The Campus Chronicle
Vol. XVIII, Issue 7
for the Amherst campus of the University of Massachusetts
October 11 , 2002

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USSR strayed from communism, say
Economics professors

New book analyzes Soviet collapse

by Daniel 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)

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)

By 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 a success.

     "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 communism."

     "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 experiment."

     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 by Routledge.

 
    
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