Why Did the Soviet Union Collapse?

For the Communist League response to this article, see here.

by Ted Hankin


One of the most retailed reasons amongst Marxist-Leninists for the demise of the Soviet Union is the ‘traitors thesis’. At its crudest, the traitors thesis argues that the USSR was on track for socialism until the death of Stalin when a group of traitors to socialism, who had managed to worm their way into the top echelons of the party, took control.

“The tragedy of the Second World War Period was that instead of men in the mould of Lenin and Stalin, it was Nikita Khruschev who became the leader of the Soviet Union and the international communist movement.” (Majid, p.1)

Khruschev is said to have taken a “chosen path of capitulation to imperialism.” (Majid, p.3) Why did he ‘choose’ this path: the reader will look in vain for any answer in this booklet, and indeed Khruschev’s poor peasant origins appear totally unexceptional. (Majid, p.1) At bottom, the traitors thesis is a personalist and psychological account. It is a ‘bad man’ theory of history that has a similar methodology to the manner in which bourgeois history is taught in terms of the reign of wicked and beneficial King’s and Queen’s.

The traitors thesis leaves many questions unanswered. In particular, where did the traitors keep coming from? It is true that Stalin was well aware that many of the ruling elite had ideas alien to socialism, and that promotion within the bureaucracy could also be a step closer to the labour camp. However, this could only ever be an extremely arbitrary and short-term measure. Stalin used organisational means to attempt to deal with a recurring political problem. In any case, such a policy could only survive Stalin’s lifetime, as it was reliant on Stalin’s ruthlessness and prestige. The real question is: why were ‘capitalist roaders’ constantly produced and reproduced under a regime, which was supposed to be socialist? What is required is a materialist analysis.


Precisely due to the extremely adverse circumstances that conditioned the aftermath of 1917: civil war, economic disruption, famine, etc., the Bolshevik regime was forced to implement extremely repressive measures in order to maintain its rule. These measures tended to narrow the social basis of the regime, which had already lost many of its best supporters in the fighting. The suppression of the Kronstadt rebellion by the early Bolshevik regime was, in Trotsky’s words, “a tragic necessity.” (Lenin and Trotsky, 1978) The Bolsheviks had no choice; they had to recreate the working class.

The adverse situation meant that many procedures had to be enacted in the Soviet Union, which were inimical to the building of socialism. Productive forces theory was strongly represented in early positivist, (Second International), interpretations of Marxism and this tendency was reinforced by the pressing material circumstances. (Carchedi, 1987, pp.5-6)

It is quite clear now, from the experiences in both the Soviet Union and China, that simply raising the level of productive forces without really revolutionising the relations of production is doomed to failure. In particular the masses have to be drawn into the real decision making processes in order to achieve the high level of political consciousness necessary for socialism to be built. The idea that the proletarian state is the bourgeois state turned on its head is entirely incorrect. The bourgeois state relies for its continued existence on only a narrow stratum of oppressors, whilst for its survival the proletarian state must undertake the massive task of bringing the mass of people to political consciousness. As Luxemburg puts it:

“Socialism in life demands a complete spiritual transformation in the masses degraded by centuries of bourgeois class rule. Social instincts in place of egotistical ones, mass initiative in place of inertia, idealism which conquers all suffering, etc., etc. No one knows this better, describes it more penetratingly, describes it more stubbornly than Lenin. But he is completely mistaken in the means he employs. Decree, dictatorial force of the factory overseer, draconic penalties, rule by terror – all these things are but palliatives. The only way to a rebirth is the school of public life itself, the most unlimited, the broadest democracy and public opinion. It is rule by terror which demoralizes.” (Luxemburg, p.70)

There is a substantial element of idealism in Luxemburg’s analysis if taken in conjunctural terms. She is writing as if there was no Civil War and famine in the period (1918) on which she is commentating, when it is difficult to see how anyone could have ruled except by the exercise of force. Nevertheless, initial habits die hard and command methods remained when they were no longer necessary for the imminent survival of the Bolshevik regime. Luxemburg’s analysis takes on an added relevance when we note that policies such as one-man management, piecework, and Taylorist work practices have no chance of drawing the masses into the ‘public life’ which she enumerates. Such practices decompose the working class and are bourgeois modes of labour organisation. (Sirianni, p.147)

