Do Publicly Owned, Planned Economies Work?

US emulation of Soviet public funding of R&D

Advocates of a free enterprise economy would have you believe that public ownership and planning stifle innovation, while free enterprise encourages it. If that is the case, how do we explain:

•    That the Soviet Union beat the United States into space in the 1950s, piling up a record of firsts in space exploration, and consequently setting off a panic in Washington?
•    Most of the innovations in the United States, from the internet to Google’s search engine algorithm to advanced drugs and the i-Phone, are based, not on private investment, but government funding?

In fact, the truth about innovation is the exact opposite of what free-enterprise promoters would have us believe. It is not free enterprise, but planning and public funds, that drive it.

Soviet accomplishments in space, considered in light of the mistaken view that the USSR was always a poor second-best to the supposedly more dynamic United States, is truly startling. Soviet achievements include the first satellite, first animal in orbit, first human in orbit, first woman in orbit, first spacewalk, first moon impact, first image of the far side of the moon, first unmanned lunar soft landing, first space rover, first space station and first interplanetary probe. The panic created in Washington after the allegedly innovation-stifling Soviet economy allowed the USSR to beat its much richer ideological rival into space galvanized the United States to take a leaf from the Soviet book. Just as the Soviets were doing, Washington would use public funds to power research into innovations. This would be done through the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. The DARPA would channel public money to scientists and engineers for military, space and other research. Many of the innovations to come out of the DARPA pipeline would eventually make their way to private investors, who would use them for private profit (Mazzucato, 2011). In this way, private investors were spared the trouble of risking their own capital, as free enterprise mythology would have us believe they do. In this myth, far-seeing and bold capitalists reap handsome profits as a reward for risking their capital on research that might never pay-off. Except this is not how it works. It is far better for investors to invest their capital in ventures with less risk and quicker returns, while allowing the public to shoulder the burden of funding R&D with its many risks and uncertainties. Using their wealth, influence and connections, investors have successfully pressed politicians into putting this pleasing arrangement in place. Free enterprise reality, then, is based on the sucker system: Risk is “socialized” (i.e., borne by the public, the suckers) while benefits are “privatized” (by investors who have manipulated politicians into shifting to the public the burden of funding R&D.)

A study by Block and Keller (2008) found that between 1971 and 2006, 77 out of R&D Magazine’s top 88 innovations had been fully funded by the US government. Summarizing research by economist Mariana Mazzucato, Guardian columnist Seumas Milne (2012) points out that the

[a]lgorithms that underpinned Google’s success were funded by the public sector. The technology in the Apple iPhone was invented in the public sector. In both the US and Britain it was the state, not big pharma, that funded most groundbreaking ‘new molecular entity’ drugs, with the private sector then developing slight variations. And in Finland, it was the public sector that funded the early development of Nokia – and made a return on its investment.

Nuclear power, satellite and rocket technology, and the internet are other examples of innovations that were produced with public money, and have since been used for private profit. US president Barack Obama acknowledged the nature of the swindle in his 2011 State of the Nation Address. “Our free-enterprise system,” began the president, “is what drives innovation.” However, he immediately contradicted himself by saying, “But because it’s not always profitable for companies to invest in basic research, throughout history our government has provided cutting-edge scientists and inventors with the support that they need.”

All of this points to two important facts. (1) The United States kick-started innovation in its economy by emulating the Soviet model of state-directed research because free enterprise was not up to the task. (2) Rather than emulate the Soviet model for public benefit, the United States channels public money into R&D for private profit. From the second point can be inferred a third: The fact that the Soviets socialized the benefits that flow from socialized risk, while the United States privatizes them, reflects the antagonistic nature of the two societies: One, a mass-oriented society organized to benefit the masses; the other, a business society organized to benefit a minority of business owners. Capitalism, as the US president acknowledges, does not promote innovation, because “it is not always profitable for companies to invest in basic research.” On the other hand, state-directed funding is the source of innovation. Clearly, then, a political agenda has nurtured two myths: (a) That a system of public ownership and planning stifles innovation; (b) That the profit system stimulates it.

