What brought about the collapse of the Soviet Union? Depending on the perspective, one is bound to come away with different interpretations. Here in America and the Western world, the explanation is purely economic and technical. I documented some of those arguments in The Work-Standard while trying to justify alternatives to STEP (Soviet-Type Economic Planning). Everything from overcentralized bureaucracies to the issues encouraging competition and innovation among the Enterprises were covered in relevant Entries concerning STEP. While it is true that STEP was a flawed implementation of economic planning, this Author remains unconvinced that economic and technical considerations alone can explain why the Soviet Union dissolved in the manner that it did.
Another interpretation comes from the People’s Republic of China. Beijing, especially during the reign of Xi Jinping, has insisted that the collapse could have been avoided if the Soviets were more dedicated to the principles of Marxism-Leninism. In a very narrow sense, Beijing is somewhat correct: the CPSU did become complacent and undynamic around the time of Brezhnev, Andropov, and Chernenko. The CPSU by the 1970s and 1980s was not the same CPSU that grew up under Lenin and Stalin during the interwar years. The older generations came of age before 1945, amidst the changeover from Czarist Russia to Soviet Russia. The younger generations who replaced them in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s were either born after 1945 or were simply too young to experience the events of the early 20th century. Of course, whether Mainland China finds anything of value in the follies of the CPSU is beyond the focus of this post.
In Post-Soviet Russia and the former Soviet Republics, their interpretations are more political and social. The collapse of the Soviet Union was not the result of economics, technology, ideology, or complacency. The politicians who sided with Gorbachev and took over the CPSU had betrayed the legacy of the Soviet Union, challenged “Soviet Nationalism,” and tried to supplant it with a multiplicity of different “Nationalisms.” The concept of Nationalism in the Soviet Union signified the unification of the different people’s communities that comprised the former Russian Empire into a single Totality. This Soviet Totality was the “Soviet people,” whose creation concurred with the developments of a Soviet National Consciousness that upheld its own Soviet National Identity, its own Soviet National Essence.
Nowhere was the endeavor more apparent than a proposal to reform the Soviet Union into a “Union of Soviet Sovereign Republics,” from a unitary state to a confederation. The proposal might have been realized if it were not for the August Putsch curtailing it. But because the more hardline members of the CPSU failed to seize power from Gorbachev, that proposal was later replaced by the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), which emerged after the Soviet Union’s collapse. CIS is an Intergovernmental Organization (IGO) that borrowed aspects of the EU/NATO alliance. Like the EU/NATO, CIS is also an elaborate Free Trade Agreement (FTA) that relies on the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) to enforce the terms of that FTA. There is even the topic of “Eurasian Integration” which morphed into the “Union State” proposal between Post-Soviet Russia and Belarus.
Personally, out of the three prevailing interpretations, I have found the third one to be the most persuasive. The Soviets could have abandoned STEP and adopted State Capitalism, which is the economic governance model of Belarus. There will be concessions to Kapital and Schuld, the Incentives of Supply and Demand, and Privatization, but the State Banks and State Enterprises will continue to form the bulk of economic firepower for a would-be Soviet State. A later generation could have emerged and tried to figure out how to implement another variant of STEP. They might come from a multiplicity of different people’s communities, such as the German-speaking world for instance, but a common National Consciousness must keep them together.
But there is another interpretation that deserves mention in reference to the Soviet Union’s centennial and its later collapse. Going by the arguments posited by Ernst Jünger in “Total Mobilization” and Der Arbeiter, the Soviet Union lacked the Figure of the Arbeiter required to sustain the State of Total Mobilization across the nation. The Soviets compensated the Arbeiter’s absence by relying on the ideological clout of Marxism-Leninism, which was always dependent on a CPSU constantly striving to practice and enforce that ideology. Had the Arbeiter governed the Soviet Totality, the CPSU would have governed with a hands-off approach, and the Soviet Union would have threatened to economically and technologically overtake the US in a manner comparable to how post-1945 Japan did in the 1980s. Japan already had the Figure of the Arbeiter within its borders as far back as the Meiji Period, so those concerns made sense in the 1980s, prior to the Lost Decades.
That was a fundamental problem that the Soviet Totality had, something that is not apparent in the Japanese Totality, the German Totality, or the American Totality. Unlike Japan, Germany or America, the Soviet Union was established in an underdeveloped part of the Eurasian landmass that first needed to catch up with the Western world. The State of Total Mobilization was already developing in those three countries prior to the Soviet Union and the First World War, although its emergence clashed with Neoliberalism’s State of Natural Rights in the metaphysical realm. I did address that issue before in The Third Place, particularly in reference to the shared paradigm of Production for Profit and Production for Utility, gave Neoliberalism its economic and technological significance.
