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What is a Socialist Society?

Marxism, unlike many Utopian ideologies, distinguishes relations of production, mode of production, and social formation. The terms capitalist, feudal, slave, and socialist can all be applied to these three concepts. A mode of production refers to a mode and or way in which production takes place. This process influences both the relations and techniques of productions. Automation, hunting and gathering, factories, agriculture, etc. as productive forces all influence the mode of production in any given society. We can thus understand industrial capitalism, agrarian capitalism, industrial slavery, etc. to all be separate modes of productions. The term social formation refers to the aggregate modes of productions that make up a given economy. It is possible for slave labor to exist alongside free labor, serfdom, and commodity production. However, for the most part, one set of relations is dominant in any given social formation, and this is what determines the fundemental logic of the system as a whole. The dominant relations of production are not, however, wherever the most people are working, rather the dominant relations of production are that which influence the system the most. Thus, in the 1800s, the United States was still a capitalist social formation despite having more slaves than industrial workers, because the very existence of slavery in the United States was a result of industrial capitalism’s need for labor and raw materials. Following this logic, it is therefore possible to have a socialist society where the majority of people do not work in collective sectors, given these collective sectors and proletarian controlled plans are what’s driving the fundamental logic of the entire system.

Now that I have established that background, it should be very clear to understand what a socialist society is; that being a society whose social formation is being driven by a socialist mode of production. What this essentially means is that a socialist society is not defined by what percentage of industries are publicly/collectively/privately owned but rather by what mode of production is driving all of these industries, and in the Soviet Union that was the state which was the embodiment of the workers due to the fact that it was a proletarian dictatorship [1].

State Capitalist?

To understand the USSR from a theoretical view, we must first understand what both capitalism and state capitalism are. Capitalism is a mode of production in which the means of production are privately owned and controlled, and profits are used for the benefit of the owners and stockholders rather than those producing the value (the workers); therefore state capitalism is when this same process occurs, only the state owns and controls the means of production, and uses the profits of these state enterprises to benefit themselves and not the people. To determine whether or not the USSR was state capitalist, we must analyze the social relations of the society and see whether or not there is a ruling class (state bourgeoisie as it’s sometimes called) and an exploited working class. To see if the workers are separated from the means of production insofar as there is a new class in socialist society acting as a capitalist while maintaining the role of the state we can test this directly by examining the empirical data on how the USSR operated which I will do in a moment, but beforehand I must also establish what exactly a ruling class is. A ruling class in Marxist theory is those who control the state and means of production. In the case of capitalist society, the state gets controlled by capitalists through corrupt campaign funding, donations, etc. and in turn the state looks after the interests of the capitalist class (the bourgeoisie) instead of the working class (the proletariat).

Whether they know it or not, when people claim the USSR was state capitalist, they must be invoking a very common argument given by mainstream economists and political scientists against centrally planned economies; the idea of “planners’ preference.” What the basic argument is, is that the people planning the economy will plan the economy to better suit their needs, rather than the needs of the people. This is essentially the same as saying that if the workers indirectly control the state through democratic centralism, they are alienated from the means of production and the members of the state emerge as the new ruling class. In order to know if this is true or not, we must examine the empirical evidence that exists on how the Soviet economy actually worked, and whether or not the people or “state capitalists” benefited from the way in which it was planned.

Firstly, among the most important accomplishments of the Soviet economy was the abolition of unemployment. Not only did the Soviet Union provide jobs for all, but work was considered a social obligation, of such importance that it was enshrined in the constitution. The 1936 constitution stipulated that “citizens of the USSR have the right to work, that is, are guaranteed the right to employment and payment for their work in accordance with quantity and quality.” On the other hand, making a living through means other than work was prohibited. Therefore deriving an income from rent, profits, speculation or the black market (social parasitism) was illegal [1]. Something that further benefited the people of the USSR was the fact that finding a job was easy, because labor was usually in short supply. Due to this, employees had a high degree of bargaining power on the job, with obvious benefits in job security, and management paying close attention to employee satisfaction [2].

