Did the Soviet Union really practice Marxist thought?

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Lara Tillotson-

We live in America, the capital of capitalism; where men and women can own private property and trade without the interference of government. We have followed this economic model since our nation’s infancy and continue to observe to the ideas of economists like Ludwig von Mises, who support the application of capitalism in a real world economy. We recognize that our economy and our country can sustain capitalism due to our history and the way our government is set up. Other governments, however, can’t or won’t install a capitalist economic model in their country. Just like Americans who support capitalism, other countries, such as the Soviet Union (though it no longer exists), who support the communist economic model often observe the ideas and teachings of Karl Marx, the founder of Marxism and communism. Soviets however only claimed to follow Marxist thought, and in fact practiced policies very different from Marx’s idea of a communist state.

Communism is the practical implication of Marxism. Marxism is the economic philosophy founded by Karl Marx, a German philosopher and economist who lived from 1818 to 1883. Marx begins his famed work The Communist Manifesto by arguing that “every form of society has been based… on the antagonism of oppressing and oppressed classes [1].” He continues, defining communism as the “abolition of private property,”  arguing that “modern bourgeois private property is the final and most complete expression of the system… that is based on class antagonisms, on the exploitation of the many by the few.”[2] The entirety of Marxism rests on the belief that capitalism causes class struggle—and a communist’s main goal is to rid the world of that struggle.

Marx did not believe that the world would be rid of class struggles overnight; he knew that many obstacles would have to be overcome before an ideal communist state could exist. First, the workers, or the proletariat, would have to become conscious of their plight as the oppressed class and then come together to form a majority. The proletarian majority could then seize power and end the rule of the bourgeoisie by getting rid of private property and handing over the means of production to the state, and then establishing a temporary dictator who would rule over the proletariat until he was no longer necessary, or until classes no longer existed. By dictator Marx did not mean a tyrannical leader, but rather a leader of a group for a short period of time, as seen in the Roman Empire [3]. IN order to achieve a purely communist state, Marx gave a set of ten rules for a communist state to follow:

“1. Abolition of property in land and application of all rents of land to public purposes.
2. A heavy progressive or graduated income tax.
3. Abolition of all rights of inheritance.
4. Confiscation of the property of all emigrants and rebels.
5. Centralisation of credit in the hands of the state, by means of a national bank with State capital and an exclusive monopoly.
6. Centralisation of the means of communication and transport in the hands of the State.
7. Extension of factories and instruments of production owned by the State; the bringing into cultivation of waste-lands, and the improvement of the soil generally in accordance with a common plan.
8. Equal liability of all to work. Establishment of industrial armies, especially for agriculture.
9. Combination of agriculture with manufacturing industries; gradual abolition of all the distinction between town and country by a more equable distribution of the populace over the country.
10. Free education for all children in public schools. Abolition of children’s factory labour in its present form. Combination of education with industrial production, &c, &c.” [2]

Unfortunately for Karl Marx, the first communist state, the Soviet Union, failed him from the get-go in the early 20th century.

Early in 1917, the imperial government of Russia had been ousted by the Russian working class due to their dissatisfaction with Russia’s economic depression during the First World War. Czar Nicholas II abdicated the throne and was replaced by a provisional government. Later that year, the Bolshevik party, led by Vladimir Lenin, took control nearly overnight and established the first Marxist state. On his first day in power, Lenin, with the help of Leon Trotsky, nationalized all land and turned it over to local rural land committees, just as Marx suggested should happen. In order to appease industrial workers, Lenin granted control of factories to the committees of workers. Doing so earned the Bolsheviks support from peasants and urban workers alike, and followed many of ideas Marx suggested in The Communist Manifesto in order to create an ideal communist state. Things seemed to be going well for the Bolsheviks; they were following Marxist thought and had gained the support of the proletariat. A civil war would change everything, however. [4]

During the Russian civil war from 1918 to 1921, the Bolsheviks were under attack by the Mensheviks and other anti-Bolsheviks; it was during this time that communism in the USSR began to stray away from true Marxism. Lenin established his policy of War Communism, which nationalized transportation, banks, mines, factories, and business, while also assuming the right to seize food from peasants. These policies, especially the seizure of food from the peasants, were met with cries of resistance form the Russian people. In an effort to bring Russia back to economic prosperity, Lenin established the New Economic Policy in 1921, which returned the economy back to its old capitalistic ways; peasants were allowed to sell their produce freely, and certain businesses were allowed to operate under private ownership. It was at this time in 1922 that Lenin renamed his new “communist” Russia to the Soviet Union [4]. But was the USSR at all purely communist? In order to bring Russia back to economic prosperity, Lenin had to go against the number one rule in communism by reinstating private property. How could the Soviet Union be considered communist now?

Even though Marx states that a communist government should be ruled by a collective leadership, Lenin was considered the one ruler of the Soviet Union. After Lenin’s death in 1924, a power struggle erupted between Leon Trotsky and Josef Stalin, even though according to Marx, the next step for a communist state was to move under the control of the proletariat collective. In 1927 Stalin expelled Trotsky from the Communist Party and took complete control [4], establishing himself as the new totalitarian dictator of the Soviet Union, completely disregarding Marxist thought for his own greed and desire for power.

With Stalin as its leader, The Soviet Union changed drastically after 1929. Stalin’s goal was to move the USSR from being agricultural to more industrial. One of the first things he did while in power was eliminate private property once more, and move people onto collective farms. In doing so, a communist ideal was achieved, but at the cost of millions of lives; in order to collectivize these farms, Stalin used terror and artificial famines to starve people off of their property and onto collective farms. By industrializing the nation too quickly, housing investments decreased, forcing millions of workers and their families to live in contemptible conditions and earn deplorable wages [4]. Marx’s main goal in promoting a communist state was to raise the conditions of workers in factories; but in Stalinist Russia, workers were oppressed rather than elevated, completely defeating the purpose of communism according to Karl Marx.

Even though we associate Marxism with the Soviet Union and communism, it is important to recognize that many times Marxism was not practiced during the USSR’s 69 year reign. Dictators ruled the country rather than the proletarian collective, and workers, especially during Stalin’s rule, were often put down rather than elevated. It is important to realize the difference between ideal communism and communism practiced in countries such as the Soviet Union, Cuba, and North Korea. Ideal communism is just an idea. Ever since the cold war, Americans have been terrified of communism; it was this terror that allowed Joseph McCarthy to rampantly imprison innocent Americans during the fifties, and was a key factor in US involvement in the Vietnam War. It is time for Americans to learn what communism actually is, rather than condemning the idea just because it is practiced by our enemies.

 

Bibliography

  1. Marx Karl and Engels Friedrich. The Manifesto of the Communist Party: Chapter I. Bouregois and Proletarians
  2. Marx, Karl. “Communist Manifesto Chapter II. Proletarians and Communists” Marxists.org. Accessed May 5, 2014, https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1848/communist-manifesto/ch02.htm
  3. Corvette, Jenny. “How the Soviet Union Failed Karl Marx”. Yahoo! Voices. Published May 21, 2007, http://voices.yahoo.com/how-soviet-union-failed-karl-marx-349099.html?cat=37
  4. Spielvogel, Jackson J. Western Civilization Since 1300, AP Edition (Boston, MA: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning, 2012), 799-802, 833-836.

 

Image: http://harunyahya.com/en/Books/162394/the-danger-of-a-communist/chapter/14586

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