By Stephen Gowans
From 1928, when the Soviet Union laid the foundations of its socialist economy, until the late 1980s, when Gorbachev began to dismantle them, the Soviet economy grew without pause, except during the period of the Nazi war machine’s scorched-earth invasion. Unemployment and later economic insecurity became ills of the past.
True, growth slowed beginning in the 1970s, but the major culprits were the diversion of budgets and R&D to the military to counter threats of US and NATO aggression, and growing resource extraction costs, not the alleged inefficiencies of public ownership and central planning, as is now widely believed. (1)
In fact, Soviet socialism—while it existed–worked better than capitalism in producing economic growth.
From 1928 to 1989, GDP per capita grew in the USSR by a factor of 5.2, compared to 4.0 in Western Europe and 3.3 in the major industrial offshoots of Western Europe—the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
And importantly, Soviet growth happened without the recurrent recessions—and their attendant pain in unemployment, hunger, and despair–that were routine features of the capitalist economies over the same period.
Indeed, while capitalism was mired in a major depression during the 1930s, leaving hundreds of millions without work, the Soviet economy was expanding rapidly, absorbing all available manpower. And while the dual ills of inflation and unemployment ran rampant in the stagflation crisis that roiled the capitalist economies during the 1970s, the Soviet economy expanded without interruption and without inflation or joblessness.
But that’s not what we’re told today. The received wisdom—rooted not in reality but Cold War propaganda—is that the Soviet economy collapsed under the weight of it inefficiencies, and that the demise of the USSR proves that an economic system based on public ownership, central planning and production for use, is unworkable. Even many Marxists believe this, touting the merits of “market socialism” as the only workable alternative.
And yet the Soviet economy’s record of peacetime expansion and full employment remained unblemished until Gorbachev began to experiment with the very same market socialism that many Marxists now embrace.
Hence, Soviet socialism’s reputation for being unworkable is underserved. A slow-down in economic growth—having as much to do with US efforts to cripple the USSR by embroiling it in a ruinous arms race as it did with internal problems–has been transformed into a myth about economic collapse.
Myths work both ways. While they can turn successes into what appear to be failures, then can also turn failures into what appear to be successes.
So it is with capitalism. With a major bank bailout needed to rescue it, the US economy in recession on Main Street, European economies falling like dominoes under the weight of stagnation and mounting debt, and long-term unemployment stuck at alarmingly high levels with no sign of improvement, few people are pointing out the obvious: capitalism isn’t working. Had the Soviet economy’s record been as bad, it would have long ago been judged, not as inefficient, but as an inhumane disaster—a pox on humanity to be eradicated as quickly as possible.
And yet, in a period of deep crisis for capitalism, many of the Marxist organizations that you would think would be hammering home the point that surely, we can do better than capitalism, aren’t. Instead—with notable and inspiring exceptions–they’re talking about other things—about how the main battle is against “the Right”, by which is meant Republicans and Conservatives, and how socialism won’t be on the agenda for another 500 years.
Another 500 years?
There’s a self-fulfilling prophesy here. Socialism doesn’t boil up spontaneously and come knocking at the door asking politely to be put on the agenda. Like any agenda item, someone has to put it there. If socialism is always deferred to a distant future, no matter how deeply capitalism sinks into crisis, no matter what toll capitalism needlessly takes on the lives of hundreds of millions, no matter how pressing the need for socialism’s arrival, it will never show up on the agenda – not in 500 years, not in 1,000.
The future—as mass unemployment, worsening economic malaise, and austerity make clear–has arrived.
Surely we can do better than capitalism. The time to put socialism on the agenda is now.
1. For discussions of Soviet economic performance see: Robert C. Allen. 2003. Farm to Factory: A Reinterpretation of the Soviet Industrial Revolution. Princeton University Press, 2003; David M. Kotz. “The Demise of the Soviet Union and the International Socialist Movement Today”. Paper written for the International Symposium on the 20th Anniversary of the Former Soviet Union and its Impact, Beijing, April 23, 2011; and Roger Keeran and Thomas Kenny. “A Rejoinder to Erwin Marquit’s Critique of Socialism Betrayed”. Nature, Society, and Thought, vol. 17, no. 3. 2004.