6.4 How socialist and related alternative movements and systems can fail

The focus of the following paragraphs is on identifying some of the internal causes of failure of socialist movements and socialist systems. The results have ranged from serious errors of judgement to crimes of violence that contradicted the proclaimed life-affirming aims of the socialists.

Throughout the history of capitalism, many of its victims created or joined socialist movements with the aim of ending the sources of their oppression, in the process attempting to create non-oppressive societies and communities. In all cases known to the authors, these attempts have either already reached dead ends or include processes and features that could lead them in that direction. There is no choice now but to identify, rectify and avoid the errors of judgement and ultimately moral crimes that can only result in the failure of socialist (and related) alternatives. Not to do so will inevitably leave in an even more dominant position the system that now threatens to bring our species to its end, namely, neoliberal-led transnational capitalism.

This argument is not intended and should not be used to blame the victims of oppression for their oppression. The fundamental causes of environmental and human degradation are found in the operating systems of oppressive social systems, notably the operating systems (Marx called these the relations of production) of slavery, feudalism and capitalism. The intent here is to repudiate and avoid the self-inflicted wounds, errors and crimes committed in the name of more noble ends. It is to remind ourselves how the means used end up as part of the ends achieved. It is to take note and avoid the failures of past socialist revolutions. It is to shun means that ultimately subvert the cause, no matter how noble the end. And it is to recognize and repudiate the use of noble ends by corrupted persons as cover for their ignoble deeds.

Attention to the internal causes of error and failure is particularly important today. There is little room left for destructive results given the immense means of destruction that now exist and the dangerous levels of degradation of our common life-support systems (ecological and earth systems, including living things, air, land and water) that have already been reached.

As to the external causes of oppression, these are today integral to neoliberal capitalism, a system that is already near the end of its historical journey. Marx was correct, only premature, in recognizing that capitalism itself would create the means and necessity for its own replacement by a superior system. These means and the necessity of fundamental change is already mature. The only question now is whether we are up to making the change or, instead, will go into oblivion along with the system that would then be the cause of such a premature outcome for humanity.

The fundamental internal causes of failure of socialist and other alternative movements and governments include authoritarianism and careerism. The first is part of our cultural inheritance from slavery, feudalism and capitalism. The latter is particularly a consequence of our experience within capitalist society. Both are part of the baggage – along with racism, chauvinism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, exclusivity and other garments we must learn to shed if we are to live in harmony with nature and each other.

6.4.1 Historical and current models of socialism meriting critical reflection

Given the complexity and diversity of social organization, no selection of historical and current examples of socialism can provide a comprehensive typology. Today, each nation on Earth contains within its history and current political movements and practices examples of this history, in each case constituting a unique culture. The following three, overlapping currents concern us here and may provide a useful guide to the discussion which follows in the remainder of this essay.

  1. The emergence in countries from a historically recent feudal past of authoritarian governments claiming to be socialist or communist. The former USSR and the present People's Republic of China can serve as examples. Michael Harrington (1989) in Socialism: Past and Future recognized Soviet socialism as part of an historical process, a means by which underdeveloped countries could develop in the face of competition from more developed capitalist nations. Describing this model, he wrote (p79.): "Socialism, as defined in Soviet practice, was a bureaucratically controlled and planned nationalized economy that carried out the function of ‘primitive accumulation' and thus achieved rapid modernization. The state owned the means of production which made some people think it must be socialist; but the Party and bureaucracy ‘owned' the state by virtue of a dictatorial monopoly of political power." He further commented that "such a situation was a moral disaster for socialism, the corruption of the ideal from within, a ‘false brother' with a superficially plausible claim to authenticity."

After an initial period of revolutionary social transformation, including educational and cultural development, and with a continuing declared commitment to improving the welfare of workers, farmers, women, children, the elderly and the formerly oppressed national and ethnic minorities, other phenomena also emerged as characteristic of states that followed the Soviet example. These other, less salutary and ultimately constraining features included a single ruling "vanguard" political party, often a cult of the personality of a single leader (imitating feudal culture), bureaucratically centralized planning (by appointees of the "vanguard" party), widespread alienation of the majority of the population excluded from effective participation in decision-making, and in some cases even the creation and use of "political" prisoners as slave labor. It should not be surprising, then, that the more developed capitalist countries, through concessions their ruling elites have – in the past at least - made to the working class (while still preserving their own privileged positions), have ultimately been able to achieve a higher rate of improvement of labor productivity, leading to the collapse of many of the most prominent examples of authoritarian self-proclaimed socialist societies, notably including the former USSR.

