Yes, Gorbachev was a failure but other hands helped bring down the Soviet Union

The reasons for the fall of the Soviet Union are myriad and can’t be laid solely at the feet of one person. Mikhail Gorbachev is widely despised by Russians as well as by activists and partisans of the Left. There are good reasons for that. It is impossible to imagine the collapse of a superpower and the catastrophic effects of imposing capitalism via “shock therapy” that immiserated a vast country without him. 

But if we are serious about analyzing history, and the ongoing effects that history has on the present day, we must take a dialectic approach, and examine this history in all its complexities. Amid the triumphalist accolades heaped upon Gorbachev upon his death from Western capitalists and the opprobrium heaped on upon him by his many critics — continuing a pattern of three decades since the Soviet Union’s dissolution at the end of 1991 — we might take a more nuanced view.

The preceding is not to deny that Gorbachev was, ultimately, a failure who disorganized an economy and set in motion one of the greatest economic collapses ever recorded. But to pin all blame on him ignores not only other personalities but the stultifying effects of an economy badly in need of modernization and democratization, a sclerotic political system and the social forces and corruption set in motion during the reign of Leonid Brezhnev. Nor would it be fair to exclude the unrelenting pressure put on the Soviet Union and other countries calling themselves “socialist” that did much to distort and undermine those societies. 

Nonetheless, a serious examination must concentrate on internal factors, those the responsibility of Gorbachev, and those where responsibility lies elsewhere. That was the approach taken in my book It’s Not Over: Learning From the Socialist Experiment, and it is that book’s fifth chapter, The Dissolution of the Soviet Union — that forms the basis of this article. Indeed, the mounting problems of the Soviet Union were not unnoticed within its borders — from the 1960s, academic institutions published reports detailing the bottlenecks built into the system and reform plans were drawn up within the government, but mostly were ignored.

Mikhail Gorbachev was praised by Western leaders who were happy to see shock therapy imposed on Russia (Credit: George H.W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum)

The edifice of the Soviet Union was something akin to a statue undermined by water freezing inside it; it appears strong on the outside until the tipping point when the ice suddenly breaks it apart from within. The “ice” here were black marketeers; networks of people who used connections to obtain supplies for official and illegal operations; and the managers of enterprises who grabbed their operations for themselves. Soviet bureaucrats eventually began to privatize the economy for their own benefit; party officials, for all their desire to find a way out of a deep crisis, lacked firm ideas and direction; and Soviet working people, discouraged by experiencing the reforms as coming at their expense and exhausted by perpetual struggle, were unable to intervene.

Five years of reform with meager positive results in essence caused Gorbachev to throw in the towel and begin to introduce elements of capitalism. Gorbachev intended neither to institute capitalism nor bring down the Soviet system, but by introducing those elements of capitalism, the dense network of ties that had bound it together unraveled, hastening the end. To say this, however, is not at all to agree with some simplistic and unrealistic ideas out there that Gorbachev was a trojan horse intent on destruction. Every so often, over a period of many years, an article circulates online purporting to quote Gorbachev that he was intent on destroying the Soviet Union from the beginning of his career and worked patiently until he was in a position to do so. But this “confession” has allegedly appeared in many different publications in several different countries. The last time I saw this peddled it was an alleged article published in a Turkish newspaper. One might ask: Why would he make a spectacular confession such as this to an obscure publication in Turkey?

People who circulate such nonsense are simply seeking a scapegoat, and either can’t be bothered to study the actual conditions of the Soviet Union or are so blinded by a rigid ideology that they have ceased thinking. Again, this in no way suggests Gorbachev doesn’t have a huge responsibility to history. One can be a firm critic of the Soviet Union and still lament what happened. 

Changes needed, but what changes?

Serious reforms were necessary; that is why the members of the Politburo, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union’s highest body, finally named Gorbachev general secretary. There was also strong support for his elevation among the party’s regional and provincial first secretaries, who formed the backbone of the Central Committee. When Andrei Gromyko, the foreign minister for a quarter-century and stalwart of the party’s old guard, endorsed Gorbachev’s ascension, that essentially clinched the promotion. Reforms had been attempted since 1965, when Prime Minister Aleksei Kosygin first proposed reforms that went nowhere. But by 1985, even the most doctrinaire party leader knew changes were necessary. The political and economic systems were out of date. A Soviet book published 20 years earlier declared that “a system which is so harnessed from top to bottom will fetter technological and social development; and it will break down sooner or later under the pressure of the real processes of economic life.”

Gorbachev started by stressing the “strengthening of discipline,” cracked down on alcohol, readily discussed the need for improvements in consumer products and consolidated several ministries to retool industry. He also pushed out several high-ranking officials opposed to any reforms, demanded “collectivity of work” in all organizations and declared that collective work is a “reliable guarantee against the adoption of volitional, subjective decisions, manifestations of the cult of personality, and infringements of Leninist norms of party life.”

Even before he became general secretary, Gorbachev had begun meeting with intellectuals working in Soviet institutions, later recalling that his safe was “clogged” with proposals. “People were clamoring that everything needed to be changed, but from different angles; some were for scientific and technical progress, others for reforming the structure of politics, and others still for new organizational forms in industry and agriculture. In short, from all angles there were cries from the heart that affairs could no longer be allowed to go on in the old way.”

First major reform more stick than carrot

Yet when it came to making concrete changes, there was a lack of imagination. To put it bluntly, Gorbachev had no plan and little idea of what to do. So when concrete structural changes began being implemented in 1987, they mostly were on the backs of working people. Eventually, the early enthusiasm for a new course gave way to anger and disillusionment. The first major reform, the Law on State Enterprises, approved in June 1987 by the party Central Committee, was more stick than carrot. The basic concept of the enterprise law was to liberate enterprises from some of the more rigid controls of the ministries, put them on profit-and-loss accounting, reduce the amount of product required to be produced for the state plan, reduce subsidies in order to make enterprises more efficient, and to bring a measure of democracy into the workplace with the creation of “labor-collective councils” and workforce elections of enterprise directors. 

State planning remained in force, but would become less of a hard numerical total and more of a guide, although the requirement of fulfilling the (reduced) plan requirements would continue. Production sold to the state under the plan would still constitute most sales and would continue to be paid at rates specified by the state, but production beyond plan fulfillment could be sold at any price, subject to volume limitations to prevent unnecessary production beyond any reasonable social need. 

In conjunction with these reforms, measures were implemented aimed at putting pressure on wages. Basic wage rates were increased, but individual output quotas (or “norms”) were also raised, to make it much more difficult to earn bonuses. Bonuses would no longer be essentially automatic; they could only be earned through more effort — and the new wage levels made up only part of the differences between the new basic wage and the old basic wage plus bonus. Put plainly, workers would have to work harder to earn the same amount of money. The basic idea behind these sets of reforms was to introduce a mechanism that would provide a better understanding of demand while retaining central planning. In turn, more efficiency would be wrung out of the system through the use of shop-floor and enterprise-wide incentives and the introduction of some workplace democracy, thereby alleviating both some of the alienation on the part of the workforce and the incentive of management to avoid introducing technological or other improvements. 

The de facto wage cuts, and accompanying ability of factory managers to force workers into lower skill grades (thereby forcing reductions in wages), was implemented immediately, but the rest was to be phased in. “Labor-collective councils” were supposed to be formed to give workers a say in managing their workplace since they were asked to shoulder some of the profit-and-loss responsibility. These were stillborn. In most factories, either there was no council, it did nothing or the enterprise director headed it, neutralizing its potential. The trade unions, as before, did nothing to intervene, remaining silent or backing management.

