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Introduction

The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was the first nation ever to declare itself a socialist state, dedicated to the building of communism. Over the seven decades of its existence, the USSR went through many stages and phases of development, from a semi-capitalist feudal society, to a state capitalist nation during the NEP years, to a developed socialist country, and finally to a revisionist state regressing towards capitalism. The purpose of this post is to examine the achievements of socialism in the USSR up to the early 1960’s, at which point market reforms and capitalist restoration began to take effect. We will also be examining the disastrous effects that these reforms had on the health and well-being of the Soviet people.

This post will consist of three parts. This first part is a discussion of the achievements of Soviet socialism in terms of economic development, living standards, and healthcare. The question of Stalin and the Ukrainian famine will also be discussed. The second part will be a discussion of Soviet advances in women’s rights, as well as opposition to racism (both internally, and in its global manifestation of imperialism). We will also discuss the nature of Soviet democracy. The third part will discuss the eventual fall of the USSR, and the disastrous effects of capitalist restoration and revisionism in the USSR.

All sources are listed at the end of the post. I will indicate which source I am using each time I quote from one. Now, let us begin.

- Economic Development and Living Standards -

When the 1917 revolution took place, Russia was a backwards, semi-capitalist feudal society. The manor system had only recently been abolished, and replaced by the most brutal and primitive form of capitalism. The nation was dreadfully under-developed, with no sign of improving in the future. Not only that, but what little growth did occur led to massive inequalities. According to Robert C. Allen, Professor of Economic History at Oxford University:

Not only were the bases of Imperial advance narrow, but the process of growth gave rise to such inequitable changes in income distribution that revolution was hardly a surprise. Real wages for urban workers were static in the late Imperial period despite a significant increase in output per worker… The revolution was also a peasant revolt, and the interests of the peasants were different… As in the cities, there was no gain in real wages.

The University of Warwick supports these claims:

Agriculture had reached North American levels of productivity by 1913 and wheat prices collapsed after 1914. The expansion of the railroads had run its course and there was no prospect of protected light industry becoming internationally competitive. The appropriate comparators for the prospects for Russian capitalism in the twentieth century are not Japan but Argentina or even India. Moreover, Russian capitalist development had brought little if any benefit to the urban and rural working class, intensifying the class conflicts that erupted in Revolution.

With the 1917 revolution (and after the bloody civil war, with its policy of war communism), the Soviet economy began to grow rapidly. The New Economic Policy (which nationalized large-scale industry and redistributed land, while allowing for the private sale of agricultural surplus) succeeded in transforming Russia from a semi-capitalist society into a developing state capitalist society, laying the groundwork for socialism. The University of Warwick states:

Following War Communism, the New Economic Policy (NEP) sought to develop the Russian economy within a quasi-capitalist framework.

However, economic circumstances came to require the transition to a planned socialist economy:

However, the institutional and structural barriers to Russian economic development were now compounded by the unfavorable circumstances of the world economy, so that there was no prospect of export-led development, while low domestic incomes provided only a limited market for domestic industry. Without a state coordinated investment program, the Soviet economy would be caught in the low-income trap typical of the underdeveloped world.

In 1928 (after Stalin came to power as head of the Communist Party), Soviet Russia instituted a fully planned economy, and the first Five Year Plan was enacted. This resulted in rapid economic growth. According to Professor Allen:

Soviet GDP increased rapidly with the start of the first Five Year Plan in 1928… The expansion of heavy industry and the use of output targets and soft-budgets to direct firms were appropriate to the conditions of the 1930’s, they were adopted quickly, and they led to rapid growth of investment and consumption.

Bourgeois economists often alleged that this rapid growth came at the cost of per-capita consumption and living standards. However, more recent research has shown this to be false. Professor Allen states:

There has been no debate that ‘collective consumption’ (principally education and health services) rose sharply, but the standard view was that private consumption declined. Recent research, however, calls that conclusion into question… While investment certainly increased rapidly, recent research shows that the standard of living also increased briskly.

Calorie consumption rose rapidly during this period:

Calories are the most basic dimension of the standard of living, and their consumption was higher in the late 1930’s than in the 1920’s… In 1895-1910, calorie availability was only 2100 per day, which is very low by modern standards. By the late 1920’s, calorie availability advanced to 2500… By the late 1930’s, the recovery of agriculture increased calorie availability to 2900 per day, a significant increase over the late 1920’s. The food situation during the Second World War was severe, but by 1970 calorie consumption rose to 3400, which was on a par with western Europe.

