Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Theoretical Review Editorial

Poland and the “Military Road to Socialism”


First Published: Theoretical Review No. 28, May-June 1982
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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The disappointment of socialism in the East . . . has a tendency to weaken support for socialism in the West, no matter how strongly the betrayals of Stalinian Marxism are repudiated. The collective experience of the very different sorts of failure represented by social democracy in the West and official Communism in the East has a tendency to breed an indiscriminate cynicism and demoralization. This is not to say that the principled and patient defense of authentic socialist goals is useless or doomed. Rather it means that the objectives of the socialist movement must be elaborated with more precision and imagination than before. Only if this is done will socialists be able to harness the forces of popular resistance that capitalism inevitably and spontaneously provokes.[1]

Considerable controversy has followed the February 6th New York Town Hall meeting in solidarity with Solidarnosc. American Workers and Artists for Solidarity elicited a spirited response from broad sections of the New York left and left-liberal communities in support of the struggle of the Polish workers against martial law, and this was reflected in the speakers’ roster. Present were Ed Sadlowski and Pete Camarata as well as representatives of PATCO, the UAW and the Postal Workers Union. Also speaking were Paul Robeson, Jr., Pete Seeger, Daniel Singer, Kurt Vonnegut, E. L. Doctorow, Bernedette Devlin McAliskey and . . . Susan Sontag.

Although hardly a Marxist by anyone’s standards, Sontag had previously enjoyed a certain respect in left/liberal circles for her essays and social criticism, as well as her 1968 trip to North Vietnam during the war and her reportage thereon. For this reason it came as something of a shock when she told the Town Hall audience that “communism is fascism,” “fascism with a human face.”[2] At a time when a US President can talk about Marxism as a “virus” and the possibility of a “limited” nuclear war in Europe, it is not surprising that other throw-backs to the 1950s should again make their appearance. The “communism equals fascism” equation is one of these, as is the capitulation of liberals to reaction in the face of a rightist offensive.

But it would be too easy for those of us on the left to comfortably sit back and excoriate Susan Sontag as a “renegade” and a sell-out. Her reaction, albeit in an extreme form, is symptomatic of a widespread malaise and disorientation which has overtaken broad sections of the revolutionary left in this country. First there was Vietnam’s invasion of Kampuchea, then China’s invasion of Vietnam, and, more recently, the events in Afghanistan and Poland. The symptoms of this malaise and disorientation are everywhere and our inability to explain or justify developments in the socialist countries is only the most obvious problem. The precipitous decline, if not extinction, of whole tendencies in the Marxist-Leninist movement, the growing isolation of pro-Soviet communist forces, the collapse of an organized Marxist-Leninist presence in the labor movement, and the failure of the revolutionary left to build an effective presence in the new mass movements–anti-draft, reproductive rights, anti-nuclear, etc.,–are both symptoms and by-products of this crisis. When this sorry picture is contrasted with the remarkable growth of democratic socialism, strikingly exemplified by the DSOC-NAM merger, the shift in the balance of forces within the left away from Marxism-Leninism of one variety or another is plain for all to see.

Where have all the Marxist-Leninists gone? Many have dropped out of organized left activity, some have abandoned politics altogether. Those who remain active have opted for a variety of responses with many seeking solace in the mass struggles–women’s rights, Central America support work, etc. The hope is that activity in those areas will win back for the revolutionary left what the negative practices of the socialist countries and our own political failures at home have cost us in terms of enthusiasm and credibility. But ideology, being what it is, Poland will not go away. From Wajda’s “Man of Iron” to the evening news, images of it shape the way people see the left, and ignoring it will not erase those images from the popular mind.

It is one thing to assert, in the face of Poland (and Kampuchea and Afghanistan) that there can be no “military road to socialism,” meaning that socialism cannot be imposed on a people by force of arms. It is another to be able to explain, theoretically and politically, as well as in a mass way, the increasing resort to military-police measures on the part of ostensible socialist countries. Such an analysis requires a concrete analysis of the character of these countries, their economic foundations, the forms of political practice and ideological struggle reproduced within them and their foreign policies. It is precisely because the revolutionary left in this country lacks such an analysis that we are disarmed in the face of the anti-communist ideological offensive which is currently underway, and which has made its effects felt, even in our own ranks.

We have been unable to explain the militarization of politics in the socialist countries because the three major approaches to defining the nature of those countries have all shown themselves to be inadequate. The one with the longest history, which states that these nations are fully socialist countries, meaning nations in which the working class exercises state power and is building toward communism, is so well discredited, theoretically and by unfolding events, that it needs no further comment. The theories of “capitalist restoration” or state capitalism, while recognizing the fact that control over the means of production and the state system is not, in any meaningful sense, in the hands of the working class in these countries, have failed to prove their case, either theoretically or politically. Neither have they produced the necessary concepts within which to think the complex social formations they are studying. The most promising approach within these theories, that of Charles Bettelheim, remains a series of tantalizing hypotheses, as yet untested and unverified.

