Twenty-five years after the fall of the USSR, the Soviet experiment appears to most, especially in the United States, as a failed project, a historical dead end belonging to the history books. And yet, one hundred years after the Russian Revolution, the Soviet experiment, despite its darkest moments, continues to stand as the historical proof that a political and economic alternative to our neoliberal present is, in fact, possible. In the age of economic globalization, global warming, and right-wing nationalist uprisings, the great ideological struggle that shaped the twentieth century and brought the world to the edge of nuclear war has receded from American political consciousness. Indeed, with the disappearance of “Actually Existing Socialism” in the Soviet Union, Western liberal democracy – particularly in its neoliberal form – has been presented as the ultimate form of government and capitalism as the only possible economic system, thereby foreclosing any other alternative. But to summon up the memory of Soviet life, economy, culture, and politics is also to propose a reconsideration of this fatalist position from the perspective of social and political theory. To address this topic, we asked BISR faculty and executive director Ajay Singh Chaudhary to tell us more about what the Soviet experience can teach us about politics, emancipation, and the recovery of political imagination in advance of his upcoming course Soviet Life: Communism, Transformation, and Reflection.
From an American perspective deeply influenced by the Cold War, the Soviet Union is often perceived as an authoritarian and failed regime demonstrating the impossibility of leftist politics and the superiority of capitalism as economic system. According to you, how does the Soviet experience complicate this picture?
There are at least two ways I’m interested in the Soviet experience that try to precisely break out of this Cold War mentality. First, I want to ask what questions of social and political theory of current importance can be addressed from a different angle by thinking through the lens of the Soviet Union. These can range from some of the most basic questions that come up in political philosophy – for example, is there such a thing as a steady or even largely immutable “human nature” – to some hyper-specific conceptual debates around socialism and communism – for example, what are the structural and even mathematical limitations of a planned economy? What are other possibilities for social organization? What values are inculcated by a socialist system? By sort of slicing into the Soviet experience at different key moments in its history – the Revolution, the NEP (New Economic Program of the 1920s), the Stalin era, the Krushchev thaw, the fall – you can address questions like these in surprising ways. My reading of a text like Svetlana Alexievich’s recent and highly acclaimed Secondhand Time is as much about the ways in which people did fundamentally transform under Soviet life but then didn’t realize it until after the Soviet Union fell. The Bolsheviks had set out quite forcefully to create a “new human” and they actually did, just not exactly in the way they had imagined. One of the most fascinating parts of Alexievich’s book for me was reading account after account of post-Soviet citizens from quite different social strata noting both what they had lost in the transition to capitalism – time, above all, but also community, even community arrayed against the system. And, to be quite honest, it’s a bit poignant for someone like myself, reading and culture more broadly – that they didn’t even know they valued those things until they were gone. Many really thought capitalism would be communism with better jeans or that they were just going to get liberal add-ons to socialism. And not a few were – unsurprisingly – deeply disillusioned both by the “shock-therapy” economic transition and by the political and social conditions in contemporary Russia.
But other questions are there too, right on the surface: with the NEP the Soviets became among the first states to experiment with mixed economies, improvisational and partial socialisms, and more. Soviet scientists – for example – were among the earliest to start thinking about the problems of growth inputs past the “social” barrier and back into the “natural” partially because they believed – quite naively – that they were there, at the cusp of solving all the social problems of the world. There is no point trying to downplay or “explain away” (I can’t even imagine the impulse here) the extraordinary oppression that occurred in the Soviet Union – particularly under Stalin. But while we (speaking in some bizarre voice of the liberal democratic West) have attended quite thoroughly to that aspect of the Soviet project so many others go unnoticed.
This is a nice place to transition to the second way in which to address this question of the Cold War mentality. Some of the texts we are reading in this class are theoretical reflections that begin from a radically different perspective, which is to read the Soviet and American experiences as having important shared qualities, instead of being diametrically opposed. Both were deeply “productivist” societies, sure of a necessary and steady progress in history, built upon economic systems that worked in different ways to produce extraordinary growth driven – at least in part – by cheap energy extraction. Both built mass cultures for mass audiences and posited themselves as the future and as “the end of history.” It is unquestionable that the Soviet experiment failed but there is a lot in its ruins – from ecological destruction to the individual experience of becoming time-poor – to learn from constructively for our time.
