Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 5 No. 4


Socialism: What Went Wrong?

Irwin Silber
Socialism: What Went Wrong? An Inquiry into the Theoretical and Historical Roots of the Socialist Crisis
Pluto, London, 1994, pp. 310, £12.95/£40.00

IN JANUARY 1990 I wrote a piece for Tribune in which as a libertarian Socialist I asked: ‘Whatever happened to the Socialist idea?’ My conclusions were clear:

‘The Soviet and East European experience shows that there are no short cuts to Socialism. Socialism and the fullest possible democracy are inseparable ... The attempt of Communism’s self-reproducing oligarchy to introduce a new moral world by means of limitless force or terror has proved a tragic and bloody mistake. Means and ends are inseparable. He who says Socialism must also say democracy. Otherwise he says nothing at all.’ (Tribune, 19 January 1990)

Now five years later an intelligent and well-informed former Stalinist apparatchik, with specialist knowledge in the cultural field, has written a full-length volume around this same theme, as the title shows. Whilst it is hardly a ‘new and original contribution to our knowledge’, since it deals with matters already in the public domain, it treats them in an original fashion, and it would be well for all concerned about the Socialist experience in the twentieth century to read it. Working from different ends of the same spectrum, out of quite different backgrounds, we reach surprisingly similar conclusions, an outcome which can surprise no one more than it surprises me.

Silber starts from the initial premise that the economic collapse of the former Soviet Union, and with it the disintegration of the six satellite states of Central and Eastern Europe, is a phenomenon of world historical importance. Where there were previously three worlds – capitalist, Socialist and underdeveloped territories – there are now only two. The ‘Socialist’ contender for world power has simply vanished from the scene. In the competition between capitalism and ‘actually existing Socialism’, capitalism has finally won. (The crisis is more properly one of Stalinism, but as millions of people all around the world confuse Stalinism with Socialism, we have this albatross hung around our necks, whether we like it or not.) Modern advanced oligopolist capitalism has in the end out-performed the command economy. For example, to quote Silber:

‘From 1979 to 1989 some 10,000 Soviet miners died on the job – roughly eight times the US figure. Life expectancy for the Soviet miner was 49 years compared to 70 years for a US miner. At the same time, while 2.5 million Soviet miners were producing 800 million tons of coal a year, 140,000 US miners produced one billion tons.

‘No one can safely predict what new socio-economic arrangements will replace “actually existing Socialism”, but one thing seems certain. The model of Socialism developed in the Soviet Union and subsequently imposed on the “Socialist camp” ... has no future.’ (p. 4)

This is a judgement with which this reviewer will quite readily agree.

If we look back over the experience of the twentieth century, certain conclusions seem quite plain. The belief central to Leninism, Marxism-Leninism and Trotskyism that the Russian Revolution opened a new stage in history, that of an imminent and ever-growing ‘world revolution’ is now revealed to have been based on wish fulfilment, rather than on the fruit of critical analysis. Not only has the world revolution failed to mature, ‘History’ in the case of the former Soviet Union and its satellites would seem to have reversed itself. Where once we saw the inexorable forward march through slavery on to feudalism, to capitalism and finally Socialism, Silber now sees the disintegration of ‘Socialism’, and a reversion to some kind of para-statal capitalism, of which precise order it is as yet too early to state. Thus the very notion of the inexorable forward march of history would itself seem to be up for grabs.

The collapse of the economic base of ‘actually existing Socialism’ inevitably also brings down its related ideology of Marxism-Leninism, which simply codified the theory and practice of the Soviet state as it grew up under Stalin’s one party rule, and continued thereafter. Marxism-Leninism, whether of the original Lenin brand or of the later adulterated Stalin version, is clearly quite discredited. Like Humpty Dumpty, it has fallen off the wall, and can never be put back together again. The claim that the Communist Party, a party of a ‘new type’, based on democratic centralism, could in some way rise above the forces of history, and overcome by the supremely voluntarist will of its leading cadre all the contingent facts that stood in its way, is now revealed as quite false. The idea has been tried in practice in the Soviet Union and Central and Eastern Europe over a whole historic epoch. It manifestly has not succeeded there, and surely cannot be expected to work anywhere else. The Stalinist experience, as we can see in retrospect, was in the strict sense of the word ‘utopian’ in the extreme. Tsarist Russia was ripe neither for Socialism, nor for any form of workers’ power. In these circumstances, the attempts of first Lenin and Trotsky and then Stalin to impose Socialist forms on a society which was not ready for them made nonsense of historical materialism. The outcome was a utopian-voluntarist conception of Socialism which could only be held in place by ideological terror, political repression and intellectual suffocation.

