Why the Soviet Union collapsed
by Vic Williams
The collapse of the Soviet Union was a disastrous blow to the world communist activities and greatly increased the danger of wars. With a strong Soviet Union, Bush could not have invaded Afghanistan or Iraq.
In capitalist society the capitalist class exercises political power to maintain its exploitative system. The class rule and political domination of the capitalist class is known as the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. Its ultimate weapon is armed force, exercised by the organs of state power, which it controls.
In socialist society the working class is the ruling class. Its state power is termed the dictatorship of the proletariat and is aimed against the influence and counterrevolutionary actions of the displaced bourgeoisie.
The Soviet Union collapsed because of the political disintegration of the Communist Party and the failure to maintain the dictatorship of the proletariat against the influence of the previous dictatorship of the capitalist class and capitalist penetration from outside.
The dictatorship of the proletariat is a most determined and most ruthless war waged by the new class against a more powerful enemy, the bourgeoisie, whose resistance is increased tenfold by its overthrow ... a persistent struggle — sanguinary and bloodless, violent and peaceful, military and economic, educational and administrative — against the forces and traditions of the old society.
He points to the exploiters’ source of continued strength:
In the strength of international capital, in the strength and durability of international connections of the bourgeoisie. For a long time after the revolution the exploiters inevitably continue to enjoy a number of great practical advantages: they still have money, some moveable property — often fairly considerable — superior education, close contact with the higher technical personnel who think like the bourgeoisie, incomparable greater experience in the art of war. Also in the force of habit, in the strength of small-scale commodity producers. They cannot be driven out, we must live in harmony with them; they can and must be remoulded and re-educated only by very prolonged, slow and cautious organisational work.
The revolution will be unable to crush the resistance of the bourgeoisie to maintain its victory and push forward to a final victory of socialism unless it creates a special organ in the form of the dictatorship of the proletariat as its principle mainstay.
It is the rule — unrestricted by law and based on force — of the proletariat over the bourgeoisie, a rule enjoying the sympathy and support of the labouring and exploited masses.
Stalin said the dictatorship had three tasks.
To break the resistance of the landlords and capitalists who have been overthrown and expropriated by the revolution, to liquidate every attempt on their part to restore the power of capital.
To organise construction in such a way as to rally all the labouring people around the proletariat, and to carry out this work along the lines of preparing for the liquidation, the abolishment of classes.
To arm the revolution, to organise the army of the revolution for the struggle against foreign enemies, for struggle against imperialism.
Immediately after the revolution Lenin set up the first organ of Soviet state security, the All-Russian Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counter-Revolution and Sabotage, known as Cheka. It was the weapon of the dictatorship of the proletariat.
Lenin and then Stalin, led the Communist Party to lead working class organisations and the Soviets to carry out the dictatorship of the proletariat from 1917 to 1953. It fought off Whiteguard uprisings, the armies of fourteen nations, the continuous sabotage in its rapidly growing industries with international and local spies, defeated Hitler’s fascists, and according to recent research of Soviet achieves, it carried out 799,455 executions from 1921 to 1953.
In that time millions of peasants became industrial workers. Peasants were 80 percent of the population in 1920 and only 20 percent in 1970. The Communist Party under Stalin set out to build socialism in one country, industry had to be built quickly and to finance it agricultural production had to be increased by collective farms and state farms with mechanisation, with state machinery pools.
The collective farms were built with the voluntary agreement of the peasants, with communists giving leadership. But in some collectives, former Whiteguards and Mensheviks eased their way into leadership positions and set about wrecking activities, using over-ordering and other means. They had to be overcome with the assistance of Cheka’s successor, the OGPU, the weapon of the dictatorship of the proletariat.
The kulaks were the most reactionary force in the countryside and the centre of remaining capitalist practice and ideas. They were restricted with taxation and trade limitations. They were allowed to rent land and to hire labour. Before 1927 they had yielded the grain voluntarily and grain was essential for the state. But with previous good harvests and the building up of their finances, in 1927 they held back their grain which was almost as valuable as currency, and sold only meat, oats and barley.
By 1929 when the consolidation of collectivisation began and the grain problem ceased, the party set out to eliminate the kulaks as a class because they stood in the way of this consolidation. In that period the class struggle intensified in the countryside, with the policies and actions of the dictatorship of the proletariat, in a radical turn towards socialist agriculture. These moves against the kulaks as a class had the support of poor and middle class peasants who approved of collectivisation.