The enterprise law text was ambiguous — it made references to “one-man management,” the foundation of the existing top-down command structure; did not specify the powers of labor-collective councils and the workforce; and stated that, although directors are elected, those elections must be confirmed by a ministry, a veto power supposedly needed to avoid cases of unspecified excesses. Not only did managements remain unanswerable to workforces, government ministries refused to relinquish their grips. Government bureaucrats owed their privileges and power to the ability to command, and naturally most of them did not relish losing such positions. Ministry officials continued to issue detailed orders to enterprise managements that left no room for enterprises to make their own decisions and continued to require enterprises to buy from a specific supplier, acting as a crucial brake on democratization; they also continued to impose management personnel. The traditional top-down economic structure remained largely untouched. 

Workers announce their response by striking

During these years, serious reforms to the structure of the Communist Party were made, with Gorbachev maintaining his hold on power and steadily placing his followers into high-level positions. There may have been a quickening pace of events in the political sphere during 1988 and 1989, but everyday matters such as the economy and living standards stagnated. Failing to see sufficient improvement from the promises of perestroika, working people began to take a more direct approach — by striking. 

The first mass strike was conducted by the country’s miners in 1989. More than 400,000 miners ultimately walked out across the country. The fastest advancing strikers were in Ukraine’s Donetsk province. Strikers there occupied the square in front of the regional party headquarters, and all 21 area mines sent representatives to occupation meetings. Abandoned by their union and all other institutions, the miners set up their own strike committee, and began making contact with the striking miners in other regions, who then also set up committees. The strike committees became the effective local governments, setting up patrols, acting as arbitrators for problems citizens brought to them and closing all sources of alcohol. Strikers this time refused to negotiate with the coal industry minister, and would only end the strike when Prime Minister Nikolai Ryzhkov signed a detailed agreement and Gorbachev announced his personal approval.

Further strikes in other industries broke out. These were often strictly local affairs, however, and there was little attempt at national coordination, rendering them politically ineffective. Nor was there coordination with the miners. The Soviet trade union central umbrella was widely seen as irrelevant, but new unions that began to form by 1990 were very small and unorganized, and even the very few unions that did work well had no links with other unions. A lack of a coherent plan and a lack of grassroots pressure meant that perestroika, as the restructuring was called in Russian, was failing.

A Russian coal mine (credit: Institute of Economics and Management in Industry)

All social groups seemed to lose faith in perestroika. By 1990, polling found that 85 percent believed that economic reform had achieved nothing or made the situation worse. As the miners’ strike, the failure of the labor-collective councils and mounting disillusionment demonstrated, efforts by the reformers to gain the support of working people had failed. Two important reasons for this failure were the ongoing shortages of consumer goods, which, if anything, were becoming worse, and the realization that the economic reforms were, in large part, going to come on their backs. The timid effort at workplace democratization through the labor-collective councils was intended to compensate people on the shop floors for the harsher work conditions and lower basic pay, and when the councils proved a farce the reformers were empty-handed.

The 1987 enterprise law, in addition to the profit-and-loss accounting and its other reforms, also legalized “cooperative” retail and service enterprises. These cooperatives, although not altogether new, helped exacerbate shortages and trigger inflation. Farmers’ markets, which sold produce at higher prices than charged in state markets while offering greater variety, were long a part of Soviet retail, as was street trading and peddling. But the new cooperatives quickly took advantage of the differential between what the new market would bear and the level of prices set in state shops. For example, when a shipment of meat would arrive at a state store, where it was intended to be sold at the low, state-controlled price, more than half of the shipment would be illicitly resold to a cooperative, which would then sell it at a far higher price, and leaving a shortage in the state store. 

Another report found that, although the Soviet Union enjoyed an excellent harvest in 1990, only 58 percent of produce that was supposed to be delivered to state stores actually made it; the remainder was siphoned off by black marketeers or rotted due to a distribution system that was breaking down. Consumers feared future shortages, which became self-fulfilling prophecies when wide-spread hoarding helped empty store shelves.

Why manage factories when you can own?

By now, black marketeering and corruption, which blossomed during the Brezhnev “era of stagnation,” were worse than ever. Now adding to the picture was that the government and industrial bureaucracy (known as the “nomenklatura”) had begun thinking bigger. Their privileges were based on their management of the Soviet Union’s industry and commerce, and this control rested completely on the state ownership of that property because they did not own the means of production themselves.

Some among the nomenklatura began to dream of capitalism — then they would be able to dramatically upgrade their lifestyle. Economic malaise was becoming more pervasive as the dense web of threads that held the Soviet system together were starting to be snipped through corruption, local protectionism and supply disruptions, the last of which was exacerbated because many component parts were produced in only one factory. The move to profit-and-loss accounting helped to bring about an “all against all” mentality: Instead of simply continuing to manage state property, why not grab it for yourself?

It was against these backdrops that in 1990 Gorbachev began to abandon his efforts to renew the system he inherited. On the political level, the general secretary began eliminating the party’s monopoly on power and, through creating a new freely elected legislature, built himself a power base outside the party. His power was soon used to begin to introduce elements of capitalism. To bring about these “market reforms,” the limited ability of working people to defend themselves had to be eliminated. A series of laws designed to do this began with a new enterprise law stealthily passed by the Supreme Soviet in June 1990. Gorbachev continued to insist that market reforms were to remain within the boundaries of a socialist system (and there was a widespread belief in the country that the conditions for an outright restoration of capitalism didn’t exist), but in reality from this time the debate within Gorbachev’s government and among his closest advisers was about how far and how fast the transition to a capitalist-type system should go. 

Red Square, Moscow

The new law eliminated what little opportunity workers had to influence their management in addition to legalizing private ownership of enterprises. More would quickly come in the following months. Subsequent laws completely freed wages of any central control, reducing wage labor to a commodity as it is in capitalist countries; granted guarantees to investors, including compensation in the event that future legislation affects an investment; created unemployment insurance but failed to authorize any money to pay for it, in expectation of mass unemployment; and legalized the privatization of state enterprises.

Simultaneous with the passages of the above legislation, two competing economic plans were floated. One called for a phase-in of some market mechanisms over five years while retaining state control over pricing, the other called for a sweeping transition to a capitalist economy in 500 days with no working plan on how to accomplish that. Gorbachev, increasingly unable to make a decision, asked the backers of the competing plans to reach a compromise between them. But Boris Yeltsin, having maneuvered himself into the newly created presidency of the Russian Republic, undercut Gorbachev by unilaterally declaring the 500-day plan adopted.

The Russian Republic constituted about 80 percent of the area of the Soviet Union and was by far the dominant republic among the Soviet Union’s 15 republics. The other, much smaller 14 republics had their own party apparatus, albeit completely subordinate to Moscow, and a Russian republic party would have been almost redundant. But as nationalism rapidly gripped peoples across the country, a Russian party body was created. Yeltsin gained control of it, using it to accelerate and deepen a path toward capitalism, undermine Gorbachev, dismantle the Soviet Union and ultimately impose brutal shock therapy on Russians after the Soviet Union’s dissolution.

In essence, Yeltsin set up a dual government in competition with the Soviet government headed by Gorbachev. But unlike 1917, when a brief period of dual government would end with the taking of power by the Bolsheviks, this time the capitalist restorationists led by Yeltsin would win.

The period of a dual government must always be brief

As 1990 drew to a close, many reformers became convinced that Gorbachev had gotten cold feet, and would call a halt to reform or even turn back. His appointment of hard-liners as prime minister (Valentin Pavlov), interior minister (Boris Pugo) and vice president (Gennadii Yanayev) fueled this fear; enough so that Gorbachev’s long-time ally and foreign minister, Eduard Shevardnadze, resigned in December with a warning that “dictatorship is coming.” Ironically, hard-liners — those who had been opposed to any reforms and wanted a return to the Brezhnev era — were needed so that capitalism could be imposed on a country that didn’t want it.