Why growth slowed

While the Soviet economy grew rapidly from 1928 to 1989 it never surpassed the economies of North America, Western Europe and Japan. Consequently, the USSR’s per capita income was always less than that of the industrialized capitalist economies. The comparative disadvantage in incomes and living standards was falsely attributed to the alleged inefficiencies of public ownership and planning, rather than to the reality that, having started further back than the rich capitalist countries, the Soviet Union had more ground to cover. When the race began in 1928, the Soviet Union was still a largely agrarian country while the United States was industrialized. Hence, the Soviet Union had to cover ground the United States had already covered when Russia was under the stifling rule of Tsarist tyranny. Moreover, it had to do so without riches extracted from other countries, as the United States, Britain, France and Japan had based part of their prosperity on exploiting their own formal and informal empires (Murphy, 2000). True, the USSR did have an empire of sorts—countries in Eastern Europe over which it exercised hegemony, but, except in the early post-WWII years, these countries were never exploited economically by the Soviet Union. If anything, the Soviets, who exported raw materials to Eastern Europe in return for manufactured goods, came out on the losing end of its trade relationship with its satellites. So long as they remained part of the Warsaw Pact—a defensive alliance formed after and in response to the creation of NATO—and maintained some semblance of public ownership and planning, Moscow allowed its Eastern European allies to chart their own course. Soviet hegemony, then, was limited to enforcing these two conditions (Szymanski, 1979).

By the mid-1970s there was serious concern in Washington that the Soviet economy was on a course to overtake that of the United States. Since Washington always pointed to the United States’ greater average income and higher living standards to mobilize the allegiance of its population to the free enterprise system, a Soviet lead would deal a mortal blow to the legitimacy of US capitalism. Careful estimates prepared in the United States showed that Soviet gross national product was gaining on that of the United States. In 1950, the Soviet economy was only one-third the size of the US economy but had grown to almost one-half only eight years later (Sherman, 1969). From the perspective of planners in Washington in the late 1950s, the danger loomed that at current rates of growth, the Soviet economy would overtake the US economy by 1982. At that point, the entire foundation of the US population’s belief in the legitimacy of free enterprise—that it produced higher living standards than public ownership and planning—would crumble. Something had to be done.

By 1975, the CIA estimated that the Soviet economy was 60 percent as large as the US economy (Kotz and Weir, 1997). However, Soviet economic growth was starting to slow. According to figures provided by Allen (2003), Soviet GDP per capita grew at an annual rate of 3.4 percent from 1928 to 1970, but at less than half that rate, 1.3 percent, from 1970 to 1989. Had the United States, alarmed at being beaten into space, and agitated by what seemed to be the very real prospect of being overtaken economically by the USSR, set out to sabotage Soviet economic progress?

The Cold War was never going to be kind to Soviet growth prospects. Soviet leaders recognized that a planned, publicly owned economy was an anathema to the captains of industry and titans of finance who use their wealth and connections to dominate policy in capitalist countries. The USSR had been invaded multiple times, and on two occasions by aggressive capitalist powers with the objective of wiping the Soviet system off the map. In order to deter future aggressions, it was necessary to keep pace militarily. Therefore, the Soviet Union struggled as best as it could to achieve a rough military parity to maintain a peaceful coexistence with its capitalist neighbours (Szymanski, 1979).

However, the smaller size of the Soviet economy relative to that of its ideological competitors created problems. The necessity of maintaining a rough military parity would mean spending a far higher percentage of GDP on the military compared to what the United States and other NATO countries spent on their armed forces. Resources that could otherwise have been deployed to industrial expansion to help the country catch up economically had instead to be channelled into self-defence (Murphy, 2000). From the 1950s through the 1970s, the Soviets spent 12 to 14 percent of their GDP on the military (Szymanski, 1984; Allen, 2003), a figure that would grow even higher later, when the Reagan administration hiked US military spending, anticipating a Soviet effort to keep up that would harm the USSR’s economy.

