Zhores Alfyorov: Socialism Will Be Back

Russia has become a country of rent-seekers, with millions of people living off the sale of natural resources.

My father joined the RSDLP (B) in September of 1917 and, being a member of the regimental and division Soldiers’ Committees, was sent from the front to Petrograd where he heard Lenin speak on October 26.He would later tell us about it.


During the Civil War, starting as a private, he became commander of a cavalry regiment in the Red Army. Shortly after the end of the Civil War he was appointed as a special representative of the VChK-GPU on a section of the Soviet-Polish border. There he met a young seamstress who became his life’s companion. I remember his telling us, his sons, that when the White Poles were planning attacks on our border our side learned about it form father’s partner, a Polish communist who was a captain with the border guards. When our side needed it, he helped us by opening a section of the border.

In 1924 my father began working with soviets (councils) before becoming an economic manager. After graduating from the Industrial Academy he was a manager of plants and head of trusts in the forestry and pulp-and-paper industry. All our family, the sons of Ivan and Anna Alfyrov, identified ourselves with the October Revolution – the elder son Marx, who was born on January 1, 1924 and was enrolled in the trade union after “Red baptism” and Zhores, named after Jean Jaures, the founder of the French Socialist Party.

Marx finished school in 1941, joined the Red Army as a volunteer and after graduating from the Sverdlovsk Infantry School fought as platoon and company commander in Stalingrad, in the Kursk Bugle battle and died in action near Korsun-Shevchenkovsky in Ukraine on 15 February 1944.

Years later I learned that my father had been arrested in 1938, but denied all the charges against him. The prosecutor of the Western Siberian Territory, who turned out to be my father’s former comrade in the Civil War, withheld an arrest warrant and my father was allowed to continue his work as the head of the trust. Interestingly, in his later years, living in Leningrad, he was the chairman of the Council of Veteran Bolsheviks in Leningrad’s Vyborg District and introduced me to the Council members. I learned that many of them had been arrested in 1937—1938. They all remained dedicated to the ideas of socialism and bore no grudge against the Party and Government.

Today we see the advent of very dark times for the whole planet. Unfortunately, and it can be said with a fair degree of certainty, this is the time of Fascism in various forms. In my opinion, this happens because the powerful deterrent factor that was the Soviet Union no longer exists.

I recounted this episode many times during my lectures. When I was receiving the Nobel Prize for physics, Professor James Heckman of Chicago, a winner of the Nobel Prize for Economics, noted that scientific-technical progress in the second half of the 20th century was driven entirely by the competition between the USSR and the USA. He said it was a pity that this competition had ended. The competition between the Soviet Union and the United States played a huge favorable role not only in the development of science and new technologies, but was a potent deterrent in the system of harsh exploitation of the working people.

In France the economist Thomas Picketty recently gained great popularity with his book Capital in the Twenty-First Century. He argues that from the very birth of capitalism as a system, from the 18th century, working people have constantly grown poorer and the main wealth was concentrated in the hands of an increasingly small group of the population, the group of capitalists. That process slowed down in the 20th century when the Soviet Union came into being. During the time of the Soviet Union the process of concentration of capital and wealth creation in a narrow group slowed down for the simple reason, Thomas Picketty notes, that the Soviet Union was an immense deterrent and the capitalists were aware of the danger of social upheavals.

In this connection I always recall my conversation with the father of an old friend of mine, Professor Nick Holonyak, many years back, in 1971. We visited him in a small abandoned mining town with a defunct coalmine near St.Louis in the USA. Most of its inhabitants were retired coal miners. Nick Holonyak’s father had come to America from Transcarpathia, when it was part of Austro-Hungary. He told me: Zhores, if you start telling me that Russian workers live better than the American ones, I won’t believe you. But I’ll tell you something you can rarely hear in the United States. When I came here in the early 20th century and started working in a coal mine, we worked 10-12 hours a day, lived in barracks and were paid pittance – and life was terrible. Then the Russian workers staged a revolution and our capitalists got frightened and changed their social policy. So American workers live well thanks to the Great October Socialist Revolution.”

