People Power: Democracy and Popular Participation in Venezuela

Opponents of socialism love to paint any country that pursues a path other than neoliberal capitalism as “dictatorial” and “undemocratic” [1]. Venezuela, a socialist country, is naturally a victim of this slander. In this essay, I would like to argue that this characterization of Venezuela is in fact slanderous, based in nothing but propagandistic phrase mongering. In fact, Venezuela is one of the most democratic countries in Latin America, perhaps even the world.

Let’s begin with Venezuela’s elections. I have argued in the past that elections are not the only, or even the primary, component of democracy. Elections, in my view, are nothing more than a tool the people can use to exercise political power. This-power in the hands of the people-is what democracy really means. However, given the focus on Venezuela’s electoral system as “fraudulent” or “meaningless” [2], I feel it is necessary to mention them here. The idea that Venezuelan elections do not mean anything, or that they are rigged, is a complete fabrication.

The ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela, or PSVU, has been repeatedly affirmed at the polls, winning twelve of fifteen major elections between 1998 and 2015 [3]. The government has won these elections cleanly, and has immediately conceded on the rare occasions when it has suffered defeat, including December 2015’s parliamentary elections [4].

Nicolas Maduro, dubbed Chavez’s “handpicked successor” by bourgeois media sources [5], actually won the election squarely. A presidential election was held in Venezuela in April 2013 following the death of President Hugo Chávez on 5 March 2013. Voters gave Nicolás Maduro—who had assumed the role of acting president since Chávez’s death—a narrow victory of fifty-one percent (51%) over his opponent Henrique Capriles Radonski, the Governor of Miranda [6]. The fact that this victory was so narrow is a strong indication that it was earned. Fraudulent elections have, historically, resulted in the victor winning by a huge margin, upwards of ninety percent (90%). If Maduro really was manipulating the system, why did he not do so to a greater degree? Why did he only award himself 51% of the vote? This is a very low number to choose if one hopes to rig an election successfully. Why not choose something like 80 percent, giving yourself a kind of safety net should things go awry? Put simply, if Maduro wanted to rig the elections, he could have done a much better job of it.

The elections in Venezuela are not necessarily proof that the country is a democracy, but they are strong evidence in favor of it. After all, the people have evidence that the PSVU would step down if voted out. If they disliked the Party, why not vote it out? Indeed, the country’s own opposition has learned this. In 2004, the opposition enacted their constitutional right to a recall election, seeking to have then-President Hugo Chavez removed from office. However, Chavez remained in power after the recall was rejected by a wide margin of fifty-eight percent (58%) [7]. The Venezuelan people had an opportunity to vote out Chavez, and yet declined to do so. If democracy is rule by the people, then democracy in Venezuela means Chavismo. The people chose Chavez, just as they chose Maduro.

A predictable retort here would be that the people have not chosen Maduro. There would have been a recall election had the supposedly dictatorial government not suspended it in order to secure its own power. This, too, is incorrect on a number of levels.

In order to explain why, we must examine who the opposition actually is. In the words of Afro-Venezuelan activist and feminist Maria Emilia Duran, the opposition is “a white, bourgeois, classist, racist and sexist elite that has no patriotism…They want a Venezuela where only they exist, not Black, Indigenous and poor people” [8]. Venezuela’s opposition is not made up of poor or working people oppressed by the government. It is a wealthy elite whose actions are motivated by a desire to empower themselves, not the people. Venezuela’s right-wing opposition, connected to multinational oil companies, called for national strikes protesting the Bolivarian Revolution. Opposition leaders, claiming that Chavez was a “dictator” who wanted to “make Venezuela into another Cuba,” ordered sectors of the country’s armed forces to arrest him and installed wealthy oil businessman Pedro Carmona as president [9]. Carmona, a right-wing politician backed by the U.S. [10] sought to undo all of the actions taken by the revolution. But the Afro-descendant, Indigenous and working class masses-in a word, the oppressed-who supported the revolution immediately responded to his ouster, holding large protests outside the Miraflores presidential palace in Caracas calling for his return [11].

The opposition and supporters in Venezuela could not be more different. One wishes to install a wealthy businessman as head of the country, while the other wishes to lift up the most oppressed sectors of society. The opposition wants nothing more than to take power away from the people of Venezuela.

The opposition has routinely made use of illegal actions in order to satisfy these aims. Of the 1,957,779 signatures submitted during the first phase of the recall, for example, over thirty percent—or 605,727—had irregularities, including signatures from over 10,000 deceased persons [12]. The submission of false signatures is a major offense and allowing the recall to proceed under those circumstances would have undermined the credibility of the entire Venezuelan electoral system. The country’s right-wing opposition responded to the suspension of the recall referendum process with indirect calls for a military coup. What else is this but an anti-democratic action? The opposition is attempting to impose its will on the people of Venezuela through the artificial inflation of signatures. If the government were as unpopular as opponents claim, the internal opposition would not have felt the need to do this. The opposition’s own actions are proof of its real, anti-democratic character.

Nonetheless, the opposition is crying foul and has called for street protests, claiming the constitution has been violated [13]. The opposition is striving to portray themselves as helpless victims who have been thwarted by the socialist government. However, the opposition’s narrative is at odds with the facts on the ground. The opposition is not a grassroots movement born out of frustration with the government, but rather a group of privileged elites willing to resort to dishonest, violent tactics to ensure that the masses of society return to a state of exploitation and ignorance rather than empowerment. These groups should not be trusted under any circumstances.

In light of this evidence, we can confidently assert that the government’s repression of the opposition is not, and has never been, dictatorial in the classic sense of the word. In fact, the opposite is true. A democratic state is one in which the power of the people is the highest authority. This cannot be the case if certain elements in the state wish to rob the people of power. The opposition in Venezuela, as I have shown, is one such element. The repression of anti-democratic, right-wing organizations is meant to facilitate the exercise of people’s power. A truly democratic state must repress anti-democratic elements if it wishes to remain worthy of the label. Democracy is not a state of affairs in which the people can theoretically exercise power, it is one in which this is materially the case. This cannot be achieved so long as oligarchic groups are permitted to exist. While allowing opposition protests to occur may seem democratic on the surface, nothing could be further from the truth.

That covers elections, but elections are not the end of the democratic process. There exists in Venezuela a “dual” or “constituent” network of communal councils in which the people make decisions directly. This is a democratic process on its face. If the people manage their communes directly, power cannot reside anywhere but in their hands. Still, these councils are not free of contradictions or conflicts. In order to really understand democracy in Venezuela, we need to go deeper, examining not only the inner workings of these councils, but also how they came to be.

In Venezuela, the concept of constituent power arose at the end of the 1980s as the defining trait of a continuous process of social transformation. The main slogan of the neighborhood assemblies was “We don’t want to be a government, we want to govern.” This idea, understood in increasingly radical terms, came to orient the revolutionary transformation, acquiring  broad support in the political debate of the 1990s [14]. This idea has its roots in the beginnings of the Bolivarian revolutionary process itself, which called for the building of a “participatory and protagonistic democracy” [15]. Originally, this concept was used as shorthand for a “third way” that went beyond both capitalism and socialism. In 2005, though, Chavez and others came to understand that socialism was the only economic system capable of fostering such a participatory order. Thus, the idea of participation was officially defined in terms of popular power, revolutionary democracy, and socialism [16].

