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A Marxist Post-mortem of Soviet Socialism

The most complete and plausible explanation of the demise of the Soviet Union would combine the best insights of prevailing non-Marxist accounts within a more comprehensive Marxist account that gives prominence to the rise of the nomenklatura, a capitalist class-in-formation that would eventually do much of the shovelling to bury the Soviet order. Long before Yeltsin hauled the red flag down, this class-in-formation had already occupied positions of control over major productive assets; however, legally sanctioned property relations constrained it, and thus it could not systematically appropriate the surplus product. Convinced that Soviet relations of ownership stood in the way of economic development, leaders of the nomenklatura and their allies overwhelmed the demoralised and disorganised remnants of workers' power.


A Marxist Post-mortem of Soviet Socialism

Markar Melkonian

The most complete and plausible explanation of the demise of the Soviet Union would combine the best insights of prevailing non-Marxist accounts within a more comprehensive Marxist account that gives prominence to the rise of the nomenklatura, a capitalist class-in-formation that would eventually do much of the shovelling to bury the Soviet order. Long before Yeltsin hauled the red flag down, this class-in-formation had already occupied positions of control over major productive assets; however, legally sanctioned property relations constrained it, and thus it could not systematically appropriate the surplus product. Convinced that Soviet relations of ownership stood in the way of economic development, leaders of the nomenklatura and their allies overwhelmed the demoralised and disorganised remnants of workers’ power.

I wish to thank Datta Desai, Avinash Pandey, Kanchana Mahadevan, and the Academy of Political and Social Studies for inviting me to present an earlier draft of this paper at the Lokayat Centre in Pune, on 27 June 2010. I also wish to thank participants Anand Teltumbde, Suhas Palshikar, and Suhas Paranjape for their critical comments, and Vinaya Malati Hari for her work in organising the event. A special thanks, too, to Levon Chorbajian and Kanchana Mahadevan for their comments on the revised paper.

Markar Melkonian ( is with the Department of Philosophy, California State University, Northridge, California, USA.

he question at hand is: What is the significance of Marxism since the fall of the Berlin Wall? It is a big question, pointing in more than one direction. One could, for instance, discuss Karl Marx’s impact on present-day mainstream social sciences, historiography, and other cultural fields, high and low. This impact is often unacknowledged or ungratefully denied, but it is no less deep and enduring for all that. Or one could discuss the whys and wherefores of resurgent Marxism in Latin America and elsewhere, or even the spectre of Marx, recently sighted, ambling the halls of President Obama’s White House.1 But I do not want to take this discussion in these directions. Instead, I want to consider the question: Can Marxism account for the defeat of 20th century socialism? If Marxism cannot do this and do it well, then it seems to me that, in the present tense, it should have little “significance” to speak of. The authors of the Communist Manifesto, after all, were supposed to be students of “actual relations springing from an existing class struggle, from a historical movement going on under our very eyes” (Marx and Engels 1976: 498).

Reviewing recent arguments for and against Marxism, one gets the feeling that few of them are new. Cold war triumphalists have echoed earlier views of the Austrian School and its continuators, while other ideological victors have had little to add to the earlier views of philosophers like Karl Popper, Leszek Kolakowski, and Robert Nozick, or Sovietologists in the Robert Conquest mould, or the God-that-Failed type of confessional literature.2 Leaving aside Francis Fukayama’s darkly comic prognostications,3 the nearest thing to a new critique, as far as I am aware, has been launched by some of the more politically committed proponents of socio-biology and its successors, notably Wilson (2004) and Pinker (2002).

As others have reminded us, though, much of what the champions of the “new sciences of human nature” have had to say can be traced back 100 years, to Herbert Spencer and his followers (see, for example, Hofstadter 1955; Curti 1980 and Gould 1996). Of course, this is not to say that Pinker, Wilson, or any of the other recent critics are mistaken; the fact that a criticism is not novel does not mean that it has missed its target or that it is irrelevant. It merely denies these critics the advantage of novelty.

Many sundry objections to Marxism have been instances of the straw man argument. Others applied to one or another unwieldy version of Marxism, but not to the “lean, mean” version that I described in a primer that first appeared in the mid1990s (Melkonian 1996). Still other objections have applied to this or that view that Marx and Engels might have held at one time or another, but not to Marxism as developed by their legatees. We are not here interested in what Marx or Engels happened to have said at this or that time in their careers; after all, Marx had not always been a Marxist. Rather, we are interested in a Marxist perspective on events of the last century, a perspective informed by a long line of thinkers since Marx and Engels. We are interested here in historical materialism – Marxism, not Marxology.

