Power in Practice: Kronstadt and the Spanish Revolution 

The project of this blog and, in a certain sense, of Marxism-Leninism generally, has been to argue in favor of power. Leninists like myself argue that politics, especially revolutionary politics, is itself a question of power. Political discussions aim to draw lines between the powerful and the powerless, between victim and oppressor. This is very obvious if we look at war, which is about violence, the most naked form of power. But this principle is also true of matters such as healthcare. Healthcare is about ensuring that people do not have to worry about minor illnesses or accidents. In a society with universal healthcare, the populace could be free of these worries and thus spend more time considering how to combat injustice. To argue against universal healthcare is to argue in favor of the current balance of power; to argue in favor of universal healthcare is to argue against this current balance. Power lurks everywhere, and is at the heart of every political argument.

If we want to affect political change, we must engage in politics. If we want to engage in politics, we must engage with-and struggle for-power. To be revolutionary is (in part) to desire an inversion of the balance of power-to grant power to the oppressed by taking it away from the oppressors.

Many self-styled revolutionaries, especially those who identify as anarchists, reject this analysis. They claim that power is not instrumentalized, that it will always be oppressive. Even if those in power claim to be exercising it on behalf of the oppressed, indeed, even if they sincerely believe themselves to be doing so, they will always ultimately pursue their own interests: the continuation of power.

As evidence for this, anarchists often cite the Kronstadt rebellion. The Bolsheviks, who either cloaked themselves as defenders of the oppressed or genuinely thought they filled this role, took power in the interests of the workers. When a group of workers and soldiers rose up against the government at Kronstadt, they were mercilessly crushed. This is supposedly evidence of the corrupting nature of power. In this essay, I will argue that the Kronstadt rebellion was not crushed because of power-madness, but rather specific material conditions and an uncorrupted desire to defend the oppressed. In so doing, I will open up Leninism-a politics concerned with the conquest of political power-as a viable strategy.

I would like to counterpose the effectiveness of this strategy to the Spanish Revolution of 1936, in which a group of anarchists took power in Catalonia amidst a civil war. I have spent considerable time discussing this event elsewhere, so there is little point in spending a great deal of space doing so here. However, I believe it is an instructive example of where the aversion (what we might call an “allergic reaction”) to power will lead us. As such, I want to briefly draw some lessons from it here.

Firstly, I should mention that the Kronstadt naval base was the first line of defense against an invasion of Moscow, the new capital of the Soviet Union. It was a key defensive point. If the government had not exercised iron control over it, the invading enemies could have ended the fledgling socialist state.

The Kronstadt sailors felt that their concerns over worker’s rights and repression outweighed these concerns. Their first move was to form a Provisional Revolutionary Committee. Following this, they put forward a series of demands. These encompassed not only the economic, but also the social and political. In the economic sphere, they desired a relaxation of the strict conditions of war communism (a policy imposed, as the name suggests, by the particular conditions of the ongoing Civil War). The rebels also called for Increased food supplies to be sent to the cities. Their political demands included the restoration of  freedom of speech, increased democratic input and consultation in policy formulation, the release of non-Bolshevik socialists from detention, guarantees of civil rights and, most importantly for our purposes here, “Soviets without communists.” Their document asserted that the Bolsheviks were “usurpers” and described the conditions imposed by the new government as “greater enslavement”, “moral slavery”, “a new serfdom” and much greater than the oppressions of tsarism. The Kronstadt sailors called for the revolution to be placed back into the hands of the workers who it had originally claimed to represent.

The popular image that anti-Bolshevik critics cling to is that there was widespread sympathy among the Red Army soldiers towards the rebels. There has been a lot of speculation about the mass of soldiers refusing to take part in the attack for political reasons, as well as stories of mass desertions among the Red Army soldiers. It is claimed that many of them passed to the side of the Kronstadt rebels.

There was one case where one unit moved to the side of those defending Kronstadt. This was during the first unsuccessful attack. It was a battalion from the 561st Red Army regiment. This regiment was recruited from among former Makhno, Wrangel and Denikin prisoners. During the civil war in Russia, some peasant units also  changed sides even several times as a result of military failures. This incident was not the result of political ideas or anti-Bolshevism, but rather a desire to remain safe (and, to put it bluntly, alive).

One example of this could be seen when 236 and 237 infantry regiment refused to attack. When questioned as to their motives, they replied, “We’ll not go on the ice.” These peasant units were terrified at the idea of having to attack across the ice this first class fortress defended by battleships. There are other reports about refusals to carry out orders on the part of different units, but in all these cases the causes were such things as the poor quality of food and clothing, the bad quality of the camouflage, and unfavorable weather conditions No political reasons were ever given. 

At this juncture, it is important to remember that the Soviet government had been forced to use its scarce resources to defend itself against the White armies backed by the imperialists who were trying to crush the revolution. They could not devote resources to improving the lives of their soldiers because they were struggling simply to survive. This is the same reason they imposed War Communism in the first place. In light of these circumstances, it is understandable why conditions on the battlefield were so bad.

What about Kronstadt itself? There was no solid mass of soldiers firmly behind the rebellion. Even bourgeois historians such as Krasnov have had to recognize this fact. Inside Kronstadt, there were clashes between the old revolutionary sailors and the new recruits who came from peasant and petit-bourgeois families. As a result of this lack of unity, the Kronstadt sailors continually shifted positions and acted erratically. Some ships declared their neutrality. Others disregarded this completely and moved against the rebels.

To further illustrate this, we should turn to of the statements issued by the crews of a number of ships: the minesweepers “Ural,” and”Orfei.” They said, “The men of the White guards that are leading the rebels can do a lot of damage to the Republic, and they may not even hesitate to bomb Petrograd.”

The same situation was to be found behind the rebel battle lines. According to the 7th Army intelligence report, many rebel sailors and soldiers wanted to move over to the side of the Bolsheviks, but they were terrorized by their rebel commanders. It is interesting to note that the rebels justified their rebellion as an objection to Bolshevik terror, but were more than willing to use similar tactics when it suited them.

According to documents published in recently declassified Soviet archives, during the attack on Kronstadt, the workers of the town liberated it even before the main forces of the Red Army arrived. Cooperation between the sailors and the Bolsheviks-against the rebels-was far more common than the reverse.

The Kronstadt rebellion itself was not led by the workers. Rather, according to the Kronstadt archives themselves, the rebellion had been instigated by “the men of the White guards that are leading the rebels.” The real command over the rebels was concentrated not in the Kronstadt soviet, as the anarchist propagandists assume, but in the so-called “Court for the Defense of Kronstadt Fortress.” One of its leaders was rear-admiral S.H. Dmitriev (who was executed after the fortress fell). The other was general A. H. Koslovsky, who escaped to Finland. Both of these senior officers were allied with Tsarists, and thus very far from having any kind of sympathy for Socialism “with Bolsheviks” or “without Bolsheviks.” The counter-revolutionary forces co-opted Ultraleft, anti-soviet rhetoric to secretly launch an attempt to restore the previous feudal order. This is one reason why the “Worker’s Opposition,” itself formed to defend the particular interests of the industrial proletariat, sided with the Bolsheviks at Kronstadt.

S. M. Petrechenko, the sailor and anti-Bolshevik leader, was recruited by Stalin’s GPU in 1927. He remained one of Stalin’s agents until 1944, when he was arrested by the Finnish authorities. The following year he died in a Finnish concentration camp. Even the most prominent leader of the rebellion came to understand that the Soviet state was one worth defending.

The Kronstadt workers and sailors actually understood the real nature of these rebels far better than any of the later intellectuals who have tried to build up the myth of Kronstadt. The same can be said of the counterrevolutionary forces that were operating in Kronstadt. The former Tsarist prime-minister and finance minister, Kokovzev, transferred 225 thousand francs to the Kronstadt rebels. The Russian-Asian bank transferred 200 thousand francs. The French prime-minister, Briand, during the meeting with the former ambassador of Kerensky’s government, Malachov, promised “anything necessary to help Kronstadt.”

Even if we charitably grant that the Kronstadt sailors had noble intentions, the fact remains that their rebellion was quickly co-opted by reactionary and anti-communist forces, seeking to revive the Tsarist system of rule. This is reason it was crushed. The notion that Lenin crushed the rebellion because he had a vendetta against the working class is more or less a moot point in light of the above evidence, but I would also like to point out that Lenin called for greater worker participation in the Central Committee. He made that call in April of 1921, the same year as the rebellion. He also fought against Trotsky to give trade unions even more power in workplaces. A month later, 14 capitalist nations launched full-scale invasion on the backward Soviet Union. Their only option at the time was to centralize productive forces so that necessary defense material could be produced.

Some might argue that the above evidence does not negate the fact that the Kronstadt rebels had explicitly socialist demands. If these demands were not being met by the Soviet government, it must therefore follow that the Soviet Union was oppressing its workers. If this is the case, it must be true that power has inherently corrosive effects. Surprisingly, there are elements of truth to this argument. Apart from the Kronstadt rebellion, there was widespread dissatisfaction among peasants and workers over the state of the Soviet economy. However, claims that this dissatisfaction was the result of Leninism are false. We know this because it was Lenin who called for the New Economic Policy at the tenth Party congress. This NEP, in response to the demands of the peasants, ended the policy of forced grain requisition by the State. It also made possible the creation of agricultural co-ops and the private operation of means of production. This was one of the demands of the Kronstadt sailors. Lenin, although he ultimately crushed the uprising due to its counter-revolutionary character, sympathized with many of the expressed demands of its participants.

We can conclude from all of this that Lenin crushed the Kronstadt rebels because material conditions dictated that he had to do so, rather than out of any twisted personal desire. The actions taken by Lenin flowed from said material conditions, not the the power that Lenin wielded. 

As with Kronstadt itself, Anarchist propagandists portray the Soviet government as a ruthless, dictatorial body that “crushed” the anarchists for ideological reasons, because the ideology of anarchism threatened the power of the Bolsheviks. Also as with Kronstadt, the truth is very different.

Thousands of anarchists in Soviet Russia were ardent defenders of the Soviet government, giving their energy in battle, their lives at the front and their participation in the soviet institutions. The Bolsheviks worked alongside these anarchists and regarded them as their comrades.

