Red Letter
Daily Left Theory. 15 Minutes or Less. Refreshes at Midnight.
The Soviets (From The Communist Horizon)
by Jodi Dean
Estimated Reading Time: 12 min

For people in the United States, the most conven­tional referent of communism is the Soviet Union. Displaced by four decades of Cold War, a war that shaped US-American policies and identities, aspi­rations and fears, the multiplicity of historical and theoretical communisms condense into one—the USSR. Rather than changing over time, including the international range of parties and movements, or acknowledging active communist movement in the US, communism is one, and this one is fixed as the USSR.

To make this referent explicit, though, leads to complications.

The USSR was never fixed or one. The unity imposed on it by the Cold War binary is false, undermined by the actual historical relationship between the Soviet Union and the United States. This relationship dis­turbs the easy equation of communism with the USSR insofar as communism becomes an element of US self-identity. The two regimes, sometimes allies and sometimes enemies, were deeply interconnected. They were symbolically identified in that each provided the other with a standpoint from which to see and evalu­ate itself. Each reminded the other of its failure and potential. Seeing themselves from the standpoint of the other, they made the other a component of their under­ standing of themselves.

Imagining itself in the eyes of the Soviets, the US never seemed equal enough. Segregation, Jim Crow, and severe poverty appeared all the more shameful when put in relief against the Soviet system's project of collective ownership and avowal of equality. Our biggest rival seemed to be doing better by its citizens than we were doing by ours. A key impulse to pro­gress in civil rights and social welfare, then, stemmed from the US government's desire not to look bad when compared to the USSR.

The distorted US treatment of consumer items as markers of equality resulted from this same structure—capitalist excess came to be not merely justified in the name of democracy but the very definition of it. Susan Buck-Morss describes the "parable of the Democracy of Goods" that advertisers proffered and the US government supported. She writes, "The United States government joined the capitalist class in its ide­ological commitment to the expansion of consumption without limits. Similarities of consumer styles came to be viewed as synonymous with social equality, and not merely as a compensation for its lack. Democracy was freedom of consumer choice. To suggest other­ wise was un-American." Who was the merging of consumer goods and democracy for? Not Americans. US-Americans have long valued individual freedom more than democracy. We didn't need some kind of compensation for the inequity and inadequacy of capi­talist democracy. Consumer goods are attractive and pleasurable enough on their own without the ideologi­cal element; they don't need a democratic supplement. The treatment of consumer goods as markers of equal­ity and indicators of democracy was for the Soviet other before whose judging gaze the US imagined itself.

Whose citizens were better off? Symbolic identification with the USSR made the US consider this question in terms of equality. Anxiety over equality animated American ridicule of communist laziness and lack of private property, of the unbearable uniformity of Soviet ways of life, and of the emptiness of the store shelves and the unending lines. Highlighting the wealth of the few, the US obscured the poverty of many of its citi­zens. At the same time, it attempted to evade its own concerns with its shallowness as a society, its tenden­cies to allow consumerism and private life to substitute for grand struggles and ideals. Viewing itself from the Soviet perspective, the US saw itself as lacking, as failing to secure for its own citizens what communism secured for Soviet citizens.

From the US perspective (as imagined by the Soviets) the measure of communist success depended on pro­ductivity. Who was all the heavy industry for? Before which gaze is it imagined? Not the suffering Soviet people. Rather, the gaze was American. One need only recall the Soviet goal of "catching up and overtaking" the West. Buck-Morss notes how the fantasy of produc­tivity, opened up by symbolic identification with the US as uber-producer, structured Soviet art and culture as well as politics and economics. Poets and artists celebrated machinery. Films and novels were devoted to steel production and the construction of factories. Precisely because the Soviet Union adopted "the capitalist heavy-industry definition of economic mod­ernization," socialism remained caught within a very specific capitalist model of economic development. The Soviets did not reconstruct American capitalism. They glorified it. (Indeed, for some Soviets, Henry Ford was as close to a saint as one could get.)

The (reciprocal) symbolic identification of the US and the USSR shaped their senses of who and what they were such that democracy could morph into com­modity consumption and production could become a utopia in and for itself. The real divisions of class and race in the US as well as of ethnicity and privi­lege in the USSR could sometimes be covered over by the ideals of productivity and equality for which each was admired. The US may not be equitable, but it is productive. The USSR may not have been productive, but it was equitable. Imagining themselves before the gaze of the other, they secured—for a time—fantasies of unity that depended on the repression of their identification with the ideology of the other.

