An Interview and Review of Socialism Betrayed: Behind the Collapse of the Soviet Union by Roger Keeran and Thomas Kenny
(By Carlos Nabais)
Avante! is the weekly newspaper of the Portuguese Communist Party. The interview was translated and abridged by Bill Miller.
Roger Keeran and Thomas Kenny are North American activists. Roger is a published historian and a university teacher. Thomas is an economist. Longtime friends, they joined together in the study and analysis of the causes leading to the defeat of socialism and the breakup of the USSR, which meant an untold loss for workers and oppressed peoples worldwide. The findings reveal that they have accomplished this, outlined in their book Socialism Betrayed, recently published by Avante!
Avante! – When and why did you become interested in research into the causes of the defeat of socialism and the collapse of the Soviet Union?
Thomas Kenny – Like Roger, I felt that the events of 1989-1991, the collapse of European socialism, was a titanic disaster. After 1991 we thought the history of socialism would excite the interest of many investigators and we would find a flood of publications on the subject. But we encountered nothing, just silence. While this is not the professional field of either of us, we decided to specialize in this research area, reading all the literature that we could find. We worked for more than four years, between 1999 and 2004, the year in which we published the book in the United States with its conclusions. But what really got us trying to determine the causes of the collapse was the fact that we believe that theory does not allow for such a development. The collapse of socialism contradicted everything we believed. We never thought it was possible to destroy socialism. Quite the contrary, we strongly believed that socialism would develop continuously.
A – Is historical materialism wrong, when all is said and done?
TK – No. We were sure that, as far as method was concerned, historical materialism remained valid, but we asked ourselves – why is it that nothing is said about the collapse? We needed to do much reading. After more than a year and a half we began to identify some pieces of the puzzle and to explain the weight of the so-called “second economy” in the Soviet Union, which proved a decisive element in our conclusions.
Roger Keeran – We believe that 21st century socialism needs to know what happened to the socialism of the 20th century. After the October Revolution itself, the most important event of the 20th century was, perhaps, the destruction of the Soviet Union and of socialism in Europe.
A – But for most people the evidence suggests only a deep crisis could cause such catastrophe …
RK – This is natural. It was a tremendous step backwards, so people tend to overreact in assessing its causes. There was no crisis in the Soviet Union. There were problems, but not a crisis.
A – There is the idea that perestroika constituted a response to a crisis in society , in politics, in culture, in ideology, in morality, and in the party, a consequence of a serious deformation of the socialist ideal. Errors and delays built up over many years. It is the idea that the Soviet model of socialism had exhausted its potential for development, making it necessary to carry out radical reforms. Want to comment?
RK – I think we can summarize our point of view as follows: what killed the patient, socialism, was the cure. Contrary to what many think – that there were signs of a crisis – there was no unemployment, no inflation, no demonstrations and so on. But this does not mean that there were no problems there. Clearly there were, particularly in the economic sphere, most of them worsened in the Brezhnev period, whose leadership was marked by passivity and an unwillingness to confront problems. In this sense, we can say that there was a kind of “stagnation,” although we do not like the word, which strictly speaking means absence of growth, which does not correspond to the facts.
A – Economic problems worsened from that time?
TK – The rate of economic growth began to slow from the time of Khrushchev, from growth of 10 to 15 percent a year to five, four, and three percent a year. There was a clear slowdown, but the economy continued to see, by capitalist standards, respectable growth, which allowed a continuous rise in the Soviet standard of living. In 1985 the standard of living had reached its highest ever. In terms of nationalities, there were no observable conflicts or contradictions between the peoples of the Soviet Union. There were problems and difficulties, but no crisis. Internationally, the USSR was under pressure from North American imperialism. The Reagan administration increased the military, economic, and diplomatic pressure. We also identify problems within the party which demanded reforms. But the main issue was elsewhere.
Only, the right wing triumphed…
A – If, as you stated, socialism was not in crisis, what is the source of the destructive reforms undertaken at the end of the 1980s in the USSR?