Another constraint imposed on the Soviet economy by the need to deter military aggression was the monopolization of R&D resources by the military. Keeping pace militarily involved an unceasing battle to catch up to US military innovations. When the United States exploded the first atom bomb in 1945, the Soviet Union raced to match the United States’ grim scientific feat, which it did four years later. The US introduction of the hydrogen bomb in 1952 was quickly followed by the Soviets exploding their own hydrogen bomb a year later. A US first in submarine-launched nuclear missiles was matched by the USSR a few years after. No major weapon was developed by the USSR first, with a single exception—the ICBM. Unlike the United States, the USSR had no military bases ringing its ideological rival, and therefore needed a way of delivering nuclear warheads over long distances. However, the aim was self-defence, and that the Soviet Union was usually in catch-up mode on weapons systems demonstrated that the United States was spurring the Cold War forward, not the USSR. For the Soviets, the Cold War was economic poison. For the Americans, the Cold War was a way to ruin the Soviet economy.

Because self-defence was a priority, the USSR’s best scientists and engineers were channelled into the military sector (Sherman, 1969). Soviet consumer goods were often said to have been of low quality, but no one ever said the same about Soviet military equipment. The reason why is clear: the military got first dibs on the best minds and best equipment and was never short of funding. There is a subsidiary point: high-quality Soviet arms were produced by a system of public ownership and planning, despite the myth that such a system is incapable of producing high-quality goods (Kotz, 2008). The necessity of channelling the bulk of, and best, R&D resources to the military meant that other sectors suffered, and GDP growth was impeded. For example, the Soviets floundered in their efforts to increase petroleum production because the metals, machinery, scientists and engineers needed to boost oil output were detailed to the military sector (Allen, 2003). Half of the machine tools produced and at least half of the R&D expenditures were going to the defence industry (Schweizer, 1994).

Another reason for the post-1975 slowdown in the Soviet economy was that the USSR had become ensnared in a Ricardian trap (Allen, 2003). The Soviet Union had an abundant supply of all the raw materials an industrial economy needed, and at first, they were easy to reach and therefore could be obtained at low cost. For example, in the early years of the USSR’s industrialization, open pit mines were dug near industrial centres. Minerals were close to the surface and could be transported over short distances to nearby factories. Therefore, production and transportation costs were minimal. However, over time, the minerals that were close to the surface were scooped out and pits became deeper and narrower. At deeper depths, the quantity of minerals that could be extracted diminished and the costs of reaching them increased. Eventually, the mines were exhausted, and new mines had to be opened, but at greater distances from industrial centres, which meant higher costs to transport raw materials to factories. The Soviet petroleum industry was equally caught in a Ricardian trap. In the early 1970s, the USSR was spending $4.6 billion per year to maintain its oil industry. As oil became more difficult to reach, the Soviets had to drill deeper and through harder rocks. Costs increased, reaching $6.0 billion by the end of the decade. By the early 1980s, costs had climbed to $9.0 billion a year (Schweizer, 1994). The Soviets could have escaped the Ricardian trap by shopping around for less expensive imports. However, that would have left them vulnerable to supply disruptions. The United States and its allies—who would always be hostile to the USSR, except when expediency dictated temporary alliances or easing of tension—could interdict raw materials heading to the USSR to bring the Soviet economy to its knees or extort concessions. In other words, given the very high likelihood that the United States would exploit opportunities to place the Soviet Union at a disadvantage, shopping around for cheap imports, rather than implementing a policy of resource self-sufficiency, was not a realistic option.

