All Commentary
Wednesday, February 1, 1995

The Soviet Tragedy: A History of Socialism in Russia, 1917-1991 and Russia Under the Bolshevik Regime

Socialism Is an Assault on Reality

On December 25, 1991, the Red Flag over the Kremlin was lowered for the last time. Yet many of us still find it hard to absorb the fact that Soviet Communism has ceased to exist. It will take some time to get used to the glad tidings. Meanwhile, we are now in a position to begin to answer the question: What was it all about? As Martin Malia, of Berkeley, puts it: “Soviet history is now for the first time really history, and this closure permits us to see the pattern or `logic’ of its life course.” Malia does not mince words in his forthright and illuminating book: what Soviet history—“seventy years on the road to nowhere”—was about was socialism. The key to understanding the doleful Soviet experience is the Marxist dream: to construct a free and prosperous society by abolishing private property and the market. But that task, Malia asserts, was and is inherently impossible. Releasing a blast of fresh air into the musty, left-oriented field of Soviet studies, he pronounces socialism to be nothing more than an “assault on reality.”

Malia stresses the crucial significance of the period up to 1921, later—deceptively—termed “War Communism.” As free-market scholars Paul Craig Roberts and Peter Boettke have demonstrated, War Communism was no mere make-shift, occasioned by the Civil War. Instead, it constituted the Marxist project: abolition of private property in the means of production, prohibition of exchange, suppression of money, etc. The results were so catastrophic that Soviet power itself was in jeopardy. Hence, Lenin’s temporary retreat to a mixed economy with the New Economic Policy, NEP. But NEP was not what the Communists had seized power for. With Stalin in charge, the effort to achieve socialism was renewed. The first Five-Year Plan was announced, collectivization of agriculture begun. And terror and famine—already prodigious under Lenin—reached staggering proportions. Malia’s figures for the victims of Stalin jibe with those of Robert Conquest and most other scholars of the period: around 20,000,000 dead, from the Ukrainian terror-famine, the Gulag, the Purges, and the ceaseless executions.

Stalinist planning, unlike War Communism, involved money, wages, and prices; thus, it represented a temporary deviation from the socialist ideal. So did the legal private plots and small markets for the peasants, as well as the de facto black market, or “shadow economy.” Still, the Soviets were able to achieve real success in only one area: military hardware, into which enormous resources were poured. Malia mentions Ludwig von Mises and his argument against socialist planning, and he refers to Peter Boettke’s book on the subject. Yet he seems unaware that this was the very heart of the matter, the essence of socialism’s impossibility. As Mises showed, rational economic planning cannot take place in the absence of prices for producer goods, and no such prices can arise where all producer goods are owned by the state. Hence, the constant lurching from one economic program to the next, always with the same result.

Malia is particularly harsh on the band of Sovietologists, who, for the most part, apologized for the Soviet system. It represented, they averred, merely a variant form of modernization, one which had proved, by and large, successful. They banned the term “totalitarian” from discussion, as fueling the Cold War. As for Stalinist terror, it was an aberration. Some professors even minimized the number of victims to the point where, if they had been writing about the Holocaust, their works would have been banned in half a dozen democratic countries. When Khrushchev boasted of overtaking the United States by 1970, Western media like The New York Times and Le Monde took him seriously. Similarly, up until the moment it fell, East Germany was rated an economic success by many Western economists and journalists.

Gorbachev understood that the shabby socialist economy was incapable of sustaining a world power. Perestroika was introduced, and with it glasnost, a limited opening up of channels of criticism. Glasnost proved suicidal. The surrealism of Soviet society could not survive the light of criticism. Inevitably, the ideological house of cards erected by the Party propagandists and disseminated by foreign fellow-travelers over seven decades collapsed.

In 1989—that marvelous year—the Red regimes toppled one after the other. In the Soviet Union, the ruling class lost faith in its right to rule, and with it “the will to coerce.”

Today Russia is in an incomparably worse position than, say, Spain after Franco, or even West Germany in 1945. Despite dictatorship, civil society in those nations had never been pulverized, as it had in Soviet Russia. Above all, the principle and values of private property had been more or less preserved. In Germany, an inspired leader like Ludwig Erhard could build a new market economy on the basis of what had survived. In Russia, three generations of Communist rule, as Malia points out, annihilated civil society and created a vacuum. An “envious egalitarianism” and the vilification of all money-making as “speculation” are rampant. Malia’s pessimistic prognosis for Russia, unfortunately, rings all too true.

There are minor but surprising errors: Malia confuses the German socialist Karl Liebknecht with his father Wilhelm and the Franco-Russian Alliance with the Triple Entente, misquotes the first line of the “Internationale,” and states that Franco was aided by Germany and Japan, rather than Germany and Italy. More seriously, he adheres to the outdated interpretation of the Industrial Revolution, whereby the masses impoverished by industrialism were only rescued by labor unions and a mysterious “safety-net” (which did not exist until decades after workers’ living standards had risen in all Western countries). Most strangely of all, Malia states that classical Marxism “had not made a central and explicit issue of the anarchy of market”—an interpretation directly contradicted by well-known passages from Engels’ Anti-Duhring and other classical Marxist works. All in all, however, this is an excellent work, and a much-needed antidote to dozens of apologias for the Soviet regime.

Richard Pipes’ Russia under the Bolshevik Regime takes a different approach. This sequel to the Harvard historian’s The Russian Revolution, completes the trilogy he began some twenty years ago with his Russia under the Old Regime. The book covers the period from the outbreak of the Civil War to the death of Lenin (1918-1924). Some interesting new material recently retrieved from Russian archives is included, and some stimulating ideas are advanced. Pipes suggests, for instance, that the attraction felt by so many Western intellectuals for the Soviet regime is traceable to the fact that it was the first government since the French Revolution in which intellectuals like themselves—Lenin, Trotsky, and the rest—held the reins of power. Thus, “in Soviet Russia, intellectuals could expropriate capitalists, execute political opponents, and muzzle reactionary ideas.”

But Pipes’ work suffers from a fundamental flaw. Consistently with his previous views, he states that ideology was merely a “subsidiary factor,” one that neither “determined [the Communists’] actions,” nor “explains them to posterity.” Traditional Russia, not Marxism, is the key to understanding the regime’s history, because “nowhere in the West has Marxism led to the totalitarian excesses of Leninism-Stalinism.” Here Pipes overlooks the small fact that, in the West, socialist parties abandoned Marxism, starting with the German SPD after the First World War. And how explain Bolshevik discipline and fanaticism— crucial to seizing power and winning the Civil War—without Bolshevik ideology? How explain the final relinquishing of power, without the fading of faith in Communism in the ruling class? In fact, contrary to Pipes, the Soviet experience taken as a whole is a classic illustration of the Misesian philosophy of history: in the end, it is ideas that, for good or evil, rule the world.

Dr. Raico is professor of history at the State University of New York College at Buffalo, and the author of Marxist Dreams and Soviet Realities, published by the Cato Institute.