A Review of the Historical Experiences of World Socialism in
The 20th Century-- Some thoughts
(Paper presented by Sitaram Yechury, India, at the International Symposium on World Socialism in the 21st Century)
Sponsored jointly by the Institute of Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong thoughts & Chinese Academy of Social Sciences
October 21-24, 2002, Beijing
The disintegration of the USSR and the dismantling of the socialist system in some countries of East Europe during the last decade of the 20th century were developments that have had a profound impact on the international situation. These have resulted in a shift in the international correlation of forces that favour imperialism, at the moment. These reverses and setbacks to world socialism, however, do not negate either the revolutionary science of Marxism-Leninism or the socialist ideal.
Subsequent world developments only vindicate that socialism is the only alternative that can ensure the true and complete liberation of humanity. This, however, would be a struggle, both intense and with ups and downs. The historical direction of the course of the advance of human civilisation would nevertheless be towards the elimination of class exploitation in a class-divided society, i.e., towards socialism.
Socialism's Indelible Impact on the 20th century
The creation of the Soviet Union marked the first advance in human history of the establishment of a society free from class exploitation. The rapid strides made by socialism, the transformation of a once backward economy into a mighty economic and military bulwark confronting imperialism had confirmed the superiority of the socialist system. The building of socialism in the Soviet Union is an epic saga of human endeavour.
This remains a source of inspiration to all peoples of the world who are in the midst of struggle for social emancipation. The decisive role played by the USSR in the defeat of fascism and the consequent emergence of the East European socialist countries had a profound impact on world developments. The victory over fascism provided the decisive impetus to the process of decolonialisation that saw the liberation of countries from colonial exploitation. The historical triumph for the Chinese revolution, the heroic Vietnamese people's struggle, the Korean people's struggle and the triumph of the Cuban revolution made a tremendous influence on world developments.
The achievements of the socialist countries -- the eradication of poverty and illiteracy, the elimination of unemployment, the vast network of social security in the fields of education, health, housing, etc. -- provided a powerful impetus to the working people all over the world in their struggles.
World capitalism met this challenge to its order, partly by adopting welfare measures and granting rights that it never conceded to the working people before. The entire conception of a welfare state and the social security network created in the post-second world war capitalist countries was a result of the struggles of the working people in these countries inspired by the achievements of socialism. The democratic rights that are today considered as inalienable from human civilisation are also the product of the people's struggle for social transformation and not the charity of bourgeois class rule.
These revolutionary transformations brought about qualitative leaps in human civilisation and left an indelible imprint on modern civilisation. This was reflected in all fields of culture, aesthetics, science, etc. While Eisenstein revolutionised cinematography, the sputnik expanded the frontiers of modern science to outer space. The panicky American response to Yuri Gagarin's flight into space in 1959, came in the form of President Kennedy's assurance to the US Senate that within a decade they would put man on the moon. The US succeeded in doing this only in 1969 working overtime for a full decade. In the meanwhile, the USSR carried out many a space mission, including sending the dog Lyka.
Reverses to Socialism
Yet, despite such tremendous advances, that too under the most exacting of circumstances and hostile environment, why is it that the mighty USSR could not consolidate and sustain the socialist order?
There were, generally speaking, two areas where wrong understanding and consequent errors were committed. The first pertains to the nature of assessments of contemporary world realities and about the very concept of socialism. The second concerns the practical problems confronted during the period of socialist construction.
Despite the unprecedented and path-breaking advances made by socialism in the 20th century, it must be borne in mind that all socialist revolutions barring the few (not all) in East Europe took place in relatively backward capitalistically developed countries. While this vindicated the Leninist understanding of breaking the imperialist chain at its weakest link, it nevertheless permitted world capitalism to retain its hold over the developed productive forces and, hence, also the potential for its future development. The socialist countries removed one-third of the world market from capitalism. This, however, did not directly affect either the levels of advances already made by world capitalism in developing the productive forces, or in capitalism's capacity to further develop the productive forces on the basis of scientific and technological advances. This permitted world capitalism to overcome the setbacks caused by socialist revolutions to develop the productive forces and further expand the capitalist market. Given the existing correlation of class forces internationally, imperialism achieved the expansion of the capitalist market through neo-colonialism.
On the other hand, given the pace and qualitatively higher advances made by socialism in a relatively short span (recall that the Soviet Union came to match the might of the fascist military machine in less than a decade -- what took capitalism 300 years was accomplished by socialism in 30!) led to a belief that such advances were irreversible. The Leninist warning that the vanquished bourgeoisie will hit back with a force a hundred times stronger was not fully taken into account.
Such an underestimation of the capacities of world capitalism and overestimation of socialism was reflected in the assessment of the world Communist movement.
The statement of the 1960 conference issued by 81 participating Communist Parties stated: "It is the principal characteristic of our time that the world socialist system is becoming the decisive factor in the development of society." It goes on to say: "The world capitalist system is going through an intense process of disintegration and decay." And, "Capitalism impedes more and more the use of the achievements of modern science and technology in the interests of social progress." And that, "The time is not far off when socialism's share of world production will be greater than that of capitalism" "Capitalism will be defeated in the decisive sphere of human endeavour, the sphere of material production." The statement continued: "A new stage has begun in the development of the general crisis of capitalism," and talked of "the growing instability of the entire world economic system of capitalism". Based on such assessments the statement concluded that "Today the restoration of capitalism has been made impossible not only in the Soviet Union, but in the other socialist countries as well."