Gorbachev, until the end, maintained that he was committed to a long-term strengthening of socialism through the introduction of market mechanisms, although the concrete results of the decisions that he and the Supreme Soviet took from June 1990 formed a reality of a phased transition to capitalism. Yeltsin, in contrast to his populist image and public proclamations in favor of democracy, stood firmly for a much more rapid transition to capitalism — when the time came, the change would be so sudden and so cruel it would become known as “shock therapy.” Yeltsin was already assembling a team of young technocrats itching to upend the entire economy, and there would be absolutely no popular consultation nor any consideration of the social cost. Yeltsin was also a skilled political tactician; he turned back an attempt by the Russian parliament to remove him as parliament chair by calling for demonstrations in his support and gathering enough support so that a referendum to create a new post of Russian president be put to voters. Voters approved, and in June 1991 Yeltsin was elected president of the Russian republic. The dual government was more firmly in place. 

The military attack on the Russian parliament in 1993, which killed 500, was praised as “democracy” by the U.S. government and World Bank officials.

Separate from all the political maneuvering, no true popular mass movement developed. If the creation of a better society, with popular control over all aspects of life, including the workplace, was in a position to happen, it was now, before widespread privatization. The workers of Czechoslovakia, during the Prague Spring, had begun working out a national system of workers’ control and self-management; they could attempt to create an economic democracy because the economy was in the hands of the state, and therefore could be placed in collective hands under popular control. But once the means of production become private property, the task of wresting control becomes vastly more difficult. The owners of that privatized production dominate a capitalist economy, enabling the accumulation of wealth and wielding that wealth to decisively influence government policy; the state becomes an agent of the dominant bourgeois class and the force available to the state is used to reinforce that dominance.

Although it probably is impossible to overstate the exhaustion of Soviet society as a factor in the failure to develop national grassroots organizations, perhaps the people of the Soviet Union didn’t believe that they had nothing left to lose as their ancestors had in 1917. Back then, Russians lived in miserable material conditions and under the constant threat of government violence. By no means were material conditions satisfactory during perestroika, but they were not comparable to the wretchedness endured under tsarist absolutism nor did the urgency of having to remove a violent dictatorship exist. A social safety net, tattered and weakened, still existed, and most Russians believed that, despite whatever dramatic economic and political changes still lay ahead, they would be able to retain the social safety net they were used to under Communist Party rule. 

Pushing back against economic and political changes, hard-liners thought they would be able to turn the clock back and reinstitute some variation of the orthodox Soviet system. They, too, did not understand the social forces that were gathering. The Soviet Union could not stand still — if it could not find a path forward to a pluralistic, democratic socialist society that would be defended from across the country, then capitalism was poised to burst in as if a dam holding back a sea burst. 

The Soviet Union could not find such a path — working people were unable to create a society-wide movement, perestroika was unable to solve the massive economic problems that had only become worse, and introducing capitalistic reforms had severed the supply and distribution links among enterprises without putting anything in their place. The Soviet command system did not function well and had been long overdue for radical changes to convert it into a more modern system — but it did function. What had begun to replace it, elements of capitalism, disorganized the country’s economy into disaster.

Yeltsin grabs power and imposes shock therapy

The August 1991 putsch brought an end to communist rule. Although the coup was badly executed and failed within three days, with Gorbachev reinstalled as Soviet president, the failure of the party to condemn the coup and Yeltsin’s opportunistic speeches loudly condemning the coup, despite his antipathy toward Gorbachev, meant that Yeltsin emerged as the winner. The party was swiftly banned, its publications suspended, and the brief period of the dual government effectively ended. Yeltsin quickly assembled a team of young technocrats itching to dismantle all institutions of planning and began doing so despite having no legal authority to alter Soviet agencies. That no longer mattered; Gorbachev was now irrelevant. He resigned at the end of the year, having no country to lead.

The three leaders of the Slavic republics — Yeltsin, Leonid Kravchuk of Ukraine and Stanislav Shushkevich of Belarus  — met in a forest to sign an accord declaring that the Soviet Union had ceased to exist. One week after Mikhail Gorbachev’s resignation, the shock therapy would begin on January 2, 1992, with complete liberation of prices (except for energy), the concomitant ending of all subsidies of consumer products and for industry, and allowing the ruble to float against international currencies instead of having a fixed exchange rate. The strategy was to radically reduce demand, a devastating hardship considering that most products were in short supply already. The freeing of prices meant that the cost of consumer items, including food, would skyrocket, and the ruble’s value would collapse because the fixed value given it by the Soviet government was judged as artificially high by international currency traders. This combination would mean instant hyper-inflation.

Belavezhskaya forest, Belarus (photo by Szeder László)

Yeltsin was already ruling by decree at the end of 1991, and his team of reformers used the president’s authority to force through their plans. Inflation for 1992 was 2,600 percent and for 1993 was nearly 1,000 percent — that alone wiped out all savings held in banks. The excess cash that had accumulated in banks, instead of being put back into circulation by stimulating demand or used toward productive investment, was simply made worthless. A large surplus of personal savings parked in banks had built up during the previous three years because there had not been enough production for consumers to buy. Yeltsin’s economic aide, Yegor Gaidar, considered liquidation of the money in savings accounts part of the effort to reduce Russia’s “monetary hangover.” In other words, Russians possessed too much money — another “technical” issue because too large a supply of money causes inflation, Chicago School economists believe, a problem cured here through hyper-inflation.

In the first days of January, what little food was available in state stores completely disappeared, as state-store managers diverted their supplies to private operators for a cut of their profits. State enterprises were also crippled by new high taxes levied only against them. Reduced to penury, Russians took to the streets to begin peddling their personal possessions to survive. At the same time, a handful of speculators, mostly arising out of black-market networks, made fortunes through smuggling consumer items and exporting oil, the latter particularly lucrative because the oil was bought at extremely low subsidized Soviet prices and sold abroad at international market prices. Organized crime networks blossomed, demanding “protection” money from all merchants and street peddlers.

Yeltsin would, in 1993, maintain power by launching a military assault on parliament that killed about 500 people and wounded another 1,000. Yeltsin ordered the parliament disbanded and, for good measure, also disbanded the Moscow city council. He was loudly applauded by the U.S. government and financial institutions for preserving democracy for that. Yeltsin would go on to give away Russia’s natural resources to oligarchs who had him re-elected in 1996 despite an approval rating of 3 percent.

Further economic disasters would come. By the end of 1998, on the heels of another crash that again wiped out savings, Russia’s economy had contracted 45 percent from 1990, when capitalism began to be introduced. Investment in industry declined by almost 80 percent in the same period and the murder rate skyrocketed to become one of the world’s highest. Two million children were orphaned with more than half of them homeless. The World Bank estimated that 74 million Russians lived in poverty; two million had been in poverty in 1989. In the Ural Mountains, competing organized-crime groups fought armed battles for control of factory complexes, backed by different police forces, with the winners then proceeding to strip the assets.

The stagnation of Gorbachev gave way to collapse under Yeltsin. Capitalism de-developed Russia. The weakness of Russian institutions, both cause and effect of the oligarchs, had the perverse effect of enabling a vigorous proponent of nationalism, Vladimir Putin, to arise. How much of Russian history can we assign to Mikhail Gorbachev? A lot. But not all. History is always far more complicated than the career of one human being. What if the Soviet peoples had rallied to their cause and built a system of economic democracy? History would be far different. Gorbachev must be assigned much responsibility for the inability of Soviet peoples to organize, but the long history of Soviet-style communism that atomized and alienated people while shutting them out of political participation can’t be overlooked, nor can the Soviet bureaucracy’s willingness to adopt capitalism for personal enrichment be over-estimated.

There was a poverty of imagination: In a mirror of the West, Soviet officials could not see beyond an impoverished and unimaginative choice of either Soviet-style centralism or Chicago School runaway capitalism. No one leader could, or can, be responsible for all that. 