As for the command economy, for all its Socialist pretensions, far from being more efficient, less costly and more productive, it bred waste, corruption and economic backwardness. In the end, it collapsed like a badly designed bridge under the gross burden of its own structure:

‘Agriculture employed over 25 per cent of the Soviet workforce, compared with three per cent in the USA. At the same time, the USA was a net exporter of farm products, while the USSR had to import grain to feed its population. Likewise, right up to its collapse, the Soviet Union used more than twice the amount of metal and 23 per cent more fuel than the USA for each billion dollars of its gross national product. It also consumed 30 per cent more raw materials to produce each ton of food.’ (p. 130)

The dictatorship of the proletariat became the dictatorship of the party over the proletariat, and the dictatorship of a single leader (Lenin, Stalin), or a small self-perpetuating clique of leaders, over the party as a whole. The dictatorship of the party, through the medium of its sole legality and the nomenklatura, was exercised over the nation as a whole. The outcome was a closed society which was unable to self-correct its own faults, and which continually followed rather than led other countries in almost all given fields. Silber’s conclusion is one which we should all do well to take on board:

‘The most important lesson of all perhaps is this, far from being outmoded appurtenances of bourgeois democracy, elementary civil liberties, freedom of speech, press, assembly and thought, open and competitive elections based on unhindered rights of political association, constitutional checks on authority, and guarantees of the rights of both individuals and political minorities are not merely desirable, they are indispensable to Socialist society.’ (p. 174)

The effort to override all checks and balances in an endeavour to hurry into being a new form of society has proven to be a signal failure. The cost has been the death of millions in the famines and millions more in the Gulag and the periodic purges. At the end of the day, after three quarters of a century, we find a state of affairs probably far worse than if there had been no ‘revolution’ at all. Capitalism and bourgeois democracy with a Socialist opposition buttressed by powerful free trade unions would surely have been better in almost every way.

In its turn, the quite unnecessary split of the Communists from Social Democracy did immense damage to the cause of the international labour movement over each of the seven decades which followed the launch of the Communist International in 1919 and the emergence of the ‘foreign’ Communist parties all around the globe. That the rise of Hitler could have taken place without the arbitrary intervention of the externally financed and externally led German Communist Party seems scarcely possible. Moreover:

‘In the Soviet Union, the defence of Marxism-Leninism was ipso facto a defence of the prevailing system and the prerequisites which went with it. In the non-governing parties, lifetime investment in careers, organisational structure, access to authority and largesse of Soviet power likewise provided compelling reasons over and above ideological conviction for keeping the Marxist-Leninist faith.’ (p. 204)

The belief that the Soviet model offered a non-capitalist road to a happy future for the ex-colonial countries, more especially those led by revolutionary cadres after wars of liberation, has similarly turned out to be false. The immense costs involved proved more than the increasingly ragbag Soviet economy could bear, and ‘were a significant factor in the limitation of domestic social spending and the system’s mounting budget deficit’ (p. 239). The effect of Soviet policy ‘to direct the anti-colonial revolution on a non-capitalist path... was as much a failure as was Moscow’s Eastern European policy. Certainly it did nothing to build Socialism in these countries. If anything, it distorted the natural path of economic development and left those countries poorly prepared to deal with world capitalism when ultimately they had to.’ (p. 239)

Silber’s book implicitly raises issues so bold that the author seems to prefer not to discuss them. For example, if, as seems to be the case, the Russian Revolution, the decades of subsequent ‘Communist’ one party rule and the foundation of the Communist International and Communist parties on balance did a great deal more harm than good (cf. my article Comintern Sixty Years After: Reflections on the Anniversary, Survey, Winter 1979), then ought we not say that it would have been better if there had been no October Revolution? Perhaps Kamenev and Zinoviev were right when they warned against a Bolshevik conquest of power in 1917? In Britain the foundation of the Communist Party was clearly a mistake from the very start, a view that I posed in The Revolutionary Movement in Britain 1900–1921 (London 1969), and which was endorsed when the party dissolved itself. Much the same could be said of all the other Communist parties, each equally artificial, which at Russian behest appeared elsewhere around the same time. If this be true, it follows that all the endeavours of ‘true Communists’ of whatever variety either to reform the Stalinist parties from within, or to build new, pure, unsullied ‘Leninist’ parties from without, were equally doomed to failure in their turn.

Those of us who remain Socialists need to save what we can from the ruins, clear the ground, and start all over again. Marx’s Marxism still remains a tool of very real value in our efforts to liberate mankind. Marxism-Leninism, Trotskyism, the vanguard party, the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’, democratic centralism, the command economy and with it the notion of state ownership of almost everything, are all headed for the garbage can, and the sooner they go the better. Socialists ought not to be too surprised at this. Democratic Socialists were in the forefront of the resistance to the Soviet-inspired Communist endeavour to ‘colonise’ the international movement all along.

The Leninist notion of revolution always carried overtones of the Blanquist coup d’état, after which the party would rule alone, with the masses themselves being ‘forced to be free’ whether they liked it or not. We need to replace it with the conception of the social revolution not as a single voluntarist act at a certain specific date and time, but rather as a continuous process extending over decades. Universal free primary education, free medical treatment as of right at the point of service, redundancy payments, unemployment pay, etc., are all ‘Socialist’ measures enforced on the capitalist system from within and without, which would have been thought unthinkable even by Marx and Engels themselves at the time the Communist Manifesto first appeared in 1848. The balance of power between the social classes within capitalist society is in no sense fixed and immutable. Other gains equally unthinkable today can be enforced upon the capitalist system in the future, if only we have the courage to do so. Let Silber have the last word:

‘We need to get back to the idea that the real world is the only repository of truth; and that changing it depends on understanding it, not as something fixed in previous texts, but as a constantly developing living organism in all its complexity, possibilities, limitations and richness. Certainly it is hard to get used to the idea that the Socialist epoch, which many of us thought had dawned in 1917, has not yet arrived. But accepting that fact and learning from this false start in the attempt to develop an alternative to capitalism can be an important first step in regaining the ideological momentum that will help put the Socialist project back on history’s agenda.’ (p. 268)

Walter Kendall

Updated by ETOL: 25.9.2011