The Soviet mirror and the pitfalls of historical analogy

Sir Niall Ferguson (Photo by David Levenson/Getty Images)


Questions of “identity” consume the present generation more than any others past. The spirit of our age, the Zeitgeist of the early 21st century – at least in the West – is one of doubt and drift. A loss of meaning, confidence and purpose, an unmooring from age-old certainties and truths (under the relentless attack of post-modern relativism), now define our societies. 

Insecurity reigns: not just about the future, but increasingly about our history too. The neo-Marxist culture wars seek to recast our forebears’ lives and actions as things of which we should be ashamed. This is supposed to guilt us into giving up more and more of the common-sense view of the world, in order to make room for the new, fake, anti-rational absurdities of gender ideology, critical race theory and other such nonsense from the “progressive” menu. 

Our public debates are now overwhelmingly gripped by “identitarian politics” obsessing over so-called “group” rights – and, at the other end of the spectrum, over national identity in the face of the ravages of multiculturalism. No wonder that Western peoples are increasingly confused on a fundamental level, and that rates of depression and other mental health issues (especially among the young) are getting worse. To sum up, as polities of thinking creatures we have devolved in terms of our collective nous and come back full circle to philosophy’s grounding question, first asked in ancient Greece: “who are we?”

Hello, Tovarisch

Sir Niall Ferguson, probably the world’s most articulate and PR-savvy historian, has recently ventured an answer from an American perspective. Boldly titled “We’re all Soviets now”, his Free Press article has naturally caused quite a stir through its provocative thesis. Ferguson compares today’s USA to the late Soviet Union, finding alarming parallels in a number of key areas. One is the gerontocratic aspect of the two regimes: where in the 1980’s the Kremlin was ruled by decrepit figures like Brezhnev, Andropov and Chernenko, America’s choice today is similarly between two very old men, one of whom is manifestly senile. 

Where the Soviets had communism as a state ideology (that hardly anyone actually believed in, but everyone had to pay lip service to), the Americans have “woke-ism” enforced by a new nomenklatura of high-level liberal elites and lower-level DEI “officers” in various sectors of US industry and education. In the USSR you could be arrested by the KGB for ideological deviationism (i.e. literally, not being “politically correct” – which is the original meaning of the term); in today’s America you can be “cancelled,” your life effectively destroyed, by the thought-police for saying the “wrong” thing about patent insanities such as the George Floyd cult or the LGBTQ+ religion.

Other big items of Ferguson’s list of similarities are the military (equally expensive and overrated, overall, in America’s case today, he suggests, as in that of the late Soviet Union), the healthcare crisis (abysmal public health statistics in both cases), and a wider sense of despair across society, especially among the poor, leading to high mortality in the US via suicides and opioids just as in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s the Russians tended to drink themselves to death en masse.

In addition, the US failure in Afghanistan is likened to the Soviet’ own defeat there. The inept handling of Covid becomes a mirror image of Chernobyl. The politically-motivated hounding of Trump in the US courts conjures comparisons with Communist show trials. More speculatively, low productivity growth in the US and Biden’s “industrial policy,” as well as the ballooning fiscal deficit, are made to sound like echoes of the late (and crumbling) Soviet command economy.

Wrong bear

And this is precisely the point: Sir Niall’s arguments ring true, and may seem to have some merit on the face of it, but at closer inspection they fall apart. There is hardly anything worse and more dangerous for the intellectual debate, than half-baked ideas that get traction on the basis of a superficial correlation of issues that, in reality, have very different causes – and structurally different trajectories. This is how the conversation is swayed and steered down the wrong tracks – often never to recover, and therefore never to find the right ways to analyse current affairs problems, let alone their solutions.

Hardly anything in Ferguson’s recital of similitudes between 1980s Soviet Union and today’s USA stands up to scrutiny. Gerontocracy? It ended in 1985 with Gorbachev’s accession, who was chosen in large part – by the Politburo themselves – precisely for his younger age and fresher spirit. In the late 1980s it was 77 year-old Reagan who seemed the gerontocrat, next to the youthful Gorbachev. Besides, the Biden-Trump situation is an anomaly, not a rule, in US politics; and all of their putative successors are much younger.

