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Was the USSR Socialist?: an Interview with Alexander Nogovishchev

Note from LeftEast: Recently, we ran across Alexander Nogovishchev’s very impressive MA thesis entitled “Political Communication in the USSR in the early 1960s: Discussing the CPSU Program,” which proposes to examine the Soviet Union of that period (and as a whole, really) as a socialist project and to take seriously its Marxism. In the process, using canonical historical material, it reaches very fresh conclusions of major import to any leftist seeking to make sense of the Soviet experience. We decided to interview the author.

Please, tell us a little about the Program – its origin, content, and consequences.

The history of writing the draft Program of the CPSU in 1961 is more than forty years long. During Stalin’s time, there were numerous initiatives to write such a program, but none of them came to fruition. The system worked successfully without the Program since all strategic decisions were formalized by party resolutions at congresses.

After the war, the party returned to the idea, when it became necessary for the first time to redefine the development of the state. Thus, the drafts of the draft Program of the All-Union Communist Party of Bolsheviks (b) of 1947 appeared. They contained many innovations of the supposedly “thaw” period: the “abolition” of the dictatorship of the proletariat, peaceful coexistence with capitalist countries, the construction of communism in a few decades, and others.

From 1958 to 1961, the preparation of the Program began in earnest. This was because Khrushchev and his team were looking for conceptual innovations that would distinguish them from Stalinism, not only for rhetorical, but also for ideological, political, and economic reasons. In 1959, “the period of full-scale construction of communism” was proclaimed. At this time, a reform plan began to be drawn up.

Khrushchev approached the preparation of the Program more inclusively, but not more democratically. Unlike Stalin, he involved not only party workers in the drafting of the document but also civil servants from the Academy of Sciences. 

The discussion of the draft Program was both unprecedented and ordinary. What made it unprecedented was its scale: many newspapers and public organizations were involved, and the entire Soviet population was intended to be involved in the discussion. What made it ordinary was the fact that the approaches used by the initiators of the discussion were very typical of the Thaw.

The repressive logic of Stalinism began to gradually recede: dissenters were no longer understood as direct enemies. Instead, they were perceived as “ignorant.”. The task of the party apparatus was no longer to destroy the enemy but to educate the student. But what both of these logics had in common was that they were authoritarian in their own way. Even allowing for discussions and suggestions from citizens, their role was reduced to “useful remarks”. The ones that were accepted were purely technical; there was no politics in them. Most of the political statements were either ignored, either because of the “unprogrammatic” content or redirected to the relevant bodies, where they were added to the archives.

The program was written during a period of extraordinary optimism: in April of that year, the first man was launched into space, and social benefits began to reach their then-unprecedented development. This created both many optimistic expectations among the population and skepticism. Both optimism and skepticism received their development in the form of a collective alternative political “program” from those proposals, letters, and objections from citizens that we have. So, optimistic people believed that 20 years was too long, and they wanted to speed up the process of communist development. Some of them proposed the construction of pilot communities and, the transition to a cashless economy. 

Skeptics believed that communism wouldn’t be established in those terms. Some of the proposed more stable, but not less radical measures, such as the collectivization of countryside recreational houses (dachas), yachts, cars, and other scarce objects and items that can be used in rotation.      

Despite the large number of alternative proposals, there were no political consequences from their letters, except for the disappointment that came in 1980 from communism not coming. Almost all the proposals made were only placed in the Soviet archives and were not taken into account, except for various complaints. For example, the government responded to outrage about the lack of pensions for collective farmers, which was decided in 1964, although not in full. 

With hindsight, however, the political proposals may be significant for researchers of the Soviet to show that the path that led to the collapse of the USSR had alternatives. The assessment of their prospects is a matter of debate, but I believe much more plausible than was previously thought. Some works on the subject also show that political dissent was much more complex than the generally accepted notion of dissidence. Consequently, the number of people involved in this dissent was much higher than previously thought.

Is it fair to call your work a study of “socialism with a human face” based on the population’s reaction to one of its main documents – the Program of the Communist Party of the USSR of 1961?

