16 Oct 2016

On Chomsky, Socialism, and the Soviets

Once more, as part of my October series, I am republishing old essays from the archives of the Magical Realm. This essay on Noam Chomsky is one that was previously found popular.

Though I have promised more on the Ark—with excerpts, as in the case of my previous post, as well as beta reader feedback, analysis, etc.—I nevertheless felt compelled to address a peculiarly intriguing piece by Noam Chomsky.

Firstly, take a look. In the piece Chomsky makes numerous points; but the main, overarching thrust is that the Soviet Union was not a Socialist state, but a regime run by the intelligentsia under the pretence of Socialism.

This, along with other questions, I shall address herewith.

Was the Soviet Union Socialist?

As Chomsky himself admits, political terminology is often vague and subject to semantics. Because of this, we must actually define what ‘Socialism’ means.

Chomsky’s definition is simple: Socialism’s goal is to empower the workers and free them from the institutions of capitalism and the vagaries of the bourgeois class.

Which is great. But Chomsky’s has made a critical error: he failed to define how this lofty goal is actually to be achieved! For if you ask Marx, Lenin, or a Social Democrat (as best characterised by the 20th century movements in Sweden, Germany, Denmark etc.) you will get three rather different answers.

For Marx, the goal may really only be achieved once the workers have seized control of the means of production; a workers’ state, in other words. For Lenin, this seizure of power must be performed by the intelligentsia—they must then dictate the economy so as to be run in the interests of the workers, or else gradually give workers that power.

But ask a Social Democrat in 20th century Sweden (which would be around the same time as Lenin and co. seized power) and they would tell you something rather different. There can be no workers’ state; pure command economies don’t work. Granted—the kind of ‘socialism’ advocated by Chomsky is distinct from the command and control style Communism where production is dictated by state bureaus.

But a pure and genuine workers’ state is almost as dysfunctional as that kind of command and control economy. For the workers’ state seems to involve a curious contradiction: workers must be able to control production, but they must also have free choice in what they can buy and own. This is simply not possible. Either demand dictates supply, or supply dictates demand

Allow me to illustrate via example. Suppose you, as an empowered worker, labour in a factory producing cars. Now: you and workers throughout the rest of the Utopian Workers’ State have agreed to produce 10,000 cars, 10,000 tonnes of grain, 20,000 apartments and so on and so forth. Unfortunately, you and other workers find that you possess a fancy for vodka; and so you decide to spent your allocated money on vodka. Thus you cannot buy apartments and cars and so on.

What happens now is that lots of apartments and cars are produced—and are not wanted. At the same time, there is a dire shortage of vodka!

The naive economist may now say: ‘Ah! But why not just switch production over to vodka from grain?’

This sounds lovely in theory, but becomes rather difficult to implement in practice when you have to dynamically allocate an economy that produces everything from robots and cars; to grain and alcohol; and domestic services, teaching, and art.

Moreover, even if such a state were able to adapt reasonably well to the demands placed upon it, there would still result some of the same maladies found in capitalist economies. Case in point: frictional unemployment. You may want to start producing lots of vodka now, but maybe you’ll then find that the workers have had enough vodka (perhaps they tired of being drunk) and instead decided to buy computers.

The question presented to you now is: how does one turn farm labourers into computer scientists?

(In fairness, there is one difference between this and capitalism. The state will keep the workers making stuff until they can be re-trained. The goods they produce won’t be very useful, but it’s still better than having the workers unemployed and not making anything—as would be the case under capitalism.)

So it seems that we have to make some sort of compromise:

  1. A perpetually dysfunctional economy where worker possess both free choice in goods and control over production;
  2. An economy where workers have very little choice in goods, but control production; or
  3. An economy as run by the Social Democratic movements of the 20th century. Both markets and worker-run production act together in a hybrid model; the virtues of both are inherited, along with some of the vices.

So it seems that, either way you cut it, command economies are suboptimal: either they severely limit individual choice, or they fail to be allocatively efficient.

But Chomsky seems to be getting at something different here: political power. Regardless of the economic system, he argues, workers are disempowered by the political system—which is firmly under the control of Lenin.

And it seems a fair enough criticism. But it merits more consideration.

So was the Soviet Union Let Down by Politics?

Before I answer this, I must clarify a point that may elude those of you less familiar with Russian history. Stalin, as I’ve covered previously, was not a Socialist in any form. He was a murderous paranoid despot with a ruthless desire for control and less interest in the wellbeing of his people than even the Tsars. He ran a command economy to satiate his hunger for power, not to emancipate the workers.

