Recently Osama Bin Laden recommended a book by William Blum, the reading of which is a blast into the past of the 1980s in just a few select pages. On the question of the Soviet Union, Blum seems to believe it was not imperialist in the Leninist sense the way Mao said: "What kind of . . . evil international conspiracy bent on world domination would allow its empire to completely fall apart, like the classic house of cards, without bringing any military force to bear upon its satellites to prevent their escaping?"(1) Someone saying the exact same thing is ex-Maoist Ludo Martens in Belgium.(2)
This sort of argument from Blum was popular in the 1980s. Just as the Soviet Union was about to collapse and prove itself to have been on the capitalist road, numerous organizations of the West came to the exactly opposite conclusion, that some of the Brezhnev arguments were correct. Ludo Martens describes his 1980s-style disillusionment with Maoism this way:
Gorbachev is dismantling his SS-20, preparing to leave Afghanistan, raising the iron curtain in Eastern Europe. How can we explain all this? We spoke of the implacable social fascist repression under Brezhnev. One of the chief victims, the academician Sakharov, has become today the ally and friend of the new Secretary General. . . .
These facts lead to the conclusion that some of our affirmations cannot be held any longer, since they are false or one-sided. We thought that the class nature of the Soviet Union condemned it to press forward, driven by a blind internal logic, in the path of militarism and repression. Yet we are witnessing an abrupt, profound and, for us, totally unexpected change of orientation. . . . Gorbachev is giving back to communism its true human face.(3)
At first glance, Blum's unintentional argument against Maoist theory is crushing. Yet this sort of argument relies on a direct analogy with classic British, French and U.$. imperialism. As Lenin said in his day, however, he would not be employing the labor aristocracy argument much inside Russia. That is a pivotal difference. In other imperialist countries, a majority-dominator nation became bourgeoisified and tied up with empire's fortunes not just via ethnic pride but also exploitation rights. In contrast, in Russia's case, the Russian imperialists looked toward the national bourgeoisie of non-Russian nationalities as their first political partner of choice, not the labor aristocracy or a settler class, not some kind of same-nation petty-bourgeoisie.
Imperialism on the cheap
In the losing imperialist powers of the 20th century defeated in the race for colonies, we see that the battle for colonial land and homeland "living space" for the oppressor nation drove some to extreme efforts with directly genocidal consequences. Before the rise of imperialism as defined by Lenin, we had the example of Amerikkkan settlers. Then in the imperialist era we had Nazi Germany trying to take land from Eastern Europe and we had I$rael appear on the basis of a land conflict. I$rael was in a sense worse than a losing imperialist, because it was a non-existent imperialist before the land conflict.
The land conflict in a winning imperialist country with much surplus-value plays out differently than in a loser. By first uniting the French labor aristocracy to themselves, the French imperialists could then move into Algeria with a much bigger social imprint. There was a desperate war of annihilation that the French lost with people like Le Pen fighting there. In that case, France gave citizenship to its white citizens in Algeria and their descendants, but did not give the Africans citizenship; although it was considered at the end of the struggle. To this day, the bitterness of the struggle between the entirety of the French nation against Algeria fuels the Le Pen phenomenon in France. That includes both his second place finish in the last presidential race in France and also his vanguard role in pushing Europe to accept the Black Book of Communism. Ever since Algeria, the French labor aristocracy knows that its imperialist partners cannot always be trusted in the pinch. At the same time, we should not exaggerate: with a surplus-value cushion, defeat in Algeria did not turn into a socialist revolution in France led by returning Le Pens. It was a relatively safe strategy of the French imperialists to lean hard on their allies, the French petty-bourgeoisie.
It's thinking about cases like Algeria in the 1950s which make Blum's comment on the supposedly non-imperialist character of the Soviet Union so compelling. When we contrast France in 1954 with the Soviet Union's collapse, there is quite a difference.
There is another strategy of the losers or the imperialists who have achieved the organization of finance capital but do not have the largest quantities of surplus-value sloshing through their economies. We see this illustrated with the collapse of the Soviet Union into its republics.
When we look at Russian imperialists in the Soviet Union, Lenin left an important legacy. In taking down the tsarist empire, Lenin sowed some seeds ensuring that the Russian nation would not face certain other nationalities in a typical colonial conflict.
He could have insisted from the beginning that there is only one Soviet nation with all people treated the same way everywhere. Stalin pushed in that direction, but never achieved single nationhood for the USSR. Thus the government and party structure of the Soviet Union after Stalin contained a seed from Lenin. The basic idea was that there would continue to be republics, including those not recognized by the tsar. The essential Liberal thrust on behalf of oppressed nations nationalism came from the communists. The early stages of socialism according to both Lenin and Stalin would see a vast multiplication of nations seizing their destinies. It was only under advanced communism that we could contemplate the disappearance of nations.