18 comments on “Yes, Gorbachev was a failure but other hands helped bring down the Soviet Union

  1. Steven Jonas, MD, MPH says:

    This is a very important history of the internal factors that led to the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union. The major external factor was “The Seventy-Five Years War Against the Soviet Union,” which began with The Intervention led in major part by Winston Churchill, which commenced shortly after Oct. 25 (old calendar) 1917. I have written about it here:

    • I would agree with 15 of the 17 points raised in your linked article. I disagree partially with No. 17; certainly the arms race the U.S. imposed caused difficulties on the Soviet Union. But that spending, while a factor, tends to be overstated in my opinion.

      Where I would fully disagree is No. 14. The Hungarian uprising in 1956 was not a “neo-fascist revolt” led by Horthy backers. It is certainly true that reactionary forces attempted to take advantage of it, and there were instances of excesses on the part of those forces, but in the main it was a workers’ revolt. Why else were workers’ councils central to the movement?

      Here’s an excerpt from my It’s Not Over (pages 419-420) (a brief discussion of the Hungarian and Polish uprisings of 1956 in the chapter on the Prague Spring):

      Simultaneous with the fighting, workers’ councils formed across Hungary, many of which became the effective government in their cities. Their basic set of demands is embodied in an October 23 resolution passed by the Parliament of Workers’ Councils, a group with representatives from 24 major factories. The first of the nine main points went right to the point: “The factory belongs to the workers. The latter should pay the state a levy calculated on the basis of the output and a portion of the profits.” The councils did not propose to make each factory or larger enterprise an island unto itself, but stated they expected to pay taxes to benefit the greater good.

      The workers’ councils were declared to be the “supreme controlling body in the place of work,” which would in turn elect an executive body to oversee all areas of policy and carry out decisions of the councils. The council was to elect the director and other top managers within enterprises, and to decide on all factory plans, pay raises, employment disputes, “social questions in the enterprise” and the use to which profits would be put. The resolution also declared that 90 percent of Budapest’s factory, office, institutional and university councils, along with “the Peasant Alliance” being set up, “have already accepted these proposals, and have taken the necessary steps to put them in operation.”

      Councils were formed not only by industrial workers, but by white-collar workers, farmers and army personnel. … The trade union leaders also demanded the establishment of workers’ councils as the basis of workers’ management of factories, pay raises for the lowest-paid workers, the establishment of a maximum wage, a speed-up of house building by the state and negotiations with the Soviet Union and other countries to establish mutual economic relations on the basis of equality. An estimated 2,100 workers’ councils were set up across Hungary — by no means was the desire for socialist solutions limited to Budapest.

      Doesn’t sound reactionary to me.

      • Steven Jonas, MD, MPH says:

        Dear Systemic. A) I am delighted that you found yourself in agreement with almost all of my column. B) I am certainly educated by you about the Workers Councils and etc. in the Hungarian Revolt. As for the role of the fascists in it, I did learn of it from a p post-Revolt Hungarian Communist source which, unfortunately I now cannot find (in my several-thousand volume library).
        I would like to be in touch with directly. If you wish to honor that wish, please send me at my email address below.

        • I myself had to be educated about the workers’ councils in Hungary. I hadn’t know about them at all until doing research in preparation for the Prague Spring chapter, so it was educational for me. There is much truth in the old adage that if you want to learn a subject, write a book about it.

          Orthodox communists tend to hold the viewpoint that the Hungarian uprising was a reactionary attempt by those who wished a restoration of the pre-war fascist régime. They often have a similarly negative view about the Prague Spring in 1968 as well, where no fascist elements existed (or, if they did, they kept themselves entirely hidden). But I believe it is better to differentiate from elements trying to take advantage from those doing the real organizing. In any event, a complex historical event from which there is more to learn.

    • spikeof65 says:

      ROFL. The USSR was stillborn. It was a coup d’etat by the dunce who called himself Lenin.

      • This is a forum for serious discussion. Do some studying, rather than parroting empty and vulgar propaganda, and when you can formulate an intelligent argument, come back. Mr. Jonas certainly knows far more than you do.

  2. spikeof65 says:

    Garbage analysis. The USSR was born dead, and also completely confused. Gorbachev merely offered people a chance to feel their way toward social democracy, which has always been the actual socialist road. As it turned out, that idea was naive, because 7 decades of Leninism had already closed people’s minds to anything like socialism. But Gorbachev was a great human being. He had principles and worked toward peace and progress.

    • Those who believe that Western capitalism is the height of human achievement will naturally be hostile to anything else. The Soviet Union underwent immense changes over its history, with the might of the capitalist world attempting to destroy it throughout. I spent several hundreds of pages detailing that history, and concentrated on internal problems and weaknesses, intentionally, but that doesn’t mean the outside world had no effect. Far from it. Look at this way: The country went from being one of the most backward and repressive in the world to producing more engineers in any country of the world.

      Having a firmly closed mind closes paths to knowledge.

  3. Steven Jonas, MD, MPH says:

    Also, Systemic, thanks so much for your kind comment revering to “Spike” (certainly NOT Lee).

  4. iamselma says:

    Just anecdotally- I read back in the early 90s that many people in Russia attributed the fall of the Soviet Union was in large part due to vodka and alcoholism, as well as the impact of the Chernobyl disaster. I’ve read that of the thousands of people who participated in the cleanup, many died of cancer or were left with the “Chernobyl necklace”, thyroid cancer and surgery. I also read that the fax machine is what made the dissolution possible, as this was how communications then went viral.


    • Alcoholism and heavy drinking actually increased after the fall of the Soviet Union, almost certainly due to the harshness of life during shock therapy. Life expectancy for Russian men actually fell below 60 for a while. So if vodka were responsible for the destruction of a country, it would have disintegrated capitalist Russia.

      More effective communications would seem to be a contributing cause to the unfolding of events, but I can’t see how that would be any sort of factor in the underlying causes. Structural economic and political problems have to be seen as the roots of the late Soviet crisis, and although more ability to talk about what’s wrong might accelerate developments, that’s a two-edged sword as more ability to talk about what’s wrong also makes it more possible to tackle and solve problems.

      Those “people in Russia” you reference perhaps were folks without the tools or ability to subject their society to a sociopolitical analysis and so couldn’t look past surface manifestations. There are plenty of folks like that in every country.

  5. […] Pete Dolack Writer, Dandelion Salad Systemic Disorder, Sept. 7, 2022 September 8, […]

  6. Neal says:

    A substantial portion of my wife’s family was born and raised the USSR. My wife is from the USSR. And, we know a great many people from the former USSR. The issue here is to discuss the USSR that Gorbachev later came to rule. Several observations:

    1. As you certainly know, the USSR, from the beginning, had a very progressive constitution. That constitution included, among other things, a list of rights. Among the listed rights was freedom of speech. Within days of the enactment of the constitution, those who had publicly expressed criticism or doubts began to be jailed – constitution notwithstanding. That was under Lenin. By the time of Stalin, efforts to eliminate undesired classes turned into mass murder. Thus, eliminating the Kulak Class became simply a policy of killing off all Kulaks which, in short order, simply became a policy for politically well positioned people to kill off those they did not like. Very large numbers of people died in this horror. This all bears explanation. The banner of freedom became the symbol under which mass killing of people’s personal enemies became government policy.

    2. The effort to develop socialism in a backwards country such as Russia required the use of policies which were, by world standards going back thousands of years, barbaric. The collectivization of farms without consideration of the personal needs of the farmers is among the most barbaric events recorded ever about a country in peace time. Stalin, as you are aware, tied the collectivization of farms into his five year plan. When the farms failed to produced anywhere near the amount of food required by the plan, he doubled down and people starved to death in very large numbers. More than 5 million people starved to death, mostly but not only in the Ukraine. Evidently, rather than adjust the plan, he decided to kill off those who led the plan and those who reported bad news about it and, amazingly, he not only blamed them but also those who were starving to death. So, the deaths of more than 5 million was their own fault, not the fault of the country’s economic plan.

