The myth of Soviet backwardness
It is an axiom of anti-Communist propaganda that Socialism is not inventive, unlike capitalism. “Free enterprise” and “individualism” supposedly cause the creative juices to flow, whereas striving for the good of the mass of the people apparently fails to do this. It follows from this line of thinking, that the USA as the leading capitalist country has invented almost everything and the Soviet Union, as the leading socialist country, invented nothing worth mentioning.
That this was nonsense was clear to anyone who cared to look, but it suited capitalism to keep Soviet inventions quiet. In fact, whenever Soviet spokespersons tried to set the record straight and report the achievements of Soviet inventors, their reports were held up to ridicule as manifestly absurd: it was common knowledge that the Commies couldn’t invent anything.
The popular means of judging a nation’s inventiveness in the West is by the range and quality of consumer goods it produces, including that most expensive of consumer goods, the motor car. For the first decade after the Revolution, however, the people of the Soviet Union had their hands full dealing with a Civil War against those who would restore capitalism, and simultaneously with a war against no less than 14 invading capitalist states with the same aim and scant concern about how it was done.
When those wars were finally concluded the war-devastated country, which had been notoriously backward before the destruction of the First World War and then the greater destruction of the subsequent Civil War and Intervention, had to spend years just rebuilding its productive capacity back to the pre-WW1 level. Instead of consumer goods, the Soviet Union set about creating an entirely new society, and as a first step reorganised agriculture away from small, labour intensive peasant farms to large-scale agricultural co-ops or “collective farms” that could free up large numbers of workers from farm labour to take up the positions opening up in the new factories. At the same time, and just as importantly, the reformed, smaller but mechanised agricultural workforce would now be able to feed the new industrial workforce.
With agriculture socialised, the Soviet state could set about the industrialisation of the country, via the series of Five Year Plans, innovative and extraordinary achievements that justifiably impressed working class commentators from other countries but which Western propagandists assiduously derided as “failures” or even “futile”.
In America they built cars; in the Soviet Union they built a new society. US newspaperman Lincoln Steffens, who accompanied US diplomat William C Bullit to Moscow at the beginning of the ‘20s, gave a famously prophetic eight-word report on the new Soviet nation: “I have seen the future – and it works!”
Most, however, chose to deride Soviet achievements. In the 1930s, Soviet pilots set records for long distance flights and Soviet polar scientists captured the world’s imagination camped out on the floating Polar ice pack. Capitalist propaganda however preferred to maintain the myth that Soviet Russia was as backward as Tsarist Russia. Even during WW2, some capitalist rags – notably the Readers’ Digest – cultivated that line.
And yet, during WW2, it was well known that Soviet planes could fly when sub-zero temperatures kept Luftwaffe planes grounded, and Soviet planes could be riddled with bullets without catching fire, unlike the English Hurricane. Soviet tanks were able to travel at speed over snow and slush that bogged Panzers and Soviet rocket artillery (the famed Katyushas) was justly feared by the Germans and held in awe by the rest of the world.
After the war, the Soviet assault rifle, the AK47, was so superior (especially in reliability) that it became not only the weapon of choice for national liberation movements everywhere, but also the preferred weapon of US troops in Vietnam (their own M16 carbine tended to jam). Also in this period, the authoritative publication Jane’s identified the Soviet Army’s off-road truck as the best in the world.
The Soviet Union had borne the brunt of the Second World War, destroying the bulk of German troops, planes and equipment. In the process they had lost over 26 million people, including many of their best, most motivated and innovative young people. Innumerable cities and towns had been laid waste. Once again they had to devote years to overcoming the consequences of war, just to get back to where they had been when war came to them.
Once again, too, they had to forego consumer goods to concentrate on restoring industry and supplying housing for a population that lived under the constant threat of an American nuclear attack. There was scarcely a family in the Soviet Union that had not lost one or more members in the War and the Soviet people wanted nothing more than to be left alone to build Socialism in peace.
