Teachings of Soviet Experience


Mark Hendrickson recently earned a master’s degree, with a thesis based on the works of Solzhenitsyn. This is condensed from a chapter of that thesis.

Of all the many lessons that the Free World can learn from the Soviet “experiment” of the last sixty-four years, the most urgent is that life under a socialist command system is far from the “workers’ paradise” promised by Marxian ideologues. As Alexander Solzhenitsyn and many others have so thoroughly documented, the socialist order, trumpeted as the wave of the future, is maintained only by the most brutal measures. The fact that the socialist state depends upon force for its continued existence is powerful evidence that free individuals would promptly reject such an inhumane system.

Economically, poverty has been institutionalized in the Soviet Union. Sociologically, a well- defined class structure has emerged, with special privileges accorded at the wish of the ruling elite. Politically, individual rights have been trampled upon and extinguished by ruthless despots. Spiritually and morally, the beliefs that the state is supreme and that the end justifies the means have taken human beings to the depths of depravity, as many have become willing to betray, enslave, and even torture any number of innocent victims. Is it any wonder, then, that “Whoever can ‘votes with his feet,’ simply fleeing from this mass violence and destruction”?

Economic Lessons

Economic laws, like the laws of physics, are discovered, not devised by men. The Communist rulers of the Soviet Union have tried to repeal those inexorable laws, and, in spite of their repeated failures, they persist in issuing bureaucratic decrees that attempt to revise the way the world works. In their self-deluding hubris, they act as though all action will conform to socialist planning.

It is a fact of life that human beings value more highly and will husband more carefully what they own than what they don’t own. That is why the small, privately owned garden plots which have been permitted in the USSR account for 62% of the potatoes, 32% of fruits and vegetables, 47% of the eggs, and 34% of all milk and meat produced in the country, even though these private plots constitute less than one per cent of the country’s agricultural land.[1] Yet, in spite of this impressive record and the chronic problem of food shortages in their country, the Kremlin refuses to heed the sound advice of Russian exiled dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn to “give up the forced collective farms and leave just the voluntary ones.”

The productivity of industry also languishes under its socialist directors. One major reason is the lack of incentive for workers and managers when all profit goes to the state. “Technological improvements developed in costly research institutes are ignored because no one will profit directly by introducing them.” Russians naturally want to profit as do all human beings. However, they don’t stand much chance of profiting by honest means, so they sometimes resort to dishonest means for personal gain. Dishonesty, of course, occurs in all countries, but Yankee ingenuity would be hard put to duplicate this mind-boggling fraud reported in a recent article:

When senior party officials dedicated a long-awaited, badly needed tractor-re-pair plant last year, “Pravda” (which means “Truth”) extolled it as “not a factory (but) a beautiful work of art,” and the responsible comrades awarded each other the usual round of medals. No such factory existed.[2]

Soviet experience has conclusively demonstrated that socialist production is inherently inferior to capitalist production. Lack of incentive is a major reason. But even if workers were uniformly motivated around the world, the socialist countries would be poorer because economic calculation is outlawed (de facto if not de jure).

In a Capitalist Order

In a capitalist order, each individual demands what he values most in the marketplace. He indicates approximately how much he values different products by how much he is willing to pay for them. These approximate objectifications of value—called “price”—are the signals which communicate to producers what they need to produce, and at what cost, if they are to attract customers and stay in business. As consumers’ hierarchies of values change moment by moment, these changes are transmitted through the pricing network. Entrepreneurs then seek to reorganize scarce factors of production so efficiently that they can offer a good that consumers want at a price which they are willing to pay, and still end up with a profit.

Because goods which are valued highly cost dearly (depending on the available supply) they tend to be conserved and used efficiently, and so greater satisfaction (greater prosperity) results than would be the case under socialism where the value-sensitive pricing mechanism has been rejected. Production under socialism is grossly uneconomical because the decrees of state officials supplant and suppress the economic values of individuals as reflected in prices freely arrived at in the market.