The coordination of industrial growth and agricultural production demanded centralised planning and the first five-year plan began in 1928. With planned production, prices and supply were stabilised, unemployment was ended, at a time when it was rampant in capitalist countries. In that year, industry was 28 percent of the economy, by 1940 it was 45 percent. The Soviet Union’s industrial capacity was decisive in the defeat of the Hitler invasion. By 1952 output was two-and-a-half times 1940 production levels.
The fast developing industries were the main target for wrecking and sabotage by capitalist-inspired agents, especially among the old intelligentsia. It was the task of the dictatorship of the proletariat to weed them out. If it had not been done ruthlessly, the development of industry would have been seriously held back.
Lenin led the party in promoting a socialist literature “to unite the feelings, the thoughts and the will of the masses, to stir them to activity ... we must systematically guide the process and shape the results.” The party, through the Soviet Writers’ Union, encouraged writers to live with new, important building projects, such as power stations, and to write books to encourage socialist emulation at work. This literature had a function in building socialist consciousness, of “ours” not “mine”. The party set out to censor and control literature which spread the individualist ideas of capitalism.
Decisions of the Central Committee (CC) on literature and art in the years 1946-48 showed actions to defeat the penetration of capitalist ideas into Soviet literature and art. In August 1946 the CC told Leningrad literary journals Zvezda and Leningrad they were being conducted in an absolutely unsatisfactory manner. The CC said it was a gross mistake to have published Zoshchenko’s writing, such as “The Adventures of a Monkey”, a vile lampoon of Soviet people, who were represented, with anti-Soviet attacks, as crude, uncultured and stupid.
The CC criticised Zvezda for publishing poems of Anna Akhmatova, barren, idea-less poetry, permeated with pessimism and despondency, “art for art’s sake”, out of step with the people. Other poets were despondent and disillusioned. The magazine encouraged contact with Western culture, alien to Soviet culture. Leningrad published these same writers and others with erroneous ideas.
The CC resolved that Zvezda eliminate all mistakes and to no longer publish Zoshchenko and Akhmatova. Leningrad was closed down. Yegolin from the CC Propaganda Division was appointed Editor-in-Chief of Zvezda.
The CC condemned the formalism in Soviet music and instructed its Propaganda and Agitation Division to rectify the position and develop Soviet music along the path of realism and draw from the wealth of folk melodies and songs.
In 1946 The History of Western European Philosophy by Alexandrov was published and awarded a Stalin Prize, but was later widely criticised. In 1947 the CC organised a conference of philosophical workers from all parts of the country to discuss the book and the shortcomings of philosophical work.
Zhadanov, Secretary of the CC, criticised the book as describing the history of philosophy as a smooth evolutionary process of quantitative changes and Marxism arising simply as successor of previous teachings. But the history of the development of philosophy is a history of struggle of materialism against idealism, and the rise of Marxism was a revolution in philosophy, a qualitative change by which philosophy transformed into a science. It is an instrument of scientific investigation, a method of penetrating all natural and social phenomena, enriching itself with their achievements.
Zhadanov was concerned the book was approved by the majority of leading philosophical workers. He said our philosophy belonged to the entire Soviet intelligentsia, and that Bolshevik should have philosophical articles with scientific and social interest. We must take Marxist philosophy in broad layers to our people. In Soviet society, criticism and self-criticism is a powerful instrument between the old and the new, against the depraved ideology of the capitalist class.
Lenin and the party paid great attention to development of work elan, conditions of work and variations in pay in accordance with conditions, not accepting the utopian idea of equal pay for all. When Stakanovic, a coal miner, found ways to greatly increase output, he inspired the Stakanovite movement and inventions and methods of work were strongly encouraged that increased production and improved safety.
Lenin and then Stalin made sure the dictatorship of the proletariat was carried out and in that time the Soviet Union moved from strength to strength in industrial, scientific and international matters.
I am indebted to Roger Keeran and Thomas Kenny for their most valuable information in Socialism Betrayed in making the following assessment of the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Beria, the head of the OGPU, could have succeeded Stalin, but a majority of the CC influenced by bourgeoisie humanism, excluded Beria and executed him for what they claimed was excessive repression.
Khrushchev became General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) in 1953. By 1956 he had made some bad political and industrial mistakes, such as the virgin land adventure and unwarranted attacks on Stalin. In 1957 the old guard of Molotov, Malenkov and Kaganovich, who had been close to Lenin, had the Presidium ready to sack Khrushchev, but he was able to rally enough numbers on the CC to defeat the move and expel the three from the CC.
Khrushchev did not carry on the tasks of the dictatorship of the proletariat. The 22nd Congress in 1961 declared the dictatorship of the proletariat had fulfilled its mission and had ceased to be indispensable in the USSR. The state was declared a “state of the whole people”. This ignored the fact that there remained capitalist ideas and practices and different classes in the country. He changed the party role as vanguard of the working class to “vanguard of the whole people”. Khrushchev began a campaign to undermine the politics and achievements of Stalin, culminating in the 1956 “revelations”.