Lenin and Stalin were working within a framework different from popular Western "totalitarianism" pablum that said Lenin and Stalin had "total power" and could therefore overturn anything at will. We have to dispense with Liberal bromides that the Soviet Union lacked a "civil society," by which the Liberals mean a set-up where organizations other than the centralized state exist. The republics were real and had real functions by Lenin's design and that's not to mention the black market, where it was possible to buy anything including books of whatever opinion, though they were not in as much demand as the West would have claimed.
In our thinking we saw two drawbacks and concerns in the framework Lenin and Stalin worked in. In moving toward one Soviet nation, there was the concern that the world was not ready for communism yet. Hence, ultraleftism on the national question could end up being a cover for Russian great-nation chauvinism. That was Lenin's concern in his dying years. MIM continues sharing with Lenin this sense of the "main danger" at our stage of history. Lenin realized he had only taken down one imperialism, not the majority of imperialism or all imperialism. We are still in that situation today. Rather than begrudging the national liberation struggle out of fear for proletarian unity we must fan it.
On the opposite side was the concern that the continuing existence of nationalities would serve as a basis of friction among the people, and hence an opening for the restoration of capitalism. So on the nationalities question and the distribution question under socialism, we have this unfortunate truth that "steering" is necessary. We cannot only go in one direction under socialism, because we cannot leap from capitalism to communism straight away. That is why Mao referred to himself as a "helmsman." Yet in both Mao's discussion of distribution and worker control of the economy along with Stalin's discussion of nations, we hear that dilly-dallying too long could result in a setback. When we think of what happened with the ethnic cleansing in ex-Yugoslavia--the formerly beloved state of many a befuddled social-democrat and Western intelligence agent--clearly there was not enough Stalin and Molotov and too much temporizing on the national question. "Local control" became a guise for material separation and breakdown of the working class to the point where that class did not know itself, only pieces of itself.
On the question of steering on the national question, it was Lenin calling for a "Liberal" line letting the national bourgeoisie go its way through the republics. Stalin tried to push for more class struggle.
When the Soviet mafia wanted to legalize itself in the Gorbachev era, all sides agree that Stalin's road was not the one taken in the republics. For someone at the top of the Soviet Union to exert a stern dictatorship over the intra- bourgeois quarrels in the Soviet Union would have required backing from a class with a Soviet-wide basis. That would have had to have been the working class. Yet, already by the 1980s, hiring and management decisions came at the local republic level. The Soviet working class was united by a Soviet-wide freedom to travel and a Soviet wide system of benefits, but schools and career tracks occurred very much at a local level.
Crucially, the Soviet-wide benefits were not enough to create a Soviet labor aristocracy overwhelming enough to force the Russian imperialists and their national bourgeois partners to crack down on Czechs or eastern Germans. Whatever surplus-value there was distributed Soviet-wide obviously did not look very large to the Armenians who started a war and the final dissolution of the Soviet Union over the possession of a mountain for its republic. To see this, we only need get past the Amerikan propaganda that the republics in the Soviet Union were only a paper fiction for the purpose of getting UN votes for an all-powerful "totalitarian" dictator Stalin. The republics of Soviet social- imperialism had very real resources, a very real share of the "action."
The working class road was not taken in the Gorbachev crisis. For that matter, the road of building a labor aristocracy on which to build a basis for an outward thrust into the world also did not occur to the same extent as in the West. The Gorbachev economy was in a tailspin and there was not a French, British or Amerikkkan-like cushion of surplus-value. The labor aristocracy united to the imperialists as partner did not exist to fight for a Russian empire. Even if the massive surplus-value had existed, there was nothing that would have prevented its even distribution among the republics--thanks to Lenin's historical legacy.
This meant that the fight to keep the Soviet version of Algeria would have had to have relied on purely a land call. Russian nationalists could have called forward an irredentist movement of the Russians in the various republics. To some extent, that option does still exist and is causing tension in the ex-Soviet bloc.
At this juncture, Bush Sr. and the Russian imperialists agreed that their real partners were the republics, specifically the national bourgeoisie of each republic. At the very end of the USSR, the United $tates bypassed Gorbachev and recognized the will of the republics to separate.
The social-imperialist Soviet Union already had a government and party structure built on a federative-style of republics, where each central committee member ideally came from a base of power in a republic. At the very end of the Soviet Union's existence, the thought of sending loyal Russians to the republics to replace Central Committee members did occur over and over again; yet there was no great enthusiasm. The republics already had enough of the balance of power to weigh against the uphill struggle to create a purely Russian imperialism disguised by a USSR fiction.