Four anarchists, Bogatsky, Bleikhman, Shatov and Iatshurk, were members of the Military Revolutionary Committee which carried out the October Revolution—the insurrection which today’s anarchists (wrongfully) denounce as a coup d’état. The armed detachment carrying out the orders of the Soviet Government to dissolve the Constituent Assembly was led by an anarchist named Anatoly Zheleteznyakov. Almost all anarchists were opposed to the bourgeois Constituent Assembly in revolutionary Russia, yet today’s anarchists denounce the Bolsheviks’ decision to dissolve it as having been “anti-democratic”. Historian Jeff Hemmer gives more detail about the aforementioned Vladimir Shatov and other anarchists who staunchly defended the Soviet state:

“A member of the Military Revolutionary Committee in 1917, Shatov became the chief of police in Petrograd in 1918. In 1919 he defended Petrograd against the advance of General Yudenich as an officer in the Tenth Red Army, and in 1920 was appointed Minister of Transport in the Far Eastern Republic. A number of other anarchists followed his example and accepted small government posts, urging their comrades to do the same or at least refrain from anti-Bolshevik activities that would jeopardize the revolution. The Bolshevik cause attracted anarchists from all backgrounds, ranging from former Black Banner terrorists like Heitzman and Roschin to Anarcho-Communists like German Sandomirskii, who took a position in Chicherin’s Commissariat of Foreign Affairs, and Alexander Ge, according Victor Serge one of the organisers of Red Terror in the Terek region. Other well-known anarchists in the service of the Bolsheviks were the Anarcho-Syndicalists Shapiro, who joined Sandomirskii in the Commissariat of Foreign Affairs, and Daniil Novomirskii, in 1905 a prominent figure in syndicalist circles in Odessa, who entered the Communist Party and became a Comintern official in 1919…

In spring 1918 the Anarcho-Communist Apollon Karelin formed the pro-Bolshevik All-Russian Federation of Anarchist-Communists in Moscow, arguing that a Soviet dictatorship was acceptable as a transitional phase in the development of a free anarchist society. According to Karelin, the defence of the Soviet Government was to be regarded not as an affirmation of authority, but as a means of protecting the revolution. A similar view was put forward by the Moscow-based Universalists, formed in 1920 by the brothers Gordin, who had previously been rabid anti-Marxists and anti-intellectuals, and German Askarov, an Anarchist-Communist who was also a member of the Soviet Central Executive Committee [as was Karelin from 1918]. Roschin, the former Chernoznamenets and staunch anti-Marxist who, in 1919, came to see the Bolsheviks as “the advance guard of the revolution,” seems to have taken these ideas even further; according to Victor Serge, he tried to develop an “anarchist theory of the dictatorship of the proletariat.”

The support from the “Soviet Anarchists” was welcomed by the Bolshevik leadership, who insisted that the only anarchists that were persecuted in Russia were criminal elements.”

We can see, then, that there was a strong current of unity between the Marxists and the Anarchists in the Soviet Union. If it were true that the repression of Soviet Anarchists was carried out on ideological grounds, this would not have been the case. If power had an inherently corrupting effect, then it would it be the case that the Marxists would have crushed the Anarchists in the very beginning. They did not do this, and in fact took great pains to accommodate the Anarchists.

If the repression of anarchists was not ideological, as I have argued, how and why did it arise? The answer lies in the anarchist Black Guards, which flourished throughout Russia and Ukraine in 1918. Originally created in Alexandrovsk during the summer of 1917 by Maria Nikiforova, these armed anarchist detachments had spread to Moscow by January 1918, and by April 1918 “there were already more than 50 groups and detachments of the Black Guard, numbering some 2,000 militants” In the city.

“All groups and organisational units of the Black Guard were grouped around the Council of the MFAG [Moscow Federation of Anarchist Groups] and headquarters of the Black Guard, stationed in the House of Anarchy in Malaya Dmitrovka.” Nestor Makhno would later establish similar detachments in different regions of Ukraine which ultimately grew into the Revolutionary Insurrectionary Army of Ukraine. According to the American anarchist historian Paul Avrich, the MFAG armed the Black Guards “with rifles, pistols, and grenades. From their headquarters in the House of Anarchy, the leaders of the Federation tried to impose a measure of discipline on the Black Guardsmen and to limit the activities of the local clubs to the distribution of propaganda and the “requisitioning” of private residences. This proved to be an impossible task; once armed, a number of groups and isolated individuals succumbed to the temptation of carrying out “expropriations,” and, adding insult to injury, they sometimes acted in the name of the Federation.”

Avrich explains that “armed detachments of Black Guards… held up banks, shops and private homes. Many of their comrades — especially the “Soviet anarchists” – condemned such acts as parodies of the libertarian ideal, which wasted precious lives, demoralized the movement’s true adherents and discredited anarchism in the eyes of the general public.”

Looting was rife among the Black Guards. The leadership of the MFAG seemed unable to discipline its detachments. The Bolshevik (and former anarchist) Victor Serge wrote that “The anarchists themselves admitted that suspicious elements, adventurers, common criminals and counter-revolutionaries, were thriving among them, but their libertarian principles did not permit them to refuse entrance to their organizations to any man, or to subject anyone to real control. They sensed acutely that their movement needed to be purged, but this was impossible without authority or a disciplined organization. Splits among them and this reverence for principle was slowly leading to the political suicide of the movement, which was becoming more compromised each day…”

The Black Guards were out of control. “Several incidents such as an attack on an American car, the murder of several Cheka agents followed by the summary execution of several bandits, the arrests of “expropriators” who were promptly claimed by the Anarchist Federation, led Dzerzhinsky, the President of the Cheka, to insist on the liquidation of the Black Guard.”

Avrich gives the details of this operation:

“[O]n the night of the 11-12th of April, armed detachments of the Cheka raided 26 anarchist centres in the capital. Most anarchists surrendered without a fight, but in the Donskoi Monastery and the House of Anarchy itself, Black Guardsmen offered fierce resistance. A dozen Cheka agents were slain in the struggle, about 40 anarchists were killed or wounded, and more than 500 were taken prisoner.”

Anarchist propagandists, with their dishonest “selective memory,” take this evening’s events out of historical context; treating it in isolation and ignoring the backwards trend of conflict that the anarchist Black Guards had been unleashing in Russia. The Bolsheviks had been forced into carrying out the task that the anarchists were seemingly incapable of achieving on their own; purging from their ranks the “criminal elements” that were pillaging and burgling under the flag of anarchism and causing chaos throughout Russia. As the elected and legitimate government it was their obligation to restore order.

The Bolsheviks sought to eradicate these “criminal elements” which were considered to be “pseudo-anarchists.” In their view no genuine anarchist could condone random acts of theft and violence against workers and the soviets’ officials. Trotsky stated in Moscow on the 14th of April that “these hooligans… are simply raiders and burglars who compromise the anarchists. Anarchism is an idea although a mistaken one, but hooliganism is hooliganism… I have talked about it to the idealist anarchists and they themselves say: ‘A lot of these jailbirds, hooligans, and criminals have smuggled themselves into our movement…’… It is stated that among these hooligans there are a few who are honest anarchists; if that is true… then it is a great pity, and it is necessary to render them their freedom as quickly as possible.” His general argument was that the “honest anarchists” should distance themselves from the “hooligans” so that “one should know once for all… that is a burglar, and this is an honest idealist…” This was not an attack against anarchism or the “honest” anarchists. It was an attack against “the hooligans, who put on the mask of anarchism in order to destroy the order and life and labour of the working class.” Yet “some fifteen anarchists demonstratively left the hall” creating a frightening scene, breaking solidarity and order.

Before long, the anarchists resorted “once more to their terrorist ways.” According to Avrich: “Anarchists in Rostov, Ekaterinoslav and Briansk broke into city jails and liberated the prisoners” in the middle of a civil war. “[I]n the summer of 1918, Black Guardsmen who had survived the Cheka raids of the preceding months, contemplated the armed seizure of the capital but Aleksei Borovoi and Daniil Novomirskii talked them out of it.” But according to the historian Marcel Liebman — evidently against the wishes of Borovoi and Novomirskii — some anarchists were involved in the Left SR revolt in Moscow on the 6th and 7th of July, which was of course an “armed seizure of the capital” that was quickly crushed.

“Lev Chernyi, secretary of the Moscow Federation of Anarchists… joined an organization called the Underground Anarchists, founded by Kazimir Kovalevich, a member of the Moscow Union of Railway Workers, and a Ukrainian anarchist named Petr Sobolev. Though based in the capital, the Underground Anarchists established ties with the battle detachments of the south… On the 25th of September [1919], together with a number of Left SR’s, they bombed the headquarters of the Moscow Committee of the Communist Party in Leontiev Street, while a plenary meeting was in session. The explosion killed 12 members of the Committee and wounded 55 others, including Nikolai Bukharin, the eminent Bolshevik theorist and editor of Pravda…”

But even while chaos ensued on the streets of Moscow — terrorism conducted under the flag of anarchism — the Bolsheviks tried their best to meet the “honest” anarchists halfway:

“When Kamenev in 1920 offered the Moscow Anarchists freedom to issue their papers and to run their clubs and bookshops in exchange for their adoption of party discipline and a purge of the criminal and irresponsible elements which had infiltrated into their membership, they indignantly rejected the offer.”

It is clear then from the information I have provided that, contrary to anarchist mythology, the Bolsheviks did not “crush” the anarchists in Soviet Russia for ideological reasons. The Bolsheviks-alongside the anarchists who peacefully collaborated with them -appealed to sincere anarchists involved in dubious activity to distance themselves from the hooligans who had infiltrated their ranks. The “anarchists” who were subdued had been looting, burgling, engaging in violent and destructive acts and assassinating government figures. The “repression” of these explicitly anti-soviet and counter-revolutionary terrorists should be seen as nothing more than an overdue retaliation to criminal provocation.

We have seen that Leninists have historically been willing to place unity in struggle over ideology, while anarchists have not. This proves that it is possible to wield power on behalf of the oppressed, and need not devolve into an “authoritarian” nightmare.

 Indeed, it is not possible to succeed without wielding power in this manner. This was true during the Spanish Revolution, another historical event that anarchists uphold as a successful example of their theory in practice. Salvador de Madariaga, a Spanish historian, wrote about the elections in the period leading up to the Civil War in this way: “the workers affiliated to the U.G.T. voted for their men. But the Anarcho-Syndicalists voted for the middle-class liberals. There were two reasons for this: the first, the unbridgeable enmity which separates Socialists and Syndicalists, due to their rival bid for the leadership of the working classes; and the second, that as the Anarchists always preached contempt for suffrage, they had no political machinery of their own; so that when it coming to voting—which they did this time to help oust the Monarchy—they preferred to vote for the middle-class Republican whose liberal views were more in harmony with the anti-Marxist idea of the Spanish Syndicalists than with the orthodox and dogmatic tenets of the Socialists.”

In this context, anarchist ideology worked against the interests of the proletariat by advancing the interests of the petite-bourgeoisie. Anarchists put their ideology ahead of the struggle. It was impossible for them to avoid doing this, because they refused to engage with the centers of power. Ultimately, that is what led to the defeat of the Spanish Revolution.

It has not, historically, been Leninist parties that put their own power ahead of worker’s struggles. On the contrary, Leninists have been more than willing to cooperate with forces which were not ideologically aligned with them for the purpose of making or defending revolution. The two most successful anarchist movements, Soviet anarchism and the Spanish Revolution, have in fact been guilty of a rank sectarianism. Leninists have stood for workers, Anarchists have stood for themselves.

The anarchist “allergic reaction” to power has, time and again, alienated them from struggle. The working class instinctively understands that politics is about power. They learn this through their struggle with the bosses, which is ultimately about the balance of power between two opposing camps. This is why the anarchist movement has taken hold primarily among petit-bourgeois artisans and middle class liberals. In its a priori rejection of power, anarchism dooms itself to discontinuity with the revolutionary agent: the working class. In swearing off power, anarchism also swears off victory.