That important opportunities were missed is illustrated by the extraordinary initial development of the Soviet economy, a development which cannot be explained in bourgeois economic terms of material self-interest. It can only be explained by the fact that Soviet citizens were prepared to make tremendous sacrifices for the future of socialist construction. As Hoffman mentions, “even anti- Stalinist liberals were to describe the Stalinist system as one of totalitarian democracy in order to acknowledge the popular enthusiasm it had aroused.” (Hoffman, 1990, p.16) This reliance, actually partial reliance, on the masses was time limited. In the 1920s:

“Stalin had nothing else to rely on except the masses, so he demanded all out mobilization of the party and the masses. Afterwards when they had realized some gains this way, they became less reliant on the masses. (RCP, 1981, p.4)

The principal contradiction in the former Soviet Union was the encirclement by imperialism. The fundamental contradiction was internal: the failure throughout to revolutionise the relations of production.


Theoretically, it is necessary to transcend the productive forces theory of socialism which relies on the simple notion that all that is required for socialism is a ‘superabundance’ of consumer goods. The assumption is that when such goods are freely available then people will use them only as necessary and cease to covet them as an alienated expression of their humanity. Whilst socialist development does require an adequate level of productive forces, it should not be narrowly focused on competing with capitalism in the realm of consumer goods: this is to trivialise the whole socialist project. This ideology became explicit during the Khruschev period in the Soviet Union but it was always an underlying trend. What is necessary is a society in which people can realise their own essential humanity. Socialism is not about everyone having five video recorders it is about developing a completely new series of non-antagonistic relationships between humans and between humans and nature.

Productive forces theory meant that the Soviet leadership upheld the bourgeois idea that a socialist society resembled a bigger and better capitalist one, (with similar productive relationships). The Soviet elite squandered an enormous amount on prestige projects in its ‘competition’ with capitalism. Sport, space and prestige public buildings had expenditure lavished on them whilst basic infrastructure lay unattended.

Actually, if ‘superabundance’ could be provided under any system of social organisation then it would be terminal for the planet, both in terms of diminishment of resources and environmental damage. Twenty per cent of former Soviet citizens live in “ecological disaster areas” with a loss of life expectancy of seven years and a high rate of infant mortality. (Shaw and Pryce, 1990, p.140) An overwhelming concentration on short-term economic growth with no consequence paid to long-term environmental consequences was a characteristic of the process of socialist construction in the USSR and Eastern Europe. Geras advises that the aim of Communism should be the fulfilment of ‘reasonable needs’ which relate to social circumstances. (1985, p.83) The aim of socialism must be to provide everyone with a decent and dignified standard of living rather than the destructive and profligate levels of the affluent sections in the imperialist nations.

Productive forces theory meant that democracy in the economic decision making process was not assigned primary importance. In a planned economy some way is necessary of making millions of micro decisions which the centre not only wastes time on considering but which history indicates can only come to notoriously clumsy decisions. Information technology and other scientific innovations could have facilitated this process but posed a potential challenge to the bureaucratic leadership especially in the area of censorship. (Medvedev, 1979) This is an example of how negations of socialist democracy inhibited innovation and creativity. The situation is that the increasing complexity of a socialist society as it develops necessitates a level of democracy, which enables the mass of the population to be involved in the decision making processes.

A rejection of productive forces theory explicitly views people, rather than machines and technology, as potentially the Communist’s greatest asset for constructing socialism. People, after all, are a major part of the productive forces. Of necessity there has to be an emphasis on revolutionising people’s consciousness, and in particular developing the cadre of the Communist party itself. (I do not have the opportunity to discuss it here but the Chinese experience is a paradigm example for further study. (Burchett and Alley, Mao Tse-Tung)

In a situation where the party is, at least initially, substituting for a decimated working class as in Russia, the ideological commitment, and moral character of the Communist party is extremely important. This is especially the case when the party is forced to compromise with the technical intelligentsia whose efforts are necessary to the immediate and medium term continuation of society, but whose class outlook is more or less hostile to the revolutionary project. In practice, precisely because of the failure to revolutionise productive relationships, it appears to be the alien class forces that ideologically influenced the Communists rather than vice versa.