Socialist planning is uneconomical also because it is totally unsuited for coping with change. Whereas the prices of commodities in the United States fluctuate moment by moment on the commodity exchanges, reflecting shifts in supply and demand, and so enabling each commodity to go to where it is most valued in the economy, in the Soviet Union, commodities are allocated by state officials who are incapable of perceiving what the most urgent needs for any given good are at any given moment. Politics supersedes economics. When considerations of value are supplanted by considerations of power, chaos in production ensues. The only reason why the blind planning of the socialist commissars in the USSR has not resulted in total chaos and much more severe poverty has been that the Soviet leaders have been able to observe the allocation of resources in the non-socialized economies of the world.

Copying Market Gains

Since Soviet industry is so notoriously unproductive, one may wonder why the USSR is nonetheless known as an industrial power boasting awesome military might and a leading role in space exploration. First of all, since the individual in the USSR has no rights, it has been relatively easy for the state planners to build up the military and space industries at the expense of consumer-oriented industries. Secondly, the Kremlin has imported vast amounts of technical equipment and knowledge from more productive (i.e., capitalist) countries, most notably, the United States. The Soviet rulers have purchased—often on credit, and on terms more favorable than Americans can obtain—everything from the miniature ball bearings which are essential for the accurate guidance of intercontinental missiles to the capital, technology, and managerial expertise used at the Kama River truck factory (the largest such factory in the world) where the tanks which have been used in Afghanistan were manufactured. Thirdly, Soviet agents have succeeded in pirating technology from the West.

Solzhenitsyn eloquently summarizes the pathetic performance of production under socialist planning in his homeland:

What kind of country is it, what kind of great power, with tremendous military potential, that conquers outer space but has nothing to sell? All heavy equipment, all complex and delicate technology, is purchased abroad. Then it must be an agricultural country? Not at all; it also has to buy grain. What then can we sell? What kind of economy is it? Can we sell anything which has been created by socialism? No! Only that which God put in the Russian ground at the very beginning, that’s what we squander and that’s what we sell.[3]

Sociological Lessons

The social structure of the Soviet Union is an egalitarian’s nightmare. Far from eliminating class distinctions, the socialist system deepens and perpetuates them. Observers differ as to how many strata or “ranks” (to use a term which is apropos for the militaristically regimented social order) but they are unanimous in acknowledging a class structure that is so rigid that Russian critics refer to “caste expediency” and a “boss class.” Favors are bestowed by the state; favors are taken away by the state.

Tremendous tensions must inevitably exist because of the way the social organization, the USSR’s body politic, is presently constituted. The idea of class exploiting class, which is little more than a fantasy in a capitalist system where individuals are free to excel in the competition of servicing the needs of their fellows, is a cruel, ugly reality in the USSR.

The elite minority plunders the masses, and the masses know it. Certainly, some of the victims are fatalistic about their plight, but many others bitterly resent their exploitation. The present system may endure, or it may not, but one way or the other, violence remains the central characteristic of the USSR’s social organization.

The use of forced labor in Soviet Russia is as characteristic of socialism as is the impossibility of calculating value. If the 40% of the Soviet population which are forced to work the collective farms as virtual serfs cannot feed the Soviet Union’s population, and managers will take credit for the construction of factories which don’t even exist, one can scarcely imagine how unproductive, or even counterproductive, the labor of the zeks (the prison camp inmates) is.

In The Gulag Archipelago Two, Solzhenitsyn included several examples of the deliberate destructiveness of zek labor, and concluded, in something of an understatement, that the Soviet state (i.e., the people) is poorer as a result of using slave labor than it otherwise would have been. He also dispels the myth of the glory and honor of working in a socialist state, asserting, “The labor of the zeks was needed for degrading and particularly heavy work, which no one, under socialism, would wish to perform.”

