“The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics" (or Union of So-called Socialist Republics, to be more accurate) is no more. When, on 25 December, the red flag over the Kremlin was lowered for the last time, the 74-year association of Russia and “socialism” came to an end. In each of the member-states of the new Commonwealth of Independent States nationalism has replaced Leninism as the official ideology.
Socialists can only welcome the abandonment by the Russian authorities of any claim to be socialist. That claim was never justified, not under Lenin any more than under Stalin, and did uncalculable damage to the cause of genuine socialism. Now Russia can be seen as what it always was in reality: one other capitalist state in a world of capitalist states.
What has happened in Russia—the emergence of a political regime relying more on the consent of the ruled than on their coercion—was bound to happen sooner or later since a developed capitalist economy cannot be run for any length of time on police-state lines, at least not without creating serious economic difficulties.
A modern industrial economy requires an educated working class to operate it, and such a working class cannot be bullied into working efficiently. Their co-operation has to be sought, and to this end they have to be granted certain rights both at work and in society generally, such as the right to form trade unions that can bargain over wages and working conditions and the right to have a say via the ballot box in the choice of political leaders.
All developed capitalist countries have been forced to grant the working class such rights. So it was possible to predict that this would happen sooner or later in Russia too. but not precisely when and how. We detected the beginning of this process in Russia under Khrushchev in the late 1950s and early 1960s and it seemed then that some sort of political democracy would emerge there within a decade or so. But then came Brezhnev. And we must confess to being as surprised as anyone else at the speed with which events have moved in Russia and Eastern Europe over the past three years.
The point is that the actual course of events depends on the precise historical background and on the choices made by those involved—the ruling class and their political representatives, and the working class. Those who seized political power in Russia in 1917 used it to force the pace of capitalist development there. The state was used not only to drive the peasants off the land and into the factories, mines and construction sites (as had happened in the early stages of capitalism in England too) but also to organise the extraction of surplus value from the newly-created working class and its accumulation as more and more capital, a task which in other capitalist countries had been left to the private initiative of capitalist enterprises.
As a result the type of capitalism that emerged in Russia was one where the state was the capitalist. As the state was monopolised by a clique of Party and state officials, known in Russian as the “nomenklatura”, this made them the effective owners of the means of production, even if collectively as a body rather than as individuals, and enabled them to enjoy a privileged lifestyle.
From the point of view of Russian capitalism, this system was relatively successful in that it built up an industrial infrastructure which allowed Russia to emerge from the Second World War as the second greatest military power in the world. However, by the 1950s there were signs that it was beginning to become a drag on further capitalist development in Russia in the same way that previously the Tsarist regime had been.
An educated urban working class had emerged that could no longer be treated in the same brutal way as the dispossessed peasants who had been slave-driven into building Russia's basic industries. A section of the Russian ruling class realised this and under Khrushchev a number of reforms were made: Stalin's methods were criticised, the labour code was made less strict, and central state control was relaxed in both the economy and the field of ideas. Another section of the ruling class, however, saw where this would logically lead: to some measure of political democracy and the end of the nomenklatura system and their privileged position in society. Khrushchev was deposed in 1964 and Brezhnev took over.
Brezhnev pursued the policy of trying to carry out economic reform while leaving the political structure—the one-party state and its privileged nomenklatura—unchanged. It didn’t work. The working class in effect refused to co-operate. "They pretend to pay us. and we pretend to work", as a popular saying of the Brezhnev era put it. Industrial development and productivity continued to stagnate. It eventually became clear to the dominant elements within the Russian ruling class that the process begun under Khrushchev in the 1960s would have to be resumed if economic stagnation was not to undermine Russia’s military strength. Gorbachev was chosen in 1985 as the man to preside over this process.
Ruling class split
Glasnost (“openness”) was introduced and the working class was allowed a degree of freedom of speech such as they had never known before, not even under Khrushchev. Gorbachev and the section of the ruling class he represented wanted to use the working class against another section of the ruling class which opposed his policies and wished to retain the old political regime. It was a classic case of the working class being drawn into the political arena by one section of the ruling class to settle scores with another section, as had occurred in Britain in the 19th century when the industrial capitalists sought the support of the working class against the landed aristocracy.
With the benefit of hindsight, we can now see that, once in the political arena, the working class were not going to settle for anything less than the complete elimination of the nomenklatura as a privileged ruling class. They didn’t know what they wanted to put in its place but they did know that they wanted the privileged Party bosses, who had exploited and duped them for so many years, off their backs. In this respect. Yeltsin who embraced this view at a relatively early stage proved to be a shrewder politician than Gorbachev who continued to believe that the old regime could be gradually phased out of existence without upsetting the nomenklatura too much.
In the event it was the stupidity of the conservative wing of the nomenklatura that precipitated events. In staging a coup in August against Gorbachev, they brought about the complete destruction of the old political system. Most of the armed forces refused to follow the putschists and Gorbachev returned to power. Within a few days the Communist Party had been banned. As this party wasn’t a party in the conventional sense of the term but the political institution which allowed the nomenklatura to control the state and maintain its privileges, this amounted to the abolition of the nomenklatura. With this act in September 1991 Russia’s political structure caught up with its economic base.
Effective power passed into the hands of Yeltsin who had been elected President of Russia in a country-wide poll (whereas Gorbachev had merely been appointed by a parliament largely composed of nomenklaturists). Yeltsin's analysis of what to do to save Russia's status as a great power in the capitalist world was more radical than anything Gorbachev was prepared to contemplate: granting independence to Russia’s colonies in the Caucasus and Central Asia as well as to the Ukraine and Belorussia.
This represents the break-up of the Soviet Union as a single political unit, but since Russia made up 90 percent of the former territory and 72 percent of the former population of the USSR it is not all that of a sacrifice. Of the 10 (11 if Georgia is included) new stales only the Ukraine (population 52 million, making it the fifth largest state in Europe after Germany, France, Britain and Italy) counts for anything and will be a serious loss if it really does go its own way. The others, all apart from Belorussia and Moldavia in Asia, are unviable statelets which will remain as dependent on Russia as France's ex-colonies in Africa have on France.
Russia may have lost its super-power status—which, in any event, was based on a military might well beyond its economic capabilities—but it remains a world power still armed with many more nuclear weapons than any of the other nuclear powers except America. Strengthened by a popular allegiance the old Soviet Union never had, Russia will eventually re-enter the world arena to compete alongside greater Germany and Japan against the currently world-dominant America. At least it won't be doing so in the name of socialism, not that that will make the capitalist world of competing stales a safer place.