Again, our aim here is not to litigate history. It is likely that no other form of socialism was possible in those industrially less developed countries that first embarked on a socialist path. Indeed, after centuries of cultural accommodation to slave-master, serf-lord and boss-worker relationships and faced with unrestrained opposition from the world's remaining military superpower, even today it might still be difficult for intending socialist governments to entirely avoid similar pitfalls. To do so requires international solidarity that includes the majority of working people in the home bases of the imperialist states, particularly the USA. Within the emergent socialist states this requires rapid educational-cultural development featuring the expectation and habit of full participation in organizational, workplace and governmental decisions, that is, intolerance of authoritarian rule. Short of these conditions, we should not be surprised by outcomes that resemble the former USSR.

For a definitive account of the demise of the USSR see that by economist David M. Kotz and journalist Fred Weir (2007, Routledge) Russia's Path from Gorbachev to Putin: The Demise of the Soviet System and the New Russia. Time permitting, this should be read together with Michael A. Lebowitz (2012, Monthly Review Press) The Contradictions of Real Socialism: the conductor and the conducted. As well, see Stephen Resnick and Richard D. Wolff (2002, Routledge) Class Theory and History: Capitalism and Communism in the USSR. Also of historical interest is Martin Nicolaus (1975, Liberation Press, Chicago) Restoration of Capitalism in the Soviet Union (available for reading online at http://www.marx2mao.com/Other/RCSU75.html.) Already in 1975, Nicolaus, the translator into English of Marx's Grundrisse, noted that industrial managers in the USSR had from 1965 been given control of the enterprises' capital, one step removed from centralized Communist Party management, but still a far cry from the concept of socialist enterprises managed by their workers.

  1. Capitalist states characterized by socialist reforms, frequently heralded as examples of socialism when achieved through the efforts of socialist parties, but alternatively, and perhaps more accurately, described, following Bismarck, as examples of welfare capitalism. This general form of so-called socialism is characterized by belief that capitalism is a natural system – the end of social evolution, a result that can at best be ameliorated by socialist reforms. In and out of government, the leaders of these socialist parties take their place within the ruling political and economic elites of their capitalist nations, often subordinating the interests of working people to the interests of the ruling capitalist class at home and in competition with other countries. This slippery slope has frequently led to morally reprehensible neutrality or worse in relation to the attacks of their nation's ruling classes on working people (as in the current austerity regimes in Europe and North America) and breaches with the principle of international human solidarity (as in the treatment of immigrant labor in Europe and North America).

Depending on the country in which they live, many readers will not have difficulty identifying at least one ostensibly socialist political party that has at one time or another governed their country. Even in the United States there have been many influential spokespersons for socialist ideas. In particular, American political scientist Michael Harrington (1928-1989) was an internationally prominent democratic socialist whose arguments had – and arguably still have – significant influence within the US Democratic Party. Billed by its publisher as "the classic text on the role of socialism in modern society", Socialism: Past and Future by Michael Harrington (first published in 1989 and republished in 2011 by Arcade Publishing, New York) is worth the reader's attention, as noted previously. In it, Harrington argued: "The welfare state was … not simply the result of socialist and liberal conscience and working-class struggle. It was also a functional imperative of the capitalist socialization process itself, a way of allowing the system to absorb the enormous productivity of the new forms of collective labor." (p 12). In Chapter 7 of this work, "Socialization Revisited", Harrington follows up on this argument with an argument for generalizing Sweden's model of employee participation in management, which includes the assignment of a proportion of a company's profits to a fund that employees have the right and responsibility to re-invest in the national economy. He argues that this experience could serve as preparation for a socio-economic system characterized by worker cooperative management of most or all enterprises in a country's market economy, a feature of Harrington's "modern socialism". It could also serve, of course, as a feature of the market economy of a transitional green social democracy, whose ultimate aim is the growth and dominance of the non-market economy.

  1. New or renovated socialist governments and movements aiming to move beyond capitalism. While there may not yet be movements or governments that embrace all the dimensions that we have argued are necessary for the achievement of an enduring alternative to neoliberal capitalist rule, some appear to be taking large steps in that direction, including those that Derek Wall has described as Left Green or ecosocialist. If there is to be a future beyond capitalism, then this trend will have to develop and grow, whether it identifies itself as socialist or something else, and it will have to avoid all the pitfalls that ultimately lead back to continuing capitalist rule. Collaborative relationships, including mutual facilitation of learning and action, will be the evidence of such a shift, replacing command-obey, boss-worker, and leader-follower relationships. Prior to a lengthy post-capitalist experience, the primary opportunity for such a cultural development will be in the organizations and collaborative activities of those most committed politically to moving beyond capitalism.

