One of the reasons why the USSR collapsed and the Cold War ended was the countries leaders playing with economic policy. Economic growth destabilizes, especially rapid growth. This is because it brings new people into politics, with some of them bitterly discontent. So in the end, economic policies can make political problems worse rather than solving them. Russia’s political system is not totally based on an ideology either as it is popularly believed, but at times it’s also not entirely pragmatic. The regimes talk some ideology to justify themselves, as they make pragmatic decisions. Ideology has become more and more, over time, window dressing. Democracy has changed over time in Russia, and is hard to implement as its people rather preferred law & order, food on the table, and jobs. These will be the main themes discussed throughout.
Communist Russia has developed very differently in terms of political and sociological structure than western countries such as the US. The basis for today’s Russia lies in the past; its history, power struggles, economy, its citizens and their ideology, and ethical underpinnings. The country in question has gone through upheavals and instability over a long period, which has demoralized its people and politicians. This has lead to corruption and suffering, which in turn had lead to a cynical and disempowered people. This is true especially in terms of attitude towards democracy, politics, and even the old ideologies of Marxism. At the end of the Soviet Union though, people became more interested in democracy and even slid backwards from a communist state into capitalism but they face difficult obstacles. Key figures such as Lenin, Stalin and Marx played key roles in the development of the world’s first socialist state. We must examine the context of their actions to understand their motivation and reasoning. After looking at the root causes of Russia’s path in history, it should be clear as to why this great social experiment called communism appears to have “failed” in Europe.
The Soviet Union’s road to collapse was most lucid in the eighties with Gorbachev and his policies of “perestroika” and “glasnost”, ending with the reunification of Germany and the iconic fall of the Berlin Wall. Russia was in a precarious situation in the early eighties, it had no real friends as its relations with the US, Europe and China was all very tense and sometimes hostile. The country was also dealing with several regional conflicts in the third world, and had no exit strategy for any of them. Gorbachev decided to strengthen diplomatic ties with the West, to get away from confrontation and possible nuclear holocaust and start a new more peaceful era (as seen with arms reduction). These were necessary practical measures deviating from any sort of dogmatic ideology that had originated almost a century earlier. These old beliefs are not gone, over the years there has been a growing critique of Western-European cultures as “spiritually shallow and materialistic” (Roskin 300). This belief initially let the Communists to prop themselves up as the alternative to everything that was wrong with capitalism; problems caused by capitalism such as social inequality. These views were mostly based and advocated by the German intellectual, Karl Marx under the banner of Marxism.
Biased views nowadays see Marxism as a foolish belief system that “justifies despotic government, and contains economic ideas that undermine productivity and human initiative to force a drab equality among people” (Schumaker 40). These are unfair assumptions as the theories of Marxism are equated with communism, because they are actually two unique strains of thought. Lenin had co-opted and altered Marxist ideas and he was very anti democratic and anti-capitalist in his own belief system of Marxism-Leninism, consequently the two ideologies were confused with each other. Marx himself wasn’t trying to “prescribe, the demise of democratic capitalism,” but to “predict…the eventual emergence of a communist society” (Schumaker 39). Marx believed that communist socialism would eventually emerge all by itself, and that it would be a post-capitalist society instigated by the majority, the working class. His intention was a scientific theory based on economics, not a political ideology. Marx grew up in the Industrial Revolution era and believed that these new technologies would put an end to the “ancient scourge of poverty and with it the class conflicts that scarcity had always bred” (Strayer 7). Instead though, Marx saw the people working unsafe jobs, in dirty environments, doing repetitive and stressful labour with subsistence wages, often getting ill and dying. His vision was one of cooperation instigated by the working class, rather than competition. There would be small democratic communes where people would not be alienated from each other or their products. There would be free creativity over these (their own) products, and no one would have private property they could use to exploit others. Eventually the socialist system would be affluent enough to provide for everyone’s economic needs.
