The Third Way. Ota Šik 1972


My purpose in writing this book has been to summarize the development over the years of my views on various matters of theory. By way of introduction, I would like to refer briefly to the circumstances that have led me to adopt my present outlook. For it is the path I have trodden that is most frequently held against me in certain quarters. Some see my break with communism as an act of treachery, others are upset that I have not come out in favour of capitalism. For my part, I am unable to identify myself with the theories of one side or the other.

On both sides there are conservatives whose personal involvement in the one system or the other blinds them to the internal conflicts and the obstacles to progress in their own Establishment. Whether attracted by economic privileges or by the exercise of power – be it in the West or in the ‘socialist’ East – the ever-circumspect conservative minds always harp on the same theme: ‘Any reform of our system is a threat to our society and our way of life.’

I have never regarded social reform as an end in itself. But wherever I find real and persisting social contradictions, I am determined to do all in my power, by way of careful observation and analysis, to seek the means to resolve them. Of social ills, human suffering, nationalistic and racist witch-hunting I saw more than enough in my youth to turn me towards the socialist and, later, the communist movement. Revulsion against the oppression and exploitation of working people led me to communism; but the discovery that after the revolution ordinary people had even less of a say than before was bound, in the end, to make me part company with the communist rulers and to take issue with the apologists for their ideology. In my view, any theory, including the Marxist, is valid only in so far as it helps one to understand the social reality; if it provides, that is, methods for discerning the defects and the inconsistencies in society – in which case, the theory can never degenerate into a dogma. However, to apply such a concept to ‘Marxism’ has long been condemned as heretical by the said rulers.

I saw the friends of my youth murdered in Nazi concentration camps. In the knowledge of the crimes which a perverted power system can beget, my life’s purpose was formed – not in a spirit of revenge, but in the desire to discover the causes of social ills. Excesses against humanity could never be the work of individual ‘leaders’ alone; the roots must lie in the society, in its unresolved contradictions. The road to a humane social order lay, as I saw it, in abolishing the class system, in liberating the working man from all forms of economic subjection and tyranny, and in the socialization advocated by the Communist Party. In those days, the Party seemed to me to be the only body of men resolved to accomplish these aims. Too late, I realized what an illusion this was.

The 1950s witnessed the export of Stalinist ‘show trials’ to Czechoslovakia. The most sincere communists were thrown into prison. Terror and fear swept the land. The air was poisoned by displays of abject self-criticism, by denunciation and spying. In their stirring up of anti-Semitic prejudices, the men at the top vied with the former instigators of fascist witch-hunts. The man who had been General Secretary of the Communist Party was forced to declare as he stood in the dock: ‘I, Rudolf Sl├ínský, of Jewish extraction ...’, and he was not alone. To express a view of one’s own was to incur suspicion and take the consequences.

Workers began to distrust the communist officials and to keep out of their way. Whereas formerly the enthusiasm of rank-and-file Party members could be relied on to get things done, now the Party machine stepped in to organize everything from the top. Then, following Stalin’s death, a few survivors of the show trials were unobtrusively released; the officially condemned ‘whisper campaign’ about torture being used to extract confessions proved to be only too true. The Soviet Communist Party’s Twentieth Congress, and the famous secret speech delivered by Khrushchev, exposed the crimes of the Stalin regime and the mass terror which differed in no way from the methods of fascism. The bloody suppression of the rising in Hungary revealed to me both the absurdity of our leaders’ talk about imperialist subversion and the ruthlessness of the new imperialism in the East.

My doubts that the communist road could ever lead to a more humane order of society and my dawning awareness of the inhumanity of the existing system now grew into a crushing certainty; the shock of Khrushchev’s historic speech was such that my former political activity lost all meaning for me. Naturally, I could not be satisfied with the ingenuous argument that the ‘cult of Stalin’ was the root of all evil. I had to decide – either to leave the Communist Party, or to stay in order, by long-term, patient and systematic work, to help change the system. With a few like-minded friends I opted for the latter course.

So, in 1957–8, I embarked on the search for new ideas and new departures; at first only my closest friends knew what I was doing. It was not easy to break with the dogma in which I had once firmly believed and had myself helped to propagate. But I was not alone, and that is what matters in the battle for truth. As our numbers grew, I was able to work for radical reform more openly and systematically. The movement gained momentum, until, having shaken the bureaucratic set-up to its foundations, it brought our country to the threshold of democratic socialism.

When the battle is lost, all the ‘wise men’ know what ought to have been done. They ignore the actual conditions under which the reform movement developed, and they forget that wisdom comes with hindsight. Although the Czechoslovak reform movement was crushed, it fulfilled an historic function in demonstrating to the people of Eastern Europe that progress is possible, that they can escape from the communist tyranny and the road does not have to lead back to the old capitalist system – that knowledge can never be erased. The idea will grow, and one day, when conditions are more favourable, it will be put into practice.