Communal councils began forming that same year as an initiative “from below.” In different parts of Venezuela, rank-and-file organizations, on their own, promoted forms of local self-administration named “local governments” or “communitarian governments.” During 2005, one department of the city administration of Caracas focused on promoting this proposal in the poor neighborhoods of the city [17]. In January 2006, Chávez adopted this initiative and began to spread it. On his weekly TV show, “Aló Presidente,” Chávez presented the communal councils in a favorable light, calling them  “good practice” [18]. At this point some 5,000 communal councils already existed. In April 2006, the National Assembly approved the Law of Communal Councils, which was reformed in 2009 following a broad consulting process of councils’ spokespeople. The communal councils in urban areas encompass 150-400 families; in rural zones, a minimum of 20 families; and in indigenous zones, at least 10 families. The councils build a non-representative structure of direct participation that exists parallel to the elected representative bodies of constituted power [19].

According to the text of the law, communal councils will “represent the means through which the organised masses can take over the direct administration of policies and projects that are created in response to the needs and aspirations of the communities, in the construction of a fair and just society” [20]. This reflects an understanding of democracy as “rule by the people.” The communal councils are meant to be a training ground for people’s self-government, a preparation for the Leninist concept of “the withering away of the state” [21]. While the councils themselves are not necessarily a concrete step on the road to communism, they offer us a vision of what communism might look like.

At the moment, the communal councils are financed directly by national state institutions, thus avoiding interference from municipal organs. The law does not give any entity the authority to accept or reject proposals presented by the councils. Legally, the state is not allowed to interfere with the communal process. This, too, represents the germs of a new order: one in which the people govern themselves. Put another way, the communal councils are the building blocks of a genuine democracy.

The relationship between the councils and established institutions, however, is not always harmonious; conflicts arise principally from the slowness of constituted power to respond to demands made by the councils and from attempts at interference. The communal councils tend to transcend the division between between those who govern and those who are governed. Hence, liberal analysts who support that division view the communal councils in a negative light, arguing that they are not independent civil-society organizations, but rather are linked to the state. In fact, they constitute a parallel structure through which power and control is gradually drawn away from the state in order to govern on their own [22]. This is one reason why it is enshrined in the constitution that the Venezuelan National Assembly is obliged to consult with these community organizations. Article 2 of the Communes law states that a community parliament is the “maximum authority of the self-government in the Commune” [23]. Its decisions are made through the passing of rules for the regulation of social and community life, toward public order, cohabitation and the collective interest. It can pass community development plans, sanction community letters, oversee debates, and even dictate its own internal rules [24]. These are all vitally important aspects of life. The council gives its members choice in the running of schools, the building of public works projects, and the production of goods. In short, the councils bear all the markings of democracy.

A large, connected group of these councils became known as a commune. As of 2016, 45,000 communal councils and 1500 communes organize hundreds of thousands of Venezuela’s 31 million people. Included in this network are the cooperatives, Enterprises of Social Production. These are either state-owned or operated directly by the communes themselves [25].

Above the communes stands their Communal Parliament, empowered to decide what communes produce and how it is distributed. According to the Commune Law, the Communal Parliament envisions integrating the communes into a regional and national federation, to construct “a system of production, distribution, exchange, and consumption rooted in social property” [26]. However, this Parliament has only met once, right after the electoral defeat of the Chavistas in December 2015 [27]. This illustrates a tension between the communes and the government. Indeed, the communes regularly run into conflict with the government. However, this does not mean that democracy in Venezuela is nonexistent. Rather, it means that contradictions will always exist in class societies. The struggle between the communes and the government illustrates the importance of building communism. Only when there is no state can the people truly govern themselves. To put it in Lenin’s words, “Only when there is no state does it become possible to speak of freedom” [28]. Socialism is vastly more democratic than capitalism, but genuine democracy can only come about with the abolition of classes (and thus the state) achieved by communism. Venezuela shows us that if we care about democracy, we must be communists.

This is not to say that the government is wholly opposed to the communes. Far from it. In 2002, Chavez gave peasants titles to land, and in the cities, urban land committees, CTUs were one of the first organs of grassroots self-organization. “By 2016, more than 650,000 titles to urban land had been granted through the CTUs, benefiting more than a million families” [29]. The government’s support for this initiative reflects that it is truly a government for the people, operating in their best interests to the fullest extent possible. This remains true today.  The Maduro government works with the collectives  through the variety of  Social Missions such as community health care, housing, food, education [30].

All of this shows that Venezuela is not undemocratic. Indeed, the direct management of social life through councils and communes mean that it is a great deal more democratic than the United States and other capitalist countries. Despite the myriad contradictions inherent in the Venezuelan system, the country is proof that the masses are capable of governing themselves. It is only socialism that can provide them the opportunity to do so. If one is concerned with democracy, one must struggle for socialism and against capitalism.

  1. Trombetta, Reynaldo. “Let’s call Venezuela what it is under Maduro: a dictatorship.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 17 Nov. 2016.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Hetland, Gabriel. “The Truth About Chávez.” Jacobin, 20 September 2015
  4. Hetland, Gabriel. “The End of Chavismo? Why Venezuela’s Ruling Party Lost Big, and What Comes Next.” The Nation. 22 June 2016.
  5. Duell, Mark. “Former bus driver and Chavez’s handpicked successor is elected president of Venezuela.” Daily Mail Online. Associated Newspapers, 15 Apr. 2013.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Buxton, Julia. “Venezuela After Chávez.” New Left Review 13 July 2013
  8. Fúnez, Ramiro S., et. al. “Afro-Venezuelan Slams ‘Racist, Sexist’ Opposition Protests. Telesur English 11 April 2017
  9. Forero, Juan. “VENEZUELA’S CHIEF FORCED TO RESIGN; CIVILIAN INSTALLED.” The New York Times., 12 Apr. 2002.
  10. Vulliamy, Ed. “Venezuela coup linked to Bush team.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 21 Apr. 2002.
  11. Golinger, Eva. Correo del Orinoco International, 13 April 2010 “Coup and Countercoup, Revolution!” Venezuelanalysis.com.
  12. Ceja, Lucho Granados. “Why Venezuela Suspended the Recall Referendum Against Maduro.” TeleSUR. Mision Verdad.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Roland Denis, Los fabricantes de la rebelión (Caracas: Primera Linea, 2001), 65.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Hugo Chávez, El Poder Popular (Caracas: Ministerio de Comunicación e Información, 2008), 38.
  17. Duran, Cliff. Moving Beyond Capitalism Routledge Critical Development Studies Series, 2016.
  18. Ibid.
  19. Ibid.
  20. Lenin, Vladimir, Collected Works, Volume 25, p. 381-492 1918.
  21. Duran, Cliff. Moving Beyond Capitalism Routledge Critical Development Studies Series, 2016. Op. Cit.
  22. Elkins, Zachary, Tom Ginsburg, and James Melton. 2009. The Endurance of National Constitutions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  23. Ibid.
  24. Ibid.
  25. George Ciccariello-Maher, Building the Commune. Verso, 2016. p. 19-20
  26. Ibid, 21.
  27. Ibid, 36
  28. Ibid, 59.
  29. Ibid, 58.
  30. Robertson, Ewan. “Maduro Demands Greater Government Support for Venezuela’s Communes.” 08 August 2013. Venezuelanalysis.com

Is Venezuelan Socialism A Disaster?

