On 20th-century socialism

Although there are encouraging signs of popular resistance, governments in rich Western countries are advancing in their brutal design to transfer the cost of the economic crisis to their workers and to people in the poor countries. The capitalist crisis aggravates the global environmental crisis and ominously sharpens international tensions, at a time when the military capacity of imperialism reaches its historic peak, its economic base is weakened, and the center of gravity of the world economy continues to shift southward.

The political weakness of socialism in the world (exception made of the encouraging developments in South America) is an indication that, not to mention the pressing need, even the mere possibility of dissolving capitalism and building socialism is far from being established in the collective consciousness and will of the workers of the world. Capitalist propaganda has managed to impose its interpretation of the historical record of 20 century socialism, taking one side of it and framing it as an irredeemable failure. Another aspect of this ideological desolation is, of course, the inability of socialists to appropriate their historical experience, , both critically and in a spirit of solidarity, separating carefully necessity from chance, causes from effects, form and substance, and – on such basis – to develop a more potent vision of the future we want.

Socialism – a society of, by and for the direct producers, a society in which producers exercise direct control, as socialized individuals, over the premises, processes and results of their activity – cannot be a spontaneous historical outcome. On the contrary, it can only be built on purpose, deliberately.  This implies that a workable design, more complete and detailed, of a socialist society must be formed in the collective mind of the producers before it has a chance to become reality.  This collective thought process must be nourished, not only by learning from the ongoing struggles that workers face today, but also by assimilating the past historical experience.

We, the workers — as we are in flesh and blood, from our own time and circumstance, but tending towards a growing unity, organization, education and militancy — need to think of socialism, before we start and re-start the task of building it.  This remains true even if – on the fly, in the process of struggle and construction – we are forced to start it all over again, and again.  If we have to redesign socialism ab initio, as often as may be necessary, until our results and radical needs match, let it be that the decision to start from scratch is no premise, but careful conclusion from a fair evaluation of the historical record.

The fact is that, insofar as workers do not build in our minds a plausible view, sufficiently coherent and detailed future society, insofar as we suppress our political imagination in deference to the status quo, our political practice will remain trapped in the miserable confines of opportunism and reformism.  As David Laibman (Science & Society) has argued, to the TINA (“There Is No Alternative”) of Margaret Thatcher, socialists must oppose our TIARA (“There Is A Revolutionary Alternative”). Our revolutionary alternative needs to grow — acquire shape, texture and colors — in our collective consciousness, before we are able to implement it in practice and during this implementation.

In this 21 st century, we socialists in rich countries cannot ignore the historical practical experience of socialism.  The fear that the tragic (but also heroic) legacy of this experience may pollute and discredit us, the tendency to distance ourselves emotionally, intellectually and politically from that record, is not disconnected from the racist and imperialist ideological arrogance that belittles the experience that the periphery counter-poses to the Western world.  We can not accept the argument, perhaps valid in the 19 th century, that socialism remains a mere ideal, its seed lodged in the purposeful universal activity of human beings that we call labor. In the 21st century, socialism has a practical historical record to show, with mixed results.

The tragic element of this experience, in its gigantic human scale, is undeniable. But there is also a constructive element that we must embrace.  The historical practical experience of socialism starts with the Paris Commune (1871) but reaches historical universal significance in the 20th century with the October Revolution (1917), the Soviet victory in the Great Patriotic War (1941-1945), the liberation of Eastern Europe from the Nazi yoke (1945), the Chinese Revolution (1949) and, of course, the Cuban Revolution (1959) and the defeat of U.S. imperialism in Vietnam (1975).  Bitterly, workers in the rich Western world are now in a position to appreciate the enormous positive gravitational force, the tangible impact on their living and working conditions, exerted by the living example of real socialism. The socialists in the North cannot, must not, dispatch tabula rasa this glorious epic.  We need to reclaim it, appropriate it, in the spirit of ruthless criticism against the status quo that Marx left us, but also with the sense of solidarity that the struggles of the exploited and oppressed, always under adverse and hostile conditions, deserve from us.  The lessons are to be learned, not to justify surrender or treason, but to intensify the struggle for socialism, and to win.