The place of communism within the self­ understanding of the US is not the only complication that arises when we begin to question and specify the referent of communism. The differences among parties, places, factions, and times that the unifying imaginary of Cold War communism tries to suppress also start to leak back into the history of Soviet communism. For example, the Soviet Union did not claim to have achieved communism, although its ruling party called itself a communist party. As is the case with any party or political system, the Communist Party in the Soviet Union changed over time, most drastically by moving from a revolutionary party to a governing bureaucratic party. As a governing body the Party experienced further changes, changes that were sometimes violent, sometimes incremental, often paid for with the lives of Party members themselves. Insofar as it was a political party, and for most of its history the only recognized political party, the Communist Party in the former Soviet Union was a locus of struggle and disagreement over a host of issues from art, literature, and science to economic development, foreign policy, and internal relations among the various republics. To be sure, efforts were made to present a unified front, to down­play the presence of disagreements within the Party. Yet a significant effect of these efforts was the ampli­fication of ostensibly superficial differences: small divergences became signs of deeper conflict. Soviet citizens, allies, and enemies alike learned to discern in the distinction between a "frank" and a "comradely" exchange of opinions major shifts in political direction. In short, the Soviet Union isn't a very stable referent of communism.

US-Americans don't worry about that very much.

US-Americans are sheltered from anxiety over wobbly reference by the (fantastic) stability accompa­nying the proper name "Stalin." A legacy of the Cold War more than of critical inquiry into Soviet history, "Stalinist" tags practices of monopolizing and consoli­dating power in the Soviet party-state bureaucracy. In this circumscribed imaginary, communism as Stalinism is linked to authoritarianism, prison camps, and the inadmissibility of criticism. Just as communism as the Soviet Union overshadows a wide array of other communisms—from China, through Yugoslavia, to Cuba and Nepal, to the US, UK, and Europe, and from parties coexisting within parliamentary state forma­tions to revolutionary fighters operating under various names and in various degrees of legitimacy—so does the Soviet Union as Stalinism eclipse post-Stalinist developments in the Soviet Union, particularly with regard to successes in modernizing (including a highly successful space program) and improving overall standards of living. Tariq Ali quotes the Soviet dis­sident Zhores Medvedev writing in 1979: "There is no unemployment, but on the contrary a shortage of labor—which creates a greater variety of job-choice for workers. The average working family can easily satisfy its immediate material needs: apartment, stable employment, education for children, health care, and so on. The prices of essential goods—bread, milk, meat, fish, rent—have not changed since 1964. The cost of television or radio sets and other durable items has actually been reduced (from unduly high previous levels)." The US didn't and doesn't see the Soviet Union this way. Blinkered by the Cold War, it has remained fixated on a static image of grey oppression.

Against the background of communist = Soviet = Stalinist, two interlocking stories of the collapse of communism predominate. The first is that communism collapsed under its own weight: it was so inefficient, people were so miserable, life was so stagnant, that the system came to a grinding halt. It failed. Linked to Stalinism, the story of failure features chapters on famine, purges, and terror. Like most ideological con­structions, it's not quite coherent: it neglects the fact that the Stalin period was also a period in which the US and USSR were allies. In the era most exemplary of the Soviet Union's injustice and illegitimacy, the period when the USSR was present not as a failed state but a strong one, the US was closer to the regime than at any other time in its history. The second, related, story of the collapse of communism is that it was defeated. We beat them. We won. Capitalism and liberal democracy (the elision is necessary) demonstrated their superior­ity on the world historical stage. Freedom triumphed over tyranny. The details of this victory matter less than its ostensible undeniability. After all, there is no Soviet Union anymore.


The chain communism-Soviet Union-Stalinism-collapse sets the parameters for the appeal to history that is characteristic of liberal, democratic, capitalist, and con­servative attempts to repress the communist alternative. Responding to challenges regarding the exclusion of class struggle, proletarian revolution, collective owner­ship of the means of production, and the smashing of the bourgeois-democratic state from political theory, they invoke history as their ground and proof. History shows that the communist project is a dead end. Yet as Alain Badiou reminds us, "at bottom, it is always in the inter­ests of the powerful that history is mistaken for politics, that is, the objective is taken for the subjective." What, then, are the features of this invocation of history?

