The theory of the USSR as a form of state capitalism has a long history. But as a key element of the SWP analysis of the old USSR the issue remains important (Socialist Review, November 2009).
The USSR was in competition with the great capitalist powers. But internally Western capitalism and Soviet societies did not exploit workers in the same fashion. The Soviets educated their populations, provided free health services and looked after vulnerable members of their societies. Never an ideal world, but the exploitation simplicities of the state capitalist argument don't hold water.
If you examine a capitalist society at a roughly similar level of economic development, the Soviets did well by their people.
At some levels, of course, the USSR was repressive. But to overstate the case and ignore the areas where the Soviet people did have freedoms does no one any favours. The problem for any analysis of the old USSR is that it does not fall into the straightforward categories that we find easy to understand. The old USSR was a mixed bag, part totalitarian, part socialist, and needs to be understood in the light of its history.
The USSR was born into a period of turmoil that today we forget. The 1920s and 1930s saw capitalism at its worst and most dangerous. But to locate the old Soviets as state capitalist misinterprets history, putting simple categories onto complex societies. Ours is a system of late capitalism and the state system is an integral part of our capitalist system.
We must interpret our own reality within our history and not make comparisons with a major underdeveloped country that has had a very different history.
Roger van Zwanenberg