The Soviet Economy-An Experiment That Was Bound to Fail? Vincent Barnett Contrasts Marxist Idealism with the Changing Economic Reality in the USSR

By Barnett, Vincent | History Review, December 2005 | Go to article overview

The Soviet Economy-An Experiment That Was Bound to Fail? Vincent Barnett Contrasts Marxist Idealism with the Changing Economic Reality in the USSR


Barnett, Vincent, History Review


The collapse of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (the USSR) at the end of the 1980s marked an inglorious end to the first ever nationwide attempt at the conscious creation of an entirely new economic system that was apparently built on non-capitalist principles of operational control. The existence of the USSR was a defining feature of international relations throughout most of the twentieth century, but it is sometimes forgotten that the real challenge that it represented to the West was first and foremost in the economic realm--as a competitor to capitalism itself. Consequently, this article reviews the most important intellectual origins of the economic system created under the banner of the Communist Party in Soviet Russia after 1917, the first steps in its creation, the hindrances that were encountered and the legacy that remains.

In response to the Soviet collapse, some commentators triumphantly declared that the 'end of history' had been reached with the final victory of liberal capitalist democracy. Some others have argued that in fact what the Soviet collapse subsequently produced was a Wild West-style asset grab, resulting in the crowning of a number of Russian robber barons, economic oligarchs who operated with corrupt impunity. Whatever mixture of these interpretations is finally accepted, it is all a very long way from the intellectual origins of the USSR in the environment of mid-nineteenth century Victorian rationalism, when concerns about the backbreaking conditions that the working class had to endure were beginning to be voiced by leading socialist intellectuals in the UK.

The Intellectual Origins of Marxism

It is well known that the direct inspiration for the new Soviet form of economy was provide by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, authors of that clarion call for anti-capitalist revolution The Communist Manifesto (1848), but what is less well known is what originally inspired Marx and Engels themselves. The tradition of utopian socialism of people like Robert Owen, a wealthy British philanthropist who designed non-capitalist forms of industrial enterprise, and the line of German philosophy most famously represented by G.W.F Hegel but also including figures like J.G. Fichte and Friedrich Schiller, fed directly into the new 'scientific socialism' of Marx and Engels in which the concept of 'exploitation' was said to be defined logically rather than emotively. But even given this apparently more scientific approach, Marx's initial vision of a future communist society as an idyllic and holistic reintegration of all those elements of human life that had become separated and estranged as a result of the development of industrial manufacture and the heightened division of human labour, had much affinity with Schiller's account of the recommended aesthetic education of man and the notion of the superior all-round personality that it claimed to produce.

However, and this is a crucial point for understanding later developments, Marx's attempt to provide the theoretical underpinnings of the burgeoning socialist movement led him to turn away from German philosophy and utopian politics, to a detailed study of the principles of political economy and the laws of motion of capitalist production. In this progression something of the essence of the early 'humanistic' Marx was lost or forgotten, to be replaced by the 'iron fist' of anti-capitalist rhetoric expressed in his characterisation of some later political economists as 'vulgar apologists' of capitalism, and in the notion that the 'bourgeois' state had to be smashed and the existing ruling class destroyed. This hardening of socialist theory was taken even further by some of Marx's Russian disciples such as V.I. Lenin, with the result that, instead of the socialist political movement being an integral part of the movement of all oppressed groups, a few socialists became professional revolutionaries who attempted to lead the oppressed forces from above, as they apparently knew better than those below them. …

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