Lessons from Actually Existing Socialism: The Soviet Union

Arms of the Soviet Union
Arms of the Soviet Union
The Soviet Union was the first federal, multinational state with a planned socialist economy. Robin Talbot, Chair of the Young Communist League, explains why communists need to learn from its history...
The Soviet Union was the first federal, multinational state with a planned socialist economy. Robin Talbot, Chair of the Young Communist League, explains why communists need to learn from its history...
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The Soviet Union was the first federal, multinational state with a planned socialist economy. It emerged from the ashes of the repressive Tsarist regime, the First World War, and the colonial world. 

It was a global power that rivalled the United States of America and exerted unparalleled international influence, and yet it disintegrated from within in 1991.

Why is it important to study the first socialist state?

This was the first ever country to embark on the world-historical mission of creating a new form of society, socialism. It was a country where the working people held power over their own lives, and used the enormous potential and wealth of industry to determine their future. 

Over seven decades, the Soviet Union proved its naysayers wrong, and showed peoples around the world – especially in the so-called developing world – that a different model for social and economic development was possible.

For the first time ever, the people of the Soviet Union built a country that provided comprehensive education, healthcare and other social services, affordable commodities, culture and leisure, full employment, rights for women and minorities, technological and scientific advancement, and much more, inspiring even the creation of the National Health Service (NHS) in Britain.

Lenin, paramount leader of the world communist movement

Comunismo - Wikipedia

“Thank you, Lenin, For the energy and the teachings, / Thank you for the firmness, / Thank you for the Leningrad and the steppes. … / Thank you, Lenin, / For the hope.” – Pablo Neruda 

Lenin occupies a well-deserved place in the traditions of the world communist movement because he was a true pathfinder.

Unlike other communist leaders he had no blueprint before him. While Marx and Engels developed their sociological analysis of capitalism as a class-divided society based on the exploitation of labour power, and in the Communist Manifesto called for its overthrow and replacement with a communist society, Lenin went further. He enriched Marxism with his interpretation of imperialism, as well his views on the pivotal role of the Marxist political party, the Communist Party, and its special form of organisation. He developed Marxist theory and practice around questions of revolutionary strategy and state power.

In the newly founded Soviet state, he put into practice his concrete understanding of the problems ahead of his people – as well as the ideas of Marx and Engels – in the great experiment of constructing socialism for the first time. 

Prior to this the world had only truly glimpsed the power and transformational potential of working people during the Paris Commune of 1871, which lasted for two months.

Youth in Red Russia

In 1926 a delegation of young workers from Britain visited the Soviet Union, their experiences of which were reproduced in a pamphlet called Youth In Red Russia.

This delegation saw first-hand many of the enormous positive contributions made by the first socialist and workers’ state to human civilisation.

In contrast to the state of affairs in capitalist Britain, the Soviet Union’s standard of living had vastly improved and was continuing to improve; something the delegates observed as they visited cities and villages, cultural and educational institutions, and factories and coal mines. 

In the Soviet Union, young workers would study and complete practical training until the age of eighteen. They would then enter their chosen field of work. According to the pamphlet, young workers worked half the hours and had double the holidays of adults.

All workers were entitled to a fortnight of holiday per year with full pay, and free health and medical treatment in their factory or village as well as full sick pay.

For the first time for many of them, workers were able to access entertainment and leisure through reading rooms, game rooms, gymnasiums, theatres and cinemas, artistic centres, and other clubs. 

Organisations like the Workers’ Theatre Movement and the Physical Culture Movement promoted involvement in leisure activities. Amateur sport such as boxing, tennis and baseball were very popular.

The cost of municipal services like transport was minimal. Rent was graded according to income, space, and number of dependents. Wages were set so that no worker would earn less than the cost of living for their district. In addition, many workers could earn bonuses for additional labour, agreed in consultation with the trade unions.

Many workers could go to rest homes, summer camps, and sanatoria free of charge for their holidays or in order to recover, especially if they did labour-intensive or dangerous jobs. There was also a month’s paid holiday for workers in these industries, and their specialised equipment was provided by the state. Some workers like those of the oil fields of Baku lived in new homes rent-free. 

Another important element of the Soviet economy was the co-operative movement, which had a membership of 11 million people, accounted for almost a third of the capital of the Soviet Union, and was the main purchaser of agricultural goods.

The rights of nationalities were respected, notably in republics like Georgia, with education carried out in the Georgian language. 

In the factories and villages, people elected local Soviets, whose decision-making would then rise through district and regional congresses of Soviets to reach the highest levels of government. There was also a parallel system of industrial democracy in which factory committees, elected by the workforce, would make decisions and resolve issues on the factory floor. 

At one point, the writer of Youth in Red Russia states: “Our mining comrades listened with open mouths to the recital of the advantages enjoyed by the miners of Russia. They could not forget that in ‘civilised’ Capitalist England they were being forced to work an eight-hour day and their wages were being relentlessly cut down.”

The importance of these developments in the Soviet Union cannot be overestimated, since at the time Britain and many other capitalist countries were in the midst of severe social and economic strife, soon to be exacerbated by the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the Great Depression that followed.

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Distortions and mistakes in Socialist construction

According to E. M. S. Namboodiripad – pioneering communist leader and Marxist theoretician as well as twice Chief Minister of Kerala – Lenin envisioned the widest possible democracy for the working people, the willing cooperation of the peasant masses in transforming agriculture, and democratic solutions to the issue of the national question. For example, Lenin emphasised the role of bodies such as the Workers’ and Peasants’ Inspectorate in holding state power accountable.

According to Namboodiripad, “the left sectarian and revisionist mistakes of the entire post-Lenin leadership led to crises in the world Communist movement.”