Another way the average soviet citizen was from Article 41 of the 1977 constitution which capped the workweek at 41 hours. Workers on night shift worked seven hours but received full (eight-hour) shift pay. Workers employed at dangerous jobs (such as mining) or where sustained alertness was critical (such as physicians) worked six or seven-hour shifts, but received full time pay. Overtime work was prohibited except under special circumstances [1]. Also, from the 1960s, employees received an average of one month vacation time for nearly all jobs [3]. All Soviet citizens were also provided a retirement income, men at the age of 60, and women at the age of 55 [4]. The right to a pension (as well as disability benefits) was guaranteed by the Soviet constitution (Article 43), rather than being revocable and subject to the interests of politicians bought off by capitalists. The right to housing was guaranteed under a the constitutional provision (Article 44). Urban housing space, however, was cramped, about half of what it was in Austria and West Germany. The reasons were poor construction of infrastructure in Tsarist times, the massive destruction of housing during World War II, and Soviet emphasis on heavy industry. Prior to the October Revolution, inadequate urban housing was built for ordinary people. After the revolution, new housing was built, but the housing stock remained insufficient. Housing draws heavily on capital, which the government needed urgently for the construction of industry. In addition, Nazi invaders destroyed 1/3 to 1/2 of all Soviet dwellings during the Second World War [5].

When it comes to the health and well being of citizens, The Soviet Union placed greater stress on healthcare than their capitalist competitors did. No other country had more physicians per capita or more hospital beds per capita than the USSR. In 1977, the Soviet Union had 35 doctors and 212 hospital beds per 10,000 compared to 18 doctors and 63 hospital beds in the United States [1]. Most important, healthcare was free. The fact that US citizens had to pay for their healthcare was considered extremely barbaric in the Soviet Union, and Soviet citizens “often questioned US tourists quite incredulously on this point” [5]. Education through university was also free, and stipends were available for post-secondary students, adequate to pay for textbooks, room and board, and other expenses [1 & 5].

If planners’ preference was true, and the “Soviet Elites” just disregarded their citizens needs in favor of their own, as a capitalist disregards their workers’ needs in favor of their own, then why would any of what has been discussed in this section be true? Why would living standards have risen so greatly in the USSR on top of all the benefits offered to workers and citizens? It simply wouldn’t have, which makes it clear that when there is a true proletarian dictatorship, such as the USSR, the people have the power and are able to use that power for their own benefit.

Worker Participation

Contrary to what is often assumed and stated by mainstream historians, workers in the Soviet union actually had a great deal of control and autonomy in their work places. Aside from the fact that the state, which planned the economy and gave great benefits and working conditions to workers, was controlled by the people of the Soviet Union (all workers given the right to work as discussed earlier) workers also had much control in day-to-day operations through the 113.5 million trade unions that existed, with 5.5 million workers being elected by their peers to collectively plan nationalized enterprises with state officials, making sure that the people working in these enterprises had a say in how they were run [6].

The trade unions in the USSR were designed in such a way as to promote the interests of their members, which was entirely made up of workers. They constantly worked to stimulate the country’s economy, with the input of workers on a massive scale through a process called “socialist emulation.” Having around 107 million members, the trade unions united about 98% of the soviet workforce [7]. The unions even had the power to draft bills for consideration by the Supreme Soviet, which often times passed given that officials didn’t want to be voted out [7]. These unions, and enterprises ran under planning that was done by both the workers, and the worker controlled state which therefore means that no matter how much private property or slight influence of market forces there may have been in the USSR, it still would be considered socialist given the dominant mode of production was planning via worker control.

Revisionism

The argument so often espoused by libertarian socialists and rightists is that because countries like the USSR and China turned revisionist, therefore Marxism-Leninism itself is always doomed to revisionism and we should all become libertarian socialists to “synthesize the best of Marxism and Anarchism” or just give up communism in general. However, this view is very idealist and ahistorical, as I will explain.

The truth is is that the conditions that existed in the Soviet Union and China were far too hostile to socialism to the point where it could no longer be contained. During the Cold War, the USSR had no major allies that could help them in combating against Western Imperialism, given they were usually the ones helping other socialist countries and the others were far too weak to give the Soviets assistance. In order to keep up with the west, the USSR engaged in the arms race and space race which helped drive their economy into the ground along with market reforms by Khrushchev and Gorbachev which were put into place as a means of serving a small minority of capitalists who had infultrated the government [24]. The same thing happened in China, where there were many policy errors made by Mao which allowed for the influtration of capitalists. We should take Stalin and Mao’s errors of being too close with the west, and not dispousing them enough as a lesson for building future socialism, not point to it as an example of why Marxism-Leninism will never work [25].