Economics is one of the key things in any society, as it is a reflection and measurement of human labour, technique, and also class relations. Communism was pursued as an alternative model to capitalism, however this alternative was not a socialist one as Marx had envisioned. “First place among the capitalist countries is occupied by Japan…her production has risen almost 40 per cent!” But in the Soviet “production has increased during this same period…250 per cent” (Trotsky 7). There were similar figures in respects to cement, electricity, coal and industry in general during collectivization in the 1930’s. This gave a false illusion of success, as the products were often of poor quality resulting from poor techniques of labour. Indeed, the rapid industrialization was premature and too quickly implemented. Repair of machinery and products made up most of 250 per cent mentioned, so it was a statistic not accurately measuring true economic growth. It was also in contradiction with Marxism as it did not help meet everyone’s needs. This was because of not only poor technique or craftsmanship, but also because they used “primitive tools…to boost production of capital goods…consumer goods were neglected, and the standard of living declined” (Roskin 308). The populace was not educated or trained sufficiently, away from their “backwards” traditions. It was because these actions were based on Lenin’s own doctrine, in an attempt to fit Russia’s conditions; Lenin and Stalin had started an experiment with no clear idea of its consequences. Stalin was also afraid of the enemies of communism and wanted to force a rapid change into a socialist state by transforming a largely agrarian peasant class into a workers class. Lenin and other revolutionaries didn’t believe a revolution would happen automatically, and so decided to give history a little push. Their revolution was meant to bypass the capitalistic phase and go forward into the socialist phase. In a way they were trying to overthrowing capitalism where it was weakest, where it was only beginning. This was completely upside down of pure Marxist dogma which dictates the proletariat revolution would occur in highly developed economies, with highly skilled labour conscious of their own power as a class.
Lenin and his fellow revolutionaries were not blind to this; they hoped that communism would become an international movement, with the October Revolution as the catalyst. They depended on socialist regimes to spring up in countries that “unlike Russia, possessed an adequate economic infrastructure and cultural basis” (Lewin 1). This was because Lenin believed in the Marxist principal that a proletarian revolution would happen when workers would unite worldwide. However the reality was that nationalism had beat class solidarity, and thus the USSR was isolated. The Bolsheviks also had to stray from their ideals and start governing, when they found that anarcho-syndicalist groups running the factories were inefficient, slowing down production dramatically. This would be the first among many pragmatic decisions a Russian leader would have to make. This was against Marxist ideals of democratic communes, and was also centralization of power. This had occurred because of the fight against the White Army counter-revolutionaries who were supplied by Western countries, which required central leadership & organization to keep them at bay. Indeed “no democratic procedure would have made these solutions possible, but only authoritarian ones” (Lewin 13). Right from the beginning the communist leadership had been forced to transform from revolutionaries to reactionaries. Ideological basis’ was further undermined with the introduction of the New Economic Policy. It was capitalistic in nature, and was a sort of step back. It was dangerous in its solution to growing famines, as it would make capitalism attractive to the workers and disillusion them from the Bolsheviks ideologies. Lenin was aware of the contradictions, but he considered them a necessary evil to overcome mass starvation. He was very pragmatic in his dying days, as he said that future revolutionaries should “be capable of rejecting outworn dogmas, however useful they have been in the past” (Lewin 110). The key idea was that Lenin had used these Marxist dogmas to justify the revolution.
Now we must return to the era of Stalinism which dominated the politics of Russia for decades. Where Lenin believed in raising the culture (literacy & education, etc) of the Soviet people so they could eventually govern themselves, Stalin believed most strongly in modernization through collectivization and industry. It was stated to be “the Revolution…resumed and ‘Socialist construction’… begun in earnest!” (Stayer 63). This was widely popular as Lenin’s NEP was deemed too slow in effecting change. Again however, ideology strayed as some concessions were made, “Peasants were allowed to keep cows, pigs, and chickens as private property” (Strayer 64). Concerns such as basic survival forced practical measures, however despite this; tens of millions perished through Stalin’s five year plans anyway. This was because similar agricultural trends elsewhere had taken decades or centuries to develop, but in Russia it was forcefully done in a few years. This state planning resulted in the growth of an enormous bureaucracy of technocrats who received privileges in return, thus becoming a new class of elites. “In early 1917, that party had 24,000 members and it peaked in the late 1980’s with some 20 million” (Strayer 71). This only strengthened the central authority of Stalin, totalitarianism was to stay; the Communist Party as a transitional body, had transformed into a permanent one. Thus the ideological basis was crumbling, and it was only a matter of time before the system would crash. The situation was made worse by Stalin’s paranoia as he executed, exiled, imprisoned or put into slave camps anyone on the slightest suspicion of criticism. Any form of democracy was stifled.
