Semitic attitudes by the Soviet government was a convenient way of stigmatizing and discrediting it.  But ironically, the main effect of this policy was to make sure that when the dictatorship did break down, it was replaced not by a competing form of socialism but by capitalism,  Moreover, the specific form of capitalism which emerged in Russia after Putin replaced Yeltsin as the head of the Russian government was one in which economic power was concentrated in the hands of individuals most of whom, like Putin himself, had a secret police background.  The secret police had been the least ideological and most cynical component of the Soviet ruling elite, and once Putin and his associates had the power of the Russian state at their disposal, they were quick to use this power to gain control of the “commanding heights” of the new capitalist economy.


Yet when all is said and done, I still have the feeling that something good must come out of this tragic history of socialism in the Soviet Union.  I no longer have the desire to visit the Soviet Union, which no longer exists, but I still follow developments in that part of the world with close attention.  I cannot believe that such a long struggle waged by so many brave and dedicated people should have no other result than the forging of yet another link in the chain of capitalist globalization.  And in particular I refuse to believe that all those Jewish socialists, whether Bundists, Mensheviks, Social Revolutionaries, Bolsheviks, Trotskyists or Zinovievists, died in vain.  To this day none of them have been “rehabilitated” by the powers that be in Russia, yet I feel sure that the time will come when their memory will become a force in the world.  They had the right idea, and in the long run it is that which counts..

Add new comment