Monday, May 07, 2007

A mad dash down a blind alley

Or: The Soviet Bloc Was Inherently Flawed and Contained the Seeds of Its Own Destruction, Yes! (2nd Long Essay)

‘Perhaps it was only my imagination’, Paul Theroux wrote of the Soviet Union in 1988, ‘but it seemed to me that there was something fundamentally wrong with a country whose citizens asked to buy your underwear’. Just so! An academic would dismiss Theroux’s account of his Moscow adventures as anecdotal evidence—which only shows the weakness of academia, overlooking the true in its quest for the factual. Was there a Sovietologist who had a better sense of Russia’s future than the travel writer Theroux? Zbigniew Brzezinski, perhaps … but Brzezinski’s Polish origins, his service in the Johnson, Carter, and Reagan administrations, and his anti-communism kept him out of the academic mainstream.

In my first essay for this programme, I argued that the Cold War was inevitable in 1945. Now I would go further and argue that the Soviet Union’s disintegration forty-odd years later was likewise inevitable … and what was true of the USSR was also true of the Soviet Bloc. The weakness of one reinforced the weakness of the other.

When did the cracks appear?

Lescek Kolakowski felt that the USSR’s hegemony began to unravel with Stalin’s death in 1953. With the dictator gone, he believed, the Soviet system changed from a personal tyranny to an oligarchy—but this didn’t ‘amount to de-Stalinization but to an ailing form of Stalinism’ . Or, I would prefer to say, an ailing form of Marxism.

Brzezinski himself put the tipping-point earlier, with the creation of the Soviet Block in 1945–1948: ‘Marxism-Leninism was an alien doctrine imposed upon the region by an imperial power that was culturally repugnant to the dominated peoples’. And there were those who saw the Soviet system as flawed from the beginning. Just five years after Red October, Ludwig von Mises argued that socialist planners must operate in the dark, leading them to ‘squander the scarce factors of production. . . . Chaos and poverty for all will inevitably result’. Thus, as Alexander Solzhenitsyn later characterized it, the Soviet experiment was no more than ‘a mad dash down a blind alley’—words ironically echoed by Vladimir Putin at the end of the century. Pointing to ‘the outrageous price our country and its people had to pay for that Bolshevist experiment’, Putin concluded: ‘It was a road to a blind alley’.

To be sure, a failed society doesn’t necessarily implode. There’s no shortage of experts who argue that ‘what happened [to the USSR in 1991] did not have to be’ or was ‘the unintended consequence of Gorbachev’s bungled reforms’.

I don’t agree. In my judgment, neither the wisest leader nor the most brutal despot could have overcome the built-in inefficiencies and contradictions of the Soviet system, which has aptly been described as ‘a 74-year-long regime of crisis management’. Designed to bring a peasant society into the industrial age, the Soviet economy managed its first tasks with commendable success. Central planning also worked well to overcome Nazi Germany (itself plagued with systemic inefficiencies) and even to challenge the United States in the early years of the Cold War, when both countries needed crash programs for nuclear weapons, intercontinental missiles, and space exploration. In the 1950s, indeed, it was popular to speak of an inevitable ‘convergence’ between socialist and capitalist systems.

Alas for theory, Soviet-style central planning proved unable to cope with the era of satellite television, personal computers, videocassette recorders, and photocopiers that began in the 1960s. The system ‘did not reward individual or collective effort; it absolved Soviet producers from the discipline of the market; and it gave power to officials who could not be held accountable by consumers’. By the time Leonid Brezhnev came to power, bureaucrats were setting quotas for 4 million products and prices for 25 million goods and services. The inevitable result was ‘inefficiencies, unneeded and inferior products, and chaos’, especially in agriculture, where production fell so short that the USSR had to import grain from its arch rival, the United States. As Ronald Reagan pointed out in his 1982 Westminster address, the Soviet Union with a fifth of its population working in agriculture was still unable to feed itself.

Worse, the USSR by this time had used up its ‘intellectual capital’ of scientists and engineers educated before the Revolution. As they retired or died, they were replaced by ‘juniors formed in a Stalinist mold that excluded whole areas of science’, including genetics and quantum physics. Most Russian mainframe computers were based on a pirated IBM design, and the principal personal computer was ‘an inferior version of the outdated Apple II’. The computational power that did exist in the Soviet Union was reserved mostly for military applications.

