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

6.8.1 The rapid collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the response of the "West"

Maybe nothing more needs to be said about "Real Socialism" as exemplified by the USSR than to observe how rapidly it collapsed. Communist leaders and enterprise managers became capitalists overnight – and at least many working people, especially those engaged in professions reliant on freedom of thought and expression, such as research, teaching, journalism, and the arts, who had yet to experience a system that openly declared itself to be capitalist, welcomed the change.

Outside of the communist world, the interest of working people in any form of socialism also dwindled very rapidly, so much so that Margaret Thatcher could persuade a majority of people in the UK as well as millions of former socialists and communists world-wide that there might, indeed, be no alternative to capitalism.

Thatcher's claim that there is no alternative to capitalism received concurrent support from the example of non-communist socialists elected to lead governments in capitalist countries, including the ostensibly socialist British Labour Party. Periodically governing a country which is home to one of the world's largest ensembles of private banks and other private financial businesses and a not insignificant military-industrial complex, the British Labour Party, like many of its brethren elsewhere, doubled down during the following decades on its already well-earned reputation for abandoning the defense of working people when confronted with aggressive neo-liberal demands that working people pay for the frequent failures of capitalism's financial and other economic institutions.

In the decades since the collapse of the Soviet Union and most of its allied Communist Party-led governments, the neo-liberal capitalist political and economic elite have had plenty of opportunity to demonstrate where their leadership will take us. Unchecked, they are leading us directly towards a black hole of inequality and environmental destruction from which there would be no escape. We have no choice but to work for an alternative to a Black Hole as human destiny.

6.8.2 The fate of Marxism

In the capitalist "West" the intellectual output of Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin has frequently had the status of forbidden fruit, particularly during periods of political repression. During those periods, the status of those who acknowledged their intellectual indebtedness to Marx or Lenin suffered even greater ignominy.

Within the Communist Party ruled "East", the intellectual output of Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin was turned into a secular religion. Its study became obligatory for those aspiring to careers within the system. The main result in both the "West" and the "East" is widespread ignorance of the main contributions of Marx and Lenin to philosophy, socialist politics and economic theory.

Compounding the problem of ignorance by most has been the treatment of Marxism, or Marxism-Leninism, by many of its adherents as a science. No genuine science refers to itself as the product of an individual (or pair of individuals). All knowledge – including scientific knowledge - is socially constructed, not the product of isolated individuals. Science is furthermore a continually growing and developing social product. As already noted, even Marx angrily declared himself to be not a Marxist! This in the face of what he believed were misinterpretations of his views. And while Marx and Lenin contributed to both philosophy and science, the treatment of Marxism as a science misrepresents both philosophy and science. Philosophies are judged by their efficacy, whereas scientific theories are judged by their accord with empirical evidence.

6.8.3 Naming the alternative to capitalism

Socialism or communism are logical names for the systemic alternative to capitalism, emphasizing the social/communal essence of human societies/communities and the historical precedent set by humanity's deep history of communalism. But we are now faced with the need to differentiate our vision of the alternative to capitalism from the heavy imprint made by capitalism, feudalism and slavery on the "socialisms" of the 20th Century.

We have chosen "green social democracy" as a provisional name for the systemic alternative to capitalism in hopes that the questions that must be asked and the arguments that must be made for moving beyond capitalism will not be pigeon-holed into various historical dustbins. Whatever names humanity assigns to the systemic alternative to capitalism, the process of creating that alternative is one that must engage every person on Earth. It is the challenge all face, and must face together.

This does not mean, of course, that we ignore historically significant theories and practices. People in need of change will seek everywhere for possible examples and arguments. In particular, the models of socialism practiced in Communist countries have had a major influence on practices intended to improve the well-being of working people within capitalist countries, partly a consequence of the influence of left-socialist and Communist parties and partly, from the ruling political-economic elites, as concessions to stave off the influence of Communist parties and the spread of socialism.