Further reading:

Kronstadt Tragedy by Russian historian Yuri Shchetinov

“The Truth About Kronstadt” by Trotskyist John G. Wrengel

Kronstadt: 1921 by pro-anarchist historian Paul Avrich

Cronstadt by French historian Jean-Jacques Marie

The Unknown Trotsky: The Red Bonaparte by Russian historian V. G. Krasnov

Blackshirts and Reds by American Leninist Michael Parenti

The New Cambridge Modern History, volume xxi.

Steve Phillips (2000). Lenin and the Russian Revolution. Heinemann. p. 56.

The Demands of the Kronstadt Sailors, avalibile at  http://alphahistory.com/russianrevolution/kronstadt-rebellion/

Hemmer, J. What Was The Role Of Anarchists In The Russian Revolution?

Trotsky, L. The Military Writings of Leon Trotsky – Vol. 2).

Libcom.org [Online] Available at: https://goo.gl/AstO7X

Avrich, P. The Russian Anarchists

Avrich, P. Russian Anarchists and the Civil War

Serge, V. Year One of the Russian Revolution

Avrich, P. The Russian Anarchists

Trotsky, L. An Appeal to the Toiling, Oppressed, and Exhausted Peoples of Europe

Liebman, M. Leninism Under Lenin

Schaprio, L. The Origin of the Communist Autocracy

Spanish Labyrinth, Gerald Brenan, Cambridge Univ. Press. London, 1950

Spain, a Modern History, Salvador Madariaga, Praeger. N.Y., 1958

The Successes of Socialism in the USSR

In discussions surrounding the USSR, there is a tendency to focus exclusively on the negative. Most people highlight the repression that supposedly occurred and ignore the numerous achievements of the Soviet Union, both during Stalin’s time and after. I would like to take a moment to remedy that.

These achievements include equal pay and maternity leave for women. They were also granted universal suffrage and could even hold key positions within the Party. As Francis Randal writes in Stalin’s Russia, “Stalin took a Party with scarcely five percent of women…he left the party with more than 21 percent of women” [1]. Women were also granted the right to defend their country in battle, a right that has only been recently granted to citizens in the United States. Anna L. Strong writes in The Soviets Expected it that, “The famous ‘Red Amazons’ and ‘Death Battalions’ are fiction, not fact. But the Army medical services is full of women” [2]. And as Ciliga Ante writes in The Russian Enigma,”The wife of our host listened to her husband and made timid protests. One day when he was out, she opened her heart to us. “The Bolsheviks want to build up a new life; that can’t be done in a day….But look, in the past women had no rights at all, they were proper slaves; the Bolsheviks have given us liberty, have made us the equals of men. The Soviet state guaranteed it especially for young women who got maternity leave longer  than what was in force in France at the time, and access to affordable nurseries open 24 hours, 7 days a week, with no waiting list.  Still, what a contrast with France, where waiting lists are becoming an urgent problem (especially in Paris), where privatization has become synonymous with outrageous costs, where maternity leave as a fundamental right is questioned” [3]. Women’s rights were much further along in the Soviet Union than anywhere else. 

The predictable retort here would be to point out supposed hypocrisy on the part of communists. If we make a point of saying that women serving in the United States military is not progressive, why is the same not true of the Soviet military? The answer is one of function. The United States military is an imperialist one, formed for the purpose of resource extraction and the expansion of Western hegemony. The Soviet military, on the other hand, was formed for the purpose of defending socialism against counterrevolutionary forces, and later used as a weapon in the struggle against fascism. Those who served in the Red Army had the opportunity to build and defend their own society. It gave the people a tremendous amount of power. As such, progressive policies in the Soviet military ought to be highlighted.

The same is true of racial justice. Several black artists, intellectuals, and activists spoke highly of their time in the Soviet Union. Among these are singer Paul Robeson, boxer Muhammad Ali, poet Claude McKay, and activist WEB Dubois. Full accounts of many of these experiences can be found in “Black in the USSR” by Joy Gleason Carew [4]. I also recommend Harry Haywood’s autobiography Black Bolshevik [5]. as well as William Mandel’s Soviet but not Russian [6]. At a time when Jim Crow was at its peak in the United States, black refugees fled to the Soviet Union in search of liberation. While the USSR was by no means free of racism, Soviet criminalization of racist speech meant that it was much closer than any society that existed at the time [7].

The USSR also saw the creation of a universal healthcare system. No other country had more physicians per capita or more hospital beds per capita than the USSR. In 1977, the Soviet Union had 35 doctors and 212 hospital beds per 10,000 compared to 18 doctors and 63 hospital beds in the United States [8]. (Szymanski, Human Rights in the Soviet Union, 1984). Most important, healthcare was free. Life expectancy went from about 30 to about 70 after the revolution, and has not increased since the fall of the USSR [9].

Literacy and education also soared. The Bolsheviks set up teaching programs, even sending teachers to peasant’s homes to educate them [10]. [11]. Socialism, far from being an economic failure, led to numerous incredible feats. The USSR was, at one time, the fastest-growing economy in history, which fell into recession only during the war years. Soviet GDP per capita growth exceeded that of all other countries but Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. GDP per person grew by a factor of 5.2, compared to 4.0 for Western Europe and 3.3 for the Western European offshoots such as the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand [12].

While Soviet GDP per capita growth rates compare favorably with those of the major capitalist economies, a more relevant comparison is with the rest of the world. In 1928, the Soviet Union was still largely an agrarian country, and most people worked in agriculture, compared to a minority in Western Europe and North America. Hence, the economy of the USSR at the point of its transition to public ownership and planning was very different from that of the industrialized Western capitalist countries. On the other hand, the rest of the world resembled the Soviet Union in also being largely agrarian [13]. It is therefore the rest of the world, not the United States and other advanced industrialized countries, with which the USSR should be compared in the economic sphere. From 1928 to 1989, Soviet GDP per capita not only exceeded growth in the rich countries but exceeded growth in all other regions of the world combined, and to a greater degree. Hence, not only did the publicly owned, planned economy of the Soviet Union outpace the economies of richer capitalist economies, it grew even faster than the economies of countries that were most like the USSR in 1928. For example, outside its southern core, Latin America’s GDP per capita was $1,332 (1990 US dollars), almost equal to the USSR’s $1,370. By 1989, the Latin American figure had reached $4,886, but average income in the Soviet Union had climbed far higher, to $7,078 [14]. Public ownership and planning had raised living standards to a higher level than capitalism had in Latin America, despite an equal starting point. Moreover, while the Soviet peacetime economy unfailingly expanded, the Latin American economy grew in fits and starts, with enterprises regularly shuttering their doors and laying off employees.

Perhaps the best illustration of how public ownership and planning performed better at raising living standards comes from a comparison of incomes in Soviet Central Asia with those of neighboring countries in the Middle East and South Asia. In 1928, these areas were in a pristinely pre-industrial state. Under public ownership and planning, incomes grew in Soviet Central Asia to $5,257 per annum by 1989, 32 percent higher than in neighboring capitalist Turkey, 44 percent higher than in neighboring capitalist Iran, and 241 percent higher than in neighboring capitalist Pakistan [15]. For Central Asians, it was clear on which side of the Soviet Union’s border standards of living were highest. In 1950, the Soviet economy was only one-third the size of the US economy but had grown to almost one-half only eight years later [16]. By 1975, the CIA estimated that the Soviet economy was 60 percent as large as the US economy [17]. According to figures provided by Allen, Soviet GDP per capita grew at an annual rate of 3.4 percent from 1928 to 1970, but at less than half that rate, 1.3 percent, from 1970 to 1989 [18]. Finally,in 1955 industrial production in the Soviet Union stood at twenty-five times the level in 1913 [19].

These extraordinary achievements can be attributed directly to socialism. Unlike capitalism, which seeks only to enrich a tiny minority of people, socialism seeks to satisfy the needs of the vast majority of people. This includes not only economic needs, but also cultural ones, such as the liberation of women and other oppressed minorities. While errors were certainly made, it is evident that the USSR attempted to achieve these goals, and made tremendous strides in doing so.

It also created many technological wonders. The Moscow Railway, built in 1931, is still in use, and the iron and steel complexes “rivaled any in the capitalist world,” as the BBC once put it [20]. The Soviet accomplishments in space technology are also worth remembering. These include the first satellite, the first animal in orbit, and the fist spacewalk [21].  As Fredrick L. Schumann writes in Soviet Politics, “Foreign critics readily conclude that the Soviet intelligentsia is in helpless bondage and consists of sycophantic automatons, reduced to complete sterility. Nothing could be farther from the truth. No government anywhere at any time has done more than the USSR to promote art and science by providing facilities for training, work, and publication, and by giving scientists and artists economic security through regular salaries plus generous rewards for achievement through royalties, prizes, and numerous privileges. That this policy has paid dividends in shown by the striking accomplishments of Soviet music, drama, cinema, and literature as well as the biological and physical sciences” [22]. The USSR did much to promote cultural and scientific development, far more than in the United States or the rest of the globe. This is, again, a product of the socialist drive to fulfill human needs and develop the working class to its full potential.

In fact, the technological innovation achieved  by the Soviet Union was so great that the United States eventually adopted it, albeit in a twisted form. A 2008 study by Block and Keller found that 77 out of R&D Magazine’s top 88 innovations had been fully funded by the public sector, as was the case in the Soviet Union [23]. These include algorithms used in the Google search engine, the technology present in the iPhone, and groundbreaking new vaccines. What this shows is that the popular myth of free enterprise encouraging innovation is a falsehood. The reasoning for this is obvious. Developing new technology is risky, since there is no guarantee that investors will see a return. As a result, those with capital prefer to invest in more profitable, less innovative properties. However, this means that things life-saving medicines often go underfunded. Vaccine development is not profitable, but it is necessary. This is why it is important to structure the economy around meeting human needs, as the Soviet Union did with its public-sector R&D.

In these discussions, it is often forgotten that the USSR began as a largely agrarian, feudal empire. Stalin and Lenin transformed it into a world superpower, largely through the five-year plans. These plans were so effective that many capitalist economists in the 1930s supported them. As Anna L. Strong writes in The Soviets Expected It, “American engineers who came to help build the new industries often said that the five-year plan was ‘utterly logical,’ but added, ‘if the people will stand for the sacrifices’” [24]. She also wrote that, “With the conclusion of the First Five Year Plan, the Soviet Union plunged into the second, which did three times as much new construction as the First Five Year Plan had done and did it with much less strain. Soviet industry was completely reorganized and equipped throughout with the latest machines and methods. Greater emphasis was given than previously to producing goods of consumption. This, together with the rapid improvement of farming, caused a fairly swift rise in the general standard of living” [25]. As Gill Graeme writes in Stalinism, “The reconstruction effort, added to the increased capacity which had been developed in the Urals and Siberia during the war, insured that by the time of Stalin’s death the Soviet industrial infrastructure had recovered from the ravages of the war” [26]. What capitalist economy could say the same?

In light of this evidence, we can safely say that the Soviet Union made a number of achievements that were well worth highlighting. If the USSR could achieve all of this while it was underdeveloped, imagine what socialism in an “advanced nation” such as the United States could accomplish. Study of past socialist experiences proves that socialism is the economic system which most benefits the masses of people.