Yes and no. I’m not fond of the term “socialism with a human face” because it is closely related to a well-known dichotomy of leftist ideas. It is premised on the idea that “old orthodoxies” must inevitably evolve exclusively towards deradicalization and erosion of their communist content. That is, you can be either radical and outdated or modern and moderate. In this logic, any socialism is seen as either a self-marginalizing thing or a self-liberalizing thing.

My research describes the political reactions of Soviet citizens to the discussion of the 1961 CPSU Party Program. I try to show that among them there were not only loyal but also completely dissident, pragmatic as well as exotopic (out-of-place) statements. My study concerns a group of people distinct from all these other groups. This group was too politicized to be exotopic, too concerned not only with their own but with the common good to be pragmatic, too hesitant to be loyal to the regime, and too loyal to be dissident. This group of people was part of Soviet socialist discourse, but not in the same way that the highest Soviet officials were. It was independent from the official authorities, and also from the dissidents. This group represents another form of political expression in the USSR. But traditionally it was not considered in historiography as an independent problem until now.

The very discourse of the Soviet citizens I am examining had not only similarities but also differences with “socialism with a human face.” While there are certain programmatic similarities, conceptually it called for a leap forward rather than a modernization of the current state of affairs. I think it’s more correct to call it a kind of communism that breaks out of the familiar context of Sovietness. By this, I mean that the status quo in the USSR should be considered the post-war period, not the pre-war period. Consequently, I consider a “human face,” or more precisely, attempts to find it to be the norm, not its absence. I do not take the position of a deformed workers’ state or any other allegedly “spoiled” socialism. On the contrary, I believe that the Soviet Union was not moving towards its degradation, but towards its maturation in a more democratic, inclusive, and stable way, which was not possible during the years of revolution or Stalinism. Although this reassembly of the socialist project eventually ended up in failure, I do not believe that the USSR could not have accomplished it at all–      this is one of the main political conclusions from my research.

But if we take “socialism with a human face” to be some democratic iteration of socialism, then of course yes, one can draw parallels between my research and what the term represents. But I tend to think of this term as a stage of socialism without the revolutionary context. Just as French liberal democracy stabilized in the second half of the 19th – early 20th century, Soviet socialism, in my opinion, entered a stage of stabilization (unfortunately, unsuccessful).

You write that new materials are hardly used today to interpret the Soviet Union as a socialist project. Changing this trend is one of the main methodological contributions of your work. Could you explain why this trend is observed in the current political context?

With few exceptions, the trend toward localized studies is now more popular. How Soviet people dressed, what kind of medical treatment they got, how they received information – all of these are important research questions, although my research is rather different.

I also understand the trend of searching for commonalities between the USSR and the USA or Western European countries. This is because earlier, when the Soviet Union itself still existed, there was a lot of comparative research on ideology and politics. 

I am a leftist, and I came to history as a science because I want to change the world. But I am not satisfied with the classical (and non-classical) leftist answers. I believe that the experience of the USSR, especially the post-war experience, has been undeservedly thrown out of leftist theory and leftist consideration. It is considered too “revisionist” by the orthodox left, while the “progressive” left finds in it too many regressive aspects incompatible with a contemporary progressive left agenda (authoritarianism, conservatism, patriarchy, and so on). I believe that to reassemble leftist discourse today, it is important to reject our biased view of the Soviet socialist heritage and to look at it in its own right. Not only do we as leftists have to interpret the Soviet Union, but the Soviet Union has the right to oppose our political concepts with its existence and practices that do not fit into either orthodox or progressive Marxist concepts.

I stand in strict opposition to those who deny Soviet socialism the status of socialism simply because subjectively they don’t like it. Although I have a sympathetic view of my research object, I also see many negative aspects of the USSR. However, I don’t believe that for leftists the very concept of “socialism” should indicate something good a priori. Just as there are many different capitalisms for liberals and right-wingers, and they all prefer a particular one rather than all of them together, so too, I believe, should the left. Otherwise, I don’t see the point of such a concept if it is so dependent on the actors and their political intentions.