These observations notwithstanding, some criticisms remain compelling, and of course the jury is still out on others. Whatever the strengths of the objections and responses though, the fact remains that there is no argument like failure. Rightly or wrongly, the prestige of Marxism has been tied up with “really existing socialism” in Soviet Russia and its satellites. Marxism has failed the test of prediction, it seems, and it has failed to meet its own criterion of adequacy, describing “a historical movement going on under our very eyes”. It would be surprising then, if so many erstwhile Marxists had not abandoned it as what philosopher of science Imré Lakatos called a “progressive research programme” (Lakatos 1978).

It is not entirely true, though, that Marxism or Marxists failed the test of prediction when it came to the demise of Soviet


socialism. One of the most astute previews of the demise of the Soviet Union was also one of the earliest sustained arguments to this effect, namely, Leon Trotsky’s book, The Revolution Betrayed, first published in 1936. More than 50 years before the fall of the Wall, Trotsky argued that a privileged and despotic bureaucracy had taken control of the state machinery of the Soviet Union, thereby controlling the productive resources of the country. The Soviet Union was still a workers’ state, Trotsky wrote, because the bureaucracy constituted a stratum rather than a class properly speaking. But if eventually it succeeded in institutionalising its position, establishing special forms of private property and legitimising them in law, then the gains of the October Revolution would be reversed.

Trotsky’s degenerated-workers’-state approach is just one of many left wing characterisations of the Soviet Union, each with its corresponding account of the demise. Because literature on this topic is vast and my space is limited, I do not propose here to survey competing accounts.4 Suffice it to note, however, that other Marxists have made poignant predictions too, including Milovan Djilas, in a book published in the 1950s (Djilas 1957). So without conceding the point that Marxists across-the-board have failed the test of prediction, I want to bring Marxism itself to bear on the demise of “really existing socialism” in the 20th century, and to compare my preferred Marxist account with the most plausible non-Marxist accounts.

I will begin by describing three of the strongest prevailing non-Marxist explanations of the demise and indicate why I think they are one-sided at best. I will then proceed to introduce my preferred view, which highlights the formation within the Soviet Union of the class that would dig the grave of the first workers’ state. One of the things that make this an identifiably Marxist view is precisely that it emphasises the role of class5 in social processes such as the one under discussion. By way of conclusion, I will consider whether Marxism can account for the fact that the full ascension to power of a capitalist class in post-Soviet Russia did not unleash productivity, as the cold war victors had promised and as was the case in the wake of the modern bourgeois revolutions.

If my preferred Marxist view can account for this fact in a satisfactory way, then this would mitigate a common criticism of Marxism, namely that in the last years of the last century it was blindsided by historical processes that it cannot well explain. This all has an obvious bearing on prospects for socialism in the 21st century and beyond. Aside from a couple of very gestural remarks towards the end of the discussion, though, I will not attempt to address this urgent topic here.

I make no apologies for the very general character of this discussion. Authors Richard Hardt and Antonio Negri are right at least in their contention that it is both appropriate and crucial to discuss such topics at a high level of generalisation. Twenty years have passed since the fall of the Berlin Wall; returning capitalism now has a track record, and summarisation is in order.

A Couple of Definitions

Before proceeding, though, let us agree on a couple of definitions. In this discussion the term Marxism refers to an intellectual tradition and a research programme, not to what academics sometimes call a “political ideology”. We are here concerned with Marxism as a conceptual vocabulary and a way of describing the passing scene; we are not concerned with Marxism as a repertoire of rhetorical devices or as apologetics for this or that party. The term historical materialism I take to be synonymous with Marxism. Historical materialism may be viewed as an interdisciplinary social science framework unifying in one way or another the fields of anthropology, political economy, political science, socio logy, and historiography, as well as social and political philosophy and perhaps philosophy of science. Either that or it is an alternative discipline, a science of history and society that could eclipse these conventional social sciences and philosophical fields.

Socialism I take to be workers’ power, the state power of workers as a class. As I use the word, then, socialism is synonymous with the term dictatorship of the proletariat.6 It is the name of a political state of affairs, not an economic system – let alone a mode of production with its own distinctive “spontaneously” reproducing social relations. Thus, central planning and state ownership of the means of production are

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neither sufficient nor necessary conditions for socialism.