It should also be understood that a large part of why the USSR failed, which in turn led to the failure of the Eastern Bloc, was their dogmatism to industrial style economic planning. After the World Wars, Civil Wars, and industrialization, the USSR constantly feared that they would be going to war at any moment, and due to this they held onto their industrial period system of economic planning which was very centralized and planners set outputs rather than inputs; and althougn this is good for industrialization and war, this led to technological stagnation in consumer goods which allowed for the revisionist clique to take over in promise of a “better life” under reforms, and the second the U.S. heard reforms in the USSR all the counries and their capitalists supported them and bought off party officials until capitalism was reinsated [27].

Military Purges

The first thing we should understand about the military purges is that Tuckhachevsky and the other generals did indeed work with Hitler and the German government. The Moscow press announced that they [the primary Generals on trial] had been in the pay of Hitler and had agreed to help him get the Ukraine. This charge was fairly widely believed in foreign military circles, and was later substantiated by revelations made abroad. Czech military circles seemed to be especially well informed. Czech officials in Prague bragged to me later that their military men had been the first to discover and to complain to Moscow that Czech military secrets, known to the Russians through the mutual aid alliance, were being revealed by Tukhachevsky to the German high command [8].

It should also be noted that the generals on trial were not tortured. In the majority of historical works devoted to the Tukhachevsky case, these confessions are explained exclusively by the use of physical torture. However, such an explanation is inadequate for a number of reasons. First of all, the defendants at the trial of the generals were strong and healthy people, most of whom had only recently crossed the threshold of their 40th birthday. Unlike the main defendants at the open trials, they had not spent long years before their arrest engaged in endless acts of self-deprecation and humiliation. For this reason, one might expect significantly greater resistance from them, than, for instance, from Zinoviev or Bukharin. – Second, the stunning speed with which the confessions were obtained draws our attention. The majority of the defendants at the open trials did not give such confessions for several months. The trial of the generals, however, was prepared in record-setting time. From the arrest of the main defendants to the trial itself, slightly more than two weeks passed. Such a time period was clearly insufficient to break these courageous men who had many times looked death in the eye. Third, unlike the defendants at the open trials, where the judges were faceless bureaucrats, the defendants at the trial of the generals were appearing before their former comrades-in-arms. This fact should have filled them with hope that the truth, if spoken in their presence, would inevitably make it beyond the courtroom’s walls [9].

Lastly, the purges were very needed and a very wise decision. Though the purge had deprived the Red Army of many capable soldiers, Stalin had retained the services of the best known. They were eventually to justify his faith by their devotion to the USSR in its war against Hitlerite Germany. Prominent among them are: Voroshilov, Budenny, Yegorov, and Shaposhnikov, To this core of tried and reliable soldiers, the post revolutionary military academies have added many younger figures whose worth was proved for the first time in action against the Nazis. Best known of these is the 46 year old Timoshenko [10].

Party Purges

When discussing the purges it is imporant to remember that throughout [until] 1937, ex-Party leaders who had been demoted, expelled, or sent into exile, were routinely brought back into leadership positions. Once they criticized their past practices they were released from banishment (for example, many of Trotsky’s supporters, including numerous former supporters of the United Opposition of 1926-27, were released in 1928, after they had endorsed the new rapid industrialization line of the Party) and restored to a high level positions in the Party and state.

For example, Bukharin, Zinoviev, Kamenev, Rykov, Tomsky, leaders of the various oppositional factions in the Party in the 1924-29 period, were restored to leadership positions– although never to the powerful positions they once held. Bukharin, for example, lost his important posts in 1929 including membership on the Politburo, the editorship of Pravda and the chairmanship of the Comintern for actively opposing the collectivization and rapid industrialization campaign. In the relatively tolerant climate during 1932-34, however, he was first made director of the research department of heavy industry and then given the responsible post of editor of Izvestia, which he held from 1934 to 1937. Tomsky, although he lost his position as leader of the trade unions and his seat on the Politburo (for the same reasons that Bukharin lost his position), remained on the Central Committee of the Party, and was re-elected at the 16th Party Congress in 1930 [11].

At the 17th Party Congress in 1934 both Tomsky & Bukharin were elected as candidate members of the Central Committee, as were other prominent, past opponents of the prevailing party policies (for example, Rykov), and one of them, Pyatakov, was elected as a full member. Zinoviev and Kamenev who, together with Stalin, had represented the maximal leadership of the Party in 1924-26, were removed from the Politburo and other leading positions, and in 1927 they were expelled from the Party for active opposition, including organizing street demonstrations to oppose the Party’s continuing endorsement of the moderate New Economic Policy. In 1928, when most of their earlier critique was finally incorporated into the Party’s new program of rapid industrialization and collectivization, they were both re-admitted and assigned relatively minor official posts. In 1932, they were once again expelled (and arrested) for oppositional activities, but again in the tolerant atmosphere prior to the Kirov assassination were re-admitted and again assigned Party work [11].

