Discussing the Soviet Union Can Be Useful–If It’s Done Well (Pre-Convention Document)

by Isaac S.

Posted June 24, 2013

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We can learn plenty of lessons, (“positive” and “negative”) from studying examples of “really existing socialism” in the 20th century—as there are from studying the whole history of revolution and counter-revolution with all of its flaws. History is not over, class struggle continues, and revolutionary crises and social revolutions will continue under all class societies. Two sources which seem interesting for such a study (I have not read either) are Marcel Van Der Linden’s Western Marxism and the Soviet Union: A Survey of Critical Theories and Debates Since 1917 and Michael Liebowitz’s The Contradictions of “Real Socialism”: The Conductor and the Conducted.

Without making hard predictions, the historical experience so far tends to suggest that the ruptures in “weak links” of the system will, due to that fact, also present a number of existential difficulties for the transition to socialist and communist societies: isolation in the world system, counter-revolutionary war, sabotage and invasion, substitution of the political instrument for the broader class, “premature” moments of insurrection, etc.

Additionally, expanding the question beyond a simple examination of class could be useful. For example: how was patriarchy transformed (or not) in “really existing socialism”? Not just in terms of women’s education and material independence from the nuclear family, but things like sexual and “domestic” gender violence? What about the questions of ecology and so called “productivism”? How about the nationalities policies of the USSR, China, and other post-revolutionary societies? I think socialists have things to learn from how these were approached, attempted, and mishandled, and the opening of archives makes serious study beyond official pronouncements possible.

Thus, I believe some of these general themes and difficulties are generally significance (not just in historical study of the 20th century) because they translate to many reform struggles for developing the power, organization, and consciousness of the working class and oppressed under capitalism as well as to the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism.

However, the conversation has been kicked off by David’s response to Barry does a disservice to an educational discussion. It rests on serious logical flaws and omission of information.

Barry’s Document

I have no issues with the conclusion of Barry’s document, which calls for “a non-factional, leisurely and comradely discussion.” However, the fact that he begins his paper by declaring that “the majority of Solidarity members are for the overthrow of the Cuban government” is without basis, since there has never been a conclusive discussion, much less vote, on this topic.

A second note that I want to make is broader, tentative, and is not accusatory to either Barry or David.

I don’t think there is an immediate logical coherence between someone’s assessment of the class nature of the USSR in 1935 and their assessment, of the political process in Venezuela in 2005 much less which “side” they favor in the Libyan or Syrian civil wars in 2011. So what can we make of the fact that these connections often exist? I hypothesize that they point to an organizational problem of Marxism – the tendency to construct a genealogy of canonical “positions” (which I think Maoists call “verdicts”) and then emphasize the continuity of maintaining that political tradition. This emphasis often gets in the way of honest investigation of the facts on the ground. Rather than theory being a useful framework for illuminating and processing reality as it unfolds, it becomes a mold into which any variety of contradictory processes can be poured and deliver the same result.

The political current of “Trotskyism” (and its offshoots) which emerged as a strategic, programmatic and organizational alternative to an actually existing dominant current of the Communist International, has often been prone to this error. Thus, a variety of post-revolutionary bureaucratic societies are considered “Stalinist” never mind the range of difference among them.

David’s Response

David begins by asserting a general framework that “the degeneration and internal destruction of the Russian Revolution… probably set back the cause of socialism by 75 years if not longer.” I have heard this kind of claim before and it always strikes me as flowing from an ahistorial/teleological, (in other words, idealist) conception of something called “the cause of socialism” which can be measured on a slide-rule. Pretending that complex historical events can be boiled down into stages of neat progression (for example, towards or away from “the cause of socialism”), is ironically, a theoretical error for which Kautksy and then Stalin were criticized. I do not mean to damn by association here, but it is worth consideration.

David’s first point is that “the two most important democratic political revolutions (although not social revolutions) of the past couple decades… took place after the effective end of the USSR.” In other words, the most important political revolutions after the end of the USSR (which happened in 1991, two decades ago) have taken place after the end of the USSR. This is definitely as true of a statement as stating that the most important political revolutions prior to the end of the USSR took place before the end of the USSR, but I don’t know what it’s supposed to mean.

I am not sure if David meant to expand the scale of time and say that more democratic political revolutions have taken place since the end of the USSR than during its existence—but such an argument would be extremely difficult to prove, given that the two he names are exceptional to the successive waves of anticolonial revolts that occurred between the conclusion of WWII and the end of the USSR.