Prevailing Post-mortems

Cold war victors have propagated three explanations of the demise of the Soviet Union:

  • (a) The huddled masses of Russia and the Captive Nations yearned to be free in Milton Friedman’s sense of the word, namely, to be able to engage in a wider range of voluntary exchanges with other individuals. Eventually they raised their heads to demand a much wider range of freedom than the socialist system or any command economy could permit.
  • (b) Soviet socialism lost the economic competition with free-market capitalism. It failed to meet rising demands for highquality consumer goods and services, including entertainment, international travel, and les choses les plus fines de la vie.
  • (c) Soviet socialism conflicted with human nature. It was just a matter of time before the population of the Soviet Union threw off the last untenable pretence of generalised altruism, in favour of kin selection and the reciprocal altruism that characterises market relations.
  • Let us take a closer look at these interrelated explanations, starting with the masses-yearning-to-be-free account.7

    Writing in 1989, shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Zbigniew Brzezinski, National Security Advisor to US President Jimmy Carter, wrote that the Soviet order “failed to take into account the basic human craving for individual freedom”. This was a common theme of Sovietologists, cele brity dissidents, and cold war commentators, and it is perfectly captured by the televised images of youths swinging sledge hammers against the Wall. The Soviet Union collapsed, it is said, under the weight of its own unfreedom; it collapsed because the population, and ultimately even the Soviet elite, experienced “totalitarianism”8 as intolerable.

    This picture, at first sight so incontrovertible, begins to buckle under the weight of sceptical scrutiny. For one thing, by the time the young men reached the Wall with their sledge hammers, the contest for power had already been decided. For another thing, if it really were the case that Soviet “totalitarianism” imploded because it withheld freedom from its people, then

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    why haven’t more rigid regimes, in say Egypt, Burma, or Saudi Arabia, similarly collapsed? Clearly, the familiar picture of oppressive regimes collapsing under the weight of popular opposition captures something important about the demise of the Soviet bloc. But I wonder if that opposition was as direct and unproblematic as this metaphor would have it. Without rejecting the familiar picture, I wonder if it would not be more productive to try to describe how it happened that regimes in central and eastern Europe – unlike regimes in, say, Sudan, Malaysia, or Equatorial Guinea – produced subjects that urgently needed a certain kind of freedom. Possible reasons for this discrepancy immediately present themselves, including the relative prosperity of the eastern European Soviet bloc countries, the fact that conspicuously many of the longest-lived repressive regimes have survived in predominantly rural and non-industrial settings, and the legitimising role of religious ideologies within certain neocolonial or postcolonial contexts.

    In any case, here it would seem we have a task not so much for Steven Pinker’s “new sciences of human nature”9 as for a Marxist theory of ideology, a materialist and historically specific theory of the constitution of subjectivity. Debates continue to rage over meanings of the term human nature and the usefulness of the term for biologists and practitioners of the social and behavioural sciences.10 Whatever the consequences of the debates, though, no consistent historical materialist is going to deny that Homo sapiens is a product of natural selection and that the human brain is largely a result of adaptations that have taken place over the course of hundreds of millennia. But a Marxist theory of ideology, unlike Pinker’s brand of evolutionary psychology, will at least set itself the task of explaining why it is that different sets of social relations at different times and places have reproduced such strikingly different sorts of people, people with very different values, interests, and needs.

    What about the claim that socialism failed to deliver the goods? As early as 1968, Egon Neuberger of the Rand Corporation predicted that the centrally planned economy of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) eventually would meet its demise, because of its “demonstrably growing ineffectiveness as a system for managing a modernising economy in a rapidly changing world”. Twenty-one momentous years later, in 1989, economic historian Robert Heilbroner explained the facts of life to readers of The New Yorker magazine: “Less than 75 years after it officially began, the contest between capitalism and socialism is over: capitalism has won... Capitalism organises the material affairs of humankind more satisfactorily than socialism” (Heilbroner 1989: 98).

    Economic Explanations

    Here too of course there is more than a grain of truth. It is an understatement to say that the Soviet economy had been underperforming: for two decades or more, as we know, the rate of economic growth had been falling. Let us remind ourselves, however, that even during the infamous “period of stagnation”, when patronage, corruption, and inefficiency infused the Soviet economy from top to bottom, it was still delivering bread, jobs, pensions, and basic medical attention to the larger part of the population. By contrast, 20 years of capitalism in Russia have denied these things to millions of Russians. A generation has passed – two decades of transcontinental impoverishment, falling life expectancies and birth rates, soaring unemployment and infant mortality, a near-catastrophic fall in population, and a raging epidemic of self-administered alcohol poisoning.11 The gap between rich and poor has gaped ever wider, and the billionaires have grown ever more imperious. And yet the Russian people’s cup of wrath does not appear to be overflowing, at least not in any discernibly organised way. If Heilbroner’s categorical version of the economic-failure explanation were sufficient, then why have Russians remained so quiescent in the post-Soviet era, after 20 years of much worse failure on the part of Russia’s new autocrats?12

    I do not have a good answer to that question. One possible response might be that Russians have not yet lost the habit of passivity that they had acquired during the Soviet decades, even as they have acquired the habit of rejecting out-of-hand anything smacking of collectivism. But this response raises obvious objections and leads to even stickier questions. With reference to Russian passivity, for instance, how did it happen that a generation lost it temporarily, just in time to overthrow a supposedly totalitarian regime – and then promptly slumped back into it? The passivity is selective, and we want to know why.