Venezuela is often cited in discussions about the possibility or desirability of socialism. Commonly, the country is referred to as a “failed state” [1]. This is taken as evidence that socialism will necessarily lead to disaster. In this essay, I would like to assert the opposite: for all its faults, Venezuelan socialism has dramatically improved the lives of the poorest and most oppressed in the country. It should serve as a beacon for all those who want to build a better world.

Here, I want to address the state of Venezuela’s economy. It is indeed true that Venezuela is having a food crisis. A study released by researchers from three Venezuelan universities reported that nearly 75 percent of the population lost an average of 19 pounds in 2016 for lack of food. The report, titled, “2016 Living Conditions Survey,” noted that about 32.5 percent of Venezuelans eat only once or twice a day, compared to 11.3 percent the previous year [2]. The situation is dire, to be sure, but it is not as dire as we have been led to believe. Venezuela is, in fact, food secure. The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization or FAO gauges food security in terms of the amount of food available, measured in kilocalories per person per day. This is usually calculated over a complete year, based on the total quantity of foodstuffs produced and imported. The FAO says a country enjoys food security when food availability stands at 2,720 kilocalories per person per day, or more [3].

The numbers supplied by the government’s own Institute of Nutrition, and validated by the FAO, show a rising trend, with some ups and downs, from 1999, when availability stood at 2,200, to 2011, when it reached a peak of 3,500 [4]. Since 2011, there has been a decline to 3,000 in the most recent figures, for 2015 [5]. By this measure, Venezuela remains well above the FAO’s minimum food security level. There is not hunger in Venezuela, as defined by international standards. On a world scale, after being one of the best performers during the first decade of this century, Venezuela has slipped a bit, but is still quite high up the scale. Again, there are certainly problems related to food access in Venezuela. The point here is not to deny hardships, but to present a more complete picture of the situation.

It should be stressed that economic deficiencies are not the fault of socialism. There are a variety of factors that account for the situation in Venezuela other than socialism. These include natural conditions, sanctions, and illegal hoarding by the opposition.

It is impossible to understand the economic situation in Venezuela without understanding oil. The price of oil began to decline massively in 2014. This decline lasts today, in the beginning of 2017 [6]. Obviously, countries whose economies are based on oil will suffer from this. Venezuela, of course, is one of these. Oil makes up about ninety-five percent (95%) of the country’s exports [7]. Naturally the decline in oil prices had a profound negative effect on Venezuela. It is no coincidence that the country’s economy began to stagnate in 2014, right as oil prices began to fall [8].

Starting in 2014, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia flooded the market with cheap oil. This is not a mere business decision, but a calculated move coordinated with U.S. and Israeli foreign policy goals. Despite not just losing money, but even falling deep into debt, the Saudi monarchy continues to expand its oil production apparatus. The result has been driving the price of oil down from $110 per barrel, to $28 in the early months of 2016 [9]. The goal is to weaken these opponents of Wall Street, London, and Tel Aviv, whose economies are centered around oil and natural gas exports.

Venezuela, as I have said, is a country that depends on oil. Saudi efforts to drive down oil prices have drastically reduced Venezuela’s state budget and led to enormous consequences for the Venezuelan economy. The United States and its allies are intentionally driving down oil prices in order to wreak havoc on Venezuela. This is a common practice of capitalist countries attempting to bring down socialism. Writing for Town Hall in 2014, Michael Reagan bragged that his father did the same thing to hurt the Soviet Union during the 1980s. He writes, “Since selling oil was the source of the Kremlin’s wealth, my father got the Saudis to flood the market with cheap oil. Lower oil prices devalued the ruble, causing the USSR to go bankrupt, which led to perestroika and Mikhail Gorbachev and the collapse of the Soviet Empire” [10]. Claims of economic war on Venezuela are not conspiracy theories. The capitalist rulers of many countries have openly acknowledged it. Venezuela’s economic situation is principally the fault of imperialism.

Natural weather conditions have exacerbated the problem. Venezuela has been in or near drought since 2010, and that drought became catastrophic with the onset of El Nino. Venezuela receives seventy percent (70%) of their electricity from hydroelectric sources [11]. Fully sixty percent (60%) of it is from the Guri Dam [12]. Because of this, the drought has crippled their electrical infrastructure and ability to export energy to neighboring countries. This, too, was a major source of capital for the country. The inability to do this has also contributed to the economic crisis in a major way [13]. The drought has secondary effects as well. Over ten percent (10%) of Venezuela’s labor force is employed in the agricultural sector, and the drought has heavily impacted their ability to produce food [14]. On top of this, Venezuela relies on reservoirs and rivers for public drinking water and irrigation, and the government has been forced to divert water from drinking reservoirs to keep the turbines turning [15]. The weather plays a significant role in Venezuela as it does everywhere. For all the good socialism does, it does not grant anyone the power to manipulate the skies. Therefore, we can confidently say that factors other than socialism have resulted in Venezuela’s current economic predicament.

One of these factors, it should not be forgotten, is illegal hoarding by those in the country opposed to socialism. Since the early 2000s, supermarket owners affiliated with Venezuela’s opposition have been purposefully hoarding food products so they can resell them at higher prices and make large profits [16]. Food importing companies owned by the country’s wealthy right-wing elite are also manipulating import figures to raise prices. In 2013, former Venezuelan Central Bank chief Edmee Betancourt reported that the country lost between $15 and $20 billion US dollars the previous year through such fraudulent import deals [17]. In 2015, over 750 opposition-controlled offshore companies linked to the Panama Papers scandal were accused of purposely redirecting Venezuelan imports of raw food materials from the government to the private sector. Many of these companies sell their products to private companies in Colombia, which resell them to Venezuelans living close to Colombia [18]. Even the bourgeois media outlet Reuters admitted in 2014 that Venezuelan opposition members living in border states are shipping low-cost foodstuffs provided by the Venezuelan government into Colombia for profit [19]. The food crisis is the direct result of deliberate sabotage by anti-socialist forces, not socialism itself. If the government is at fault here, it is because they have not arrested the  leaders of Venezuela’s right-wing.

The impact of sanctions on Venezuela’s economy should also be mentioned. The most visible recent example of such sanctions was President Obama’s March 9, 2015, executive order declaring that “the situation in Venezuela” poses an “unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States” [20].  The order placed sanctions on seven high-ranking Venezuelan government officials accused of human rights abuses and corruption.

It is worth pointing out that when this occurred, Venezuela’s anti-government opposition rejected the “extraordinary threat” language and declared, “Venezuela is not a threat to any nation” [21]. There is, of course, a direct economic effect of US sanctions against a country, or high-ranking officials within a country. Arguably more important are the indirect effects, which, as Mark Weisbrot has pointed out, send a message to would-be foreign investors that the country being targeted may not be a safe place to invest in. Weisbrot notes that foreign “financial institutions that wanted to arrange a swap for Venezuela’s gold…a couple years ago, they couldn’t do it” [22]. According to Alex Main, a senior associate for international policy at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, “Contacts in the financial sector have noted that the U.S. Treasury Department has strongly urged investors and bankers to avoid making loans to the Maduro government. Recent U.S. sanctions targeting Venezuelan officials also serve to discourage U.S. and European banks from doing business with Venezuela” [23]. Recent US actions have had a considerable and highly detrimental impact at a time when Venezuela is in desperate need of dollars but is prevented from gaining access to them by Washington, which has made little secret of its support for Venezuela’s anti-government opposition [24].