    3. One of my wife’s relatives, a brilliant physicist, had occasion in the 1970’s to observe food rotting aboard ships at transportation nodes. He figured out rather easily that what was occurring is that the operator of the transportation node expected a payoff – a piece of the action. This, it seems, was a normal occurrence in the USSR. In most instances, what occurred was a delay and then the ship could proceed to sail (or be unloaded, as applicable). In other instances, the food would be thrown overboard and blame would be cast on those further upstream (literally or figuratively, as the need may be). This, it would seem, is an inherent problem in a system where too much power is put in too few hands.

    4. The system in place in the USSR produced very large lines. Those in line could stand there for hours, regardless of weather and work requirements. The food and commodities available in the stores – once you got the end of the line – tended often to be spoiled (i.e., where food was involved – and see point 3 above for one reason why) and of very low quality (i.e., for other commodities). At the same time, it was, in fact, possible to obtain better quality food and, sometimes, somewhat better quality products. However, that would be the result of people either having connections or paying off the store manager. Either way, the store manager would make a profit (i.e., the amount of money above what was required to be reported to those in power).

    5. There was, for well connected people, an entirely different USSR, where food was plentiful and actually fresh and where goods were plentiful and of higher quality, etc., etc. These were the rulers and those who were seen by the rulers as worthy of special consideration. They were the far less than 1%. By contrast, mostly everyone else lived paycheck to paycheck – and at a much lower standards than working class people lived in the West. Average people were not even allowed to go into these stores where these elite shopped. If they worked in such stores, they could not buy anything. And, they were closely watched. And, from these shops, there was no back door where such store managers could make some extra money or where average people could obtain better food and products.

    6. As you surely are aware, a great many people wanted to get out of the USSR but the authorities did not want that to occur. The most obvious reason for this is that very large numbers of people – most especially, well educated people – would leave. While the full details about life in the West were unknown, what was, in fact, well known is that life in the West was substantially better than in the USSR. This was known from the television reports about how poor people in the US were treated. My wife recalls watching a long report about people of color in Harlem. They were, of course, poor people and victims of racism. But – and this is something that is difficult for those of us born in the West to grasp – the clothing, jewelry and apartments of those interviewed were dramatically better than anything the average person in the USSR had. So, Soviet citizens grasped very clearly that the Soviet authorities were lying and hiding the truth. And, it is to be noted, there was very crude racial prejudices in the USSR directed at people with dark skin pigmentation. They were thought to be inferior – as in subhuman. So, if even a person with dark skin had nice clothing and jewelry while those in the USSR did not, such was understood as being something was wrong with the USSR.

    7. Another reason that a rather large number people wanted out of the USSR was the extreme prejudice that was exacerbated by the system’s inability to provide consumer goods of any quality and food and by the resentment that arose against those who ruled the country but which the governing clique attempted to fob off onto various minorities, most especially but not only Jews.

    8. As you note, there was corruption. My wife has a relative who, after work, used the factory he worked in. He had hundreds of employees. He paid off the authorities and, to note, he was likely tolerated because his factory produced large quantities of goods that worked. But for people like him, life would have been even worse for average people in the USSR than it was. Now, notwithstanding his wealth, he could never allow any showing of that wealth. So, he did not have a car – something largely reserved for well connected people – and lived in an ordinary apartment – i.e., one shared with more than one family. He wanted to emigrate as well and, in fact, he and family did. However, they could not keep any of their money. They hoped to convert their money into diamonds and drill the diamonds into their furniture. However, the furniture was never allowed to leave the country so somebody else obtained it – perhaps never realizing that the furniture contained a fortune in diamonds or, perhaps if the furniture was kept by someone in the shipping facility, kept because it was widely known that people tried to ship out diamonds and other things of value in furniture.

    9. My wife tried to contact her friends, after she left the USSR. She would receive letters asking why she did not write. So, she soon realized that the USSR authorities were not allow such communication to occur. I am going to assume that this was because of concern that such would bring undesired information into the USSR. However, it may simply have been a way to send a message that leaving the USSR meant never again having anything to do with it.

    My point here is not to justify the West or Capitalism. The point here is that the USSR that Gorbachev later sought to save – but, as you note, failed to save – was quite comparable to the worst tyrannies that have ever existed on earth. One might readily be a social democrat but, frankly, those who, on the other hand, think highly of the USSR really have to erase from their minds any semblance of a factual account of what life in that country was actually like – and from early on. As my wife would say, the most loyal supporters of communism are those who have never lived under such a regime.

    • Greetings, Neal, and thank you for taking the time to provide us with a serious, thoughtful response. At bottom, the path of the Soviet Union was an awful tragedy. I believe it important to understand it through serious study because we need to know why it went the way it did.

      The Soviet system obviously will never be resurrected; what ever post-capitalist society lies in our future will be quite different. It will have to include economic democracy (impossible under capitalism) as well as political democracy to succeed. Both were missing in Soviet-style societies. That is the double tragedy of the Prague Spring, where Czech and Slovak workers were specifically attempting to create a socialist system that explicitly was centered on economic and political democracy. Once capitalism was restored, the task became enormously more difficult.

      In response to your specific points:

      1. The Bolsheviks started off not only proclaiming a series of rights but also abolished the death penalty. During the October Revolution, Bolsheviks would actually release those they captured if they simply promised to not join any more fighting. It was a long journey to get to Stalin’s mass crimes. Strictly speaking, however, kulaks were generally sent to work in mines or migrated into cities to become laborers. Those killed by Stalin tended to be political, not economic, opponents. The higher in the party ranks one rose, the more in danger you were. Stalin was seeking to physically annihilate all opposition within the party and even the memory of alternative paths. That was the meaning of the show trials, which always featured prominent officials forced to “confess” to astounding but obviously false crimes, which they agreed to do to save their families.

      2. A horrific tragedy, and one that not only caused all those deaths (although we should remember that two straight years of bad weather were contributors) but disorganized agriculture. A sickening attempt to build industry on the backs of peasants.

      3. That corruption was a phenomenon of the Brezhnev years. Black markets and all sorts of corruption blossomed like never before during the “era of stagnation.” This was what Andropov intended to combat, and then Gorbachev. Whether Andropov could have, we’ll never know.

      4. The overly centralized Soviet system was badly in need of updating and modernization. And see answer 3 immediately above.

      5. Because many Soviet citizens believed in the egalitarianism that the party always promoted, the special stores and privileges of the apparatchiks and nomenklatura were bitterly resented, helping fuel cynicism toward the régime.

      6. My take is that Soviet media lied more about what was happening internally than externally. There were real problems and deficiencies in the U.S. that could be truthfully pointed out. From research I conducted in writing my book, amply demonstrated by commentators writing in the West, Soviet peoples had an overly rosy view of what life in the West was like. One commentator, who spent much time in places like Moscow, noted that people believed the everybody in New York City had an apartment like those in the TV show Friends. As a long-time resident of NYC, I can tell you that we live in apartments a small fraction of that size and nowhere as nice. But the grass is always greener on the other side.

      7. Anti-Semitism long predated the communist era and was a backbone of the tsarist régimes. Much was done to counter that until Stalin decided anti-Semitism would be useful to prop up his rule. That allowed the latent anti-Semitism that undoubtedly was always there to resurface. There’s plenty of anti-Semitism in the U.S. and most everywhere else, sadly. It should have continued to have been combated in the Soviet Union and wasn’t, but that is not unique.