The two questions that are always asked in our country are: who is to blame? and what is to be done?

I am not a politician, my job is scientific research and scientific-technical development.

Still, thinking about it frequently, I came to the conclusion that some may consider strange. My father told me that Lenin once said: “if Soviet power perishes, it would perish not at the hands of internal enemies, not at the hands of external enemies, but at the hands of the party bureaucracy it has itself engendered.” We have indeed liquidated the exploiting classes, we had state or public ownership of the means of production, land indeed belonged to the state and was given for free to collective farms, various cooperative and state forms of agriculture. Lenin, who was well aware that struggle and competition were the drivers, in the very difficult conditions after the end of the Civil War backed the introduction and pursuit of the New Economic Policy which allowed private capital to own means of production and the renting of enterprises to private individuals. He once said that we would move from the NEP Russia to socialist Russia realizing that in that case, while offering advantages to the state socialist sector, we make the state socialist sector compete and fight against the private sector. Later, owing mainly to the external situation and the menace of war we abandoned the New Economic Policy in favor of state industrialization and collectivization thus creating real prerequisites for winning the war.

But it is also true that we created a huge class of government officials, especially party bureaucrats. Speaking about industries and industrial ministries, I see nothing wrong there. Most of our industrial ministries, if the need arose to carry out economic reforms, could become transnational companies. The ministries were a form of effective management of the development of industries in our country under the system of public ownership of the tools and means of production and a planned economy.

However, the following question suggests itself: how could it happen that in 1991 in a 20 million- strong Communist Party not a single active group came forward in defense of Soviet power, socialism and the Soviet Union? And how did it come about that the organizers of the liquidation of the Soviet Union and renunciation of the socialist system were our Party leaders, Politburo members such as Mikhail Gorbachev, Boris Yeltsin, Alexander Yakovlev, Eduard Shevardnadze, the heads of some union republics and some secretaries of regional Party Committees? One cannot help thinking that this class of bureaucrats was already in a certain sense a class of exploiters.

After the exploiting class gains power it is tempted to complement power with property. I am not referring to the Party leadership, the Party bureaucracy in the whole country, but there is no doubt that a small group within the Party bureaucracy had so decided. As is always the case, it found support among certain dissident intellectuals. I think today we can give a very different assessment than that given at the time not only of such quasi-reformers and enemies of Soviet power as Yegor Gaidar and Anatoly Chubais. We can give a totally different assessment of our intelligentsia of the time, including such people as Аndrey Sakharov and Alexander Solzhenitsyn, outstanding in their creative fields who enjoyed great popularity not only with the intelligentsia. Yegor Gaidar and Anatoly Chubais carried out a bandit privatization and created an extremely active bourgeoisie which grabbed both power and property.

I cannot fully explain it, but I think Solzhenitsyn’s Nobel Prize, as is often the case with peace and literature prizes, was awarded, partly, for political reasons. Granted, Solzhenitsyn is an outstanding literary talent, and for me his best work is his story Matryona’s Place. But GULAG Archipelago is not a work of literature at all, and its truthfulness is dubious.

The Peace Prize is even more political, suffice it to recall the prizes awarded to Mikhail Gorbachev and Barack Obama. It is a known fact that when Winston Churchill was told that he had been awarded the Nobel Prize (for his memoirs in 1953) he said, “I hope it is not for peace.”

Andrey Sakharov’s Nobel Peace Prize is a special case. Sakharov is undoubtedly an outstanding physicist who made a huge contribution to the creation of the hydrogen bomb in our country. However, in my opinion, the biggest contribution to the building of the nuclear weapon, creatively, was made by Vitaly Ginzburg. In 1952 the Americans tested a complicated two-storey device weighing 60 tons and having the yield of a nuclear weapon. Vitaly Ginzburg proposed using lithium deuteride as the explosive in the nuclear bomb which enabled us to build a real hydrogen bomb ahead of the United States.

