Unlearning Marx

Now, with sufficient distance, we can develop a clearer historical analysis of the Soviet experiment, and reach a greater understanding of its place in twentieth century history.

There's a growing trend for the new populist right to shut down debate on socialist ideas by labelling anything they don't like as 'Marxist' and associating Marxism with the Soviet gulags and thus whatever policy it is they're complaining about this week becomes an inevitable step towards the slaughter of tens of millions of innocents. (Or sometimes it's hundreds of millions - when you're plucking figures from the air it's easy to add a zero or two).

If we're to move forward with a rational public conversation about where the world is going in the 21st Century we need to put this nonsense to bed - and this book does just that.

The theories of Karl Marx and the practical existence of the Soviet Union are inseparable in the public imagination, but for all the wrong reasons. This book provides detailed analyses of both Marx's theory of history and the course of Russian and Soviet development and delivers a new and insightful approach to the relationship between the two.

Marx laid down a set of criteria without which socialist revolutions could not succeed and in the 1880s he warned Russian revolutionaries that a socialist revolution in backward Russia would be doomed to failure. That the Soviet Union was unable to create a viable and genuinely socialist system supports this approach.

But Marx further identified specific requirements for the development of capitalism, which (this work demonstrates) also had not been met in Russia in 1917 - capitalism in Russia could not develop since these essential preconditions did not exist. Following the Bolshevik revolution the Soviet regime, regardless of its stated aims, was permanently hamstrung by circumstances and forced to adopt policies based not on ideology but on survival. The eventual - unintentional - outcome of 75 years of Soviet rule was the creation of all the requirements Marx listed as necessary for the emergence of capitalism. When the Soviet Union finally collapsed under the weight of its inefficiency, the oligarchs swept in and Russian capitalism was born.

Most analyses of the Soviet Union, from any perspective, focus on trying to explain the failure to establish socialism - giving too much weight to the political pronouncements of the regime but, for Marx, this approach to historical explanation is back-to-front - it's the political tail wagging the economic dog. When we move our focus from the stated aims of building socialism, and look at what actually happened as Russia was transformed from a feudal economic structure before the emancipation of the serfs in the 1860s to a capitalist economic structure by the end of the twentieth century we see a much clearer picture. Russia passed through exactly the processes Marx identified as central to England's transformation a few centuries earlier - the dissolution of feudal bonds, the expropriation of the peasants from the land and the concentration of the means of production. As such, the Soviet experiment forms an important part of Russia's transition from feudalism to capitalism and provides an excellent example of the underlying forces at play in the course of historical development.

How well this analysis fits with Marx's broader theory of history is closely examined and the results will surprise many of Marx's admirers, as much as his detractors.
© Steve Paxton 2020 - 2024