  1. Randall, Francis. Stalin’s Russia. New York: Free Press,1965, p. 104
  2. Strong, Anna L. The Soviets Expected It. New York, New York: The Dial press, 1941, p. 115
  3. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/17528631.2015.1027324
  4. https://libcom.org/history/black-bolshevik-autobiography-afro-american-communist
  5. Toby Terrar, GeoJournal Vol. 17, No. 1 (July 1988), pp. 151-154
  6. Szymanski, Albert (1984). Human Rights in the Soviet Union, Zed Books Ltd, London, 1984.
  7. Strong, Anna L. The Soviets Expected It. New York, New York: The Dial press, 1941, p. 40
  8. M. Ryan, Life expectancy and mortality date for the Soviet Union, 1988
  9. http://missinglink.ucsf.edu/lm/russia_guide/russianhealth2.htm
  10. S. Fitzpatrick, Stalin’s peasants: resistance and survival in the Russian village after collectivization, 1994
  11. M.V. Kabatchekno, L.D. Yasnikova, Eradicating Illiteracy in the USSR, Literacy Lessons, Vol 10, 1990
  12. Allen, Robert C (2003). Farm to Factory: A Reinterpretation of the Soviet Industrial Revolution, Princeton University Press, 2003.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Sherman, Howard J (1969). The Soviet Economy, Little, Brown and Company, 1969.
  17. Kotz, David with Fred Weir (1997). Revolution From Above: The Demise of the Soviet System, Routledge, 1997.
  18. Allen, Robert C (2003). Farm to Factory: A Reinterpretation of the Soviet Industrial Revolution, Princeton University Press, 2003. Op. Cit.
  19. Emile Burns, An Introduction to Marxism (NY: International Publishers, 1966), p. 78.
  20. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s5axVunzQSA
  21. Wade, Mark (1997–2008). “Soyuz”. Encyclopedia Astronautica.
  22. Schuman, Frederick L. Soviet Politics. New York: A.A. Knopf, 1946, p. 332
  23. Block, Fred and Keller, Matthew R (2008). “Where do innovations come from? Transformations in the U.S. national innovation system, 1970-2006,” Technology and Innovation Foundation, July 2008. http://www.itif.org/files/Where_do_innovations_come_from.pdf
  24. Strong, Anna L. The Soviets Expected It. New York, New York: The Dial press, 1941, p. 68
  25. Strong, Anna L. The Soviets Expected It. New York, New York: The Dial press, 1941, p. 70-71
  26. Gill, Graeme. Stalinism. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press International, 1990, p. 43

Socialism and Democracy in the USSR

Many proponents of capitalism claim that socialism is undemocratic because past socialist societies (such as the Soviet Union) have not had formal elections like those seen in the United States. As such, power was concentrated in the hands of an unaccountable elite, rather than the people themselves. In this essay, I will explain why this perception of socialism is incorrect on both a theoretical and practical level.

Firstly, there is strong evidence to suggest that the United States is in fact a society in which power is managed in an undemocratic manner. A study by Martin Gilens from Princeton university shows that “Economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent influence on US government policy, while the average citizen and mass-based groups have little or no independent influence” [1]. This study and others prove that money, not popular will, is the driving force behind the passage of policy and the election of candidates. We can therefore conclude that, based on the definition of democracy proposed previously, the United States is an undemocratic society.

This is not the result of an anomaly or a freak accident, but rather the normal workings of capitalism. It is a system in which a tiny minority of people-the capitalist class-control the means of production. Means of production are things like factories, farms, tools, and offices. We require these things to produce food, housing, education, and everything else that facilitates our existence on this planet. It is only a slight exaggeration to assert that you only live because the capitalists allow you to. If our very lives are controlled by another person, how can we say that we have genuine power? We cannot. Therefore, we cannot say that capitalism produces genuine democracy.

Socialism represents a meaningful alternative. Let’s use the Soviet Union as a case study so we can learn why this is the case.

One of the most common criticisms of the Soviet Union is that all popular opinion was crushed, and every important decision was made and carried out by Stalin and his cronies. While democracy in the USSR was a deeply flawed system, the conclusion that it was nonexistent is not based on hard evidence.

To begin refuting this notion, we must examine the idea of the ‘economic elite’ more closely. A key part of capitalism as a system is that the people with real power-business leaders, politicians, and so forth-have a much better quality of life than the masses of people. They have access to the best food, healthcare, and educational institutions,  among other things. By contrast, many workers are unable to procure even the barest hint of a meal, much less a fulfilling higher education. The result of this is that those with real power cannot possibly represent the interests of the working class. They simply have no idea what life in poverty is like. As such, power cannot be in the hands of the working class.

The Soviet situation was entirely different. In East Germany, for example, party leaders were given a yearly allowance of only $725.00 in hard currency. The party leaders were, admittedly, housed in complexes on the outskirts of Berlin with saunas, pools, and fitness centers. However, these amenities were shared by all the residents, so there was very little disparity in their quality of life. Further, both leaders and the masses were permitted to buy goods such as clothing or electronics. The disparities in income between Soviet leaders and normal workers was generally modest. The metric was at 5 to 1, compared with 10,000 to 1 in the United States. These statistics were included in John Gunther’s 1940 publication Inside Europe, in which he writes, “One should keep in mind, however, that big incomes are still extremely rare. Earning power may vary in the Soviet Union, according to artistic or technical proficiency, but the extremes, as Louis Fisher has pointed out, are very close. No such “spread” is conceivable in the USSR as exists in Britain or America between say, a clerk in a factory and its owner. Among all the 165 million Russians, there are probably not ten men who earn $25,000 per year” [2]. Michael Parenti agrees, writing in Blackshirts and Reds that, “Soviet leaders like Yuri Andropov…lived not in lavishly appointed mansions like the White House, but in relatively large apartments in a housing project near the Kremlin…they had none of the immense personal wealth that most U.S. Leaders possess” [3].

It is clear that the Soviet leaders lived within the means of the working class. Therefore, they were better able to represent the interests of the vast majority of people.

The USSR was a single-party state. There is nothing in particular in Marxist-Leninist thought that asserts that this must be the form a dictatorship of the proletariat takes. Certainly, Leninism holds that the Communist Party should play the leading role in politics, but this does not preclude the existence of other parties. For instance, China was founded on Marxist-Leninist principles, and there is currently a Maoist Party that exists in opposition to the state [4].

In practice however, after the October Revolution, the Communist Party in Soviet Russia and subsequently the USSR very quickly became the only legitimate political organ. This should be understood as a consequence of the fact that in their early form, the Bolsheviks were unprepared to deal with political opposition, but also of the fact that the political opposition of the time was totally unwilling to work within the system. This general scenario is a result of the intense aggravation of class struggle that occurs immediately following a socialist revolution. The bourgeoisie do not simply roll over and allow their power to be usurped; they fight back and attempt to retake it. Opposition parties in a period of counter-revolution tend to be manipulated by the bourgeoisie, or they become opportunistic in their opposition and actively seek allegiance with elements of the bourgeoisie. The result is that opposition parties tend to serve counter-revolution themselves, which is exactly what happened in Soviet Russia. Every opposition party except the Social Revolutionaries refused to recognize the legitimacy of the Soviet system, and even the latter party eventually withdrew. The consolidation of political power into a single party was solidified after the civil war with the 1922 trial of Social Revolutionary leaders for treason, but as Edward Hallett Carr points out in The Bolshevik Revolution, the acts the Social Revolutionaries were tried for “under any system of government would have been criminal” [5]. So the single-party system arose out of the harsh conditions immediately following revolution, and similar scenarios have played out in nearly all of the other socialist revolutions of the 20th century. This was a result of concrete material conditions, and cannot be expected to occur in every socialist revolution.

Despite this, many still assert that the Soviet Union was undemocratic. They assert this on the basis that everyone who disagreed with Stalin was sent to a violent gulag to be executed. However, taking this view demonstrates ignorance of what life for prisoners in the Soviet Union was actually like. Yes, they were sent to gulags, but those were primarily used for housing real criminals rather than political prisoners. According to Albert Szymanski in Human Rights in the Soviet Union, political prisoners accounted for only twelve percent of all Gulag detainees. More than half of all gulag deaths in the entire 1934-1953 period occurred in 1941-1943, mostly from malnutrition caused by the war [6].

John D. Littlepage supports these assertions, writing his book In Search of Soviet Gold that, “I was told that political prisoners, including members of other revolutionary groups and disgruntled or disgraced Communists, are seldom if ever put into such prison camps or gangs. If they are considered dangerous, they are confined in concentration camps or isolated prisons. If they are considered merely a nuisance, they are given what is called free exile….the free exile system is a comparatively mild punishment” [7]. Gulags, it turns out, never housed a majority of political prisoners. Instead, they housed thieves, murderers, and the like.

As Michael Parenti writes in Blackshirts and Reds, “There was no systematic extermination of inmates…the great majority of gulag inmates survived and eventually returned to society when granted amnesty or when their terms were finished. In any given year, 20 to 40 percent of the inmates were released, according to archive records” [8].  The gulag population never exceeded 2.6 million prisoners a year throughout its existence. For 454,000 to have died throughout nearly 20 years of this penal system, this is simply a mere fraction of the alleged 60 million deaths.

Side note: the Bureau of Justice Statistics shows that, “About 1 in 36 adults, or 2.8% of adults, in the United States was under some form of correctional supervision at year-end 2014, the lowest rate since 1996.” It also records a population of 6.9 million people at year-end 2014 [9]. This, of course, concludes that the highest year of gulag population, which was 1950 with 2.6 million, was still at least a third of the U.S prison population in 2014.

It is also important to note that labor camps-and secret police-existed in Tsarist Russia prior to the Bolshevik Revolution. Both Lenin and Stalin were exiled at one point or another in the course of their revolutionary activities. Although the Soviet Union founded new ones, they largely made use of what they already had. Penal labor was common practice throughout most of the world at the time, including the United States. The Soviet Union followed in the footsteps of most other nations, ending the practice in the 1950s [10]. The United States, however, has recently seen several prisoners strike in protest of forced labor [11].  Several right-wing and even unabashedly anticommunist regimes have also made use of labor camps. There is nothing about them that is intrinsically socialist.

In fact, there is reason to believe that the Soviet Union had a progressive prison and exile system. As Chamberlain writes, “The Soviet prison system, as applied to ordinary criminals, embodies a number of progressive penological ideas. Educational and manual training instruction courses exist in the more advanced prisons; prisoners are not required to wear uniforms; and the well-behaved prisoner receives a vacation of two weeks every year, which is certainly a unique Russian institution” [12].