Another reason the Soviet economy slowed was that the costs to the USSR to support its allies began to mount to unsustainable levels. One way to bolster self-defence is to find friends who share the same enemy, and the Soviet Union set out to expand its alliance of friends by providing economic and military assistance to countries and movements hostile to the forces of reaction. In doing so, it became the banker for national liberation movements, Eastern European socialist countries, and various Third World countries seeking to escape and remain free from domination by powerful capitalist states. By 1981, the Soviet Union and its Eastern European allies had 96,000 economic advisers in 75 countries and 16,000 military advisers in 34 countries, together with a contingent of 39,000 Cuban troops in Africa, an army for which Moscow was ultimately footing the bill. At the same time, the Soviets were picking up the tab for 72,000 Third World students enrolled in Soviet and East European universities (Miliband, 1989). By 1980, Moscow was spending $44 billion a year on its allies (Keeran and Kenny, 2004). It gave $4.5 billion in aid to Warsaw from August 1980 to August 1981 alone to help contain the US-supported Solidarity movement (Schweizer, 1994). Meanwhile, the war in Afghanistan was draining the Soviet treasury to the tune of $3 to $4 billion per year. In other words, the costs of sustaining allies had grown enormous, raw material costs were mounting, the best scientists, engineers and machine tools were being monopolized by the military, and military expenditures were consuming a punishingly large percentage of national income.

A large part of the predicament the Soviets found themselves in was due to a decision the Reagan administration had taken to try to cripple the Soviet economy. In October 1983, US president Ronald Reagan unveiled what would become known as the Reagan Doctrine. “The goal of the free world must no longer be stated in the negative, that is, resistance to Soviet expansionism,” announced the US president. Instead, the “goal of the free world must instead be stated in the affirmative. We must go on the offensive with a forward strategy of freedom” (Roberts, 1999). This was a declaration of the end of détente. The gloves were off.

More formally, the Reagan Doctrine was spelled out in a series of national security decision directives, or NSDDs. NSDD-66 announced that it would be US policy to disrupt the Soviet economy, while NSDD-75 committed the United States to trying to drive up costs in the Soviet economy in order to plunge the USSR into a crisis. The Soviet economy was to be squeezed, and one of the ways was to induce Moscow to increase its defence budget (Schweizer, 1994). A hi-tech arms race would be the key. It would not only force Moscow to divert more resources to the military, but would channel even more of the USSR’s scientists, engineers, machine tools, and budget into military R&D, reducing productive investments and hobbling the civilian economy even more than the Cold War already had. The aim was to force the USSR “to expend precious lifeblood to run a race against a more athletic foe” (Schweizer, 1994), a foe which had a larger economy and more resources to last the race because it had started at a higher level of development and was plundering various countries around the world of their riches.

Over the first six years of his presidency, Reagan more than doubled US military expenditures, buying 3,000 warplanes, 3,700 strategic missiles, and close to 10,000 tanks (Schweizer, 1994). To keep up, Soviet military spending, previously at 12 to 14 percent of GDP, started to climb. Already twice as large as the United States’ as a percentage of national income (Silber, 1994) the defence budget grew larger still. Military expenditures increased by 45 percent in five years, considerably outpacing growth in the Soviet economy. By 1990, the Soviets were spending more than 20 percent of the country’s GDP on defence (Englund, 2011). At the same time, Moscow increased its military R&D spending nearly two-fold. In the spring of 1984, Soviet leader Konstantin Chernenko announced that ‘the complex international situation has forced us to divert a great deal of resources to strengthening the security of our country” (Schweizer, 1994).

Meanwhile, the Reagan administration had taken a page out of Che Guevara’s book. The Argentine revolutionary had called for not one, not two, but three Vietnams, to drain the US treasury. Turning Che’s doctrine against communism, CIA Director Bill Casey called for not one, not two, but a half a dozen Afghanistans. To bog down the Soviets in “their own Vietnam,” the Afghan mujahedeen were showered with money and arms. In Poland, financial, intelligence, and logistical support was poured into the Solidarity movement, forcing Moscow to increase support to the Polish government (Schweizer, 1994).