    In any case, there you have it: thanks to a universal and unchanging human nature (rooted perhaps in biology), the victory of capitalism in the 20th century is the final victory. Socialism, capitalism’s only rival in the 20th century, was incurably inefficient, and because it flouted the natural craving for individual freedom, it pitched itself hourly, moment-to-moment, against intractable human nature. Thus, the history of 20th century socialism demonstrates, as clearly as could be demanded, that as long as humankind persists, capitalism will be the best it can do.

    The 40th president of the United States brought together all three of these themes. In his 8 June 1982 address to a joint session of British Parliament, Ronald Reagan declared: “It is the Soviet Union that runs against the tide of history by denying human freedom and human dignity to its citizens”. He then added:

    It also is in deep economic difficulty. […] Over-centralised, with little or no incentives, year after year the Soviet system pours its best resources into the making of instruments of destruction. The constant shrinkage of economic growth combined with the growth of military production is putting a heavy strain on the Soviet people.

    When it came to the growth of military production in the Soviet Union, of course, Reagan himself could take some credit, since his administration escalated the arms race and stoked a proxy war on Russia’s south-eastern border. Increased defence spending further weakened the All-Union economy, shunting resources from production of consumer goods to the military. Reagan administration policies, then, help to explain why it was that the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies were full of consumers with proliferating unmet needs.

    What is of more interest here, however, are the words that follow Reagan’s previous passage: “What we see here is a political structure that no longer corresponds to its economic base, a society where productive forces are hampered by political ones”. Facing a British Parliament composed in part of a deeply divided Labour Party in a country with over three million unemployed


    workers, the Great Communicator abruptly dropped his Morning-in-American lyricism in favour of a Marxissant phraseo logy in which “political forces” that “hamper” “economic bases” “run against the tide of history”.13

    This caricature comes close in certain respects to summarising what did in fact take place in the last decades of the existence of the first workers’ state, culminating in Yeltsin’s counter-coup of August 1991. Since the 1970s, more and more Soviet citizens in positions of power had come to view the property relations characteristic of the old order as fetters on the further development of the productive forces. These fetters included such things as legal limits on ownership of land and other means of production, a constitutionally guaranteed right to a job,14 “artificial” price controls, insufficient economic incentives, restrictions on the proliferation of the new information technologies, and isolation from global markets and financial institutions. As a result of this perceived conflict between incumbent social relations and ascendant productive forces, the integument burst. A new leadership rose to power and set about to transform “the entire immense superstructure” in its own image.15

    The Soviet System’s Gravediggers

    As we have seen, Reagan’s speechwriters resorted to Marxist-sounding phraseology to convince an astute audience of the impending demise of what he would later (and in the presence of a very different audience) dub “the Evil Empire”. Despite the accuracy of the prediction itself, though, Reagan’s speechwriters depicted the gravediggers of the Soviet Union implausibly, as a formless mass of freedomlovers, united by little more than opposition to conservative “political forces”. Reagan has presented us with a picture of apolitical or anti-political masses, composed of individuals imbued by nature with the profit motive and a yearning for negative freedoms, squaring off against big government. As I will argue in the next section, however, it seems more accurate to say that the gravediggers – or at least many of the most active of them in Russia – comprised an increasingly compact and self-consciously politicised elite that owed its privileges and thus its existence to the very Soviet system that it had to dismantle in order to remake the country in its image. In order to complete its historical task, though, the gravediggers had to come together as a proper class in and for itself.

    As we have seen, the problem with prevailing non-Marxist explanations of the demise of the Soviet Union is not that their claims are all false or useless. Each of the three explanations in the previous section captures something right, but each is partial or one-sided. The demise of Soviet socialism was a complex process, and so it would not be surprising if the explanation were complex. How then do the three common non-Marxist explanations fare when taken jointly? We have already noted that they are closely related doctrinally. We might combine them and summarise the result as follows: Because a socialist system or any command economy must curtail individual freedom, and because it will fail to satisfy universal needs as well as the rival capitalist system, socialism cannot long endure, at least on a large scale. This is a more-than-familiar story, repeated by everyone from classical-liberal economist Ludwig von Mises to the latest evolutionary economist. As I have suggested, however, it fails to account for “actual relations springing from an existing class struggle”, at least when we take into account the longevity of a wide variety of repressive capitalist regimes, present and past.

