Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Reading :: Soviet Politics

Soviet Politics 1917-1991
By Mary McAuley

I picked this book up for fifty cents at a used bookstore. It caught my eye because (a) I am continuing to piece together a broad understanding of the context in which activity theory developed and (b) I figured that for fifty cents, I couldn't go wrong. Amazon's reviewers agree, giving it 4.4 stars.

The book is fairly thin, but gives us a 50,000 foot view of politics across the lifespan of the USSR. Much of the early history has been discussed in earlier reviews, so I'll begin by grabbing a couple of representative quotes.

This one is from the Leninist era in the late teens:
They never considered this option [backing out of the Revolution] because they saw themselves as representing the working class in an era when socialism was on the agenda as an international fact. If in Russia the working class was disintegrating as a consequence of an imperialist war, and a civil war accompanied by foreign intervention, that in no way undermined their belief that socialism was waiting just round the corner in Europe and in America, and that they must keep the flame alight. They saw themselves as representing not merely the Russian working class but the international proletariat: that was their constituency. Telephone operatives sat, expecting that any minute, any hour, the news would come through, from Berlin, from Paris, from London, that the revolution had happened there. Then the hours turned into days, and the days turned into weeks. Such a belief justified to the Bolsheviks their holding on, despite the protests, and it allowed them to argue that if an election did not return a Bolshevik majority, it could be ignored. (pp.26-27)
This passage made me consider that this belief in the imminent global socialist revolution was the Soviets' Great Disappointment.

Until that global revolution, the Bolsheviks believed, the state could not yet wither away.
The perception of society as made up of competing, conflicting interests, reflected in institutions, and in which the government advances some, denies others, and itself needs to be checked, was absent. And not surprisingly. For the Bolsheviks, as Marxists, the government performed that role in a class society, but with the end to private ownership the source of conflict dried up, and the clash of interests died. Until the old owners were finally defeated, the government's repressive functions would remain, but in the meantime it could act on behalf of the great majority, and thereafter gradually fade away. As a result, as state-builders the Bolsheviks made little attempt to delineate spheres of competence, to establish the rights of different government institutions vis-a-vis each other, or clarify the relations between central and local bodies. (p.28)
This lack of delineation did not hinder the Soviet states from becoming more bureaucratic and hierarchical, especially under Stalin, under whose watch the Soviet states experienced a "Revolution from Above" in 1928-1932, "in which the political leadership established a system of state ownership of the means of production and a centrally planned economy" (p.39). From the 1930s onward, the economy was "a hierarchical system, with commands being issued from the centre to the producing units" (p.41).

Stalin also cultivated a cult, as did Mao, Ceaucescu, Kim Il Sung, and others who ran Stalinist states. The author argues that the phenomenon's roots "lie in the concept and practice of a vanguard party. The party's right to rule, it was claimed, lay in its ability to find the best, true, way forward for the society." But leaders disagreed, undermining the party's claim. Their political tactics in trying to reach agreement, the author says, affected the system of leadership itself (p.46).

In Ch. 4, "Terror," the author discusses the Great Purge (1936-38) (p.50). I won't recount this period here, but it sets up the next chapter on Krushchev and party rule. As the author recounts, Krushchev made his Secret Speech to the closed XXth Party Congress in February 1956, undermining the power of the MVD and attempting to replace Stalinist policies with new ones (p.64). Krushchev argued that the Soviet base had not been well laid by Stalin, and expressed optimism that "with Stalin and the secret police gone, socialism would show its paces" (p.65). "The impact was shattering. Some who heard it in the hall fainted, others subsequently committed suicide. The speech was not published" (p.65). But Krushchev's reforms did make a broad impact, leading the country away from the Stalinist cult of personality and remaking the bureaucracy (p.69).
A new party programme, and party rules, presented to the XXIInd Congress in 1961, outlined a shining future. The vision and the targets were still there: communism would be built in twenty years, the Soviet Union would overtake the USA in per capita production by 1980, and the difference between town and country, mental and manual labour, would disappear. The state would wither away, but the party would grow stronger. To understand the optimism, we must recognize the strength of Krushchev's conviction that, with Stalin gone, the Soviet socialist system with its industrial base, which had proved its military ability in the war and was now the leader of a world Communist movement, could fulfil its potential and overtake capitalism. War with capitalism was no longer necessary, economic superiority would win the day. (pp.71-72). 
Krushchev made significant changes, some involving shifting around and sacking officials in the bureaucracy. "He failed to realize that [the Politburo] would not follow him blindly. In October 1964 his Politburo colleagues, concerned at his erratic behaviour, and the grumbling in the apparatus, joined ranks and forced his resignation" (p.74).

Next was Brezhnev, who in 1964 led a collective leadership with Kosygin and Podgorny. They restored the traditional structure and emphasized stability of personnel (p.75).  Brezhnev became president of the Soviet Union in 1977 and remained in that post until he died in 1982. As the author states, "The twenty years from 1954 to 1974 were the best period in Soviet (and Russian) history for the ordinary citizen of the Soviet Union in terms of rising living standards, and peace. By the mid-1970s, however, the momentum seemed to go; it was as though the system had run out of steam" (p.78).

Brezhnev was succeeded upon his death by Andropov, who served from 1982 until his death in 1984. He was in turn succeeded by Chernenko until the latter's death in 1985, upon which Gorbachev became General Secretary; in 1989 he was elected Chairman of Supreme Soviet. Gorbachev's reforms, of course, were meant to strengthen and legitimize the government, but instead exposed the tensions (contradictions?) that underlay the Soviet enterprise. By 1991, the Empire had dissolved.

As I said, the book gives a brief overview of the political history of the Soviet Union. It does this engagingly, providing a broad sweep rather than details. If you're looking for a book that does this job, pick this one up—especially if you can find it for fifty cents.

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