Socialism, Post-Socialism, and the Appropriately Modern: Thinking About the History of the USSRSkip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
This work is protected by copyright and may be linked to without seeking permission. Permission must be received for subsequent distribution in print or electronically. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more information. :
For more information, read Michigan Publishing's access and usage policy.
In his latest book, Seeing Like a State, James C. Scott notes that most of the massive state engineering schemes of the twentieth century have been the work of progressive or revolutionary elites committed to changing existing society but often with no commitment to democracy or civil rights. The prophets of high modernism (and the villains in this book) are Walter Rathenau, Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin, Le Corbusier, and Julius Nyerere; their worthy opponents are Rosa Luxemburg, Aleksandra Kollontai, Jane Jacobs, and E. F. Schumacher. Small, personal, idiosyncratic, local, and spontaneous are all beautiful, while attempts to create full high modernist state legibility leads to perverse outcomes like the Soviet collective farms, the Tanzanian ujamaa villages, Brasilia, concentration camps, and the strategic hamlets of Vietnam. Instead of planning from above and outside by all-knowing, all-seeing elites, Scott advocates metis, by which he means practical skills and acquired intelligence that responds to constantly changing natural and human environments.
The case that Scott makes is a powerful one, a warning against the intellectual hubris that seems to be rooted in rationalist social engineering and that rides over the diversity and particularities of actually lived lives. But it is hard not to notice that Scott‘s principal foes are on the Left, and with the debris of post-Communism cluttering the rush to the market his targets seem too easy to hit. Alongside the failed imposed schemes to improve the human condition, other devastating failures of modernity come to mind, like the American urban crisis, which was less about rationalist planning and more about the fallout of market forces inflected by racism.
Are the post-Soviet programs of privatization and marketization that have caused so much turmoil in the former Soviet Union also related to high modernism? It is hard to disagree with his argument that "authoritarian disregard for the values, desires, and objections of their subjects" has marred certain states in our times, but one wonders whether the choice between local knowledge and utopian schemes has to be presented so starkly. Scott‘s warning about the dangers of state arrogance and insensitive planning is an important one. However, at a time when the Soviet experience is being used universally to demonstrate that any alternative to capitalism is utopian, a "thicker," more textured elaboration of a variety of modernities might leave us with less despair about confronting intractable social problems at the end of the millennium.
A Brief Excursion in Soviet Historiography
Over the last several decades, two opposing schools of interpretation have emerged in the media and among professional Sovietologists to explain the Soviet past and the reasons for the collapse of European Communism. At one pole are those who believe that the Soviet experience was a dangerous, wrong-headed, even evil, experiment on living human beings, in the words of Martin Malia, "the great utopian adventure of our century. "3 Though they never achieved their utopian vision, Soviet rulers created "a monstrous antireality, or an inverted world," the result of an ideologically driven attempt to create an "integral revolutionary socialism," "full non-capitalism."4 The Communist party came to power in a coup d‘état, behind the backs of the masses. As a minority regime it required both a communications and cultural monopoly to perpetuate the Big Lie and an omnipresent secret police to maintain its power.
The full conceptualization of this version of Soviet history was captured in the so-called Totalitarian model, which linked Soviet Communism with Fascism and condemned both as terrorist regimes bent on world conquest. Imbedded in the model was the conviction that the State had essentially atomized the people, rendering them impotent and incapable of effective resistance. Unlike authoritarian regimes with which Western democracies could do business, totalitarian regimes were unchanging and unchangeable — except through their total destruction, either from without or from their own internal contradictions. From the perspective of this Cold War vision, one period of Soviet history was collapsed into the other, so that Stalin became, not the gravedigger of Leninism, but the fulfillment of the Leninist ideal. A revolution conceived in idealism and democratic aspirations was seen as the inevitable precursor of Stalinist terror. The evident changes in Soviet society after the death of Stalin were generally interpreted as mere window dressing; reform was not taken seriously, even as it unraveled the very threads that held the system together; and the idea of a "democratic socialism" was characterized as an oxymoron, a "democratic Stalinism, " according to Martin Malia.