Even within the citadels of neoliberal capitalism there are already significant and potentially powerful movements that are creating a basis for system change, particularly those that are both green and social democratic. Among recently published work describing and offering historical-theoretical guidance to these movements from two of their leaders are James Gustave Speth (2012, Yale University Press) America the Possible: Manifesto for a new economy and Gar Alperovitz (2005, 2011, Democracy Collaborative Press) America Beyond Capitalism: Reclaiming our wealth, our liberty, & our democracy and more recently, available online, Gar Alperovitz (2017) Principles of a Pluralist Commonwealth: http://thenextsystem.org/principles/

The Occupy, Idle-No-More, Arab Spring, Indignados, and La Via Campesina movements and many of the current environmental organizations are hopeful early pre-cursors of those movements that are likely to follow, characterized by more sufficient theoretical development, greater clarity, more comprehensive purposes and increased common action on an international scale.

6.4.2 Authoritarian practices as internal causes of failure of socialist movements and governments

Exploitative rights are maintained by authoritarian behaviour. Stewardship responsibilities and usufruct rights are upheld by democratic behaviour. With this understanding it goes without saying that the latter correspond to the aims of a just, sustainable society. Authoritarian behaviour, when dominant, is bound to the practice of exploiting nature and people for personal gain at the expense of nature and other people – commonly justified by a claim of authorship or divine authority.

Acquiescence to the authority of capital – the characteristic of reformist socialism – and the alternative of achieving socialism by means of a dictatorship – the defining characteristic of authoritarian socialism - are both reflections of the exploitative societies socialists aim to reform or abolish. Both acquiescence to capital and revolutionary dictatorship ultimately serve the maintenance of the system that is presumably to be reformed or replaced. Here, of course, we are using the word, dictatorship, with the meaning popularly ascribed to it and not in Karl Marx's (German language) use of this term to mean temporary martial-law in the face of counterrevolutionary violence.

Acquiescence to the authority of capital is also a characteristic of what is pejoratively known as business unionism and other purely defensive organizations which lack perspective and moral commitment to a society beyond capitalism. Such defensive organizations, however necessary a role they may play, are likely in turn to adopt organizational practices that mirror those of capitalism, including bureaucratic, hierarchical chains of command.

In struggle with highly centralized institutions, whether a feudal state, a capitalist-run corporation, a government in which power is centralized in its executive branch, the military and security agencies of such a government, or right wing political parties, popular forces have frequently countered by resort to the creation of equally centralized union and political organizations. The constitutions of these latter, exemplified by the various communist political parties, frequently included provisions for the practice of democratic centralism, combining elements of bottom-up democratic decision-making, with elements of centralized leadership. See, for greater detail: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Democratic_centralism. In practice, centralism easily overwhelmed democracy, usually justified as a necessity, whether that was the case or not. The invariable result, however, was the weakening of the popular struggles through attrition of grassroots enthusiasm and initiative and ultimate retreat from any initial gains that were achieved.

When translated into governments such as those of revolutionary Russia in 1917 and China in 1949, the results of so-called "democratic" centralism often included centralism in the extreme form of a leadership cult (for example, the cult of Joseph Stalin or Mao Zedong), and in more extreme cases to acts of violence and even barbarism initiated by the leadership. The biography of Joseph Stalin provides a clear, if extreme, historical example. Informative in that respect is the Stalin biography written by Leon Trotsky, which the reader can find at https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1940/xx/stalin/. The lessons to be learned might include recognition that authoritarianism teaches authoritarianism. It ultimately undermines the effort to move beyond capitalism and, in the most extreme cases, can even lead to barbarism, including genocide and similar crimes against humanity.

Parenthetically, the connection between what we have identified as authoritarian behaviour and the concept of authorship may also merit some critical attention. But those readers who wish to maintain focus on our main argument may without much loss skip the remaining paragraphs of this section and proceed to section 6.4.3.

As a property relationship, authorship is a claim to ownership of the written expression of ideas, the basis for commerce in ideas, and thus a means of exclusion. In a society beyond capitalism, ideas and their written expression will cease to be a form of private property. Their destiny is to become part of the global commons, along with the other tools humanity has invented and fashioned and the natural resources upon which we all depend.

