In discussions surrounding the USSR, there is a tendency to focus exclusively on the negative. Most people highlight the repression that supposedly occurred and ignore the numerous achievements of the Soviet Union, both during Stalin’s time and after. I would like to take a moment to remedy that.
These achievements include equal pay and maternity leave for women. They were also granted universal suffrage and could even hold key positions within the Party. As Francis Randal writes in Stalin’s Russia, “Stalin took a Party with scarcely five percent of women…he left the party with more than 21 percent of women” . Women were also granted the right to defend their country in battle, a right that has only been recently granted to citizens in the United States. Anna L. Strong writes in The Soviets Expected it that, “The famous ‘Red Amazons’ and ‘Death Battalions’ are fiction, not fact. But the Army medical services is full of women” . And as Ciliga Ante writes in The Russian Enigma,”The wife of our host listened to her husband and made timid protests. One day when he was out, she opened her heart to us. “The Bolsheviks want to build up a new life; that can’t be done in a day….But look, in the past women had no rights at all, they were proper slaves; the Bolsheviks have given us liberty, have made us the equals of men. The Soviet state guaranteed it especially for young women who got maternity leave longer than what was in force in France at the time, and access to affordable nurseries open 24 hours, 7 days a week, with no waiting list. Still, what a contrast with France, where waiting lists are becoming an urgent problem (especially in Paris), where privatization has become synonymous with outrageous costs, where maternity leave as a fundamental right is questioned” . Women’s rights were much further along in the Soviet Union than anywhere else.
The predictable retort here would be to point out supposed hypocrisy on the part of communists. If we make a point of saying that women serving in the United States military is not progressive, why is the same not true of the Soviet military? The answer is one of function. The United States military is an imperialist one, formed for the purpose of resource extraction and the expansion of Western hegemony. The Soviet military, on the other hand, was formed for the purpose of defending socialism against counterrevolutionary forces, and later used as a weapon in the struggle against fascism. Those who served in the Red Army had the opportunity to build and defend their own society. It gave the people a tremendous amount of power. As such, progressive policies in the Soviet military ought to be highlighted.
The same is true of racial justice. Several black artists, intellectuals, and activists spoke highly of their time in the Soviet Union. Among these are singer Paul Robeson, boxer Muhammad Ali, poet Claude McKay, and activist WEB Dubois. Full accounts of many of these experiences can be found in “Black in the USSR” by Joy Gleason Carew . I also recommend Harry Haywood’s autobiography Black Bolshevik . as well as William Mandel’s Soviet but not Russian . At a time when Jim Crow was at its peak in the United States, black refugees fled to the Soviet Union in search of liberation. While the USSR was by no means free of racism, Soviet criminalization of racist speech meant that it was much closer than any society that existed at the time .
The USSR also saw the creation of a universal healthcare system. No other country had more physicians per capita or more hospital beds per capita than the USSR. In 1977, the Soviet Union had 35 doctors and 212 hospital beds per 10,000 compared to 18 doctors and 63 hospital beds in the United States . (Szymanski, Human Rights in the Soviet Union, 1984). Most important, healthcare was free. Life expectancy went from about 30 to about 70 after the revolution, and has not increased since the fall of the USSR .
Literacy and education also soared. The Bolsheviks set up teaching programs, even sending teachers to peasant’s homes to educate them . . Socialism, far from being an economic failure, led to numerous incredible feats. The USSR was, at one time, the fastest-growing economy in history, which fell into recession only during the war years. Soviet GDP per capita growth exceeded that of all other countries but Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. GDP per person grew by a factor of 5.2, compared to 4.0 for Western Europe and 3.3 for the Western European offshoots such as the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand .
While Soviet GDP per capita growth rates compare favorably with those of the major capitalist economies, a more relevant comparison is with the rest of the world. In 1928, the Soviet Union was still largely an agrarian country, and most people worked in agriculture, compared to a minority in Western Europe and North America. Hence, the economy of the USSR at the point of its transition to public ownership and planning was very different from that of the industrialized Western capitalist countries. On the other hand, the rest of the world resembled the Soviet Union in also being largely agrarian . It is therefore the rest of the world, not the United States and other advanced industrialized countries, with which the USSR should be compared in the economic sphere. From 1928 to 1989, Soviet GDP per capita not only exceeded growth in the rich countries but exceeded growth in all other regions of the world combined, and to a greater degree. Hence, not only did the publicly owned, planned economy of the Soviet Union outpace the economies of richer capitalist economies, it grew even faster than the economies of countries that were most like the USSR in 1928. For example, outside its southern core, Latin America’s GDP per capita was $1,332 (1990 US dollars), almost equal to the USSR’s $1,370. By 1989, the Latin American figure had reached $4,886, but average income in the Soviet Union had climbed far higher, to $7,078 . Public ownership and planning had raised living standards to a higher level than capitalism had in Latin America, despite an equal starting point. Moreover, while the Soviet peacetime economy unfailingly expanded, the Latin American economy grew in fits and starts, with enterprises regularly shuttering their doors and laying off employees.
Perhaps the best illustration of how public ownership and planning performed better at raising living standards comes from a comparison of incomes in Soviet Central Asia with those of neighboring countries in the Middle East and South Asia. In 1928, these areas were in a pristinely pre-industrial state. Under public ownership and planning, incomes grew in Soviet Central Asia to $5,257 per annum by 1989, 32 percent higher than in neighboring capitalist Turkey, 44 percent higher than in neighboring capitalist Iran, and 241 percent higher than in neighboring capitalist Pakistan . For Central Asians, it was clear on which side of the Soviet Union’s border standards of living were highest. In 1950, the Soviet economy was only one-third the size of the US economy but had grown to almost one-half only eight years later . By 1975, the CIA estimated that the Soviet economy was 60 percent as large as the US economy . According to figures provided by Allen, Soviet GDP per capita grew at an annual rate of 3.4 percent from 1928 to 1970, but at less than half that rate, 1.3 percent, from 1970 to 1989 . Finally,in 1955 industrial production in the Soviet Union stood at twenty-five times the level in 1913 .
These extraordinary achievements can be attributed directly to socialism. Unlike capitalism, which seeks only to enrich a tiny minority of people, socialism seeks to satisfy the needs of the vast majority of people. This includes not only economic needs, but also cultural ones, such as the liberation of women and other oppressed minorities. While errors were certainly made, it is evident that the USSR attempted to achieve these goals, and made tremendous strides in doing so.
It also created many technological wonders. The Moscow Railway, built in 1931, is still in use, and the iron and steel complexes “rivaled any in the capitalist world,” as the BBC once put it . The Soviet accomplishments in space technology are also worth remembering. These include the first satellite, the first animal in orbit, and the fist spacewalk . As Fredrick L. Schumann writes in Soviet Politics, “Foreign critics readily conclude that the Soviet intelligentsia is in helpless bondage and consists of sycophantic automatons, reduced to complete sterility. Nothing could be farther from the truth. No government anywhere at any time has done more than the USSR to promote art and science by providing facilities for training, work, and publication, and by giving scientists and artists economic security through regular salaries plus generous rewards for achievement through royalties, prizes, and numerous privileges. That this policy has paid dividends in shown by the striking accomplishments of Soviet music, drama, cinema, and literature as well as the biological and physical sciences” . The USSR did much to promote cultural and scientific development, far more than in the United States or the rest of the globe. This is, again, a product of the socialist drive to fulfill human needs and develop the working class to its full potential.
In fact, the technological innovation achieved by the Soviet Union was so great that the United States eventually adopted it, albeit in a twisted form. A 2008 study by Block and Keller found that 77 out of R&D Magazine’s top 88 innovations had been fully funded by the public sector, as was the case in the Soviet Union . These include algorithms used in the Google search engine, the technology present in the iPhone, and groundbreaking new vaccines. What this shows is that the popular myth of free enterprise encouraging innovation is a falsehood. The reasoning for this is obvious. Developing new technology is risky, since there is no guarantee that investors will see a return. As a result, those with capital prefer to invest in more profitable, less innovative properties. However, this means that things life-saving medicines often go underfunded. Vaccine development is not profitable, but it is necessary. This is why it is important to structure the economy around meeting human needs, as the Soviet Union did with its public-sector R&D.