Stalin upheld the idea of building socialism within the Soviet Union, and over the next a decade and a half the country developed from a peasant nation into an industrial power capable of defeating Nazi-Fascism, one of the most abhorrent and dangerous advents of the 20th century. It should never be forgotten that over 80 per cent of casualties in the Second World War occurred on the Eastern front.

After the war, and thanks to socialism, human civilisation entered a period in which social progress, economic progress, and freedom became newly possible – particularly with the collapse of the British Empire and the liberation of many formerly oppressed nations from their shackles.

Having fought for the liberation of oppressed nations under the Tsarist regime, the world’s first socialist state lent enormous material and spiritual support to national liberation movements around the world, as well as to communist and workers’ parties and to working class, peasant, and progressive movements. This was one of the most important historical contributions of the Soviet Union.

Facing perpetual military threat from capitalist countries such as the United States, the leadership often prioritised military spending – which left unfulfilled the needs and aspirations of the people. Khrushchev and those who followed him failed to protect and renew the original democratic basis of Soviet power. The fatal problems of lack of democratic participation, unbalanced economic development, and inequality between nations continued to fester. Later economic reforms weakened the role of public property, central planning, and the Party in the political arena. 

Nevertheless, in the post-war period the Soviet Union still maintained – at the expense of its own development – extensive support for ongoing liberation struggles in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, and for those who resisted lingering NATO-backed autocratic and fascist regimes in Europe, such as in Greece, Portugal, Spain, and Turkey. Their struggles and those of the peoples of Cuba, Vietnam, and sub-Saharan Africa would have been far more difficult without the Soviet Union’s practical support.

The Soviet Union eventually abandoned its principled support for anti-imperialist and national liberation struggles worldwide in favour of peaceful coexistence’. Gorbachev himself declared that ‘universal human values’ were more important than class struggle; even though we know that the former is a collection of abstract ideals, and the latter is the engine of history.

As David Lane notes, the leaders of the Soviet Union disavowed socialism between 1985 and 1991, and the state disintegrated in 1991 due to aforementioned internal problems and capitalist counter-revolutions that took place within its constituent republics.

As a result we lost the world’s first socialist and workers’ state. We lost the first great experiment in a social and economic system – socialism – that not only meets the needs and aspirations of people and guarantees the survival of our civilisation and planet, but also does away with the plagues of exploitation, oppression, and war. The Soviet Union was a beacon to working people all over the world.

For these reasons and its ground-breaking achievements – and while still keeping in mind its problems – the Soviet Union should be an inspiration to every communist, socialist, and progressive-minded person.

A group of people sitting on a lawn in front of a building

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Gardens of Kuskovo, Moscow. (Douglas Smith/Manhoff Archives)

Socialism, a new system and the way forward

Marxism-Leninism is not a copy-and-paste model that can be transplanted from one set of socio-economic conditions to another. As outlined in the Communist Party of Britain’s programme Britain’s Road to Socialism and in the constitution of the Young Communist League, Marxism-Leninism must be applied creatively and adapted to reality. It provides a framework around which a coherent political programme and analysis can be built, using the real experiences and ideas of the British working class.

The history of the Soviet Union and its great successes and errors is also linked to the twists and turns, and trials and errors of the world communist movement.

For example, when the 6th Congress of the Communist International (Comintern) in 1928 called for a hostile approach towards reformists and social democrats – which all its member parties were expected to follow – this caused huge damage to some communist movements. 

Cuban communist intellectual Fernando Martinez Heredia said that this sectarian approach from 1928 led the Cuban Communist Party into a dead end, where despite being in a revolutionary situation they were forced to reject alliances and opportunities that opened up as part of mass mobilisations and rebellions in 1933.

Nevertheless, by rectifying errors and applying correct strategies, Communist Parties could recover and continue to lead the way, so long as they remained objective, subjected themselves to self-criticism, and remained rooted in the working class.

The 7th Congress of the Comintern in 1935 then endorsed the strategy of forming popular fronts of communist and non-communist forces against fascism. Socialist revolution was completed in Cuba two decades later, although it was led by many people not then in the Communist Party!

Socialism is a young system – for which Marx, Engels and Lenin paved the way – whose construction has been attempted for little over a century, while capitalism has reigned for hundreds of years. 

The Soviet Union demonstrates to us that brilliant and historic achievements are possible within a short space of time. A strong political culture that promotes active engagement and leadership by the people, and preserving the loftiest of revolutionary ideals, must go hand in hand with pragmatic work. 

As part of that we should strive to steer clear of errors. These might include dogmatic or sectarian behaviour, abandoning key Marxist tenets, or opportunism and short-termism. Marxism-Leninism should never be “used dogmatically to justify the status quo” as described in the third chapter of Britain’s Road to Socialism. It provides a framework for interpreting real-life social, economic, and political relations and intervening in them for the cause of our people, while staying true to our principles.

As young communists, our role is to learn the positive and negative lessons of the past and present, keep the red flag flying high, and help to build Britain’s own road to socialism that fulfils our needs and aspirations.

Long Live Socialism!

Long Live the YCL!

Long Live the Communist Party!


Communist Party of Britain. Britain’s Road to Socialism. 2020.

Communist Party of China. Sixth Plenary Session of the Eleventh Central Committee. Resolution on CPC History (marxists.org) 1981.

Lane, David. 100 Years Since the Foundation of the USSR | Marx Memorial Library (marx-memorial-library.org.uk) 2022.

Martinez Heredia, Fernando. Soviet Socialism and Cuban Socialism: The case of Antonio Guiteras. 2017. [In Spanish]

Martinez Heredia, Fernando. Problemas del socialismo cubano | Cubadebate 2016. [In Spanish]

Namboodiripad, E. M. S. The Frontline Years. Selected Articles. 2020.

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