Special Privileges Granted the Ruling Elite

Many amenities which a citizen can procure in the marketplace in the West, a Soviet citizen can receive only through the state. The greatest perquisites are, of course, reserved for ranking officials of the Communist Party. Solzhenitsyn tells us that they have country estates and that they ban the noisy maneuvers of the Soviet Air Force over those estates.

Reporter David K. Willis writes in the Christian Science Monitor (January 14, 1981) of special stores stocked with imported treats, of party tailors, travel privileges, spacious apartments, private lanes on the highways for official cars (which are chauffeur-driven luxury models, of course) and an entire “network of exclusive polyclinics, hospitals, and health resorts” (“It’s rather like living in the West, only you’re still here,” explains one client) which the average citizen never even sees.

The doling out of privileges has been one of the major Pavlovian tools—the “carrot” to go along with the “stick” of prison camps—used by the Communist rulers of the Soviet Union since the Bolshevik coup to further their designs. That they have been successful in winning allegiance (however precarious it may be in some cases) is apparent to all. Solzhenitsyn cynically writes of scientists who “are rewarded with a life of plenty and pay for it by keeping their thoughts at the level of their test tubes.”

The antisocial (i.e., anti-individual) acts of plunder and robbery—of institutionalized class exploitation-have prevented a genuine society, based on voluntary cooperation, from developing in the USSR. The present social organization born and bred in violence, and maintained by violence—will ultimately perish in violence.

After decades of having their basic rights of life, liberty, and property restricted, attacked, and denied, the various ethnic groups—masses of angry, abused individuals—may very well over- react, lash out in a fury of pent-up resentment, and try to seize what they, in self-righteous rationalization, believe to be theirs. That is why Solzhenitsyn believes that the Communist dictatorship in his country needs to be succeeded by an authoritarian government, which would keep various elements of the population of the USSR from killing each other off. By keeping the peace—that is, by protecting the life, liberty, and property of all individuals—a strong government would protect those conditions which are necessary for the development of a true society comprised of individuals freely cooperating so as to promote their mutual well-being.

The most important sociological lesson to be gleaned from Soviet experience is this: when individuals band together with the intent of wringing natural individual inequalities out of the social structure by unequal applications of force, the inevitable result is a command system, a system which is necessarily ruthless to the degree that it insists on trying to undo what nature has done. Such a system destroys natural social cooperation, sows the seeds of future violence, and, in a perversion of its stated objective, eventuates in a social organization in which class divisions are more pronounced and less flexible than is the case in a free society.

Political Lessons

In a system of free men, any individual who excels at satisfying the needs of his fellowman is rewarded by an impersonal market for his achievements. In such a system, service to one’s fellowman determines wealth and privilege. In a socialistic command system, on the other hand, the way to privilege is to help keep one’s fellowman under the subjection of Caesar. Personal favor determines wealth and privilege.

“In a country where the sole employer is the State, opposition means death by slow starvation. The old principle: who does not work shall not eat, has been replaced by a new one: who does not obey shall not eat.” With those grim words, Leon Trotsky described the totalitarian grip which the communist rulers of the USSR hold on the populace of their vast territory. That is the reality of the political order in a socialist system—a system which Karl Marx viewed as progressive. As economist George Reisman has observed, “The complete and utter powerlessness of the plain citizen under socialism can hardly be exaggerated. Under socialism, the plain citizen is no longer the customer, ‘who is always right,’ but the serf, who must take his rations and like it.”[4]

In the Soviet Union, the individual citizen is virtually without rights. This has been so ever since the Communist takeover. What the state (i.e., the ruling elite) wants, it takes. Those who once resisted the expropriation of their property in Communist Russia were liquidated. Those who object too vocally today are banished to Siberia or otherwise silenced. That is the nature of politics in a socialist state.