Where Lenin saw the need to remould and re-educate the small commodity producer, because in their activities they reinforced capitalist ideas, Khrushchev reduced taxation on private plots and eliminated taxes on private ownership of cows, pigs and poultry. Soviet law prohibited both the employment of others to make profit and the selling of goods for profit. But law permitted private agricultural plots up to three-quarters of an acre on collective and state farms. By 1974, by some estimates, private plots accounted for a third of all hours spent on agriculture, almost a tenth of total hours worked for the whole economy. So-called “collective farm markets” developed and were operative in towns and cities. Stealing from state organisations developed and private production using state-owned material was developed by underground capitalists.
Where under the dictatorship of the proletariat, Lenin and Stalin promoted a socialist literature that supported socialist ideas, and censored literature that ran counter to that, Khrushchev relaxed censorship and allowed previously banned novels to be published, including Not by Bread Alone by V Dudintev and A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by A Solzhenitsyn. The lifting of censorship opened the way for bringing bourgeois economics into Soviet academic circles.
In 1952 Stalin emphasised that “ceasing to gives primacy to production of means of production would destroy the possibility of continuous expansion of our national economy.” But in Khrushchev’s first year as leader, investment in heavy industry only exceeded that in consumer goods by 20 percent compared to 70 percent before the war. He concentrated on consumer production and encouraged private production in agriculture.
In 1957 Khrushchev decided to decentralise state planning of decision making in industry. He ordered the dismantling of the State Machine and Tractor Stations. Under Khrushchev, at the end of the 1950s and the ‘60s, the Soviet economy expanded at a slower rate than in the early ‘50s. Khrushchev diluted the party with mass recruitments of peasants. He required that a third of party officials be replaced at each election. He divided the party into agricultural and industrial sections. Such moves weakened the party and its ideological level.
In 1957 he weakened the party to protect his position by having key members around Stalin, Molotov, Malenkov and Kaganovich expelled from the Central Committee. Under Khrushchev the struggle against imperialism, a task of the dictatorship of the proletariat, was not carried out. He reduced Soviet military spending, but the USA did not reciprocate. He argued that the enlargement of the socialist world would mean there could be a “peaceful transition” from capitalism to socialism.
Brezhnev in 1964 returned to central planning. He showed firm commitment to international solidarity and achieved military parity with the USA and aided other socialist countries such as Vietnam, in revolutionary struggles. He returned some normality to party organisation, with cadre stability, stricter party admission criteria and an end to the division of agricultural and industrial sections. Industrial production increased, wages and living standards and consumer goods improved, and hours of work fell.
He did not return to the dictatorship of the proletariat of Lenin and Stalin, nor did he act to control or limit the growth of the “second economy”, based on private enterprise.
T I Koriagana of the Economic Research Institute compared the growth of salaries as a percentage of the 1960 figures with total spending and savings. By 1970 salaries had increased to 152 compared with 1970, but the total spent and saved was 216. By 1980 salaries were 210, but the amounts spent and saved was more than double at 450. By 1988 it was 273 for salaries, but 696 for spent and saved, about two-and-a-half times more from the illegal second economy than from legal salaries.
Vladimir Treml estimated that in late 1970 that the illegal economy involved 10 to 12 percent of the labor force. Koriagana estimated that by 1989 about 30 million people were involved. There was almost a complete absence of prosecution of clearly illegal economic activity. This could only have happened because of corruption, with such finance and numbers involved. Many Soviet officials and communists were guilty, including Brezhnev’s son-in-law. This showed the poor ideological level of the party at that time, a lack of understanding of the continuation of class struggle under socialism, and neglect of the dictatorship of the proletariat in building socialism.
Frol Kozlov, Khrushchev’s right-hand man, Deputy Premier and Secretary of the CC, was caught with packets of jewels and bundles of money, payoffs for stopping criminal prosecutions. In 1981 an organisation “In Defense of Economic Freedom”, campaigned in the interests of the second economy, for the repeal of Article 153 of the Russian Soviet Penal Code outlawing private enterprise activity.
The spread of the second economy undermined the confidence in the efficiency of socialism and planned production and many people made use of the non-state collective markets and the second economy. It promoted individualism and acquisitiveness and support for a move towards capitalism, to free markets, private property and so-called “free enterprise”. It was a continuous undermining of the concepts and activities of socialism.
Andropov was a top ranking Marxist and proclaimed the revolution’s right to defend itself with force. He would have understood and supported the necessity of the dictatorship of the proletariat to defend socialism.