TK – Throughout the history of the Soviet Union two trends always battled in politics: a right wing, which incorporated the ideas and methods of capitalists, and a left wing which supported class struggle, a strong Communist party, and an uncompromising defense of working class leadership. Incidentally, we found these two currents even before the October Revolution: the Menshevik trend, on the one hand, and the Bolshevik trend on the other. Later, this fight polarized around Bukharin and Stalin, Khrushchev and Molotov, Brezhnev and Andropov, and Gorbachev and Ligachev. The whole history of the USSR can be seen in the light of the struggle between these two currents. However, Gorbachev, along with the right wing, won a complete victory.
RK – Brezhnev, with his policy of stability of cadre and his fear of making waves, left an extremely aging leadership and he let various problems in the economy and society get worse. The scarcity of some products, especially high-quality ones, the development of the “second economy,” the corruption of party leaders, all made people unhappy. When Gorbachev promised to solve these problems, almost everyone agreed. It seemed that, finally, someone had appeared with the will to change things for the better.
A – However, some point out as causes of the collapse of the degeneration of the Communist Party , that the collective was replaced at a certain point by a small circle of leaders and even by an individual leader. Party democracy was strangled by a centralized bureaucratic system. The undesirable overlap and confusion between party structures and state structures. The disaffection of the masses of the party. The failure of socialist democracy, which was presented as a higher standard of democracy. According to this theory, the Soviet people were stripped of political power, and it was fatal for socialism. Agree?
TK – The notion that the Soviet Union suffered from a lack of democracy and overcentralization is very widespread among social reformists, social democrats, bourgeois historians and even some Communists. But in our view, it’s wrong and it exaggerates the problems of Soviet democracy. Despite some problems, Soviet democracy had great vitality. About 35 million workers participated directly in the work of soviets, which were institutions of power, taking effective decisions. 163 million workers were unionized. The party had 18 million militants. Democracy had other institutions as such as letters from readers in all newspapers, the women’s organizations, those of young people. True, all these institutions had shortcomings. They could have worked better and more effectively, but in truth they were not fake institutions.The people who attacked our book believe, for the most part, that lack of democracy and over-centralization were the causes of the Soviet collapse. Curiously, this has always been the main argument of the bourgeoisie to defame the Soviet regime, long before the arrival of Gorbachev. In our view, it’s wrong to accuse Soviet democracy of leading to the collapse.
RK – Many of these criticisms are rooted in a bourgeois conception of democracy. Actually the Soviet Union has always been accused of not having a bourgeois democracy, of not having competing parties. However, the forms of socialist democracy, although not perfect, were in many ways much richer than those of bourgeois democracy. I think the recent conflict in Georgia gives us an example in this respect. In the former Soviet Union, South Ossetia was a territory where autonomous ethnic minorities had their schools, language, culture. After the breakup of the USSR, Georgian “democracy” abolished the autonomous status of the Ossetians, which aggravated tensions and led to a war in the region.
TK – Historically, there were reasons that determined the USSR as a one-party state. Soon after revolution the other parties fought Soviet power. The Socialist Revolutionaries left the government. All this meant that only the Bolsheviks were left. Most European socialist countries had several parties, although the leading role of the working class was guaranteed. The existence of only one party accentuated a merger between the party and state, but we do not see this as constituting a cause of the collapse.
A – But didn’t the shortcomings of democracy prevent the Soviet people from defending its revolutionary achievements, the USSR and socialism?
TK – That is the main argument of those who claim that the Soviet Union had a lack of democracy. “Why didn’t the people defend socialism?”, they ask. They give as a response: a lack of democracy and over-centralization. First, the fact is that there was resistance. There was. Just remember that in the referendum of 1991, the overwhelming majority of Soviet people (75 percent) voted in favor of keeping the USSR. Moreover, to grasp why resistance not was strong enough to defeat the counter-revolution, we must take into account the following: Gorbachev and Yakovlev, while they promised a better socialism, with more freedom and democracy, in a short period of time destroyed the institutions through which the base of the party and the people could express their will. The organization of the party was dismantled. The newspapers and all means of information were given to anti-Communists. Suddenly, there disappeared the means and usual forms of expressing people’s power.
A – Returning to the economy, it was the idea of perestroika that too much centralization of the planning bureaucracy was the cause of delays in economic development. Some add that there was an exaggerated, “statized” economy, that different forms of ownership should have been retained and that the role of the market was clearly underestimated during the process of building socialism. What is your viewpoint?