I aim to show that the research lacuna has not been filled: we still have something to say about the Soviet past as a socialist project. We need to return to this question again because the possibilities for answering it are much wider than they were 60-70 years ago. The collapse of the USSR has brought a large number of historical sources into circulation, and the distance from Soviet society makes it possible to approach the question less emotionally.

In this sense, I am neither an apologist nor a critic of the Soviet Union. I believe that the Soviet Union is a research problem that the left faces, which can only be dialectically resolved. It cannot be solved either by embracing it or rejecting it. What is needed is a set of fundamentally new conceptual practices that lie fundamentally outside current Marxist models. I will say that I have been researching this issue as part of a different, more political intellectual project. I am in the process of publishing my book on the Russian radical left movement (1988-2022), its intellectual practices, its crisis, and ways of overcoming it. In it, I try to answer in more detail the question of the possible foundations of the methodological impasse.

What is political subjectivity and why/how does the problem of political subjectivity haunt Soviet historiography?

In many ways, it is a conventional construct, which I use to separate the space of the political, which is “everything,” from the old notion of politics as a contest of ideas, programs, projects, and their public defense. 

Initially, reflection on political subjectivity and subjectivity emerged from the totalitarian school as a way of understanding the place of citizens within a totalitarian system. Revisionists, however, expanded this notion by emphasizing the non-obvious practices of the Soviet system, where there is a place not only for one-party politics and one-candidate elections but also for complaints, patron-client relations, the use of official rhetoric for their ends, et cetera. Alexei Yurchak wrote about spaces that did not exist at all in the form that many have sought before him. 

Despite its obvious merits, all such approaches have led to the Soviet being quite rarely discussed as political in the narrow sense, and hence socialist. I, on the other hand, consciously return to a narrow notion of the political as something that requires an awareness of oneself as a political person. For me, it is fundamentally important to separate people who, for example, complain “in the name of communism” that its roof is leaking, from people who propose the introduction of alternative elections, who write open letters pointing out public problems, who speak not only for themselves, but also take the liberty of speaking on behalf of an entire collective and interest group. 

My research deals with the fact that there are political forces even under socialism and that this is potentially normal for the system. These political forces may not only be part of the system or revolutionaries in relation to it; there is also what we would call in a more open system a moderate opposition.

For the left, recognizing such phenomena will allow it to break down the dichotomy of capitalist democracy and socialist authoritarianism. This perspective can yield much more than abstract philosophizing about popular sovereignty.

The focus of your research is the reception of the Program in the expanded public sphere of the Thaw era. What was that reception like? Could you be more specific about the social groups that participated in this public debate?

In my research, I identified five groups of statements, of which I chose to work with only one. I was interested in that group of people who, even with the utmost skepticism about the politicization of Soviet citizens, cannot be excluded from the list of politically active people. They took the liberty of speaking not only on their behalf but also on behalf of the collectives; they proposed innovations that required not taking into account simply their opinions about the placement of commas and the use of words in the text or changing the financial situation of individuals. So, if proposals for solving specific material problems of one person or group can be reduced to just pragmatic practices, then proposals affecting the Soviet society as a whole cannot be reduced to such practices. For example, proposals to introduce alternative elections can’t be considered ‘pragmatic’. These proposals weren’t so much focused on local problems as they demanded reforms of the entire Soviet system or its aspects.

If we take this community of people in social terms, it was very diverse: it included workers, collective farmers, old and new Party members. I would like to emphasize the latter separately: very often the Communist Party in the USSR is seen as a kind of apparatus detached from the population and opposed to it. However, the party was a way of both political and career realization in the Soviet Union. So it is worth saying that the question is not how much the official or unofficial discourse generated within and by party circles was shared by the population, the discourse of the population was often shared by party ranks up to the republican apparatus. To some extent, this correlates with the “party-democratic movement” that Roy Medvedev tried to asses to create a subject of political change to transform socialism in a more democratic and social direction.