The public ownership of the means of production includes the public ownership of labor. Solzhenitsyn writes, “We are slaves there from birth.” The ultimate form of slavery in the USSR is the zek, who is subjected to treatment far worse than that endured by most of the slaves throughout history. Most slaves in ancient Greece and Rome, and in pre-Civil War United States were regarded as private property. As such, their owners at least had an incentive to keep them healthy. The zek, on the other hand, belonging to the state, is in a position in which none of his supervisors finds it in his self-interest to be concerned about the zek’s well-being, and so millions of zeks have found their prison term tantamount to capital punishment.

People Are Expendable

The experience of applied socialism in the Soviet Union demonstrates that the welfare of the propertyless citizen is of little concern to the state authorities. Subjugation is all that matters to the bosses. This has always been the case. Solzhenitsyn relates that the Volga famine of 1921 illustrated “a typical Communist technique: to struggle for power without thinking of the fact that the productivity is collapsing, that the fields are not being sown, that the factories stand idle, that the country is sinking into poverty and famine.” In other words, the people are expendable. What had been her-aided as the “dictatorship of the proletariat” has in reality become a dictatorship over those proletarians who manage to survive.

For decades, the official rhetoric has assured Ivan that his grandchildren would enjoy unprecedented prosperity, yet that promise is still far from fruition, and the achievement of affluence remains in the ever-receding future. The modus operandi of the political leaders of the socialist state is to plunder its subjects in the present and offer them a rosy picture of a distant future as compensation.

The despotism of the Soviet rulers is not an esoteric matter for political scientists in the West to debate as an academic issue. Rather, it is a phenomenon of tremendous import to every single Westerner, for the objective of the Soviet Union’s overlords is to extend their hegemony over the entire globe. Is it logical to suppose that tyrants who have shown no compunctions about brutalizing and enslaving their compatriots would respect the life and property of peoples of foreign lands?

Solzhenitsyn has repeatedly reminded Westerners of one of history’s oft-repeated, seldom- learned lessons: that the evil of tyranny grows ever more aggressive until it is bravely confronted and defeated. Those who try to appease tyranny will eventually find themselves attacked by those very tyrants, and if they are fortunate enough to be able to vanquish the aggressors, it will only be at a cost far greater than would have been necessary had an unflinching moral stand been taken against the tyranny at the outset.

Of the present incarnation of tyranny known as Communism, Solzhenitsyn writes, “. . . a concentration of world evil is taking place, full of hatred for humanity. It is fully determined to destroy your society.” That may sound like melodramatic hyperbole to the average American, but it corresponds completely with the stated nature and objectives of the Communist movement, and, more importantly, it corresponds to the anti-human reality of life in the USSR and other Communist-dominated lands. Any thought that this menace will go away if it is ignored is wishful and dangerous thinking. It must be confronted.

Moral and Spiritual Lessons

The well-documented villainies which characterize Communist rule are vivid examples of the destructiveness that results from accepting the relativity of morality. The essence of moral behavior between individuals is a reciprocal respect for rights, upon which basis free individuals may enter into voluntary associations (contracts) with others. On this moral basis, society and culture develop. Communist ideology claims to be a substitute for morality and rejects individual rights, traditional social bonds, and established cultural morés. The goal of communist ideology is to bring omnipotence to earth in the form of a socialist state.

Just as the Jacobins used appealing promises of liberty, equality, and brotherhood as an ideological justification for lawless violence, so also do the Soviet leaders use their ideology—that Communism will result in the “most radiant, most happy society”—as a justification for any act, including arbitrary mass murder.

Part of Lenin’s ideology was that traditional rights must be violently eliminated. When Lenin encouraged the Russian peasants to seize land for themselves in the early months of his reign, he achieved his objective: to plunge the countryside into anarchy. This anarchy, of course, paved the way for Lenin and his cohorts to “save the day” and restore a sense of order. It is this divide-and- conquer technique (the destruction of social bonds and subsequent absorption of weak, isolated groups) which has been the Communists’ primary method of enslaving the Russian people ever since the days of Lenin. This is what the Communist rulers must do if they are to achieve their goal of replacing a society of individuals with a collective. As Ludwig von Mises explained in his definitive work on Socialism (1922):

To make Collectivism a fact one must first kill all social life, then build up the collectivist state. The Bolshevists are thus quite logical in wishing to destroy the social edifice built up through countless centuries, in order to erect a new structure on the ruins.