The Soviet media complained that the United States wanted to impose “an even more ruinous arms race,” adding that Washington hoped the Soviet economy would be exhausted (Izvestiya, 1986). Soviet foreign secretary Andrei Gromyko complained that the United States’ military build-up was aimed at exhausting the USSR’s material resources and forcing Moscow to surrender. Gorbachev echoed Gromyko, telling Soviet citizens that,

The US wants to exhaust the Soviet Union economically through a race in the most up-to-date and expensive space weapons. It wants to create various kinds of difficulties for the Soviet leadership, to wreck its plans, including in the social sphere, in the sphere of improving the standard of living of our people, thus arousing dissatisfaction among the people with their leadership (Schweizer, 1994).


By the mid-1980s, it was clear in both Washington and Moscow that the Soviet Union was in trouble. It was not that the system of public ownership and planning was not working. On the contrary, recognizing the advantages of the Soviet system, the United States itself had emulated it to stimulate innovation in its own economy. Moreover, the Soviet economy was still reliably expanding, as it had done every year in peacetime since Stalin had brought it under public control in 1928. However, defending the country in the face of a stepped up Cold War was threatening to choke off economic growth altogether. It was clear that Moscow’s prospects for keeping pace with the United States militarily, while at the same time propping up allies under attack by US-fuelled anti-communist insurgencies and overthrow movements, were far from sanguine. The United States had manoeuvred the Soviet Union into a trap. If Moscow continued to try to match the United States militarily, it would eventually bankrupt itself, in which case its ability to deter US aggression would be lost. If it did not try to keep pace, it could no longer deter US aggression. No matter which way Moscow turned, the outcome would be the same. The only difference was how long it would take the inevitable to play out.

Gorbachev chose to meet the inevitable sooner rather than later. His foreign affairs adviser, Anatoly Chernayaev, recalls that it was “an imperative for Gorbachev that we had to put an end to the Cold War, that we had to reduce our military budget significantly, that we had to limit our military industrial complex in some way” (Schweizer, 1994). The necessity of reining in the defence budget was echoed by another Gorbachev adviser, Aleksandr Yokovlev, who would later recall that “It was clear that our military spending was enormous and we had to reduce it” (Blum, 1995). Gorbachev therefore withdrew support from allies and pledged cooperation with the United States. This was a surrender. The capitulation was hidden behind honeyed phrases about promoting international cooperation and fostering universal human values, but the rhetoric did not hide the fact that Gorbachev was throwing in the towel. He described the surrender as a victory for humanity, declaring that he had averted “the threat of nuclear war,” ended the “nuclear arms race,” reduced “conventional armed forces,” settled “numerous regional conflicts involving the Soviet Union and the United States,” and replaced “the division of the European continent into hostile camps with … a common European home” (Gorbachev, 2011). In reducing the threat of a global nuclear conflagration, Gorbachev had indeed achieved a victory for humanity. However, the victory was brought about by caving in to the United States, which was now free to run roughshod over countries that were too weak to refuse US demands that they yield to US political, military and economic domination.

On domestic matters, Gorbachev—who identified himself with the virtually social democratic position of the Italian Communist Party (Hobsbawm, 1994)—tried to turn the Soviet Union into a Western-style social democracy (Roberts, 1999). He cited the need to reverse the slowdown in the Soviet economy as his rationale for the transition (Gorbachev, 1988). Economic growth had certainly slowed, and there was indeed a danger that continued slow growth would threaten the country’s position vis-à-vis its capitalist rivals. However, Gorbachev’s solution amounted to, “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.” The planning apparatus, which had unfailingly charted a course for unremitting growth during peacetime, was dismantled, in order to move the economy toward regulation by market forces. Rather than boosting economic growth, as Gorbachev hoped, the abandonment of planning did the very opposite. The economy tumbled headlong into an abyss, from which the USSR’s successor countries would not emerge for years. As one wag put it, “Stalin found the Soviet Union a wreck and left it a superpower; Gorbachev found it a superpower and left it a wreck.” Gorbachev is still widely admired in the West, but his popularity stops at the Russian border. A March 2011 poll found that only one in 20 Russians admire the Soviet Union’s last leader, and that “perestroika,” the name for Gorbachev’s move toward a market economy, “has almost purely negative connotations” (Applebaum, 2011).