      8. An interesting story, one that, as you indicated, was probably replicated many times.

      9. No country has ever been able to advance sufficiently to come close to establishing a socialist society, much less a communist one. It can’t be said that “socialism” failed because there was no socialism, no matter what party propaganda claimed. There was an attempt to advance to socialism that curdled under the impact of an ideology that was wielded to justify one-party rule, and then a personal dictatorship (Stalin) and then again one-party rule. Party leaders clung to one particular deformed interpretation that had evolved in chaotic fashion during a long struggle for survival against a hostile capitalist world in one country (the Soviet Union) that cannot be extricated from the specific absolutist cultural heritage of that country’s dominant nation (Russia), yet insisted that this one model was the only possible model.

      Finally, I will have to firmly counter the idea that the Soviet Union “was quite comparable to the worst tyrannies that have ever existed on earth.” Jews faced persistent prejudice in the Soviet Union. Unacceptable, of course. But is that really comparable to the Holocaust and Nazi Germany? Or the endless pogroms of the tsarist era, always encouraged by the government? The fascist régimes of the 20th century? The murderous dictatorships of the Global South imposed by the U.S. to take their natural resources and leave them underdeveloped? It is true that Soviet peoples didn’t have the consumer goodies of the West. But they also had no fear of unemployment and starvation as always looms over the head of those in capitalist economies.

      And we might look at it this way: Russia was an extremely backward and undeveloped country at the time of the revolution. What improvements in living conditions were achieved compared to before the revolution, and compared to other countries at a similar stage at the time of the revolution? By that metric, there were impressive advancements.

      None of the preceding is meant to deny the very real deprivations and especially not the very real political and other repressions, nor the very real human rights abuses by a government that was supposed to provide more, not less, than capitalist governments. In my mind, an immense tragedy. But failure means trying again, but doing better. To do better, we’ll need to learn from the bitter legacy of the Soviet Union.

  7. Neal says:

    Sorry that I did not see your reply previously. I’ll respond, citing to your points.

    1. Several hundred thousand supposed Kukaks were killed, a great many of them for no other reason than the local political leader want them out of the way. Those sent to work elsewhere also died in very, very large numbers. I might also note, the road to Stalin’s terrors was also paved with Lenin joking about farm workers being hung, as disclosed by Bertrand Russell. ( ) I have no reason to doubt what Russell heard Lenin say. Do you? Whatever questions one might have about Russell’s philosophy, he was a very careful observer.

    2 – 4. No comments by me.

    5. The special stores for the elite and long lines for everyone else amounted to a company town arrangement, one run by nasty people. So, we are not thinking of a company town of the type Milton Hersey might have admired. We are imagining a society where there was only one company which owned virtually everything and thus had a monopoly so that it did not really need to care what it did. Such, I would assume, is the inevitable development of Leninism. Once you have a person in power who cares primarily about power (and, perhaps, gives lip service to some ideology), you have the world that came to be in the USSR. Much the same thing occurred in China, except that the leader, likely out of sincere belief, decided it best to allow many tens of millions of people to be killed in a cultural revolution intended to move towards perfecting society – his definition of perfect.

    6. That’s not entirely accurate. My wife, when she came to the US, thought that there was no butter here so that people had to use margarine. Her sister and all of the other former Soviet people I met thought the same. Why? Because that was something used in propaganda. It had not occurred to them until living here that the issue with margarine – at least as science of the late 197o’s thought – was healthier than butter. That point was missing from the propaganda. Moreover, the major propaganda about the US concerned poverty, with that point being stressed. However, it was the evidence presented about poverty that persuaded large numbers of people in the USSR that, whatever inequality there was in the US, poor Americans had substantially more of everything than the typical Soviet citizen. Consider: the typical Soviet citizen living in a city shared an apartment with one or more other families. Aside from that being an objectively worse arrangement than what is typical in the US, sharing an apartment with real strangers tended to make life really tough for many reasons including, by way of example only, concerns about being spied on by neighbors in the same apartment, stealing food, hogging the bathroom, not cleaning the bathroom, having loud sex, being crude or stupid, trying to seduce others in the house, hearing family fights, etc., etc.

    7. Stalin, at least for a while, did certain things directed at making antisemitic expression in public more difficult. And, he allowed, for a while, a Yiddish theater. However, antisemitism was ever present and not something latent. Moreover, antisemitism in the USSR was not akin to antisemitism in the US – then or ever. Your confused because, if you were brought up in the US, you likely have only the most limited personal experience of that prejudice – and the least antisemitic period under Soviet rule was substantially worse than the most antisemitic time in the US. What existed in Russia and in the USSR is something more akin to a basic attitude and atmosphere, where Jews understood that their potential acceptance into society required always being ready to renounce, as evil, anything seen as Jewish. In Russian times, that obviously meant converting so that perhaps the convert but surely that person’s offspring might escape the negative side of being of Jewish heritage. In the USSR, that meant renouncing, when necessary, anything tied in any way to Jews or Jewish heritage or culture or causes. And, Jews from the USSR I have met all say this. I’ll also just note: I have enough experience with people from the USSR – including those who were alive before Stalin decided that antisemitism was useful to him, to state that you have this point confused.

    8. No comment.

    9. Point 2. I think that one issue with socialism and communism is that people care about themselves more than they care about others. Consider the case of communes. Some succeed for a while but, at some point, those on the commune are lured away. I note this point most particularly with reference to the most successful effort at creating communes, called the kibbutz. They had substantial success during Israel’s early history, largely because the community was attempting to establish itself. However, at this point, even still successful ones find it difficult to retain those born there. Such people are lured by the chance of greater personal success, something not offered by the kibbutz.

    9. Point 2. Another problem with socialism more generally relates to the need for rulers. It seems inevitable that rulers come in more than one kind. Whatever issues you have with the US, its founders recognized that specific problem – people are not angels. And, socialism seems to posit that people will choose rationally, notwithstanding world history that demonstrates that people are often self-centered, irrational, not wise, etc., etc. So, I am rather doubtful that socialism will ever become something mankind accepts as a societal, economic and political norm that replaces other societal, economic and political norms. Whatever improvements that will perhaps occur in how people treat each other – and, please note, there has been considerable improvement in many parts of the world, including in the West under both capitalism and social democratic governance – will be the result of things other than a socialist or a communist government.

    9. Point 3. I do not understand the point that socialism has not existed. Whether or not there has been a socialist society is simply a question of semantics. I think that you would be better off asserting that those who have thus far sought to build a socialist society have failed to make most people’s lives in such societies better. In my view, what the USSR created was, in fact, the only socialism thus far possible. The problem was that creating a monopoly of power of any person or group over public life inevitably leads to tyranny. So, you had a tyrannical socialism. Whether or not that is the only socialism/communism ever really possible is unknown. However, the efforts thus far suggest such is a problem unlikely to be solved.

    Your conclusion. I had written that the Soviet Union “was quite comparable to the worst tyrannies that have ever existed on earth.” That the Nazis were worse does not change that. And, if we are speaking about numbers killed, the Soviet regime killed huge numbers of its own citizens (and probably substantially more than the Nazis did), created a vast network of camps (where the chances of being killed or dying were very great), not only allied with the USSR but actually supplied Nazi Germany with food, etc., at the expense of those living in the USSR, started WWII as an ally of Nazi Germany – and not just, as some have said, simply to buy time but, instead, in order to conquer parts of Poland in order to absorb what it conquered into the USSR. Having supplied the Nazis with sustenance, Stalin was evidently caught completely off guard when the Nazis broke the treaty and, moreover, had spent substantial energy turning conquered so that they operated as part of the USSR, thus showing rather clearly that he was not simply buying time.

