Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The USSR and the PRC

I consider the detailed historical study of the Soviet Union under Stalin and the People's Republic of China under Mao, to be important in the study of communism*. I do not agree with db0, who seems to hold that Stalin and Mao are just as irrelevant to communism as Hitler or Mussolini.

*The study of Lenin is important in understanding practical techniques for achieving a revolution. Lenin died too early, unfortunately, to offer much practical information on how to govern a socialist country in peacetime.

A detailed study of Hitler's Germany is interesting from a general historical perspective, but not very interesting from a practical perspective of implementing communism. Despite the label "National Socialism", we can easily see that Hitler from day one goes on a very different track than modern communists, and all his subsequent actions, successes as well as failures, are deeply dependent on that alternative track.

Stalin and Mao, however, seem like a different case.

The objection that the USSR under Stalin and PRC under Mao never were communist, in the sense of being classless, stateless societies, seems trivial. Since Marx, it's been an uncontroversial understanding that there must be some sort of substantive transition — often labeled "socialism" — between the existing political-economic system (feudalism for the USSR and PRC) and a classless, stateless communist society. And it is unacceptably dogmatic to assert that the USSR and PRC were not true "socialist" societies just because they did not manage the transition as Marx specified.

Both the USSR and the PRC seem to have least started on a track interesting to communists, that they really struggled with many of the issues that any communist must struggle with in creating a socialist government in actual reality. The most obvious and fundamental struggle was with the private ownership of capital, and the use of private ownership to exploit labor. Both the USSR and the PRC created and managed a more-or-less modern economy and dramatically raised the standard of living without the private, competitive ownership of capital. Regardless of whether or not we want to replicate their methods, they decisively proved that capitalism is not necessary. Both the USSR and the PRC also made great progress (although nowhere near complete success) combating the hyper-exploitation of women.

Of course both the USSR and PRC made some enormous, catastrophic errors. No one wants to replicate the famines in both countries, leading to millions of deaths. But these famines can be explained simply by noting that both countries were under tremendous external pressure to industrialize, and their initial poverty magnified even the smallest error into catastrophic results. Once a moderate level of industrialization was achieved, however, the famines stopped. (And it should be noted that famine and pestilence were hardly absent under capitalism in similar primitive circumstances.)

We must assign more blame to the USSR and PRC for their attempts to forcibly inculcate communist ideology. Such attempts were not only unjust and had abhorrent human cost, they were unnecessary and counterproductive. Communism ought to stand or fall on its own, rational merits, not the ability of the government to enforce assent; to force assent makes it impossible to evaluate the rational merits of communism, for good or ill. (Also the capitalist countries have shown that it's much more effective to bribe the intelligentsia rather than threaten them. Intellectuals are not only whores, they're cheap whores.)

To reject that the USSR and PRC were, at least initially, sincere attempts to implement socialism is to say that communists have no more to learn from them (other than that they somehow (how?) started off on the wrong track), positive or negative, than we have to learn from Nazi Germany or Imperial Japan, IBM or Lehman Brothers.

Of course to accept that the USSR and PRC were sincere attempts to implement socialism does not mean that we must approve of everything they did. Nor are we compelled to conclude that their eventual failure (in that both countries became firmly capitalist) means that everything about communism and socialism is necessarily false.


  1. I did not say they are irrelevant, I said that they were not Communists. And yes I consider this fact very non-trivial because to call them Communist would very much confuse people on what Communism actually is. At best they can be called Socialists but I wouldn't even call them that.

    Very specifically they were not Socialists because the means of production were not owned by the workers but rather by the bureaucratic class. As soon as Stalin took power, all the progress that happened under the socialist revolution started to be rolled back. Unions were purged, the Soviets became impotent and people weren't even allowed to go on strike.

    You defend these regimes simply on the concept that they were not as bad as shameless Capitalists. While this is debatable, it is certainly not an argument for them being Socialist. They called themselves Socialist simply on the idea that they didn't have private enterprises working within the state but that is only because the state was the ultimate capitalist. The workers did not get to keep their surplus value (were exploited) because it went to the state who then dealt with it as it willed.

    Certainly a lot of good things were also available within the USSR like the women emancipation etc but consider that all these things have mostly been achieved during the very first years of the Revolution. They remained simply because they were there and it would create too much friction for the state to take away. In a similar way that the USA cannot easily abolish freedom of speech or the right to bear arms simply because they existed since the start, so the USSR could not abolish women emancipation. However it did abolish democracy and freedom of speech.

    So yes, I reject that the USSR and the PRC were sincere attempts to achieve socialism. Russia for which I know more, was sincere up to the point were Stalin took power, whereupon it abandoned the path towards Communism for the self-serving of the bureaucratic class.

    Please read criticisms of the USSR from other socialists to see why it is not an example to promote. Countering the criticisms of Capitalists with a Tu Quoque-ish argument is easy but the failing you should be looking at are the ones that come towards implementing socialism, not liberalism.

    Some links on this subject

    State Capitalism:

    Was Russia Socialist?:

    And also book "The Revolution Betrayed" by Leon Trotsky which is exactly on this subject.

    My general opinion on this is that Authoritarian Socialism "from above" is unworkable.

  2. I note both the Soviet Union under Stalin and the People's Republic of China under Mao were police states.

  3. John: What precisely do you mean by "police state"? What evidence can you present that the USSR and PRC fulfilled that definition?

    Would you say that "police state" exhaustively characterizes the USSR and PRC? That calling them "police states" says everything interesting about those societies and governments?

    Is the United States a police state, especially for black people, people of color and undocumented immigrants? Again, would you or would you not have said everything interesting about the United States?

    If we say that the USSR and PRC did thus-and-such, of which we disapprove, well, we're free to disapprove and do things differently -- communism is a science, not a scripture.

  4. BB, What precisely do you mean by "police state"?
    Well, I admit I made the claim based on my inchoate and inexpert understanding of the conditions applicable to those places in those periods. The Wikipedia entry seems to sum up what I mean.
    "The term police state describes a state in which the government exercises rigid and repressive controls over the social, economic and political life of the population. [...] The inhabitants of a police state experience restrictions on their mobility, and on their freedom to express or communicate political or other views, which are subject to police monitoring or enforcement. Political control may be exerted by means of a secret police force which operates outside the boundaries normally imposed by a constitutional republic."

    What evidence can you present that the USSR and PRC fulfilled that definition?
    I copied your specifics, i.e. "... both the Soviet Union under Stalin and the People's Republic of China under Mao were police states." I admit, I can't present much evidence, without spending time on research.

    Again, using Wikipedia, the entry on Stalinism seems to indicate it matches the criteria, though the entry on the Cultural Revolution is less clear-cut.

    Accordingly, I'll correct myself and just say that I perceive both of those states (under those leaders) as police states.

    Would you say that "police state" exhaustively characterizes the USSR and PRC? That calling them "police states" says everything interesting about those societies and governments?
    No and no.

    Is the United States a police state, especially for black people, people of color and undocumented immigrants?
    No, based on the criteria I quoted in the first paragraph.

    ... communism is a science, not a scripture.
    Well, I think it's both an ideology and a political system, depending on the context; it might even be amenable to study by political science, but I can't agree that it's a science.
    Science observes and describes what is, and develops theories to explain it - it is a methodology, not an ideology.

  5. Thank you John. I'm much more interested in honest examination, however inexpert, than in the confident assertion of one's preconceptions.

    I think a) communism depends on an accurate understanding of the world, and b) science itself is much more than passive description. Without technology, science would be vapid thumb-twiddling. Scientists want to change the world no less than communists.


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