    It bears emphasising that the development of productive forces during the period of stagnation was hampered not so much by Reagan’s unspecified “political forces” as by a legally and constitutionally sanctioned system of property relations that enjoyed the support of a significant part of the population of the Soviet Union right down to the bitter end. The supporters were to be found within the lower- and mid-levels of the Party, within the official unions, the KGB and the military, and in many other walks of life. The most strident opposition, by contrast, was composed, at least until late in the day, of Party apparatchiks and insiders, managers of large state enterprises, and a range of professional intellectuals, celebrities, and other notables. By that time, it had become obvious to many of the most powerful and wellconnected elites that private ownership in the means of production would permit them to amass fortunes and to secure the smooth, syste matic transmission of wealth and privilege to their sons.16 Trotsky called these rising forces “the bureaucracy”; Milan Djilas called it the “new class”, and latter-day writers have dubbed it “the power-wielding class of the nomenklatura” (Trotsky 1972; Djilas 1957; Daniels 1989: 100).

    Trotsky did not describe the bureaucracy as a class, since the bureaucrats did not own productive property. Djilas, by contrast, claimed that the privileged elite in the Soviet Union was in fact a new class with a






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    distinct relationship to the means of production; however, he did not claim that this new class was associated with a self-sustaining mode of production. If Marxist theory is correct, Djilas wrote, then Soviettype societies must eventually either relapse into capitalism or undergo social revolution leading towards genuine socialism.17 It should be noted, however, that although the elite had long occupied positions of control over major means of production, relations of ownership and inheritance prevented this group from systematically appropriating the surplus product, at least on a large scale. For this reason, Trotsky’s account seems more compelling than accounts that characterise this elite or bureaucracy as an already-constituted capitalist class.

    As a member of the Politburo of the Central Committee of the CPSU (1980-91), and then as General Secretary of the Party (1985-91), Mikhail Gorbachev drew early support from this constituency in Russia. By the late 1980s, even the remnants of Soviet power in the lower echelons of the Party and public organisations had lost faith in the Party and the state, while at the same time the nomenklatura (or at least its non-military constituents) and its intellectual allies tacitly agreed that the Soviet system must be brought down. Nothing in the way of conspiracy was required; the consensus developed spontaneously, from thousands of points across the Union, from the Kremlin to the Republican and regional levels, right down to the capillary level of firms and individual lives.

    Perestroika partially opened the floodgates to extra-legal capitalist enterprise on a larger scale, and privatisation enabled upstart magnates to grab up the productive assets and the natural resources of the state and cooperative enterprises. These magnates or so-called oligarchs comprised the “New Russians” (and their Ukrainian counterparts) and their republican and regional franchises, and many hailed from outside the ranks of the old nomenklaturas.18 The years that followed saw a tortured, conflict-ridden process of competition and partial amalgamation of these two overlapping groups of aspiring capitalists, the upstart magnates and the scions of the old nomenklaturas.

    As we know, Gorbachev’s erstwhile supporters dropped him like a hot potato as soon as Boris Yeltsin’s fortunes rose. The “oligarchs”, including expat billionaires (and $40 billion from the IMF, plus a bevy of foreign public relations experts), plumbed the depths of depravity to buy the 1996 Russian presidential election for Yeltsin. Newly unfettered from Soviet constraints on property relations, and having vanquished all conservative contenders, the fractious capitalist class-in-formation commandeered the old Centre, replaced the constitutional, legal, and governing superstructure of the old order with new institutions consonant with full-blown capitalism, and came into its own as a ruling class. Similar processes on a smaller scale took place in the regions and in the former Soviet Republics, the still-designated “newly independent states”, and the former “Captive Nations”.19 Patronage, privatisation, new tax regimes, and the embrace of multilateral lending institutions – these were all ad hoc developments, and the results were unpremeditated; nevertheless, they were causes and consequences of the formation of new capitalist classes shattering old state structures. At many levels and in several locales, then, the processes that produced new ruling classes were political processes at least as much as they were economic processes.20

    It is tempting to say that the Soviet Union in its final years was as hollow as the dummy missiles that trundled past Lenin’s Tomb on Victory Day. But if the account that I have described is correct – if an ascendant capitalist class had been forming within the body politic of the USSR long before the August 1991 coup attempt – then the ubiquitous metaphor of a collapse is misleading: the Soviet Union did not collapse, at least not politically.21 Rather, what took place in 1991 or 1989 or some time earlier, was the bursting of an integument of one kind or another. The integument, however, was as much political as it was economic: a new class-in-formation captured strategic locations in the Soviet state and the All-Union economy and stood poised, however unwittingly, to play its historical role, to complete the process of remaking the old order in its image.

