The Soviet Economy Collapsed After the World for Which it was Designed Disappeared
Writing about web page https://www.elindependiente.com/opinion/2017/10/28/por-que-colapso-la-economia-sovietica/
This column appeared (in Spanish) on 28 October on the website of El Independiente.
Soviet economic institutions were inspired by two western economic models of the early twentieth century. One was the German war economy of the Great War, which Lenin observed and admired for its government priorities, the control of supply chains by committees of industrialists, the rationing of commodities at fixed prices, and obligatory labour mobilization. The other was the American system of mass production of standardized products in great factories under centralized management.
Combined with an authoritarian single-party dictatorship, these two models made the Soviet economy as it emerged under Stalin and persisted until 1991. Everything was designed for mobilization, production, accumulation, and expansion. To ensure this, the state owned nearly everything and directed nearly everything from the centre, either by decree or by pressure to conform, backed up by the secret police. The citizens were motivated to comply with authority by a mixture of patriotic appeals, fear, and meagre rewards. The economy could supply basic consumer goods and services, but its special advantage lay in supplying the means of national power in the world, especially a mass army with vast quantities of standardized weapons. By the outbreak of World War II, Stalin’s Soviet Union had become one the world’s two leading producers of armaments, the other being Hitler’s Germany.
The Soviet economy was capable of growth, but it never proved capable of catching up with the innovative market economies of the time. Moreover, the growth rate of the Soviet economy steadily deteriorated through the postwar period. From the mid-1970s, the Soviet Union was falling further behind the United States in productivity and prosperity. While its economy began to stagnate, the Soviet Union faced additional challenges of the time. One challenge arose from the U.S. rearmament under Presidents Carter and Reagan. Another arose from the self-imposed burden of the Soviet Union’s entanglement in Afghanistan. In the international economy the Soviet Union was reliant on the oil market, where prices collapsed.
The Soviet leaders made repeated efforts to overcome economic constraints through reforms. The reforms sought to raise productivity by decentralizing management and improving incentives for efficient behaviour, while retaining the framework of state ownership and the party monopoly of power. All such reforms failed, as the economy reverted to its basic type. Later, the Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping would say that the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, was a fool for abandoning the party monopoly of power without reforming the economy. But this was unfair. Gorbachev did so only after all economic reforms had been tried, including most of the reforms that had been tried out successfully in China. Why they failed in the Soviet Union is an important story, but one for another time.
The end of the Soviet economy cannot be explained by economic factors alone. This should be clear from the example of countries like Cuba and North Korea, where ruling parties are facing vastly greater economic problems and threats than the Soviet Union ever faced, yet regimes have not collapsed. In the case of the Soviet Union, politics was decisive. The conservative generation of leaders such as Leonid Brezhnev, born in the early twentieth century, died out. A new generation took command, led by Mikhail Gorbachev. The new generation was more open-minded, and their open minds had been influenced by the ideas of the dissident movement – nationalist, liberal, or social-democratic. Gorbachev was decisively influenced by ideas about social democracy and rule by consent. He did not want to rule at any price, or to rule by fear. Once it became widely understood that resistance to power would not be punished, people stopped being afraid. The Soviet Union became ungovernable and fell apart.
Politics was decisive in the moment, but at the same time we should not ignore the deeper economic forces. The Soviet economy was designed for a world of mass production and mass armies. That is no longer the world in which we live. In the 1970s, the information revolution gave rise to flexible production and a services economy based on information sharing. In the same decade, precision guidance and miniaturized nuclear weapons put an end to the idea that the future of Europe could be decided by a great battle fought by thousands of tanks and planes and hundreds of thousands of soldiers in the central European plain. The world for which the Soviet economy had been designed was disappearing. The Soviet Union had no future. No one should want to see it return.