Overall, the development of the Soviet economy during the socialist period was extremely impressive. According to Professor Allen:

The Soviet economy performed well… Planning led to high rates of capital accumulation, rapid GDP growth, and rising per capita consumption even in the 1930’s.

The USSR’s growth during the socialist period exceeded that of the capitalist nations:

The USSR led the non-OECD countries and, indeed, achieved a growth rate in this period that exceeded the OECD catch-up regression as well as the OECD average.

This success is also attributed specifically to the revolution and the socialist system. As Professor Allen states:

This success would not have occurred without the 1917 revolution or the planned development of state owned industry.

The benefits of the socialist system are obvious upon closer study. As the University of Warwick puts it:

…a capitalist economy would not have created the industrial jobs required to employ the surplus labour, since capitalists would only employ labour so long as the marginal product of labour exceeded the wage. State-sponsored industrialization faced no such constraints, since enterprises were encouraged to expand employment in line with the demands of the plan.

Economic growth was also aided by the liberation of women, and the resulting control over the birth rate, as well as women’s participation in the workforce. Allen states:

The rapid growth in per capita income was contingent not just on the rapid expansion of GDP but also on the slow growth of the population. This was primarily due to a rapid fertility transition rather than a rise in mortality from collectivization, political repression, or the Second World War. Falling birth rates were primarily due to the education and employment of women outside the home. These policies, in turn, were the results of enlightenment ideology in its communist variant.

Reviews of Allen’s work have backed up his statements. According to the University of Warwick:

Allen shows that the Stalinist strategy worked, in strictly economic terms, until around 1970… Allen’s book convincingly establishes the superiority of a planned over a capitalist economy in conditions of labour surplus (which is the condition of most of the world most of the time).

Other studies have backed-up the findings that the USSR’s living standards rose rapidly. According to a study from Williams College:

Remarkably large and rapid improvements in child height, adult stature and infant mortality were recorded from approximately 1945 to 1970… Both Western and Soviet estimates of GNP growth in the Soviet Union indicate that GNP per capita grew in every decade in the postwar era, at times far surpassing the growth rates of the developed western economies… The conventional measures of GNP growth and household consumption indicate a long, uninterrupted upward climb in the Soviet standard of living from 1928 to 1985; even Western estimates of these measures support this view, albeit at a slower rate of growth than the Soviet measures.

Unfortunately, after the introduction of market reforms and other revisionist policies, living standards began to deteriorate (although some measures continued to increase, albeit more slowly). According to Williams College:

Three different measures of population health show a consistent and large improvement between approximately 1945 and 1969: child height, adult height and infant mortality all improved significantly during this period. These three biological measures of the standard of living also corroborate the evidence of some deterioration in living conditions beginning around 1970, when infant and adult mortality were rising and child and adult height stopped increasing and in some regions began to decline.

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Economic growth also began to slow around this time. According to Professor Allen:

After the Second World War, the Soviet economy resumed rapid growth. By 1970, the growth rate was sagging, and per capita output was static by 1985.

The Cold War was another factor which contributed to slowing growth rates:

The Cold War was an additional factor that lowered Soviet growth after 1968. The creation of high tech weaponry required a disproportionate allocation of R & D personnel and resources to the military. Innovation in civilian machinery and products declined accordingly. Half of the decreased in the growth rate of per capita GDP was due to the decline in productivity growth, and that decrease provides an upper bound to the impact of the arms race with the United States.

In short, the USSR achieved massively positive economic results until the 1970’s, when revisionist policies and the Cold War began to cause a stagnation. Now, let us move on from economic development, and talk about the health standards of the Soviet population.

- Healthcare Conditions in the Socialist Period -

Health conditions in Czarist Russia had been deplorable; it was among the unhealthiest nations in Europe (arguably in the entire world). According to the University of Munich:

Without doubt the Soviet Union was one of the most underdeveloped European countries at the time of the October Revolution. In terms of life-expectancy it lagged behind the other industrialized countries of Europe by a gap of about 15 years.