The superior system

With few exceptions, what passes for serious discussion of the USSR is shot through with prejudice, distortion, and misconception. Locked in battle with the Soviet Union for decades, Washington deliberately fostered misunderstandings of its ideological foe. The aim was to make the USSR appear bleak, brutal, repressive, economically sluggish and inefficient—not the kind of place anyone of sound mind would want to emulate or live in. Today, scholars, journalists, politicians, state officials, and even some communists repeat old Cold War propaganda. The Soviet economy, in their view, never worked particularly well. However, the truth of the matter is that it worked very well. It grew faster over the period it was publicly owned and planned than did the supposedly dynamic US economy, to say nothing of the economies of countries that were as undeveloped as the USSR was in 1928, when the Soviet economy was brought under public control. The Soviet economy was innovative enough to allow the USSR to beat the United States into space, despite the United States’ greater resources, an event that inspired the Americans to mimic the Soviet Union’s public support for R&D. Moreover, the Soviet system of public ownership and planning efficiently employed all its capital and human resources, rather than maintaining armies of unemployed workers and inefficiently running below capacity, as capitalist economies regularly do. Every year, from 1928 to 1989, except during the war years, the Soviet economy reliably expanded, providing jobs, shelter, and a wide array of low- and no-cost public services to all, while capitalist economies regularly sank into recession and had to continually struggle out of them on the wreckage of human lives.

The US National Intelligence Council warns ominously that a crisis-prone world economy could produce chaos and distress on an even greater scale than the last crisis (Shanker, 2012). Offering a “grim prognosis” on the world economy, the UN warns of “a new global recession that mires many countries in a cycle of austerity and unemployment for years” (Gladstone, 2012). Yet at the same time, we are told that the Soviet economy never worked, and that capitalism, with its regular crises, and failure to provide employment, food, clothing and shelter to all, is both the only game in town and the superior system. Clearly, it is neither superior—on the contrary, it is clearly inferior—nor it is the only choice. Not only can we do better, we have done better. It is time to tear down the wall of politically engineered misconceptions about public ownership and planning. For too long, the wall has kept us from seeing a viable alternative model to capitalism whose track record of unequalled success points to a realistic and possible future for the bottom 99 percent—a future free from unemployment, recessions, extremes of wealth and poverty, and where essential goods and services are available at no cost to all.
Stephen Gowans is a Canadian political analyst and founder of What’s Left.

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One thought on “Do Publicly Owned, Planned Economies Work?

  1. In this excellent analysis of what really happened during the Soviet experience of planned economy, (i.e, communism) demonstrates clearly one of the fundamental conunudrums of capitalisn: inequality. You will have to read the above article to appreciate the reality that planned economy can –and did — work. The author touches on two sore aspects of American capitalism that affect every American or resident of the USA today: health care and education which now threaten to finally break the back of the 99% doomed to cruel slavery by the top 1 %– cuts, cuts, cuts in health benefits and constantly increasing costs for education which can only further crush the former and enrich and reduce the number of the latter. Since Social Democracy continues to cede on all fronts, the Soviet model becomes more and more appealing. Moreover, the number of people in East Europe and Russia itself cognizant of the pitfalls in their new experiences with imposed capitalism are tired of the new freedoms: freedom NOT to have free education, the freedom NOT to have free health care and the freedom NOT to have jobs as a fundamenal right. Change is the only answer. But fundamental change which means the overhrow of the old and proved unworkable capitalism.

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