On 30 December 1922, the First Congress of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics convened and ratified the Treaty on the Creation of the USSR and the Declaration on the Creation of the USSR, two documents that had been signed two days earlier by delegations from the Russian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic and its counterparts in Ukraine, Belarus, and Transcaucasia. This was the act of formation of the USSR, a very special state that existed for close to seven decades until 1991 and became exemplary for other workers’ states of the twentieth century.
We are commemorating the centenary of the birth of the USSR by publishing, after the statement of the Association “Soviet Union”, two articles by our comrades Savas Mikhail-Matsas and Sungur Savran, both based on their reports to a conference in Leningrad (St. Petersburg) held in honour of the Centenary of the foundation of the USSR.
Comrade Savas’ article, published yesterday, discusses the possibility and/or necessity of a Soviet Renaissance three decades after the destruction of the Soyuz. Comrade Sungur, for his part, in the article we are publishing today, tries to situate the Soviet Union in the history of the modern world and assess its worth.
These two articles can also be read in Russian. The December 2022 issue of Soviet Renaissance, the bimonthly publication of the Association “Soviet Union” has just come out and it carries the Russian translation of these two articles, as well, of course, as the statement of the Association “Soviet Union”, published here earlier this week in its English and French translation. This issue of Soviet Renaissance will be made available on RedMed tonight.
The foundation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics is a cause for celebration not only for the peoples of the former Soyuz but for all Marxists and communists around the world. It is with feelings of gratitude and pride that I am taking part in a conference organised by Marxists and communists of the former USSR.
The USSR is a special formation the like of which the world has never again yet seen. There are several reasons for this:
1. It is the first embodiment of the dictatorship of the proletariat in the fullest sense, whereas the Paris Commune was a first approximation in that direction and, moreover, lasted only 72 days. The USSR embodied the minimal conditions that would serve for a transition from capitalism to classless society, political power wrested from the hands of the bourgeoisie and placed in those of the toiling masses with the proletariat at their head, the nationalisation of all the large-scale means of production and circulation, and the necessary mechanism of planning in the partial structure of the Goelro, which would then be followed by full-scale planning towards the end of the 1920s. In other words, this state had all the prerequisites for the disempowering and outlawing of the capitalist class as a ruling social force. In that sense, despite the increasing power of the bureaucracy that differentiated itself from the proletariat and the peasantry, it remained a workers’ state as long as it had these characteristics, in other words until 1991, when the entire structure was brought down from within.
2. This workers’ state was the first and only state established in the modern era that did not claim allegiance to any particular nation, nor even any geographic area. It was a nationless state to the outside world. In this sense, because it had no allegiance to any specific nation, it was the perfect form of the transition to a world federation of soviet socialist states and, later, as the state would wither away, of a world socialist community.
3. Although nationless to the outside world, this state was also the appropriate form of the equality and fusion of the nations that existed inside the Soyuz. In other words, nationless to the outside world, it was very sensitive to the needs for development and flourishing of the nations and nationalities that existed inside, thereby making it possible for all nations to mingle with and fuse with others without fear of the oppression inherited from the past. Thanks to the policy of korenizatsya, all nations had the minimal guarantees against oppression and forcible assimilation. It is true that over the 74-year history of the USSR, there were large swings in policy implementation on this issue, but even the harshest bureaucratic interventions did not find the courage to abolish the minimum legal guarantees provided in Lenin’s time to the nations and nationalities.
These last two points were jointly elaborated upon in a paper that I presented to the conference organised in Leningrad on 12-13 November 2021 under the title of “The Soviet Union: An Alternative of the Past, or a Strategic Project for the Future?”
I then attempted to bring together all of the above-mentioned characteristics of the Soviet Union through an adaptation of a pair of concepts that Marx originally developed for capitalism: the pair “formal subsumption of labour under capital” and “real subsumption of labour under capital” was taken as the theoretical basis in a paper presented at the conference organised again in celebration of the centenary of the foundation of the USSR by the Second Moscow Marxist Forum on 24-26 November 2022. The essence of this momentous distinction in Marx lies on the simple idea that capital takes over the labour process as it has grown out of the feudal society that has given birth to the capitalist mode of production. Capital then has to work its way toward moulding a labour process more adequate to its own needs on the basis of this first form. The same distinction is necessarily true of the transition between capitalism and the classless society, i.e. communism. The difference lies in the transformation of the entire mode of production according to the logic not of capital this time but that of the commune. I conceptualised the three characteristics mentioned above as the formal subsumption of labour to the commune and examined the process through which this would be transformed into the real subsumption of labour under the commune.