My chief purpose in deciding to leave my country was to be able to carry forward the work on the reform, to delve more deeply into its theoretical aspects and to finish the job. It is a matter of drawing up an all-round project for a democratic, humane type of socialism capable, one day, of replacing both the present communist and capitalist systems. To the principles of this democratic socialism I shall devote the second part of my work; in the meantime, I would ask readers not to look for any precise blueprints in the present book. Only in the light of a critical analysis of socialist theory as applied to a highly developed industrial society can logical conclusions be drawn about the prospects for establishing the actual model; it is with the former task that we are now concerned.

I am certainly no believer in schemes for an ideal social order devoid of all conflicts; which is not to say that we must cling blindly to the systems we know today. With their ‘either-or’, the dogmatists of capitalism and of communism are on common ground – rejection of the opposing system signifies for them nothing more nor less than unconditional acceptance of their own. As I see it, to recognize and criticize the defects in one order of society does not oblige me to overlook or blandly deny the imperfections in the other. The thing is to eradicate the flaws in both. But changes in the social system designed to remedy ills that have been diagnosed and seen to be real can be effective only when conditions have really matured for such measures and people are ready to accept them. It is with just such an analysis and with working out proposals for realistic change that I am concerned.

Before venturing to elaborate the principles on which a new model of society might be based, I had to examine the existing communist system with a view to exposing the troubles besetting it. As I have demonstrated in previous works, these are not infantile disorders, but chronic ailments which only measures striking at the bedrock of the system can cure. Not surprisingly, those presently in the seats of power vehemently assert the opposite. In the long run, however, the findings of science have always proved stronger than the most powerful of vested interests. And, as history shows, confronted with brute force, one is obliged to arm oneself with patience.

When I started to review the communist system, I realized that the doctrine from which it sprang cannot be discounted. For this was the first time in history that a social formation was constructed, also in its economic set-up, according to a theory. If grave shortcomings are now apparent, their origins would, evidently, have to be sought in the theory. This led, in the first place, to the writing of the present book, which essays an exhaustive examination of Marxist-Leninist theory – on which subsequent communist practice has been founded.

I shall treat the subject as objectively as possible, both in the light of experience gained since the founding fathers of Marxism formulated their doctrine, and with reference to our present knowledge – primarily in the field of economics – including the work of non-Marxist scholars. I reject as unscientific any attempt to put the blame for all the mistakes and omissions of the past at Stalin’s door, while swearing by Lenin, or to admit a few errors on Lenin’s part, while declaring Marx to be unimpeachable. No preconceived political design or ideological bias can be allowed to stand in the way of an impartial examination of theory. There is, after all, such a thing as objective truth – the ideal reflection of the existing reality – and it is the duty of science to proceed with the utmost detachment to a closer approximation to that goal. Although our perception of reality may never be more than relative, we can, nevertheless, by constantly confronting our findings with the reality and by firmly suppressing the dogmas bred of self-interest, draw closer to the objective truth.

No social theory is unique and all-embracing. That goes equally for a doctrine claiming to be infallible on the grounds that it represents the progressive interests of the working class – a claim which is merely a cover for what are, in fact, the narrow interests of power. To define the true nature and function of the interests at work in a society calls for close investigation, not sweeping assertions.

Moreover, society itself, the interests operating in it and the extent of our knowledge in this field are all subject to development. Theories which may have been objectively correct at a given point in time, and may have served the interests of a group fighting for progressive social change, can later prove to be inadequate, biassed or even false; equally, the formerly progressive social groups may, in due course, emerge as the guardians of conservative interests. The only reliable method, then, is to confront theory at every stage with the changing social reality and to keep a constant watch on the shifting trends of interests – that being so, we can steadily enrich our fund of knowledge, make it more precise and ensure its validity. Marx’s findings, too, important as they were in their day, were circumscribed by the times in which he lived and by the human capacity of their author; any attempt to present them as final, irrefutable theories transforms them into a dogma having nothing in common with science.

Equally unscientific, and coloured no less by ideological motivation, has been the attitude adopted by many social scientists in the West, who set out to silence Marx and to make light of all his findings. Whatever the cause – be it prejudice against the revolutionary nature of his conclusions or, later, total ignorance of the Marxist writings (when, for decades, they were neither published nor studied at universities) – such an unscientific approach can only be harmful. And where scholars and teachers, disgusted by the dogmatic assertions of latter-day communist propaganda, have, understandably, turned their backs on anything Marxist, their attitude simply plays into the hands of the political demagogues.

