Democratic Underground

Ask Auntie Pinko

January 13, 2005
By Auntie Pinko

Dear Auntie Pinko,

I am a libertarian-leaning conservative. My question for you is actually rather simple. What do you think about the Soviet Union?

San Diego, CA

Dear Clint,

Auntie has been asked many broad and open-ended questions, but yours has to rank as one of the broadest. In the hindsight of history it is easier to see how the Soviet Union carried the seeds of its own destruction from its earliest phases. But as someone who lived contemporaneously with almost half of the USSR's existence, I am vividly aware of how different things looked while the Soviet state endured. From the perspective of the twenty-first century the arc of establishment, rise, decline, and fall appears preordained, as though all of the events of the Soviet state's corporate life were inevitable. But accepting this view obscures the multifaceted reality of the entire Soviet experiment.

Nor is it possible to form a nuanced judgment of the Soviet state without considering the alternatives that were available at the beginning of the 20th century, and what might have occurred had other options been selected at turning points in Soviet history. Without understanding the external and internal contexts of the Russian empire of the nineteenth century, it is impossible to evaluate whether the Soviet Union at any point represented a better or worse alternative than other feasible historical progressions.

Now, with those caveats, let me state categorically that Auntie disapproves of any political/socioeconomic matrix that denies its citizens the opportunity for political self-determination, restricts the basic freedoms that enable citizens to self-actualize, and operates to the benefit of a tiny minority of citizens. The fact that this describes the majority of human governments both past and present does not lessen my disapproval, but it does temper my judgment with pragmatism. Humanity has yet to invent any form of government that functions perfectly or even very well at any level above that of a moderate-sized village.

The Soviet Union is a particularly interesting case study of human government partly because its existence began in an era when modern methods of historical study were already well-established, and it progressed through its entire existence within a single lifetime. It was, in effect, a cyberstate-operating in a speeded-up time continuum. Like a child born with Cockayne's Syndrome, whose body ages fifteen years for each calendar year lived, the Soviet Union was born, experienced childhood and adolescence, maturity, senescence, and death, at a vastly accelerated rate. And while this very phenomenon exposes the inherent flaws in the Soviet system as it evolved, it also distorts the perception.

In fact, were it not for this highly-telescoped timeline, there would be very little about the Soviet Union that differs from other imperialist social structures. Most empires begin as idealistic constructs emerging from the ashes of an earlier social system. They achieve their apogee of power, stability, and wealth based on an ever-increasing reliance on the conquest and/or control of other states and their resources. Reliance becomes dependence, and dependence demands an ever-increasing oppression of domestic and colonial dissent in order to maintain control. The diversion of resources from maintaining the well-being of the populace to controlling the populace gives rise to greater dissent, and eventually fatally destabilizes the imperialist state, rendering it vulnerable to dissolution through internal collapse or external conquest (or both.)

In most cases this process takes at least a century or two - in some cases as much as four or five centuries. There are a great many internal and external variables that affect the speed of the process, but so far in human history it has never been avoided or reversed. The best outcomes have resulted from the imperialist power voluntarily relinquishing control of its colonies and accepting a diminished scope of geopolitical influence, often accompanied by painful economic recessions and disruptions. It's possible for a government to survive this process - Britain has nearly completed it, at great cost - but not without internal transformations that substantially change its nature and function.

From this perspective, the decision of the early Soviets to maintain the imperialist nature of the state was, perhaps, the fatal flaw in the constitution of the new state. It required them, from the outset, to dedicate substantial resources to the control and exploitation of the empire, and to engage almost immediately in the repressive practices that kept the state from gaining internal stability. Had the Socialist Revolution concentrated on local transformation of the Russian core, leaving the rest of the empire to their individual fates, they might have been able to forego dedicating so much time and energy to control, and permitted greater political and social self-determination among Russians.

However, had they done so, there would have been no vast conglomeration of manpower and raw materials focused under a single directing authority to resist the attempted Nazi conquest twenty years down the road. Even the greater internal stability of the disparate elements of the former Russian empire would not have saved them from being conquered piecemeal by the Nazi military machine.

The oppression and genocide resulting from that might easily have eclipsed Mr. Stalin's post-war brutality and oppression. And the gain to Nazi Germany of the vast resources of the former Russian empire could easily have had the effect of temporarily bolstering Nazi power sufficiently to achieve success in conquering Western Europe. Auntie doesn't like to think about the potential results of that, even though such a bloated Nazi empire could never have endured for long.

It's a vast subject, Clint, and unless you can be more specific about precisely what aspect of the Soviet Union you'd like my opinion on, you'll have to be content with this general historical analysis. I hope it gives you some idea of my thoughts about the USSR, and responds to at least some of the curiosity that prompted your question. Thanks for asking Auntie Pinko!

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