Socialism and the environment

Part 2: Environmental degradation in the former Soviet Union

– lessons to be learnt –

The fact that socialist revolutions have taken place in the backward sectors of the world economy has placed a permanent, unrelenting pressure on these states to "catch up" with capitalism's metropolitan centres. Inevitably, therefore, the emergence of the Soviet Union from industrial backwardness was accompanied by many of the symptoms of environmental degradation that prevail in the industrialised capitalist countries.

One of the key reasons for such an approach was outlined by Soviet ecologist Igor Laptev in his 1973 book The Planet of Reason:

"There is no doubt that the Soviet Union would have had much greater success in conserving the environment, if the construction of socialism had begun in a more favourable international climate… The Soviet people had to win their present position among the peoples of the world through enormous deprivation and huge expense. This included the expenditure of natural resources, which would have been far less if the USSR had not been compelled to develop and master independently not only the design but also the technological process of production of all the machinery and all the commodities it needed".

That is, denied the possibility of economic and technical cooperation with the industrialised Western countries, the Soviet state was forced to rely on its own limited resources to industrialise and modernise the backward, semi-feudal society it had inherited from tsarism. In addition, the Soviet Union had to overcome the legacy of two devastating wars – the 1918-21 Civil War in which more than 100 000 foreign troops occupied part of its territory, and the 1941-45 anti-Nazi war in which 20 million Soviet citizens died and one third of the country's accumulated wealth was destroyed. Altogether, war and postwar economic recovery took up nearly 20 years of the history of the Soviet state.

Following the Second World War, the Soviet Union was denied any economic aid by its former Western allies in the struggle against Nazi Germany and was soon ringed by bases for US bombers, armed with hundreds of nuclear bombs. In the face of continuous military threats from the major capitalist powers, the Soviet leaders prioritised rapid development of basic industries that could arm and equip a modern military force.

The original backwardness of the country, the need to quickly develop a heavy industrial base and divert large resources to military defence, combined to deny the Soviet Union the possibility of developing alternative, non-polluting technologies. Instead, like many poor Third World countries today, it was forced to utilise cheap, but economically damaging, productive technologies similar to those in the industrialised capitalist countries.

However, environmental degradation due to these factors would not, of itself, have produced the environmental disasters typical of the former Soviet Union . The environmental crisis in that country was vastly compounded by specific models of development and planning implemented under the bureaucratic dictatorship headed by Joseph Stalin. Due to the isolation of the first socialist revolution in a relatively backward country ravaged by civil war and foreign military intervention and economic blockade, political power was usurped by the bureaucracy of the Soviet state in 1923-24. Under Stalin's leadership, this stratum of administrators and functionaries consolidated itself into a ruling caste, which appropriated a considerable part of the social surplus product for its own personal consumption.

Under the bureaucratic dictatorship, the emphasis on the extensive growth of heavy industry to the detriment not only of the environment, but also of the consumption needs of the Soviet people, continued long after the Soviet Union had become a modern industrial power.

Although the existence of a planned economy gave the USSR the necessary condition for beginning to tackle both these problems, bureaucratic control of political and economic institutions deprived the mass of Soviet citizens of any direct means of determining the allocation of social resources and thus their quality of life.

In the system of bureaucratic planning imposed by the Stalinist regimes the multiplicity of social, cultural, economic and environmental needs of the people was unified by force in a central plan dictated from above. The fundamental features of this plan had to consist of purely quantitative indices and growth rates, since all the qualitative aspects (including protection of resources and the environment) had been buried along with democracy.

Furthermore, while the Stalinist bureaucracies gave lip-service to the ideals of socialism, their conception of building "socialism" – by "catching up and overtaking" the advanced capitalist countries in pure quantitative indices of production – ideologically rehabilitated capitalism's ecologically devastating consumption and modernization patterns, which consequently became the determinants of the bureaucratic central plan.

Their anti-environmental complicity with Western capitalist models was sometimes more direct, with leaking toxic dumps in Eastern Europe part of a lucrative trade in Western wastes.

The Stalinist bureaucrats thus made a major contribution to extending the influence of capitalist production way beyond what was objectively necessary.


Numsa News