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Tumultuous Rapids: Review of Russia and the Long Transition from Capitalism to Socialism by Samir Amin (2016)

Theo Vynnychenko Kenji

Amin, S. (2016). Russia and the Long Transition from Capitalism to Socialism. NYU Press.

“History…is not a peacefully flowing river, but made up of different moments, separated by tumultuous rapids” (134). When the USSR broke apart in 1991, an unprecedented ideological campaign was launched, propagating the idea that Soviet collapse implied the collapse of the socialist project as a whole. The ‘end of history’ was said to be at hand.

Amin’s critical reading of Russian history de-bunks this myth, with the compact prose and theoretical precision that is characteristic of Amin’s many writings. History is not in fact at an end. The struggle for human emancipation from alienations of all kinds, continues. Tumultuous rapids lie ahead.

Unlike many other critical readings of the soviet project, Amin’s work eschews both excessive detail and universalizing narratives. It is much less of a proclamation, than it is a dialectic. The work is organized in essay form, with each directed at one of the ‘big questions’ surrounding the Soviet experience, and Russian history more broadly.

The first essay responds to perhaps the most intuitive question: why Russia? An underdeveloped periphery, an iron fisted autocracy, a mostly illiterate population. Why would socialism spring up in a place like that? In approaching this question, Amin employs a fascinating synthesis of ‘historical Marxism’ and the World Systems Approach. He argues that geographical polarization stemming from imperialism, was extreme enough to overcome the historically underdeveloped class relations in Russia. Throughout the chapter, history and geography are entwined in an elegant dance, from which springs many salient theses.

Amin’s second essay zooms in on the early period in Russia’s history, and is, in large part, a response to the question of whether and to what extent, the Soviet Union was an empire, like its Czarsit predecessor. Amin contends that, not only was the USSR not an empire, but that the characterization of Czarism as fundamentally more despotic than its Western European counterparts, is completely fallacious. Contrived precisely to create a historical basis for the juxtaposition of American liberalism, agasint Soviet despotism. In truth, the Western European empires dispossessed millions of peasants, while the Czar did not. Similarly, capital flowed from the poor peripheries of the capitalist world, to its wealthy core, while the opposite was true in the USSR. Analyses of socio-cultural dimensions paint a similar picture. The Soviet Union was no empire.

Amin’s third essay, deals with the most salient question of all regarding the USSR: why did it fail? And the corollary – what does this mean for the socialist project as a whole? Amin’s thesis is elegantly simple: consistent overemphasis on ‘catching up’ over ‘building an alternative’, resulted in the formation of a ‘red bourgeoisie’, which, having lost its revolutionary vision, decided to liquidate the expensive Central Asian and trans-caucus peripheries into which Russian capital had been flowing. Orwell’s Animal Farm is not about socialism’s tendency toward bureaucracy, but the beuraucratizationof socialism, via Stalin’s ‘response from the right’to the central contradiction of socialism in the peripheries of global capitalism: ‘catch up’ or ‘build socialism’?

What does this mean for the socialist project as a whole? There is hope! There was no inherent reason that [the Soviet] system…had to disintegrate” (30). But, if the next project for emancipation and dignity is to be a success, Amin contends that at least three lessons from the Soviet experience must be heeded: i) “At every step the first goal must be remembered” (48), ii) “world polarization implies de-linking is the only choice” (66), and iii) Success is only possible in a polycentric world.

It is the last of these lessons that Amin’s fourth essay hones in on. The ‘big three’ – Lenin, Stalin and Trotsky – all underestimated the weight of the international dimension of the capitalist problematic, according to Amin, resulting in serious tactical errors like the Zhdanov doctrine, which created a bipolar world order, the over-reliance on a socialist victory in Germany by Lenin etc. Amin argues that it was only during the Bandung era (1955-1970), when a truly multipolar world order was formed, that imperialism was forced momentarily into retreat, allowing space for the Soviets to breath.

Amin’s fifth essay takes us past the Soviet era and into the present. Has the disillusion of the USSR allowed the entrepreneurial ambitions of the Russian people to burst forward into a new era of peace and plenty? Amin’s response is an indignant – no! Russia has lost the geopolitical means of defending itself against re-peripheralization. Autocratic power is being wielded with increasing irresponsibility by the former soviet states. Capital outflow into the peripheries, has been replaced by opportunistic, exploitative regionalism. While Primakov’s center-left program might have been a viable alternative, the opportunism of the Russian trade unions, Russian communist party, and the European Left, prevented it from ever coming to fruition. The decline has been sharp, and the near future looks bleak.

Finally, Amin’s sixth essay zooms in on the phenomenon of resurgent Euro-fascism in the wake of the USSR’s collapse. The “Euro-Nazi putsch in Kiev” (125), notes Amin, is part of a broader resurgence of fascism on a global scale. Recalling the Western right’s history of leniency toward fascism, Amin argues that, following the post-war ebb in overt pro-fascist sentiment within the western right, there is now a resurgent radicalization. Unique to the contemporary age however, is the globalized reach of fascism. Amin argues that etho-religious movements in the global south (political islam, BJP etc.) constitute a new form of fascism, one that ominously complements resurgent ‘hegemonic fascism’ of the triad, and ‘second-rank fascism’ of its allies in the global north.

While the absence of a universalizing narrative makes Amin’s work seem disjointed at times, androbs it of a profound concluding punch,the dialectical, almost conversational, multi-essay format, gives the book a very candid, informal feel, that makes it perfect as both, an introduction to left perspectives on the Soviet experience, and as a ‘cherry on top’, supplementary read for seasoned travelers on the tides of the radical literature. There are many quotable lines (as there always seems to be with Amin), there is a broadly ‘third wordlist’ perspective, that is otherwise virtually absent from other figures on the left, and there is a clear, concise, and convincing message at the heart of the book: there was no inherent reason why the Soviet system had to collapse. Mistakes were made, and conditions were against us. Learn from them, and fight on!

Amin’s book provides hope in a time of cynicism. A global perspective in a time of Eurocentrism. Critical analysis in a time of slander and myth-making. It is neither an academic treatise, nor a complete historiography. It is the candid, parlor-room political economy of Marx, Engles, Proudhon and Fourier. Pretense and pretentiousness are cast aside, as politics, power, class, are reintegrated into the story of the USSR. The inefficiency of a socialist economy, and the disillusion of the world’s first worker’s state, can no longer be used to write off the historical project of human emancipation and universal dignity.

Theo Vynnychenko Kenji is a recent grad and aspiring sociologist interested in critical agrarian studies, extractive industries and world systems.

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