Angelo Segrillo. O Declinio da URSS: Um estudo das causas (The decline of the USSR: a study of its causes). Rio de Janeiro: Editora Record, 2000. 365 pp. $29.00 (paper), ISBN 978-85-01-05811-9.
Reviewed by Carlos Eduardo Rebello de Mendonca (Department of Social Sciences, State of Rio de Janeiro University)
Published on H-Russia (May, 2001)
An Economic Interpretation of the Demise of the USSR
An Economic Interpretation of the Demise of the USSR.
This book will represent, undoubtedly, something of a surprise for the international community of Russia scholars, as it should not be expected that a Latin American academic should offer something about Russian history that was not haute vulgarisation or a secondary study of the literature on the subject. On the contrary, it is a study based on the study of primary sources (including most major archives, namely GARF, RGAE, RTsKhDNI and TsKhSD), made while the author studied at the Pushkin Institute in Moscow between 1989 and 1992, as part of his graduate studies aimed at a PhD in History at the Universidade Federal Fluminense, located at Niteroi, in neighborood of Rio de Janeiro.
Actually, the book should be understood as part of a process of intellectual exchange that began in the 1920s, when activists of the Brazilian Communist Party began to be selected to study at the various "Red Professorship" institutions in the former USSR, a process that had as its end-result, besides much agitprop, the beginings of a serious marxist scholarship on all things Brazilian, such as the literary criticism of Astrogildo Pereira, various studies on the agrarian question in Brazil, and others. However, in the ideological climate of the late 1920s, many of these intelectual projects collided on the Stalinist orthodoxies of the period (above all on the issue of the "national-bourgeois" and "antifeudal" character of the supposedly imminent Brazilian revolution) and eventually came to naught.
The remains of these early efforts in the development of a Brazilian marxist scholarship left traces only in the works of the greatest heretical marxist of the period, Mario Pedrosa, who gave up attending his studies in Moscow while still enroute in Germany during 1926, upon being informed of the expulsion of the Joint Opposition (Trotsky-Zinoviev) from the Central Commitee of the RCP(b). Pedrosa was eventually to become the founder of the Brazilian section of the Left Opposition and to produce a far-fetched interpretation of Brazilian history according to the Trotskyst tenet of "combined and uneven development".
During the 1990s, the direction of this ideological exchange suddenly began to change. The demise of the USSR created, for the few diehard marxist scholars in Brazil who did not renege on marxism outright, the necessity of interpreting what had just happened. At the same time, the melting of the old apparatuses made it possible to tackle, for the first time, the task ahead without the encumbrance of much sectarian bigotry. The existence of a sizable community of Russophones in Brazil, plus the interest on all things formerly Soviet, did much to overcome the obvious barriers--most of them economic--to a serious study of the former Soviet Union in the Brazilian academy. Early in the 1990s, this process had as its first result the appearance of the work by Luis Fernandes, URSS: Ascensao e Queda [The Rise and Fall of the USSR]. Begun as a Maoist indictment of "Soviet imperialism", this work went to the press precisely during the 2nd half of 1991, and had to be reworked in order to deal with the questions posed by the swift desintegration of the USSR, which the author saw as a general crisis of the socialist project--a research programme followed by Segrillo's study.
In the first part of his work, Segrillo tries to explain the crisis of the centrally planned economy as part of a crisis of a World Capitalist Economy, of which the Soviet economy was a part. Basing his analysis on the study of economic cycles made by the Trotskyst economist Ernest Mandel in his Late Capitalism, Segrillo sees the period starting in the 1970s as a declining phase in a long wave of capitalist development initiated during the aftermath of World War II. According to Segrillo the progress of automation in industry--begun as a process of growing standardization of production aimed at a mass market--transformed itself into a process of flexible industrialization based on the continual change of products, in order to supply relatively smaller markets at a greater profit-margin (the core of this transformation being summarized in a change from "Fordism" towards "Toyotism").
Segrillo adds that the Soviet model of a centrally planned economy--reflecting the fact that that economy was only part of a global capitalist economy--had at its foundations the notion of standartized mass production, i.e., modeled itself on the basis of the Fordist notion of supplying mass quantities of standartized goods to an expanding market, something that Segrillo sees as expressed in the notion of VAL (valovaya produktsiya) that functioned as the main indicator of growth in prodution in Soviet planning. Such emphasis on quantity above quality is seen by Segrillo as being consistent with the authoritarian principles of management on which the Soviet economy operated since as early as 1919, when Lenin adopted the principle of one-man management (edinonachalie), thereby favouring a vertically centralized chain of authority in economic management that made managers concentrate in fulfilling aims expressed in terms of quantities.
However, Segrillo adduces that such preeminence of quantity over quality owed its prevalence (at least, in part) to the fact that, in a full-employment economy--or, to use Janos Kornai's terminology, a shortage economy--where any product had, in principle, a market, the rigidity of the whole system was partly a consequence of its own success, as batch after batch of defective or near-defective commodities could be thrown into the consumer market without failing to find a final purchaser. Consequently, there was no possibility for the emergence of unused capacities--as in the case of capitalist competition and Schumpeterian "creative destruction"--that could be used as the basis for a partial reorganizing of the productive chains. Therefore, the main shortcoming of the system was exactly what made it answer to the expectations of its founders: that it could operate more or less efficiently under conditions of authoritarian guidance, that it incorporated the most outstanding elements of the most advanced form of contemporary capitalist management at the time of its adoption, and that it led to the emergence of an economy functioning at full blast for a prolonged interval of time.
In the second part, Segrillo analyses four main "pressure factors" that operated upon the Soviet system, namely: the burden of military expenses, the development of agriculture, the nationalities' question, and the social role of the bureaucracy. On the first issue, he concludes that, as military expenditure in the USSR had its greatest relative levels in the early 1950s, and not during the early 1980s, military expenditure could not be taken as necessarily acting as a brake on economic development; especially when--as in the 30s and 50s--the presence of the military as "the most fastidious and demanding of all consumers" (to resume with a Trotsky dictum not used by Segrillo) could act as a factor of development of the general technological level of the economy. The problem, however, was that, since the necessities of military expenditure began to run counter, in technological terms, to the main trends of the Soviet economy, they acted as a disorganizing factor. The same goes for agriculture, where, according to Segrillo, production never ceased to exhibit an upward trend that became self-defeating, in that any quantitative development in supply would in the long run create increased demands for qualitatively better dietary requirements.
In this self-defeating conjuncture, the already existing national problems, as well as general disaffection to the bureaucracy, acted as channels of expression of the wants created by the crisis of the economic system, and not as causative factors in its own right.
The book is somewhat inconclusive, but clear enough in that it advances a thesis that is as polemical as it is strictly orthodox in its marxist character: that is, putting an economic explanation forth as the "in-the-last-instance" explanation, with all else remaining on the side of a superstructural effect caused by what happened at the base. However, the thesis is forcefully argued and, therefore, provocative, something that should interest the specialized reader. Also, the book reflects an intellectual ambience far different from that of the American scholarship on the subject, and perhaps that is what would justify a future English translation. Anyway, it's a good reading, and highly recommended.
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Carlos Eduardo Rebello de Mendonca. Review of Segrillo, Angelo, O Declinio da URSS: Um estudo das causas (The decline of the USSR: a study of its causes).
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Copyright © 2001 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits the redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit, educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online. For any other proposed use, contact the Reviews editorial staff at firstname.lastname@example.org.