I have just argued that socialism is not the primary cause of Venezuela’s economic crisis. In fact, Venezuela itself is proof of this. The country’s socialist economic system has resulted in a great many achievements that ought to be highlighted, especially in the face of imperial aggression.

Venezuelan-born sociologist María Páez Victor commented on the state of the Venezuelan economy in 2014, writing, “the Venezuelan economy is doing very well. Its oil exports last year amounted to $94 billions while the imports only reached $59.3 billions -a historically low record. The national reserves are at $22 billions and the economy has a surplus (not a deficit) of 2.9% of GDP. The country has no significantly onerous national or foreign debts” [25]. The fact that the United States press chose not to spotlight these successes at the time should tell you something about what “freedom of information” means to capitalists.

The UN’s Human Development Index ranked Venezuela the 71st out of 188 countries examined in 2016. In the report, each of the 188 countries is given a measurement between zero and one. The closer to one, the higher the level of human development. Venezuela was measured at 0.767 — better than Brazil’s 0.754, Peru’s 0.740 and Colombia’s 0.727 — only slightly lower than its 2013 rating of 0.771, and significantly higher than its ranking of 0.677 in 2000, just as President Hugo Chavez came to power and initiated his Bolivarian Revolution. In South America, only Chile, Argentina and Uruguay had higher rankings than Venezuela. [26].

Venezuela’s economy is focused squarely on meeting the needs of the people. Under Chavez, the country saw a massive reduction in poverty. This was made possible because the government took back control of the national petroleum company PDVSA, and has used the abundant oil revenues, not for benefit of a small class of renters as previous governments had done, but to build needed infrastructure and invest in the social services that Venezuelans so sorely needed.  During the last ten years, the government has increased social spending by 60.6%, a total of $772 billion [27].

Venezuela is now the country in the region with the lowest inequality level (measured by the Gini Coefficient) having reduced inequality by 54%, poverty by 44%. Poverty has been reduced from 70.8% in 1996 to 21% in 2010. Extreme poverty was reduced from 40% in 1996 to a very low level of 7.3% in 2010. About 20 million people have benefited from anti-poverty programs, called Misiones. Up to now, 2.1 million elderly people have received old-age pensions – that is 66% of the population while only 387,000 received pensions before the revolution [28].

The Bolivarian government has placed a particular emphasis on education allotting it more than 6% of GDP. UNESCO has recognized that illiteracy been eliminated [29]. furthermore, Venezuela is the third country in the region whose population reads the most [30]. There is tuition free education from daycare to university [29]. Seventy-two percent (72% )of children attend public daycares, and eighty-five percent (85%) of school age children attend school [31]. There are thousands of new or refurbished schools, including ten (10) new universities. The country places second in Latin America and second  in the world with the greatest proportions of university students [32]. In fact, 1 out of every 3 Venezuelans are enrolled in some educational  program [33].

.Before the Chavez government took power in 1998, twenty-one percent (21%) of the population was malnourished. Venezuela now has established a network of subsidized food distribution including grocery stores and supermarkets. While ninety percent (90%) of the food was imported in 1980, today this is less than thirty percent (30%).  Misión Agro-Venezuela has given out 454,238 credits to rural producers and 39,000 rural producers have received credit in 2012 alone [34].  Five million Venezuelan receive free food, four million of them are children in schools and 6,000 food kitchens feed 900,000 people [35].  The agrarian reform and policies to help agricultural producers have increased domestic food supply [36].  The results of all these food security measures is that  today  malnourishment  is only five percent (5%), and child malnutrition  which was 7.7% in 1990 today is at 2.9%. This is an impressive health achievement by any standard [37].

The media loves to highlight Venezuela’s health crisis, but it ignores the many successes the country has had in this field. These include infant mortality, which dropped from 25 per 1000 in 1990 to only 13/1000 in 2010 [38]. An outstanding 96% of the population has now access to clean water [39]. In 1998, there were 18 doctors per 10,000 inhabitants, currently there are  58, and the public health system has about 95,000 physicians [40]. It took four decades for previous governments to build 5,081 clinics, but in just 13 years the Bolivarian government built 13,721. This marked a 169.6% increase [41]. In 2011 alone, 67,000 Venezuelans received free high cost medicines for 139 pathologies conditions including cancer, hepatitis, osteoporosis, schizophrenia, and others; there are now 34 centres for addictions [42]. In 6 years 19,840 homeless have been attended through a special program; and there are practically no children living on the streets [43]. Venezuela now has the largest intensive care unit in the region [44]. A network of public drugstores sell subsidized medicines in 127 stores with savings of 34-40% [45].

An example of how the government has tried to respond in a timely fashion to the real needs of its people is the situation that occurred in 2011 when heavy tropical rains left 100,000 people homeless. They were right away sheltered temporarily in all manner of public buildings and hotels and, in one and a half years, the government built 250,000 houses [46]. The government has obviously not eradicated all social ills, but its people do recognize that, despite any shortcomings and mistakes, it is a government that is on their side, trying to use its resources to meet their needs.

According to Global Finance and the CIA World Factbook, the Venezuelan economy presented the following indicators: unemployment rate of  8% 45,5% government (public) debt as a percent of GDP (by contrast  the European Union debt/GDP is 82.5%) and a real GDP growth: GDP per capita is $13,070. In 2011, the Venezuelan economy defied most forecasts by growing 4.2 percent, and was up 5.6 percent in the first half of 2012. It had a debt-to-GDP ratio comfortably below the U.S. and the UK, and stronger than European countries; an inflation rate,  an endemic  problem during many decades,  that had fallen to a four-year low, or 13.7%, over the most recent 2012 quarter [47].

The revolutionary changes in Venezuela are not abstract. The government of President Chávez significantly improved the living conditions of Venezuelans. This new model of socialist development has had a phenomenal impact all over Latin America, including Colombia. Progressive governments that are now the majority in the region see in Venezuela the catalyst that that has brought unparalleled economic and social progress to the region [48]. No amount of neoliberal rhetoric can dispute these facts. Venezuelan socialism has the potential to be a massive success. It betters not only the lives of the Venezuelan people themselves, but also serves as a reminder of what is possible for others. The existence of a viable alternative to capitalism and neoliberalism in Latin America has motivated the creation of numerous popular movements in the region. Venezuela, as I argued in the beginning of the piece, is a beacon for the oppressed. However darkened it may be, it should be resolutely defended against the machinations of imperialists and anti-communists.

