A Response to Barry S. on the Soviet Union (Pre-Convention Document)

by David F.

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This is a response to Barry S.’s “Why We Need a Discussion on the Soviet Union” in Pre- Convention Bulletin #2. I believe there is plenty to discuss pertaining to the experience of the 20th and early 21st centuries, but a focus on what was called ”The Russian Question” is not quite right. It’s certainly true that the degeneration and internal destruction of the Russian Revolution was a defining question of the 20th century. It probably set back the cause of socialism by 75 years if not longer. And for a whole historical period, it was essentially impossible to form a coherent socialist organization without a clear view on whether the USSR represented some kind of “workers state” (i.e. resting on a deformed socialistic economic base) or a new kind of bureaucratic class society.

The efforts of revolutionary Marxists to deal with the unexpected disaster of Stalinism and the social formation(s) it produced are worth studying. However, it’s also worth pointing out that these fundamental theorizations – from Trotsky’s “degenerated workers state” to the Third Camp’s “bureaucratic collectivism” to Tony Cliff’s “state capitalism” to Michel Pablo’s “centuries of deformed workers states” – were developed between about 1933 and 1953, and are of diminishing direct relevance in the world of 2013, when this bureaucratic social formation persists only in vestigial form and is going through a rapid transformation and integration into global capitalism where it still exists (Cuba, Vietnam, maybe North Korea?) .

The last really innovative theorization of the Stalinist system was that of then-Marxist Polish activists Kuron and Modzelewski’s “Open Letter to the Party” in 1964. One could also cite the more recent work of the Hillel Ticktin Critique school, combining elements of other theories, but this analysis is not attached to an organized political tendency. Anyway, another debate on these various theories is extremely unlikely to produce any innovative synthesis.

What Barry wants discuss, actually, isn’t so much the arguments of the 1940s and ‘50s but rather his contention that “(t)he workers states in the USSR and China had been powerful bulwarks against imperialism. That they no longer exist has opened the way to for a renewed imperialist offensive worldwide (with all its contradictions).” This is worth examining critically, and without being comprehensive I would like to briefly argue that the situation is vastly more complex than Barry’s formula would suggest.

(i) Let’s begin with the two most important democratic political revolutions (although not social revolutions) of the past couple decades, at least prior to the Arab Spring: the downfall of the apartheid regime in South Africa, and the overthrow of the Indonesian Suharto dictatorship. These took place after the effective end of the USSR, and in fact it seems pretty clear that the end of the Cold War system removed the ideological pretext and much of the political motivation for U.S. and European imperialism to prop up these genocidal “bulwarks against Communism.” That is to suggest that the end of the USSR did at least as much to open up space for democratic struggle as to close it down.

(ii) Barry contends that “(w)ithout the Soviet bureaucracy’s moves toward imperialism and capitalist restoration , the first Gulf War would have been unlikely” [this refers to the 1991 war – DF]. I think this is probably true but not necessarily as Barry means it. Ever since the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, which marks roughly the midpoint of the 1945-1990 Cold War era, the U.S. and USSR had been highly aware of each other’s red lines. In 1990, if the USSR still had important influence with its onetime Middle East allied regimes, it would have very firmly instructed Saddam Hussein that invading Kuwait was out of the question as it would threaten Western oil supplies. Saddam’s own advisers were too terrified to tell him that it would be a disastrous adventure.

(Incidentally, as a Solidarity observer at the 1991 FI World Congress, I listened in amazement as Jeff Mackler from Socialist Action proclaimed that the U.S. didn’t have the troops or military capability to retake Kuwait, while the newsstands outside the hall carried comprehensive coverage of how air power was pulverizing Iraq’s conscript army there.)

(iii) Barry continues, “(t)he second invasion of Iraq and the invasion of Afghanistan would have been impossible under the ‘old’ USSR.” This forgets the first invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 by the “old” USSR, which set in motion the destruction of Afghanistan and accelerated both the rise of fanatical jihadism armed and financed by the USA, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, and the decomposition of the USSR itself. This act by the USSR didn’t turn out to be a “powerful bulwark against imperialism” to put it mildly.

(iv) If you look at the civil war in Syria today – whatever your analysis of this catastrophe – the fact is that Putin’s Russia and Capitalist Red China are at least as strong “bulkwarks” against Western intervention as the ”old” USSR and Chinese “workers state” ever were. This has nothing to do with any progressive or principled politics on any side, it’s just about naked state interests – and frankly, that was generally the case during the Cold War too. The same goes for Russian and Chinese resistance to the U.S.-European war drive against Iran. Frankly, on balance it’s a good thing that there isn’t a unified great-power camp in global politics, but it has little or nothing to do with whether the “old” USSR or China were “workers states.”

(v) Barry believes that “(t)he undercutting of the Palestinian struggle by the Oslo accords would have been unlikely.” I do not understand why Barry thinks so. While the Palestinian movement was a politically useful tactical asset for the Soviet Union in the Arab world, Palestine itself was not strategically crucial for the USSR, and in any case the Palestinian “armed struggle” road was at a complete dead end long before Oslo. More importantly, the USSR did nothing at all to halt Israel’s onslaught in Lebanon 1982, which finished the Palestinian resistance as an armed force (partly perhaps because the USSR was already in the midst of its Afghanistan catastrophe).

There are other examples of course, but I am not trying to sketch a modern world history here. My point is that the end of the USSR is not some kind of unilateral disaster for democratic or national liberation struggles, and certainly not for socialism. Without trying to get into important issues of Africa or Latin America, I want to finish where Barry begins, with Cuba, where he says ”(t)he majority of Solidarity’s members are for the overthrow of the Cuban regime.” I don’t know whether this is true, or even what it means, nor do I know precisely what Barry means when he says he is “for reform” in Cuba.

Any kind of armed “overthrow” of the regime is obviously not to be contemplated in circumstances where the only source of weapons would be U.S. imperialism. The question for Barry, and for all of us, is for or against the right of Cubans to free and open debate on all the questions of economic, political and social “reforms” promoted by the Cuban regime or by critical voices in Cuban society. Is Barry, or anyone else, for or against the Cuban people’s unrestricted access to this discussion, rather than it being confined to what Sam Farber warns might become a tolerated intellectual “ghetto”?

If you share the views of those of us who see Cuba as a bureaucratic dictatorship, then that “reform” demand for full and open discussion has an intrinsically “revolutionary” dynamic because it is incompatible with how with Cuba is ruled, for similar reasons to what we saw in Eastern Europe. It would be fruitful if Barry explained what his conception of reform would look like.

On a concluding note, I am very, very glad that Assata Shakur was able to escape to Cuba and gain asylum there. I’m also frankly glad that baseball players like Orlando and Livan Hernandez, artists like Paquito d’Rivera and Arturo Sandoval, and many ordinary Cubans were able to leave Cuba when life there offered no viable future. Life is full of these contradictions, on large geopolitical and small personal levels, and we may as well acknowledge them.

POSTSCRIPT: Around the time of Solidarity‘s formation, Alan Wald wrote an important document on the coexistence of various theories of the Soviet Union in a common revolutionary socialist organization. It might be worth making available again.

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