Indeed, the military was draining the country. Perhaps 20 percent of the Soviet Union’s Gross Domestic Product went to support the military, compared to 5 percent in the US. The country’s ‘best human, technical, and material resources were siphoned off by the military sector’ in the generally successful effort to match the US as a military superpower. The imbalance worsened when the USSR began deploying SS-20 missiles in Europe in 1976. Altogether, the Brezhnev-era arms buildup served mostly to ‘bankrupt the nation and undermine any trust the Kremlin had built up in the West’. Relative to the West, the Soviet bloc’s economic position had actually declined since 1929.

The strains weren’t immediately apparent. The USSR was at the apex of its international power in 1979, as compared to a US beset with ‘stagflation’, Vietnam angst, and the feckless Carter administration. Then Brezhnev made the mistake of invading Afghanistan, revealing his country to the world as just the sort of imperialist empire it had long inveighed against. The invasion contributed to a conservative swing in the west, and especially in the English-speaking world: Margaret Thatcher in Britain, Brian Mulroney in Canada, Bob Hawke in Australia, and—crucially—President Reagan in the United States. ‘One would have to go back to [Franklin] Roosevelt in 1933 to find a president who entered office with comparable self-confidence in the face of bleak prospects’. Reagan’s economic policies launched an economic boom, while at the same time he expanded military budgets by 20 percent, a feat that the Soviet Union couldn’t hope to match.

Gorbachev and other contributing factors

Infant mortality, pollution, alcoholism, and crime—the symptoms of a sick society—all rose dramatically in the Brezhnev years, while Soviet life expectancy declined. For all his favorable reviews in the west, Mikhail Gorbachev failed to arrest the slide when he took over in 1985. Indeed, the failures of the Soviet system became even more obvious, as shown by the country’s defeat in Afghanistan, which raised ‘serious doubts in the minds of the military about . . . “socialist internationalism” and the competence of the established political elite’; by the nuclear catastrophe at Chernobyl, which contaminated large portions of Ukraine and Belarus; and by ethnic clashes involving Kazakhs, Armenians, and Azerbaijanis. Yet these events were more symptoms than causes of the Soviet Union’s failure. The breakdown ‘did not come out of the blue but was the end-result of a . . . political-economic disintegration lasting over a ten– to 20–year period’. Or longer: ‘the Stalinist system was always in crisis and the only means by which it could survive was by the most thoroughgoing repression’.

Indeed, Gorbachev’s reforms may have failed precisely because he bought into the rhetoric of communism’s founders. Convinced of history’s inevitability, he believed that his reforms must succeed, in accordance with ‘the historically preordained replacement of capitalism by socialism’. Thus, when Erich Honecker asked Aleksandr Yakelov why the Soviet leadership was following such dangerous policies, he was told: ‘it is not a question of choice or political options, but of an objective, unavoidable necessity’. Yakelov’s words lend credence to the notion that the Soviet Union collapsed in part because it believed the Marxist rhetoric.

The USSR also lacked the national integrity enjoyed by most powerful countries. Speaking of post-implosion Russia, Richard Sakwa remarks that its ‘borders were fragile and the consolidation of popular sovereignty was undermined by the lack of agreement on who constituted “the people”’. With the Soviet Union’s collapse, 25 million Russians found themselves living ‘abroad’ (in Ukraine and the Baltic states especially), while 27 million of Russia’s population came from foreign stock. Such nationalist confusions were of course even more pronounced in the Soviet Union, which had inherited them from the empire of the tsars.

Finally, there were the national leaders themselves, Reagan and Gorbachev, the one hectoring and the other willing to listen. George Schultz, the US secretary of state, actually gave seminars to the Soviet leader on the virtues of ‘an incentive-based, market-oriented economic system’.

Still, these were only contributing factors, as is shown by the contrasting experience of the United States—multicultural from the start, it survived its own nuclear meltdown at Three Mile Island and military failure in Vietnam without lasting damage to the national polity. At most, the Soviet Union’s misadventures, its unstable mix of nationalities, the US arms buildup, and the Reagan–Gorbachev amity were only accelerators of change.

The role of the captive nations

In my judgment, second only to the flawed premise of Marxism was the overreach that led to the Cold War in the first place: Stalin’s enslavement by force of Eastern Europe. Wherever the Red Army defeated the Wehrmacht (except for eastern Austria, too small to form a viable nation), Stalin sooner or later imposed a puppet government. Most of these countries wanted nothing better than to break away from Moscow, as shown by the East German, Polish, and Hungarian upheavals of the 1950s, and Czechoslovakia’s in 1968. These, plus Romania, were the nationalities with the closest historical ties to Western Europe. They formed a bloc within the Bloc, almost as tightly knit as the northeastern states of the US. (I earlier mentioned satellite television. East Germans didn’t even need the satellite dish, since they could watch West German programs via transmitters in West Berlin. ‘The enemy of the people,’ Walter Ulbricht said of the TV antenna, ‘stands on the roof’.)