Eventually the party provided a socialisation process in which bourgeois aims and aspirations were not only accommodated, but actually reinforced. Marxism-Leninism was converted into little more than a series of ritual incantations which legitimised the ‘leading role’ of the ruling elite. Although it started well before, the Brezhnev period became a classic example of open corruption amongst the ruling elite. There was, hardly surprisingly, widespread resentment of the privileged lifestyle enjoyed by the bureaucrats.

Eventually the growth of class forces alien to socialism developed to the extent that they were able to reach a level of ideological and organisational hegemony sufficient to gain control of the party and state apparatus. These forces had been developing, with periodic attacks being made on them via party organisational and political measures, Getty, 1985) ever since the inception of the revolution. However, by the Twentieth Congress of the CPSU they were strong enough to make an indirectly public appearance. (In Eastern Europe there were specific problems caused by the imposition of socialism from above by the Red Army. The alienation of the Communist Parties from the masses, to use the most diplomatic language, was never overcome.)


By the Seventh Congress in 1935, the Comintern was dead for revolution. The ‘united front against fascism and war’ required, “- a social-chauvinist alliance of the Comintern with the allied imperialists; – a subordination of the interests of the international proletariat to the exigencies of the foreign policy of the Soviet Union.” (MLPC., p.1)

This meant that opportunities for advances, such as in Spain, were thrown away as armed insurrection was sacrificed to making deals with ‘democratic’ imperialist powers. (RCP, 1981a p.32) (Of course, there was a relationship between the Comintern and its fraternal parties, after all the Comintern line appears to have been influenced by the French Communist Party.) (MLPC, p.3), By 1941 Harry Pollitt was suggesting that:

“The Churchill government is the representative of national unity for the fulfilment of the aims of the British-Soviet Pact, of the United Nations and victory over Hitler.” (CUO, 1972, p.6)

As the document says, “such a policy was an outright sell-out of the independent role of the Communist Party.” (p.6) In the sense of non-reliance on the masses, then, there was a similarity between Soviet internal and external policies. The demise of the International Communist Movement meant that the Soviet Union received little solidarity from abroad. In addition, the marginalisation of Marxism in the imperialist countries meant that the bourgeoisie there had little to fear from their ‘own’ working class.

On the military and intelligence fronts, the USA intervened heavily in order to support and indeed create anti-Soviet forces. (Blum, 1986) The consolidation of the Soviet Union always suggested that imperialism would have had to be subject to a decisive military defeat. Any attempt to construct socialism will need to seriously confront this. The theory of ‘peaceful coexistence’ was adapted from Lenin and integrated into the “overall revisionist outlook” as an attempt to side-step this issue. (Clark, p.10)

The post-war encirclement of the former socialist bloc by imperialism, exemplified by the Cold War, meant that the USSR was forced to sustain a massive arms expenditure.

By 1981-1985 the growth rate of the Soviet economy, obviously on a larger total economic base, was 3.3% compared with 11.2% in 1951-55. (Samary, 1988, P.13) In order to increase the level of consumer goods and spend money on arms the Soviets withdrew capital from long-term investment: in 1978/79 it was only 1%; in 1980 – 0.5%. Estimates on the amount of the Soviet budget allocated to military expenditure vary considerably from 11% of GNP in the 1976-80 10th year plan, (Shaw and Pryce, 1990, p.144), to CIA estimates of 15% of GNP. (Shaw and Pryce, 1990, p.89)

If many ostensibly civilian projects, (e.g. space research), which have considerable military implications are included in the calculations then the percentage of the Soviet economy devoted to military spending of one kind or another may have been much higher. The low productivity of Soviet labour did not allow the Soviet Union to compete with the world economy on favourable terms. This low productivity, and this is where a profound connection between the internal and external life of the Soviet Union existed, could only have been boosted by the energy and initiative of the masses. Such an input was not forthcoming.

