Class Societies: The Soviet Union and the United States. Two Interviews with Paul Sweezy
Okonogi, Kiyoshi, Weissman, Robert, Monthly Review
Kiyoshi Okonogi: On September 6, Gorbachev and Yeltsin stated the failure of their socialist model in the televised interview with Peter Jennings of ABC. How do you observe their response?
What started out as an attempt to establish a socialist society did not succeed in actually achieving that result. So that to judge the possibilities of socialism by that particular historical experience seems to me to be methodologically incorrect. It is true that the Soviet Union and some of the other postrevolutionary societies did attempt to implement some of the ideas which are integral to socialism. But they never did succeed in achieving those goals beyond a rudimentary stage. And then what has to be always remembered is that these changes took place under extremely adverse conditions. The capitalist powers, the imperialist powers, were attempting to overthrow the system. They were afraid it might succeed, and it would set a very bad example for their own exploited and discriminated-against classes.
Gorbachev apparently thinks that the model has failed. But I don't see that that's relevant. And as far as the idea that the socialist project is dead, I think that's not valid at all. The socialist project arose out of opposition to capitalism. And the ideas of socialism are basically a negation of capitalism. So, the existence of socialism is in effect a reflection of the existence of capitalism. The Russian Revolution did not take hold and succeed. But that's not the death of socialism.
How would you define their "failure," and what do you see as their failure?
There is a large literature about the type of society which emerged from the Russian Revolution. My own view, and I think that of a majority of people who consider themselves to be socialists, is that it's not socialism. It's rather a class society, an exploitative society, but also not a capitalist society. That model, a class-exploitative society, failed not only because of its own internal weaknesses and contradictions but also because it was confronted by a more powerful rival which put enormous pressure on it, militarily and economically. Both kinds of pressure contributed to the downfall of the system.
How is it different from socialism? And how do you characterize the present situation?
From a Marxist point of view--and I speak of Marxist--socialism has to be thought of first and foremost as the antithesis of capitalism. Since the defining characteristics of capitalism are private ownership of the means of production and allocation of productive resources and distribution of products through a system of competitive markets, it follows that necessary conditions for existence of socialism are public ownership of at least the decisive means of production and the substitution of planning for allocation and distribution by means of competitive markets. These are necessary but not sufficient conditions for the existence of socialism. It is also essential that the public that owns the means of production and controls the planning process should be the actual producers of goods and services and not a separate class of bosses and managers. In other words, from the Marxist perspective socialism is not only an economic system of state ownership and planning but also a political system of workers' democracy.
In my view the Russian Revolution actually did realize the first two necessary conditions of socialism--state ownership of the means of production and economic planning. The Bolshevik leaders of the revolution originally intended to realize workers' democracy as well, but for reasons too numerous and complicated to be analyzed here, they did not succeed. Instead what happened under Stalin and his successors was precisely the emergence of a new ruling class of bosses and managers. This new ruling class organized and reproduced itself through the Communist Party and its peculiar creation the nomenklatura; and it arrogated to itself undisputed control over the economy and the country's armed forces and security apparatuses. …