At the same time, and perhaps defensively, we point out that one reason for writers and artists living in a capitalist dominated world to claim copyright of ideas they have expressed in writing or art is to protect their moral rights, including rights not to be misrepresented and not to be commercially exploited, an argument developed more fully by Charles Posa McFadden (1992) "Author-publisher-educator relationships and curriculum reform", J. Curriculum Studies 24(1):71-87. Given the domination of monopolistic corporations over publishing and other forms of cultural sharing, copyright is in practice a very limited form of moral protection for writers and artists, usually compromised by their desire to share their work and, in some cases, make a living income from it. An alternative to copyright consistent with the struggle to move beyond capitalism is the use of a Creative Commons license, as outlined at https://creativecommons.org/licenses/.

6.4.3 Careerism as an internal cause of failure of socialist movements and governments

One consequence of exploitative relationships is the determination of many individuals to achieve individual independence from their exploiters. Private purpose replaces social purpose as the highest priority. For those without a firm guarantee that their basic needs and those of their dependents will be met in most foreseeable circumstances, this priority is understandable, if not morally justifiable. But the result is the disease of careerism, defined as exercising private purpose at the expense of social purpose. This disease is endemic to capitalism.

This disease is evident in the priority some of our parliamentary political "representatives" and many of our organizational leaders give to advancing their own careers over serving the interests of their constituents and members. This has repeatedly been and is likely to continue to be a source of undermining democratic movements within capitalism. Such careerist practices teach careerism, evident in the profession of politics or management as a career when the ends are personal rather than social. So, what is the alternative to a self-perpetuating system characterized by authoritarianism and careerism?


This website was launched September 1, 2010 in support of a green social democratic alternative to neoliberal capitalist policy and practice. The primary result is a work by Charles and Karen McFadden of seven chapters, grouped under the title, Towards a Green Social Democratic Alternative to Capitalism available here in pdf and html formats.

Below under the heading What’s New can be found the most recent materials posted on this website, including opinion pieces, book reviews, articles and selections from the 2017 edition of the main work.  For the interest of new and returning visitors, new materials will be included quarterly.

What's New


Authors' Preface

1.6 The epochal nature of the period we are entering

6.0 The socialism we need against the "socialism" of the 20th century

6.8 Additional concerns about 20th century variants of "socialism"

6.9 The people united!

7.1 Policy alternatives and political movements to advance them


Charles and Karen McFadden, Is revolutionary transformation on the agenda

Charles and Karen McFaddenHumanity on the Brink

Charles and Karen McFaddenMovements of Resistance to Movements for System Change

Charles McFaddenTranslating Green Principles into Education Policy and Practice

Charles and Karen McFadden, The Role of Revolutionaries in the Labor Movement


Charles McFadden, The People United for a More Just Sustainable Future

Karen and Charles McFaddenCan emergent early 21st century neo-fascism be defeated without coming to grips with late 20th century restructuring of capitalism into a global system

Karen and Charles McFaddenA Dominant Capitalism or a Sustainable Environment? Why we can't have both.


William I. RobinsonThe Crisis of Global Capitalism and Trump's March to War

William I. RobinsonTrumpism, 21st Century Fascism, and the Dictatorship of the Transnational Capitalist Class


George HewisonWINNIPEG 1919 & THE COLD WAR

George HewisonArt Manuel - "Unsettling Canada

George HewisonThe NDP and LEAP


Albert Einstein, David Swanson, Jill Stein, Chris Hedges, William I. Robinson, and others Selected articles for Winter 2018



1.7 The dynamics of capitalism as a system and the limits of single issue reforms

2.11 The economy in transition towards a new deal for labor and the community

3.1 The challenge of a moribund economic system

3.7 Public banking: A cornerstone of a green social democracy

4.7 Economics and culture

6.5 Using the non-market economy as an opportunity to begin moving beyond capitalism


1.6 The epochal nature of the period we are entering

2.0 Theoretical Perspective: Defining Green Social Democracy

2.5. Socialism and green social democracy in historical materialist theory

4.3 Culture in historical perspective

5.1 Contrasting a green social democratic world with the currently prevailing, but challenged neo-liberal one

6.2 Socialism and capitalism as coexisting social systems


2.11 The economy in transition towards a new deal for labor and the community

5.7 Defeating neo-liberal capitalism: The role of social movements

7.3 Justice: Creating a just society, based on the right of all to a dignified, secure existence

Creative Commons License

Creative Commons License: Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0) applies to all work posted on this website except that which appears with authors whose last name is other than McFadden, in which case standard copyright should be assumed to apply.