This view bloomed fully in the Cold War, suffered a decline during the several decades of coexistence and détente, and has now been revived to become, with some of the details shifted, the dominant understanding of the nature, evolution, and failure of the Soviet system. The overwhelming sense among the people who came to power in Russia in 1991 was that the revolution that established the Soviet republic had been a conspiratorial coup d‘état that shunted the country off the track of democracy, prosperity, and modernity into a tragic trajectory that took another 74 years to reverse. Indeed, the words that ever more frequently describe the years of Soviet power include "tragedy," "utopia," and, with the sense of something that went drastically wrong, "experiment."
For many in the West as well, the Soviet experience has come to mean that alternatives to capitalism have been disposed of on the "trash heap of history." With the collapse of the Soviet Union, a new twist was added to the old model. Borrowing from post-modernism, some historians linked the Soviet program of social transformation to the great move to modernity that from the Enlightenment on attempted to create a modern world by scientific study of society, careful enumeration and categorization of the population, and the application of planning and administration. In the view of many of those who speak of "modernity" as an all-encompassing comparative syndrome, the Soviet experiment was a particularly misguided effort that contributed to the unprecedented violence and state-initiated bloodshed that has marked the twentieth century.
A second grand interpretation — the developmental or modernization model — emerged within the practice of Sovietology in the late years of the Cold War and is now under considerable challenge. In the 1960s and 1970s, many social scientists began to look at the USSR as an alternative model of social and economic development. However brutal and costly the excesses of Stalinism, it was clear to many that the Soviet Union had recovered from the practice of mass terror after 1953, was unlikely to return to it, and was slowly evolving into a modern, articulated urban society with many features shared with other developed countries. In the years when modernization theory, and its kissing cousin, convergence theory, held sway, the overall impression was that the Soviet Union was a much more benign society and tolerable enemy than had been proposed by the Cold Warriors.
With the development of social history in the late 1960s, historians in the West began investigating the origins of the Soviet regime, most particularly in the revolutionary year 1917, and they radically revised the view of the October Revolution as a Bolshevik conspiracy with little popular support. Rather they argued that workers and soldiers, particularly though not exclusively in the capital city, Petrograd, were radicalized during 1917 by the ongoing war and economic collapse, the collaboration of moderate socialists with the "bourgeois" Provisional Government, and the effective mobilization by the Bolsheviks for support of a lower-class soviet government. Other "revisionists" went on to challenge the degree of state control over society during the Stalin years and emphasized the procedures by which workers and others maintained small degrees of autonomy from the all-pervasive state. Gradually the totalitarian model lost its potency, and because of its inability to explain change after 1953, its neglect of any serious investigation of society, and its attempts to homogenize Communism into Fascism, the T-model was largely rejected by a younger generation of historians of the USSR.
In Soviet studies the modernization model was a welcome alternative to the fiercely anti-Communist T-model. Here the Soviet Union was hardly a stagnant or unchanging society, but one characterized by constant reforms and even revolutionary transformations. Rather than an unbroken continuity between the policies and practices of Lenin and those of Stalin, many in this school saw a deep disjuncture, a reversal of Lenin‘s goals and methods — an abandonment of his internationalist program, the reduction of his promotion of national cultures within the Soviet Union, the jettisoning of his moderate policies toward the peasants in the drive toward forced collectivization — all of which necessitated in the 1930s the physical elimination of most of Lenin‘s closest comrades. The potential for democratic evolution of the system seemed to be confirmed by the efforts of Gorbachev to restrain the power of the Communist party, to awaken public opinion and political participation through glasnost, and to allow greater freedom to the non-Russian peoples of the Soviet borderlands.
Modernization or modernity? For one school the transformative project of modernization was a positive endeavor; for another, modernity stands condemned as a vain attempt to bring order to the chaos of social existence. The Soviet case stands in the view of a number of scholars in the post-Cold War era as the premier case of what can go wrong with modernity taken to its logical conclusion.
Modernity is an unusually protean term. It has been used to explain everything from human rights to the Holocaust. At one end it refers to everything in the modern world, even phenomena that are deeply opposed, contradictory to one another, and the whole modern age is contrasted to past eras as totalities. Modern is a term set against ancient, medieval, or traditional. More selectively, "modern" has come to be used as a description of a cluster of ideas and attitudes that came out of the Enlightenment: the privileging of reason over belief, a reliance on science, etc. Here a struggle between modernity and non-modern elements, like religion and customary practices (exemplified, for example, in the peasantry), is highlighted. The Enlightenment program remains an ideal type, a kind of utopia against which actual manifestations of modern times might be referred or judged. If the goal of the Enlightenment was in a sense a rational social order, the attempted realizations of that ideal might include examples as far removed as Soviet socialism, the TVA or even the interstate highway system.
