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Mike Haynes Book Reviews USSR State Capitalism Chattopadhyay Cox Fernandez Historical Materialism 2002/4

Mike Haynes Book Reviews USSR State Capitalism Chattopadhyay Cox Fernandez Historical Materialism 2002/4

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Reviews  317
Portes 1994.
Rethinking the Soviet Collapse. Sovietology, the Death of Communism and the New Russia
London: Pinter, 1998
The Marxian Concept of Capital and the Soviet Experience
Westport: Praeger, 1994
Capitalism and Class Struggle in the USSR. AMarxist Theory
Aldershot: Ashgate, 1997Reviewed by
Marxism and the Russian Question in the Wake of the Soviet Collapse
The owl of Minerva, Hegel famously suggested, ies out at dusk bringing with itwisdom. If it were this simple, the world would be brimming with enlightenment asto the nature of the former Soviet bloc, for it is difcult to imagine a darker dusk thanthat which overcame it between 1989 and 1991. In the absence of a fundamentaloverthrow from below, the disintegration of the Soviet Union will probably go downas the most spectacular peacetime collapse of any great power in history. As MichaelCox expresses it in his essay ‘Whatever Happened to the USSR’, within two years theSoviet Union had disappeared as an imagined alternative to Western capitalism, as athreat to the West, as an empire and as a functioning example of supposedly plannedeconomy. Faced with this, the mainstream body of Sovietologists were thrown intodisarray and threatened with speedy redundancy. Now what Cox calls a ‘much deridedand somewhat demoralised group (p. 13)’, they were swept aside as gangs of maraudingWestern ‘carpetbaggers’ (the term used by Richard Portes) could be seen in Moscowand the other capitals of the former Soviet bloc hawking market prescriptions forsuccess.
Yet, within a few years, these too had failed, perhaps even more spectacularly.If the leaders of the old Russia drove it to stagnation, then the leaders of the newRussia, and their army of Western advisers, have presided over a collapse withoutparallel in peacetime world economic history. Today, what is left of Russia lies prostratewith an output per head less than half of what it was a decade ago.
 Historical Materialism
, volume 10:4 (317–362)©Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, 2002Also available online –www.brill.nl
To make sense of this is obviously a major task for any theory aspiring to explainthe modern world. Yet, whether in the mainstream or on the Left it seems as if, withthe exception of Fukuyama’s famous thesis, the shock of the Soviet collapse hasproduced paralysis rather than engagement. In the 1950s, at the height of the ColdWar, Daniel Bell wrote a famous essay called ‘Ten Theories in Search of a SovietReality’, in which he argued that the study of the Soviet bloc was overloaded withtheory, unsupported by enoughempirical work.
Now, it almost seems that we areoverloaded with empirical studies, which pour out from Western journalists, academicsand transitologists as well as bewildered commentators from the former Soviet bloc.Instead of a dearth of facts, we have ten times ten of them in search of an adequatetheory.Cox’s edited collection of essays is an attempt to address the issue of why pre-1991studies of the USSR failed to predict the Soviet collapse. It is certainly impressive thathe has managed to bring together so many well-known academic commentators toaddress this question. Moreover, those who delight in the embarrassment of otherswill have some fun as the authors try to deal with the question of what went wrong,though they usually nd it easier to see the problems in others than their own accounts.But to what extent were earlier views really decient? Although Cox and severalother contributors broach the problem of the criteria by which we should judge whetheran approach to Russia succeeded or failed, no such criteria clearly emerge from the book. If an approach declared that the Soviet system was fundamentally sound orstable then, presumably, we can convict it of major failure. This is why the view thatRussia and its satellites were ‘healthy socialist societies’ and superior to Westerncapitalism has collapsed, though, given the scale of the crisis that followed, it is notsurprising that, for some, a nostalgic view of the old looks more credible in 2002 thanit did in 1990. But, by the end of the Soviet régime few, even in the Western Communistparties, were prepared to argue for its superiority, although many were initially deluded by the renewal prospects of ‘perestroika’ and ‘glasnost’.Most commentators recognised that there were serious problems in Russia in the1980s – the problem was that they did not see the speed of the collapse coming. Buta theory cannot stand by its success or failure in predicting a discrete event whosecharacter inevitably will have contingent elements. The only people likely to besuccessful here are the academic equivalents of the men with signboards who go outevery day predicting that ‘the end of the world is nigh’. Thus, when Richard Sakwadenes the Soviet system as a ‘74 year long regime of crisis management’, one feelsthat his sign should read ‘the end of the world was always nigh’ but not treat the
318  Mike Haynes
Bell 1962.
suggestion much more seriously than that (p. 184). That such predictions (or, in Sakwa’scase, a retrodiction) eventually get it right is not, of course, a tribute to their analysis but to their persistence in upholding a wrong theory until, for quite different reasons,the slogan (for it is no more than that) proves appropriate.In science, the theory of evolution can and should guide our understanding, but itcannot be used to predict the form and timing of evolutionary turns with any greatprecision. The same limitations of prediction exist with social behaviour. The theoryof imperialism, for example, could predict that at the start of the twentieth century,war was likely and, once the First World War had broken out, it could help usunderstand how and why. But it could not predict
ex ante
that war would break outin 1914, let aloneAugust 1914.
Yet, a disturbing number of contributors to Cox’svolume seem to judge the success or failure of approaches to the USSR by just such‘predictive abilities’, or perhaps we should say predictive guesses. In these terms,however, even the most damning critics of conventional approaches to the USSR havedifculty in offering us really convincing examples of their own predictive successes.It is not difcult, then, for defenders of mainstream Sovietology to rebut these examplesand to claim that they too ‘saw it coming’.Beyond this, the success or failure of a theory depends on its ability to offer anexplanation of the long-run rise and fall of the Soviet system – but no commentatorin the Cox collection has anything more than a few cursory comments to make onthis bigger problem. Moreover, this is not a question that can simply be answered interms of the Soviet system itself. Cox is right to say that much Sovietology reected‘small scale thinking about small scale problems’ (p. 5).
But the problem is greaterthan this. For example, the overused aphorism that the Soviet régime ‘was the longestdetour from capitalism to capitalism in the twentieth century’ implies not onlysomething about the character of the Soviet Union but also about capitalism itself.But part of the traditional difculty with much Sovietology was that it was a ghettoisedeld, built around assumptions that the Soviet régime had a special character all ofits own. One could spend a lifetime investigating this without needing to have anyknowledge of capitalism other than that which could be pulled off the shelf – for‘capitalism’ was that which was given or someone else’s subject. Thus, the redundancyof the Sovietologist was doubly painful – not only did the subject that they proclaimedto be unique disappear but often they had no other ‘skills’ to fall back on.We would suggest that an adequate political economy of the USSR must be able tooffer an explanation of at least six things:
Reviews  319
And, of course, much of the theory was developed in response to the outbreak of war in1914.
See also pp. 16–18.

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