However, it was an essential element of capitalist propaganda that no inventions of any significance could come out of the oppressed, downtrodden population of the Soviet Union. Hence it was an awful shock to the system when the USSR detonated its first A-bomb. The Manhattan Project had involved the combined talents of US, British and refugee European scientists and a great deal of money. US leaders confidently thought they would have a monopoly of the new super weapon for decades, perhaps forever.
When their monopoly didn’t even last half a decade, they sought an excuse that would allow their largely fictitious supremacy to remain seemingly intact, and so the unfortunate Rosenbergs were railroaded to the electric chair. The myth of American inventive superiority, however, was shortly to be dealt an even more devastating blow.
The USA had ringed the Soviet Union with state-of-the-art, hideously expensive long-range strike bombers carrying nuclear bombs. These bombers, and their aircrews, were kept on combat alert, constantly primed to commence the “nuking” of Russia. The accidental outbreak of nuclear war was a very real possibility. Unfortunately for the Pentagon, the USA’s massive fleet of nuclear-armed super-bombers was rendered obsolescent in the 1950s when Sputnik was launched. With Sputnik, Russia inaugurated not only the space age but also the age of the Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile. They did not need long range bombers to strike at the USA.
Soviet journals like the large-format full colour monthly Soviet Union, which began life after the War as Soviet Reconstructs, regularly reported Soviet inventions and innovations but as these were often in the field of heavy machinery or machine tools, they were not sexy enough to grab the attention of the Western media. They did grab attention in some quarters, however. At least one Japanese company made a point of avidly reading every Soviet magazine and noting their reports of new inventions, which they then sought to buy if Soviet authorities had no immediate plans for them.
I remember reading a report in Soviet Union of a phone invented by a young Siberian engineer that could be used anywhere, without a landline. This was before mobile phones became an essential bit of a businessman’s kit and long before they became accessible to ordinary people. Domestic phones in the Soviet Union were free and public phones littered the footpaths of large cities. There was not the motivation to build a network of towers to carry electromagnetic signals between mobile phones. The invention was not developed.
The Soviet economy was geared to providing everybody with a job and somewhere to live as well as free education and health care, free holidays in union-owned resorts, subsidised culture and entertainment and of course superior and very cheap public transport. If you missed the bus in a Soviet city you merely looked up the road to where the next bus to the same destination would already be in sight. Waiting time between trains on the Moscow or Leningrad Metros was 45 seconds in peak periods, 3 minutes outside the peak hours.
Such an underground rail system was an extraordinary achievement, beside which the New York Underground looked very shabby indeed.
Russia had pioneered the use of rockets both scientific and military even before the Revolution, and developed their use further in WW2, although the US military was clearly much more interested in the Nazis’ rocket-based terror weapons the V1 and V2 than in the USSR’s Katyushas. The US made a special effort to prevent their allies (but especially the Russians) from capturing Werner von Braun and the rest of the team responsible for the Nazis’ rocket weapons, securing their services for the US exclusively. Ironically, this worked to the USSR’s advantage, leaving it free to develop its own long-range missile technology.
To the delight of US aerospace businesses the US government spent a colossal amount of money to “overtake the Russians” and to be first to “put a man on the Moon”. The USSR’s manned space exploration program was abruptly curtailed when three cosmonauts were killed during re-entry. Instead, Russia put a remote-controlled vehicle onto the surface of the Moon but the capitalist media ignored this remarkable achievement. The world’s imagination was understandably captured, to the glee of US propagandists, by the images of human beings actually walking on the surface of another planetary body.
The propaganda success of the US in “the Moon race” consolidated the supremacy of hi-tech ventures within the US economy. The enormous profits associated with complex, hi-tech projects have also helped in no small measure to make them attractive to the USA’s military industrial complex. Despite the uselessness of long-range bombers in the age of missiles, the US has so far invested a massive $80 billion in its new long-range strike bomber! That pales into insignificance against the expenditure on the F-35 fighter, already described by insiders as “disappointing”. The projected cost of this lemon is now a cool $1.4 trillion. Aerospace companies are surely laughing all the way to their (offshore) banks.