Not all the proposals presented politically had a left-wing political coloring. But conventionally “right-wing” statements were quite marginal. I do not venture to say how widespread right-wing sentiment was in the USSR, since not every right-winger will send a letter discussing a socialist program. However, the very existence of repeated socialist, and yet, independent and not unambiguously dissident statements, suggests that a socialist opposition could potentially be formed in the Soviet Union, moderate towards the Soviet system, but still radical towards capitalism. 

Your work draws on, but largely diverges from, the revisionist tradition of Soviet historiography. Could you describe the main directions of your polemics with the existing historiography?

We have a fairly serious fundamental disagreement. They are looking for commonalities between the Soviet Union and other modernities, while I am trying to reopen the question of what makes the USSR different. For me, as a leftist researcher, it is important to separate the socialist from the contextual. I stand on the position that the USSR was an early socialist, with features potentially immanent to any socialism. My task is to try to identify such features in light of the rich work of contextualizing the Soviet experience, which the revisionists have already done. My polemic is no longer with them as individual revisionists but with the general historiographical position. 

I polemize with Alexei Yurchak more directly. I show that the performative shift he writes about, if it did indeed begin, did so in somewhat different boundaries. I believe that although Stalin’s death catalyzed some processes in Soviet society, it was not decisive. Even under Stalin, there were already attempts at democratization. Yes, they were not as visible as in the “thaw,”      but the inertia of the system and the authoritarian nature of governance remained and such cases can be found both earlier and later, during both the Brezhnev and Stalinist periods! For me, it is not so much the exact nature of the proposed measures that matters so much, but the dynamics itself. Although I am taking an individual case confined to a fairly narrow period, conceptually I am trying to look at the whole of Soviet history and give it an interpretation on a larger scale.

Do you think that by focusing on questions of material and cultural everyday life, the revisionist tradition of Soviet historiography de-politicized the USSR as a project, and thus removed the “political” from “political economy”? 

If we mean the political in the narrower criteria that I am taking, then the question arises: who is to be considered a revisionist? Alexei Golubev’s recent book The Life of Things: the Materiality of Late Socialism touches on political things in a narrower context. But the context he introduces through his study of materiality is more politically illuminating of the Soviet system than of Soviet citizens. Despite this, I like Golubev’s study a lot, and I find it a fine exception to the descriptive practices of many of my colleagues.

What is the relationship between consumer communism and the political subjectivity of Soviet citizens? Your discussion about the presence of a strong egalitarian vector in citizens’ appeals is particularly interesting.

Alexander Fokin, who has studied the topic previously, distinguishes between “ascetic” and “consumer” communism. These represent two conceptual approaches to communism. While asceticism is about “tightening one’s belts”, consumerism is about getting economic benefits here and now. I am not in favor of the latter concept, because it is very difficult to separate the reception of communism and the use of it for personal gain. Politics and pragmatics are so closely linked here that it is hardly possible to distinguish between them. 

In a way, I am taking both the easiest and the most difficult path at the same time. I fully take into account all possible skepticism about the politicization of such statements addressed to the 1961 Program. My task is to show that even using all intellectual possibilities to deny the political character of such statements, there is a group of judgments that do not fit into this skepticism even in its extreme form. It is therefore legitimate to distinguish a group of people. My task is not so much to define boundaries as to show that even in the most pessimistic scenario the object of study exists. Hence, it deserves to be a separate problem.

Based on this, I try to analyze what these people are saying even when we are maximally skeptical of their statements. The egalitarian character of these statements is noticeable even in them, which suggests that independent socialist discourse in the USSR is a much broader problem than dissident organizations or individual intellectuals.

Aleksandr Nogovishchev is a MA in history and Russian left activist. His key interests include: contemporary left radicalism, Soviet & post-communist history, intellectual & political history, socialist law & political theory, left & (post) marxist history and studies. He also is a main editor of Russian political resources: “Democratic Communism” in YouTube and “Zloy Sovetolog” in Telegram.