The first is objectivity. The product of a neutral, unbiased investigation, the history of communism is made to stand apart from the politics and struggles that comprise this history, as if it were but a collection of facts, information to be googled and accessed. These facts are specifiable points or objects, immune to interpretation, and impossible to dispute.

If we accept, for a moment, the possibility of such facts, and agree that they are crucial to our capaci­ties to learn from previous struggles for communism, where will we find them? Michael E. Brown and Randy Martin argue persuasively that there is not yet a cred­ible and established body of historical literature on communism, socialism, or the Soviet Union. Most of the histories we have were produced in the context of a hegemonic anticommunism. Brown and Martin point out that the methodological and conceptual defects in scholarly studies of the Soviet Union would have been scandalous in other academic fields. Since the field was primarily a propaganda apparatus for the foreign policy establishment, these defects seemed somehow without significance, with the result, for example, that it is still impossible to say which aspects of the Soviet system were intrinsic to it and which resulted from external pressures, or, to take another example, whether the Soviet Union was a completely distinct and unique state formation or instead shared attributes with the United States or Nazi Germany that make communism a subset of a larger totalitarianism. In short, the effects of pervasive anticommunism continue to outlive the Soviet Union. Brown and Martin write, "The Communist icon of the Cold War is now the nega­tive ideal type against which an absolutely idealized capitalist market is both taken to be real and deemed the only sustainable paradigm for universal human organization." Constituted out of the chain commu­nism-Soviet Union-Stalinism-collapse, the invocation of history reinforces a Cold War binary instead of high­lighting the challenges facing an organized society of producers.

A second feature of the history invoked to repress the communist alternative is its continuity and determinacy. Faced with an opponent who presents communism as a solution to the crises of capitalism, the invoker of history posits a necessary sequence, as if revolutions were shielded from contingency. He starts with a fact, a unique, specifiable object, and builds from the fact a series of consequences and effects. These consequences and effects are necessary and unavoidable: If Lenin, then Stalin; If revolution, then gulag; If Party, then purges. So even as some who appeal to history recognize the defects and dilemmas traversing the academic field, they nonetheless highlight specific facts and moments, perhaps from their own experi­ence of betrayal in the compromises made by specific communist parties working in parliamentary contexts (as in France and Italy), as if these specific facts and moments were themselves indications of sequences of effects impossible to avoid. If it happened once, it will happen again, and there is nothing we can do about it. The oddity of this position is that communism is unique in its determining capacity, the one political arrangement capable of eliminating contingency and directing action along a singular vector. Communism becomes the exception to the dynamic of production, struggle, and experience that gives rise to it. Instead of the politics of a militant subject, communism is again an imaginary, immutable object, this time a linear process with a certain end.

As a consequence, history loses its own historic­ity. This is the third feature of the history invoked to repress the communist alternative. In this formation, history functions as a structure and a constant incapa­ble of change and impenetrable by "external" forces.

Any particular moment is thus a container for this essential whole—the Leninist party, the Stalinist show trials, the KGB, the Brezhnev-era stagnation. Each is interchangeable with the other as an example of the error of communism precisely because communism is invariant. In contrast with capitalism's permanent revolution, historical communism appears as impos­sibly static. Only by supposing such an impossible, invariant, constant, unchanging communism can the appeal to history turn a single instance into a damning example of the failed and dangerous communist expe­rience. And as it does, it disconnects communism from the very history to which it appeals, erasing not only communism as capitalism's self-critique but also com­munism as capitalism's mirror, ally, enemy, and Other.

Here, then, is the inner truth of the liberal, demo­cratic, capitalist, and conservative appeal to history. The intent is not to inspire inquiry or stimulate new scholarly research. Rather, it is to preserve the fantasy that capitalism and democracy are the best possible economic and political arrangements. Excising communism from its history as the class struggle within capitalism, as the critique and revolution to which capitalism gives rise, this history without historicity derides communism for a necessity that it effectively reinstalls in a capitalism without alternatives.

The Soviets (From The Communist Horizon)
Communism Is How We Forcibly Break Apart the Organized Power of the Capitalist Class
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