In Stalin: Man of Contradiction, Kenneth Neill Cameron writes that, “In the 1930s, as we have seen, the spread of industrialization and collectivization brought about a socialist state with a broad spectrum of social and political rights. As we would expect from such a state, the legal and prison systems that it established were essentially just and non-punitive. In fact, they were praised and admired by liberal attorneys and penologists throughout the world. People’s courts, in which ordinary citizens sat with a professional judge on the bench, tried 80 percent of all cases, and legal services could be obtained free of charge. As a desirable alternative to prisons, ‘agricultural and industrial labor colonies’ were established where some prisoners brought their families and where they were allowed to marry. The basic objective of the system was rehabilitation, not just in words, as in capitalist states, but in reality, as was dramatically shown, for instance, in the film Road to Life, depicting the regeneration of teenage criminals. One of the most extensive industrial camp projects was the building of the Baltic-White Sea Canal by prisoners, a vast enterprise whose three chief engineers were former “wreckers.” At the completion of the project, 300 prisoners received scholarships, 12,000 were freed, and 59,000 had their sentences reduced. Such was the normal course of working class justice in the USSR” [13].

In Khruschev Remembers, Strobe Talbott writes that, “Actually, I’d say that on the whole our convicts received fairly humane treatment. They were considered to be the products of capitalist society. Therefore, it was felt that our socialist society should reeducate them rather than punish them” [14].

Even the ardent anticommunist Robert Conquest admitted in Stalin: Breaker of Nations that, “Many prisoners were quoted as expressing their joy at having been saved and turned into decent citizens” [15]. In May 1934, detainees in Soviet labor camps were given the right to vote, according to Siegelbaum and Sokolov in their book Stalinism as a Way of Life [16]. American prisoners, it is interesting to note, are not afforded this right [17]. How can we call the Soviet Union undemocratic when more of its citizens had the right to vote than ours do?

In fact, Stalin argued for a dramatic expansion of democracy. This is argued convincingly by Grover Furr in Stalin and the Struggle for Democratic Reform. In 1936, a draft for the Soviet Constitution approved by the All-Russia Congress of Soviets included new provisions for secret ballot, contested elections, and re-enfranchisement of certain groups, including kulaks and those who had violated the “law of three ears.” These additions were insisted upon by Stalin and he continued to vigorously fight for them. The rest of the Central Committee of the Party strongly disagreed with some of these provisions however, and given the panic caused by the uncovering of forces within the state collaborating with Germany and Japan, not all the democratic expansions made it into the final Constitution [18].

There is no evidence anywhere that Stalin ever removed anyone from a position of leadership because they disagreed with him. The notion that Stalin removed his political opponents from power is perhaps the greatest fabrication told about the man. There is simply no basis for it. The accusation is backed only by hearsay and rumor, and the sparse anecdotes that appear to show that Stalin hated opposition, refused to compromise, made decisions unilaterally, etc. are easily countered by the numerous contrary accounts given by those who worked with him.

G.K. Zhukov:

After Stalin’s death appeared the tale about how he used to take military and strategic decisions unilaterally. This was not the case at all. I have already said above that if you reported questions to the Supreme Commander with a knowledge of your business, he took them into account. And I know of cases when he turned against his own previous opinion and changed decisions he had taken previously [19].

His style of work, as a rule, was businesslike. Everyone could express his own opinion without being nervous. The Supreme Commander treated everyone the same way—strictly and officially. He knew how to listen attentively when you reported to him with knowledge of your topic. He himself was laconic, and did not like verbosity in others [20].

Anastas Mikoyan:

I must say that each one of us had the full ability to express himself and defend his opinion or proposal. We frankly discussed the most complicated and contested questions (as for myself, I can speak on this point with the fullest responsibility), and met on Stalin’s part in most cases with understanding, a reasoned and patient attitude even when our statements were obviously disagreeable to him.

He was also attentive to the proposals by the generals. Stalin listened carefully to what was said to him and to counsel, listened to disagreements with interest, extracting intelligently from them that bit of truth that helped him later to formulate his final, most appropriate decisions which were born in this way, as a result of collective discussion. More than this: it commonly happened that, convinced by our evidence, Stalin changed his own preliminary viewpoint on one or another question [21].

  1. A. Benediktov:

Contrary to the widespread view, all questions in those years, including those involving the transfer of leading party, state, and military figures, were decided in a collegial manner in the Politburo. At the Politburo sessions themselves arguments and discussions often flared up, different, sometimes contradictory opinions were expressed within the framework, naturally, of party directives. There was no quiet, untroubled unanimity—Stalin and his colleagues could not abide that. I am quite justified in saying this because I was present at Politburo sessions many times [22].

Even if we discount all of these statements (and there are many more like this), the fact remains that there is simply no record to support the idea that Stalin was not collegial or that he removed his political opponents for disagreeing with him.

Additionally, Stalin sought to change the role of the Communist Party in relation to the state. Over the history of the USSR, the Party and state had effectively merged. Stalin did not see this as inevitable or particularly desirable, nor did most other Marxists. A political party that must also carry out the state’s executive functions has little time for healthy ideological life and can become degenerate. Moreover, party-state mergers are breeding-grounds for bureaucracy and opportunism, a view Stalin seems to have held. Thus he advocated that the role of the Party should return to one of agitation, ideological leadership, nominating cadres, etc. while the executive functions of the state should be carried out separately, and nominations to the Soviet congresses should be carried out by the people. Effectively what Stalin was discussing was a separation between Party and state. Although the 1936 Soviet Constitution did vaguely reflect this concept, the desired democratic shift never fully materialized [23].

As we have seen, Stalin argued that many oppositional forces should have their rights restored. Although this was not achieved to the fullest extent possible, there was great freedom given to the opposition on both sides of the political aisle. As J. Arch Getty writes in The Road to Terror, “The Stalinist leadership had often permitted the publication of statements and articles by various oppositionists within the Party….Trotsky’s works were published until the mid-1920s…Stalin had personally nominated Bukharian for the editor of the government newspaper Izvestia,” and, “In cases where there was no firm ploy, debate, negotiating and lobbying were possible, even in the Stalin years” [24].

As Baldwin writes in Liberty Under the Soviets, “Former Mensheviks or Social Revolutionists, still numerous in the unions, are now not expelled even when critical. But their criticism must be “constructive,”–intended to remedy the evils and defects of the accepted system and program, not to attack its purposes….But the general policy is to encourage ‘helpful’ criticism and the fullest rank and file participation in solving industrial problems” [25].

In The Truth About Soviet Russia, Sidney Webb writes that, “Indeed it is amusing to discover that nearly all the books that are now written proving that there is corruption, favoritism, and gross inefficiency in the management of industry and agriculture, are taken from reports of these discussions in the Soviet press, in Pravda, the organ of a Communist Party; in Izvestia, the organ of the government; in Trud, the organ of the trade union movement, and in many other local and specialist newspapers” [26]. What this means is that critics of the Soviet Union got their information from communist sources.

In “A Reply to Robert Conquest,” Robert W. Thurston writes that, “Stalin, the press, and the Stakhanovite movement all regularly encouraged ordinary people to criticize those in authority. At the very top, Stalin was certainly an unassailable figure, but during the Yezhovshchina anyone several rungs below him was fair game. If the citizenry was supposed to be terrorized and stop thinking, why encourage criticism and input from below on a large scale?” [27].

Baldwin writes, “Though I found a few opponents who were fearful of speaking out, and many cautioned me not to quote them, I found nowhere such universal fear as marks opponents of the dictatorships in Italy or Hungary…. Speech is fairly free everywhere in Russia. What the authorities land on is any attempt at organized opposition” [28].

Szymanski writes that, “Toleration of widely diverse viewpoints within the Party, continued throughout the period of the New Economic Policy…. While the center-right alliance of those around Stalin and Bukharin had the upper hand in the period after Lenin’s death (they were united on the continuation of the New Economic Policy and a fairly moderate international line), their left opponents continued to occupy leading positions” [29].

In Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives, Alan Bullock writes that, “The leaders were not arrested or shot; even Trotsky was banished, not imprisoned or executed, and most of the others, like Zinoviev and Kamenev, were allowed back into the party–even, like Bukharin, to hold official posts” [30].

James Harris writes in “Stalin as General Secretary” (published in the anthology Stalin: A New History from Cambridge university press) that, “Despite their expanded powers, challenges to the authority of local secretaries remained a fact of political life,” [31]. and that, “New archival sources only serve to reinforce our sense of the succession  of struggle as a see-saw battle of thesis and counter-thesis, of alternative visions of the future…presented to the Party elite and broader membership. In his letters to Moscow, for example, Stalin insisted on responding publicly to…his rivals” [32]. He also writes that, “The [party] secretaries did not submit passively to his [Stalin’s] directives. They had their own agendas of which they were aggressive advocates” [33]. Stalin’s political line was not unquestionable, nor was it decided without input from the rest of the committee.

Said committee was not packed with Stalin’s cronies, as many believe. According to figures published in The Soviet Elite, by 1925, in the election of the central committee at the Fourteenth Party Congress, 217 voters struck Kamenev off their ballots. 224 struck off Zinoviev. By contrast, 87 struck off Stalin and 83 Bukharian. Harris writes that, “Stalin had the clear advantage, but his failure to obtain those 87 votes suggests that if he did try to stack the central committee with his cronies, he was not doing a very good job” [34].

There is also this quote from Duranty Reports Russia, (written by Walter Duranty, the New York Times correspondent to Russia during Stalin’s rule),although ‘Free speech’ and a ‘free press’ in the western sense are unknown in Soviet Russia, Moscow newspapers are now indulging in such a loud chorus of complaints, rebukes, and pessimism as has probably not been equaled since Jeremiah was the “official spokesman” of Israel. To read the newspapers one would suppose the country was headed straight to perdition” [35]. What this means is that critics of the USSR got their information from communist sources. I cannot stress this enough.

This is in line with Stalin’s thoughts on the matter. He once wrote that, “Comrades, oppositionists can and should be allowed to hold posts. Heads of Central Committee departments can and should be allowed to criticize the Central Committee’s activities” [36].

A study of the Politburo supports the view that Stalin was not all-powerful. J. Arch Getty writes in “Stalin as Prime Minister” that, “Politburo members were not slaves, nor was their power reduced as Stalin’s increased. Sometimes Politburo members argued with Stalin…and occasionally won the argument” [37]. He goes on to write that, “One source of Stalin’s authority from the earliest days was his ability to…listen, to refer…to steer the conversation towards consensus. This earned him the respect, cooperation, and loyalty of senior Bolsheviks,” and further that, “His office logs do not suggest a lonely and solitary dictator who made decisions without…discussion with others” [38].

All of this considered, an analysis of democracy (or lack thereof) in the Stalin era would be incomplete without discussion of the purges. Much ado is made about the expulsions from the party, the arrests, and the executions that occurred under Stalin’s leadership, especially those between 1937 and 1938, where the purges reached their height. The extent of executions is often exaggerated, and there is evidence today that many who were accused of crimes were in fact involved in espionage or other sabotage—that is to say, they were guilty of the crimes they were accused of. According to figures from Yeltsin’s archives and published in Socialism Betrayed: Behind the Collapse of the Soviet Union by Keeran and Kinney, the number of executions during the Stalin Era wa  799,455. This is a far cry from the millions typically posited by anticommunists. And keep in mind that Yeltsin, who released these figures, was staunchly pro-capitalist. Thus, it is highly likely that even these figures are exaggerated [39].