Yet a third way of looking at modernity would be the variety of adaptations to the model of modernity presented by the developed West. Rather than simply identifying modernity with the industrial, urban, capitalist West, one might consider other appropriate modernities that might include or reject aspects of the West. In this way, various social and political groups in post-Soviet Russia or revolutionary Iran can be seen as proposing different adaptations to the dominant Western form of the modern, as various attempts to redefine modernity by combining it with local or traditional elements.
Modernity, of course, is not a thing but a discourse, a highly normative one that seeks to judge, evaluate, and grade societies, systems, and states. Modernity itself, in other words, is a modern discourse. We can identify a cluster of intellectual and political practices that arose in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries which became so hegemonic over time that it took the self-reflexivity of what we call post-modernism to identify the relative coherence of this set of loosely-held commitments and practices.
Among the elements that constitute the modern I would include: first, the emergence of the idea of the "social," a separate and distinct sphere of activity that can be analyzed without reference to the divine; second, the decline of religious worldviews and the rise of secularism and materialist culture; third, the dominance of secular forms of political power and authority organized eventually in territorial nation-states existing in an international system of "sovereign" states; fourth, capitalist market economies based on large-scale production and private property ownership; fifth, the replacement of traditional social orders by dynamic social and sexual divisions of labor, or the replacement of estates by classes; sixth, the idea of progress: by applying science and reason, human social and material conditions could be improved; seventh, individualism: the individual is the source of all knowledge and action while society is itself constituted by a collection of individuals; eighth, rationalism: any thinking person has the capacity to think rationally, based on clear, innate ideas independent of experience; ninth, toleration: humans everywhere are the same and deserve respect, freedom, and equal treatment; and tenth, liberty, which was set in opposition to traditional constraints imposed by power and religion.
The family of philosophes, writes Peter Gay, "united on a vastly ambitious program, a program of secularism, humanity, cosmopolitanism, and freedom." But in a darker light, Adorno and Horkheimer claimed in The Dialectic of Enlightenment (1972) that modernity was based on a logic that hides behind Enlightenment rationality, a logic of domination and oppression.5 The lust to dominate nature entails the domination of human beings.6 The very ideas and ideals that had been the central values of rationalist intellectuals for 200 years were now to be questioned, for instead of emancipation they had led to a oppressive violent world. Whereas earlier the image of science had been heroic, now a mad scientist took its place. The idea that propositions could be tested, proved, and disproved by the experimental method, and that knowledge thus will expand, was now seen as a pretension to absolute and fixed truth, a bold and dangerous political project of universally applying reason and science everywhere and producing general laws that could govern the entire universe, both nature and society. The target of much of this criticism has been, of course, the intelligentsia, and with their backs to the wall intellectuals have been forced either to question or defend the Enlightenment. This is a difficult task indeed, because Enlightenment ideas, which gave precedence to reason and science, in fact empower intellectuals.
From this perspective on modernity, socialism, particularly Soviet state socialism, was a modern project, indeed a particularly fiercely applied one, but one that sought to go beyond the capitalist version of modernity. For some historians (e.g., Pipes and Malia), the agent of that modernity was the intellectual; for other analysts, like Scott, it was the state, "the modern, obsessively legislating, defining, structuring, segregating, classifying, recording, and universalizing state [that] reflected the splendor of universal and absolute standards of truth."