In retrospect, it can be said that the general crisis of capitalism was simplistically understood. The historical inevitability of capitalism's collapse was advanced as a possibility round the corner. This was a serious error that inhibited a concrete scientific study of the changes that were taking place in the capitalist countries and the manner in which they were adapting to meet the challenges arising from socialism. In the process, the clear warning given by Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto was ignored: "the bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production and thereby the relations of production and with that the whole relations of society".
The inevitability of capitalism's collapse is not an automatic process. Capitalism has to be overthrown. An erroneous estimation of its strength only blunts the need to constantly sharpen and strengthen the revolutionary ideological struggle of the working class and its decisive intervention under the leadership of a party wedded to Marxism-Leninism -- the subjective factor without which no revolutionary transformation is possible.
Thus, the overestimation of the strength of socialism and the underestimation of the strength of capitalism did not permit an objective analysis and consequently the proper assessment of the emerging world situation.
Further, socialism was perceived as a linear progression. Once socialism was achieved, it was erroneously thought that the future course was a straight line without any obstacles till the attainment of a classless, Communist society. Experience has also confirmed that socialism is the period of transition or, as Marx said, the first stage of the Communism -- the period between a class-divided exploitative capitalist order and the classless Communist order. This period of transition, therefore, by definition implies, not the elimination of class conflicts but its intensification, with world capitalism trying to regain its lost territory. This period, therefore, was bound to be a protracted and complex one with many a twist and turn and many a zigzag. This was particularly so in these countries which were capitalistically backward at the time of the revolution. (Some theoretical aspects of the protracted nature of this transition period are discussed later when we take up the reforms in China.)
The success or failure of the forces of world socialism in this struggle, at any point of time, is determined both by the success achieved in socialist construction and the international and internal correlation of class forces and their correct estimation. Incorrect estimations leading to an underestimation of the enemy both without and within the socialist countries and the overestimation of socialism had created a situation where the problems confronting the socialist countries were ignored as well as the advances and consolidation of world capitalism.
Lenin had always reminded us that the living essence of dialectics is the concrete analysis of concrete conditions. If the analysis falters or the true appreciation of the actual situation is faulty, then erroneous understandings and distortions surface.
It is such distortions and, importantly, deviations from the revolutionary content of Marxism-Leninism in later years of the USSR, particularly after the 20th Congress of the CPSU alongwith the unresolved problems in the process of socialist construction that led to these reverses.
Major shortcomings in socialist construction
In the process of socialist construction, there were essentially four areas where major shortcomings occurred. Before discussing these, it needs to be underlined, once again, that socialism was embarking on an unchartered path of human advance. There were no blueprints or any specific formulae. This reality also contributed in a large measure towards these shortcomings.
Class character of the state :
The first of these areas is regarding the class character of the state under socialism. The dictatorship of the overwhelming majority over a minority of former exploiting classes, i.e., the dictatorship of the proletariat as opposed to the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, which is that of a minority over the overwhelming majority, is the character of the state under socialism.
However, the forms of this class rule need to keep developing as socialism advances through various phases. The form necessary, say in a period of capitalist encirclement, or civil war, need not be the form, say in a period of post-second world war socialist consolidation in the Soviet Union. The theoretical elaboration of the different phases of the dictatorship of the proletariat and different forms of the socialist state, is made for the first time in the political report of the 18th Congress of the CPSU in 1939. Stalin deals in length on this issue in a section titled, "Questions of theory". However, when such transformation of forms, whose changes represent the movement towards greater and larger participation of the people in the activities of the state, are not made at the appropriate time, the growing aspirations of people under socialism get stifled and this leads to alienation and discontent. Further, the same form need not be applicable uniformly to all socialist countries. The form will be determined by the historical background and the concrete socio-economic conditions in those countries.
Lenin had clearly stated in the State and Revolution that as the forms of bourgeois states are varied, the period of transition from capitalism to Communism "certainly cannot but yield a great abundance and variety of political forms". But he goes on to underline that the forms may be different but the essence will inevitably be the dictatorship of the proletariat. "The forms of bourgeois states are extremely varied, but their essence is the same: all these states, whatever their form, in the final analysis are inevitably the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. The transition from capitalism to communism certainly cannot but yield a great abundance and variety of political forms, but the essence will inevitably be the same: the dictatorship of the proletariat" (emphasis added).
The adoption of the Soviet form of state in the post-second world war socialist countries of East Europe, hence, was a development that ignored the concrete socio-economic conditions and the historical background of these countries. For instance, Czechoslovakia had Communists elected to its Parliament in multi party system before the revolution. The prohibition of multi-party system under socialism was seen by many as a regression. This contributed, as well, to the alienation of the people and growing discontent.