The Marxian Religion

The ideology that asserts that morality is relative, that materialism is the only truth, and that the state is supreme, is a religion. This Marxist-Leninist ideology is not yet perceived as a religion, but that is what it is. Like Christianity, it preaches a Savior—the socialist state—on the path to heaven—a stateless Communist world; it teaches that man’s purpose in life and his present and future salvation depend on how well he serves this master, and it constantly appeals to faith, for many of its prophecies have not yet been fulfilled. Seen in that light, it is ironic that the thoughts of Jesus of Nazareth cannot be taught in the schools of the United States because of the separation of church and state, while the teachings of Karl Marx are subject to no such sanction.

The Soviet leaders do not tolerate any questioning of Marxian dogma. The official line is “He that believeth shall be saved.” The problem is, when such major prophecies as: the workers of the West will sink steadily into total poverty; Communist revolutions will break out in the more advanced industrialized countries; wars occur only in capitalist countries—when all these major predictions are contradicted by the historical record of Soviet experience, nobody believes in the old Marxist-Leninist religion any more. However, the priesthood (the Central Committee of the Communist Party) retains the outward form of the religion, because it dares not relinquish its power and privilege. And so, like the Aztec priests of Tenochtitlán, who sacrificed human lives on the altar of the sun god, the Communist Party leaders sacrifice human lives on the bloody altar of Marxist-Leninist ideology, and so maintain their reign of terror.

In addition to teaching the West the nature of the Communist threat, Solzhenitsyn teaches us the most important lesson of all: how to triumph over it. He explains:

We, the dissidents of the U.S.S.R., have no tanks, no weapons, no organization. We have nothing. Our hands are empty. We have only our hearts and what we have lived through in the half century under this system. And whenever we have found the firmness within ourselves to stand up for our rights, we have done so. It is only by firmness of spirit that we have withstood. And if I am standing here before you, it is not because of the kindness or good will of Communism, not thanks to détente, but due to my own firmness and your firm support. They knew that I would not yield an inch, not a hair’s breadth. And when they could do nothing they themselves fell back.

Unceasing resistance is the lesson he would have us learn. And how, specifically, can the West resist the advances of Communism? Certainly by military means, but more importantly, by affirming a consistent moral position—practicing and promoting freedom of individual economic activity; not assisting the Kremlin through trade and aid; not signing treaties (such as the Helsinki accords) which legitimize Soviet aggression; refusing to live at the expense of one’s fellow man; rejecting the insidious teaching that morality is relative and the end justifies the means; affirming in word and deed that all individuals have certain inalienable rights; being concerned with more than mere material ease, for liberty, if not vigilantly guarded, is lost. This is the message of Alexander Solzhenitsyn. If we heed his warning and emulate his courageous stance against Communist tyranny, the West shall indeed prevail against this aggressive, worldwide attack against individual liberty. []

1.   Hedrick Smith, The Russians (New York: Quadrangle/The New York Times Book Co., 1976), p. 201.

2.   George Feifer, “Russian Disorders,” Harper’s, February 1981.

3.   Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Warning to the West (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1976).

4.   George Reisman, The Government Against the Economy (Ottawa, II1. and Thornwood, N.Y.: Caroline House Publishers, Inc., 1979), p. 164.


April 1982



Mark Hendrickson is Adjunct Professor of Economics at Grove City College, where he has taught since 2004. He is a Fellow for Economics and Social Policy with The Center for Vision and Values and is on the Council of Scholars of the Commonwealth Foundation. He completed his B.A. in Spanish from Albion College and has studied at the University of Michigan School of Law, Oxford University, and Harvard before earning his masters and doctorate degrees from Grove City College.

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