In an era dominated by neoliberal logic, in which we are told that “there is no alternative,” what can the Russian revolution and the Soviet era teach us about politics and political change in our own times?
Well, at the very least, that, there is! I don’t mean to sound flippant; it’s not exactly like we should all be lining up for Soviet Union II: The Wrath of Kruschev. But this idea that the way we do things now is the only way that things can be done must be vociferously challenged with everything available to us. One of the reasons I’m interested in so much of this cultural detritus and weird overlooked nooks and crannies of Soviet life is that I think there is a sort of stale grey-black image people have of an entire society that really existed in full living color, warts and all, but which, particularly in its early moments and after the end of the Stalin era, had an extraordinary political and cultural life and an ambitious, if failed, economic program. I am amazed (although I shouldn’t be) that even after the 2008 financial crisis neoliberalism managed both to continue and to paint itself as not only logical and necessary but somehow as still “natural” and inevitable. I cannot stress enough the way in which that program is a political program as grand, as utopian, and as planned as anything dreamed up by Gosplan (State Planning Committee). As I have argued elsewhere with BISR colleague Raphaële Chappe, neoliberalism – before Trump, Brexit, Modi, et al – shares a great deal in common with fascism at least in terms of political economy. With the rise of far-right movements the world over, it seems that cracks in the neoliberal order are widening – although sadly in many cases largely driven by the right instead of the left. I’m always trying to drive home that while historical comparisons are helpful, they are not one-to-one. We don’t know what sort of chimeras lurk on the far side of the neoliberal order meeting such a vociferous resurgence of nationalism. One of the threads that ties my sometimes disparate areas of inquiry together – focuses the lens of my political theory – is looking at when, where, and why these fissures occur that allow for openings in our ever more deeply suffocated political imaginations. For me, we are possibly living through one of those moments and the Russian Revolution is quite literally a textbook example of another, more dramatic one in which people were able to wrest unbelievable power from a sclerotic and despotic regime and a desperate situation.
As I was saying in the first answer, one thing we can learn is that people can and really do change under different social conditions. One can observe this with everything from the early modern European transition to waged labor and later national citizenship (both utter transformations that ran against the grain of what was assumed to be “naturally” human at those times) to some aspects of Soviet life. I think the Russian Revolution itself is something people should absolutely be looking at as very real debates occur not only about the ways social and political reform has happened in the United States but the incredible ways in which deep systemic transformations have happened elsewhere. The creative combination of everything from strikes to protests to a wide-array of education and cultural interventions can be inspirational and useful – to say nothing of the kernel of the idea of the Soviet itself, a basic, localized, situated worker’s council – stretching past the 1917 revolution, one hundred years ago, all the way to the groundwork laid in 1905. The point is not to recreate these movements from the past – nor to look with rose-colored glasses at their shortcomings – but to try to learn, without nostalgia or romance, from moments when political imagination was simply more capacious.
In contemporary debates on the left, a distinction is often drawn between socialism and “Actually Existing Socialism” to salvage the political project from its historical instantiation. What would a similar distinction between the free market logic of the Chicago School and the “Actually Existing Capitalism” that led us to the 2008 financial crisis, and more recently the Trump presidency, do for us conceptually and politically?
