The Tragic Failure of the Soviet Experiment Doesn’t Mean We Should Reject Socialism

Like many socialists around the world, G. A. Cohen invested the Soviet Union with his hopes for a more just and equal society. In time, he grew disillusioned with the USSR — but he never stopped fighting for a better world.

Illustration from "USSR Builds Socialism," 1933, by El Lissitzky. (Heritage Images / Getty Images)

The November/December 1991 issue of the New Left Review was the final issue before the fall of the Soviet Union. Communist Party hard-liners had staged an unsuccessful coup against premier Mikhail Gorbachev back in August. Boris Yeltsin, who would oversee Russia’s transition to capitalism, was now in charge, and a great many of the USSR’s member-republics had already declared their independence.

That issue contained an essay by the Marxist philosopher G. A. Cohen called “The Future of a Disillusion.” Cohen took years working on and reworking his essays, and by the time it was published his prediction about impending Soviet collapse was a hair away from being entirely redundant. “It looks,” he wrote, “as if the Soviet Union, or the pieces that it may soon become, will embrace capitalism, or fall into a severe authoritarianism, or undergo both of those fates.”

As it happens, the third and bleakest option was closest to the truth. Vladimir Putin’s Russia may not be “severely” authoritarian compared to the darkest chapters of Soviet history, but it combines a brutally illiberal regime with a gangster-ish capitalism in which a handful of oligarchs hoard the country’s wealth.

In his essay, Cohen described his own slow and painful loss of faith in the Soviet Union. His disillusionment with the USSR’s claims to embody socialist ideals, though, never morphed into a rejection of the ideals themselves. It seemed to him that the iniquities of capitalism had become no less objectionable because of the failure of the Soviet Union to build an effective and attractive alternative. Humanity still needed something better — and he chided his former “fellow travelers” for abandoning the quest.

Moscow and Montreal

Cohen grew up in a Canadian Communist family in Montreal. Like many other Jewish Communists in the city, his parents sent him to the Morris Winchevsky School, where students learned “standard primary school things in the mornings” and a much less standard curriculum was taught in Yiddish in the afternoons. Even when his afternoon teachers “narrated Old Testament stories,” Cohen recalled that the stories were “suffused with vernacular Marxist seasoning: nothing heavy or pedantic, just good Yiddish revolutionary common sense.” One of the classes was called Geschichte fun Klassen Kamf (History of Class Struggle) and Cohen was pleased to remember many decades later that he scored “a straight aleph” in this course in 1949.

The school was ultimately shut down after a raid by the Quebec provincial police’s anti-subversive Red Squad. Thereafter, eleven-year-old Cohen and his classmates had to go to regular, noncommunist schools. But he went out into the wider world “a rock-firm attachment to the principles it had been a major purpose of Morris Winchevsky to instill in us, and with full and joyous confidence that the Soviet Union was implementing those principles.”

The first cracks in that confidence were formed by Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev’s “Secret Speech” to the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1956. During the four-hour speech, entitled “On the Cult of Personality and Its Consequences,” Khrushchev detailed many of the crimes committed by his predecessor, Joseph Stalin. They ranged from the mass deportation of entire nationalities to remote areas of the USSR to the outright massacre of much of the original membership of the Communist Party. Of the 1,966 delegates to the party’s Seventeenth Congress in 1934, a whopping 1,108 would go on to be declared counterrevolutionaries and either executed or sent to gulags during the fever pitch of Stalin’s purges.

When Khrushchev’s bone-chilling speech made its way to the West, Cohen writes, his comrades in Quebec were not only horrified by its revelations but “dismayed for the further reason that national (that is, Toronto) Party leaders who were fraternal delegates at the Twentieth Congress had concealed the de-Stalinization speech when reporting back to the Canadian Party.” Ultimately, there was a factional struggle between hard-liners, who didn’t see why Stalin’s crimes and mistakes — which were in any case being corrected by the USSR’s new leadership — should change much of anything, and “revisionists,” who thought many questions should now be rethought. Cohen’s family was on the side of the revisionists, who lost the argument, and by the time he went to college Cohen had drifted away from the party.

Cohen still believed the Soviet Union to be “a socialist country, struggling toward equality and community,” whatever its flaws. But even that belief slowly died over the course of the next decade — for the same reasons it died in the hearts of many millions of others around the world.