Future posts in this blog will try to examine an aspect of the historical experience of socialism in the 20 century that I consider crucial: the organization and planning of the economies in transition to socialism.  I admit that, at this point, my work is not systematic. This is a modest work in construction.  I start from the premise that the problems that the enemies of socialism have emphasized and continue to emphasize, in their zeal to deny the practical viability of socialism are not imaginary but real, and painful, and have not yet been solved or overcome, in theory or in practice.  Ultimately, these problems will not be resolved by purely theoretical means.  The role of theoretical work is limited to generalizing and socializing the pre-existing experience in order to minimize the inescapable cost of the practical struggle, but it is only in and through the practical struggle that we will demonstrate once and for all the historical and economic viability of socialism in the 21st century.

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  1. I think there is a very important lesson the working classes of the rich capitalist countries of the world need to take from the fact that there were important countries that called themselves socialist between 1919 and 1990 (I discount the fact that China still calls itself “socialist” — maybe we can debate that issue). In my view, there was a substantial threat posed to world capitalism by the “idea” of socialism which (despite its negative aspects) had concrete expression at the same time. The result was that in various advanced countries political leaders were willing to force upon their domestic capitalists the “social democratic compromises” of the 20th century. These were represented by the NEW DEAL in the US and the more substantial Western European versions of social democracy.

    Reformist yes. But they also improved the lives of large numbers of working people for at least 25 years and in many countries for many years more.

    The reason Margaret Thatcher could get away with her TINA analysis was because during the decade of the 1980s, “actually existing socialism” truly lost its ability to command the respect and idealism of a significant portion of the world’s population — and thus, the danger posed by a truly socialist alternative — the danger that had caused the frightened compromises with social democracy made by ruling classes during the first 3/4 of the 20th century — melted away.

    The challenge for us, unfortunately, is that absent such a “revolutionary alternative,” we who struggle in the heart of the capitalist world system have to once again imagine a better world.

    If Julio can find elements in the experiences of countries that called themselves socialist that will help those of us in the center — if he can find elements within China (the rising capitalist empire of the 21st century) that might turn it towards a true workers state — I am sure we will all be anxious to learn from those examples.

    Thanks for starting this discussion.

  2. Equal political power between all men and women. Abolition of wage-labour and commodity production with distribution of goods and services based on useful
    labour time. Grassroots democracy. Make them your daily praxis and try to get your fellow workers to do the same and ‘she’ll be right, mate’.

  3. Mike Meeropol: “The reason Margaret Thatcher could get away with her TINA analysis was because during the decade of the 1980s, ‘actually existing socialism’ truly lost its ability to command the respect and idealism of a significant portion of the world’s population.”

    I would like to suggest that there are (broadly) *two* reasons why socialism has not captured the imagination of millions of working people in capitalist countries. Mike’s reason is certainly one of these. The other is a deep sense that socialism is an untested abstraction; that socialists build castles in the air, while capitalism is the only “real” possibility. Socialists “blow smoke.” Capitalists “have their feet on the ground.”

    When some socialists attack and oppose all (or almost all) actual historical “really existing” attempts to build post-capitalist societies, they engage in what Fidel Castro called “ridiculous idealizations.” People see through this — like the Depression-era stew that was “so thin even politicians could see through it.” Yes, to rebuild the socialist movement we must convincingly move beyond the distortions, repressions, and crimes committed in the name of socialism. But people also intrinsically know that the struggle to overcome the worst aspects of the human legacy will continue through the present and future. They wonder whether those who speak to them about alternatives to the present morass will be part of this struggle, defending the efforts to build new and better societies *while simultaneously* working to rid those societies of negative remnants of the past, instead of attacking them from abstractly “superior” moral platforms. People heed the wise words of the old spiritual song: “Everybody talkin’ ’bout Heaven ain’t goin’ there.”

  4. Maybe socialists need to re-read the critical evaluations of utopian socialism by Marx and Engels. Maybe communists need to re-read the critique of wage-labour and commodity production presented by Marx and Engels in so many works. Maybe then, we can get on with the socialist project as opposed to merely creating the groundwork for further accumulation of capital.

    “With the seizing of the means of production by society production of commodities is done away with, and, simultaneously, the mastery of the product over the producer.”

    Engels wrote that in the very late 19th century. Socialists who have read, understood and agreed with Engels and Marx, cannot possibly agree that socialism has yet come into existence, IMO.