I realized in talking to you how much the phrase “Actually Existing Socialism” has fallen out of use! I think this ties back to your first question: there was a long time when the Soviet Union was held up – particularly in American propaganda – as the paradigmatic cautionary tale. “This is what happens when Marxism is put into practice,” we are told, or perhaps the more common but mollified “good in theory, terrible in practice” platitudes. Particularly when it comes to thinking about Marxism, the Soviets knew as early as the 1920s that they were far off the path that late nineteenth century Marxists had laid out for them, especially once it was clear that a world revolution was not nipping at their heels. Although Marx himself had played with the idea of taking so much of the “stage” nature out of his thinking by his late life, the Soviets were well aware that theirs was not the most promising situation to begin the great proletarian revolution. The first version of Soviet communism was more-or-less a copy of Imperial German war-planning. The NEP was completely uncharted waters. Early Soviets were obviously deeply invested and interested in Marx but there was also a lot more churning there; science fiction was quite a popular genre for Bolsheviks. Figures like Gorky, Lunacharsky, and Bukharin all engaged pretty liberally with Nietzsche, even though he would be consigned the reactionary bin soon after the Revolution. It’s funny that today some people point at China after Deng Xiao Ping’s reforms as the ultimate proof-in-the-pudding of the failure of Marx. Many members of the Chinese Communist Party and many Chinese economists in particular do not share this view; they view themselves – and quite plausibly – as rather doctrinaire Marxists.
I think the further we move away from the Cold War, the less this idea can be used as a bludgeon against socialism in particular and any form of fundamental social transformation more broadly. I also think that the image of “Actually Existing Capitalism” is becoming ever clearer and ever starker. There are a number of fascinating projects currently underway – I believe Amartya Sen is working on one for example – to get an accurate, for lack of a better phrase, body count for capitalism. I think especially for young people in the developed world and frankly in many other places, the brutality of “Actually Existing Capitalism” is all too apparent. This is of course ideological, but there is a way in which – and it is, in fact, quite a nice mirror with say Chicago School models – everything unsavory about capitalist development gets sort of relegated to an “exogenous” category, in a way that puts even some ugly Soviet apologetics to shame. It is unquestionable that capitalism and even the much derided globalization has driven a stunning proliferation of wealth in the world which, even if distributed at grossly uneven rates, has in the aggregate decreased poverty, increased life expectancy, and so on. But acknowledging this frankly in the light of a concept like “Actually Existing Capitalism” feels quite a bit like pointing out the stunning growth rates under Stalin – which were truly spectacular and largely unprecedented in human history – without mentioning forced labor, purges, gulags, or the liquidation of the kulaks. Somehow wars by capitalist powers are certainly not “capitalist wars.” Genocides committed by capitalist powers are considered outside “capitalism.” Slavery is counted as “pre-capitalist.” Colonialism and weak, dominated post-colonial states are something external to the “capitalist world.”And so on. None of this is true; each of these phenomena is vital for the historical creation of capitalism and for its ongoing maintenance. Stalin and other Bolshevik leaders who were obsessed with the idea of “catching-up” were chasing us. And we can also see a lot of “Actually Existing Capitalism” failures in examining the enervation of “Actually Existing Socialism.” The idea that the Soviet Union exhausts the story of socialism – or even of communism – should, I think, finally be relegated to the dustbin of history. Also the idea that these are our only options – Joseph Stalin or Margaret Thatcher – as kind of an on/off toggle is ludicrous. Close examination of the many different experiments that the Soviets tried can be helpful here as well.
In the early 1990s, Francis Fukuyama famously argued that the fall of the Soviet Union not only marked the end of the Cold War but the end of history as such. Without a credible political alternative, the world was destined to become increasingly democratic following a Western model. Since then, this theory has been much derided, but this kind of argument – in which two fundamentally different political and economic systems fight a bitter ideological battle toward hegemony – obscures the similarities between the two systems and their mutual influence on one another. In what ways did the American and Soviet experience resemble one another in the twentieth century?
I addressed some of this above but I will add one bit: I think people deeply underestimate the weight the sheer existence of the Soviet Union as another way of doing things, as a different power, exerted internationally. Not only because of Soviet support for national liberation and other left-wing projects around the world but because Soviet talk and action on economic and social rights was a constant force for Western Europe and the United States to reckon with. There is a tendency to forget that – as problematic as the entire discourse of human rights can be at times – a document like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was influenced by the Soviet Union even though they did not sign it. Rights for food, housing, education, standards-of-living with dignity, equal pay for equal work, leisure time, paid vacation, cultural life, and so on, would almost certainly have never been included were it not for the existence and pressure of the Soviet Union. The United States and other Western bloc countries could not simply gesture at the “naturalness” of their systems; there was geopolitical pressure to prove that American or European capitalism delivered a better life for workers than the “worker’s paradise” on the other side of the world. Again, it can be hard to remember but there was a period in the early 1970s or so where many American officials and quite right-leaning scholars earnestly feared that the Soviet Union was on course to overtake the United States in a wide variety of areas.