The first reason was the Soviet government’s authoritarianism. Democracy under capitalism is a shallow thing: it stops at the door of the workplace, and no one can claim with a straight face that ordinary workers exert as much influence on the political process as wealthy CEOs. Socialism’s promise was always to deepen democracy by extending to the economy. Even at the height of the Khrushchev Thaw, though, the USSR was a repressive one-party state. Stalin may have been a unique monster, but any system in which a monster can accumulate that much power has much bigger problems.

The second problem, which became increasingly obvious as the decades wore on, was that the centrally planned Soviet economy was dysfunctional. It was “all thumbs and no fingers” — good at mass producing tractors and tanks during the period of rapid industrialization, but very bad at aligning production with consumer preferences.

It’s easy to roll our eyes at the idea that we should care that Soviet grocery stores didn’t offer enough kinds of toothpaste. But as Jacobin editor Seth Ackerman has noted, the citizens of the USSR and its Warsaw Pact allies “experienced the paucity, shoddiness and uniformity of their goods not merely as inconveniences; they experienced them as violations of their basic rights.” This is a major reason why so few workers had any interest in lifting a finger to defend the “workers state” when the system was starting to wobble.

By the end of the 1960s, Cohen had little hope that the USSR was ever going to evolve in a better direction. As the ’80s turned into the ’90s, he experienced the disappearance of even that “small hope” as a devastating loss.

The question he insistently asked in “The Future of a Disillusion” was whether the dismal failure of “the first attempt to run a modern economy” outside of the brutal logic of capitalist markets should lead us to the conclusion that capitalism — even a form of capitalism softened by social welfare programs and a regulatory state — is the best humanity can do.

Choruses of Dirge and Hosanna

Under capitalism, private business owners compete with each other for profits while the majority of the working population has little choice but to sell their working hours to one capitalist or another. Historically, socialists have sought to end the division of society into capitalists and workers through some form of collective ownership, and most socialists have thought this would involve the replacement of market competition with rational planning.

By the time the November/December 1991 New Left Review came out, hardly anyone thought that the Soviet experiment in economic planning was a success. Many socialists simply abandoned their ideals, now convinced that socialism of any kind was “impossible to realize, or virtually impossible, or anyway something they can no longer summon the energy to fight for.” Others sought to separate the goal of empowering workers through collective ownership from the goal of replacing markets with planning. Giving up on the latter, they held onto the former and advocated some form of “market socialism.”

Cohen thought that even this was giving up too much. He granted that some form of market socialism might be the best that socialists could hope to achieve any time soon for reasons both political and logistical. As he’d go on to write in his last book, Why Not Socialism?, we don’t yet know how to “turn the wheel of the economy” without some market mechanisms being in place. He acknowledges in “The Future of a Disillusion” that it was “good from a socialist point of view” that market socialism was “being brought to the fore as an object of advocacy and policy,” and that socialist intellectuals who wrote books outlining possible forms of market socialism were “performing a useful political service.”

Even so, he didn’t want to lose sight of the ultimate undesirability of any markets — even socialist ones. Imagine a society where the “commanding heights” of the economy were in public hands and the remaining market sector was entirely made up of competing worker co-ops. This would be an enormous stride toward “equality and community,” insofar as such a society wouldn’t have anything remotely analogous to the disparities in the distribution of resources characteristic of capitalist markets.

Even so, the variability in individual talents, the variability of productivity between different economic sectors, and so on would guarantee that some people would earn significantly less than others through no fault of their own. So even this kind of socialism, Cohen thought, would be “second best” to the North Star of a socialist society in which markets wouldn’t play any role.

Even in 2020, when democratic socialism resurfaced as a political force to an extent that would have been almost unimaginable in the winter of 1991, this vision might seem unduly utopian. But Cohen urged his readers not to let their frustration with how far away the achievement of socialist ideals seemed turn into an abandonment of the ideals themselves. A professional philosopher, he was particularly frustrated with those of his colleagues who succumbed to the “end of history” atmosphere that was setting in, a smug confidence that society had achieved its final form. Speaking of his fellow philosophers, he wrote:

Philosophers least of all should join the contemporary choruses of dirge and hosanna whose common refrain is that the socialist project is over. I am sure that it has a long way to go yet, and it is part of the mission of philosophy to explore unanticipated possibilities.