    What took place in 1989 or 1991, then, was very different from the prevailing pictures.22 As we will see in the next section, it was also very different from the picture of the great bourgeois revolutions of the modern period.

    After the Fall

    Reagan had famously predicted the demise of what he referred to as the “bizarre” social experiment of “communism”.23 What he failed to predict, however, was that 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall a large part of the population of Russia and even of some of the former “Captive Nations” would come to rue the passing of the Soviet period.24 The subsequent years have not born out the triumphalist hype about a new dawn of freedom and prosperity.

    A capitalist class-in-formation rose to power, but Russia’s return to capitalism differed in many respects from the bourgeois revolutions of the early modern period. For one thing, the French bourgeoisie had already constituted a class in-and-foritself long before 1789; by contrast, it does not appear that the nomenklatura had yet constituted itself as a class until years after Yeltsin’s 1991 counter-coup. Even more significantly, in the case of the early modern revolutions, the rise to power of a capitalist class resulted in the dramatic expansion of productivity that Marx and Engels celebrated in the Communist Manifesto and subsequent works. In post-Soviet Russia and much of the Soviet bloc, by contrast, productivity has plummeted far below its dismally low levels during the period of stagnation.25 This consideration is enough to cast doubt on the claim that Russia’s return to capitalism was a revolution.

    The capitalist class-in-formation in Russia has come into its own as a ruling class within the context of globalised markets, a global division of labour, and multilateral arrangements over which the United States held undisputed sway. Since then, Russia’s rulers have functioned as regional brokers for international capital, within the framework of a reinvigorated imperialist system and an unyielding global hierarchy of power.26 Under these circumstances, Russia’s new rulers could not play the role of a modern national class, of establishing national markets, presiding over capital expansion, and revolutionising productive forces. In these respects, too, the post-Soviet rulers of Russia differed sharply from the ascendant bourgeoisies of the modern revolutions in Europe.


    If the end of the Soviet order had opened the door to freedom and prosperity as advertised, or if Russia’s former cold war adversaries had not distinguished themselves over the course of the past 20 years as unreconstructed imperialists, then my preferred Marxist explanation of the demise would come off as considerably less plausible than alternative explanations. But this is not what happened. Instead, falling productivity has plunged millions of working-class households into poverty; prisons are filled to overflowing; ethnic cleansing has taken its predictable toll, and Russian voters have been subjected to extreme forms of political manipulation, exemplified by the 1996 Russian presidential campaign.27 In the course of the last 20 years, fallout on the diplomatic front has included NATO expansion into eastern Europe and former Soviet republics, a protracted US bombing campaign against Russia’s historical allies in Serbia, two US wars in Iraq, new US military bases in central Asia; foreign-subsidised “colour revolutions” in Ukraine and Georgia, and of course the US invasion and occupation of Afghanistan. Yeltsin and his successors have presided of the precipitous demotion of Russia as a global power, even as the US and other former cold war adversaries have projected their state power far and wide, across borders and into the Russian Federation itself.

    These consequences do not square well with the assumptions and expectations that accompany the non-Marxist accounts of the demise of the Soviet Union. They are, however, entirely compatible with the Marxist account that I have just sketched in gestural strokes. This Marxist account, moreover, makes it possible to combine the best insights of the non-Marxist views within a coherent, overarching theoretical framework that is both materialist and historically specific.

    Ironically, then, one of the reasons why Marxism is significant today is because it provides the best available explanation for the demise of the Soviet Union and the defeat of socialism in the 20th century. G A Cohen, a key figure in analytic Marxism, drove the irony home: “…the Soviet failure can be regarded as a triumph for Marxism: a Soviet success might have embarrassed key propositions of historical materialism, which is the Marxist theory of history”.28 This, it seems to me, is one measure of the significance of Marxism in the 21st century.


    1 Television and radio talk-show hosts in the United States, notably Glenn Beck, have propagated this accusation, which has echoed in the blogosphere and become an article of faith among Tea Party attendees in that country.

    2 Menger (1981) and Böhm-Bawerk (1949) laid out the basic critical arguments of the Austrian school, and Hayek (2007) augmented them. Also see: Popper (1971) and (2002); Kolakowski (1978); Nozick (1977); Conquest (1990), and Crossman (2001).