However, after the socialist revolution, healthcare conditions began to increase rapidly. By the end of the socialist period, healthcare standards (measured by life expectancy and mortality rates) were superior to those of Western Europe and the USA. The University of Munich states:

One of the most striking advances of socialism has been and was generally seen to be the improvement in public health provision for the population as a whole. In accordance with this assumption mortality-rates in the Soviet Union declined rapidly in the first two decades after World War II. In 1965 life-expectancy for men and women in all parts of the Soviet Union, which still included vast underdeveloped regions with unfavorable living conditions, were as high or even higher than in the United States. Such a development fits perfectly into the picture of emerging industrial development and generally improving conditions of living.

Even reactionary intellectuals were forced to acknowledge these achievements; according to Nicholas Ebserstadt (a conservative think-tank adviser), healthcare standards in the Soviet Union during the socialist period surpassed those of the USA and Western Europe:

Over much of this century the nation in the vanguard of the revolution in health was the Soviet Union. In 1897 Imperial Russia offered its people a life expectancy of perhaps thirty years. In European Russia, from what we can make out, infant mortality (that is, death in the first year) claimed about one child in four, and in Russia’s Asian hinterlands the toll was probably closer to one in three. Yet by the late 1950’s the average Soviet citizen could expect to live 68.7 years: longer than his American counterpart, who had begun the century with a seventeen-year lead. By 1960 the Soviet infant mortality rate, higher than any in Europe as late as the Twenties, was lower than that of Italy, Austria, or East Germany, and seemed sure to undercut such nations as Belgium and West Germany any year.

He even notes that these achievements made socialism seem nearly unbeatable:

In the face of these and other equally impressive material accomplishments, Soviet claims about the superiority of their “socialist” system, its relevance to the poor countries, and the inevitability of its triumph over the capitalist order were not easily refuted.

While health conditions did start to decline after the introduction of revisionist policies in the mid-60’s (this will be discussed in more detail in part three), the healthcare achievements of the socialist system remain unimpeachable.

- The Question of Stalin -

Joseph Stalin was the principal architect of the socialist period in the USSR. As a result, he has been the victim of perhaps the most extensive smear campaign in modern history. Claims that he killed tens of millions of people, jailed victims without cause, and deliberately starved Ukrainian peasants are only some of the propaganda charges leveled against him. As such, it is the duty of any informed socialist to combat this propaganda.

Firstly, we must remember the extensive achievements discussed above, which vastly improved life for hundreds of millions of people. These achievements were the result of the socialist system, built primarily under Joseph Stalin. Even reactionaries have been unable to deny this. According to the right-wing commentator Nicholas Ebserstadt:

Stalin’s results were incontestable. This is a point those of us in the West often overlook. Stalin inherited a country that was the primary casualty of World War I, and bequeathed to his successors a super-power. It is but a single measure of the success of the ‘Leader’, and his understanding of the endurance of his nation, that between 1940 and 1953, a period marked by an immensely destructive world war costing perhaps twenty million Soviet lives and a series of purges claiming perhaps not many less, the USSR doubled its production of coal and steel, tripled its output of cement and industrial goods, and increased its pool of skilled labor by a factor of ten. These rates of growth were geometrically higher than in the less devastated and Terror-free West.

Even this statement itself contains a piece of propaganda; the claim that Stalin purged “perhaps not many less” than twenty-million people. This claim is obvious nonsense. According to Stephen Wheatcroft, Professor of History at the University of Melbourne:

The Stalinist regime was consequently responsible for about a million purposeful killings, and through its criminal neglect and irresponsibility it was probably responsible for the premature deaths of about another two million more victims amongst the repressed population, i.e. in the camps, colonies, prisons, exile, in transit and in the POW camps for Germans. These are clearly much lower figures than those for whom Hitler’s regime was responsible.

Stalin was thus responsible for about three million deaths, and even that is only if we include Nazi POW’s (whom nobody is shedding any tears for), victims of an unintentional famine (see below), and gulag prisoners.

Speaking of gulag prisoners, according to J. Arch Getty, Professor of History at UCLA:

The long-awaited archival evidence on repression in the period of the Great Purges shows that the levels of arrests, political prisoners, executions, and general camp populations tend to confirm the orders of magnitude indicated by those labeled as “revisionists” and mocked by those proposing high estimates… Inferences that the terror fell particularly hard on non-Russian nationalities are not borne out by camp population data from the 1930’s. The frequent assertion that most of the camp prisoners were “political” also appears not to be true.

According to Getty’s research, alleged counterrevolutionaries never made up more than a third of the gulag population (and generally much less, around 12%). This is backed-up by a CIA report on the topic, which found that as many as 95% of camp prisoners were non-political in camps that they investigated. The majority of camp prisoners were thus genuine criminals, convicted of rape, murder, theft, etc.