The role of the USSR in spreading world revolution
However fundamental the three characteristics enumerated above may be, they do not exhaust role of the USSR in the three quarters of a century that it existed. In this paper I will take up another of its very significant contributions to world history in the 20th century: its role in spreading world revolution.
To summarise the multifaceted and contradictory process of world revolution in the 20th century is no easy task. I will approach the question from the vantage point of one of the major paradoxes of revolution and socialism in the 20th century. This is the irreducible fact that socialist revolutions occurred overwhelmingly in peasant societies in that century. Yugoslavia, North Vietnam, China, Korea (later truncated to North Korea under the impact of the civil war), the Balkan countries, and Cuba are the most salient examples. Since all these countries reproduced the socio-economic and political structures of the Soviet Union, it may be safely said that they also were transformed into workers’ states overseeing a similar transition from capitalism, or even earlier modes of production, to socialism.
The paradox does not lie in how it would be possible for countries that have not gone through the experience of capitalist development to even attempt to pass over to socialism. Since Marx suggested in his letters to Vera Zasulich that the Russian obshchina could possibly form the basis of the passage to socialism in Russia, so long as the Russian revolution joined hands with the more advanced capitalist economies of Europe, we know that capitalism is not a necessary precondition to the transition to socialism in a single country, but a necessary condition on the world scale. Trotsky’s entire programme of permanent revolution, as well as Lenin’s insistence on the necessity of socialist revolution in Europe as the lubricant of a sound transition process in Russia, all point in the same direction.
The real puzzle derives from the fact that the socialist revolutions in the said peasant societies occurred without the existence of a proper proletarian class. Russia itself was a peasant society at the time of the 1917 revolution, but it did have an extremely concentrated and modern industry and a corresponding proletarian class. China was the sole country that bore similar traits from the 1920s on, but all the others simply lacked even a small proletarian kernel. So how is it that these countries had socialist revolutions without a proletariat. The Russian revolution was possible because the proletariat took over the leadership of, i.e. established its hegemony over, all the exploited and oppressed masses of Czarist Russia, starting with the peasantry. That hegemonic force was missing in the other peasant countries of the 20th century that achieved socialist revolutions. How was this possible?
There are two aspects of the answer to this question: the objective moment has to do with the overall material and political situation in the world system that these countries found themselves face to face and the subjective moment relates to the agency that led and made revolution possible.
I submit that the dictatorship of the proletariat in the USSR acted in lieu of the missing proletariat in those countries. It posed an alternative thrust towards the future different from, indeed opposed to, the capitalist route, which would sooner or later have ended up in those countries’ subordination to imperialism. By mimicking the socio-economic and political forms and structures born of the 1917 revolution, the peasant countries in question posed their candidacy to by-pass the capitalist stage of development. So this was proletarian hegemony on the world scale.
Coming to the subjective moment, we must remember that no revolution, or at least no socialist revolution, can be triumphant without a well-organised party at its head leading the masses to power through the difficulties of a society in turmoil. All these countries (excepting Cuba, to which I will come back) had parties at the head of the revolution built under the revolutionary period of the Comintern. Despite the later degeneration and eventual self-liquidation (1943) of the Comintern, these parties, although influenced in many ways by the new orientation of the international organisation, had remained revolutionary parties up until World War II. It must be pointed out that at least in the case of China, Vietnam and Yugoslavia, the revolutionary path was taken against the contrary advice, even admonition, that came from the Soviet leadership under Stalin. So again, as in the objective moment, the thrust that came was a derivative of the Russian revolution and its consequences.
A clarification regarding the use of the concept “hegemon”
The title given to this paper may be misleading for many. The word “hegemon” has been used in relation to the leadership assumed by certain countries over the others in the world system of capitalism. This usage takes, in many cases, a negative connotation, since “leadership” in such a use refers to domination over, or exploitation, or even outright colonisation of (at least many of) the other countries by the country that is characterised as the “hegemon”. Such was the situation of England, for instance, from the late 18th century on, all the way to mid-20th century, and has been the position of the United States since after World War Two.