While armaments and aerospace companies are raking in truckloads of money from the US people, courtesy of a Congress that apparently dare not deny the Pentagon anything, no matter how expensive or unnecessary, capitalism is not getting value for its stupendous outlay. As Pepe Escobar noted in an article carried by Information Clearing House on May 30, 2016, “Russia is still light-years ahead [of the US] in hypersonic missiles. The Pentagon knows that against [Russia’s] S-500 system, the F-22, the awesomely expensive F-35 and the B-2 stealth airplanes – stars of a trillion-dollar fighter program – are totally obsolete.”
Airplanes however are only part of the picture. Add in the obscene cost of surface vessels, especially the huge floating targets that are giant aircraft carriers, the latest computer-controlled tanks and of course nuclear-powered submarines and the military budget business assumes truly gargantuan proportions. Talk of peace under capitalism when there are profits like these to be made from preparing for and waging innumerable wars is surely futile. Only a change in the social system can reliably guarantee peace.
In the meantime, US capitalism continues to rely on hi-tech warfare to rescue not only its economy but also its policies. Drones kill people deemed enemies of the US – sometimes the people actually targeted, sometimes other unfortunate souls – while aerial bombing and mercenaries lay waste to whole countries. But even while carrier-based aircraft are reducing once-prosperous countries to rubble, capitalism is actually digging a deep hole from which it is proving impossible to extricate itself.
The leaders of capitalism foster the illusion that after they have reduced a troublesome, resource-rich country to carnage, terror and rubble their businesses will then enjoy a profitable time rebuilding it. It’s a furphy, of course (look at Iraq or Libya). Recovery – if it happens at all – is very slow. More importantly, the catastrophic economic effects of the destruction of infrastructure, housing, etc, are inordinately long-drawn out and do not provide capitalist businesses with the immediate profit-making opportunities they desire.
In Chris Marker’s documentary feature Far From Vietnam, Marker contrasts the expensive, hi-tech “rich man’s war” waged in Indo-China by the US with the low-tech “poor people’s war” waged by the Vietnamese. Which of these was victorious, again?
Hideously costly B52 bombers, flying so high they could not be seen or heard from the ground, flew sorties over the jungle of Vietnam to co-ordinates determined by radar and then dropped a seemingly never-ending stream of bombs (also hideously costly) on the land out of sight beneath them. Enormous death and destruction was only avoided by the low-tech response of using caves and digging tunnels. Lots of tunnels. Capitalism had the expensive hi-tech weaponry, but it didn’t win the war.
Today, capitalism is waging wars of one sort or another all over the globe. For companies in the arms business this is good news, but not for anyone else. At the same time, heedless capitalist corporations are destroying our environment in pursuit of profits above all else and in the process endangering continued life on Earth.
Capitalism is in deep trouble, and has been ever since 1917. The ideologues of capitalism thought the overthrow of socialism in the USSR would reverse that situation, but even that setback was not enough to restore capitalism to its former pre-eminence. Today, capitalism is increasingly unable to provide work for all the labour force available to it, it continues to wreck the environment – endangering life on Earth itself and arousing opposition even among its supporters – and it is turning developed, industrialised capitalist countries into collections of ghost towns as capitalists themselves hasten to take their businesses to low-wage “third world” countries in their never-ending search for higher profits.
Clearly capitalism is a system that has passed its use-by date. However, it staggers on, buoyed up by the profits that can still be made from war and war preparations. Those profits, however, are illusory, for they are based on the destruction and waste of resources that could otherwise have been used to benefit the people.
Just as green energy will ultimately provide more – and better – jobs than reliance on fossil fuels, so peaceful, socially beneficial production provides a superior economic outcome to what can be obtained from military production. Military production is production without a future. The cycle of peaceful production, a self-renewing process which provides human society with all its many goods and services, is brought to a dead stop under military production as resources are used up without being processed into socially useful products.
We cannot afford to continue this colossal waste of the Earth’s finite material resources and the sum of precious human ingenuity. The Soviet Union’s greatest achievement was that it stood as a bulwark against the drive of greedy capitalism towards the twin evils of war and fascism.
Today, the working class and its allies in every country must be that bulwark. The slogan “Workers of the world unite!” has never lost its relevance but today is more relevant than ever.