Stalin’s postwar meddling with European geography also helped undermine Russia’s control of its empire. Germans found themselves living in what was now Poland and Czechoslovakia; Hungarians settled in Slovakia and Romania; and Ukraine was given Poland’s second-largest city, thus becoming more European than it would otherwise have been. The USSR and Soviet Bloc might have endured into the 21st century, if Stalin hadn’t insisted at Yalta and Potsdam that Poland be skated to the westward, at Germany’s expense and to Ukraine’s seeming benefit.

More fundamentally, the flaws in the Soviet economy were replicated in the captive nations. Lacking any incentives to compete or modernize, Eastern Europe’s economy similarly became a monument to bureaucratic inefficiency and waste—‘a museum of the early industrial age’. As in the USSR, the failing economy had to be propped up by police-state methods, alienating the people. ‘Long years of Stalinist misrule and oppression meant that the popular movements in Eastern Europe in 1989 no longer aspired to [Alexander Dubček’s] “socialism with a human face”’ but instead looked westward for inspiration.

In 1981, Poland’s government was in effect replaced by a military junta: though nominally communist, Wojciech Jaruzelski imposed martial law in his effort to stop the Solidarnosc movement. This sea change in the Soviet Union’s most important ally showed that ‘the Communist Party . . . could not run a modern state. . . . Here was the first real sign that communism would collapse in the Soviet bloc’. Nine years later, Lech Walesa became Poland’s president and began the transition to a market economy. At one time, his apostasy ‘would have brought the wrath of Moscow down on Poland’s head’. But the Brezhnev Doctrine had given way to what Gorbachev’s press secretary called the ‘Sinatra Doctrine’: the Poles could ‘do it their way’. Once it was clear that Moscow wouldn’t intervene in Poland, the collapse of communism repeated itself in one country after another.

As a rump nation, with no other reason for existing than that it was communist, East Germany had the most to lose by a rapprochement with the West, and was therefore one of the last to accept Gorbachev’s reforms. In October 1989, at ceremonies in Berlin marking the GDR’s fortieth anniversary, the security forces were ordered to crack down on demonstrators and to shoot them if necessary. In the end, nobody was shot, but many were beaten and imprisoned. The Berlin demonstrations were followed by a larger one in Leipzig, where again Honecker gave orders to shoot—orders supposedly canceled by the security chief Egon Krenz, who told his boss: 'Erich, we can't beat up hundreds of thousands of people'. (Krenz’s motive may not have been entirely humanitarian: he replaced Honecker soon after.)

As Robert Grogin argued, the people of Eastern Europe took glasnost to its logical conclusion: they rebelled against Soviet domination and ‘brought an end to the Cold War’. In a supreme irony, the wealth of Western Europe—itself in large part the consequence of the US aid programs that had rebuilt the continent as a counterweight to the Soviet Union—helped ransom the captive nations. The Federal Republic alone loaned 5 billion marks to the USSR, paid the cost of evacuating its troops from the GDR, and (a brilliant but costly gesture) exchanged East German marks at par.

Down came cradle, Gorby, and all

The first McDonald’s restaurant in the Soviet Union opened in Pushkin Square in February 1990, a joint venture with the Moscow city council. The symbolism was delicious, for this icon of American capitalism had, in the words of a German socialist, ‘realized the principles of socialism in their purest form’ by offering everyone the same product and the same service at the same price.

‘This country was going nowhere’, Gorbachev told the Russian people in December 1991, ‘and one couldn’t possibly live the way we had been living. We had to change everything’. In his memoirs, he wrote: ‘The very system was dying away’. Boris Yeltsin was even more sweeping: Russia had ‘thrown off the fetters of seventy years of slavery’. It wasn’t true, of course, that everything changed. Gorbachev, Yeltsin, and Putin—all had served the nomenklatura throughout their lives. Communists filled three-quarters of the posts in the new regime and an even greater proportion of the new parliament. The new Russia, as Stephen White concludes, was more of a change in regime than a change in system. (Indeed, Russians were about evenly divided on the question of whether communist rule had actually ended.) This was remarkably different to the situation in Poland and most other former satellites.

