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Reflections on the 30th anniversary of the end of the Soviet socialist project

Commentary by staff |
January 13, 2022
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Poster from the USSR
Poster from the USSR

Last month marked the 30th anniversary of one of the most colossal events in history. On December 26, 1991, the Soviet Union formally dissolved itself, bringing an end to the 70-plus year project of building socialism, and reintroducing capitalism to nearly a fifth of the world.

The Soviet collapse marked the rock-bottom low point for 20th century socialism, but it also wasn’t alone. Both before the events in Russia and for nearly a decade after, socialist countries in Eastern Europe saw sweeping counter-revolutions that brought down the ruling workers parties and restored rule by the richest 1%. Large protests, military intervention and ambivalent responses from disloyal or hopelessly despairing party leaders - these were the superficial hallmarks of the era.

In some countries like Bulgaria, the communist party put up a fight and actually won elections under the new capitalist-friendly constitution - a sin that quickly got them outlawed by the new ruling classes, no matter their empty rhetoric about “free and fair elections.” For Albania and Yugoslavia, it took outright military intervention by NATO members well into the 1990s to finally put the proverbial nail in red coffin.

It’s all worth reflecting on because of the untold misery brought about by monopoly capitalism in the last 30 years. As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, bringing death and widespread economic suffering to working people in the U.S. and around the world, there’s a growing collective sense that something has to give. This system, ruled by billionaires and banks who get rich off of the labor, land and resources of the rest of us, can’t go on. But as people explore alternatives to the capitalist hellworld of our time, the Soviet socialist project remains an important experience from which to draw lessons.

Let’s be clear on this: the collapse of the Soviet Union and the overthrow of socialism in eastern Europe was a catastrophe for workers and oppressed people around the world. Born out of the carnage and destruction unleashed on the world by monopoly capitalism, the Soviet Union became the first socialist state in history. It was a society ruled by the working class in alliance with the peasantry, who exercised political power through the communist party. Over the 20th century, revolutions—usually born out of similar conditions of war and devastation—saw other workers parties come to power, eventually encompassing nearly half the world’s population.

That’s fine history, but what was so significant about socialism in the Soviet Union?

Socialism is just a better system for the vast majority of people than capitalism. We know this because it has actually existed for over a century and still exists today in several countries. As the first socialist country in history, the Soviet Union represented a light in the dark for workers and oppressed people around the world. It showed plain as day that capitalism—with its obscene inequalities, rampant poverty and exploitation, war, disease, famine and oppression—was not the only possible way. The working class could take power for themselves as a class and use it to build a new type of society based on freedom and solidarity.

Here’s what the Soviet Union achieved in more than 70 years of building socialism: They created an economy free from unemployment, inflation, poverty, recessions, homelessness and massive income inequality. This wasn’t ‘sharing poverty’ either, as so many liberal and right-wing historians alike allege. The Soviet economy grew at a breakneck pace for most of its existence, mainly due to socialist planning, and increased its people’s living and consumption standards faster than any other country before it.

When the Bolsheviks came to power in 1917, Russia’s industrial output was 12% that of the United States; 50 years later, it had risen to 80% that of the U.S.—and 85% of the U.S.’s agricultural output. That kind of economic growth is transformational, but it wasn’t growth for growth’s sake or for the private enrichment of a few at the top. In the Soviet system, the people as a whole—ordinary working people of many nationalities—enjoyed the benefits of the growth that their hard work made possible.

At a time when inflation in the U.S. is at its highest rate in decades—especially for necessities like housing, gas, food, health care and utilities—it’s shocking to think that rent in the Soviet Union never exceeded about 3% of the family budget. Utilities ran only a bit higher at 5%. Certain luxury goods cost a lot more, but through central planning, the socialist state set prices for food and other necessities lower than their equivalent ‘market value.’

In the socialist bloc, workers had a guaranteed right to a living-wage job. Soviet workers in the mid-1970s took an average of a month’s paid vacation every year, traveling to state-sponsored resorts and neighboring countries with their families. Every worker had paid sick leave if they took ill. There were no health insurance companies, expensive premiums, high deductibles and co-pays or hospital bills at all. Health care was free for everyone.