In these discussions, it is often forgotten that the USSR began as a largely agrarian, feudal empire. Stalin and Lenin transformed it into a world superpower, largely through the five-year plans. These plans were so effective that many capitalist economists in the 1930s supported them. As Anna L. Strong writes in The Soviets Expected It, “American engineers who came to help build the new industries often said that the five-year plan was ‘utterly logical,’ but added, ‘if the people will stand for the sacrifices’” . She also wrote that, “With the conclusion of the First Five Year Plan, the Soviet Union plunged into the second, which did three times as much new construction as the First Five Year Plan had done and did it with much less strain. Soviet industry was completely reorganized and equipped throughout with the latest machines and methods. Greater emphasis was given than previously to producing goods of consumption. This, together with the rapid improvement of farming, caused a fairly swift rise in the general standard of living” . As Gill Graeme writes in Stalinism, “The reconstruction effort, added to the increased capacity which had been developed in the Urals and Siberia during the war, insured that by the time of Stalin’s death the Soviet industrial infrastructure had recovered from the ravages of the war” . What capitalist economy could say the same?
In light of this evidence, we can safely say that the Soviet Union made a number of achievements that were well worth highlighting. If the USSR could achieve all of this while it was underdeveloped, imagine what socialism in an “advanced nation” such as the United States could accomplish. Study of past socialist experiences proves that socialism is the economic system which most benefits the masses of people.
- Randall, Francis. Stalin’s Russia. New York: Free Press,1965, p. 104
- Strong, Anna L. The Soviets Expected It. New York, New York: The Dial press, 1941, p. 115
Toby Terrar, GeoJournal Vol. 17, No. 1 (July 1988), pp. 151-154
- Szymanski, Albert (1984). Human Rights in the Soviet Union, Zed Books Ltd, London, 1984.
- Strong, Anna L. The Soviets Expected It. New York, New York: The Dial press, 1941, p. 40
- M. Ryan, Life expectancy and mortality date for the Soviet Union, 1988
- S. Fitzpatrick, Stalin’s peasants: resistance and survival in the Russian village after collectivization, 1994
- M.V. Kabatchekno, L.D. Yasnikova, Eradicating Illiteracy in the USSR, Literacy Lessons, Vol 10, 1990
- Allen, Robert C (2003). Farm to Factory: A Reinterpretation of the Soviet Industrial Revolution, Princeton University Press, 2003.
- Sherman, Howard J (1969). The Soviet Economy, Little, Brown and Company, 1969.
- Kotz, David with Fred Weir (1997). Revolution From Above: The Demise of the Soviet System, Routledge, 1997.
- Allen, Robert C (2003). Farm to Factory: A Reinterpretation of the Soviet Industrial Revolution, Princeton University Press, 2003. Op. Cit.
- Emile Burns, An Introduction to Marxism (NY: International Publishers, 1966), p. 78.
- Wade, Mark (1997–2008). “Soyuz”. Encyclopedia Astronautica.
- Schuman, Frederick L. Soviet Politics. New York: A.A. Knopf, 1946, p. 332
- Block, Fred and Keller, Matthew R (2008). “Where do innovations come from? Transformations in the U.S. national innovation system, 1970-2006,” Technology and Innovation Foundation, July 2008. http://www.itif.org/files/Where_do_innovations_come_from.pdf
- Strong, Anna L. The Soviets Expected It. New York, New York: The Dial press, 1941, p. 68
- Strong, Anna L. The Soviets Expected It. New York, New York: The Dial press, 1941, p. 70-71
- Gill, Graeme. Stalinism. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press International, 1990, p. 43