Marx was indisputably a pathfinder who, as is the case with all innovators, was not immune to error nor to drawing some premature conclusions, while also contributing findings which retain their validity to this day. To hide his ideas beneath a blanket of silence, or to present the bowdlerized versions favoured at many universities, is bound to be counterproductive. When young people, especially those who rebel against the old society, discover Marx for themselves, they are likely to respond to the official boycott by an uncritical acceptance of the forbidden fruit; then, inspired by the many impressive ideas they encounter in Marxist teaching, and influenced by some particular political trends, they are emotionally receptive to the attraction of a simplified Marxist ideology. In this respect the apologists for capitalism – including, of course, institutions as well as individuals – find that they have stoked the fires they hoped to quench.

Only objective evaluation of Marxist theory, recognizing all the findings still relevant to our day, while pinpointing whatever is now seen to be over-simplified, biased or mistaken, can check the inclination towards uncritical adulation. Marx deserves to be acknowledged for what he was – a great social scientist who, as one among many, has contributed to our knowledge of human society. Attempts by some Western scholars, economists, sociologists and philosophers in particular, to ignore many of his fundamental ideas have been to the detriment of their own theories. Seldom has a branch of learning been split so completely into two separate worlds, as has that of economics. We have totally different methods, modes of thought and categories being applied in two distinct sciences of economics, although the object of study is one and the same. This in itself should convince us that the rift has not been caused by fundamental disagreement in the realm of scholarship, but by political interests and their accompanying ideologies. One side rejects on principle every category derived from Marx, while the other is willing to accept only the categories postulated in his writings.

The conservative ideologists on both sides, being happy with things as they are, will never fail to vent their wrath on the scholar who ventures to bridge the gulf dividing our one branch of learning. They, like the politicians, are anxious, above all else, to preserve their domains – for the former, in the realm of ideas, for the latter, in a very material political sense. And in the midst of the fiercest confrontations, the representatives of the contending systems will always be ready to tolerate the ideology of their opponents so long as nothing is done to threaten their positions. So on one point both sets of conservatives are in wholehearted agreement – they condemn all talk of reform and all theories of convergence. Ideas of this nature are much more dangerous than those propagated by their traditional adversaries who have, in any case, been rendered more or less harmless on both sides of the divide.

Yet it would be wrong to assert that bridge-building between Marxist and non-Marxist views in the social sciences is impossible. More and more independently thinking people on both sides resent being driven by the fanatics into opposing camps. Both have their share of truth – as well as errors, oversimplification and sterile dogma. He who refuses to be reconciled to a divided world where the great-power interests call the tune, and the small nations are forced to comply, he who refuses to accept a world where teaching must conform to the dictates of the Establishment in order to sow the required hate psychosis in the minds of millions, he who believes that the world can be made humane and who will not bow to the nuclear ‘reality’ – he who rejects all this cannot but seek the means to bridge the gulf. Ever since the dawn of time, new departures have germinated from new ideas, and from them alone, and so long as the contending power ideologies maintain the old division there can be no hope of lasting peace.

A third way can be found, and it is not true that ‘anti-communism’ must always signify ‘pro-capitalism’. Communist propagandists have invented the ‘anti-communist’ bogy in the hope of persuading progressive and socialist opinion to look with suspicion on any serious criticism of their anti-human system. But the propaganda can rely solely on the quantity and the volume of the stuff it turns out – reasoned arguments it lacks entirely. No distinction is made between the anti-communist motivation of the conservative champions of capitalism and the progressive, socialist grounds for rejecting such basic principles of communism as the dictatorship of the proletariat, the one-party system, state ownership of industry, directive central planning of the economy, etc. This communism has nothing in common with the humane ideas of socialism. In point of fact, it is as far removed from socialism as is present-day capitalism. And those sincere young people in the West who still harbour illusions on the subject will discover one day that the communist countries are, in fact, anti-socialist.

The contrast between the words and the deeds of the communist rulers is so glaring that experience will, in time, open the eyes of ordinary people. Naturally, honesty is the touchstone here; he who is truly concerned with the wellbeing of the working people, with banishing capitalism and state-capitalist alienation, he who sincerely desires socialism will, sooner or later, reject the communist practice. But, of course, he who seeks a career, status and power will find in this totalitarian system, too, the fulfilment of his aims.

However, what really matters is how the majority of the population fare in the communist countries. It is their life that counts, not the propaganda image. And that, one day, will seal the fate of the bureaucratic tyranny. So it has been throughout history, and no amount of ideological demagogy can change it.

But the everyday experience needs the backing of a progressive social theory. The working people know, quite simply, what they do not want; but alone, without the aid of theory, they cannot set new aims. That is the responsibility of the social scientists – not to think up Utopias, but to analyse the existing contradictions and conflicts in the society, to discover their roots in the system, and then to devise the remedies – therein lies the humane commitment of the social sciences.

The people’s experience plus progressive social theory can and will triumph over the power interests and their ideological aides. It is my hope that this book will contribute to the process.

Basel-St Gallen,
September 1972

Ota Šik


Last updated on 10 April 2021