Richard Wolff summarizes the history of the USSR (1917-1975)


And so in the chaos of all of this two
political parties made an alliance and called for a revolution. A lot of people
don’t know this; number one, a wing of the Social Democratic Party (the wing calling
itself the Bolsheviks) were part of this and the other party that allied with
them to make the revolution was a party representing the poor peasants. It was
called the Socialist Revolutionary Party. And these two small parties merged
together for an alliance, called for a revolution and to everyone’s surprise,
theirs too, they succeeded. The old government, the Czar, fell and a new
revolutionary government took over. And it was heavily influenced by the leaders
of the Bolshevik Party who in turn had been influenced by Marxism. They were
students of Karl Marx, they had read all that stuff, they had learned about
socialism from Western Europe and they were determined to build it in Russia.
Here’s some things they did that may surprise you. The revolution slogans were
“bread peace and land”. The first thing they did was take the land of Russia and
hand it out (this is crucial for you all) as private property to the individual
peasants of Russia. The notion that the Soviet revolution was a revolution
against private property is false and wrong and comes out of that cold war
hysteria. They weren’t opposed to private property.
They gave out property as private property on a scale no one has ever
equalled since. They created the independent farmer who owned his or her
own land. Extraordinary. They also declared
(extraordinary) that people would be provided, as part of the Revolutionary government’s commitment, with guaranteed
food, guaranteed housing, guaranteed education, guaranteed medical coverage,
you get the picture. It was a socialist revolution.
Over the years that followed they tried to implement all of this with
successes along the way and failures along the way. It was an experiment. They
were flying by the seat of their pants because no one had done this before, let
alone in a big country, let alone with a history of poverty and backwardness and
ignorance that had developed in a country like Russia. They quickly
discovered, as they rebuilt after the war, after the Revolution, that they had
enemies. And the enemies affected them deeply. Again for those of you who don’t
know, in the immediate aftermath of the Revolution 1917 they were invaded by
four countries who tried to put down the Revolution. The four countries all of
whom sent troops that landed in Russia to fight the new Revolutionary
Government: France Britain Japan and the United States. Just a little footnote: the
United States landed troops on Soviet soil. The reverse never happened. You can
ask yourself who’s entitled to be afraid of whom given that history. At the same
time a civil war developed inside Russia between those who supported the
revolution, the Red Army, and those who were opposed to it, the white army. I’ll
leave you to guess who the invading army sided with: the white army. And to
everyone’s surprise, including the leaders of the Red Army (and you might be
interested in the name of the man who was given the job of organizing and
leading the Red Army, the man’s name: Leon Trotsky whom you may have heard of), too
everybody surprise the Red Army won, the white army was defeated, the Civil War
was over and the foreign troops were pushed out. The last Japanese troops
leaving Russia in 1922, five years after the revolution. So now we have a country
that’s very poor to begin with, that has just lost a world war, gone through a
revolution, gone through a civil war, gone through a foreign invasion.
They’re destitute. The achievement of the Soviet Union, which has to be understood,
is that it went from that level of destruction – in 1917 to 1922 – so that 50
years later in the 1970s Russia had become the second most important
superpower in the world second only to the United States. That kind of economic
comeback and economic growth, because they also suffered in the Second World
War when Hitler invaded them. If I had more time I’d do much more history. But
what I want to stress is they went to work to overcome poverty. That was their
number one goal, that’s what the number one leader for most of these years,
Joseph Stalin, was committed to. In the name of building up their industry they
did a number of things. They collectivized agriculture. The land they
had given to the people they took a good bit of it back. They left them with some
but they wanted to create a modern Agriculture. The government
took over industries to make them work very hard. They built up their machines.
They built up their industrial base. They didn’t spend a lot of effort on consumer
goods which is why in the Soviet Union they were behind the West when it comes
to standards of living. So they worked very hard to come out of poverty and to
become an important power. And they had to because they were surrounded by
countries that invaded them, hated them, opposed them, threatened them. And so they
built up their military for which they needed an industrial base. They couldn’t
buy their weapons, they had to produce them. They couldn’t buy their ships and
guns and tanks, they had to produce them and they didn’t have the economy at
first to do so. So they went on a kind of forced industrialization march led by
the forcible leader Stalin. Civil liberties, thrown to the side. Individual
freedoms repressed. Absolutely, that’s a critique of
what happened there. But it’s important to understand why it happened and in the
service of what it happened. It’s important to balance the criticisms of
what they did, the price they paid, with what it was for. And therefore it’s
important for me to stress to you that the achievement across the 20th century
(from 1917 when the revolution happens to 1975, a crucial year in Russia), was an
achievement of economic growth that had never been equalled by such a large
economy in such a short historical time.

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