The Soviet Union wasn’t communist

Jane McGill, Staff Writer

“War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery Ignorance is Strength.” This is the slogan of Ingsoc, the fictional totalitarian government that rules Great Britain in George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984. This slogan is what Orwell referred to as “doublethink”, where people are indoctrinated into believing that two contradictory things are simultaneously correct. Orwell warned that one way governments may try to quash political dissent is by destroying people’s ability to talk about dissenting. Perhaps no other prediction Orwell made came so drastically true. In American political discourse nearly every political term has been completely drained of its original meaning. No word better embodies this grim reality than communism. The first definition I was given for communism was in my 7th grade Geography class where I was taught that communism is when “all aspects of life are controlled by the government”. I was introduced to a slightly more complex definition in my U.S. History class, which claimed communism is when “everything is owned by the government and then divided up equally among the people who then all work for it”. No country is more closely associated with communism in the minds of Americans than the Soviet Union. Even today, thirty years after its collapse, the belief that the USSR was a communist state seems an unquestioned fact. Here at Central, this belief is taught as fact in our classes. There’s just one problem with this. It’s totally false.

 

The Soviet Union wasn’t communist for the simple reason that communism has absolutely nothing to do with government. The definition of communism we are given is a lie so completely absurd that you’d have to have no understanding of communist theory to believe it. This is why this lie is so sinister, because it takes advantage of young American’s lack of understanding of economic theory in order to teach them these falsehoods. In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels never so much as mention, much less promote, state ownership of the economy. On the contrary, not only do they never support government control of the means of production, but they actually argue that governments should be abolished entirely. Karl Marx defined communism as a stateless classless, classless, moneyless society based on common control of the means of production.

 

In order for a society to be communist it must be 1) stateless 2) classless 3) moneyless and 4) has common control of the means of production. If a society does not meet all four of these criteria than it cannot be accurately described as communist. So, let’s apply this methodology to the Soviet Union. Was it stateless? No. On the contrary it was itself a highly authoritarian nation state. Was it classless? No. Despite what Americans are taught about all Soviet citizens “getting the same”, this was not the case at all. While the degree of wealth inequality was much lower than in the United States, pay in the Soviet Union differed both between and within professions. A doctor in the Soviet Union was not paid the same as a construction worker. Additionally, the country had a rigid class system centered around a ruling bureaucratic class that controlled Soviet society via the party apparatus. Was it moneyless? No. The Soviet Union had a currency, the Soviet ruble. Did it have common control of the means of production? No. The Soviet economic model was based almost entirely on state control of the means of production, not common. The Soviet Union was not communist because not only did it not check all four of the boxes Marx established for communism, it checked none of them.

 

But what was the Soviet Union then? In his 1880 book Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, Communist Manifesto co-author Fredrick Engels predicted that, in circumstances where private ownership of the economy was no longer viable, a new kind of capitalism would take its place, which he called state capitalism. State Capitalism is defined as an economy where the basic operations of capitalism (centralized management, profit-oriented enterprises, wage labor, capital accumulation) were undertaken by the government instead of private owners. The Soviet Union is the most prominent example of a state capitalist country. China, North Korea, Cuba, Vietnam, and many other countries that Americans falsely label as communist are actually examples of state capitalism in action.

 

The Soviet Union was founded in 1922 following the Bolshevik takeover of the former Russian Empire after an event that western historians called the October Revolution, which was actually a coup that happened in November. Crucially, the first Soviet leader, Bolshevik revolutionary Vladimir Lenin never referred to the new nation as communist, but instead openly acknowledged that it was state capitalist country. Lenin believed that state capitalism would be the final form of capitalism, and only after state capitalism was adopted could a society become socialist and eventually communist. It wasn’t until after Lenin’s death and Stalin’s ascent to power that this changed and the Soviet leadership began to openly claim their country was communist. Soon thereafter, the United States Government began to promote the Stalinist view that the Soviet Union was communist. Both governments told the same lie for different reasons.

 

In the late 19th and early 20th century, anti-capitalist beliefs were very popular among the working classes in Europe and North America. The view that capitalism was unjust was common among workers and most major labor unions explicitly stated the abolition of capitalism as a goal. By portraying the Soviet Union as communist, Stalin sought to gain support for his dictatorship from the Russian people by associating the Stalinist regime with the communist tradition that was so popular among workers at the time. By going along with Stalin’s lie, the United States government sought to discredit the American labor movement and the American Socialist and Communist parties by associating them with the brutal tyranny of the Soviet State. Both strategies were eventually successful. Under the guise of communism, Stalin’s purges slaughtered millions of Soviet citizens, including Jews, Anarchists, Marxists, Socialists, Communists and members of the Bolshevik party that actually held anti-capitalist beliefs. Under the guise of fighting communism, the United States government terrorized intellectuals, artists, activists, women, racial and sexual minorities, and politicians during the Red Scares, destroyed public support for the labor movement and anti-capitalist parties, and justified countless invasions, interventions, and coups in other countries. If you tell a lie often enough, people start to believe it’s true. And when the two most powerful countries in the world are telling the same lie for decades, that lie becomes indistinguishable from fact.

 

Although the Soviet Union is gone, these lies still perform a powerful ideological function. This article is neither an endorsement nor a critique of the Soviet Union, state capitalism, or communism. Instead, it is intended to bring to illuminate the lies around the Soviet Union and communism for what they are. In 2021, the failures of capitalism are more apparent to Americans, particularly young Americans, than at any other time in the past century. More and more people are realizing how immoral and inefficient capitalism is and starting to realize that it is necessary to move beyond capitalism in order to build a better future. Yet every time someone argues for the abolition of capitalism or even mild economic reforms that would make capitalism more livable for ordinary people, capitalists claim that the only alternative to capitalism is absolute tyranny. If we end capitalism, they say, our country will become exactly like Stalinist Russia. This is a direct result of the propaganda that has portrayed the USSR as communist and has falsely portrayed state capitalism as the only alternative to American neoliberal capitalism. The existence of Communism, Socialism, Syndicalism, Communalism, Mutualism, and countless other economic systems have been completely erased from the mind of the average American. The only way to establish a truly just and moral economy is if Americans can first learn to see through the lies and fear mongering that surrounds the both communism and the Soviet Union.