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Anatomie d'un spectre: L'\'economie du socialisme r\'eel, by Alain Besan\ccon

Economic Ideology

Anatomie d’un Spectre: L’Économie du Socialisme Réel.
by Alain Besançon.
Paris: Calmann-Levy, 1981.

Two earlier books by Alain Besançon, the French historian and scholar of Soviet affairs, The Soviet Syndrome (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978) and The Rise of the Gulag (Continuum, 1981), dealt with Leninist ideology—its role in Soviet foreign policy and its “intellectual origins” in Russian history. Anatomie d’un spectre (“Anatomy of a Specter”) focuses on the economic ideology of Leninism. By tracing the evolution of the “objective laws” of socialism under Lenin and Stalin, Besançon says, it is possible to see what really holds the Soviet economic system together.

Leninist ideology adopted from Bakunin the idea that “the spirit of destruction is the same as the spirit of creation.” Because he believed that society changed from one form to another by a natural, dialectical movement, Lenin considered his first task to be the reversal of capitalism so as to make a space where socialism could grow. In fact he uprooted not just Russian capitalism, but the entire economy. When socialism still did not appear on this blank tablet, Leninist ideology had an explanation: what was preventing the birth of socialism was that, in spite of appearances, capitalism continued to exist in the form of vicious habits or malevolence on the part of Soviet citizens. It was therefore necessary to reeducate society. Power, which was to have been dissolved rapidly in the self-organization of society, became instead the unique hope of socialism, its ultima ratio.

But the idea of unlimited power, power over both consumption and production, would seem to contradict the idea of socialism as a natural form, and thus to render it illegitimate. Stalin’s answer to this dilemma was that society accomplishes its economic and cultural reeducation by passing through a series of stages, in the course of which work, initially only a way of earning a living, becomes the unchangeable and intangible base of social existence. In socialism, economics and economic policy coincide, and the laws of the state (or its directives) become the same as the “objective laws” of socialism.

Because they believed or came to believe in the laws of the socialist economy, Besançon says, the Soviet leaders constructed the system they did, trusting the Soviet state organs to “assure the eagerly expressed sense of perfect liberty in the reeducated.” The important point, however, is not so much the specific content of these so-called objective laws of socialism as that there be a law, for the notion of law makes sense in a domain as uncertain as economics only to the extent that it imposes necessity on human free will. And here we come to the heart of the Soviet system.

The principle of the Soviet economy, what gives it its special characteristics, is the idea of socialism, but this is actually an empty idea. The defect of Soviet “socialism,” Besançon argues, is not technical but ontological: the system is kept from destroying all goods and all human beings in the course of its project of “destruction/creation” by the need to protect power; and the real economic art of the Soviet government consists in the search for the optimal compromise between the destruction of “capitalism” and the preservation of power. In this way the idea of socialism, an idea which a century ago promised to promote the reign of reason over blind necessity, has itself become “an invisible hand, unmanageable, unknowable, malevolent.”

The Soviet Union is the world’s number-one military power, it has minerals and political resources, and its “production” is considerable, but it is not, Besançon asserts, the world’s second economic power. What is the internal value of the ruble, or the value of inferior goods? The Western economic literature which holds the Soviet economy to be reformable implicitly assumes that the system has the same ends as all economic systems, namely, the production of wealth (and also the Western goal of development); that its methods, though different from ours, are rationally prescribed by these ends; that the gap between the theoretical and the real functioning of the model is due to historical tradition and the personalities of individual leaders; and that the gap can be diminished, corrected, so that development can become more rapid. But what really holds the Soviet economic system together, according to Besançon, lies outside the economic sphere. Since political power and the need to conserve it are what gives the Soviet economy its structure, an economic problem like the “flow” of consumption (for example) is managed as a political problem, as in Poland.

“In everything touching work, exchange, i.e., economic life,” Besançon writes, “the Soviet citizen seems trapped by something absurd, uncontrollable, paralyzing—socialism collapsing heavily on him.” In the absence of internal motives for growth—since all initiative lies with the planners—the system falls in on itself. Planning, in fact, disorganizes production as much as it organizes it. Nevertheless, internal attempts at reforming the system, if they threaten the control of the planners, are seen as challenging legitimacy; reformers are said to be opposing the “building of socialism,” a crime which can result in a term in a prison camp. Thus again an ideology which serves the interests of state power triumphs over rational economic considerations.

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Besançon’s essay touches on many issues in the relation of the Soviet system to Western economies: Soviet modernization, the supposed convergence of its system with a market economy, its ability to overtake the non-socialist world (or destroy it and transform it on its own model). The “anatomy” of the Soviet economic system he provides is not really a model of the economy, and it is an overstatement to argue that economics is of concern to the Soviet leadership only when it threatens power. But Besançon’s discussion of Leninist economic ideology offers a critical counterweight to those Western economists who regularly fail to take into account the degree to which the preservation of power does take precedence over economic considerations in Soviet economic policy. Forced-labor camps, an impoverished countryside, widespread alcoholism, corruption, disorganization, irrationality—nothing the West calls economics can adequately explain these, any more than it can explain the recent “militarization” of striking workers in Poland. There are some phenomena, Besançon makes clear, that can only be comprehensively understood within the context of Leninist ideology—which is why the ability of Western governments to put pressure on the Soviet Union for internal reform and more rational policies toward the West depends on an appreciation not just of the “ordinary” realities of the Soviet economic system but also of its use of ideology as “the sign, the emblem of power.”

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