  1. Finnegan, William. “Venezuela, A Failing State.” The New Yorker, The New Yorker, 4 Nov. 2016, www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/11/14/venezuela-a-failing-state.
  2. Pestano, Andrew V. “Venezuela: 75% of population lost 19 pounds amid crisis.” UPI, UPI, 19 Feb. 2017, www.upi.com/Top_News/World-News/2017/02/19/Venezuela-75-of-population-lost-19-pounds-amid-crisis/2441487523377/.
  3. “Chapter 2. Food Security: Concepts and Measurement[21]” http://www.fao.org/docrep/005/y4671e/y4671e06.htm
  4. “FAO Country Profiles:Venezuela.” http://www.fao.org/countryprofiles/index/en/?iso3=VEN
  5. Ibid.
  6. “Crude Oil Prices – 70 Year Historical Chart.” MacroTrends. http://www.macrotrends.net/1369/crude-oil-price-history-chart
  7. “Crude Oil Supply Vs. OPEC Output Target:Venezuela.” IEA Oil Market Report. 11 August 2015.
  8. Davies, Wyre. “Venezuela’s Decline Fuelled by Plunging Oil Prices.” BBC News. BBC, 20 Feb. 2016. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-35622188
  9. Puko, Timothy. “Oil Settles Below $28 a Barrel.” The Wall Street Journal. Dow Jones & Company, 09 Feb. 2016. https://www.wsj.com/articles/oil-prices-rise-on-output-uncertainty-1454993303
  10. Critchlow, Andrew. “Cheap Oil Will Win New Cold War with Putin – Just Ask Reagan.” The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group, 10 Nov. 2014. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/newsbysector/energy/oilandgas/11220027/Cheap-oil-will-win-new-Cold-War-with-Putin-just-ask-Reagan.html
  11. “World Energy Council.” Venezuela. https://www.worldenergy.org/data/resources/country/venezuela/hydropower/
  12. Ibid.
  13. “U.S. Energy Information Administration – EIA – Independent Statistics and Analysis.”Venezuela – International – Analysis – U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). https://www.eia.gov/beta/international/analysis.cfm?iso=VEN
  14. Background Note: Venezuela Archived 8 March 2016 at the Wayback Machine. U.S. Department of State.
  15. Marquez, Humberto, “Venezuelans Thirsty in a Land of Abundant Water.” Inter Press Service. June 4 2014 http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/06/venezuelans-thirsty-in-a-land-of-abundant-water/
  16. Arsenault, Chris. “Is Hoarding Causing Venezuela Food Shortages?” Al Jazeera English. March 2, 2014. http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2014/03/hoarding-causing-venezuela-food-shortages-20143210236836920.html
  17. Torres, William Neuman and Patricia. “Venezuela’s Economy Suffers as Import Schemes Siphon Billions.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 05 May 2015 https://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/06/world/americas/venezuelas-economy-suffers-as-import-schemes-siphon-billions.html
  18. Ibid.
  19. Gupta, Girish. “Smuggling Soars as Venezuela’s Economy Sinks.” Reuters. Thomson Reuters, 20 Jan. 2016. http://www.reuters.com/article/us-venezuela-smuggling-insight-idUSKCN0UY1IT
  20. “50 U.S. Code § 1701 – Unusual and Extraordinary Threat; Declaration of National Emergency; Exercise of Presidential Authorities.” LII / Legal Information Institute https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/50/1701
  21. Miroff, Nick, and Karen DeYoung. “New U.S. Sanctions Lost in Venezuela’s Translation.” The Washington Post. WP Company, 11 Mar. 2015. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/the_americas/new-us-sanctions-lost-in-venezuelas-translation/2015/03/11/f8f3af6a-c7ff-11e4-bea5-b893e7ac3fb3_story.html?utm_term=.2e895661f47b
  22. Weisbrot, Mark. “Is There an Economic and Political War Against Venezuela?” The Real News Network. 02 June 2016. http://therealnews.com/t2/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=31&Itemid=74&jumival=16421
  23. LEDERMAN, JOSHUA GOODMAN and JOSH. “Trump Sanctions Venezuela Vice President on Drug Trafficking.” Associated Press. Feb 13, 2017. http://bigstory.ap.org/article/fd8f13f1afa14261a7109a2d92d4ea27/ap-sources-us-sanctions-venezuelas-new-vice-president
  24. Weisbrot, Mark. “US Support for Regime Change in Venezuela Is a Mistake | Mark Weisbrot.”The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 18 Feb. 2014 https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/feb/18/venezuela-protests-us-support-regime-change-mistake
  25. Victor, Maria Paez. “Venezuela Under Attack Again.” Counterpunch. 04 Nov. 2014. http://www.counterpunch.org/2014/02/17/venezuela-under-attack-again/
  26. Julija Sardelic and Aidan McGarry., Szilvia Rezmuves, Isak Skenderi & Violeta Vajda, Miriam Krenzinger, Amílcar Sanatan, and Ajamu Nangwaya. “Venezuela Maintains High Human Development: UN.” News | TeleSUR English http://www.telesurtv.net/english/news/Venezuela-Maintains-High-Human-Development-UN-20170325-0003.html
  27. Páez Victor, Maria. “Why Do Venezuelan Women Vote for Chavez?” Counterpunch, 24 April 2012 http://www.counterpunch.org/2012/04/24/why-do-venezuelan-women-vote-for-chavez/print
  28. Ibid.
  29. Venezuela en Noticias, Venezuela en Noticias <venezuelaennoticias@minci.gob.ve> Venezuela en Noticias, Venezuela en Noticias venezuelaennoticias@minci.gob.ve
  30. Gallup Poll 2010
  31. Muntaner C, Chung H, Mahmood Q and Armada F. “History Is Not Over. The Bolivarian Revolution, Barrio Adentro and Health Care in Venezuela.” In T Ponniah and J Eastwood The Revolution in Venezuela. Harvard: HUP, 2011 pp 225-256; see also 4, Muntaner et al 2011, 5, Armada et al 2009; 6, Zakrison et al 2012
  32. Armada, F., Muntaner, C., & Navarro, V. (2001). “Health and social security reforms in latin america: The convergence of the world health organization, the world bank, and transnational corporations.” International Journal of Health Services, 31(4), 729-768.
  33. Zakrison TL, Armada F, Rai N, Muntaner C. ”The politics of avoidable blindnessin Latin America–surgery, solidarity, and solutions: the case of Misión Milagro.”Int J Health Serv. 2012;42(3):425-37.
  34. Ismi, Asad. “The Bolivarian Revolution Gives Real Power to the People.” The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives Monitor , December 2009/January. http://www.policyalternatives.ca/publications/monitor/latin-american-revolution-part-iv
  35. Carmona, Adrián. “Algunos datos sobre Venezuela”, Rebelión, March 2012
  36. Weisbrot, Mark and Johnston, Jake.  “Venezuela’s Economic Recovery: Is It Sustainable?”  Center for Economic and Policy Research, Washington, D.C., September 2012.
  37. Hunziker , Robert. “Venezuela and the Wonders of Equality”.  October 15th, 2012
  38. Golinger, Eva. “US$20 million for the Venezuelan Opposition in 2012”, http://www.chavezcode.com/2011/08/us-20-million-for-venezuelan-opposition.html
  39. Páez Victor, Maria. “Chavez wins Over Powerful Foreign Conglomerate Against Him”, Periódico América Latina, 11 October, 2012
  40. Milne,Seumas.  “The Chávez Victory Will be Felt Far Beyond Latin America” , Associate Editor, The Guardian, October 9, 2012:
  41. Alvarado, Carlos, César Arismendi, Francisco Armada, Gustavo Bergonzoli, Radamés Borroto, Pedro Luis Castellanos, Arachu Castro, Pablo Feal, José Manuel García, Renato d´A. Gusmão, Silvino Hernández, María Esperanza Martínez, Edgar Medina, Wolfram Metzger, Carles Muntaner, Aldo Muñoz, Standard Núñez, Juan Carlos Pérez, and Sarai Vivas. 2006. “Mission Barrio Adentro: The Right to Health and Social Inclusion in Venezuela”. Caracas: PAHO/Venezuela.
  42. Weisbrot, Mark.”Why Chávez Was Re-elected”. New York Times. Oct 10th 2012
  43. Ibid.
  44. Ibid.
  45. Ibid.
  46. Ibid.
  47. Ibid.
  48. “How Did Venezuela Change under Hugo Chávez?” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 04 Oct. 2012 https://www.theguardian.com/news/datablog/2012/oct/04/venezuela-hugo-chavez-election-data

