USSR strayed from communism, say
New book analyzes Soviet collapse
J. Fitzgibbons, Chronicle staff
Economics professors Richard Wolff (left)
and Stephen Resnick spent 10 years researching and writing
their new book analyzing the collapse of the Soviet Union.
(Stan Sherer photo)
the time the Soviet Union was officially dissolved in 1991, analysts
and politicians declared the breakup as the death knell of communism,
but a new book by two Economics professors questions whether a true
communist class structure ever existed in the USSR.
In "Class Theory and History: Capitalism
and Communism in the USSR," professors Stephen A. Resnick and
Richard D. Wolff, both specialists in Marxian economics, apply their
previously developed class theory to analyze the creation, evolution
and demise of the Soviet Union.
Their conclusion, sure to rile critics
on both the left and the right, is that the 20th century's great
ideological schism actually pitted the private capitalism of the
West against the "state capitalism" of the USSR. "The
struggle between communism and capitalism never happened,"
says Wolff. "The Soviets didn't establish communism. They thought
about it, but never did it."
Under a true communist system, says Resnick,
the workers would control all aspects of production and decide how
any surpluses are used. But in the wake of the 1917 revolution,
the Bolsheviks imposed a layer of state managers to operate industry
in the name of the people. That system, which Resnick and Wolff
call "state capitalism," actually ceded decisions about
the use of profits to government officials.
If communism ever existed within the USSR,
says Resnick, it was during a brief period following the revolution
when the Bolsheviks redistributed land to the peasants, who formed
farming collectives. Working at the local level, farmers reached
consensus on how their surplus products would be used.
But as Wolff notes, those collective decisions
didn't fit into the plans of the Soviet leaders and their state
capitalism. By the mid-1930s, the Soviet state was having such a
hard time getting enough food to feed the workers that Josef Stalin
"decided that whole revolution was at risk because of the farmers,"
says Wolff. In response, the Soviet leader abolished the collectives
in favor of "state farms run like factories."
Resnick and Wolff contend that state capitalism
was originally seen by the Bolsheviks as a necessary step in the
evolution towards a communist state. But after Lenin's death in
1923, says Wolff, Stalin short-circuited those plans by simply declaring
the Soviet Union a communist-socialist state.
According to Wolff, it was a politically
expedient solution intended to assuage the masses who had already
suffered through the poverty of the czarist system and the bloodshed
of World War I and the post-revolution civil war that brought US,
British, French and Japanese troops onto Russian soil. Faced with
the responsibilities of governing and preserving their power, the
Soviet leaders found it easier simply to declare the revolution
"They couldn't fight 12 battles at
once," says Wolff. "They had to choose between their own
focus on government and the exigencies of the moment. ... It was
a way to say all the sacrifices have paid off."
Stalin's declaration eased pressure on
the Soviets to move a fully communistic system, according to Wolff.
"He hammered home the point by killing anyone who disagreed."
The decision to embrace state capitalism,
say Resnick and Wolff, helped sustain the Soviet state for several
decades by providing funding for public services, ranging from health
care to education to housing. For the once poor nation, says Wolff,
the change was "a remarkable phenomenon."
By the 1980s, however, the state capi-talist
industries and farms were incapable of generating enough surplus
to sustain industrial capital accumulation, maintain the USSR's
superpower status, meet the consumer demands of the population and
pay for the bloated Communist party apparatus and bureaucracy. Something
had to give, and soon the Soviet leaders began to introduce more
elements of private capitalism. Ultimately, that also loosened the
political monopoly held by the Communist Party. Soon, the Soviet
republics began going their own way.
For Resnick and Wolff, the Soviet experiment
raises many questions about the nature and future of communism as
an economic system. In fact, they devote an entire section of their
book to defining communism and socialism, whose philosophical origins
go much farther back than Karl Marx. As part of their decade-long
research, says Resnick, the two economists delved into "the
vast literature on utopian" thought. The utopian literature
was long on lofty ideals of working together for the common good,
but devoted little attention to how workers should receive the immediate
profits of their labor.
Similarly, says Resnick, early Christian
writings espoused notions of sharing and meeting the needs of all
members of society, but the professors found no evidence that communism
has been tried on a national scale.
Now, with the collapse of the USSR, says
Wolff, it is time "to drastically rethink the whole idea of
"What it means to be socialist is
up for grabs," he says. "Marxism is up for grabs."
"We can't concede the end of communism,"
says Resnick. "Communism hasn't been tried on a society-wide
basis. It's a boastful notion that communism has been vanquished."
In fact, says Resnick, the years ahead
may produce a new form of communism - a system based on ownership
of private property, stock markets and political freedom, but allowing
workers to decide how the profits of their work are allocated.
"If we allow communism to be defined
as people getting the profits, it opens up all different possibilities,"
says Resnick. "I think it could work."
"There's already a concrete example
of communism working in the U.S," notes Wolff, citing the work
practices of some technology workers in, of all places, Silicon
Valley. "People like you and me in San Jose have been doing
it for 35 years."
According to Wolff, disaffected engineers
who left large companies to form their own software firms are following
the communist model. "Nobody's the boss," he says.
"Monday through Thursday, they work
on their projects and Fridays, they have all-day meetings on how
to use the profits for the company."
If communism can be redefined, says Wolff,
"In the future, when folks get upset with a private system,
they may have an alternative. ... A society that wanted to give
people a choice could spend a few years for people to see if the
communist enterprise works for them. It could be used as a social
A book-signing party with Steve Resnick
and Rick Wolff is being held Wednesday, Oct. 16, from 5:15-7 p.m.
at Atticus Books, 8 Main St. in Amherst. "Class Theory and
History: Capitalism and Communism in the USSR" is published