It may come as a surprise to know that the Soviet Union had twice as many practicing doctors per person as the U.S. for most of its existence, but it shouldn’t. Education was also completely free, from elementary schools to post-graduate university programs. Soviet college students mainly came from working class backgrounds, but they never had to take out a crippling loan from a bank. The state provided living stipends for students, which meant more people could pursue their interests, talents and passions for sciences and arts. That produces more doctors and nurses, but it also produces world-class engineers, mathematicians, filmmakers, authors, architects and more.

All workers in the socialist bloc also belonged to a union, which administered their job benefits and protected them from over-zealous managers and job hazards. It’s tough to imagine in the United States, but unions in socialist countries exercise an enormous amount of institutional power on the job, over the economy and in the government. In the Soviet Union, for instance, unions could unilaterally veto discipline, including terminations, issued by managers. Workers could actually discipline or fire their supervisors and managers by recall petition through their unions.

But perhaps most staggering of all to reflect on 30 years after its collapse is the level of income inequality—or lack thereof—in the Soviet Union. Few features better encapsulate the fear and loathing of life in the United States than its gargantuan wealth gap between the top 1% and the rest of us. “The Top 1% of Americans Have Taken $50 Trillion From the Bottom 90%—And That's Made the U.S. Less Secure” read a Time Magazine headline from September 2020—and its only gotten worse.

While working people struggle to make ends meet, stay healthy and keep the lights on at home, corporate vultures like Jeff Bezos and dumbasses like Elon Musk—both billionaires—are presented by the establishment media as icons of success and innovation. In this seemingly forever-COVID capitalist system, they have succeeded—in robbing the rest of us blind. Corporate CEO pay in 2020 clocked in at 351 times that of an average worker, according to an Economic Policy Institute report in August 2021. It doesn’t take a genius to realize that the enormous wealth gap has led to higher risk of COVID infections and death among the poor and working class, particularly Black workers—although plenty of studies have proven the link anyway.

Just to say, what little income inequality did exist in the Soviet Union is unrecognizable by today’s standards in America. There was no class of millionaires or billionaires in the Soviet Union. People couldn’t own stock in companies they never worked for, collect dividends off the hard work of others and call that a job. Everybody who could work did work. Some people made more than others, but not in the way we’re used to in a capitalist country.

The highest earners in the Soviet Union were teachers and college professors, scientists and engineers, writers, artists, and public administrators. They might take home as much as 1500 rubles every month. Government officials made a little less than half of that at roughly 600 rubles. Industrial directors who headed up particular enterprises made somewhere between 190 and 400 rubles per month, largely depending on the industry and its performance. Workers earned between 150 and 200 rubles. In other words, even at its most egregious, the top-paid earner in the Soviet Union only made about ten times the income of an ordinary worker.

This widespread social and economic equality had other impacts too. The Soviet Union and the socialist countries in eastern Europe produced some of the most interesting, groundbreaking films of the time—even as American studios and theaters refused to show most of them. Ordinary working people packed movie theaters to take in everything from science-fiction like Solaris and Stalker to intense war films like Come and See—all three of which are regarded today as some of the greatest films ever, even in America. Artists produced unique, original art for working people, and state support for the arts insured that workers had unprecedented access to take it in, enjoy and learn. Most households had extensive personal libraries full of books, journals and art. It comes as no surprise that “Soviet citizens read more books and saw more films than any other people in the world,” according to a UN report from the 1980s.

Of course the impact of the Soviet Union and the socialist countries extended far beyond its own borders. Whatever its particular shortcomings or policy mistakes, the Soviet Union unquestionably served as a counter-weight to U.S. imperialism. Along with the Soviets, countries like German Democratic Republic (East Germany) provided tremendous material and diplomatic solidarity to liberation movements around the world fighting colonialism and national oppression. Socialism in action gave oppressed people around the world a living, breathing example of a society free from capitalist exploitation. Titanic freedom-fighters like Nelson Mandela and Fidel Castro drew inspiration—and support—from socialism in the Soviet Union, as did countless Black revolutionaries, organizers and activists in the United States.

Driven by an unending desire for greater profit, the monopoly capitalist countries seized on the collapse of the socialist bloc as an opportunity to sink their teeth deeper into Africa, Latin America, the Middle East and Asia. Even Yugoslavia, which had split sharply with the Soviet Union shortly after World War II, saw itself carved up by NATO in the aftermath. The ongoing ‘forever wars’ of the U.S.’s so-called War on Terror are unimaginable without the overthrow of socialism in the Soviet Union.