This was fatal because the limits of the Soviet economy as regards growth via extensive surplus value had been reached, and a move to the intensive accumulation of surplus value was necessary. In the absence of relying on the masses the leadership of the USSR was forced to look to advanced technology as a short-term palliative. (Hence, the importance of Western attempts, led by the US, to prevent the export of advanced technologies to the Soviet Union.). This could have been partly offset by internal technological innovations but, as noted above, these tended to be stifled.


“In our view, the search for a non-market economic formula which would completely rationalise relationships between economic units, is bound to fail unless it is accompanied by a raising of the ideological level.

The use of economic incentives is unavoidable in the transition period because capitalist ideology still plays a part in people’s thinking, but by the same token, in the absence of ideological struggle, they will continue to ‘play the system’ as they did under capitalism. People do not automatically change their ideas because the titular ownership of the means of production has changed, and though they may feel they have a common interest at factory level, that may still be expressed in terms of ‘playing the system’ for the benefit of the economic unit to which they belong.

The only way of avoiding this is to raise the general level of social consciousness, and that cannot be achieved overnight.

What is required is a concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat in which the political aspect is just one part of a broader cultural revolution.” (The Marxist, p.12)


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Definition: productive forces.

The productive forces consist of tools and instruments developed by people and the people themselves with their skills and abilities, who actually expend labour power in the productive process. Because people are a productive force, and in the technologically backward sectors of the world economy still the most important productive force, and people have consciousness, then, it follows that in certain circumstances the level of that consciousness can heavily impinge on the rate at which labour power is expended and the level of productive forces is increased.

Definition: relations of production.

The relations of production can be defined simply as the manner of engagement of the productive forces with the overall process of production. This ‘manner of engagement’, however, can at times be singularly complex leading to corresponding difficulties of analysis. Marx puts it this way in a well known passage from his “Preface”,

“In the social production of their existence, men enter into definite, necessary relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production corresponding to a determinate stage of development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation on which there arises a legal and political superstructure and to which there correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life-process in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but on the contrary it is their social being that determines their consciousness”. (Marx, p.3)

Preface and Introduction to a Critique of Political Economy, Peking Foreign Languages Press, 1976.

Definition: productive forces theory. The idea that an increase in the level of productive forces will automatically create the conditions for a socialist society. Productive forces theory does not pay attention to the need for continuing revolution in the ideological and political arenas, which have the intention of reshaping peoples worldview. It is a passive and ‘inevitablist’ theory in that, if socialism is inevitable, then why bother to continue struggling for it? The potentially creative role of a mass input is excluded from productive forces theory, and there is a reliance on material incentives.

Published by Victor Vaughn

Anti-revisionist Marxist-Leninist, monarch of Latveria, owner, National Secretary of the American Party of Labor (APL) and operator of "The Espresso Stalinist" blog.

3 thoughts on “Why Did the Soviet Union Collapse?

  1. My comment relates to the entire section on “Soviet Revisionism”. This location for my comment is as good as any other within this section.

    Sorry, but as someone who has become Marxist-Leninist largely due to the inspiration emanating from the USSR I cannot accept the view of the blog.

    It is easy to adopt the pose of a super-revolutionary by saying that Soviet Union stopped being revolutionary after Stalin. However, those who defended the USSR steadfastly since the October revolution and until Gorbachov’s counter-revolution, and continue to defend her live memory today, are those who bear all the pressure of the capitalist propaganda machine and confront with all the might of the bourgeois class war apparatus.

    Since its inception and until Gorbachov’s rise and counter-revolution, the USSR was the bastion of revolution. Not everything was good, but on the whole the USSR was the mighty fortress of the global working class and of the oppressed nations. She was the hardener of their physical and spiritual weapons, and the inspiring home of Marxism-Leninism. This included the fostering of every philosopher, writer or statesman who served the oppressed class, since ancient times.

    The USSR was the fortress of humanity, and such a fortress must be rebuilt.

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