The China Solution

When the Stasi were authorized to shoot demonstrators in Leipzig, the order was jocularly known as ‘the China solution’, in tribute to the massacre at Tiananmen Square. As matters turned out, China did have a solution. In 1986 I spent some time in Kunming, which had just had an earlier bout of student demonstrations. To keep foreigners and locals apart, the authorities banished taxis and city buses, instead offering a daily tour to some distant and innocuous spot. So I walked the city, finding the most entrepreneurial culture I’d ever encountered. Here was the state-owned Serenity Bicycle Emporium, selling bikes but not assembling or repairing them; on the sidewalk outside was a green kiosk in which Zhang performed these chores for customers who could afford him . . . while in the gutter squatted a guerrilla competitor, doing Zhang’s work for less. This sort of multi-layered enterprise could be seen on every city block, the command economy supplemented by authorized competition, and both spurred on by a bloke with a toolbox—a gradualist, bottom-up approach instead of the top-down reforms Gorbachev imposed upon the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Whatever one might call China’s economy, it had ‘little to do with Lenin and less with Marx’.

China has triumphed in the global market economy, and Vietnam shows signs of adapting to it; even Cuba and North Korea are struggling along after a fashion, nearly two decades after the Soviet Union imploded. By contrast, not one of the former Soviet Bloc countries now admits to following the Marxist faith. Without communism to bind them, three of those countries—Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, and the Soviet Union itself—have fractured along ethnic or national lines.

Why was the fate of European Marxism so different from that of the Asian (and even Latin American) variety? Terry McNeill considers the argument that Gorbachev simply made a tactical error—that, like Deng Xiaoping, he should have reformed the economy and left the political system alone—but concludes that this would only have bought time and not changed the outcome. The Soviet system ‘was seriously and fundamentally flawed by a basic contradiction between its repressive political system . . . and the degree of liberalization . . . needed to maintain the country’s long-term economic viability’.

Perhaps the Soviet Union failed first because it was older, created by the fallout of the First World War rather than the second. If so, can we expect further collapses in another generation? Perhaps: the Cuban Politburo may well disappear with Fidel Castro, and North Korea probably won’t long survive Kim Jong Il. Vietnam may endure, probably by employing the China Solution.

As for China, it seems to have successfully grafted a free-market economy onto a political system nearly as repressive as Stalin’s, leaving a billion of its people mired in poverty while 200 million make the capitalistic leap forward. Peking, unlike Moscow, may have found a door at the end of the communist blind alley—and if the name on the door is Germanic, it’s more likely to read ‘Ludwig von Mises’ than ‘Karl Marx’.

― Daniel Ford


Theroux 1988, p. 49. Brzezinski, below, cites a French demographer who concluded in 1976 (again from anecdotal evidence) that the Soviet Union was doomed.
See for example Gaddis 2005, p. 346
Grogin 2001, p. 311 (emphasis added)
Brzezinski 1999
von Mises 1922
Slade 2005 (emphasis added)
Cox 1998, pp. 2-3, 24; also Rutland 1998
Sakwa 1998
Lebow & Stein 1994
Grogin 2001, pp. 313-315. Even Trotsky had warned that no bureaucrat could manage the economy ‘beginning with the number of acres of wheat down to the last button for a vest’ (Blackburn 1991, p. 201). Blackburn goes on to provide a fascinating analysis of the ‘manifest absurdities’ (p. 214) of Soviet planning.
Reagan 1982
Reynolds 2000, pp. 498, 519
Gaddis 2005, pp. 356, 448. Gaddis’s figures are more modest than most.
Lévesque 1997
Grogin 2001, p.314
Gaddis 2005, pp. 344-349
Gaddis 2005, p. 351
Rogers 2004; Gaddis 2005. pp. 393-394. If Soviet defense expenditures amounted to 20 percent of GDP, an equivalent increase would have brought them to 24 percent.
Rutland 1998; Grogin 2001, p.325; also Gaddis 2005, p. 356
Ticktin 1998 (emphasis added)
Lévesque 1997, pp. 35, 83 (emphasis added)
Sakwa 1998
Gaddis 2005, p. 368. He is more generous than I in crediting Gorbachev and Reagan as prime movers in ending the Cold War.
Marx of course wasn’t entirely to blame for Stalin’s ‘awful perversion of socialism’ (Miliband 1991). Still, the progression from Marx to Lenin to Stalin is a logical one, as shown by its replication in other communist states, and by the fact that it endured in the USSR for a generation after Stalin’s death.
Edwards 1999
Edwards 1999
Blackburn 1991, p. x
Grogin 2001, pp. 319, 334. He goes on to argue (p. 373) that ‘Brezhnev himself, had he still been in power, would have had little choice but to do the same’, though presumably without the whimsy.
Edwards 1999
Grogin 2001, p. 337
Grogin 2001, pp. 333, 339
Enzenberg 1991
Grogin 2001, p. 342; Gaddis 2005, p. 36
White 1998
Edwards 1999
Hobsbawm 1991. Do I need to say that ‘Serenity’ and ‘Zhang’ are my inventions?
McNeill 1998
See for example Sorman 2007