    Ask yourself this question as you read these three expositions by Marx on how communism/socialism would operate: “Do these descriptions resemble what I’ve been told about how actually existing socialism operates? If not then, why not?”

    The following is an excerpt from the first chapter of the first volume of CAPITAL by Karl Marx.

    “Let us now picture to ourselves, by way of change, a community of free individuals, carrying on their work with the means of production in common, in which the labour power of all the different individuals is consciously applied as the combined labour power of the community. All the characteristics of Robinson’s labour are here repeated, but with this difference, that they are social, instead of individual. Everything produced by him was exclusively the result of his own personal labour, and therefore simply an object of use for himself. The total product of our community is a social product. One portion serves as fresh means of production and remains social. But another portion is consumed by the members as means of subsistence. A distribution of this portion amongst them is consequently necessary. The mode of this distribution will vary with the productive organisation of the community, and the degree of historical development attained by the producers. We will assume, but merely for the sake of a parallel with the production of commodities, that the share of each individual producer in the means of subsistence is determined by his labour time. Labour time would, in that case, play a double part. Its apportionment in accordance with a definite social plan maintains the proper proportion between the different kinds of work to be done and the various wants of the community. On the other hand, it also serves as a measure of the portion of the common labour borne by each individual, and of his share in the part of the total product destined for individual consumption. The social relations of the individual producers, with regard both to their labour and to its products, are in this case perfectly simple and intelligible, and that with regard not only to production but also to distribution.”

    from CAPITAL volume I, chapter one

    “Within the co-operative society based on common ownership of the means of production, the producers do not exchange their products; just as little does the labor employed on the products appear here as the value of these products, as a material quality possessed by them, since now, in contrast to capitalist society, individual labor no longer exists in an indirect fashion but directly as a component part of total labor. The phrase “proceeds of labor”, objectionable also today on account of its ambiguity, thus loses all meaning.

    “What we have to deal with here is a communist society, not as it has developed on its own foundations, but, on the contrary, just as it emerges from capitalist society; which is thus in every respect, economically, morally, and intellectually, still stamped with the birthmarks of the old society from whose womb it emerges. Accordingly, the individual producer receives back from society — after the deductions have been made — exactly what he gives to it. What he has given to it is his individual quantum of labor. For example, the social working day consists of the sum of the individual hours of work; the individual labor time of the individual producer is the part of the social working day contributed by him, his share in it. He receives a certificate from society that he has furnished such-and-such an amount of labor (after deducting his labor for the common funds); and with this certificate, he draws from the social stock of means of consumption as
    much as the same amount of labor cost. The same amount of labor which he has given to society in one form, he receives back in another.

    “Here, obviously, the same principle prevails as that which regulates the exchange of commodities, as far as this is exchange of equal values. Content and form are changed, because under the altered circumstances no one can give anything except his labor, and because, on the other hand, nothing can pass to the ownership of individuals, except individual means of consumption. But as far as the distribution of the latter among the individual producers is concerned, the same principle prevails as in the exchange of commodity equivalents: a given amount of labor in one form is exchanged for an equal amount of labor in another form.

    “Hence, equal right here is still in principle — bourgeois right, although principle and practice are no longer at loggerheads, while the exchange of equivalents in commodity exchange exists only on the average and not in the individual case.

    “In spite of this advance, this equal right is still constantly stigmatized by a bourgeois limitation. The right of the producers is proportional to the labor they supply; the equality consists in the fact that measurement is made with an equal standard, labor.

    “But these defects are inevitable in the first phase of communist society as it is when it has just emerged after prolonged birth pangs from capitalist society. Right can never be higher than the economic structure of society and its cultural development conditioned thereby.

    “In a higher phase of communist society, after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labor, and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labor, has vanished; after labor has become not only a means of life but life’s prime want; after the productive forces have also increased with the all-around development of the individual, and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly — only then then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!”

    from the Critique of the Gotha Programme

    On the basis of socialised production the scale must be ascertained on which those operations — which withdraw labour-power and means of production for a long time without supplying any product as a useful effect in the interim — can be carried on without injuring branches of production which not only withdraw labour-power and means of production continually, or several times a year, but also supply means of subsistence and of production. Under socialised as well as capitalist production, the labourers in branches of business with shorter working periods will as before withdraw products only for a short time without giving any products in return; while branches of business with long working periods continually withdraw products for a longer time before they return anything. This circumstance, then, arises from the material character of the particular labour-process, not from its social form. In the case of socialised production the money-capital is eliminated. Society distributes labour-power and means of production to the different branches of production. The producers may, for all it matters, receive paper vouchers entitling them to withdraw from the social supplies of consumer goods a quantity corresponding to their labour-time. These vouchers are not money. They do not circulate.