In addition, modern evidence suggests that the masses did indeed support Stalin, who likewise encouraged mass participation from the working people. According to Robert Thurston, Professor of History at Miami University (Ohio):

Stalin, the press, and the Stakhanovite movement all regularly encouraged ordinary people to criticize those in authority… If the citizenry was supposed to be terrorized and stop thinking, why encourage criticism and input from below on a large scale? […] my evidence suggests that widespread fear did not exist in the case at hand [the Soviet “Great Terror” period].

Thurston also states:

Stalin did not intend to terrorize the country and did not need to rule by fear. Memoirs and interviews with Soviet people indicate that many more believed in Stalin’s quest to eliminate internal enemies than were frightened by it.

One of his most interesting statements (indeed, one of the most statements from any bourgeois historian dealing with Stalin) is the following:

There was never a long period of Stalinism without a serious foreign threat, major internal dislocation, or both, which makes identifying its true nature impossible.

This relates to how Stalin reacted to the genuine material conditions faced by the Soviet Union, rather than simply following his own whims and desires. All of this goes to demonstrate that while Stalin was not perfect, he had many enormous achievements, and his flaws have been vastly exaggerated by the bourgeois intelligentsia.

- The Ukrainian Famine -

Finally, to backtrack slightly, let us address perhaps the most infamous of anti-Stalin myths, that of the Ukrainian famine, and the allegation that Stalin deliberately caused the famine to starve Ukrainians. This idea has been consistently rejected by the most esteemed scholars on the topic. The following quotes are compiled in an article from the Village Voice, cited below.

Alexander Dallin of Stanford University writes:

There is no evidence it was intentionally directed against Ukrainians… that would be totally out of keeping with what we know – it makes no sense.

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Moshe Lewin (perhaps the most esteemed 20th century scholar of Soviet history) stated:

This is crap, rubbish… I am an anti-Stalinist, but I don’t see how this [genocide] campaign adds to our knowledge. It’s adding horrors, adding horrors, until it becomes a pathology.

Lynne Viola of the University of Toronto writes:

I absolutely reject it… Why in god’s name would this paranoid government consciously produce a famine when they were terrified of war [with Germany]?

Mark Tauger, Professor of History at West Virginia University (reviewing work by Stephen Wheatcroft and R.W. Davies) has this to say:

Popular media and most historians for decades have described the great famine that struck most of the USSR in the early 1930s as “man-made,” very often even a “genocide” that Stalin perpetrated intentionally against Ukrainians and sometimes other national groups to destroy them as nations… This perspective, however, is wrong. The famine that took place was not limited to Ukraine or even to rural areas of the USSR, it was not fundamentally or exclusively man-made, and it was far from the intention of Stalin and others in the Soviet leadership to create such as disaster. A small but growing literature relying on new archival documents and a critical approach to other sources has shown the flaws in the “genocide” or “intentionalist” interpretation of the famine and has developed an alternative interpretation.

More recent research has discovered natural causes for the Ukrainian famine. Tauger notes:

…the USSR experienced an unusual environmental disaster in 1932: extremely wet and humid weather that gave rise to severe plant disease infestations, especially rust. Ukraine had double or triple the normal rainfall in 1932. Both the weather conditions and the rust spread from Eastern Europe, as plant pathologists at the time documented. Soviet plant pathologists in particular estimated that rust and other fungal diseases reduced the potential harvest in 1932 by almost nine million tons, which is the largest documented harvest loss from any single cause in Soviet history.

Thus, we can see that the Ukrainian famine was not intentional, and should not be attributed to Stalin or the socialist policies he implemented.

- Conclusion -

During its socialist period, the Soviet Union made some of the most impressive achievements in modern history. The socialist system transformed a nation of illiterate and half-starved peasants into a superpower, with one of the fastest growing economies on Earth, one of the world’s best-educated and healthiest populations, and some of the most impressive industrial and technological achievements to date. It provided a model for the oppressed people’s of the world to follow, as was shown in China, Cuba, Vietnam, and many other nations.

In part two, we will examine Soviet advances in women’s rights and anti-racism, as well as the Soviet role in global anti-imperialist struggle. We will also examine the governance structure, learn about Soviet democracy, and debunk the claim that the USSR was a “totalitarian state”.

Sources

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