The Economy of the DPRK: Myth and Reality

North Korea is often painted as an economic hellhole whose people are in a perpetual state of poverty due to the economic model.  The dominant narrative in the Western press is that the DPRK is on the verge of collapse [1]. What commentators lack in hard data to prove this, they often try to invent. There is no way, it is suggested, that the economy could ever recover on its own from the combined economic, financial and energy crisis that hit it in the 1990s [2]. And indeed, though it remains difficult to quantify the damage done by the collapse of the Soviet Union, we know that the DPRK was then suddenly confronted with the loss of important export markets and a crippling reduction of fuel and gas imports. These two factors triggered a cataclysmic chain reaction that severely impacted the Korean economy.

Perhaps the most dramatic aspect of the disaster was the collapse of food production. The sudden shortages of fuel, fertilizer and machinery, compounded by “a series of severe natural disasters” from 1995 to 1997 [3]. This made the DPRK tumble from a self-reported food surplus in the 1980s to a severe food crisis in the 1990s. Figures provided to the Food and Agricultural Organization’s (FAO’s) investigative team indicate production dipping from “a plateau of 6 million tons” of grain equivalent from 1985 to 1990 to about 3.5 million tons in 1995 and less than 3 million in 1996 and 1997 [4]. Food requirements for the roughly 23 million-strong population were almost 5 million tons [5]. The chain of events left the DPRK no choice but to make a formal appeal for aid to the international community in August 1995.

Sadly, this appeal went largely unanswered. The international community largely reacted to it in a hostile manner. A barrage of sanctions also seriously disrupted and continues to disrupt the DPRK’s ability to conduct international trade, making it even more difficult for the country to get back on its feet. Besides the unilateral sanctions regimes that the US and its allies have put in place since the early days of the Cold War [6], the country also has had to face a series of multilateral sanctions imposed by UN Security Council resolutions in 2006, 2009 and 2013 [7]. The bulk of these are financial and trade sanctions, as well as travel bans for targeted officials.

Financial sanctions curtail access to the global financial system by targeting entities or individuals engaging in certain prohibited transactions with or for the DPRK. The professed intention is to prevent specific transactions from taking place, particularly those related to the DPRK’s nuclear weapons program, or alleged money-laundering activities. In practice, however, the stakes of even a false alarm can be so high that banks might well shun even the most innocuous transactions with the DPRK. In the Banco Delta Asia (BDA) affair, for instance, public suspicion by the US Treasury that a Macanese bank might be money-laundering and distributing counterfeit dollars for the DPRK destroyed the bank’s reputation and triggered a massive bank run even before local authorities could launch a proper investigation [8]. An independent audit commissioned by the Macanese government from Ernst & Young found the bank to be clean of any major violations [9], but the US Treasury nonetheless blacklisted BDA in 2007, triggering suspicions that it was simply trying to make an example of the bank [10].

Whatever the case, the blacklisting effectively prevented BDA from conducting transactions in US dollars or maintaining ties with US entities, and caused two dozen banks (including institutions in China, Japan, Mongolia, Vietnam and Singapore) to sever ties with the DPRK for fear of suffering a similar fate [11]. Veiled threats by the US Treasury also seem to be behind the Bank of China’s closure in 2013 of the DPRK Foreign Trade Bank’s account [12] and possibly had an indirect influence on other major Chinese banks’ cessation of all cross-border cash transfers with the DPRK (regardless of the nature of the business) [13]. As we can see, financial sanctions effectively contribute to making the DPRK an “untouchable” in an economic sense, greatly affecting its ability to earn foreign currency by conducting legitimate international trade or attracting foreign direct investment. Obviously, shortages of such foreign currency have grave developmental consequences, because they limit vital and urgently needed imports of fuel, food, machinery, medicine, and so on, “stunting” both the economy and the general population [14].

Trade sanctions also have a more disruptive effect than their wording suggests. Although the sanctions were ostensibly designed to prevent DPRK imports of nuclear, missile or weapons-related goods and technology, in practice they had the effect of blocking DPRK imports of a whole range of goods and technology that are classified as “dual-use,” which means that their civilian use could potentially be adapted for military purposes. The result is that the “dual-use” lists prohibit imports of equipment, machinery and materials that are in practice essential for the development of a modern economy, impeding the development of a broad range of industries such as aeronautics, telecommunications as well as the chemical and IT sectors [15]. In his book “A Capitalist in North Korea,” Swiss businessman Felix Abt explained, for instance, how a $20 million project to renew Pyongyang’s water supply and drainage system fell through, simply because the Kuwaiti investor was concerned that importing the software needed for the project could run afoul of US dual-use sanctions against the DPRK [16]. Abt further recalls the role UN sanctions played in preventing his pharmaceutical company from importing the chemicals it needed for a healthcare project in the DPRK countryside. [17].

Given the formidable obstacles, the international press has drawn the conclusion first that the DPRK is one of the poorest countries in the world [18]. But it has also concluded that its misery is almost entirely the result of systematic mismanagement [19], and that it will go from bad to worse as long as it refuses to implement liberal reforms [20].  These assertions, which have been repeated throughout the period of six decades of sanctions, are rarely supported by hard data. On the contrary, they run counter to the little reliable evidence available.

It is because of imperialist sanctions, not socialism, that north Korea’s economy is in its current state. To prove this, we need only to look at north Korea prior to the institution of the bulk of these sanctions. Barbara Demick, an anti-DPRK author admits that “the country once had an enviable healthcare system, “with a network of nearly 45,000 family practitioners. Some 800 hospitals and 1,000 clinics were almost free of charge for patients. They still are, but you don’t get much at the hospital these days. The school system that once allowed North Korea’s founder Kim Il-Sung (father of the current leader) to boast his country was the first in Asia to eliminate illiteracy has now collapsed. Students have no books, no paper, no pencils.” [21]. North Korea, like other socialist countries, had eliminated illiteracy! By way of comparison, the United States is the richest country in the history of the world. Despite this, it still has not used its vast wealth to ensure that all of its citizens can read. In Alabama alone, 1 in 4 citizens are functionally illiterate [22]. This shows the distinct priorities of the DPRK and the United States. The DPRK is a socialist country, and as such has a vested interest in providing for the needs of its people. The United States, however, is more concerned with advancing its own interests. It would rather starve Koreans to death via sanctions than provide all of its own citizens the necessities of life.