After Stalin’s death, Khrushchev saw the need for security of the elites ruling in the Party. He desalinized the nation in what was called the “thaw,” and rightly so as the previous leadership was rigid and inflexible. Gosplan, the state planning committee made mistakes & forgot to take into account certain items, “it… meant chronic shortages of items…One year no toothbrushes were produced in the entire Soviet Union” (Roskin 316). He also exonerated artists, writers and intellectuals of crimes they never actually committed. This was an opening for democracy, allowing for free criticism from these newly freed men and the masses, of Soviet ideals. The rigidity of planned economy caused further damage as the years went on, by the 1980’s “Soviet citizens stood in longer lines and complained endlessly about the poor quality and declining availability of consumer goods” (Strayer 156). Reforms were needed because the Soviet Union was falling behind the capitalist world, embarrassing for proposing to have a superior economic system. A black market of scarce goods started in response to these problems giving rise to corruption and bribes. Also people started gaining access to Western culture with “blue jeans, T-shirts, and… rock-and-roll music” (Strayer 157). More people were able to travel outside the country’s borders and see other ways of life, one could say this was becoming more democratic as people were allowed to dissent and participate in things that were not in alignment with the state. Also protests started in the outlying provinces, marches for nationalistic rights such as local language protection. Khruschev started a domino effect from communism into a more full democracy.
Gorbachev hastened this process with Glasnost policies, he allowed “greater freedom of expression in the press, in the arts and sciences, and eventually on the streets” (McFaul 47). He allowed free speech and free association and previously banned books were now published. This was all an attempt to gain mass support for his reforms through perestroika. He wanted economic reform to fight against a stagnating economy. This was stated to be the “beginning of the revolutionary progress, the essence of which is the establishment of the original democratic principles of socialism’” (McFaul 65). Again ideology was used as the banner to hide behind, despite the constant shifting politics in the USSR. These reforms didn’t go over well with the bureaucratic elite, as the cabinet tried a coup in 1991. However the people “favouring democracy publicly opposed the coup” (Roskin 316), and Boris Yeltsin declared the junta’s decrees illegal in accordance with the constitution, the “junta” lost their nerve in the end and were arrested. Yeltsin at this time bumped Gorbachev out of power as Gorbachev was seen as an indecisive leader.
Yeltsin implemented electoralism, giving people the vote and choice in a multi-party system. A second coup attempt in 1993 essentially destroyed people’s perceptions of reform however, that “brought crime, inflation, and unemployment” (Roskin 318). The people wanted stability, even if it meant the sacrifice of democracy; they voted largely for anti-reformists afterwards. Seeing this, Yeltsin’s opponents stuck to the system as it was advantageous for them. The people were still voting for the same ruling party that had always ruled, but Yeltsin “did not resort to stay in power but played the electoral game to the end” (McFaul 305). The people didn’t want restoration to an old order either as in 1996 the vote showed a solid majority wanted to move progress and move forward. However to this day there are still obstacles in the way to democracy.
A long and brutal dictatorship by first the Tsars, and then the Bolsheviks, and then the Communist Party had never encouraged political participation. The people didn’t know much about party politics or grassroot organizing, and also superpresidentialism has emerged with Putin as leader. There is also a lack of an independent judiciary and weak adherence to rule of law. The Communist Party also deliberately tries to weaken the other parties’ chances of winning, and seems to be doing a good job of it. The battle for true democracy is going to be a long and tough one. We have seen that over time the state has become largely less ideological and more practical in its decisions. Change was either too slow or too fast resulting in insecurity, or despotism and corruption. The building of socialism may still happen but it won’t be along rigid doctrines, but pragmatic ones. The road to a socialist utopia seen by Marx is a very long way off.