    Now, Soviet ideology was not overtly antisemitic. The Nazis saw Jews as a special problem requiring their elimination. Soviet ideology did not require the elimination of the Kulaks as living people or any other people. Soviet ideology, instead, called for the elimination of the Kulak class. However, the reality of what occurred is that those who governed decided to kill Kulaks where they stood, except for those sent places where they were worked to death or starved to death. And, Soviet governing policy caused more than 5 million people to starve to death. And, the Soviet leader decided to get rid of people in large numbers for what amounts to pre-crimes – as in being objective enemies. And, those things occurred with vast numbers of people being killed. Hence, the Poles – hundreds of thousands of them – who lived near the Polish border were simply exterminated. These things place the USSR among history worst tyrannies. I don’t see how you can think otherwise.

    Lastly, so far as the achievements of the USSR, most if not all of them would have occurred anyway. Other backwards and underdeveloped countries (e.g., South Korea after the Korean War, Japan in the early 20th Century, etc., etc.) managed to make significant achievements – greater achievements than the USSR ever managed – without killing millions of their own people. If, as you claim, the USSR was not a socialist country – because, as you known, none has ever existed – why not simply judge it compared to other countries. By that standard, the USSR achieved very little.

    • I suppose we will not come to agreement on most issues. Nonetheless, I will respond as best I can. I don’t have first-hand experience of living there as your in-laws do but I am a book author who has published hundreds of pages on the Soviet Union, backed by years of research; my book has 1,800 footnotes from a huge variety of perspectives among professional historians, including several from the Soviet Union.

      1. I am not going to trash Bertrand Russell, nor would I have any reason to do so. But you are citing one anecdote for which we can not know if the alleged Lenin statement is true versus legions of researchers and copious historical documentation. One anecdote doesn’t overrule serious scholarship.

      The number of those killed in the purges is well established at about 680,000 with another 110,000 executed during the remainder of Stalin’s reign. Of course more people died in work camps, mostly during the years of deprivation during World War II when many other Soviet citizens also died due to awful conditions, most notably in Leningrad. Why is it necessary to inflate the horrific death toll of Stalin? That “several hundred thousand supposed Kulaks were killed” has no historical or factual basis. Some were among those who died in work camps, certainly, and their fate was cruel. But there is no need to pull numbers out of the air to highlight their fate.

      I am not suggesting in any way that the forced collectivization was rational or justified, but it it should be noted that the kulaks were trying to starve the cities. Should mass starvation been allowed for the sake of price speculation? History is complex.

      5. “Tens of millions” killed. These numbers that are popularly bandied about are propaganda for the sake of demonization. Aren’t the numbers I listed above — again, those are the products of professional historians scouring the archives and records — horrific enough? The only way we can get to the higher fantasy numbers that demonologists float would be to blame Stalin for not surrendering to Hitler and then assigning him the blame for all World War II deaths. Let’s stick to facts — reality certainly paints a damning enough picture of Stalin’s dictatorship.

      As to the “inevitable development of Leninism,” that is another fantasy commonly put forth by writers more interested in condemnation than analyzing. If Stalinism was the continuation of Leninism, why did Stalin have all of Lenin’s Politburo members and most of Lenin’s central committee executed? Why would Stalin have drowned the party in blood in an effort to wipe out all memory of the revolution and its earliest years? Why would Stalin annihilate all opposition, real or imagined, an opposition where the ablest and most independent thinkers were to be found?

      That Stalin was the product of Lenin is not simply ahistorical and without foundation, it is promoted by right-wing writers to demonize the entire project from start to finish. Once again, history is vastly more complex. We learn nothing from repeating propaganda slogans.

      6. It is not in dispute that Soviet citizens had a lower standard of living than did those in the advanced capitalist countries. A lack of democracy was a critical factor in that (not the only factor, of course, one of my subchapter headings is “Fruits of stagnation: The complexity of structural dysfunction”) because the party and industrial leadership could go on pouring money into producer goods instead of consumer goods. A bad outcome arising from a one-party state in which a simplified version of its originally animating ideology becomes calcified and reduced to abstract sloganeering far removed from being a living entity. One-party states always degeneration, regardless of where on the political spectrum they are, and the Soviet Union was an especially acute example of that.

      I should also add that the high material standards of living enjoyed(?) in advanced capitalist countries comes through ruthless exploitation of most of the world and, especially in the U.S., a soulless rat race and overwork.

      7. You under-estimate anti-Semitism in the United States. I know plenty of Jews who would vehemently dispute your assertion that anti-Semitism here is benign. It was not long ago that there were barriers to careers for being Jewish in much of the country. And it not simply latent here — witness the fascists in Charlottesville, Virginia, chanting “Jews will not replace us.”

      Yes, anti-Semitism was a very serious problem in the Soviet Union, as has been the case in Poland and other countries we can mention. As to Stalin, it does not matter whether he was anti-Semitic personally or used it as a useful political weapon; that it was allowed to readily be expressed publicly is what matters. There was the Doctor’s Plot and other incidents, which incidentally I do write about in my book. But we need only think about the fate of Jews at the hands of pogroms under the tsars to know that virulent Russian anti-Semitism long predated the communist era. There were strong efforts to couner anti-Semitism until Stalin reversed that.

      9. I haven’t studied the kibbutz, so I can offer no commentary on them.

      How people will act is dependent on what is rewarded. In capitalism, ruthless competitiveness is rewarded and cooperation is not, before we even get to the cut-throat nature of the economy. When people are put in a position of relentless struggle to survive, they are going to fight fiercely. Should that be a surprise? If people are in a position of relative material deprivation — or even if they feel that they are — competitiveness will naturally emerge.

      In a different world where cooperation is rewarded, then cooperative instincts will come to the fore. Sure, humans are competitive. But they are cooperative, too.

      It appears there is no possibility of seeing eye to eye on the points you raise across No. 9, which, I am forced to point, are based on exaggerations. The idea that the prejudices Jews had to face in the Soviet Union, including having their careers curtailed, is somehow comparable (or even worse) than the Holocaust is simply too fantastic for me to bother refuting. And it was not only Jews. I, as an intellectual and as a Marxist of Slavic heritage would have been sent to be worked to death by the Nazis in the Mauthausen concentration camp. One of those two, never mind both, would have sealed my fate had I lived in reach of the Nazis. Most of those sent to Mauthausen lasted no more than a few months.

      A country that went from a 20 percent literacy rate to producing more engineers than any country on Earth in the span of a few decades can hardly be said to have “achieved very little.” Those achievements obviously should have not have been done at such horrific human cost.

      Although we can cite South Korea, Japan and a couple of other countries (which were allowed to develop by the U.S. for geopolitical reasons during the Cold War) we can cite far more countries that remained mired in poverty and lack of development under capitalism. We can also cite the tens of millions of people killed by capitalist regimes around the world, most often by dictatorships backed and/or installed by the U.S., but since they are almost in Global South countries, their deaths are not considered important by commentators invested in elevating the U.S. and demonizing any country that attempts to break free of U.S. domination. Just in India alone, Britain is responsible for tens of millions of deaths. Yet we hear nothing of this. I’d say I’d wonder why, except I know the answer.

  8. Neal says:

    Thanks for the reply.

    An up front note: You keep insisting – MISTAKENLY INSISTING – that I am saying or suggesting that what happened in the USSR to Jews or anyone else was worse than the Holocaust. I WROTE NOTHING OF THE SORT. I THINK NOTHING OF THE SORT. (Sorry to have to use all caps but you seem not really to have read what I wrote.)

    In fact, I wrote that the USSR was among history’s worst regimes. That is a stand alone comment, not a comparison with the Nazis or the Chinese communists or the Tamerlane. It was not intended to rank the USSR with reference to the Nazis or other truly despicable regimes.

    For what it is worse, the Nazis were a lot worse than the USSR. But, the USSR is responsible for the horrors it caused and abetted, including its decision to assist the Nazis, both by agreeing to conquer lands together and by USSR deciding to provide food and material to the Nazis. So, the decision to divide up, for example, Poland resulted in large numbers of deaths and, quite clearly, it would have been a lot more complicated for the Nazis had they not worked with the cooperation of the USSR. That, after all, was the point for the Nazis. The original plan, to have Poland assist the Nazis fight the USSR fell apart when the Polish government said “No” to the idea because it did not want war.