Apart from Jünger, the Slovenian Marxist philosopher Slavoj Žižek had arrived at similar conclusions. Žižek recognized that NEP (New Economic Policy) was merely a stopgap measure, an attempt at bringing a then-nascent Soviet Union to a suitable level of modernization through State Capitalism. The State Capitalism that NEP sought to implement in the Soviet Union was to develop the country and lay the foundations of Soviet Socialism. Drawing from Lenin’s justifications for NEP, Žižek arrived at the conclusion that certain forms of Capitalism are more conducive to Socialism than others. There is an article on the topic, which I felt is worth mentioning here:
“When, in 1922, after winning the Civil War against all odds, the Bolsheviks had to retreat into NEP (the ‘New Economic Policy’ of allowing a much wider scope of market economy and private property), Lenin wrote a short text “On Ascending a High Mountain.” He uses the simile of a climber who has to retreat back to the valley from his first attempt to reach a new mountain peak in order to describe what a retreat means in a revolutionary process, i.e., how does one retreat without opportunistically betraying one’s fidelity to the Cause. After enumerating the achievements and the failures of the Soviet state, Lenin concludes: ‘Communists who have no illusions, who do not give way to despondency, and who preserve their strength and flexibility ‘to begin from the beginning’ over and over again in approaching an extremely difficult task, are not doomed (and in all probability will not perish).’  This is Lenin at his Beckettian best, echoing the line from Worstward Ho: ‘Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’ His conclusion – ‘to begin from the beginning over and over again’ – makes it clear that he is not talking merely of slowing down the progress and fortifying what was already achieved, but precisely of descending back to the starting point: one should “begin from the beginning,” not from where one succeeded in ascending in the previous effort. In Kierkegaard’s terms, a revolutionary process is not a gradual progress, but a repetitive movement, a movement of repeating the beginning again and again… and this, exactly, is where we are today, after the “obscure disaster” of 1989, the definitive end of the epoch which began with the October Revolution. One should therefore reject the continuity with what Left meant in the last two centuries. Although sublime moments like the Jacobin climax of the French Revolution and the October Revolution will forever remain a key part of our memory, that story is over, everything should be re-thought, one should begin from the zero-point.
Today, capitalism is revolutionary much more than the traditional Left obsessed with protecting the old achievements of welfare-state – just recall how much capitalism changed the entire texture of our societies in the last decades…This is why the strategy of radical Left today should combine pragmatism with a principled stance in a sway which cannot but recall Lenin’s New Economic Policy (NEP) from the early 1920s when the Soviet power allowed to a certain degree private property and market economy; NEP was obviously the original model for Deng Hsiao-Ping’s reforms which opened up the way for capitalist free market (under the control of the ruling Communist Party) – instead of a half decade of market liberalization, we have in China already half a century of what they euphemistically call the “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” So is China for over half a century following a gigantic New Economic Policy? Instead of making fun of these measures or simply denouncing them as a defeat of Socialism, as a step towards (authoritarian) capitalism, we should take the risk of extending this logic to its extreme. After the disintegration of East European Socialism in 1990, a joke was circulating according to which Socialism is a transition from capitalism back to capitalism.
But what if we make the opposite move and define capitalism itself as a socialist New Economic Policy, as a passage from feudalism (or premodern societies of domination in general) to socialism? With the abolishment of premodern relations of direct personal relations of servitude and domination, with the assertion of principles of personal freedom and human rights, capitalist modernity is in itself already socialist – no wonder that modernity again and again gave birth to revolts against domination which already pointed towards economic equality (large peasants’ revolts in Germany in early 1500s, Jacobins, etc.). Capitalism is a passage from pre-modernity to socialism in the sense of a compromise formation: it accepts the end of direct relations of domination, i.e., the principle of personal freedom and equality, but (as Marx put it in his classic formulation) it transposes domination from the relations between people to the relations between things (commodities): as individuals, we are all free, but domination persists in the relationship between commodities that we exchange on the market. This is why, for Marxism, the only way to reach an actual life of freedom is to abolish capitalism. For partisans of capitalism, of course, this solution is utopian: is the lesson of Stalinism not precisely that, if you abolish capitalism, freedom is also abolished and personal domination returns in a direct brutal way. And when capitalism is in a crisis, it can also resuscitate feudal elements to survive – is this not going on today with the role of mega-corporations which prompted some economists and social analysts to speak about neo-feudal corporate capitalism?
This, then, is the true alternative today: neither capitalism or socialism nor liberal democracy or Rightist populism but what kind of post-capitalism, corporate neo-feudalism or socialism. Will capitalism ultimately be just a passage from lower to higher stage of feudalism or will it be a passage from feudalism to socialism.”
Do certain Capitalisms lead to specific Socialisms? Are certain Nationalisms checked by the prevalence of other Nationalisms? Are these contradictions the byproducts of a broader metaphysical clash between the State of Total Mobilization and the State of Natural Rights whose presence must first be discerned philosophically before stepped into the Real World in order to articulate them into something tangible to the average reader? I am inclined to believe that these topics hold the key to understanding the mystery of the Soviet Union’s collapse.