The span of time since the unraveling of socialism a little over twenty years ago has given us, contemporary observers, the opportunity to look at this event with unprecedented depth and a bigger perspective. Indeed, that span has uncovered and brought back from obscurity the real factors that contributed to the collapse of this ideology, very much like how history is vindicated well after it has unfolded. What is obvious to us today surely was not clear for that age’s participants and observers, thus, a better say on what truly happened, from the personalities who betrayed socialism to the unwelcome external elements that intervened, is aching to be told especially in this time of mass protests in Europe and privacy scandals plaguing America.
Almost exactly twenty years before the financial blunder of the West, Eastern Europe was undergoing a major political transformation; the masses are confronted with a choice that would dictate how their lives will be from then on: to keep under socialism or to succumb to the allure of the supposedly more democratic ways of their Western neighbors. The reverse is true today: Americans are increasingly becoming aware but less patient with how they should be governed, from how taxpayer money should be used in times of crisis to how their private lives are eroded by an increasingly paranoid government. Without realizing it, people are citing elements of socialism to serve as antidote (Occupy Movement) to the woes of contemporary life in ‘the land of the free.’ In Europe, calls for a loosening of the highly bureaucratic and elitist European Union is needless to say, gaining more ground as state after state succumb to strings-attached-ridden bailouts and the claws of austerity measures eating at people’s welfare and ultimately, their existence.
How can you preach ‘democracy’ when you treat your citizens with distrust, as with the recent Manning-Assange-Snowden expose reveal? In fact, even America’s allies can’t escape this inexorable surveillance menace. How can you preach ‘more integration’ for the so-called European Union if you continue to keep out the assignment of management of the continent beyond the approval of citizens? Such trappings were the wedge of classic anti-socialist/communist rhetoric during the Cold War. Can we look at who’s speaking now? Indeed we can, with the help of what others call “the ordeal of careful scrutiny.”
With Age Comes Greater Understanding: The Truth behind Socialism’s Collapse in the 1980s
The typical Western triumphalist thinking has all the success-over-socialism-the-enemy covered in the Cold War dialogue, where claims rest mostly in the belief that socialism is doomed from the beginning, as was the case with the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. In the specific case of the dissolution of the USSR, there are six theories that try to ‘explain’ why socialism failed, including:
- flaws of socialism
- popular opposition
- external factors
- bureaucratic counter-revolution
- lack of democracy and over-centralization, and
- the Gorbachev factor
The first theory argues that socialism was doomed from the start because it had an inherent anti-human nature flaw. It is misguided thought because it requires a predisposition that socialism in the USSR should’ve failed before even more pressing challenges, such as collectivization or the Nazi invasion, had gripped the relatively young socialist state.
The second theory subscribes to the idea that popular opposition brought down socialism in the Soviet Union and even Eastern Europe. However, subscribers to this theory fail to explain the fact that a real opposition to Gorbachev did not turn out in the beginning of his reforms. To begin with, mass discontent did not appear during Gorbachev’s early years as General Secretary. Moreover, surveys showed that people were actually satisfied with their lives and the system.
While others falsely believed that, some were comfortable with blaming external factors as behind the collapse of socialism in the Soviet Union. Proponents of this theory believe in the pressure that Reagan put on the reforming Soviet system, especially on military terms. On the contrary, despite rhetorical musings, there is no evidence of such triumphalism, especially on the buildup of arms that was supposed to ‘bankrupt’ the Soviets into spending. In fact, archives show that the American military buildup was not reciprocated by the armed forces of the Soviet Union. Proponents of this theory fail to cite the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan and the plan of Gorbachev to end conscription in the military as well as the eventual reduction of the armed forces.
The fourth theory promote the belief that as Gorbachev’s reforms unleashed forces beyond the control of the state, slow-moving leaders were left with no choice but to ride the waves of a fast-emerging market economy by privatizing state assets for their own wealth. Although some in the elite saw an opportunity in the unraveling of the centralized economy, it was motivated by their interest in hanging on to power, rather than subscribing to the return of capitalism.
The fifth theory traces the root of the Soviet collapse to the inability of the state to “democraticize”, at least in the Western sense of the word. However, over time, the meaning of democracy changes. In Roger Keeran’s and Thomas Kenny’s thesis, neither capitalism nor liberalism has an exclusive claim to democracy. To be sure, democracy came to the United States in gradual terms, and was constantly improved as rights became more pervasive and expanded. In fact, ‘popular participation’ was built-in in the Soviet political and decision-making system. Indeed, the spread of power was even more dispersed than in a Western democracy. As for over-centralization, scholars miss the fact that the USSR was the first socialist country to embark on such economic path; there is no guarantee the plan will work, but nevertheless it produced a system that will achieve the goals of socialism, including free education, housing, guaranteed jobs, zero-inflation and others.
The sixth theory also has the trappings of an incomplete thesis: that Gorbachev was the man to blame, especially because of his abandonment of traditional communism. There is no denying that Gorbachev’s policies unleashed wanton forces beyond his control. However, few recall that his earlier policies where a mirror of Andropov’s reforms. At best, this theory fails to fully convince, especially since Gorbachev, according to Keeran and Kenny, “was both a legatee of a certain tradition and the product of his times and not just a lone factor making history.”
Rebuffing Western Though on the Collapse: Other Areas of Discussion
Even after the end of the First World War, it is undeniable that the Soviet people underwent a major upheaval, when the country retreated from the major war and succumbed to civil war. To think that the ‘crisis’ from 1985 onward was an insurmountable challenge would therefore be invalid, after all, the USSR had survived far greater calamities after the Second World War.
Although the economy of the USSR was slowing down in the 1980s, economists still saw the single digit GDP growth as manageable, one that did not threaten the stability of the country’s economy. Although the price of oil surely caused trouble to Soviet finances, adjusted for inflation, the price of oil was higher than in the previous decade.
The Soviet Union’s military and diplomatic standing is correctly judged as having accomplished or managed well it’s objectives in the 1970s through to the 1980s. Even with Reagan’s military buildup, especially with the threat of SDI, this did not receive serious attention by military and economic planners in the USSR; simply SDI was treated as unfeasible in the short to medium term. Years later, historian Adam Ulam would quip that in 1985, “no government of a major state appeared to be as firmly in power, and its policies as clearly set in their course, as that of the USSR.”
The real situation then was, as with the previous decade, the USSR of the 1980s was a stable one, with no unemployment, no inflation, no mass protests and strength in its foreign policy. There were problems, but there was clearly no real crisis that can threaten the country’s existence. Perhaps more importantly for a country that had many autonomous republics and regions; there were no observable conflicts among its nationalities and ethnicities.
Even with a one-party system, the Soviet bureaucratic machine had many decision makers from top to bottom. Millions participated in the collective soviets, which are institutions of power. More than 150 million workers were involved in unions, and contrary to bourgeoisie denunciations, these institution are not ‘fake’ and functioned with vitality and much room for policy. As for the people themselves, a referendum as late as 1991 showed that the majority of Soviet people (75 percent) where in favor of keeping the Union intact.
Indeed even during the end of the 1980s and early 1990s, the Soviet central planning in politics and economics was more complex than ever because of the expansion of the economy and the increased freedoms of its people. In fact, as Roger Keeran says “it was the erosion of planning and the flowering of the second (underground) economy that raised barriers to economic growth in the USSR.”
As for the Soviet leader himself, Thomas Kenny rightly observes that “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…without great theoretical preparation” but that over time 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.”