RK – I think we have to start with the following observation which no one disputes: social ownership of means of production in the Soviet Union allowed the fastest industrial growth rates ever recorded at any time in history. This occurred not only in the 30s, but after the war, until the mid-50s. In four or five years, the Soviet Union managed to recover from the devastation caused by World War II, which left a third of its cities and industries in ruins. Because of all this, we never thought that state ownership, centralization and planning could have caused the collapse. But there were some issues that needed to be explained. Why is that growth began to decline in the 60s and 70s? The economy continued to grow, but what was the reason for the slowdown? The critics of central planning see here a proof of their ideas.
A – Perhaps the huge proportions attained by the economy posed real problems and hindered planning?
RK – Yes, certainly, the expansion of the economy made planning a more complex task. However, the conclusions that we reached point in contrary direction, that it was the erosion of planning and the flowering of the second economy that raised barriers to economic growth in the USSR.
A – So, therefore, it was not the underestimation of the role of the market, so much as the measures taken for the market’s extension that diverted resources from the socialist economy?
TK – All socialist societies have markets. In the Soviet Union there has always been a market for private consumption. However, the economic reforms of Khrushchev not only decentralized planning and introduced some market mechanisms into the economy, and forms of competition between enterprises. The reforms of Kosygin [prime minister of the USSR between 1964 and 1980] were translated into ever greater concessions to the capitalist mode of thinking. Of the five most important and influential institutes of Soviet political economy, three were in the hands of pro-capitalist economists of the Aganbegyan type, for example. The main sectors of intelligentsia, including economists, exerted significant pressure on the government. This was a process that developed over 20 years, it did not happen all at once.
A – Some would say perestroika had good intentions but failed. In your book, you say that it was a great opportunity for anti-socialists to advance. What was the responsibility of Gorbachev and his actual intentions in all this?
TK – Despite his opportunistic positions, we do not believe that Gorbachev ever acted consciously at the outset to betray socialism and restore capitalism. In contrast to Andropov, who was a deep and genuine Marxist-Leninist, Gorbachev was a brilliant actor but a shallow person, without great theoretical preparation. When he went to the right politically under the influence of Yakovlev, he discovered that imperialism approved, that the corrupt elements of the party sided with him, especially those connected to the second economy that defended the private sector, and slowly this accelerated reforms in this direction. The time came when Gorbachev took the conscious decision that he was no longer a Communist, but a social democrat. He no longer believed any more in planning, social ownership of the means of production, the role of the working class, socialist democracy, he wanted the Soviet Union to become a Sweden or something. The opportunism, the abandonment of struggle, was a gradual process that became evident in 1986. Some leaders of the party offered determined resistance, as was the case of Ligachev*, but even he had weaknesses. But he was by far better man than Gorbachev. Ligachev was caught by surprise. He has said that there were two waves of corruption, one that had long existed that everybody knew, and which they wanted to end when they took power in 1985, and another that arose after a year and a half as a strong, new wave of pressure, coming from the ‘second economy’ and organizations of the flourishing mafia.
A – How could these sectors emerge with such strength in a socialist society?
TK – The second economy reached an important dimension in two periods of the history of the USSR: the first was during the New Economic Policy (NEP) of 1920s that led to the development of capitalism, under state control, within certain limits. This for a time was a conscious goal of the socialist state to cope with the emergency situation caused by civil war. In 1928-29 it was decided to go beyond the NEP. However, party leaders such as Bukharin argued to keep the NEP, presenting it as the more appropriate way to reach socialism. This current was defeated by the majority of the party led by Stalin, who rightly pointed out that the NEP was defined by Lenin as a necessary retreat, explicitly temporary. And he relied on planning centered on social property in the means of production. But this period of the 20s was marked not only by the flourishing of capitalism and marginal sectors and criminals, but also by the spread of a right-wing, anti-socialist ideology. That is, we can see clearly a correlation between the material base and ideology. The second period was more prolonged and gradual. It had its beginnings in the mid-50s, after the death of Stalin. Khrushchev was the first piece in this puzzle. In many aspects, not all, he made right deviations and when they became too much there was a correction. Then came Brezhnev, but he hated change, he wanted stability, and despite the disputes between the left and right wings the problems continued to build up.