The purpose of “purging” (barely) 170,000 members was in order to improve the party quality. Stalin has frequently been held responsible for the “purge.” He was not its author. This party-cleansing was done under Lenin’s leadership. It is a process which is unique in the history of little parties. The Bolsheviks however, did not regard it as an extraordinary measure for use only in a time of crisis, but a normal feature of party procedure. It is the means of guaranteeing Bolshevik quality. To regard it as a desperate move on the part of leaders anxious to get rid of rivals is to misunderstand how profoundly the Bolshevik party differs from all others, even from the Communist Party’s of the rest of Europe [12].

Famine of 1932

Cold War confrontation, rather than historical truth and understanding, has motivated and characterized the famine-genocide campaign. Elements of fraud, anti-semitism, degenerate Nationalism, fascism, and pseudo-scholarship are revealed when one does some basic research into the matter. For historical context it is important to note that one harvest was not enough to stabilize collectivization. In 1930, it was put over by poorly organized, ill equipped peasants through force of desire. In the next two years, the difficulties of organization caught up with them. Where to find good managers? Bookkeepers? Men to handle machines? In 1931, the harvest fell off from drought in five basic grain areas. In 1932, the crop was better but poorly gathered. Farm presidents, unwilling to admit failure, claimed they were getting it in. When Moscow awoke to the situation, a large amount of grain lay under the snow. Causes were many. Fourteen million small farms had been merged into 200,000 big ones, without experienced managers or enough machines. Eleven million workers had left the farms for the new industries. The backwardness of peasants, sabotage by kulaks, stupidities of officials, all played a part. By January 1933 it was clear that the country faced a serious food shortage, two years after it had victoriously conquered wheat [13] [14].

Kulak sabotage occurred because collectivization was beginning the end of capitalist relations in the countryside, and so the kulaks threw themselves into a struggle to the end. To sabotage collectivization, they burnt crops, set barns, houses and other buildings on fire and killed militant Bolsheviks. Most importantly, the kulaks wanted to prevent collective farms from starting up, by killing an essential part of the productive forces in the countryside, horses and oxen. All the work on the land was done with draft animals. The kulaks killed half of them. Rather than cede their cattle to the collectives, they butchered them and incited the middle peasants to do the same. Of the 34 million horses in the country in 1928, there remained only 15 million in 1932. A terse Bolshevik spoke of the liquidation of the horses as a class. Of the 70.5 million head of cattle, there only remained 40.7 million in 1932. Only 11.6 million pigs out of 26 million survived the collectivization period [15] [16].

This, on top of many natural weather disasters and chaos that were occurring at the time are directly what lead to there being a famine in 1932, whose death tolls really range from four to five million, not in then 10s of millions like is so often put out by the mainstream media as well as disprove historians like Robert Conquest [17] [18]. However Stalin isn’t the only communist leader accused of famine, another (quite famously) is Mao, however once again after basic research one can come to the conculsion that these famines were not intended or as bad as so often put by westen historians, as Jason Ball notes on Mao [19]:

“The approach of modern writers to the Great Leap Forward is absurdly one- sided. They are unable to grasp the relationship between its failures and successes. They can only grasp that serious problems occurred during the years 1959-1961. They cannot grasp that the work that was done in these years also laid the groundwork for the continuing overall success of Chinese socialism in improving the lives of its people. They fail to seriously consider evidence that indicates that most of the deaths that occurred in the Great Leap Forward were due to natural disasters not policy errors. Besides, the deaths that occurred in the Great Leap Forward have to be set against the Chinese people’s success in preventing many other deaths throughout the Maoist period. Improvements in life expectancy saved the lives of many millions. We must also consider what would have happened if there had been no Leap and no adoption of the policies of self-reliance once the breach with the Soviet Union occurred. China was too poor to allow its agricultural and industrial development to stagnate simply because the Soviets were refusing to help. This is not an argument that things might not have been done better. Perhaps with better planning, less over-optimism and more care some deaths might have been avoided. This is a difficult question. It is hard to pass judgement what others did in difficult circumstances many years ago.”