However, knowing Andrey Sakharov and knowing many physicists who worked with him I can say that he was a really outstanding scientist who played a great role in the creation of the Soviet nuclear weapon, in putting an end to the American monopoly and the development of our own weapon which enabled us to take an independent stand in the Cold War after the end of the Second World War. However, his political views, in spite of the unfairly harsh attitude to him on the part of the Soviet Party leadership, cannot but raise doubts. To start with, he proceeded from the totally false principle of convergence of socialism and capitalism because borrowing some advanced and reasonable achievements of the capitalist economic system does not mean the convergence of the two systems which are fundamentally absolutely different from each other. At the end of the day, in his social and political activities, as is now obvious, he backed a movement aimed at destroying the Soviet political system and the socialist system in our country.

However, I repeat that the decisive contribution to the demise of the Soviet Union, from my point of view, was made by the country’s top political leadership. And of course our political adversaries abroad had a hand in it. I have great respect for the USA, an advanced country economically. The competition between the USSR and the USA played a huge role in the development of our planet, the competition and cooperation between American and Soviet, and now American and Russian scientists is very important. I have always had sympathy for the talented and enterprising American people, it was a truly advanced democratic country over many decades. Even so, it would be wrong to say that it was all done to the USSR by the Americans. To our great regret, we have done it with our own hands. However, the USA, in the first place, and the European capitalist countries did all they could to destroy the USSR, the world’s first socialist country.

Today our political opponents often say: “Of course, free education and healthcare is all very well, but one should not forget that socialism canceled the main conditions of economic success: private ownership of the means of production and the market economy.” The answers to these questions are elementary. You don’t like Karl Marx? Then read the great 20th century physicist and thinker Albert Einstein. In his remarkable article “Why Socialism?” published in 1949 he wrote that under capitalism production serves the purpose of profit and not consumption. The capitalist system leaves a person alienated and without help.

As Einstein wrote, “The economic anarchy of capitalist society as it exists today is …the real source of the evil. We see before us a huge community of producers the members of which are unceasingly striving to deprive each other of the fruits of their collective labor—not by force, but on the whole in faithful compliance with legally established rules. In this respect, it is important to realize that the means of production—that is to say, the entire productive capacity that is needed for producing consumer goods as well as additional capital goods—may legally be, and for the most part are, the private property of individuals.

Private capital tends to become concentrated in few hands, partly because of competition among the capitalists, and partly because technological development and the increasing division of labor encourage the formation of larger units of production at the expense of smaller ones. The result of these developments is an oligarchy of private capital the enormous power of which cannot be effectively checked even by a democratically organized political society..

This crippling of individuals I consider the worst evil of capitalism. Our whole educational system suffers from this evil. An exaggerated competitive attitude is inculcated into the student, who is trained to worship acquisitive success as a preparation for his future career.

I am convinced there is only one way to eliminate these grave evils, namely through the establishment of a socialist economy, accompanied by an educational system which would be oriented toward social goals. In such an economy, the means of production are owned by society itself and are utilized in a planned fashion. A planned economy, which adjusts production to the needs of the community, would distribute the work to be done among all those able to work and would guarantee a livelihood to every man, woman, and child. The education of the individual, in addition to promoting his own innate abilities, would attempt to develop in him a sense of responsibility for his fellow men in place of the glorification of power and success in our present society.

Nevertheless, it is necessary to remember that a planned economy is not yet socialism. A planned economy as such may be accompanied by the complete enslavement of the individual. The achievement of socialism requires the solution of some extremely difficult socio-political problems: how is it possible, in view of the far-reaching centralization of political and economic power, to prevent bureaucracy from becoming all-powerful and overweening? How can the rights of the individual be protected and therewith a democratic counterweight to the power of bureaucracy be assured?”