When Gorbachev allowed Eastern Europe to unravel, it would have taken an alliance on the Central Committee to stop him. But who there wanted to set the example anymore, when each representative of the national bourgeoisie wanted to legalize itself in its own republic? Now when we look at who the billionaires are in the ex- Soviet Union, we see ex-party. Like a mafia millionaire who wants to go "legit," the Soviet bourgeoisie under Gorbachev would be inviting its own death warrant to do anything that put the Soviet Union back on the road of Stalin. Since there was little surplus-value cushion, a drastic step for unity could have awakened the proletariat, so that was too risky from the point of view of Gorbachev, Yeltsin and even coup plotters.
A legalized and open free market capitalism was the desire successfully accomplished. Here we do have to point out that Ludo Martens's analysis was obviously wrong insofar as that it took Gorbachev seriously as a communist. There may be a few people of his age who continue to hold that illusion, but it will not be a significant historical force going forward. For purposes of analysis, we have to forgive Ludo Martens for not seeing through Gorbachev at the time and handle the rest of the William Blum/Ludo Martens argument, because it continues to represent the putrefaction of the communist movement. We can say that a majority of parties calling themselves communist continue to hold similar views.
The merit of Stalin's approach can be seen in that the leaders of the republics had their own reasons for wanting capitalism. The merits of Lenin's approach become visible when we think in comparative context. With the decline of the Russian Revolution, the Soviet structure could be used to further Russian national domination. Instead, it went down relatively peacefully. What fighting there was was between republics, the excesses of Liberalism. We would say that in such USSR-like situations repeated, the scarcity of surplus-value to reward loyalty increases the possibility of a peaceful resolution, a less tenacious fight. Capitalism was restored but on a republic-by- republic basis, with a bourgeois class already in existence in each republic.
Where the imperialist strategy involves settlers or a bought-off labor aristocracy a united national fight along racial/national lines against others is normal. Even when imperialists themselves want to exit a war or colony, the labor aristocracy may prevent them, as was the case of the Vietnam War. In Russia this was not the case at the local level. While Russian language dominated and Moscow was the political and economic gravitational center, in the republics there was no special class to keep the republics in line like French settlers in Algeria. The potential for such a class surely existed, but it is interesting that Yeltsin consciously and openly foreswore it in his bid for power through a decentralization process. Likewise, Gorbachev also saw the Russian ethnic minority in the republics as an unsuitable ally, at least not as ally of first importance.
What is different about the Soviet collapse is that the alliance with the national bourgeoisie of the ex-Soviet Union dictated a different outcome. Defeat resulted in shattering along lines of the republics, not a Le Pen style outcome, though there are certainly embittered nationalist words and scattered bonehead fascist actions now emanating from many Russian workers. To some extent, the old Soviet-wide labor aristocracy realizes it has suffered the most. Those who were merely petty-bourgeois under the old system have lost their class status.
The various nationalities were not going to favor a crackdown to keep the Soviet Union together --at least not in the Central Committee or Politburo of the Soviet social- imperialists. In this sense we can even say that the small nationalities "got their way," especially from the point of view of the self-legalizing mafia classes of the republics. The national conflicts came at the expense of the Soviet proletariat, which had the nationalist virus that the bourgeoisie took advantage of to divide the workers and restore open capitalism.
Against MIM on this question, of course are the non-Leninists. If we do not accept as Lenin did that achieving finance capitalism and monopoly capitalism are the marks of imperialism, then the rest of this argument will make no sense. Here we only argue about diversity within those countries having achieved finance capitalism. That diversity of imperialist countries stems from the level of surplus-value, the land question, the war defeats and the imperialists' first choice of alliance partner-- the bourgeoisie of the republics in the Soviet case.
Blum does not claim to be Leninist; although we believe we have nonetheless dispensed with his argument in its own right. In the case of Ludo Martens, we suspect that the real problem is that he does not see imperialism in the Leninist sense despite his claims otherwise. Nazi Germany gave up Austria upon defeat. Is there any surprise? We should not underestimate the extent to which the united $tates and the USSR did fight globally prior to the USSR's collapse, anymore than we should refer to "World War" only when European troops die.