This is a complicated topic, and is generally beyond the scope of this analysis. However, Chapter 11 of Grover Furr’s Khrushchev Lied contains a detailed and thorough account of how Pospolov’s report—which Khrushchev used to “rehabilitate” many who he claimed had been falsely accused during the purges—is extremely fraudulent [40]. This is highly recommended reading. Also recommended is Robert Thurston’s Life and Terror in Stalin’s Russia, in which he writes that, ”Ordinary…workers…frequently reported no contact with the security apparatus” [41]. The purges mostly targeted government officials who, as we have discussed, were in fact guilty of criminal activity.

Nevertheless, it is well-known that many innocent people were killed during the purges. The question is whether Stalin was responsible for the excesses. The worst offenses of the purges were carried out by the NKVD (the Soviet secret police) during the tenure of Nikolai Ezhov as its director. Ezhov is sometimes described as Stalin’s “loyal executioner,” but the Soviet archives demonstrate he was anything but. He was part of a Rightist conspiracy to undermine the Central Committee’s effort in ousting right-wing cadres from its ranks. The plan was for the NKVD to protect the Rightists by diverting attention away from them, fabricating evidence against honest communists and bringing them to trial and in many cases execution. Here is the 1939 statement from Frinkovsky, one of the deputy heads of the NKVD during the purges:

“Before the arrest of Bukharin and Rykov, Ezhov, speaking with me quite openly, started to talk about the plans for Chekist work in connection with the current situation and the imminent arrests of Bukharin and Rykov. Ezhov said that this would be a great loss to the Rights, after that regardless of our own wishes, upon the instructions of the Central Committee large-scale measures might be taken against the cadres of the Right, and that in connection with this his and my main task must be to direct the investigation in such a way so that, as much as possible, to preserve the Rightist cadre…

After the arrests of the members of the center of Rights, Ezhov and Evdokimov in essence became the center, and organized:

1) the preservation, as far as possible, of the anti-Soviet cadre of the Rights from destruction; 2) the direction of the blows against the honest party cadre who were dedicated to the Central Committee of the ACP(b) [the Communist Party as it was called at the time]; 3) preservation of the rebel cadre in the North Caucasus and in other krait and oblasts of the USSR, with the plan to use them at the time of international complications; 4) a reinforced preparation of terrorist acts against the leaders of the party and government; 5) the assumption of power of the Rights with Ezhov at their head” [42].

Thus in his effort to preserve right-wing cadre, to undermine the Central Committee, and to concentrate power to himself, Ezhov falsely accused and killed huge numbers of innocent people. This is pretty damning. Adding further to this is Ezhov’s own confession, where he admits that he was committing espionage on behalf of Poland and Germany. Meanwhile, there is no evidence that Stalin was a part of this conspiracy, and it is absurd to suggest that he was. The conspiracy that Ezhov headed was explicitly a response to anti-Rightist efforts initiated by Stalin and the rest of the Central Committee. Stalin himself was a target of removal for Ezhov. When his heinous crimes were exposed, Ezhov was arrested, tried, and executed. When Beria took control of the NKVD in 1939, the chaos that marked the previous two years largely subsided.

This is not to say we should absolve Stalin of all responsibility. When massive treachery such as this happens under one’s leadership, even if the leader is totally unaware of it, the leader must to some extent be held responsible. If Stalin was in error here, it was in trusting Ezhov and his cronies. It could also be said that Stalin and the rest of the Communist Party created power structures that were ripe for saboteurs to abuse. Furthermore, the general idea of widespread purges as a means of suppressing internal counter-revolution tended to create a climate which blurred the distinctions regarding contradictions between the people and their enemies, and healthy contradictions within the people themselves, as Mao argued in his sympathetic critique of Stalin. However, to understand all of this as a product of a “villainous” Stalin is a theory that holds about as much water as a sieve. Instead, we should recognize that Stalin fought to combat degeneracy within the party, to expand democracy, and to suppress counter-revolution, but along with the rest of the Party he made some serious errors. Although we should not downplay the significance of these errors, we should understand that they were the product of a leadership grappling with something entirely new: how to build a socialist society, and how to do so in the midst of sabotage and generally extreme conditions at that.

It is also worth noting that ‘purge’ in this context is a mistranslation of the original Russian word. The word ‘purge’ was deliberately chosen by anticommunist scholars to conjure images of genocide. In reality, the purges were more akin to yearly performance reviews than massacres. Walter Duranty writes that the Bolsheviks did not often kill those that they purged, and many so-called victims were readmitted back into the Party [43].

I am not trying to argue that the USSR was a utopia in which everyone had complete freedom. Freedoms were indeed curtailed, often to an unnecessary extent. (As with art or religion under Lenin.) However, the suppression did not occur to the extent that is commonly believed. The historical record is consistent with this view.

The practice of suppressing free speech is not as uncommon as some anticommunists would have you believe. It also occurred during the American Revolution. The property of Loyalists was seized during this time. The great libertarian hero Thomas Paine lived in a home stolen from a loyalist. As Szymanski writes, “Beginning in 1775, states started passing legislation making it a seditious act to libel or defame congress…eight states formally banished Tories” [44]. None of the Tories, so far as I’m aware, were ever given key positions in government, as Bukharian was. From this we can conclude that it is not socialism which requires repression, but revolution. We should evaluate the morality of the revolutionary cause when considering the use of repression. The aim of socialism is the elimination or reduction of hunger, want, and exploitation. What higher aspirations could one have?

I should also mention that the repressive measures utilized by the Soviet Union mostly targeted Nazis. Some might say that this is irrelevant, as it does not change the fact that the Soviet Union engaged in undemocratic practices. However, denial of freedom of speech to Nazis constitutes an expansion of freedom to the oppressed people who no longer have to live in fear of them. The freedom to walk down the street without being assaulted is greater than the freedom to assault. And, contrary to what liberals would have you believe, ideas can be considered as bad as actions. Take Dylan Roof for example. He had written a manifesto before actually carrying out the shooting that took nine lives. Had his white supremacist speech been criminalized, he would not have been able to carry out that act of terror, and nine innocent people would still be alive. In cases such as these, impinging in freedom of speech can benefit the people rather than hindering them.

A concrete example of this can be found in the Soviet Union. Prior to the revolution, Jews were subjected to brutal massacres known as pogroms, which were endorsed by the Tsar. The Bolsheviks made anti-semitism punishable by death, and refused to allow the circulation of anti-Semitic literature. This meant that Soviet Jews no longer had to live in fear of being massacred. In this way, restrictions on the free speech of one group led to increased freedom for another group. This is why we should take a nuanced approach to understanding repression. We should look at who it serves and what it accomplishes rather than decrying it offhand. For more on this, see Pinkus, The Jews of the Soviet Union: a History of a National Minority, as well as Sheila Fitzpatrick, Everyday Stalinism: Ordinary Life in Extraordinary Times [45].

Finally, it is incorrect to say that formal elections did not exist in the Soviet Union. Although the members of the Central Committee were not directly elected by the people, local politicians were. These politicians would elect the people above them, and so on until the Central Committee had been chosen. These elections usually took place in factories, and candidates were chosen from two lists. The Communist Party was often the only organization that was able to muster candidates, but the Mensheviks remained “tolerated rivals” until the 1920s, according to How the Soviets Work [46]. These elections were obviously very different from those seen in the United States. However, they still existed, and the will of the people was the genesis in carrying them out. There was a definite attempt at democracy within Soviet elections. One could even argue that local Soviet elections were more democratic than local elections in the United States, given that the people could recall unsatisfactory representatives instantaneously. Despite this, many would assert that the elections were “meaningless” or “frauds.” For the sake of argument, let’s assume that this is true. If the United States can have elections and be undemocratic, it stands to reason that a society without traditional elections could remain democratic in spite of that. Elections are not the end-all, be-all of democracy. They are merely a tool used by the people to exercise political power. This is the true marker of democracy.

I would also like to mention that the Soviet system of elections was similar to that which is used in many countries today. This includes the republic of Trinidad and Tobago. The people do not directly elect the President, the Prime Minister, or the Senate. They are split into forty-one electoral districts. The people in each elect a representative as a member of parliament. These members of parliament elect the Prime Minister. The Senate is then appointed by the President, the Prime Minister, and the Opposition Leader. The President is not directly elected by the people, either. The Parliament and the Senate jointly elect the President. Recently, Trinidad and Tobago introduced what is known as the right to recall. This is a practice in which a district or constituency can request for their representative to be replaced. This was first practiced in the USSR. Despite these obvious similarities, I have never heard an anticommunist refer to Trinidad and Tobago as being undemocratic. In fact, the American state department describes it as a “parliamentary democracy” [47]. This is evidence that they care more about slandering communism than actually learning anything about how these systems function. Anticommunists, especially those in America, are engaging in the most profound intellectual dishonesty. Therefore, they ought not be considered credible sources on this subject.

The reason for this stems from America’s presidentialism. Citizens of the United States tend to elevate their Presidents to incredible heights. It is assumed that the President is the most powerful and impactful government official. Thus, it is assumed that governments can only be democratic if the President is directly elected. As we have seen, this is far from the truth.

The Soviet Union also made tremendous strides in fostering democratic institutions outside of the electoral system. Most notable among these was the workplace. Sociologist Albert Szymanski writes in Is the Red Flag Flying? that production conferences were held in factories throughout the 30s and 40s, and again from 1957 onward. Members of the production conferences were elected at general meetings of all the workers, and the conferences themselves were made up of employees, scientific and technical societies, trade unions, and members of the Youth League.  The conference members took part in drafting production plans, determining wages and resource allocation, and protecting workers. They were required to report back to the masses at general meetings, at which there was a high level of participation. If the conference members did not adequately represent the workers as a whole, they could be recalled [48].

One utterly mainstream Soviet history book reminds us that.

Workers did sometimes suffer arrest, for example in several cases when they produced too much waste on the job… Yet the sources indicate overwhelmingly that industrial toilers were the least likely of any social group to be arrested in the Great Terror; this was the consensus of the thousands of emigres, for example, who answered questionnaires in the Harvard Project survey after the war. Since considerable evidence argues against the view that the population generally feared arrest, it follows that workers would have felt even less of a threat from the state than other individuals.

Former Soviet workers sometimes described their situation in the late 1930s using terms that support the view of their peers as fear-ridden slaves. Virtually all of the twenty-six emigre factory workers or employees interviewed by J.K. Zawodny in the early 1950s said that they had been afraid to complain about anything. For instance, a former coal miner spoke of ‘this horrible fear of being arrested’. Many analyses of the period rest upon such generalizations, but in fact this is only the beginning of the story, for the very same people who made these statement sometimes offered specific evidence from their own experiences which undermines their general observations. Were this inquiry a legal trial, any court would rule that the second kind of evidence (if the first is really evidence at all) is considerably mroe important.

Stalin emphasized the importance of the party’s ‘ties to the masses’. To maintain them, it was necessary ‘to listen carefully to the voice of the masses, to the voice of rank and file members of the party, to the voice of the so-called ‘little people’, to the voice of ordinary folk [narod]’. The party newspaper Pravda went so far as to identify lack of criticism with enemies of the people: ‘Only an enemy is interested in seeing that we, the Bolsheviks… do not notice actual reality… only an enemy… strives to put the rose-coloured glasses of self-satisfaction over the eyes of our people.’