When it comes to the military comparison, Ferguson is – oddly, for such an otherwise sharp analyst – even further off the mark. He contends that the US military “is simultaneously expensive and unequal to the tasks it confronts,” pointing to the recent Wicker Report as the authoritative piece of evidence in support of this claim. What Ferguson does not say is that the Wicker Report sits at one extreme of the defence debate in the US, and is widely recognised as such. It calls for a five per cent US defence budget (up from around three per cent at the moment), to match the level of military spending during the Cold War. In effect, Wicker is asking to add an extra $5 trillion to US defence spending currently forecast for the next ten years.

The test that Ferguson applies to gauge the state of the US military is a nebulous, generalistic requirement of having “enough [military power] to contend with the ‘Coalition Against Democracy’ that China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea.” No explanation is given as to how or why the US is supposed to be able to fight alone and presumably overcome all these adversary states put together. And of course there is zero engagement with actual arguments of deterrence and military strategy, which, if Sir Niall would have cared to examine, would have shown that the strategic balance of power is still quite clearly in favour for the US and its allies, from the Atlantic to the Pacific. 

Even odder is Ferguson’s passing assertion that the late Red Army was a “paper bear,” one which “could not even win a war in Afghanistan.” Leaving aside the basic military and historical illiteracy involved in extrapolating net assessments of a country’s overall conventional military power from secondary unconventional campaigns in a completely different geography than that for which the armed forces were designed, the lightness with which the Red Army is dismissed here is simply staggering – and baseless. 

We know that the test of war on the Central European Plain never came; the Soviets never invaded through the Fulda Gap. But all NATO assessments of the time, as well as what we now see (at a much smaller scale) in terms of Russian military materiel deployed in Ukraine (including from Cold War storage), point very clearly to the fact that the Red Army bear was not “paper”-made at all. And this is even before widening the discussion to the nuclear field which Ferguson prefers to keep quiet about.

Other straw-men

Ferguson rightly castigates the “mismatch” in America’s healthcare system between resources and outcomes, and the “vested interests” at play. He also quotes mortality figures, which have risen in the US more than anywhere else in the developed world. But to his credit, he does point to drugs, including fentanyl, and obesity-related diseases as key drivers. The drug crisis has long been a specific American affliction, while obesity and many of the common diseases across US society come to a large extent from a supra-abundance of cheap, ultra-processed junk food, not from the lack of food and the utterly horrific hospital conditions in late Soviet Union. It is a “first-world” problem, of culture and choice – not, in itself, a sign of structural failure.

The resemblance that Ferguson identifies between the USSR and present day United States in terms of the existence of an “approved ideology” is arguably the strongest point in his piece. But it is hardly specific to America: the same thing is happening across the West, particularly in the UK and the EU, but also in Australia. This is not a symptom of a diseased economy or society, per se, but of a much more ancient affliction: the tendency of any political system to shift towards authoritarianism over time. The cult of personality, a culture of lies, informants and dissimulation, of illegal writings, punishment for one’s ideas, the existence of protected and privileged classes – these are not Soviet or Communist inventions, but the norm throughout history. 

Still less are they signs of decay. After all, Lenin & Co. instituted this regime, with its strict ideology policed by the NKVD, from the beginning. None of this prevented the Soviet Union from industrialising, winning the Second World War in the East, racing to the Moon, and generally presenting a formidable challenge to the “free world” throughout much of the Cold War.

This takes us to the crux of the matter. The case that Sir Niall makes, in effect, is that America today is in a similar state of decrepitude and dysfunction as the Soviet Union of the 1980s – and that, we must assume, the “end” (or a great reckoning) must be approaching for the US Republic, presumably unless some things change (though this is not discussed). 

This case rests on the uncritical acceptance of the well-established narrative that the collapse of Soviet Communism was somehow “inevitable.” The state of the Soviet economy, and the bleak social landscape in late-Soviet Union, coupled with the Soviet people’s presumed yearning for “freedom,” are usually the main arguments brought to support this thesis – indeed, as Ferguson himself does here.