The second economy drew his censure, of money grubbing, plundering of the people’s property and use of public position for personal enrichment. He set up two research bodies to study the second economy. One at the Institute USSR Prosecutors Office and the other in the USSR Interior Ministry. They looked at individual labour activity in two directions: that which was legal and valuable to society and that which was illegal and resulted in unearned, illegitimate income. Both viewed the latter as incompatible with socialism and as growing because of a failure to enforce the law.
Andropov demanded improvements in overall planning of industry and agriculture with better incentives based on the socialist principle of “to each according to his work”. Incentives would stimulate better quality work. He insisted on action against poor work, absenteeism, drunkenness, with penalties of low wages, reduced position and diminished “moral prestige”. He set out to improve the economy with an accelerated application of science and technology, especially computer technology. He introduced the practice of party and government preliminary discussion in work collectives and factories. He demanded the removal of obstacles to incentives in the workplace.
Andropov saw the key necessity of improving party work and ideology. He insisted on the restoration of “Leninist norms”, with no tolerance of corruption, bribery or embezzlement. He forced out the old and incompetent and devoted a plenary meeting of the Central Committee to improvement of ideological work. He would have demanded censorship against antisocialist material.
Andropov was very firm in dealing with imperialism. In 1983 in negotiations with the USA he demanded not one more nuclear missile in British and French arsenals. He protested against Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty for their ideological and psychological campaign against the Soviet Union.
Had he been General Secretary for fifteen years instead of fifteen months with a team around him including Ligachev and others, would it have been a different story for the Soviet Union?
Gorbachev became General Secretary in 1985 and for two years carried out some of the plans of Andropov. His move against socialism became evident in those two years, but became dominant in 1987.
In 1987 he brought down the Law on Individual Labour Activity which gave trade and consumer co-operatives more freedom and they became private enterprises, disguised as socialist enterprises. By the end of 1988 they employed a million hired workers and in 1989 that increased to over five million.
The total monthly salaries of 1988 compared with the same figures of 1960 had grown to 273 percent. But total spent and saved in 1988 compared with the same figures of 1960 had grown to 696 percent. The huge increase had come from the activity of the second economy. The Law of State Enterprises, introduced in 1987 made planning less rigid and allowed autonomy for enterprises. It caused more marketisation and increased the demand to end economic planning.
By 1988 the Law of Cooperatives and Leases saw a rapid expansion of capitalist elements. Private property was allowed, state-owned industrial property could be leased to cooperatives and became private assets. Koriagana estimated the second economy made illegal wealth of 200 to 240 billion roubles, 20 to 25 percent of all wealth.
Lenin said the small-scale commodity producers, whose way of life bred capitalist practice and ideas, had to be remoulded and re-educated as part of the dictatorship of the proletariat. But the activities of Gorbachev caused the rapid spread of these producers and their practices and ideas to a dangerous extent. Their money was used in bribery and corruption of Soviet officials and party officials, to hold off any clampdown on the second economy. The first tasks of the dictatorship of the proletariat, to break down the resistance of the landlords and capitalists, was not only ignored, but Gorbachev helped them to restore their organisation and financial power.
Another task was to organise construction to rally the labouring people in support of building socialism, with planned production that could satisfy their needs. But Gorbachev set out to destroy that planned organisation. In 1987 he cut state orders to enterprises by 50 percent and they had to negotiate with other enterprises to sell that half not ordered by the state. Central planning was undermined and the CPSU was withdrawn from economic management. Such an economy was bound to go on the rocks.
By 1988 there were consumer shortages, barter and economic disruption. In 1988, for the first time in forty years, prices began to rise throughout the economy. In 1989 inflation galloped to 20 percent. Consumer goods vanished from the shelves. By 1989 economic decline built up mass hostility to Gorbachev and the CPSU and support swung to Boris Yeltsin’s anti-communist populism.
Gorbachev’s foreign policy was adaptation to the capitalist world and struggle against imperialism became less and less. At the beginning he was in favour of Soviet military support for the revolutionary government of Afghanistan, against the armed organisation financed by the CIA. But by 1988 he began the withdrawal of Soviet troops and by February 1989 the last Soviet troops left.
In 1988 he cut the Soviet Army by half a million, with no reciprocal response from the USA. In December 1988 he withdrew six tank divisions from Eastern Europe and in 1989 counter-revolutions swept Eastern Europe.
Only a party with an inadequate level of theoretical development would have allowed this to happen. But Gorbachev had set out to disorganise and disarm the CPSU. The 27th Congress was under pressure from a press that continually criticised the weaknesses of the party. Gorbachev put Yakovlev in control of the press, waging a “de-Stalinisation” campaign. Socialist democracy became “democratisation” reducing the role of the party.
