The Decline and Fall of Gorbachev and the Soviet State


Following is the 1992 introduction to Requiem for Marx.

"It was a Western fantasy that the man named to be general secretary of the Communist Party would not be a devoted Communist." Lenin’s slogan, "Marxism is Almighty Because It Is True," was displayed practically everywhere in the former Soviet Union. My first encounter with Karl Marx came in the first grade of elementary school in the city of Kazan on the banks of the great Volga River. His picture was printed on the first page of the first textbook I opened. "Dedushka Marx" (Grandfather Marx), said the teacher pointing to the picture. I was thrilled, for both of my grandfathers died in Stalin’s purges in the 1930s. I ran home to my grandma to tell her she was wrong. "I have a grandpa," I said, and with his huge beard and smiling eyes, "he looks like Father Frost" (the Soviet/atheist version of Santa Claus or Saint Nicholas, the patron saint of Russia).

Growing up in the Soviet Union, such early confusions are soon cleared up, for studies in Marxism were an unavoidable experience for everyone irrespective of age, class, social position, or nationality. Even the convicts in prison, including those on death row, studied the "Shining Heights" of the "great liberating teacher." The works of Marx, Engels, and Lenin were published in the USSR in 173 languages with a total output of 480 million copies. Many of them were exported. I once met an Indian translator hired by the Political Publishing House to translate 50 volumes of the Collected Works of Marx and Engels into Malayalam. He complained the project was stalled because the Soviet propaganda officers could not find another Malayalam translator to cross-check his work.

In the Soviet Union, Marxism was not thought to be just an economic theory. It pretended to be the universal explanation of nature, life, and society. It was also a deadly weapon to be wielded against personal enemies. As in the case of Sergei Vavilov who was starved to death for violating Marxism because he adhered to the science of genetics, "a false science invented by the Catholic monk, Mendel." In the name of Marxism, the death toll reached 100 million; the rivers of blood flowed from Russia to Kampuchea, from China to Czechoslovakia.

Hatred was the chief motivator of the socialist revolutionaries and their followers. Lenin regarded politics as a branch of pest control; the aim of his operations was the extermination of cockroaches and bloodsucking spiders, the myriad persons who stood in the way of his political ambitions. Yet Western hagiographers have glossed over this atrocious ruthlessness of Marxists, as historian Richard Pipes has documented.

One of the common denominators between Leninists and government interventionists in the West is the belief that the problems of monopoly are the problems of ownership: only private monopolies acting out of greed are harmful. These institutions are suppressing scientific and technical progress, polluting the environment, and engaging in other conspiracies against public well-being. Government monopolies, however, were believed to be ethical and upright; they substituted the "greed" of the profit motive with a "societal interest." Yet group bureaucrats who manage and operate the public sector are no less self-interested than those who manage and operate private business. One important difference exists, though: unlike private entrepreneurs, they are not financially responsible for their actions and they operate without institutional constraints of cost control that private property and competition induces. The enlightened minds of planners and technocrats cannot overcome the problem of economic calculation without market signals.

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October 18, 2008

Yuri N. Maltsev [send him mail] is Professor of Economics at Carthage College in Wisconsin. Before coming to the U.S. in 1989, he was a member of a senior team of Soviet economists that worked on President Gorbachev’s reforms package of perestroika. He is the author of Requiem for Marx.