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Colección: La Educación
Número: (120) I
Año: 1995

9. Martin MALIA. The Soviet Tragedy. A History of Socialism in Russia, 1917-1991. New York: Free Press, 1994, 575 p., notes, bibliography, index, Cloth: $24.95.

Few events in human history rival in significance the disintegration of the Soviet Regime. As the most ambitious secular attempt to rebuild, on an unprecedented scale, the whole structure of society, according to a utopian blueprint, that regime was a puissant inspiration to millions of people across the world. It was regarded as a viable and morally compelling alternative to capitalism. How could such an endeavor, aimed at liberating humankind from the hold of necessity, have failed so utterly? How could it have produced a regime of terror instead of a stable democracy and, after its fall, bequeathed to the surviving societies such a legion of intractable problems? In this book, Martin Malia, former professor of History at the University of California, Berkeley, sets out to explain the reasons of the debacle.

The author takes issue with much of what the academic field of Sovietology wrote on the Soviet Union. He questions particularly the writers who tended to dismiss the Communist regime’s declared goal of “building socialism” as transitory utopianism or mere propaganda. According to those authors, Soviet history revealed, on the contrary, a process of modernization through which the Soviet society was becoming less of an anomaly in terms of its overall development. Malia retorts that genuinely modernized nations do not disintegrate as the result of a bout of mere reform as the Soviet system did in 1989-1991. Malia’s rebuttal of Sovietoloy is rooted in the proposition that the former Soviet Union, though clearly a failed utopia, was neither a developed nor a modern nation. It was, rather, a phenomenon qualitatively different from all other forms of despotism in this or in previous centuries.

He holds that the appreciation of the Soviet phenomenon requires one to abandon the dominant reductionist stance of social scientists. For reductionists, the political superstructure is a mere reflex or consequence of the economic infrastructure. In regards to Russia, this general theoretical orientation induces error, because ideology and politics had primacy over social and economic forces. The Soviets were out to build socialism as noncapitalism. They suppressed private property, profit, and the market. The elimination of these institutions is tantamount to the suppression of civil society and all individual autonomy. A regime built on these premises can only be approximated through the use of violence and can subsist but for a limited period of time. In fact, for Malia, Soviet totalitarianism was an effort to suppress the real world. It produced a surreal world, “one defined by the paradox that inefficiency, poverty, and brutality can be officially presented as the summum bonum of society, and one where society is unable to challenge this fraud” (225).

The book’s thesis is substantiated in an articulate exploration of Soviet history, up to the regime’s demise under Gorbachev. The book also contains some instructive chapters of a more theoretical import, which address the issue of socialism and its relation to democracy, and the peculiar features of Russian history that help to understand the nature of Communism.

Social psychologists say that when a prophecy fails, the faithful will not necessarily reject the prophet but rather hold to his teachings more steadfastly. Likewise, many Marxists still hold to the doctrine in the face of the tragedy of the socialist experiment. Malia’s book should be a required reading, especially for those seekers after justice who still consider that socialism, of the marxist-leninist variety, has the potential to offer humankind the closest approximation to paradise in this world.

Antônio Octávio Cintra