But a brilliant historian like Sir Niall, who counts counterfactual history among his specialisms – and indeed, among his published works – should be able to see quite easily that there was nothing inevitable in the fall of the USSR. And he would be in good company. The most brilliant and most informed people of the era, from within the CIA to the academia – including such intellectual titans as historian Paul Kennedy – assumed that the Soviet Union would carry on well into the 1990s and perhaps beyond, and were surprised when it all fell apart.

The most obvious proof against the “inevitability theory” stands today in the form of the People’s Republic of China, which managed to transform its economy while conserving its Communist regime. Another example is North Korea: in its turn, it shows that a Communist, militaristic regime can still survive even if it doesn’t manage a Chinese-style economic transformation. 

Hardly anyone who actually lived under Communist rule in Eastern Europe in the 1980s can claim to have seriously believed, at that stage, that the system could ever crack and that the regime would implode. The security and repression in the mid-1980s were so tight as to remove any hope of popular revolt even beginning, let alone succeeding. The wildcard came in the form of Gorbachev himself, who (foolishly, from the Communist standpoint) attempted reform and loosened the screws, but then lost control of the situation. Had the gerontocrats remained in charge, the Soviet Union’s future would have been, indeed, more like North Korea now. If anything, Ferguson got his argument the wrong way around.

America is America

The other feeble analogies that Ferguson tries to marshal in support of his thesis are just as easily dismissed. Covid and Chernobyl? Sorry, no. Leave aside that Covid, with all the enormous abuses perpetrated throughout lockdown, was handled much better across the West and indeed the US, than in any of the autocracies – especially China. But the comparison itself, between a pandemic and a localised nuclear accident, is a categorical error and therefore disingenuous. The US has been spared a major nuclear tragedy so far, but the general performance of emergency services in other crises – whether hurricanes, wildfires, oil spills or indeed military deployments to fight Ebola in Africa, for example – still indicates a good level of competence and transparency.

Equally, the political prosecution of Donald Trump, while an outrage in the context of liberal democratic norms, is far removed from the completely sham “justice” system under the Soviets where the Party dictated the result, especially in political trials. As if to prove the point, this week has seen America’s legal system somewhat correcting these legal abuses with the US Supreme Court ruling in favour of immunity for former presidents. 

The broader idea, however, is that political interference with the rule of law has existed from the beginning of law itself. The question always is whether such abuses become a rule – leading to the end of democracy – or whether they remain exceptions. The US might move in the wrong direction eventually, but it is certainly too early to declare that as a fact, as Ferguson suggests.

And finally, the economic comparison. Again, almost inexplicably for such an astute economic historian, Niall Ferguson insists on suggesting that a growing US deficit and a measure of interventionist policy under Biden via things like the Inflation Reduction Act – standard practice for left-leaning administrations, and not only – effectively mean that the US economy is going the way of that of the Soviet Union’s. One wonders how he would characterise US economic policy under FDR.

This is disingenuous in the extreme and it ignores all the huge advantages that the USA has, economically, and which the Soviets (especially in their terminal decline in the 1980s) never had. These range from America’s science and technology prowess – to include the world’s largest tech companies – to the US dollar as the world’s reserve currency, through to the sheer wealth and sophistication of the American economy in general, not to mention its energy situation and its shrinking, but still unequalled, strategic position in the world. All these things – and many more could be listed – make any economic comparison between today’s America and late-stage Soviet Communism positively absurd, both in fact and in theory.

There is no question that the United States faces many problems and challenges. But so does any large (continent-sized) country; China for example has its own, deep troubles to contend with, as does India. A number of these issues, like the vast immigrant flows as well as climate change (as a political issue, irrespective of one’s take on it), are, by the way, specific 21st century challenges. Others, like the constant political struggles between the “left-behinds” and the “elites”, or freedom vs authoritarianism (including within a society), are recurring themes in the history of the world – and will be with us forever. 

There is very little of real worth to be gained – and significant reputation to be lost – from trying to make the facts fit pre-determined, pet theories, such as Sir Niall’s proposition that “we’re all Soviets now.” No, we’re not – but such a fallacy, left unchecked, can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. We can do better than this, and so can Sir Niall.

Gabriel Elefteriu is deputy director at the Council on Geostrategy in London and a fellow at Yorktown Institute in Washington, D.C.