Blackburn, Robin (1991), ed., After the Fall: The Failure of Communism and the Future of Socialism (London: Verso)

Brzezinski, Zbigniew (1999), ‘The Grand Failure’, in Lee Edwards, ed., The Collapse of Communism (Stanford: Hoover Institution Press), pp. 21-34

Edwards, Lee (1999), ‘The Year of Miracles’, in Lee Edwards, ed., The Collapse of Communism (Stanford: Hoover Institution Press), pp. 1-20

Enzenberger, Hans Magnus (1991), ‘Ways of Walking: A Postscript to Utopia’, in After the Fall: The Failure of Communism and the Future of Socialism (London: Verso), pp. 18-24

Gaddis, John Lewis (2005), Strategies of Containment: A Critical Appraisal of American National Security Policy During the Cold War (New York: Oxford University Press)

Grogin, Robert (2001), Natural Enemies: The United States and the Soviet Union in the Cold War, 1917-1991 (New York: Lexington Books)

Hobsbawm, Eric (1991), ‘Goodbye to All That’, in Robin Blackburn, ed., After the Fall: The Failure of Communism and the Future of Socialism (London: Verso)

Lebow, Richard, and Janice Stein (1994), ‘Reagan and the Russians’, Atlantic Monthly, February 1994

Lévesque, Jaques (1997), tr. Keith Martin, The Enigma of 1989: The USSR and the Liberation of Eastern Europe (Berkeley: University of California Press) (originally 1989, La fin d’un empire)

McNeill, Terry (1998), ‘Soviet Studies and the Collapse of the USSR: In Defence of Realism’, in Michael Cox, ed., Rethinking the Soviet Collapse: Sovietology, the Death of Communism and the New Russia (London: Pinter), pp. 51-69

Miliband, Ralph (1991), ‘Reflections on the Crisis of Communist Regimes’, in Robin Blackburn, ed., After the Fall: The Failure of Communism and the Future of Socialism (London: Verso)

von Mises, Ludwig (1922; translated 1936), Socialism (online). Available: (accessed 18 March 2007)

Reagan, Ronald (1982), Speech to the House of Commons (online). Available: (accessed 11 March 2007)

Reynolds, David (2000), One World Divisible: A Global History Since 1945. (New York: W.W. Norton)

Rogers, Scott (2004), ‘Yes, Reagan Won the Cold War. But Not That Way’ (online). Available:
000051.html (accessed 13 April 2007)

Rueveny, Rafael, and Aseem Prakash (1999), ‘The Afghanistan war and the breakdown of the Soviet Union’, in Review of International Studies, Vol. 25, No. 4, pp. 693-708

Rutland, Peter (1998), ‘Sovietology: Who Got It Right and Who Got it Wrong? And Why?’, in Michael Cox, ed., Rethinking the Soviet Collapse: Sovietology, the Death of Communism and the New Russia (London: Pinter), pp. 32-50.

Sakwa, Richard (1998), ‘Russian Political Evolution: A Structural Approach’, in Michael Cox, ed., Rethinking the Soviet Collapse: Sovietology, the Death of Communism and the New Russia (London: Pinter), pp. 181-201.

Slade, Gavin (2005), ‘Deconstructing the Millennium Manifesto:
The Yeltsin-Putin Transition and the Rebirth of Ideology’ (online). Available: (accessed 17 March 2007)

Sorman, Guy (2007), ‘The Truth About China’, in The Wall Street Journal, 20 April 2007

Theroux, Paul (1988), Riding the Iron Rooster: By Train Through China (New York: Putnam’s)

Tickten, Hillel (1998), ‘Soviet Studies and the Collapse of the USSR: In Defence of Marxism’, in Michael Cox, ed., Rethinking the Soviet Collapse: Sovietology, the Death of Communism and the New Russia (London: Pinter), pp. 73-91.

White, Stephen (1998), ‘Rethinking the Transition: 1991 and Beyond’, in Michael Cox, ed., Rethinking the Soviet Collapse: Sovietology, the Death of Communism and the New Russia (London: Pinter), pp. 135-149.


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