At the Congress he proposed multi-candidate elections for party secretary posts. He was working for a shift from Marxism to social democratic notions, rejecting Lenin’s doctrine of the leading role of the party and democratic centralism as the principle of party organisation. He did not get all he wanted, so he proposed a special party conference and the Central Committee finally agreed to a such a conference for June 1988.
The leading Marxist and opponent of Gorbachev, Ligachev, was undermined leading up to the Special Party Conference, by controversy over a letter entitled “I cannot renounce my principles”.
The Nineteenth Party Conference declared that the state and not the Communist Party was the leading force. It legalised non-communist parties. Gorbachev replaced the CC Secretariat with commissions to weaken his opposition.
The newly created executive platform gave Gorbachev a platform from which to rule. Gorbachev drew a distinction between political and military means to protect the USSR and the Conference discarded the doctrine of nuclear parity. The major blow of the Conference was aimed at the separation of the party and the Soviet organisations from economic management.
At the Congress of People’s Deputies, first proposed by Gorbachev at the Special Conference, the disintegration of the party went even further. In March 1989 the Congress of People’s Deputies was elected. The CC directed local and regional party officials neither to interfere in the elections nor mobilise forces for the candidates, saying have “respect for democracy”. The pro-Gorbachev press campaigned against workplace elections and the Congress was overloaded with intellectuals, with few workers. A leading intellectual Andre Sakharov demanded the abolition of Article Six of the USSR Constitution, the constitutional entrenchment (in 1977) of the CPSU’s leading role. For millions, the Congress undermined the legitimacy of the party.
In 1989 a devastating mine strike started, organised by independent workers’ organisations, not the party or the official union body. They were driven by economic hardship, because of cutbacks in state orders for coal and because they had to buy supplies at market prices but sell the coal at fixed government prices. They demanded higher pay, freedom to set coal prices, the ending of ministerial control and the repeal of Article Six. Yeltsin began work to win over the miners and gained their support in winning election as the President of the Russian Federation.
The 28th Congress showed further disintegration of the party, breaking up into different blocs such as the Democratic Platform of white-collar workers and intellectuals forming a social democratic party with 55,000 members. In the 1990 elections Democratic Platform won control of Leningrad and Moscow by large majorities. Democratic Russia had policies moving towards the restoration of capitalism. It became the main basis of Yeltsin.
The whole Congress elected Gorbachev as Secretary, consolidating his position of power. It downgraded Marxism-Leninism as a source of ideological guidance. In 1989-91 Gorbachev went out to break the strong party influence in the army. Officers quit in large numbers and the army shrank from 5.3 million to under 4 million.
In 1991 a new strike, more like a general strike, took up Yeltsin’s program and demanded the resignation of the Soviet government. The strike only ended when Yeltsin transferred the mines from Soviet jurisdiction to the Russian Federation.
In September 1990 a group of leading Soviet officials moved to try to control events by influencing Gorbachev or displacing him. They formed the State Committee for the State Emergency (SCSE). The leaders were mainly state officials and the main one was head of the KGB, Kryuchkov. There was one from the Politbureau of the CPSU. They tried to unseat Gorbachev or get him to resign because Yeltsin, who had been elected President of the Russian Federation, had the upper hand. But Gorbachev refused to resign. The SCSE did not take the decisive action of declaring a state of emergency and the attempt failed.
In November 1991 Yeltsin banned the CPSU and the new Communist Party of the Russian Federation from operating on Russian soil. In December 1991 Gorbachev resigned and Yeltsin took over control of the USSR’s nuclear weapons, took over the army and security services and the USSR went out of existence.
The CPSU failed in its duty to the Soviet people to take them to socialism. There was ideological weakness of party leaders and the party, caused by overestimation of their position internally and internationally.
Apart from the preparations by Andropov to make the second economy illegal and to crush it, there did not seem to be much appreciation of Lenin’s warning of the danger of capitalist ideas and practices of small producers. There was growing bribery and corruption of Soviet officials and party officials, by the profiteers of the second economy with their flow of money, to allow them to flourish. That weakened the party.
The failure to continue with the censorship of information and literature, a task of the dictatorship of the proletariat, meant that finally the press came into the hands of anticommunist forces and the ideas of capitalist markets gained ground. The reason for the collapse of the Soviet Union comes down to the failure to carry out all the tasks of the dictatorship of the proletariat. It is essential for all communist parties to study and understand all aspects of the dictatorship of the proletariat and hence to adopt practices necessary for achieving and building socialism.