The United States is motivated not by a desire to help the Korean people, but to crush communism. After a visit to the DPRK in 1946, Harry Truman’s friend Edwin Pauley wrote that,

Communism in Korea could get off to a better start than practically anywhere else in the world. The Japanese owned…all of the major industries and natural resources.. The Communist Party…will have acquired them without any work in developing them” [23].

The United States government is here admitting that communism has the potential to be a massive success. They embarked on a concentrated campaign to strangle the Korean economy in order to destroy the foundations for communism that were present in the North. The sanctions are merely another aspect of this plan. The United States wants to present capitalism as the only system possible, and it will do anything-including genocide-to accomplish that goal.

North Korea and other socialisms, however, shatter the US narrative. The DPRK still guarantees universal healthcare to its people, which is something the United States also does not do. Despite the imperialist onslaught, the DPRK is doing its level best to provide for its people. The values of socialism-solidarity, cooperation, and collective unity-are on full display.

This can be seen in the DPRK’s attitude towards education. To quote one eyewitness visitor,

“Education is highly valued in north Korea. Education at all levels is free for all citizens. We toured the Grand People’s Study Hall, a huge seven-story library, open to all people. Not only do they let you borrow books and music and use the computer, you can hear lectures on all different topics. Then there was the Grand Children’s Palace where children come after school for activities like dancing, singing, artwork and sports. There are eight floors, more than 100 rooms and over 100 teaching staff. Places like this exist in each province, although this is the largest one in the country” [24].

In fact, the DPRK was at one time more economically developed than its southern neighbor.  According to Japan Focus, “by the early 1960’s, well before South Korea’s industrial takeoff, the North had impressively re-industrialized. This difference cannot be explained by foreign aid alone, which was far greater in absolute terms in the South than in the North. The Regime’s ability to  mobilize…the population…was indispensable” [25]. It was explicitly socialism, with its emphasis on cooperation, that allowed the north Korean economy to recover following the war.

Socialism in the DPRK has lead to numerous other incredible feats which bettered the lives of the working masses. In her book Everyday Life in the North Korean Revolution, provides statistics which show that “Already in 1949, per capita national income had more than doubled since 1945” [26]. She goes on to say that “Electricity was extended to 29,850 households from 16,513 households” [27]. The revolution in Korea materially benefited the people, lifting them from extreme poverty and improving their quality of life.

This improvement continues today. Education is free and compulsory for 11 years, with plenty of opportunity for further education for those who wish to pursue it. The means of production are overwhelmingly in public ownership (the exceptions relating to foreign and south Korean investment), and so the vast majority of factories, farms, and so on exist solely and exclusively to serve the people’s needs [28].

Democratic Korea enjoyed a comparable standard of living to their neighbors in the south well into the 1980s. [29]. Living spartan lifestyles, the Korean people were nearly self-sufficient in terms of light industry and consumer goods by 1967, with goods like textiles, underwear, socks, shoes, and alcoholic beverages becoming increasingly available for every citizen [30].

Industry in the north grew at 25 percent per annum in the 10 years following the Korean War and at 14 percent from 1965 to 1978. US officials were greatly concerned about south Korea’s economy, which lagged far behind, raising doubts about the merits of Washington’s right-wing, pro-capitalist, neo-colonial project in Korea. By 1980, the north Korean capital, Pyongyang, was one of the best run, most efficient cities in Asia. Seoul, on the other hand, was a vast warren “of sweatshops to make Dante or Engels faint,” complete with a teeming population of homeless [31].

Eager to present the south’s economic system as superior to the north’s, Washington allowed the ROK to pursue a vigorous program of industrial planning behind a wall of tariffs and subsidies, while, at the same time, offering south Korean industry access to the world market. To help matters along, huge dollops of aid were poured into the country. Japan delivered $800 million in grants and loans as compensation for 35 years of colonial domination, at a time south Korea’s exports were only $200 million. And in return for dispatching 50,000 soldiers to fight on the US-side in Vietnam, Washington handed over $1 billion in mercenary payments from 1965 to 1970, equal to eight percent of the south’s GDP. South Korean engineering firms were given contracts with the US military, and Vietnam soaked up almost all of the south’s steel exports (produced by an integrated steel mill built with the $800 million aid injection from Japan.) [32].

At the same time, the north was hobbled by miscalculations. Pyongyang angered the Soviets in the early 60s by siding with China in the Sino-Soviet split. Moscow cut off aid in retaliation. While Soviet aid had never been as generous as the aid the US and Japan had showered upon the south, it had made a difference, and its interruption (it was later restored) slowed the north’s economic growth. Then, in the 70s, Pyongyang ran into debt trouble when it began buying turnkey factories from the West [33].

As a result of the south’s industrial planning, its import-substitution model, its high-tariff barriers, and injections of aid from the US and Japan, the ROK economy was steaming ahead of the north’s by the mid-80s. Still, while growth had slowed in the north, the difference in standard of living between the average south Korean and the average north Korean was never as great as south Korea’s backers would have you believe. And the north had its attractions. While consumer goods were scarce, daily necessities were available in abundance at subsidized prices. Cumings points to a CIA report that acknowledges (almost grudgingly, he says) the north’s various achievements: “compassionate care for children in general and war orphans in particular; ‘radical change’ in the position of women; genuinely free housing, free health care, and preventive medicine; and infant mortality and life expectancy rates comparable to the most advanced countries until the recent famine” [34].

Lakov, a self-described right-wing economist, also notes the achievements of the DPRK in the face of this economic chaos. He writes,

“Life expectancy in north Korea peaked at 72, only marginally lower than the life expectancy in the much more prosperous south. According to the 2008 census results, life expectancy at birth seems to be about 69 years nowadays. This is some ten years lower than in the south, but still impressive for such a poor country.

In 2008 child mortality in North Korea was estimated by the World Health Organization at 45 per 1,000 live births. This is a bit higher than China….

Chad and North Korea have roughly the same levels of per capita GDP” [35].

Even the U.S. government cannot deny the accomplishments of Korean socialism. Written behind closed doors in 1990, a declassified CIA report admits that the DPRK administers outstanding social services for children, guarantees totally free housing to citizens, provides a highly successful country-wide public preventative medical program, oversees a police force with an extremely low level of corruption and has achieved high life expectancy and low infant mortality rates [36].

The same CIA report points out that there are more college-educated women than men in the DPRK, and admits that the Workers Party of Korea legitimately committed to ‘radical change’ in Korean gender relations. The facts support their conclusion: women are permitted to serve in the military, state child-care programs allow women to have independent careers outside of the house and a significant number of high level political positions are occupied by women, including representation in the Supreme People’s Assembly [37].

The DPRK’s remarkable public health care system – which provides unconditional universal coverage for citizens – continues to perform tremendously well, even in the midst of crippling U.S. sanctions. Just last year in a report to the United Nations on the North Korean health care system, Dr. Margaret Chan, the Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), called it “something which most other developing countries would envy.” She pointed out that the “DPRK has no lack of doctors and nurses,” and praised the system for its “very elaborate health infrastructure, starting from the central to the provincial to the district level” [38].