Switzerland has achieved finance capitalism and is thus imperialist according to Leninism. Yet do we think about their missiles or "implacable" pursuit of colonies? According to Lenin, such small countries are in fact imperialist. We may question whether they could exist without larger more aggressive partners, but they are imperialist. Perhaps Ludo Martens only counts as imperialist those countries that manage to shake the whole world with their wars--as individual countries. A resolution authored by Ludo Martens's party and signed by many others bypasses European imperialism entirely and names U.$. and I$raeli imperialism as number one and two respectively. Of course if a social-democratic USSR were not imperialist, it stands to reason that nor were Switzerland, BENELUX etc. Is Ludo Martens really just saying that small European social-democratic countries are not imperialist or does he really think the collapse of the Soviet Union was out of the ordinary? How shall we account for the federation that comprises Switzerland for example? If Switzerland should fall apart into its cantons without an all-out war and repression, would we then have to say it was never imperialist? Would we have to proclaim our faith in Mao shaken to the core? We need to separate the Belgian Workers' Party's general discomfort with Lenin's theory of imperialism from its discomfort with the theory of Russian imperialism in particular.
Today we know that the core Russian economy is the same size as that of the Netherlands, but with several times more people. Yet, Eritreans bombed by Soviet naval shells know that the Soviet Union was aggressive. The USSR simply did not win as many struggles as Uncle $am. Nor did it have the proportion of surplus-value that the West had. As MIM has said before, when the economy is growing by leaps and bounds, there is less basis for intractable conflict among republics. In that sense, we can treat people as irresponsible young children--not knowing that if there is not a stern Stalin moving the economy forward, they will descend into ethnic strife. The will of each republic to seek its own fortune is much diminished when everyone is succeeding. The great unconscious factor in history is not sex as Freud said but the accumulation of surplus-value. Once defeated, it was a logical decision of gangsters to pack off the Central Committee to Georgia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan etc. where they could get the religious blessing of the orthodox churches, mosques etc. in their quest to become legitimate. The movie "Godfather" might be instructive here.
We may have to debate to what extent the Soviet bourgeoisie had false consciousness as a bourgeoisie. Did it believe that a leap into Western-style wealth was possible in 18 months as the first openly bourgeois prime ministers of Russia told us? Shevardnadze agreed to give up power on the Central Committee in a super-power in exchange for rule in Georgia. Did he really think Georgia was going to skyrocket once relieved of the Soviet albatross? On the other hand, the bottom line is that as head of Azerbaijan, Heidar Aliev (Aliyev) was suddenly in control of customs (trade) himself and there could be no legal threat to his position as a capitalist. He was on the Politburo in 1986 and removed in 1987, but no one successfully filled in his role. Niyazov was on the Soviet Politburo, but he became President-for-life in Turkmenistan. Nazarbayev was on the Politburo and he became head of Kazakhstan and he still is. Islam Karimov was the head of the "Communist Party" in Uzbekistan and he has ruled Uzbekistan since 1991.
Boris Yeltsin became president of Russia, but his book from his electoral campaigns prior to taking the presidency is instructive. Now we know that Yeltsin's family received billions in bribes from the United $tates. Like the CIA, Yeltsin saw the path to victory through the republics: "The economic independence of the republics and their genuine sovereignty--this will go far toward solving the country's ethnic problems."(4)
The number two in the party hierarchy Ligachev reported that even as someone not based in a republic, he had to fear regarding the legal status of the mafia even in distant republics. He reports that toward the end of his rule, Ukraine sent him a massive crate of bribery that filled his living room. Meanwhile, television implicated him in corruption tied to the Uzbeks. Yegor Ligachev quotes his wife as follows: "'Investigator Ivanov appeared on Leningrad TV. He said the Uzbek mafia is tied to Moscow and the highest echelons of power. And you were named.'"(5) This is far from the picture of "totalitarianism" we heard in the West. At the same time, it was not bourgeois democracy and it was not socialism. The only choice left is social-fascism as Mao said. It's just that we should not use the word "fascism" the way the West does to support its own theory of Liberalism. Fascism today is rooted in the labor aristocracy. It is only a possibility in society defined as "imperialist" by Lenin.
Within Russian politics, being tied up with the republics was a possible source of contamination. Recalcitrant Central Committee members might find themselves exposed in corruption scandals. Boris Yeltsin seemed to push for a separation of republics direction in a general way. When he came to power as Russian president, Yeltsin took the time to write another book and firm up his language. Yeltsin himself quoted the Washington Post coverage favorably:
Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev changed his political orientation today in favor of a compromise with intractable Union republics and obtained support from his chief rival, Boris Yeltsin. At a meeting behind closed doors with deputies, Yeltsin said that Gorbachev 'had made some important concessions,' in decentralizing political and economic power, thanks to which, as Yeltsin noted, the republics 'may become sovereign states.'(6)
The struggle against corruption did not take a Russian nationalist form against the republics. Lenin's fight had its legacy. The coup of supposed hard-liners trying to save the Soviet Union was not that hard-line. No one had the stomach for a society-wide fight against corruption, especially when it would have involved so much cross-ethnic corruption policing. The bourgeoisie was well developed by that time, as Mao had said. In the midst of the "hard-line" coup, a poll Gorbachev cited in his memoirs showed 40% support-- not nothing but not enough to convince the faint-hearted for drastic measures.
