The Soviet Experiment, 100 Years On

100 years ago today, the Bolsheviks took power in Russia. Communism, previously a faith held in different ways by disparate people across the western world, was now made concrete*. Here, in Russia, the dream was made reality.

The dream

What did the communists promise? In his account of the Revolution, Ten Days That Shook the World, the journalist John Reed quoted Trotsky, one of the Bolshevik leaders, as saying on that November 7th, “We…are going to try an experiment unique in history; we are going to found a power which will have no other aim but to satisfy the needs of the soldiers, workers, and peasants”. In 1919, the Bolsheviks Nikolai Bukharin and Yevgeni Preobrazhensky wrote The ABC of Communism. It set out a blueprint for the communist society. There would be no more production for profit. People would produce only what was ‘desirable’ or ‘necessary’. There would be no wasteful capitalist competition. Instead, there would be monopolies run in ‘the public interest’. All this economic activity would be coordinated by people turning up to work in the morning, examining reports of the previous day’s production, and then deciding what to do that day. The result would be an abundance of goods and services, wealth, and a standard of living which the capitalist system couldn’t approach. And all men and women would be equal.**

The reality

The results are chronicled by the economist Alec Nove in An Economic History of the USSR 1917-1991. It quickly proved impossible to coordinate even Russia’s backward economy with the ad-hoc methods envisioned in The ABC. As a result, the government had to exert ever more control and coercion on the Russian workers to get them to conform to their plans. The attempt to reorganize the economy on communist lines was a disaster, leading to shortages of practically everything. In her book The Russian Revolution, the historian Sheila Fitzpatrick explains how, as early as 1921, Lenin effectively gave up on the program and instituted the New Economic Policy. This saw a substantial return to the market economy in Russia and, through the mid-1920s, the economic situation of the Russian people improved.

Lenin died in 1924 and was eventually succeeded by Stalin. With as many as 60 million deaths to his name, he would go on to become one of the most prolific mass murderers in human history.

Stalin wanted to turn Russia into a manufacturing powerhouse. That meant he needed cheap grain from the countryside to feed urban workers and exchange for imports of capital goods. But, at these prices, it wasn’t economic for Russia’s farmers to sell their grain. So, Stalin took it, and, as the historians Robert Conquest and Anne Applebaum described, rural Russians starved in their millions.

Stalin had discovered the truth that, as Ronald Reagan would go on to put it, “a government can’t control the economy without controlling people”. Stalin exerted ever more control over the Russian people. Spies were everywhere. In 1937 and 1938, Stalin launched his Great Purges. Robert Conquest called this The Great Terror. Tens of thousands of people were summarily executed after show trials on trumped up charges, among them Bukharin and Preobrazhensky. The paranoid insanity of this period was captured by Arthur Koestler in his novel Darkness at Noon.

A vast system of prison camps was established to punish those who didn’t follow the communist government’s plans. Life in this system of gulags, written about by Anne Applebaum, was immortalized in the great novels One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and The Gulag Archipelago by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, himself a survivor of the gulags, and The Kolyma Tales by Varlam Shalamov.

Stalin died in 1953 but the Soviet Union tottered on. Its economy churned out increasingly obsolete military hardware in great quantity, but ordinary people had to queue for basic goods such as potatoes. If they wanted a telephone they had to wait years, and their calls were listened to by the KGB when they got one. There is a famous story of a Soviet official on a trip to the capitalist west during this time. As he was shown around a supermarket he was amazed at the abundance of produce available. He asked his guide “Who planned this?” The guide, bemused, replied “Nobody ‘planned’ it”.

The end

This is the essential difference between the Soviet Experiment and the American Experiment. In 1964, Ronald Reagan said that the question facing America was “whether we believe in our capacity for self-government or whether we abandon the American revolution and confess that a little intellectual elite in a far-distant capitol can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves”. The American Experiment, which believes that men and women are the best masters of their own affairs, is the former. The Soviet Experiment, which holds that the lives of men and women ought to be controlled by government, is the latter.

The Soviet Experiment ended in ignominious failure in 1991. The Russians and their subject peoples across eastern Europe grew fed up of poverty and government control of their lives. The miserable ideology of communism was itself consigned to Trotsky’s famous “dustbin of history”. In the century since the Bolsheviks stormed the Winter Palace 100 years ago today, communism killed an estimated 100 million people. This is an anniversary to mark, but not to celebrate.

John Phelan is an economist at the Center of the American Experiment. 

*To the Finland Station by Edmund Wilson and The Socialist Tradition by Alexander Gray are excellent histories of this ideology.

**Bukharin and Preobrazhensky’s totalitarian fantasy was almost immediately satirized by Yevgeny Zamyatin in his classic novel, We