This is totally different from the sense in which we use the concept “hegemon” for the USSR. In the previous usage, the hegemony that is evoked is one between nations, one being superior to the others and dominating or even, as we have pointed out, enslaving them as colonies. In our usage, the concept refers to a relationship between classes, i.e the hegemony of one revolutionary class over other revolutionary classes in other countries.
By using that concept, we intend to do two things. One, we make it obvious that we refer to an international relationship, but this time between classes not nations. And by evoking feelings of uneasiness that may derive from calling the USSR a “hegemon”, a title usually attributed to imperialist countries such as England and America, but then pointing to the difference, we try to make the special character of the USSR come forth all the more clearly.
So this is neither about the Cold War nor about the inane Maoist theory of social imperialism. On the contrary, it is about the contribution the USSR made to the spread of socialist revolution even decades after the Russian revolution established the USSR.
Let us draw the conclusions of this analysis in the clearest manner possible.
1) Despite the degeneration of the Soviet state towards bureaucratic rule and of the Comintern towards becoming an appendage of the Soviet Union in defence of the latter’s national interests within the international system of states, despite, that is, the abandonment by the Soviet leadership of the pursuit of world revolution, the Soviet state, the USSR, continued to act as a positive objective factor in the spread of socialist revolution in other countries.
2) The degeneration of the Comintern notwithstanding, certain parties organised originally as revolutionary parties maintained their revolutionary outlook as against the leadership exercised by the Comintern.
3) These objective and subjective moments together generated the conditions necessary for the completion of socialist revolutions in these countries despite the virtual absence of a proletariat in those countries. The USSR, the sole dictatorship of the proletariat, acted as the international hegemonic force despite the absence of a proletariat there.
4) Not only did the parties of those countries take over the leadership of the revolutions in question to lead the toiling masses to power, but they also took the road of permanent revolution although that had not been their original programme. It was the logic of the world situation that forced them to adopt the same road as the Soviet proletariat: either the latter takes power and has to take the first steps towards socialism or the revolution is lost.
5) The exception, Cuba, also teaches us a lot. Cuba under Che, and more hesitantly and with twists and turns Fidel himslef up until 1968, resuscitated the internationalism of classical Marxism. This is why it was the only revolutionary leadership that took a resolute turn towards socialism among all the others that were not born of the traditions of the Russian revolution.
As far as the near future is concerned, it is not only for the peoples of the former Soviet republics and over the expanse of the same geography as before that the resuscitation of the USSR is important. Insofar as it was a nationless federation that embodied the dictatorship of the proletariat and stood for the equality of nations not only in formal but in real terms, the USSR is a state form that is vital for all peoples that will once more turn to the construction of socialism.
The pattern of development laid out in this paper is entirely consistent with the vision Lenin developed with respect to world revolution in the 20th century after the Russian proletariat came to power.
We have already elaborated on this vision in our native Turkish. We cannot go into all the detail that is provided there. We will content ourselves with citing three passages from Lenin that date from the period 1918-1920.
“Hence, the socialist revolution will not be solely, or chiefly, a struggle of the revolutionary proletarians in each country against their bourgeoisie – no, it will be a struggle of all the imperialist-oppressed colonies and countries, of all dependent countries, against international imperialism.”
What is striking in this quote is that Lenin clearly foresees the path that world socialist revolution will take in the decades after the Russian revolution.
Lenin is adamant that “the “struggle of all the imperialist-oppressed colonies and countries… against international imperialism” will be a socialist one.
“… one of the most important tasks now confronting us is to consider how the foundation-stone of the organisation of the Soviet movement can be laid in the non-capitalist countries. Soviets are possible there; they will not be workers’ Soviets, but peasants’ Soviets, or Soviets of working people.”
Not only has he sensed the importance of dependent peasant countries to the socialist revolution, but he insists that a soviet system can be built there as well.
And what is the reason that lies at the basis of his faith that peasant countries can achieve soviet socialist revolutions?
“The past two years have shown, on the one hand, that a revolutionary war can be developed, and, on the other, that the Soviet system is growing stronger under the heavy blows of the foreign invasion, the aim of which is to destroy quickly the revolutionary centre, the republic of workers and peasants who have dared to declare war on international imperialism.”
It is the “republic of workers and peasants” that will act as the “revolutionary centre”, the hegemon, so to speak, of this world revolution!