Socialist construction is conscious
A- It was the buildup of problems in the Brezhnev era, then, that conditioned the reforms of the 80s?
TK – In the 80s, the problems were obvious to everyone, but the key question that arose was — which of the two traditional trends in the party would solve them: the left trend or the right trend?
A – Unfortunately, we know the answer.
RK – But it isn’t that Brezhnev had only negative aspects. At the international level, the Soviets returned to military parity with the United States and helped revolutionary movements in several regions of the world. This effort at military and in terms of international solidarity required significant resources that could not be used for domestic supply needs. Perhaps also for this reason that during this period, he closed his eyes to the private sector which was illegal in the developed sections of the socialist economy. This kind of ‘deal’ with the ‘second economy’ allowed the emergence of a layer that became known as “the Brezhnev millionaires,” who were people who made fortunes through networks of corruption tolerated by the authorities.
A – This was a reality little spoken of, especially with respect to the scale it reached in Soviet society.
TK – Well, it was an illegal industry, so there were no official figures, which makes its study difficult.
RK – But it is true that this is a phenomenon overlooked and unrecognized by Marxist literature. The second economy was always seen as a survival of capitalism that disappeared as socialism advanced. However, there are studies that show us that its weight was far from negligible. By way of example, it is interesting to compare the Brezhnev era with the first months of the Andropov leadership in terms of criminal cases and investigations of illegal economic activities. We find that in the Brezhnev years virtually no convictions for committing this type of crime, even when cases came to be tried in court. With Andropov, this situation changed radically. Many people were convicted in that period.
A – In your book, you do not devote much analysis to the so called secret report on the personality cult presented to 20th Congress of the CPSU by Khrushchev. But you refer to the need to reassess the period, commonly known as Stalinism, noting that as long as this is not done, Communists remain prisoners of the past. Do you want to explain?
RK – When we started writing the book, that very question came up and we had to make a decision. We decided that we would not get into the hot topic of Stalin. There are many ingrained prejudices and, above all, there are many things we do not know enough about, to be able to dissect claims concerning Stalin made and repeated daily. The only thing we did, or at least tried to do, was to open a door on this matter. We do not have all the answers about Stalin and his era, and it would be a mistake to think that we have. There are many historical and political aspects that we need to take in and understand.
A – However, virtually all the achievements of socialism listed in the Introduction of the book were achieved particularly during the 30s, under the leadership of Stalin
TK – It’s a fact, but we had to make a choice between treating every issue or just what we consider to be the key issues. Actually, most of the attacks on our book by Marxists or pseudo-Marxists, social democrats or revisionist Communists have focused specifically on the question of Stalin. They did not contest anything asserted about Gorbachev, or on the ‘second economy.’ We were criticized only for being too soft on Stalin and for not having recognized that Stalin was a monster, a freak, a butcher.
A – But if the thesis of your book is correct, then the policies and methods of Stalin were the most correct and the only ones which could ensure the building socialism and defend the revolutionary achievements.
RK The attitude to Stalin is so blind and extreme that some critics of our book say we’re wrong, and they insist that Stalin was the cause of the collapse of the USSR.
A – Regarding your reflection on the importance of the subjective factor in socialism. According to this, you say the role of leaders is more decisive in socialism than in capitalism. Why?
TK – “Capitalism grows, while socialism is built.” In the book we used a metaphor comparing capitalism to a raft going down a river. The possibilities to maneuver the raft are low, it is dragged along by the current, and you can only make some small corrections in trajectory. In this metaphor, socialism is an aircraft, which despite being an incomparably higher means of transport, demands to be flown by a team well-prepared scientifically and technologically, which can understand and consciously apply the laws of physics. In other words, although the airplane is a superior system, it is vulnerable in a way that a raft is not. This obviously does not mean we should abandon planes and go back to river rafts. We can not go back to caveman times, despite the fact that houses can collapse.
Roger Keeran and Thomas Kenny. O Socialismo Traído: Por Trás do Colapso da União Soviética (Socialism Betrayed: Behind the Collapse of the Soviet Union) Issued by Avante!, 2008