“The working class demands the right to make its mistakes and learn in the dialectic of history. Let us speak plainly. Historically, the errors committed by a truly revolutionary movement are infinitely more fruitful than the infallibility of the cleverest Central Committee.’’
The demise of the Soviet Union and its Eastern European satellite states was greeted triumphantly by right-wing commentators the world over as evidence that capitalism, as a system, had defeated “socialism”. Francis Fukyama’s refrain, which has now become a sort of cliché, that history ended with the collapse of these states has now been shown to be remarkably short-sighted. Although socialism has yet to make much of an advance in Europe and North America, despite years of crisis, the current period is one which has exposed both the moral and financial bankruptcy of capitalism. The collapse of “actually existing” neo-liberalism has created fertile ground for progressives to offer long term solutions to the world’s political, economic and environmental problems.
The repression which occurred in the Eastern Bloc has long blackened the name of socialism. The inefficiencies of these economies, coupled with Stalinist totalitarianism, repelled many from supporting revolutionary change. The aberrations which occurred in these states are seen by a significant number of people as the natural outcome of attempts to build an alternative economic system. However mistaken this view may be, it is a genuinely held fear which needs to be addressed by socialists. Concrete alternatives, as well as a realignment of our political priorities, are required if we are to successfully renew socialism in the 21st century. These are issues I hope to address in the following articles.
The problem with capitalism
Before exploring the possibility of renewing socialism, it’s necessary to define the system we want to replace. Capitalism is an economic system in which the majority of the means of production – factories, workplaces, natural resources – are privately owned. Under this system, commodities are produced not for their use value, but to be sold in exchange for money. And because they do not own any means of production, the people who produce these commodities – workers – labour in exchange for a set wage paid by the people who do.
The case against capitalism is a strong one. The fact that 6 million children under the age of five die every year as a result of starvation and malnutrition on a planet with a food surplus should be enough to persuade anyone that the current economic is system is deeply flawed. The extreme level of inequality which exists is also disturbing. The Walton family, who own Wal Mart, possess more wealth that the poorest 40% of all Americans, while the world’s three richest individuals control more wealth than the poorest 600 million. The most pressing issue facing our species at the minute, however, is the environmental crisis. Capitalism, with its internal need to pursue unending economic growth, is unlikely to put an end to the destruction of our ecosystem. Surely humans are capable of building a better system than this?
No other system in human history has produced as many goods and as much technology as capitalism. For a minority of human beings, mostly in Europe and North America, it has improved standards of living, albeit on an extremely unequal basis. However, capitalism’s economic insanity shows that this system can no longer play a progressive role for humanity. It is a grossly illogical system, which allows thousands of people to sleep rough on the streets while countless homes lie empty. It is a system under which 200 million people are prevented from working, while those with jobs are, more often than not, overworked. It’s a system which wastes colossal amounts of human and natural resources on socially useless industries, such as advertising and, of course, war. In short, it is a system of economic anarchy.
The Soviet experience
If the left is serious about socialist ideas resonating among the general population again, a frank and honest appraisal of what occurred in the Soviet Union must take place. As well as condemning the many crimes committed under Stalinism, it’s also important to recognise the achievements of the planned economies. History is very rarely as simple as what is taught in schools. For example, life expectancy in China before the 1949 revolution was 35. Today, it is 73. Russia also went from being an underdeveloped, peasant society in 1917 to a world superpower which defeated Nazism in 1945. On top of this, free healthcare, free education, housing and full employment were provided to citizens. Even during the Great Depression, the USSR retained full employment. These things would not have happened without a centrally planned economy.
Following the October Revolution in 1917, the young Soviet State found itself in an extremely precarious position. Crippled by a world war which had taken the lives of millions of Russians, and a culturally backward society, the task of building socialism there was always going to be an uphill battle. The civil war, during which fourteen imperialist armies invaded Russia, physically decimated country’s working class, resulting in the political destruction of the institutions of workers’ democracy – the soviets. This gave rise to a powerful ‘Red’ bureaucracy which history now knows as Stalinism.
The problems in the Soviet Union were not caused by central planning per se, but by the fashion in which the bureaucracy carried out that planning. There was no democratic input on the part of the workforce and discussion was stifled. Industrialisation occurred at a rapid pace, causing much needless human misery. Socialists should not reject out of hand the idea of central planning because of the failures in the USSR. It is clearly the best way of ensuring that resources are distributed fairly and the needs of society are met. When faced with enormous difficulties, even capitalists agree with this. During the Second World War, the US and Britain planned production. Churchill and Roosevelt knew fine well that the “free market” could not meet the needs of the war effort.
Socialism, if it is to mean anything, should be about workers’ control and mass democracy. Clearly, these things did not exist for very long in the USSR, so to describe this state as “socialist”, in my view, is wrong. The tiresome argument that Marx and Engels would have endorsed this repressive system should not be taken seriously. As Tony Benn once said: “The Marxist analysis has got nothing to do with what happened in Stalin’s Russia: it’s like blaming Jesus Christ for the Inquisition in Spain.” And although it should not be regarded as socialist, neither would it be fair to describe the USSR as capitalist. Granted, there was most certainly a privileged elite at the top of Soviet society with superior access or education, health care and housing, but the means of production were controlled by the state and there was almost no inherited wealth.
What should also be acknowledged in this discussion is the devastation which the restoration of capitalism has caused in the former Soviet states. In a report for the World Bank in 1999, Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, wrote: “For eighteen of the twenty five countries [of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union] poverty on average has increased from 4% to 45% of the population…and life expectancy in these countries on average has fallen even while world life expectancy has risen by two years.” Between 1992 and 1994, Russia’s GDP collapsed by 42% – a bigger collapse than what the US experienced during the Great Depression. Suicide rates doubled and infant mortality was comparable to some third world countries. Russia’s “market reforms” had an immense human cost.
Previous attempts to build socialism failed. That does not mean, however, that future attempts are doomed to inevitable failure as well. Capitalism’s overthrow of feudalism, which required a number of revolutionary attempts, did not come about overnight. The same may be true for socialism. Rather than taking a dogmatic approach, like some on the left have done in the past, we must learn from both the mistakes as well as the achievements of history and act accordingly.