Bruce Momjian

Soviet System Defied Reality

As a practical matter, therefore socialism leads not to an assault on the specific abuses of "capitalism" but to an assault on reality ...

The Soviet Tragedy: A History of Socialism in Russia, 1917-1991, by Martin Edward Malia

pages 224-225

But was the result of their efforts really "socialism?" It was clearly not "capitalism," but is that enough to qualify it as true "socialism?" Socialist opinion outside Russian was divided over this question at the time, and it has bedeviled all discussion of socialism ever since. With Stalin's achievement the discourse of world socialism entered a wholly new phase.

From the 1830s to the First Five-Year Plan, socialism was a state that lay in the future; with Stalin's victory for the first time it could be alleged that socialism actually existed in the present. It had passed from the status of a prospective utopia to that of a palpable reality, and from the status of a movement to a society. Or at least the Soviet regime claimed that this had occurred. From that time onward, therefore, any socialist had to define his position in terms not just of the Soviet "experiment" but of the Soviet "achievement." But what are the criteria for deciding Soviet socialism's ontological status?

The Soviet Union had indubitably arrived at noncapitalism. It had suppressed private property, profit, and the market, and this is clearly the instrumental program of integral socialism. But most of the positive moral benefits that were supposed to result from this program had not appeared; on the contrary, a large number of unanticipated negative consequences could be observed. There was no growth of material abundance, but rather an increase of penury. There was no advance of human freedom, but instead of a regression into servitude. There was no triumph of equality, but rather a new stratification of the population as a function of the Party's purposes. There was no end of the exploitation of man by man; indeed, to this was added the exploitation of everybody by the Party-state.

In short, the Party had built socialism, and it turned out not to be socialism. Or, to be more precise, the Party had realized the instrumental program of socialism, but socialism's moral program still remained in the future. Indeed, the new present was arguably worse, in terms of socialist morality, than the old capitalist past.

There are several ways of coping with this unexpectedly contradictory outcome. One is to deny that any contradiction existed at all, and to claim that the moral consequences of socialism did in reality follow from the practical program. This is the course that was adopted by the Soviet regime, and it is difficult to see how it could have done otherwise without admitting that it had failed and that the system was a fraud.

Another solution is to say that the central objective of the Soviet Revolution was realization of the instrumental program of noncapitalism-namely, the end of the private property -and that since this had been achieved, the Soviet order was a real, if incomplete, socialism. This is the course taken by Trotsky, Bukharin, and a multitude of later commentators, both in Russia and abroad, from Roy Medvedev and Gorbachev to any number of Western authorities. This solution, of course, embraces the already mentioned aberration thesis; the badman theory of history; and/or the heavy heritage of Russian autocracy, bureaucracy, and backwardness. And until 1991 it entailed the belief that in the fullness of time the moral program of socialism would be added to the instrumental one. It is this hopeful and consoling via media that has been far and away the most popular solution to the Soviet conundrum, both in the East and in the West.

But there is a third solution, which is to say that the instrumental program of socialism leads quite logically to the perversion of its moral program. In other words, the failure of integral socialism stems not from its having been tried out first in the wrong place, Russia but from the socialist idea per se. And the reason for this failure is that socialism as full noncapitalism is intrinsically impossible. For the suppression of private property, profit,and the market is tantamount to the suppression of civil society and all individual autonomy. And although this can be approximated for a time, it requires an inordinate application of force that cannot be sustained indefinitely.

As a practical matter, therefore socialism leads not to an assault on the specific abuses of "capitalism" but to an assault on reality tout court [and nothing more]. It becomes, in effect, an effort to suppress the real world, and this is something that cannot succeed in the long run. But for a protracted period this effort can succeed in creating a surreal world, one defined by the paradox that inefficiency, poverty, and brutality can be officially presented as the summum bonum [highest good] of society, and one where society is unable to challenge this fraud.

page 502

It is wisdom as old as Aristotle that tragedy consists not in the triumph of blatant evil but in the perversion of the good.

page 518

Consequently, there will always be social pressure to use political power to correct economic power in the name of the common good. At the same time, society will always confront the dilemma that without a division of labor, and therefore without enduring inequality, there will not be economic growth — also for the common good.