    CAPITAL Volume II, chapter 18, page 358

  5. Hi Steven. Forgive the long delay in replying. I just noted your comment. :/

    I view socialism as the historical movement of and by the producers to appropriate the technical and social conditions in which they reproduce their material life, including the processes and results of such reproduction; conditions that for the time being escape their control and are actually oppressing them. What exact social configuration may result from this movement as it unfolds, with its successes and setbacks, will be historically contingent.

    In my book, socialism is a movement that takes place, not under ideal conditions, but under whatever circumstances exist, the workers taking initiatives with whatever means are available to them at the time and place of action — and these means include the particular ideas with which the workers rationalize their own movement. I do not judge the movement on the basis of abstract principles or some idea of what communism is supposed to be. The judgement, analysis, or characterization of the conditions of the struggle needs to be more casuistic or, to use Lenin’s formulation, “concrete.” It’s not like there’s a template that every worker everywhere just needs to apply mechanically. What a particular group of workers, Russian workers ca. 1935, is very specific to those workers, immersed in the conditions in which they are immersed. Again, it’s all concrete.

    Goldman’s method, it seems to me, consists of counterposing an abstract ideal of communism (a classless society, some notion of social equality, social ownership of the means of production, etc.) to the existing conditions of the struggle, which are necessarily messy and contradictory, and will always fall short of any haughty ideal. Goldman’s method, in my book, is entirely idealistic — as opposed to the materialistic method, which requires to see the specific set of historical conditions in which they producers carry out their struggle, the particular dilemmas they face, the specific means and resources available to them in time/place/circumstance, etc.

    So, no surprise, the conditions of Russia in the mid 1930s were very far from ideal for the workers to succeed at reorganizing production in any way that would resemble Goldman’s formal template of communism. The fragmentation of the workers in Russia ca. 1935, their multiple divisions, were not created by the Bolshevik revolution. These divisions predated the revolution, and the conditions of the civil war didn’t make it easier for them to be dissolved. The main task of those actually-existing workers (as fragmented as they were) appeared to them in much starker and basic terms: it was their survival in the face of an imminent Nazi attack with the tolerance, if not encouragement and support of the rest of the capitalist world (mainly, the UK and the U.S.), and their survival appeared to them as requiring the survival of the Soviet state. It seems to me that break-neck industrialization under state capitalistic conditions appeared to them as indispensable for their survival. Or what was the concrete alternative? Surrendering to the Nazis?

    Communism doesn’t get built on some blank slate, but under fire, with the workers as they are, with their level of consciousness, political organization, and technical skills. Acknowledging this doesn’t entail that one has to justify and rationalize all the garbage that accompanies the process—and yes there’s a point beyond which that garbage turns things into their contrary. What it means is simply that the critique of the choices the Russian workers had to make could only have been made meaningfully by the Russian workers themselves, because it’s not a matter of ideological differentiation, but instead of doing things better then and there, concretely. Was Emma Goldman in any position to improve upon the conditions of the struggle in Soviet Russia in 1935, not with ideas, but concretely, with political organization, action, and results? I doubt it.

    1. Julio,

      I like this (of course!). I gather your correspondent, Steven, quoted from an Emma Goldman piece from 1935. Reminds me of a long-ago speech by Fidel, referring to “left” criticism of the Soviet Union, in which he said: “A country is first of all a reality, and the product of many other realities.” Oh, well, sometimes it seems that nothing changes.

      See you tomorrow,


    2. History proves that socialism doesn’t get ‘built’ using the wage system or leaving workers without control of the collective product of their labour i.e. alienated from it by self-appointed vanguards. Far from making an apology for the Blanquists of their era, both Marx and Engels were relentlessly critical. While it is true that Emma Goldman was an idealist, it is not the case that Marx and Engels were, the very theoreticians whom Lenin and his followers claim/claimed to base their praxis upon.

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