6.8.4 False dichotomies between "socialism" and "communism" in the 20th century

Karl Marx and those who followed his lead during the middle and latter part of the 19th century appear to have used the terms socialism and communism interchangeably. But that clearly changed in the practice of socialists and communists during the decades after the schism within the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, first expressed in 1902 at a Congress of that organization and later extending to roughly parallel differences within international socialism, with the one side identifying itself as Communist (the "Red" International) and the other side as Socialist (the continuation of the Socialist International).

Influenced by Lenin's leadership during the first quarter of the 20th century and Stalin's regressive, if not counter-revolutionary, leadership during the second quarter of that century, were those socialists who separated into Communist Parties. The remainder formed into socialist parties. Judging from their practices in government the former appear to have conceptualized socialism and communism as two distinct stages in human society, each based on a different operating system.

On the other side of the split, judging from their practices when forming governments during the 20th century, the non-communist socialist parties appear to have conceptualized socialism as reformed capitalism, ranging in descending moral order from strict welfare controls over the rapaciousness of capitalism down to capitulation to "their own" capitalist-class inspired wars against other nations and corresponding capitalist austerity policies at home. The current version of this latter extreme is capitulation to neoliberal capitalist policies, which feature a transnational capitalist class inspired global race to the bottom in environmental regulations and worker rights.

Recall that Marx's vision of socialism included governance by the associated producers (working people), featuring their communal management of the communally owned means of production (as he witnessed in practice during the Paris Commune of 1871). In that light, let's give an abbreviated consideration to the socialist solution advanced by Vladimir Lenin (1918) The State and Revolution, Chapter 5, Section 3), but attributed by him to Karl Marx (1875) Critique of the Gotha Programme. Lenin identified socialism as an essential stage along the path to communism, one that inevitably would continue for a period of time with some of the inequities bequeathed by capitalism. In sex-neutral language the moral precept of the socialist stage can be stated as "from each according to their ability to each according to their work," meaning that each person should receive according to the work they perform. In contrast, the moral code of communism substitutes "according to their need" for "according to their work".

Parenthetically we note that the application of the "socialist" moral precept was not a factor in the collapse of the communist countries, rather the Communist leadership's failure to turn this principle into practice contributed to their downfall. The greater realization of this moral principle in "socialist" (right wing social democratic) led or influenced capitalist countries has probably been a factor in the relatively greater stability of these countries.

But "socialism" was not only defined by a moral precept by the Communists. It was also understood by many Communist Party interpreters of Marx's writing to be an economic system in which common ownership of the means of production was to be exercised by a centralized state in the form of central planning of production and distribution.

We can argue that today capitalism is in the driver's seat in all or nearly all countries on Earth, but we cannot claim to have learned much from Marx if we see "socialism" and "communism" as distinct stages of human history. Yes, we can and should recognize when at a given place and time, either capitalism or socialism (or some other socio-economic system) is the dominant one. But no system can be walled off from its immediate predecessors nor from new systems that emerge in response to human need.

Marx's economic definition of socialism is the "common ownership of the means of production" which might in principle, for example, be exercised by a workers' government or enterprise level workers' councils. Communist Party led states, unfortunately, are characterized by their substitution of themselves for the associated producers (essentially all of the people in a Marxian socialist society). Consequently, Communist Party led societies have not left us many, if any, primarily positive examples of how this might work in practice. The ultimate and historically abrupt collapse of Communist Party rule speaks volumes about the level of worker and farmer alienation that existed in Communist led societies, and may continue to exist in the few remaining Communist led countries if their leaders insist on following the examples of their predecessors.