But were not these calls merely a vicious sham, so that only carefully chosen, reliable individuals could make ‘safe’ criticisms? The evidence suggests otherwise.

Besides offering informal verbal criticisms and writing to newspapers, workers utilized other means of expressing dissatisfaction. First, they could go to the Rate and Conflicts Commissions (RKKs) within each factory to challenge decisions regarding pay, job classification or dismissal. These bodies had an equal number of representatives from the employer and from the factory or shop union committee. If workers failed to win their cases at that level, they could appeal to the people’s courts or to the central committees of their unions… [L]abour unions, usually pronounced all but dead by this time in Western literature, in fact had some power to act on workers’ behalf. Other examples of the same point will be given below.

Workers participated by the hundreds of thousands in special inspectorates, commissions, and brigades which checked the work of managers and institutions. These agencies sometimes wielded substantial power. For instance, the former worker turned inspector V.R. Balkan, together with a union official, investigated an accident at his Moscow factory in 1937. Finding the cause in improper testing of materials, the two fined the head of the production shop 100 roubles, about a week’s pay, and placed a reprimand in the foremand’s record. The book which recounted this story was published as a guide to action for other union officials and inspectors and therefore also encouraged similar action by workers.

The Stakhanovite movement was not a crude bludgeon used to beat all workers into vastly greater production, despite the drive to raise norms. However, it did accomplish something else for the industrial labour force which was of grave importance. The movement provided new status for workers in voicing criticism, urging and even demanding changes in production processes, and getting supervisors’ attention in general. New forums appeared in which Stakhanovites could speak out, while some old and weak mechanisms for input now revived.

Worker enthusiasm was essential to boosting productivity. In order to help whip up zeal, the party leaders were quite willing to encourage workers to speak out; workers needed to feel that the Stakhanovite movement was theirs in a meaningful way. Therefore with Stalin, Molotov, and other top officials sitting behind him, Izotov was blunt:

Stakhanovites spoke to me and asked me to convey the following to the government: they earn a lot, but there is little to buy. One says: I need a piano, another – a bicycle, a third, a record player, radio and all sorts of cultural goods, which are necessary, but which are not [available] in Donbass.

[P]robably recognizing that repression was only likely to spread discontent, in March 1936 the Presidium of the Supreme Court of the USSR announced a change in policy: ‘In many cases courts have incorrectly judged individual backward workers as enemies of the people for incorrect remarks’, the Presidium reported. In its view such statements often reflected the workers’ inability to cope with the new conditions; this is, some workers could not make the new norms. Their negative remarks do not ‘indicate their opposition to the Stakhanovite movement or sabotage’. What was needed was not court action but ‘mass explanatory work’. In other words, workers were not to be punished for speaking against the movement; instead, managers and other officials were directed to help discontented workers master the new standards.

[W]orkers in the city which had supposedly suffered at least as much as any other in the ‘Great Terror’ were still able to criticize a director to his face and apparently to get a job back after cursing a supervisor.

While sane, calm, and sober, no worker would have dared to say that socialism was a poor system or that Stalin was an idiot. But such bounds allowed a great deal that was deeply significant to workers, including some aspects of production norms, pay rates and classifications, safety on the job, housing, and treatment by managers. This occurred at a time when American workers in particular were struggling for basic union recognition, which even when won did not provide much formal influence at the work place.

Far from basing its rule on the negative means of coercion, the Soviet regime in the late 1930s fostered a limited but positive political role for the populace… [A]t lower levels of society, in day-to-day affairs and the implementation of policy, [the Soviet political structure] was participatory. Earlier concepts of the Soviet state require rethinking: the workers who ousted managers, achieved the imprisonment of their targets and won reinstatement at factories did so through organizations which constituted part of the state apparatus and wielded state powers.

Only by staying on the surface of the story and limiting the use of evidence to certain kinds of sources can the system be described as one in which coercion overwhelmingly determined the course of workers’ lives… This and similar issues meant that ultimately relatively little was controlled by government or party decree, which often expressed pious wishes rather than commands which were then fulfilled.

It is also worth noting that no party leader was allowed to hire other people and accumulate great personal wealth off the labor of another. To quote William Henry Chamberlain’s book Soviet Russia, “No private person may legitimately make a penny of profit out of this system of state and cooperative industry and trade, banking and transport. There are no individual shareholders in the state industrial enterprises; and the financial columns of the Russian newspapers are restricted to brief quotations of the rates of the state loans. All the normal means of acquiring large personal fortunes are thus pretty effectively blocked up in Russia and if there are some…private traders who have become ruble millionaires through lucky dealings in commerce or speculation, they are certainly neither a numerous nor a conspicuous class” [49].

In his book Human Rights in the Soviet Union, Albert Szymanski writes that, “Making a living through means other than work was prohibited. Hence, deriving an income from rent, profits, speculation or the black market…social parasitism was illegal” [50]. Put simply, the Bolsheviks never got much out, personally, of the revolution. If they wanted great power, they certainly could have done better.

Chamberlain also stated that, “The new class of state managers, or ‘red directors’ of factories, who have replaced the former capitalist owners, are mostly Communists and former workers…..by the very nature of their position they must look at industrial life from a rather different angle from that of the workers. Although they make no personal profit out of the enterprises which they manage, they are supposed to turn in a profit for the state….But the general view of the…critics of the Soviet regime, that there is a deep rift between a few Communist officeholders at the top and the working masses at the bottom is, in my opinion…quite at variance with the actual facts of the Russian situation” [51]. Although Party members often did not engage in labor, they clearly remained closely connected to the working masses.

Chamberlain’s admission that state-run industries were expected to turn a profit might at first appear to lend credence to the idea that the USSR was not socialist, but in fact State Capitalist. A key part of the capitalist mode of production involves turning a profit, which comes from extracting surplus value from wage laborers. If the Soviet Union engaged in this practice, then surely it must have been State Capitalist rather than socialist. What this analysis ignores is that, under capitalism, profits serve only to enrich the owner of an enterprise. The wealth does not go to benefit the public good. This was not the case in the Soviet Union. In Liberty Under the Soviets, Roger Baldwin writes that, “They [The workers] labor not for the private profit of employers, (save for the small proportion employed in private industry), but for the profit of the whole community. State industries, like private, must show a profit to keep going, but the public use of that profit robs it of the driving force of exploitation” [52]. So while it is true that workers were paid for their labor, they were also provided with vital services and a considerable degree of autonomy in the workplace. Thus, it is unreasonable to say that the Soviet proletariat was an exploited class, especially given Szymanski’s findings discussed above.

Another facet of the leftist critique of the USSR is that workers were still alienated from the productive process, as they had no say over how work was to be conducted. To a certain extent, they were correct. Most economic planning was carried out by the Central Committee or other parts of the state apparatus. But, as I mentioned previously, the workers still had a large degree of autonomy. As one Western business analyst wrote in the 1980s, “There is little doubt that worker participation goes considerably beyond that found in American firms.” Albert Szymanski writes that, “About 45-50% of workers report that they participate actively and regularly in some organization of the factory…that number has increased over time” [53]. While there were still managers, “The rate of upward mobility between workers and administration is quite high,” [54]. and, “at the general meeting of an enterprise the administrative personnel must report to the worker vis-a-vis the goal of the economic plan….any director who suppressed criticism would…not only be removed, he would be tried.” (Emphasis mine) [55]. As a result, the managers of the enterprises were far more connected with rank-and-file workers when compared to the West. This reveals a crucial fact about management as a whole. Managers under capitalism are undesirable because they are pawns of the bourgeoisie. They exist to extract as much surplus value from the worker as possible. Under socialism, however, they serve an entirely different purpose. Managers exist to motivate workers and ensure that enterprises can communicate with one another more effectively. The antagonism between workers and managers does not disappear under socialism, but it is mitigated.

Szymanski goes onto say that, “The role and power of Soviet unions have grown…collective agreements have become more important as mechanisms of establishing rules,” and further that, “the norm is that before there can be promotion…there must be prior discussion with the work force or their representative bodies” [56].

In Is the Red Flag Flying, Szymanski goes further into the subject of unions, writing, “Regular meetings of rank and file trade unions are held in each enterprise. All union organs from the bottom up are elected by union members and accountable to the majority” [57].

John Reed echoes these sentiments, writing in Soviets in Action that, “As all real socialists know, and as we who have seen the Russian Revolution can testify, the workers of Russia have fashioned….an economic organization which is evolving into a true industrial democracy” [58].

In her book The Stalin Era, Ana Strong writes that, “All kinds of people who made achievements in production…a milkmaid…a scientist…would be invited to discuss…how and why it was done.” She also writes that, during the first of the Five Year Plans, “In factories and villages, people discussed what they wanted, what they could make, what they needed…their local plans went by channels to the center, were correlated and sent back for local adoption” [59]. This suggests that individual workers were in fact given a suitable degree of autonomy in production discussions. Plans were not simply handed down by despotic leaders uninterested in the mass of workers.

As Sidney Webb writes in The Truth About Soviet Russia, “As we have described previously, free criticism, however hostile it may be, is permitted, even encouraged, in the USSR, of the directors of all forms of enterprise, by the workers employed, or by the consumers of the commodities or services concerned” [60]. Even in situations where the State devised production plans, workers across the Soviet Union still offered input.

In American Trade Unionism, Foster writes,

“The government planning agency now submits [the economic plan] for consideration through the several commissariats and other centers, to all the enterprises and organizations whose proceedings for the ensuing year it will govern….In each factory or office the part of the Plan relating to managers and heads of departments, but also submitted to the whole of the workers concerned, through their various factory or office committees, production conferences and trade union meetings… All sorts of suggestions and criticisms are made, which are considered by the foreman and managers, and finally transmitted to the government planning agency… Very often, during the last few years, the workmen’s meetings have submitted a counter-plan, by which the establishment would be committed to a greater production than the Provision Plan had proposed” [61]

He goes on to write,

“In 1934, the [Soviet Union] government abolished the existing national department of labor and turned its functions over to the All-Union Central Council of Trade Unions, it being taken for granted in a socialist regime that no group in the country is more competent or trustworthy to administer the nation’s labor laws than those persons most directly concerned, the workers themselves.

But imagine what a wild outcry such a proposal in the United States would wring from the reactionaries. The Soviet trade unions, in protecting the rights and welfare of the workers in the industries, have the power to issue regulations having the binding force of law, and for whose infraction careless or bureaucratic factory managers may be punished. To supervise the country’s great labor protective service the trade union movement has its own system of factory inspectors. Each factory council has a commission to attend to problems of local enforcement in the plant, mine, office, or railroad.

This is a concept utterly unthinkable in any capitalist system” [62].

Finally, I would like to quote an anecdote from the groundbreaking 1981 study, Human Rights & Freedoms in the USSR. In it, Fydor Medvedev and Gennady Kulikov write,

“Antonina Pokhmelnova told us a typical story.

‘At a trade union meeting we were discussing what to do in order to raise the output of clocks. i’d like to quote here only one of numerous proposals because I believe it shows how the workers’ opinions are valued in the USSR. My friend, assembly worker Lyudmila Ataulina, suggested that we do without the assembly line. Of course, everybody was surprised: was it possible? I remember the shop superintendent asked the chairman of the meeting (who was our fitter) to give him the floor immediately.