With that out of the way, let’s consider Chomsky’s central point: Lenin brought a poor excuse for socialism because he was, like Stalin, ultimately more interested in power than emancipation for the working classes.

This sounds superficially credible, but is really deeply ignorant of history.

This is because, in Russia at the time, the workers themselves simply had neither the desire nor the means to organise a revolution. Sure—there had been isolated protests. Well before 1917 peasants had seized estates belonging to local nobles; and there had been a number of protests in the cities, which ended badly—see the Bloody Sunday.

But really, until 1917, the workers did not possess a collective, Russia-wide notion of worker emancipation. Yes, they had unions which quarrelled with factory owners—and sometimes succeeded in improving conditions for the workers. But these protests were concerned with the wellbeing of workers in a particular factory, or region, or industry.

Some thinkers (of Marxist persuasions) believed Lenin acted too soon: he should have waited for these incipient movements to spread through a process of osmosis. The revolution should have been bottom-up, not top-down.

But this strikes me as naïve. Russia was a huge empire stretching all the way across Asia, into North-Eastern Europe (Finland was a close ally of Russia well into the 19th century), Eastern Europe (where Russia variously held power over Poland, the Ukraine and the Baltic States), and even the Middle-East. It had native Russians of various religions (see: Old Believers), it had Muslims subjected by conquering Tsars (indeed, as Geoffrey Hosking notes, some Russian serfs were under the domain of local Muslim lords), and it had a significant divide between peasants and urban workers.

The Tsars, for their part, had been autocrats for centuries and were now beginning to panic (of which Bloody Sunday was an unfortunate manifestation).

The disparate peoples of Russia only came close to unity in the first World War, largely owing to the military—soldiers were effectively adopted into a military family, where they called men from the other side of Russia their brothers—and the collective impact of the war on the Russian psyche.

But such an event was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. If Lenin had waited, the underlying factors making revolution feasible would have faded. The Tsars could have re-asserted themselves.

In short: it was top-down or nothing.

Top-down then Bottom-up?

If we accept that change was necessary, then the question really becomes: did the Soviet movement lose sight of its objectives? Did it, in other words, become corrupt? Or was it ever well-intentioned to begin with?

There can be little doubt that the purges, pogroms and paranoia of Stalin were a parody of what the early Bolsheviks desired. Yes, the Bolsheviks figured political power was necessary to bring about improvement for the working classes. But no, they certainly didn’t desire a regime worse than the Tsars they were trying to replace!

And call me naive, but I think it common sense that the Soviets were well-intentioned. Remember: the Soviets were the intelligentsia. They were middle-class and well-off (sometimes even very well-off) and they could have gained power in the political structure that was already present. They didn’t need to start a revolution; in fact, you’d think a revolution would be more likely to wrong their desire for power.

It seems that the mistake of the Soviets—besides attempting an overly command-driven and dysfunctional economic system that should’ve been closer to what was going on in Europe—was in becoming that which they sought to overthrow. They became too self-righteous, too autocratic. The pigs started running the farm, and the pigs became men. (There’s a bit of Orwell for you lot.)

Chomsky and Propaganda

Chomsky also makes the point that Western scholars produced propaganda when they attempted to a) claim the Soviet Union was socialist and b) claim whatever they were doing was bound to fail. Western scholars were not interested in debate; they wanted to keep the rich, rich, and the poor in their place.

The Soviet Union they saw as the embodiment of all their fears—there was a nation where the workers seized power! It was a nightmare situation for their masters.

Or at least this is what Chomsky would have you think. I myself am sympathetic to this view (and certainly some of what was published was propaganda guided by vested interests) but I think Chomsky is giving too little credit to Western scholars here.

There were, as Stalin proved, reasons to be skeptical of how the Soviet movement would turn out. There was indeed autocracy and violence being committed by the Soviets.

And, to be fair, there were valid economic problems as well.


As you can see, life is complicated. I agree with the thrust of Chomsky’s article: the Soviet Union, in its later years, was not Socialist; and Western scholars, or at least some of them, were the acolytes of propaganda.

But Chomsky is wrong to think that the Soviets were badly intentioned, or even wrong to wage their revolution the way they did. Their historical circumstances gave them little choice.

Ultimately, the Soviets went wrong because they attempted the wrong kind of Socialism (which ought really have been something closer to 20th century social democratic movements) combined with an overly authoritarian and dangerously power hungry approach.

It is also fair to say that Western scholars did write genuine criticisms of what the Soviets were trying to do, and what they came to do.

Anyway: I’ve written enough. I hope my essay has been illuminating. Now, I must address my attentions towards the Ark. Books don’t write themselves, after all.

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