    Turning now to your more accurate comments:

    Unless my memory is mistaken, I believe that Timothy Snyder asserts in his book Bloodlands that several hundred thousand supposed Kulaks were killed, apart from those who were starved or sent into nasty forms of labor. But, I could always be mistaken about that. Also, if Snyder is to be believed, “Kulaks” the class is effectively a made up thing referring to farmers who were slightly better off than other farmers. In any event, in the end, Kulaks really came to mean those people whom local government officials did not like.

    I don’t think I inflated numbers about those, overall, killed. Starvation, the extermination of Poles, the murder of enemies in the purges, the murder of Poles during WWII (i.e., taking their soldiers and murdering them), the murders in the aftermath of WWII (e.g., in connection with re-drawing Poland’s borders to the same lines that Stalin’s government had agreed upon with the Nazi government), the deaths of people in labor camps, etc., etc. Let’s assume, however, that I am mistaken by several million. Clearly, 5 million for those who starved to death is well documented. So, that is a base number. And, the others killed did, in fact, by all accounts I have read, reach into the millions. So, perhaps only 7 or 8 million people were killed. Even at 5 million people allowed to starve – and blamed for starving -, that makes the USSR among history’s worst regimes.

    Russell is among the most brilliant observers, philosophers and thinkers of all time, a person not atypically mentioned in the same breadth as Plato, Newton, Hegel, Kant and Einstein, among a few others. He was known to be precise and not prone to projecting his desires and ideas onto things he observed. So, when he makes an observation, that is not the same thing as someone off the street saying something. His observation amounts to saying that Lenin saw the peasants, not as human beings with individual lives, but, instead, as a group that could be used to advance his cause, regardless of the impact of that cause on those involved. I have no reason to doubt that is true.

    You write: “If Stalinism was the continuation of Leninism, why did Stalin have all of Lenin’s Politburo members and most of Lenin’s central committee executed?” Answer: because he wanted his own people in control. I might add, Stalin killed all sorts of people for no reason that, to outsiders, makes much sense. I’ll make an analogy. In the tradition that developed in the Ottoman Empire, the oldest son of the Sultan would rule. As part of coming to power, that son would kill any and all of his brothers. On your theory, that should not occur because they all stood for the same manner of government and longstanding general political agenda of expanding the empire. But, the idea for the Ottoman Empire was to be sure that the Sultan had no rivals. So, that seems a good explanation for what Stalin might have thought.

    You write: “Why would Stalin have drowned the party in blood in an effort to wipe out all memory of the revolution and its earliest years?” Answer: Because he wanted to be recognized as the man who created a great nation. He was Sultan. His word was the word of communism.

    You write: “Why would Stalin annihilate all opposition, real or imagined, an opposition where the ablest and most independent thinkers were to be found?” On this question, I suggest reading Hannah Arendt. She has a pretty decent explanation.

    In any event, I did not assert that Stalin is strictly a product of Lenin. I asserted that there is a straight path from one to the other. Let’s call that path, for lack of a better phrase, “ideologue thinking”. So, ideologues not untypically see actual people as a means to an end, but without much regard for Kant’s views about ends and means. The communists who came to power in Russia were an “ideologue thinking” group. Yes, they thought they were acting to create a better world. Plato, however, would remind us that people normally think that what they are doing is good. Anyway, expanding on Russell observation that Lenin would quote Marx as inerrant, such is the mark of an ideologue thinking person. Stalin, to note, seems also to have been an ideologue thinking person. However, he was a lot more brutal than Lenin and, perhaps, a lot more paranoid.

    You write: “One-party states always degeneration, regardless of where on the political spectrum they are, and the Soviet Union was an especially acute example of that.” I agree entirely on this point.

    You write: “I should also add that the high material standards of living enjoyed(?) in advanced capitalist countries comes through ruthless exploitation of most of the world and, especially in the U.S., a soulless rat race and overwork.” There is some truth to this. Life can be a soulless rat race for many people, some finding that rewarding and others hating it.

    Also, there is certainly, as you indicate, exploitation of other parts of the world – although that is not as simple as your comment suggests. A more accurate statement is that contemporary science, having its primary development in the west, benefited the west militarily and commercially. And, that certainly led to conquests, colonization and exploitation. But – and this seems to be the rub against that view – science does not care who uses it. So, the formerly exploited – e.g., Chinese – can also come to prosper and exploit. Or, some parts of the world can simply avoid the exploitation (e.g., Japan) but adopting the scientific way of thinking.

    The west, of course, did not create exploitation. There have been conquerors in the past. By way of example, the Arab and, more generally, Muslim conquests come to mind. Their conquests were mostly not loved any more than more recent ones but, to note, the Arabs and Muslims more generally did something brilliant that – excluding most particularly in India, where the Arab conquests are rightly condemned as being brutal beyond all pre-20th Century imagination – the West never managed. In many areas they conquered, they convinced those of the conquered who converted that Muslim history was also the history of the conquered – i.e., that the conquered could also see themselves as being one with the Muslim people, the umma -, notwithstanding having been conquered. In that regard, the grandchildren of the conquered have been documented siding not with their own ethnic group but with the conquerors (e.g., that the conquerors brought them civilization aka Islam such that those who resisted – i.e., their grandparents – had done something morally wrong). The West has never really managed that feat but, be that as it may, notwithstanding efforts to spread Christianity (which, in my view, has both good and bad aspects), the spread of science tends to recast the situation.

    I don’t think I said that antisemitism is benign in the US or anywhere else. My point was an objective point. The Soviet Union had a toxic environment for Jews in their everyday lives. To be part of society, the condemnation of all things Jewish was a day to day requirement – as in it was an everyday, in your face, thing. That is a major reason that Jews mostly all left the USSR, when the opportunity arose. It was a decision made notwithstanding knowing almost nothing much about the rest of the world – and armed with the belief that it could not be worse than the USSR. I don’t see Jews in the US looking to leave in large numbers. Do you?

    Of course, there is clearly a rise in antisemitism in the US. And, the Jews I know – leaving aside real ideological partisans I know of the left or right – see it coming from all sides and are very concerned and very worried. But, so far as day to day life, this is a concern and a worry, but only rarely an in-your-face issue, and that is how it is perceived. By contrast, in the USSR, antisemitism was an everyday, in your face concern, to the extent that Jews felt the need to leave what had been home for them. That is really a very difficult decision to make and not something that someone does lightly. Consider: going to a land you no nothing about, who speak a language you don’t speak, have a culture you don’t have any connection with, etc. and, further, leaving a culture you love, a language you love, etc., etc. This is a very painful thing.

    You are correct that Stalin did not create antisemitism. As a topic that I have studied with some interest, I have a book recommendation for you. The book is “Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition”, by David Nirenberg. The book, technically speaking, is not about antisemitism – but it is extremely pertinent to the topic. I’ll suggest, as an advertisement for the book, two reviews of the book for you. Michael Walzer, in the New York Review of Books ( ). If you don’t have a subscription, I have seen others who have “borrowed” and “republished” the review in its entirety. There is also Anthony Grafton’s review in The New Republic (back when it was a more serious publication) ( ). Or, you can read the book. I’ll add, of the many scholarly books I have read over the years, this is among the best of the best. I’ll note that anyone who reads the book will have a thousand times more insight on the topic than anyone else, even if you do not end up agreeing with Nirenberg’s thesis.

    I’ll note lastly, I tend to be reasonably careful with my comments. I don’t think I have exaggerated. It is, of course, possible that my memory is mistaken or I misread something. We all do that sort of thing.

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