Mao's critics on the Soviet Union were wrong. The bourgeoisie was so far along in development that it merely legalized itself. Even rulers with nothing at stake were tired of the political intrigues and postures in connection to corruption. Had the bourgeoisie been rather undeveloped and the corresponding corruption rather rare, it would not have been too much to ask of the "character" of proletarian leaders to fight that corruption. There is no one in Russian politics who denies the increased level of corruption. Not even Gorbachev in his memoirs denies it: "I myself assume some of the blame for having failed to launch an anti-corruption struggle early enough and on a proper scale."(7)
The republics believed they would do better without Russia. Important mafia elements in each republic had obvious reasons for wanting control of local trade laws. Likewise, inside Russia the labor aristocracy and proletariat believed that they were subsidizing the republics to no avail. In an economy shrinking once vodka and oil exports are excluded, selfish infighting became the norm. Gorbachev correctly reflected a widespread belief that MIM has also investigated:
"'Even though we in Lithuania
have the most developed agriculture in the USSR and deliver
a great deal of livestock to Leningrad, Moscow and various Russian oblasts,
we sometimes have shortages of meat.' But such arguments conveniently ignored
or underestimated the vast extent of supplies flowing in the other direction,
from Russia--grain, oil and metals, as well as industrial and consumer goods.(8)
This was to be the pattern throughout the ex-Soviet Union. With the economy in imperialist decline, each nationality assumed that it was being exploited. On this point, Gorbachev was correct, just too modest about his correctness. There had to be a proletarian party in place to drill in the benefits of cooperation. The USSR passed by not just the economic achievements of Marx, but Ricardo too. The people of the USSR went straight for the pre-scientific economics of barbarians and barbaric fighting resulted.
In the united $tates we have several times more barbaric economics. Bypassing Marx and retreating past Ricardo, most calling themselves socialist, communist or even pro-capitalist do not consider the growth of the unproductive sector of the economy parasitic. It's in that sort of economy that systematic parasitism ties itself to an ideology for war on a regular basis--militarism. This is a militarism not of the violent ejecting an occupier once in a while, but a regular ideology of violence, as a way of life.
The Soviet labor aristocracy was divided and could not serve as partner to firm up imperialist resolve in Eastern Europe. In fact, the strongholds of the Russian labor aristocracy in Moscow and Leningrad became bastions of Liberalism. Had more surplus-value from colonies existed, the republics might not have been in such a rush to leave and the possibility for a Soviet-wide labor aristocracy to keep a fascist Iron Curtain raised would have existed.
At the end, the contest between Gorbachev and Yeltsin for power was mostly significant in what it left out. Gorbachev had raised a dizzying array of topics in a few years, but the various elements of glasnost and perestroika were not key in the final instance. In the end, both Yeltsin and Gorbachev saw the republics as the key constituency. Gorbachev on his part pointed to referenda and polls showing general three quarters support for keeping a centralized union. At the same time, he signed a treaty increasing powers to the republics. No sooner would Gorbachev line up republics for increased powers than Yeltsin would rally them for even more powers. Yeltsin arranged a treaty among a minority of republics holding the majority of population--at the president level. Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan signed the dissolution of the Soviet Union and Bush Sr. "supported" it.(9)
1. William Blum, Rogue State: The World's Only Superpower 3rd ed., (Common Courage Press, 2005), p. 17.
"We made the mistake of taking the Chinese experience as our main, even our only source of reference. For instance, we followed the CPC when it developed its theory of social- imperialism, with the Soviet Union as the most dangerous super- power."
3. Ludo Martens, USSR: The Velvet Counter Revolution (Belgium: EPO Distribution), p. 13.
4. Boris Yeltsin, Against the Grain (NY: Summit Books, 1990), p. 250.
5. Yegor Ligachev, Inside Gorbachev's Kremlin: The Memoirs of Yegor Ligachev (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1996), pp. 205-6.
6. Boris Yeltsin, The Struggle for Russia (NY: Times Books, 1994), p. 26.
7. Mikhail Gorbachev, Memoirs (NY: Doubleday, 1995), p. 583.
8. Ibid., p. 570.
9. Ibid., pp. 657-659.