Of course, capitalism’s restoration plunged working people in Russia and eastern Europe into a torrent of poverty, disease, starvation, unemployment, inflation and countless other miseries. Old national and religious prejudices sprung out of the hellscape ushered in by the overthrow of socialism. Vicious armed conflicts broke out among nationalities and ethnic groups that had lived fraternally for nearly seven decades under socialism. Hateful neo-Nazi and right-wing nationalist movements saw a massive resurgence, no longer held at bay by the socialist state. In no uncertain terms, the overthrow of socialism in the Soviet Union made the world a much, much worse place.

The Soviet socialist system wasn’t perfect. Starting in the 1950s, the Communist Party began to stray from its commitment to Marxism-Leninism and walk back important parts of its practice. The reasons for this shift, to revisionism and opportunism are myriad, but over time a deeply compromising ideological trend came to predominate among the Soviet party’s leadership. Many other communist parties in eastern Europe and elsewhere followed suit. Party leadership began tolerating and eventually encouraging economic and social trends that weakened the socialist system and strengthened the forces committed to bringing back capitalism. The re-emergence and rapid growth of the black-market ‘second economy’ helped lay the groundwork for the events of 1991. Outside pressures by the imperialist counties led by the United States had a hand in this too.

Thankfully though, the fall of socialism in the Soviet Union is not the end of the story. Facing a reversal of fortune for socialists everywhere, a few countries took a different path and resisted the tidal wave of capitalism’s return. Cuba stands strong, even after suffering under the U.S.’s barbaric economic blockage for more than six decades. Just last year, Cuba stunned the world with its ingenuity and efficiency in developing its own COVID vaccine and distributing it to more than 90% of people, giving it one of the highest vaccination rates in the world. Vietnam, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and Laos have all seen similar success in the fight against COVID while protecting the livelihood of their people.

Socialist China and its unprecedented, roaring economic success stand out as a particularly important part of this story. Like it did in the Soviet Union and the eastern bloc, the grim reaper of capital eventually visited China in the form of the 1989 Tiananmen protests, which were plainly aimed at overthrowing the socialist system as similar protests had done elsewhere. A section of the Communist Party even supported these aims. At the decisive moment though, the party did the right thing and put its foot down. They used the socialist state to stop the slide back into capitalist oblivion and misery. For whatever mistakes and errors these parties have made in the last 30 years, their decision to continue building socialism has made life better for the vast majority of working people, both in their countries and around the world.

Point-blank, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the socialist bloc was a catastrophe for the working class around the world. Workers in countries like the United States might not have seen it that way at the time, but monopoly capitalism’s largely unimpeded 30-year reign has made life worse for all of us.

Between the carnage and torture of endless wars for oil, economic crisis after economic crisis, rampant police crimes and racist vigilante violence, the apocalyptic weather events brought on by climate change, and the explosive spread of COVID-19, it’s all too clear that December 26, 1991 did not represent “the end of history,” as liberal academic Francis Fukuyama famously wrote. The same class struggle that drove workers, soldiers, sailors, peasants and oppressed people to overthrow a centuries-old monarchy in Russia rages on in 2022.

People committed to ending our collective misery and creating a better world for ourselves and our children should look at the Soviet experience and learn from it. Socialism is not an elaborate system neatly worked out in the brains of intellectuals and academics, nor is it a political science checklist. Workers and oppressed people of many nations have built and are continuing to build socialism. It exists, past and present, for us to learn from its victories as well as its defeats in the hopes of building a future world worth living in.

Editor’s note: For those interested in learning more about the causes and history of the Soviet Union's collapse, Roger Keeran and Thomas Kenny's book Socialism Betrayed: Behind the Collapse of the Soviet Union remains a must-read English-language account. Several of the points in this essay are drawn from their book, which is still as thought-provoking and important for socialists to read as it was in 2004 on its release. For an equally insightful account of China's experience in the same period with the Tiananmen protests of 1989, as well as the CPC's different response, readers should check out Mick Kelly's Continuing the Revolution is Not a Dinner Party: Looking Back at Tiananmen Square, the Defeat of Counter-Revolution in China.

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