Today, under Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s capital city is in fact thriving. Even South Korean tabloids admit that this is the case. One writes,

“Three years after Kim Jong-un came to power in North Korea, the streets of Pyongyang look much different. The streets of the city are lined with new 40-floor skyscrapers, and taxis drive down them. Before, they had been dark at night, but now they are illuminated by bright lights, while smartphone-toting women are dressed more smartly than before. The unanimous testimony of recent visitors to Pyongyang is that the North Korean city has doffed its drab garb in favor of a coat of many colors.“It was my first visit to North Korea in five years, and I was shocked by how much the atmosphere had changed,” Jang Yong-cheol, permanent director for the Isang Yun Peace Foundation, told the Hankyoreh on Dec. 16. Jang was in Pyongyang for five days in October” [39].

It should also be mentioned that, despite facing isolation and genocidal sanctions, the DPRK has come to the aid of African national liberation movements. The DPRK participated in combat operations alongside the People’s Armed Forces for the liberation of Angola. It aided the African Congress in the struggle against Apartheid and provided assistance to countries such as Ethiopia [40]. Like Cuba, the DPRK’s socialist internationalism has improved the lives of many around the world.

All of this shows that socialism can in fact be a success, and that imperialism is responsible for the deficiencies of the north Korean economy. The north Korean people are not suffering under socialism. In fact, they have made remarkable achievements under the circumstances. This is a testament to the tremendous power of socialist economics.

  1. Rüdiger Frank, “A Question of Interpretation: Statistics From and About North Korea,”38 North, Washington, D.C.: U.S.-Korea Institute at SAIS, Johns Hopkins University, July 16, 2012.
  2.  Evan Ramstad, “North Korea Strains Under New Pressures”,The Wall Street Journal, March 30, 2010. Retrieved on April 10, 2014; Geoffrey Cain, “North Korea’s Impending Collapse: 3 Grim Scenarios”,Global Post, September 28, 2013. Doug Bandow, “The Complex Calculus of a North Korean Collapse”,The National Interest, January 9, 2014.
  3. Soo-bin Park, “The North Korea Economy: Current Issues and Prospects,” Department of Economics, Carleton University (2004).
  4. World Food Programme. Office of Evaluation, Full Report of the Evaluation of DPRK EMOPs 5959.00 and 5959.01 “Emergency Assistance to Vulnerable Groups,” March 20 to April 10, 2000, p.1.
  5. Food and Agricultural Organization/World Food Programme,Crop and Food Security Assessment Mission to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, November 12, 2012, p.10.
  6. Food and Agricultural Organization/World Food Programme,Crop and Food Supply Assessment Mission to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, June 25, 1998.
  7. U.S. Department of Treasury, Office of Foreign Assets Control, An Overview of Sanctions with Respect to North Korea, May 6, 2011.
  8. “Breaking the Bank,” The Economist, September 22, 2005.
  9. “Ernst & Young says Macao-based BDA clean, cites minor faults,” RIA Novosti, April 18, 2007.
  10. Ronda Hauben, “Behind the Blacklisting of Banco Delta Asia,” Ohmynews, May 25, 2007. John McGlynn, John McGlynn, “North Korean Criminality Examined: the US Case. Part I,” Japan Focus, May 18, 2007. Id., “Financial Sanctions and North Korea: In Search of the Evidence of Currency Counterfeiting and Money Laundering Part II,” July 7, 2007; Id., “Banco Delta Asia, North Korea’s Frozen Funds and US Undermining of the Six-Party Talks: Obstacles to a Solution. Part III,” Japan Focus, June 9, 2007.
  11. Daniel L. Glaser, testimony before the Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs, U.S. Senate, September 12, 2006.
  12. Simon Rabinovitch and Simon Mundy, “China reduces banking lifeline to North Korea,” Financial Times, May 7, 2013.
  13. Simon Rabinovitch, “China banks rein in support for North Korea,” Financial Times, May 13, 2013.
  14. Rüdiger Frank, “The Political Economy of Sanctions against North Korea,”Asian Perspective, Vol. 30, No. 3, 2006, at 5-36. Retrieved on April 10, 2014.
  15. Ibid.
  16.  Chad O’Caroll, “How Sanctions Stop Legitimate North Korean Trade,” NK News, February 18, 2013. http://www.nknews.org/2013/02/how-sanctions-stop-legitimate-north-korean-trade
  17. Ibid.
  18. Michelle A Vu, “Living conditions in North Korea ‘very bad’,”Christian Today, March 31, 2009; Harry de Quetteville, “Enjoy your stay… at North Korean Embassy,”Telegraph, April 5, 2008.
  19. “Where the sun sinks in the east,”The Economist, August 11, 2012 (print edition). Retrieved on April 10, 2014; Nicholas Eberstadt, “The economics of state failure in North Korea,” American Enterprise Institute, May 23, 2012.
  20. Ibid.
  21. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2010/jul/17/north-korea-famine-fears
  22. http://literacywa.org/literacy-facts-2/
  23. https://thelmaandlouisegointernational.wordpress.com/2014/03/10/communism-in-korea-could-get-off-to-a-better-start-than-practically-anywhere-else-in-the-world-edwin-w-pauley-trumans-ambassador-investigating-reparations-traveling-in-the-russian-zone-o/
  24. http://www.fightbacknews.org/2004/03summer/korea.htm
  25. http://apjjf.org/-Charles-K.-Armstrong/3460/article.html
  26. https://books.google.com/books?id=kes9AAAAQBAJ&pg=PT215&lpg=PT215&dq=Already+in+1949,+per+capita+national+income+had+more+than+doubled+since+1945&source=bl&ots=vJFNIvIP_-&sig=s5lu5JkibUsIZ9ALY9NSKr9T1LE&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjj5-DhyKTTAhVC9IMKHdHEAacQ6AEIJTAA#v=onepage&q=Already%20in%201949%2C%20per%20capita%20national%20income%20had%20more%20than%20doubled%20sinc
  27. Ibid.
  28. “North Korean Economy Records Positive Growth for Two Consecutive Years”. The Institute for Far Eastern Studies. 17 July 2013.
  29. Ellen Brun, Jacques Hersh, Socialist Korea: A Case Study in the Strategy of Economic Development, 1976, Monthly Review Press, New York and London
  30. Ibid.
  31. Cumings, Op. Cit.
  32. Ibid.
  33. Ibid.
  34. Ibid.
  35. https://books.google.com/books?id=LNpRyIPgi3wC&pg=PA64&lpg=PA64&dq
  36. http://memory.loc.gov/master/frd/frdcstdy/no/northkoreacountr00word/northkoreacountr00word.pdf
  37. Ibid.
  38. “Country Comparison: Life Expectancy at Birth”. CIA World Factbook.
  39. http://english.hani.co.kr/arti/english_edition/e_northkorea/671159.html
  40. http://www.voltairenet.org/article190705.html

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.

 

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    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/
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    6. Albert Szymanski Human Rights in the Soviet Union Zed Books, 1994. p. 76
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    21. Ibid.
    22. Ibid.
    23. Ibid.
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    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
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    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