Vladimir Unkovski-Korica analyses what went wrong in post-revolution Russia
For much of the twentieth century, the Soviet Union was a byword for the alternative to capitalism. Its disappearance has helped to delegitimise the notion of radical change ever since.
Yet the Soviet Union was not what it seemed. It maintained the aura of a revolutionary state because it was born out of one of the greatest revolutions of the modern world.
In 1917, workers and soldiers toppled the Romanov dynasty, which had ruled for three centuries, and formed soviets, or councils, highly democratic representative organs of power built from the workplace up.
Initially, the soviets shared power with sections of the old order, but compromise became impossible. By November 1917, workers elected the revolutionary Bolsheviks on the slogan: ‘All power to the Soviets!’.
It did not stop there. Workers across the world looked to Soviet Russia for inspiration. Through strikes and demonstrations, they tried to stop their countries helping the counter-revolutionary armies in the Russian Civil War, which the Bolsheviks won by 1921.
However, attempts at establishing soviet republics were repeatedly quashed militarily, from Hungary and Bavaria in the aftermath of the First World War, to Shanghai in 1927.
The Soviet Union, as the country was known from 1922, stood isolated and surrounded by hostile powers.
Soon, a quiet counter-revolution occurred. Without a formal change of regime, the state departed from any notion of working class democracy and moved to accelerate autarkic economic development at the expense of the population.
It quashed opposition to this move led by Leon Trotsky, co-leader of the Bolsheviks in 1917, who hoped to revive soviet democracy and international revolution.
Democracy in the soviets had already died a slow and silent death in the period of the civil war, as a state bureaucracy had arisen to run nationalised industry.
And, although the Bolsheviks had remained wedded to protecting working class living standards and spreading revolution, a powerful section of the party and state bureaucracy, led by Joseph Stalin, now argued that the Soviet Union could only survive if it industrialised quickly.
In Stalin’s words, ‘We are fifty or a hundred years behind the advanced countries. We must make up this gap in ten years. Either we do it or they will crush us.’
Because state leaders continued to profess their commitment to socialism, and to aid communist parties abroad when it suited their interests, the Soviet Union continued to command the loyalty of millions of working class militants for decades.
The reality, however, was that it had become a bureaucratic state capitalist regime. The state held the commanding role in economic affairs, but production was no longer about serving working class needs. Instead, it was about preparing for war.
Even as economic growth under the famous five-year plans rocketed in the 1930s, working class living standards fell and millions in the countryside died of starvation.
Geopolitical competition, first against Nazi Germany in the Second World War, then the United States in the Cold War, shaped the Soviet economy for decades. It scored major successes: the T34 tank was better than its Nazi German counterparts and the Soviet Union reached parity in nuclear missiles with the USA in the 1970s. But by this time, it was spending a fifth of its GDP on the military.
This meant that external priorities decisively shaped Soviet economic policies, at the expense of its population, which did nothing to defend the state as it crumbled in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Building ‘socialism in one country’ as Stalin had promised to do proved not just impossible but turned the Soviet Union into the opposite.
If we wish to build socialism in the twenty-first century, we have to remain committed to the democratic and internationalist vision of 1917.
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