I’ve been doing a lot of reading on the history of the Soviet Union (some of which I’ll make other posts about). One of the things that struck me was how blatantly many of the policies went against the theoretical principles of communism and/or socialism. Now, there are basically two polar opposite opinions on regimes like the USSR or Mao’s China. Side 1 is that their failure means that communism has failed since these societies have utterly discredited the notion and have shown that communism is monstrous. Side 2 is I believe taken by many modern-day communists. This is that these countries were never communist (or socialist). This reminds me of the trope that “Christianity is a great idea, it’s a shame it’s never been tried”. (Of course side 3, that Stalinism and Maoism are just a-ok, that doesn’t merit more than horror and mockery.)
I think for most of my time I leaned towards side 1 but after the reading am warming towards side 2. Not that I believe socialism or communism are the way to go (although most liberal democracies do incorporate some aspects of these even today). It was just the sheer extent to which the societies that claimed to be communist/socialist couldn’t pretend to be. Some blatant examples from the history of the USSR:
- As soon as the revolution came in, the Bolsheviks found that they had to pay specialists several times more than manual labourers. While Lenin had apparently lamented this as a necessary evil, Stalin considered the idea of equal pay as a “bourgeous distraction” since socialism is mainly about the abolishing of class as opposed to personal equality. However, income inequality between skilled and unskilled labour may well have been greater in the USSR than in “capitalist” countries at the time.
- During the time of the Gulag, the prisons that people would go to during their “investigations” had a weekly canteen. You could use the money you had on you to buy some small treats to supplement your meagher rations. Because this was the time of the Gulag, many people were nabbed on the street or in the middle of the night and thrown in jail with nothing. There was no way of receiving money from family since often your family wouldn’t even know if you were alive. So, the prisoners came up with a pooling system where every inmate with money was to subsidise those without. Inmates took great care to keep the practice hidden because this socialised sharing system was frowned upon and forbidden by authorities (although they couldn’t do much about it).
- In Stalin’s time, higher education was not free and given the extremely low wages was a luxury for many. Fees were only abolished after Stalin’s death.
- The other obvious thing was the stratification and social immobility of Soviet society. Especially by the 50s, it became extremely conservative and I wouldn’t be surprised if class mobility was less than the USA at the time (not exactly a paragon of economic equality either).
- For a worker’s party, the CPSU was very anti-worker. There were many open clashes and strikes in the beginning that were put down with ferocity. These subsided but the 1962 Novocherkassk massacre showed how much discontent was brewing underneath for decades. Under Stalin, the workplace relation laws were particularly draconian. In the name of achieving the 5 year plan, any form of lateness was considered a criminal offense and virtually a form of anti-revolutionary treason. A worker that was dismissed would have a lot of trouble finding any other work because of the centralisation of work records. The idea of the soviet (ie. bottom-up government by the workers) was a joke.
- Finally, the relationship with the peasantry was just as problematic (again, funny for a party claiming to represent workers and peasants). There were plenty of riots over collectivisation in the early days that were put down with unapologetic terror. Then there was the possibly tens of millions killed in various man-made famines. Finally, for many decades peasants had no internal passports and were hence tied to their community for their whole lives, a nice reprise of the days of serfdom under the czar.
Once again, these things are very well known, I was just shocked at how blatant it was. Whatever you might think of socialism or communism, the examples that are commonly cited aren’t. The USSR was neither united nor soviet nor socialist — but it was a republic.