‘What are you going to use instead of the assembly line?’ he asked. Indeed, at the time the assembly line was considered (and is still considered) indispensable for intensive industrial production, the clock industry included. But Lyudmila stood her ground: the assembly line imposed a certain rhythm, which kept the worker under constant strain. Without the enforced rhythm people would assemble clocks quicker and better, while those who were still unable to work quickly and efficiently would be given help. Lyudmila had calculated the time to be spent on every operation, and the meeting discussed it and came to see her point. The managers also endorsed the initiative, which made labour less monotonous and more efficient. Both the workers and the factory stood to gain” [63]

Workers at all levels had a tremendous amount of influence in the productive process. It was organized in a participatory way, with special emphasis placed on the physical and mental well being of the workers. Exploitation and alienation, the primary sources of worker’s misery under capitalism, were combatted. This was a process that took place in all eras of the USSR’s existence, from its inception in 1917 to the mid-1980’s. I have chosen not to delineate time periods too much here, because my goal is to show that democratic management of the means of production was common in all periods of the USSR’s existence.

All this sounds like worker control to me, especially given that less than ten percent of Russian workers were not affiliated with unions [64]. In Is the Red Flag Flying? Szymanski puts this figure at closer to five percent [65]. In addition to all this, the Soviet Union also made other strides in worker’s rights. To quote David M. Kotz in his essay, “Socialism and Capitalism: Lessons from the Demise of State Socialism in the Soviet Union and China,” “Employees had a high degree of bargaining power on the job, with obvious benefits in job security, and management paying close attention to employee satisfaction. Article 41 of the 1977 constitution capped the workweek at 41 hours. Workers on night shift worked seven hours but received full (eight-hour) shift pay. Workers employed at dangerous jobs (e.g., mining) or where sustained alertness was critical (e.g. physicians) worked six or seven-hour shifts, but received full-time pay. Overtime work was prohibited except under special circumstances” [66].

From the 1960s, employees received an average of one month of vacation which could be taken at subsidized resorts [67]. All Soviet citizens were provided a retirement income, men at the age of 60, and women at the age of 55. The right to a pension (as well as disability benefits) was guaranteed by the Soviet constitution (Article 43, 1977) [68]. More on this can be found in Roger Keeran and Kenny Thomas’s Socialism Betrayed: Behind the Collapse of the Soviet Union [70]. as well as in Herwig Lorouge’s essay How the October Revolution and the Soviet Union Contributed to the Labour Movement in Western Europe, and More Particularly in Belgium [71].

Even dissidents had to admit that the USSR was not only interested in providing for its working class, it successfully did so. Tariq Ali quoted Soviet dissident Zhores Medvedev writing in 1979, “There is no unemployment…a greater variety of job choice for workers. The average working family can satisfy its immediate material needs: apartment, stable employment, education for children, health care….The prices of essential goods…have not changed since 1964” [72]. What this means is that the policies of the USSR were focused on providing for the proletariat. The laws ensured a decent existence for the working class, which is strong evidence that the working class held power in this society. This is the basic definition of socialism. Since the working class is the majority class in any society, it can fairly be said that power in the hands of the working class means power in the hands of the people as a whole. Put another way, socialism means democracy.

What all this means is that the means of production were managed by the broad masses of working people, rather than a tiny minority of capitalists. Again, means of production are responsible for things like food, housing, and education. These are all things we require to live. They grant us the power to do so. In the Soviet Union, the things which grant us power were controlled by the masses. Thus, power was in the hands of the people. It therefore follows that the Soviet Union was a democratic society.

This is true of all socialist societies. Socialism is a system in which the means of production are organized to meet the needs of the people as a whole. As such, it is inherently democratic.


    1. http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2014/apr/21/americas-oligarchy-not-democracy-or-republic-unive/
    2. Chamberlin, William Henry. Soviet Russia. Boston: Little, Brown, 1930, p. 131
    3. http://www.greanvillepost.com/2015/05/23/left-anticommunism-the-unkindest-cut/
    4. https://redantliberationarmy.wordpress.com/2010/08/10/the-growing-discontent-of-revisionist-china-by-the-working-class/
    5. E.H. Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution, 1917-1923, Vol. 1 (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1966), 190.
    6. Albert Szymanski Human Rights in the Soviet Union Zed Books, 1994. p. 76
    7. Littlepage, John D. In Search of Soviet Gold. New York: Harcourt, Brace, c1938, p. 135-139
    8. http://www.greanvillepost.com/2015/05/23/left-anticommunism-the-unkindest-cut/ Op. Cit.
    9. https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/cpus14.pdf
    10. Thurston, Robert. Life and Terror in Stalin’s Russia, 1934-1941. New Haven: Yale University Press, c1996, p. 102-104
    11. http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2016/09/prison-strike-inmate-labor-work
    12. Chamberlin, William Henry. Soviet Russia. Boston: Little, Brown, 1930, p. 124 Op. Cit.
    13. Cameron, Kenneth Neill. Stalin, Man of Contradiction. Toronto: NC Press, c1987, p. 128
    14. Talbott, Strobe, Trans. and Ed. Khrushchev Remembers. Boston: Little Brown, c1970, p. 99
    15. Conquest, Robert. Stalin: Breaker of Nations. New York, New York: Viking, 1991, p. 186
    16. Siegelbaum and Sokolov. Stalinism as a Way of Life. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, c2000, p. 97
    17. Holding, Reynolds (November 1, 2008). “Tomes Magazine”. Reason.
    18. G. Furr, Stalin and the Struggle for Democratic Reform, Part One (2005), pp. 20-36.
    19. Furr, Khrushchev Lied (Kettering: Erythros Press and Media, 2011), 223
    20. Ibid, 9
    21. Ibid.
    22. Ibid.
    23. Ibid.
    24. G. Furr, Khrushchev Lied (Kettering: Erythros Press and Media, 2011), 223.
    25. Getty & Naumov. The Road to Terror. New Haven, Conn.: Yale Univ. Press, c1999, p. 103
    26. Baldwin, Roger. Liberty under the Soviets, New York: Vanguard Press, 1928, p. 169
    27. Webb, Sidney. The Truth about Soviet Russia. New York: Longmans, Green, 1942, p. 34
    28. Thurston, Robert W. “On Desk-Bound Parochialism, Commonsense Perspectives, and Lousy Evidence: A Reply to Robert Conquest.” Slavic Review 45 (1986), 239.
    29. Baldwin, Roger. Liberty Under the Soviets, New York: Vanguard Press, 1928, p. 178
    30. Szymanski, Albert. Human Rights in the Soviet Union. London: Zed Books, 1984, p. 211
    31. Dr. Stephen White, New Directions in Soviet History
    32. Bullock, Alan. Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives. New York: Knopf, 1992, p. 182
    33. Harris, James. “Stalin as General Secretary: the Appointments Process and the Nature of Stalin’s Power.” <i>Stalin: A New History</i>, edited by Sarah Davies and James Harris, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2005, pp. 63–82.
    34. Ibid.
    35. Ibid.
    36. Evan Mawdsley and Stephen White, The Soviet Elite from Lenin to Gorbachev: The Central Committee and its members 1917-91. Oxford University Press, 2000. Ch. 2.
    37. Duranty, Walter. Duranty Reports Russia. New York: The Viking Press, 1934, p. 369
    38. Stalin, Joseph. Works. Moscow: Foreign Languages Pub. House, 1952, Vol. 6, p. 44
    39. Stalin: A New History. Cambridge University Press, 2005. p.99
    40. Ibid.
    41. Roger Keeran and Thomas Kenny, Socialism Betrayed: behind the collapse of the Soviet Union. iUniverse, 2010. P.63
    42. G. Furr, Khrushchev Lied (Kettering: Erythros Press and Media, 2011), 8
    43. Thurston, Robert. Life and Terror in Stalin’s Russia, 1934-1941. New Haven: Yale University Press, c1996, p. 253
    44. Lubianka. Stalin I NKVD – NKGB – GUKR “SMERSH”. 1939 – mart 1946 (Moscow, 2006), pp. 33-50
    45. http://lcweb2.loc.gov/service/gdc/scd0001/2010/20100112002re/20100112002re.pdf
    46. Albert Szymanski Human Rights in the Soviet Union Zed Books, 1994. P.153
    47. Pinkus, The Jews of the Soviet Union: a History of a National Minority, 84-88; Sheila Fitzpatrick, Everyday Stalinism: Ordinary Life in Extraordinary Times: Soviet Russia in the 1930  (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 169, 186-87.
    48. https://www.marxists.org/history/archive/brailsford/1927/soviets-work/ch03.htm
    49. https://www.state.gov/documents/organization/160175.pdf
    50. Szymanski, Albert Is the Red Flag Flying: the Political Economy of the Soviet Union Zed Books, 1979. P. 54-55
    51. Chamberlin, William Henry. Soviet Russia. Boston: Little, Brown, 1930, p. 131
    52. Szymanski, Albert Is the Red Flag Flying: the Political Economy of the Soviet Union Zed Books, 1979. P. 139
    53. Chamberlin, William Henry. Soviet Russia. Boston: Little, Brown, 1930, p. 177
    54. Baldwin, Roger. Liberty Under the Soviets, New York: Vanguard Press, 1928, p. 29-30
    55. Szymanski, Albert. Human Rights in the Soviet Union. London: Zed Books, 1984 p.141
    56. Ibid.
    57. Ibid.
    58. Ibid.
    59. Szymanski, Albert Is the Red Flag Flying: the Political Economy of the Soviet Union Zed Books, 1979. P. 55
    60. https://www.marxists.org/archive/reed/1918/soviets.htm
    61. Strong, Anna L. The Stalin Era. British and Irish Communist Organization, 1976. P. 51
    62. Webb, Sidney. The Truth about Soviet Russia. New York: Longmans, Green, 1942, p. 74
    63. William Z. Foster, American Trade Unionism, pg. 331
    64. Ibid.
    65. Medvedev, Let History Judge,1989  Columbia University Press p. 24
    66. Baldwin, Roger. Liberty Under the Soviets, New York: Vanguard Press, 1928 p.166
    67. Szymanski, Albert Is the Red Flag Flying: the Political Economy of the Soviet Union Zed Books, 1979. P.55
    68. Kotz, David M (2000). “Socialism and Capitalism: Lessons from the Demise of State Socialism in the Soviet Union and China,” in Socialism and Radical Political Economy: Essays in Honor of Howard Sherman, edited by Robert Pollin, Cheltenham and Northampton: Edward Elgar, 2000, 300-317.
    69. Ibid.
    70. Ibid.
    71. Lerouge, Herwig (2010). “How the October Revolution and the Soviet Union contributed to the labour movement in Western Europe, and more particularly in Belgium”, Belgium Works Party, May 05, 2010.
    72. Ibid.
    73. Keeran, Roger and Kenny, Thomas (2004). Socialism Betrayed: Behind the Collapse of the Soviet Union, International Publishers, New York, 2004. P. 21
    74. Tariq Ali The Idea of Communism London: Seagull Books, 2009. P. 81-82