The Soviet Union was undoubtedly the first successful human experience of creating a socially just state which for seventy years successfully upheld the great ideas of socialism amid frenzied hostile activity of the surrounding capitalist countries. Albert Einstein always regarded the grandiose social experiment of the USSR with great interest and sympathy.

In a1929 article commemorating Lenin he wrote: “In Lenin I honor a man, who in total sacrifice of his own person has committed his entire energy to realizing social justice. I do not consider his method practicable. One thing is certain, however: men like him are the guardians and renewers of mankind’s conscience.” I attribute the remark about the method to the fact that Einstein was hardly aware of the challenges of building socialism in a petty-bourgeois peasant country that Russia was. And in this peasant country, in a hostile environment, having suffered great losses and devastation in wartime, and having to build up the army and armory, including atomic weapons, we overtook all the countries except the USA and in per capita production of all the staple foods we overtook all countries, including the USA.

I would now like to pass on to the second question, what is to be done? Karl Marx said famously that “violence is the midwife of history.” Marx used this phrase to stress that only a political revolution and a violent overthrow of the previous ruling class generate a new social system. This was the case during the Great French Revolution and this was the case during the Great October Socialist Revolution.

What has happened to our country over the past several decades? The collapse of the USSR undermined the entire economic system irrespective of its political and social structure. We destroyed high-tech industries, the country develops through the sale of natural resources, primarily oil and gas. In a way Russia has become a country of rent-seekers where millions of people live off the sale of our natural resources without making any real contribution to development, including these same extractive industries. By liquidating high-tech and many other industries we practically liquidated the multi-million working class of the Soviet Union and the multi-million working class of Russia.

The working class has always been and remains the social stratum prepared to defend its interests in the most resolute way. Under our Constitution, any calls for a revolution are a crime. But I would like to add that even if we decided today that this needs to be done it would have no chance. A new proletarian revolution in the country may succeed only if there is a proletariat, which does not exist today.

But of course we have to create a new economy. Once, discussing these problems with our President, Vladimir Putin, with whom I have (if only rarely) a chance to meet and talk I said that his slogan of creating 25 million high-tech jobs by 2020 is the task not only of business, as he said, but also of science and education because if we are really to create millions of jobs the attitude to the development of science and education in our country must change.

Steven Chu, winner of the Nobel Prize for physics who attended our Science and Society forum and with whom we spoke together at a conference in France in February 2015, in his lecture on global warming quoted the Saudi minister of energy as saying that “The Stone Age did not end because there was a deficit of stone.” Naturally, the oil age will not come to an end because of a shortage of oil. The Stone Age was succeeded by the Bronze Age thanks to the creation of new technologies , and I am absolutely sure that the oil age will end thanks to the development and successful introduction of new technologies, including the photo-electric method of transforming solar energy which will practically solve all of humanity’s energy problems.

We are actually very close to solving that problem, we are talking about a time period of 30-40 years, when this method will become economically viable and central. It would solve the energy problem on our planet for centuries ahead. If we accept that humanity and our civilization develop above all thanks to the development of science and the creation of new technologies on the basis of scientific research I think there would emerge – you may call me a political idealist – a peaceful method of human development and a transition to a much more effective way of meeting the basic needs of the Earth inhabitants. I am referring above all to our country because in that case we would develop new high technologies.

The development of new high technologies and the whole economy can only take place on the basis of planning. While the private sector may exist in the field of high technologies due to the appearance of start-up companies based on cutting-edge research, big industry cannot develop in the private sector. And very importantly for our country, only this method of the country’s development may result in millions of people not just working, but doing interesting work which would be well-paid and bring job satisfaction.

The development of a high-tech economy calls for the development of education with wide-scale use of the latest information technologies based on silicon integral schemes and semiconductor heterostructures. This means that we should be the leaders in the hardware for these technologies and in their use. We should not forget that these technologies, including the internet, may cause (are already causing) great harm by duping the broad strata of the population.

Socialism will be back, but we should actively fight for it.


Zhores Alfyorov, Member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Nobel Prize winner.