Socialist democracy: The second area where there were major shortcomings was that concerning socialist democracy. Democracy under socialism needs to be deeper and richer than under capitalism. While capitalism gives the formal democratic right, it does not provide to the vast majority of people the capacity to exercise it (under capitalism, everyone has a right to buy anything that is available but the majority do not have the capacity to exercise this right), socialism must provide both the right and the capacity to the people to exercise that right.
However, in the process of socialist construction in many countries, two types of shortcomings occurred. First, the dictatorship of the class over a period of time was replaced by the dictatorship of the vanguard of the class, i.e., the Party. This over time was replaced by the leadership of the Party. The socialist state which represents the entire class and working people got substituted by a small section in the Party. This led to a strange situation with the decisions, say, of the Party Polit Bureau, becoming enforceable on all citizens.
This was done through a fiat instead of convincing the majority of the people who are not members of the Party through democratically decided state bodies like the Soviets. The Leninist principle of a Party decision being articulated in democratic people's forums and Party's leadership established through a democratic process with maximum people's participation was replaced, unfortunately, by diktats. This, naturally, strengthened the sense of alienation amongst the people.
Secondly, in the process of implementation of democratic centralism, inner-Party democracy, often, became a casualty while centralism became strengthened, as certain periods in the history of the USSR shows. This led to the growth of bureaucratism which is the very antithesis of democracy. Tendencies alien to socialism, such as, corruption and nepotism also surfaced. An example of this was the institutionalisation of privileges to large sections of the leadership of the CPSU and other ruling Communist parties. In this process, the vitality of this revolutionary principle is robbed, alienating the Party from the masses and the Party ranks from the leadership.
It must be noted that instead of correcting these distortions both in the area of the class character of the state under socialism and socialist democracy, the Gorbachev leadership set about a course of abandoning both the concept of the leading role of the working class and democratic centralism. In the process, it disarmed the revolutionary party, prevented it from undertaking the necessary corrections which finally led to the dismantling of socialism.
Socialist economic construction: The third area where some shortcomings took place were in the process of socialist economic construction. As productive forces rapidly developed under the social ownership of the means of production and centralised state planning, the methods of economic management that arise precisely due to this rapid economic development need to constantly change. The inability to transit to new levels by introducing such changes can lead to the stagnation of the economy. For instance, once all available land for agricultural production is utilised, then any further increases in production can happen only through increases in productivity. If such change is not affected in time, then problems arise. This is precisely what happened in the USSR in the seventies and the eighties.
Once again, instead of effecting such changes, the Gorbachev leadership set about a course of abandoning the socialist economic foundations of social ownership of means of production and planning. Under the influence of the "bourgeois god of market economy", the systematic dismantling of the socialist economic foundations took place which contributed to the dismantling of socialism itself.
Gorbachev and the liquidationist leadership of the CPSU thus emerged as the children of the illegitimate relationship between revisionism and imperialism.
Neglect of ideological consciousness: The fourth area where major shortcomings occurred was in the field of strengthening the collective ideological consciousness of the people under socialism. Socialism can be sustained and developed only by the growing collective consciousness of the people which, in turn, cannot be reared without the ideological steadfastness of the ruling Communist Party.
This led to a steady erosion of the class consciousness and vigilance, both amongst the people and the Party rank and file. This facilitated the process of undermining of socialism with minimum resistance.
Due to these shortcomings, a situation arose where counter revolutionary forces, both external and internal, acted in concert to dismantle socialism.
These reverses to socialism, therefore, have occurred not because of any inadequacies in the basic postulates of Marxism-Leninism. On the contrary, they have occurred primarily due to departures from the scientific and revolutionary content of Marxism-Leninism; incorrect estimations of the relative strengths of world capitalism and socialism; a dogmatic and mechanical interpretation of the creative science of Marxism; and also due to major shortcomings during the course of socialist construction.
Thus, at the beginning of the 21st century, imperialism is bracing itself to tighten its grip and hegemony in all spheres. This comes in the background of the fact that during the 20th century, capitalism plunged humanity into two barbaric world wars claiming millions of lives. It produced and used nuclear weapons to demonstrate its inhuman superiority and plunged the world into a nuclear arms race with devastating consequences. It launched numerous wars to contain humanity's advance to socialism, intervened in the internal affairs of independent countries, organised coups, foisted reactionary and dictatorial regimes to suit its interests. Its most barbaric form was exposed in the fascist dictatorships.
On the other hand, the socialist revolutions and national liberation struggles imparted a richer content to human civilisation, by making it possible for the majority of the working people in many countries to lead their lives without national oppression and free from exploitation. This impact continues to chart the future course of human development towards national and social liberation. This process, however, will be long, complex and full of twists and turns. But the fundamental direction of the epoch continues to be that of a transition from capitalism to socialism.
The period since these reverses to socialism have, once again, demonstrated in a telling manner that socialism alone is the answer to the misery and exploitation being heaped on the vast billions of this planet. The renewed attacks of imperialism, the abject conditions in the former socialist countries and the shattering of various imperialist sponsored illusions of prosperity like the "Asian tigers" have, once again, created circumstances for the regrouping of the Communist forces the world over.