Though those who have adopted the modernity perspective reject many aspects of modernization theory, there is a strange affinity between the two. Modernization theory played an important role in Sovietology, proposing that the Soviet Union should be seen both as a part of the general process of modernization and as a deviation from the modern as defined by the Western example. Modernization theory tried to link the developmental processes of socialist states with the general and necessary processes that went on in the first and third worlds. Like modernity, modernization attempted to break down the exceptionalism in the Soviet experience and eventually was criticized precisely for its failure to emphasize adequately the stark differences. Modernization was a single process, "which operates in all developing societies — regardless of their color, creed, or climate and regardless of their history, geography, or culture."8 Modernization theory had a distinguished Weberian pedigree and was proposed as an alternative to Marxism, which in its own way was a theory of modernization but one that projected a revolutionary transcendence of capitalism and Western parliamentarianism. Both Marxism and modernization theory were "modernist" in their acceptance of the basic progressive teleology of development; both practiced a materialist inevitabilism and, when applied to the Soviet Union, were criticized for apologizing for the worst excesses of Soviet socialism as necessitated by development. Indeed, modernization theorists argued that the "continual changes in all spheres of a society [entailed by modernization] means of necessity that it involves processes of disorganization and dislocation."9 Social disorder, violence, even genocide could be explained as part of the modernization process.
The difference between the modernists and the modernizationists is in the openness of the possible understandings and strategies of socialism and, of course, between those who have tied Lenin tightly to Stalin and therefore obliterated the possibility of an alternative socialism, and those who have tried to uncouple Lenin from Stalin and kept open the possibility of another form of socialism. This has always been the great divide in Soviet studies. Given the former position, any evolution toward Social Democratic accommodations with market capitalism, which occurred in Marxist parties in the West, or the Gorbachev reforms, would appear to be precluded. The point is that it was Stalin‘s identification of socialism exclusively with his choices — limiting the range of discussion that had raged before 1930 and adopting a non-market socialism at the given level of development to be carried out by the massive application of state violence — which led to the creation of a parody of socialism.
Even after losing its more experimental side sometime shortly after the revolution, forsaking its utopia of new possibilities and settling down in a more productionist program, the Soviet Union appeared a vision of alternatives to many both within and outside the country. The high drama of Stalinism — with all its tragic excesses, its indiscriminate and pervasive terror, and its near-total isolation from the rest of the world — is what most people in the West associate with the Soviet system, as if there had not been a Leninist prelude and a long denouement. But the age of wanton terror ended with the death of Stalin in 1953, and much of the last four decades of Soviet rule was marked by fitful attempts by Khrushchev and Gorbachev to reform the system and recover, at least in part, some aspects of the original socialist inspiration. Each of these bold reformers had his own vision of what Leninism ought to be, but by the 17 year reign of Brezhnev, the more positive ideals of original Bolshevism had long faded for most of the party leadership. The name of the game for many Communists, as Gorbachev would discover to his dismay, was power and privilege, not democracy for working people or even raising the efficiency of the planned economy. Gorbachev managed to end the monopoly of power of the Communist party by 1990, just before his beloved union itself collapsed. But as he cautiously democratized the system, weakening the party and central state apparatus, he unleashed rival political and nationalist forces that abandoned the socialist project altogether. Gorbachev ended up the last, lonely Bolshevik on a sinking ship, as former comrades, like Boris Yeltsin and other leaders of the various Soviet republics, rowed away to independence and an alternative vision of democracy and the free market.
While more conservative scholars contend that the breakup of the USSR was inevitable, written into the genetic code of the revolution, others to their left argue that the Soviet collapse was highly contingent. Russia was the most inhospitable place in the world to try to build socialism; indeed, it seems it may be the most inhospitable place to build capitalism as well! Zygmunt Bauman, himself a kind of postmodernist "Marxist," believes that, "The collapse of Communism was the final nail in the coffin of the modern ambitions which drew the horizon of European (or Europe-influenced) history of the last two centuries. That collapse ushered us into an as-yet-unexplored world: a world without _a collective utopia, without a conscious alternative to itself." In a 1990 interview, Bauman went on, "I think that people who celebrate the collapse of communism, as I do, celebrate more than that without knowing it. They celebrate the end of modernity actually, because what collapsed was the most decisive attempt to make modernity work; and it failed. It failed as blatantly as the attempt was blatant." This from a man who earlier, in his 1976 Socialism: The Active Utopia, saw socialism as the "counter-culture" of capitalism. In 1990 he was more concerned with "the counter-culture of modernity." Capitalism and socialism were both nineteenth-century modernities, a "family quarrel inside modernity."