From my point of view it seems exactly the opposite. The US and NATO still prop up nasty regimes on every continent. I thought it was a generally agreed that the years since 1991 have seen a political shift rightwards in the imperialist countries and a decline in national liberation activity – in general, a lowering of the political horizons to the “left wing of the possible” or “changing the world without taking power.” I think Neil Smith provocatively posed this phenomenon by saying that it has become easier for new generations to conceive of the apocalypse than a post-capitalist world. So much for an “opening”…

I am unconvinced by both Barry and David’s speculations of how the 1991 Gulf War may have played out, especially when they are based upon further speculation (by David) that “Saddam’s own advisers were too terrified to tell him that it would be a disastrous adventure.” Unless there is some way of verifying this claim, what is the point of using melodramatic conjecture to prop up an argument? This is entering the realm of speculative fiction.

David later collapses the geopolitical motivations of the USSR and contemporary Russia as both being “naked state interests”. We can probably agree that all states act to defend, expand, and perpetuate their “naked” interests – however, this kind of universal, trans-historical statement avoids defining exactly what those interests are! I am not saying that I believe the USSR was always motivated by proletarian internationalism. It does seem that the foreign policy record of the USSR was qualitatively different, and more progressive, than capitalist Russia’s has been – in terms of ideological training (however warped), propaganda, material and military aid). By dodging the question of what those motivations are, David is engaging in another tautological argument.

In making his case on Cuba, David links to a Sam Farber article that is clearly addressed to Farber’s “compatriots in the island… the nascent critical left in Cuba” who he believes are “running the risk of becoming trapped in the political ghetto that has until now been its principal milieu.” He advises that “if this left wants to gain strength, it is urgent that it anchors itself more in Cuban society at large.” In other words, Farber is warning of the dangers of self-marginalization. Perhaps if and when the “critical left” challenges this intellectual ghetto, it will result in a crackdown by the regime. Perhaps not. We don’t know, but David is using Sam Farber’s article to say something that it is not.

I have never traveled to Cuba. Everyone I know who has gone there has emphasized the free discussion that takes place – the Cuban doctors I met in Venezuela in 2005 were very open about their revolutionary criticisms and proposals. (In fact this is the source of my “position on Cuba” – meeting those remarkable doctors who are both a form of humanitarian foreign aid to the global south, as well as propaganda for the Cuban system. Meeting them and seeing the level of open disagreement and debate they had with each other, and with Cuban policies, made a powerful and positive impression on me.)

So, sure, I am “for the Cuban people’s unrestricted access to this discussion.” I’m also for the peoples in the US having unrestricted access to the independent left, which I guess includes us. We also inhabit an isolated “intellectual ghetto.” (At the moment a limited and expensive expansion of Cuban internet access has begun with the target of bringing most of the country online by the end of 2014).

A further irony of this charge about “the Cuban people’s unrestricted access to discussion” is that Solidarity’s own Political Committee has had a very difficult time actually carrying through a decision made to post Solidarity’s own preconvention discussion publicly on our website (I recently resigned from a body that had non-voting rights at PC meetings). Mind you, in one case there is a small country off the coast of the world’s biggest empire, in fact with a military installation of that power on its soil. The other example is a small socialist organization of a couple hundred people seeking to have an open ended discussion about our political approach and theory. For the record, I am in favor of unrestricted access to both discussions.

It is actually David’s concluding analogy which so upset me that I felt compelled to write this short response. There is absolutely no equivalency between Assata Shakur’s political asylum in Cuba with Cuban athletes and musicians who have emigrated to the United States. Before leaving Cuba, all of the people who David mentions were playing baseball and music, including on world tour, and then voluntarily moved to the United States to pursue professional careers, some of them with multimillion-dollar contracts.

On the other hand, as a political prisoner, Shakur spent the better part of a decade in solidarity confinement under constant surveillance and torture. She is widely seen as a hero and icon by Black and left activists and people of conscience generally. If we are comparing individuals granted asylum in each country, a better example might be the notorious terrorist Luis Posada Carriles who is harbored in Miami. Or we could make a comparison between the Cuban Five – still serving life sentences – with the 75 people imprisoned in Cuba for espionage who were released seven years later. But calling David’s comparison completely absurd and insulting is diplomatic.

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