Gulags

Next up for this section on Stalin is discussing the Gulag prison system that existed under his government’s rule in the Soviet Union. Along with the fact that the majority of people sent to the prisons were guilty and you were not just sent there for critisizing Stalin [23] [26], the Soviet prison system, as applied to ordinary criminals, embodied a number of progressive penological ideas. Educational and manual training instruction courses existed in the more advanced prisons; prisoners were not required to wear uniforms; and the well-behaved prisoners received vacations of two weeks every year, which was certainly unique at the time [20]. Furthermore, the prison administration was held strictly responsible for the actual life of every prisoner. This was taken to such paradoxical lengths that in the same cell you would find prisoners suffering severely from the effects of interrogation about which nobody bothered, while every conceivable medicine for the prevention and cure of colds, coughs, and headaches were regularly distributed. And great precautions were taken against suicide [21].

Another interesting thing about the Soviet Prison system was that, instead of conducting their prisons on the theory that prison labor and free labor are in inevitable conflict, Russia arranges the closest connection between prison labor and free labor. The prisoner must be brought to realize the solidarity of all labor. He is not an outcast, but a part of the labor-force of the nation. If he is a member of a trade union upon being sent to prison he would not lose that connection. In fact the prisoner who shows by his industry and conduct that he is one with the great body of free workers may be sent from the prison during the later stages of his sentence to work in a factory [22].

It is clear that the system was devised to correct the offender and return him to society. The means employed are associated labor, social pressure, education for a trade, education in Sovietism and in certain stubborn cases disciplinary treatment. In all these institutions the Code provided that there shall be no brutality, no use of chains, no deprivation of food, no use of solitary confinement, and no such degrading devices as interviewing visitors through screens. Prisoners were transferred from one institution to another as the authorities saw improvement in attitude and conduct. Work for all was compulsory. Two days of labor counted as three days of the sentence for those who made good progress. Labor conditions in the prisons were controlled by the same labor code as governs free laborers. Those condemned to labor in these institutions were entitled to two weeks’ furlough each year after the first 5 1/2 months. If they belonged to the working class, this furlough was deducted from the sentence. The wages paid to prisoners were about the same as those paid to free labor less the cost of maintenance. Those condemned to forced labor also received about 25% less. The prisoner may spend a greater proportion of his wages as he advances in grade. The institutions must be self-supporting, so careful management is required [22].

Notes:

  1. Szymanski, A. “Is the Red Flag Flying? The Political Economy of the Soviet Union Today”(1979)
  2. Kotz, David M. “Socialism and Global Neoliberal Capitalism” (2003)
  3. Keeran, R. and Kenny, Thomas. “Socialism Betrayed: Behind the Collapse of the Soviet Union,” (2004)
  4. Lerouge, H. “How the October Revolution and the Soviet Union contributed to the labour movement in Western Europe, and more particularly in Belgium” (2010)
  5. Sherman, Howard J. “The Soviet Economy, Little, Brown and Company” (1969)
  6. See: Brown, E. “Soviet Trade Unions and Labor Relations” also see: Kirsch, L. “Soviet Wages” (1956)
  7. Costello, M. “Workers’ Participation in The Soviet Union” 
  8. Strong, Anna L. “The Soviets Expected It.”
  9. Vadim, R. “1937: Year of Terror.”
  10. Cole, David M. “Josef Stalin; Man of Steel.”
  11. Szymanski, A. “Human Rights in the Soviet Union.” (1984)
  12. Murphy, John Thomas. Stalin (1945)
  13. Douglas, T. “Fraud, Famine, and Fascism.”
  14. Strong, Anna, L. “The Stalin Era.”
  15. Charles Bettelheim. “L’Economie sovietique”
  16. Martens, Ludo. “Another View of Stalin.”
  17. https://espressostalinist.com/the-real-stalin-series/famine-of-1932/
  18. Tauger, Mark. “Slavic Review” Volume 53, Issue 1 (Spring, 1994)
  19. Ball, J. “Did Mao Really Kill Millions in the Great Leap Forward?” 
  20. Chamberlin, William Henry. “Soviet Russia”
  21. Conquest, Robert. “The Great Terror.” (1990)
  22. Davis, Jerome. “The New Russia.”
  23. https://espressostalinist.com/the-real-stalin-series/soviet-society/
  24. http://www.telesurtv.net/english/news/How-the-Soviet-Collapse-Enriched-a-Few-and-Destroyed-Millions-20160905-0009.html
  25. https://www.marxists.org/history/erol/uk.secondwave/origins-soviet-revisionism.htm
  26. Murphy, A. “The Triumph of Evil
  27. http://ricardo.ecn.wfu.edu/~cottrell/socialism_book/soviet_planning.pdf