The third and most recent theory, that of the “third form,” argues that these countries are neither socialist nor capitalist, but a new, third form of social organization. It too remains a series of undeveloped and untested hypotheses whose political import remains uncertain: are the third form countries superior to capitalism, thereby meriting some kind of critical support, or are they no better (or even worse) than capitalism itself? For our part, in the pages of this journal we have tried to elaborate a different theoretical approach to the so-called socialist countries, an approach which is encapsulated in the following definition of socialism provided by Louis Althusser:

Socialism is the transition period . . . between capitalism and communism, a contradictory period in which capitalist elements (e.g., wages) and communist elements (e.g., new mass organizations) coexist in a relation of conflict, an essentially unstable period in which the class struggle persists in modified forms, unrecognizable from the standpoint of our own class struggle, difficult to decipher, and which may–depending on the relation of forces and the “line” which is followed either regress towards capitalism or mark time in frozen forms or again progress towards communism.[3]

Although our approach attempts to capture the contradictory dynamic of socialism as it presently exists, we too were unprepared to deal theoretically with the “military socialism” which has increasingly manifested itself on the world scene.

In the face of the grave theoretical inadequacy or underdevelopment of these various theories, the temptation has been very great to seek elsewhere for analysis and explanation in confronting “military socialism” in general, and the Polish crisis in particular. There is talk of the crisis of “post-industrial” societies and of the convergence of East and West on a new basis. At the same time, ahistorical notions of “military rule” and “totalitarian power” are gaining a new lease on life. The examples of “underdeveloped” countries which have experienced military dictatorships are increasingly being invoked, as well as analogies to Spain or Greece.

But all of these are inappropriate comparisons, and arguing by analogy is never good Marxism. Military dictatorships in Africa, South America and Mediterranean Europe are, and were, the historical product of crises in the structure of social formations dominated by the capitalist mode of production and their place in the international capitalist system of economic, political and military interrelationships of which they are an integral part.

Certainly the present crisis of world capitalism has had a major effect on events in Poland, as we have previously documented in the pages of this journal.[4] But the effects of this external crisis have had an impact on another internal one of more decisive significance for the direction of development of the Polish social formation. We refer, of course, to the crisis which has resulted from the failure of the Stalinian model of socialist construction to facilitate the creation of a genuine socialist society and the bureaucratic and anti-working class practice of economics, politics and ideology which has developed out of this failure. This second crisis, radically distinct although linked with the first, affects all the socialist countries to one degree or another, although in each, the manifestations of the crisis take a different form with correspondingly different consequences for the development of class struggle and social development.

To confuse these two different crises and the different manners in which they produce a “military” solution risks more than misunderstanding the broad historical processes of which they are a product. In a much more immediate sense it risks opening the floodgates on a whole series of bourgeois ideological prejudices which threaten to derail any effort to come to grips with the Polish situation and related problems from within the Marxist problematic.

Obviously we do not mean to say that any departure from traditional Marxism is impermissible or that it somehow leads to a “communism equals fascism” line. Quite the contrary, it is precisely the failure of traditional Marxism to understand “socialism as it presently exists” which has led us to the position that analogies between socialist countries and neo-fascist military dictatorships are being drawn even within the left itself. However, we should not underestimate the potential which the failure to take up the struggle around Poland from a genuinely Marxist perspective has for the further disintegration of the revolutionary left in this country. As Althusser points out above, the class struggle under socialism cannot be immediately recognized based on an understanding of how it develops under capitalist conditions. Nor can this struggle be deciphered and understood without a specific analysis of the overall direction of development of the social formation in which it is unfolding.

Grasping the specificity of class struggle, political practice and the rising tide of militarism under socialism is a task which will require an enormous amount of theoretical study and political struggle. Just as important, and just as difficult, will be the effort to begin to explain our emerging understanding of the socialist countries in a new and popular way. If the “military road to socialism” has done anything it has made more urgent these tasks. By forcing us to confront this problem squarely, we will be that much more urgently compelled to take up the struggle to revitalize Marxist theory and redefine socialist politics and goals. If the crisis of the East provides the impetus, certainly the crisis in the West is daily providing us with the opportunities to create and practice a new vision of socialism.


[1] Robin Blackburn in Eric Hobsbawn, ed., The Forward March of Labour Halted? (Verso, 1981), pp. 160-61. The phrase “Stalinism” has been changed to “Stalinian Marxism” for publication in the TR.

[2] Reprinted in The Nation, February 27, 1982.

[3] “The Historic Significance of the 22nd Congress,” in Balibar, The Dictatorship of the Proletariat (NLB, 1977), p. 204; emphasis in the original.

[4] Theoretical Review, No. 19.