    3 Fukuyama (1989). And leaving aside various “posties”, who deserve separate but perhaps less sustained treatment.

    4 A comprehensive survey might prominently include the following sources, most of which are cited elsewhere in this discussion: Bettelheim (1976), Cohen (1999), Djilas (1957), Eyal, Szelényi and Townsley (2001), Marcuse (1958), Resnick and Wolff (2005), Sweezy (1980) and White (2001).

    5 But class defined in a distinctively Marxist way, as one among several large social groups, composed of members with a common relationship to ownership and control of the means of production. The particular relationship that characterises the group either enables the members to systematically appropriate the surplus product of social production (or the value of that product), or it subjects them to systematic surplus extraction (Melkonian 1996: 134).

    6 This is also the sense in which Marx used the term. See, for example, Marx (1989).

    7 Other proffered explanations focus on the escalating conflicts among nationalities within the USSR, or on large-scale betrayal by leaders of the CPSU, or on exogenous factors such as imperialist machinations and military encirclement. Some or all of these factors have contributed to the demise of the Soviet Union; however, in my view even the most consequential of them did not constitute determining factors, and some were instances or effects of more general processes at work in the three explanations listed above. (It will be noticed that the Party betrayal scenario, shorn of conspiratorial overtones, is compatible with the more comprehensive view that I will present.)

    8 Totalitarianism is taken to be an especially pervasive form of authoritarianism characterised by close monitoring of behaviour and omnipresent propaganda. Literature about totalitarianism could fill many shelves of a well-funded library (at, say, the Hoover Institution at Stanford University). The epithet deserves sceptical re-examination, though, in view of post-cold war revelations, including evidence that regimes so-denominated in eastern Europe had only a tenuous grasp on power until they nonchalantly dissolved themselves one after another – too often ceding power to anti-communist “velvet revolutionaries” who proceeded to muzzle journalists, jail dissidents, steal elections, and massacre minorities.

    9 According to Pinker, these new sciences include cognitive science, cognitive neuroscience, developmental genetics, and evolutionary psychology (Pinker 2002: 30-58).

    10 The related literature is voluminous. Segerstråle (2000) provides a chronicle of the debates and a useful bibliography.

    11 See, for example, Eyal, Szelényi and Townsley (2001), Hoffman (2002), Kagarlitsky (2002), Satter (2003). For a run-down of post-Soviet developments in the small former Soviet Republic of Armenia, see Melkonian (2001).

    12 Boris Kagarlitsky (2002), among others, has pointed out that the appearance of passivity on the part of Russians was not necessarily the reality. For a

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    brief but nuanced account of the demise of the USSR, one that gives due consideration to demands for national self-determination and to disappointed expectations of improved economic performance (White 2001: 73-81).

    13 Reagan’s first address to a joint session of British parliament occurred in the wake of the re-imposition of martial law in Poland after violent May Day protests by supporters of the Solidarity Union. One year and one day after Reagan’s 8 June address, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her Conservative Party would win a decisive general election victory over Labour.

    14 With reference to limits on ownership of means of production, see: Chapter 2 of the 1977 Constitution of the USSR. With reference to guaranteed employment, see: Article 118 of the 1936 Constitutions and Article 40 of the 1977 Constitution.

    15 The phrase in quotes is from Marx’s 1859 Preface to A Critique of Political Economy.

    16 As Trotsky (1972: 254) observed, “Privileges have only half their worth, if they cannot be transmitted to one’s children”.

    17 Of course, other Marxist interpretations have achieved prominence, too. Economist Paul Sweezy, for example, held that the Soviet bureaucracy had replaced the dictatorship of the proletariat with “the dictatorship of the bureaucracy”. According to this “bureaucratic-exploitative” interpretation, the usurpation of state power by the bureaucracy had resulted in a “new form” of post-capitalist society – a hybrid somewhere between capitalism and socialism, in which the bureaucracy had the power to exploit the workers through the extraction of surplus value. Compare this to Hardt and Negri’s view that “The Soviet Union was better understood not as a totalitarian society but rather as a bureaucratic dictatorship” (Hardt and Negri 2000: 278). For a concise run-down of the demise, from an alternative state-capitalism perspective and focusing on symbolic and psychological factors, see Resnick and Wolff (2005).

    18 The largely non-Party pedigree of the oligarchs is a matter of controversy; accounts differ in, for example, Hoffman (2002), Satter (2003) and Eyal, Szelényi and Townsley (2001). In post-Putin Russia, the political fortunes of the magnates have waned, but in other former Soviet Republics they have transformed themselves into genuine oligarchs. The case of the former Soviet Socialist Republic of Armenia is instructive. Many of the most notable oligarchs and high-ranking officials in Armenia today (as in several other non-Russian former Soviet Republics) do not appear to be scions of the nomenklatura (Sarian 2006; also see Bremmer and Welt 1997 and Arakelyan 2005).

