Now that the Soviet Union has passed into history many people have written books and articles trying to explain what happened. Perhaps some books written before the event are more enlightening than many written after it.
One such book, I would like to suggest, is Herbert Marcuse’s Soviet Marxism: A Critical Analysis. This book was originally published in 1958 and was roundly condemned both by pro-Soviet progressives and by the cold warriors of anticommunism.
Marcuse thought he must have gotten to the heart of things when both sides interpreted him as supporting the other. The truth, however, is that Marcuse was trying to be "objective"-- within the limits imposed by the political conditions of the 1950s.
This little review will only discuss Marcuse’s 1961 preface to the Viking paperback edition. Its point is to suggest that we can learn a great deal from a critical engagement with Marcuse, especially with respect to understanding the future prospects of a revitalization of the international working class movement. This is a hopeful article in the "it is always darkest before the dawn" tradition.
Marcuse wrote about the historical tendencies in the Soviet Union of Khrushchev. Now, over sixty years later, we are in a position to evaluate his understanding of these tendencies.
One of the first things he discusses is the dispute over "peaceful coexistence" between the Soviets and the Chinese. Both sides accepted the need for peaceful coexistence but their reasons were very different-- in fact they were dialectically opposite so we might have expected that they would get together (a synthesis). We know this didn’t happen. The Soviets, in fact, were simply negated.
The dispute centered on the nature of imperialism-- and if you get this wrong you lose.
The Soviets maintained that Lenin’s thesis on the inevitability of war was no longer valid in the post World War II era. Both sides agreed that the "essence" of imperialism had not changed. The Chinese also conceded that it was possible to avert war.
So what was the problem? The Soviets maintained that the growing strength of the world socialist movement had weakened the imperialists and they were now not likely to want to engage in warlike activity. They needed peace to consolidate their weakened position and could be best contained in a non-confrontational matter through diplomacy and compromise-- meanwhile the ever growing power of the socialist world, in conjunction with the national liberation struggle in the third world, would make the imperialists behave themselves. The Chinese wanted a more militant struggle. This was an argument over tactics. The Chinese agreed that the balance of forces were now (the 1950s) tipping against the imperialists, but they thought this would make them even more, not less, likely to engage in warlike activity-- out of desperation.
The Vietnam War seems to show that the Chinese were correct. And even though that war ended in a great victory for third world peoples and a major imperialist defeat, the world balance of forces did not end up tipping against the imperialists. It now looks like they are still trying to be in control but their inability to defeat the Taliban and the resurgence of China as world power, as well as Russia’s upsetting their applecart in Syria, does not bode well for them.
Also, what was the war in Iraq if not a desperate and foolish bid to try and dominate the middle east and its oil reserves by force? The imperialists are squabbling among themselves and ever more areas of the world are beginning to stand up to them-- the DPRK, Cuba, Vietnam, Laos and China are not under their control, and countries such as Venezuela, Argentina, Uruguay and South Africa are moving out of their orbit (we might also add Iran). There are also anti-imperialist movements in Nepal, Columbia and Bolivia as well as other Central and South American countries which challenge the notion of imperialism’s unchecked dominance. So, while the Chinese no longer practice the militant foreign policy advocated in the 50s, they are still pursuing anti-imperialist policies with respect to US imperialism.
Now Marcuse makes a very interesting point. He says a society should try "to satisfy the vital material and intellectual needs of all its members with a minimum of imposed labor," and this "requires planning and control of the economy with a view to this end; it also requires re-education with a view to exchangeability of functions and a transvaluation of values, subverting a repressive work morality."
The real world is very far from this state of affairs, it is full of privation, misery and exploitation as well as alienation. Marcuse says realists might dismiss the above as utopian and unrealistic blathering. He uses the word "eschatological" to describe his depiction of a society based on material freedom. The interesting point is that contemporary western societies based on capitalism do not even aim at creating such a society. It is also the case that the Soviet Union did not itself reflect such a society on the ground, as it were.
Nevertheless, according to Marcuse, the Soviet Union is a qualitatively (I should say "was") different type of industrial society than capitalism because its eschatological vision was precisely to create the above described society of material freedom. It held out this goal as an attainable reality only hindered by the historical conditions of backwardness and capitalist encirclement.
In 1958, Marcuse saw the possibility that the Soviet Union might be able to further develop its technological base so that "it may militate against the further use of technology for perpetuating individually unnecessary labor" this could lead "to the elimination of scarcity and toil."
Although Marcuse realized that he would be charged with utopian fantasies, he also maintained that compared to the status quo (unacceptable human exploitation and alienation), the eschatological vision provided by the Soviet Union held out to humanity, and kept alive the notion that another world was possible.
Even though the Soviet Union was destroyed by counterrevolutionary forces engendered by both its internal contradictions and its situation in a hostile capitalist encirclement, the vision of a just and humane society remains. It is up to us to keep it alive for the future.
Herbert Marcuse, Soviet Marxism: A Critical Analysis, New York, Vintage Books, 1961
Thomas Riggins is a retired philosophy teacher (NYU, The New School of Social Research, among others) who received a PhD from the CUNY Graduate Center (1983). He has been active in the civil rights and peace movements since the 1960s when he was chairman of the Young People's Socialist League at Florida State University and also worked for CORE in voter registration in north Florida (Leon County). He has written for many online publications such as People's World and Political Affairs where he was an associate editor. He also served on the board of the Bertrand Russell Society and was president of the Corliss Lamont chapter in New York City of the American Humanist Association.