As Peter Hudis has noted in the work quoted at the outset of this chapter, Marx did not make explicit his vision of the transition from a capitalist to a socialist society, concentrating instead on an exposition of identifying the defining characteristics of capitalism, those characteristics which socialism would have to negate. Included are the change from private property in the means of production to communal management of these means; and the change from exchange of goods and services according to their capitalist market value to free exchange based on their use value. Today we have no choice but to make explicit the main characteristics of the transition and to translate this understanding into the political program of the revolutionaries. The operative word here is transition. Only the starting and ending points are characterized by distinct operating systems. The transition is a process of getting from one system to the other. We thus need to fashion solutions that can take us from where we are to where we need to go, with all the messiness of the highest levels of democratic practice that this process today requires. We do this by identifying the end points we need to reach and the tools at our disposal for getting there.

6.8.5 Putting the above concerns into historical perspective

‘Real socialism' was historically the first movement of global reach to attempt to replace predatory capitalism with a more rational alternative. It is not hard to attribute this failure to the historical circumstances. The minority status of the working class in Russia and many of the other leading countries of 20th century "socialism", the inheritance from feudalism and capitalism of authoritarian culture, low levels of literacy in many of those countries and, for both the literate and illiterate, an inadequate level of scientific culture were undoubtedly factors. Equally important after significant internal opposition to "socialism" was defeated was the fierce external opposition of the political-economic elites of the countries that remained capitalist. These elites succeeded in using their economic and political power to maintain their domination in the majority of countries globally. Effective means included a combination of internal accommodation and intimidation and external aggression and threats of aggression, including the threat of using nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction.

As Lebowitz has argued, the historical circumstances also included misinterpretation of Marx's political and economic theories. In very difficult historical circumstances, the Communists turned inwards, making themselves the central planners and rulers, with debate frequently resolved by banishment to work camps or foreign exile and even, especially by Stalin and his coterie, by putting to death those who raised troublesome questions or advanced contrary views. These clearly were not favorable conditions for ending the alienation of working people from the products of their labor, from each other and from a government that presumably was to be their own. The economic stagnation that characterized most Communist countries by the early seventies contributed to their collapse by the early nineties. In spite of – or perhaps in part because of – top-down reform efforts during its final decades, the Soviet system sputtered and ultimately collapsed, replaced by a ‘Jurassic Park' version of capitalism.

Perhaps the still fresh experience of feudalism with its centralized bureaucracies and serf labor had fueled the authoritarian practices that came to characterize the victorious Communists of the first part of the twentieth century, including those who survived the paranoia and brutal behavior of their erstwhile comrade and leader, the former seminarian Joseph Stalin, and, after the second world war, those who in other countries had managed to survive capitalist jails and Nazi death camps to then participate in the relatively short-lived Communist governments in their liberated countries. Certainly the Civil War in Russia from 1918–1921 that pitted the revolutionary forces against internal reactionaries and external invaders, the destructive war with fascist Germany waged largely on their own territory and the nuclear armed Cold War that followed had the effects on the people of the former USSR that the capitalist class had intended.

Although the collapse of the forms of socialism that survived Stalin left working people and nature in a weakened state, unable to effectively beat back the subsequent onslaught of neoliberal capitalism, the latter has since been exposed by the cumulative failures of its economic and social policies. The resultant global economic crisis beginning in 2007 and the accelerating degradation of the environment have led to the rapid development of resistance. What awaits is the necessary transition from an emphasis on defense of people and nature to an offensive struggle for an enduring, sustainable alternative. The neoliberal capitalists and their political representatives have constructed the foundation and created the necessity for such a social revolution – our last chance to move beyond capitalism and steer clear of the Black Hole the neoliberals would otherwise steer us into.

Welcome!

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

NEW & REVISED

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

OPINION

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

REVIEWS

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.

US CORNER

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

CANADA CORNER

George HewisonWINNIPEG 1919 & THE COLD WAR

George HewisonArt Manuel - "Unsettling Canada

George HewisonThe NDP and LEAP

RECOMMENDED

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

FEATURED WORK

ECONOMICS

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

HISTORY

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

LABOR

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.