These days, fascism is often used as a lens to understand and interpret the current political moment. According to you, what can looking at the Soviet Union tell us about the current moment that gets obscured by the fascism analysis?
If ur- or proto- or nascent- or neo- Fascism has proved – for some, me certainly – a helpful comparison for understanding the contemporary moment, I think the Soviet Union and the Russian Revolution offer several key lessons as well. First, it is extraordinary to see how many different peoples, coalitions, organizational forms, and so on came together to achieve the Revolution itself. Reading a text like Jack Reed’s Ten Days That Shook the World which I think even just a few years ago might have seemed quite far away from contemporary life, will suddenly, I would argue, have quite a number of resonances with new audiences today. Not least of which that Reed – like some of the contemporary theorists mentioned above – did not see a complete and obvious separation between what was happening in the nascent Soviet Union and his life back in the United States.
Second, and this is rather bleak, by studying Stalin and Stalinism one is reminded that there are actually political forms worse than fascism. Although I obviously am deeply influenced by thinkers like Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, I find their use of the generic “totalitarian” to sometimes be obfuscatory. (I find this in Hannah Arendt as well.) As Adorno and Horkheimer were aware – and anyone who has read their abortive attempt at writing a new manifesto can attest – there were in fact deep underlying differences between Stalinism, Nazism, and the capitalist liberal order they were critiquing as well. For all their fluency in orchestrating a singular and devastating regime of violence, the Nazis never achieved the kind of total control that Stalin did in the USSR by the method that his regime developed to such an overwhelming pitch: national security surveillance. Many aspects of life in Nazi Germany were continuous or minorly augmented – particularly in everyday and business life for most (in-group) Germans until the dawn of the war. In contrast, no matter which ledger you were counted in under Stalin, life was in a state of fevered mobilization and terror under the steady gaze of the internal state security apparatus. And the damage this did not only in terms of the sheer death toll but in terms of a totalizing destruction of the everyday lives of nearly the entire Soviet population can hardly be overstated. This is not to discount the vital and necessary role that Soviet communism and having a clear left-wing power played in defeating Nazi Germany and fascism more broadly. Rather it is to note that there are few things worse than living under a fascist regime and living under a fully empowered and omnipresent national and state security apparatus is quite possibly one of them.
Finally, I think Stalin has really cast a long shadow in terms of certain assumptions occasionally found on the left of a kind of rigid, essentialized, and deeply anti-intellectual “working class” culture. When we look at the panoply of the Soviet experience, and in particular the revolutionary period, the assumption that workers, peasants, soldiers, and others were uniformly or even largely alienated by new forms of cultural life growing often out of urban centers could not be further from the truth. One finds peasant movement pamphlets with modernist illustrations and covers from before the revolution, for example, and figures like Lunacharsky who would figure so prominently in the spread of “Prolekult” and other avant-garde movements were hardly bit players in the Revolution. In the early Soviet experience especially, there was a profound and well-documented synergy between avant-garde modernism and revolutionary politics. Somewhere over the course of the 20th century, the new left, and other political movements, I think some elements in the left started to festishize (and thereby weirdly simultaneously denigrate) an assumed anti-intellectual, deeply traditionalist understanding of the working class. For the early Soviets – and this I think is something truly fascinating to think back on – part of the project of emancipation was about opening up new possibilities in precisely these areas as well. The point of communism was not to make economic distribution “fair”; it was to free people from coarse and regressive modes of life and lay the material groundwork for true human flourishing.
To learn more about the Soviet Union, please join us for Ajay’s class Soviet Life: Communism, Transformation, and Reflection, which will begin on April 3rd at the Workmen’s Circle.