    19 A dozen years after the final demise of the Soviet Union, 11 out of 20 presidents of eastern European nations (excluding the former Yugoslavia) and former Soviet Republics were former party insiders, the local nomenklaturas. We should note at least parenthetically, however, that the non-Russian republics were not simply miniature replicas of






    vol xlvi no 22


    Russia. In the Baltic Republics, in Ukraine, in the Caucasus and central Asia, capitalist restoration proceeded at different tempos and according to the respective logics of the locales. In the course of the years, the Russian nomenklatura and many of its local franchises discovered a confluence of interests with the non-Russian nationalists. But this was not a smooth or unilateral process of consensus-building. During Gorbachev’s tenure, for example, the local nationalists were the bane of some of the most visible representatives of the All-Union nomenklatura, notably the General Secretary himself.

    20 According to Kaviraj (1989: 51), for example, the economic reforms associated with perestroika had an overriding political character. With reference to the process of privatisation, the case of the post-Soviet Republic of Armenia is instructive once again. While privatisation was in full swing, editors of a Yerevan newspaper repeated common observations: “Seen more as a political than an economic process, privatisation has been used to manipulate the character of the emerging Armenian industrial class. With the president and his allies monitoring the process case by case, some enterprises have been sold to high-ranking officials, while others went cheap to their kin and close friends. Many others were granted to political allies” (Hayastani Hanrapetoutioun, Yerevan, 13 May 1996, p 83). “The tax regime also offered profits to political elites and their supporters. Most estimates found that less than 10% of formally collected taxes ended up in government coffers” (ibid: 83-84). “Patronage politics was essential to the development of a tightly interwoven political-economic system, but the arrangements that emerged were ad hoc, not predesigned” (ibid: 84).

    21 And not ideologically or economically, either. But these are topics for another occasion.

    22 We should register in passing that this account conflicts with the capitalist restoration thesis, associated with Mao Tse Tung, and the related thesis of “state capitalism”, which according to Charles Bettelheim, involves state ownership of the economy, with the extraction of surplus value through wage labour. If the capitalist restoration thesis were the case, then why the need for a Gorbachev or for perestroika? Why the need for a Yeltsin? Why the personnel change, the countercoup, and the scrapping of the old constitution? And why the massive, enormously costly, counterrevolutionary upheaval in Russia and other parts of the former Soviet Union, the massive destruction of capital, the massive stripping and restructuring of the economy, including the loss of markets, both domestically and internationally? And what are we to make of the rocket ascension of the “New Russians” in the 1990s?

    23 Most memorably in his “Evil Empire Speech” of 8 March 1983. The imperialists’ cold war victory has been so complete that the misnomer collapse of communism is no longer even taken to be the provocation that it was originally intended to be. For Marx, Engels, and Lenin, of course, the formulation “communist state” was a contradiction in terms; accordingly, the demise of the Soviet state could not have qualified as the demise of a communist social formation.

    24 With reference to regret in Russia, see White (2001: 74-75). Wistfulness has beset several of Russia’s least-likely neighbours, too. According to a recent Pew Research Centre Global Attitudes Project opinion poll, a majority of the adult respondents in Poland and the Czech Republic agreed that they had been better off “under communism” than they are under capitalism. (http://, accessed 16 July 2010. The results were published on 2 November 2009.)

    25 This was especially true of the first eight or nine years of the post-Soviet era. Outdated technology, poor organisation and management, the isolation of many large firms in small towns, bloated and corrupt middle management – these are some of the frequently cited proximate causes of the low productivity. Russia experienced something of a productivity surge in 1999 to 2005, thanks in part to utilisation of excess capacity and labour shedding, but productivity has slumped since then, thanks in part to exhaustion of excess capacity and to lower oil prices. See, for example, World Bank (2008) and Bush (2009).

    26 Hardt and Negri (2000) present an alternative view, according to which imperialism has been superseded, and state power across-the-board has diminished in importance. Boron (2004) provides a compelling rejoinder.

    27 See, for example, Hoffman (2002) and Kagarlitsky (2002). Melkonian (2001) provides a run-down of poverty, unemployment, demographic devastation, police repression, ethnic violence, and electoral manipulation in a former Soviet Socialist Republic that is unexceptional in this respect.

    28 Cohen (1999: 99). “But”, Cohen added on the same page, “no one could think that the Soviet failure represents a triumph for socialism. A Soviet success would have been unambiguously good for socialism.”


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