While Bauman‘s attempt to move beyond modernity sweeps socialism and capitalism both into historical dust bins, I wish to preserve the alternative imagery of modernity presented by socialism. Russia may have chosen the less modern modernity of capitalism, which in its pretension has argued successfully that Soviet socialism (and by extension all socialisms) fail because they can not find an effectively competitive modernity. Socialism gains its potency from its utopian side, from its non-existence, its ideal yet to be tested. It is a utopia, not in the sense of an unattainable goal, an impossible dream, but as a direction toward which to orient one‘s politics. Geoff Eley has distinguished usefully between two constructions of utopia.13 The first is a "kind of blueprint for an ideal society, with extremely detailed descriptions of the mechanisms and arrangements involved," that is, for example, the kind of ideal society associated with the so-called "Utopian Socialists" (Saint-Simon, Charles Fourier, Etienne Cabet and the Icarians), but more widely applied to a range of social planners.
The second sense of utopia, which needs to be separated analytically from this model of the ideal, is "a kind of longing, or fantasy, of something better, a projection of desire."14 Included in this second sense of utopia are the political hopes and ends for which we are prepared to work. In a sense, every politics seeking change contains within it a utopia, a place where if all were possible we would like to end up. The Left, then, is by its very nature utopian, in that it seeks to change and to reconstruct society. Only conservatives, content with the status quo, avoid utopia. As the Polish philosopher, Leszek Kolakowski once wrote (when he was still close to Marxism), "The Right, as a conservative force needs no utopia; its essence is the affirmation of existing conditions — a fact and not a utopia — or else the desire to revert to a state which was once an accomplished fact. The Right strives to idealize actual conditions, not to change them. What it needs is fraud, not utopia."
For Kolakowski, utopia always implies a desire to transform an existing reality, an act of negation. But the Left is also define by the direction of its utopia. Reactionary movements, like Fascism, also want change, but change in the direction of institutionalized hierarchies, racially determined, the enshrining of obedience to the Leader, celebration of violence, and imperial expansion. The vision of the Left — though not by any means the actual practice of many who have called themselves Left — has been characterized by a utopia based on the abolition of unearned social privilege, the end of racism and colonial oppression, the maximum expansion of freedom of expression, the secularization of society, and the empowerment of working people.
Utopia, in my view, is neither a blueprint nor an illusion, but rather a goal toward which we may work through politics and in our everyday lives. Utopia provides an inspiration and a direction, if not an ultimate end, for political and personal activity. A friend of mine, David Love, put it this way: we may want and try to achieve perfect health, all the time aware that perfect health is ultimately unachievable. But does that mean that we don‘t work out furiously and watch our diet? Or as Bauman says, utopia is "something like the idea of the ideal experiment, which of course is never achieved, but unless you have it, you can‘t experiment at all."
From the early nineteenth century, socialism, in its variety of specific meanings, has been the principal set of ideas and the principal social movement opposed to the form of human organization that arose to become the dominant system of production throughout the world, namely capitalism. From its origins, socialism has been a movement with the goal of extending the power of ordinary people, that is, of extending as far as possible the limits of democracy — not only in the realm of politics (which was the goal of democratic radicals and leftist liberals), but also in the economy as well. Indeed, socialists were always convinced that the utopia of liberal democrats (now so hegemonic to have become a self-evident truth) of a representative political order coexisting with private ownership of the means of production and the potential accumulation of enormous wealth was fundamentally contradictory. The power implicit in property and wealth, they believe, inevitably distorts and corrupts the democratic political sphere. Therefore, socialists have searched for mechanisms of social control over or social ownership of the means of production, and have at times, as in Soviet-style "state socialism," ended up with a "perversion of authentic social ownership," where a ruling elite of party chieftains and bureaucratic managers ran the country in the name of — and ostensibly in the interests of — the mass of the people.
Past affection for the Soviet Union, many people would argue now, was ridiculously misplaced, but for those of us who traveled there in hope, the Soviet Union was always more than just another state: it was a dream. Even when dream descended into nightmare, the expectation remained that prosperity or reform would fulfill the aspirations of the founders. In the end prosperity proved to be elusive and reform led to revolution. The casualty regrettably was socialism, which, like liberalism, was always making more promises than it could keep.
Ronald Suny is Professor of Political Science at the University of Michigan. His publications include the Revenge of the Past: Nationalism, Revolution, and the Collapse of the Soviet Union (1993) and Looking Toward Ararat: The Armenians in Modern History (1993). He delivered this paper on October 7, as part of the CSST lecture series, "Putting the Modern in its Place."