So, does socialism have a future?

Twenty-five years ago this month, the Berlin Wall was dismantled by East German citizens who responded to an official announcement of a relaxation of the harsh travel restrictions they faced. Thousands spontaneously flocked to the Wall, overwhelmed the guards, and were soon joined by West Berliners in tearing down the barrier. The authorities had lost the will to stop them.

This was one of many social uprisings that erupted in Europe’s socialist countries in 1989, which led within months to a cataclysm in the entire Soviet bloc, including the disintegration of the USSR into 15 different fragments based on ethnicity and language. The centre of world Communism collapsed, and the capitalist West emerged victorious in the Cold War against international socialism.

Was the collapse of the Soviet Union and other states of ‘actually existing socialism’ inevitable? It’s conceivable that a Stalin, Putin or Deng Xiaoping might have prevented a catastrophic collapse at a specific point of time by using brute force, as in Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968, or Tiananmen Square in 1989.

But that would only have postponed the moment of reckoning and eventually strengthened the forces of dissent and opposition to these increasingly dysfunctional states. A situation had been reached in the Warsaw Pact countries, in which neither military force, nor half-hearted reforms—like glasnost (more openness/transparency) and perestroika (restructuring), which Mikhail Gorbachev belatedly launched—could have pacified the growing protests.

The ‘actually existing socialist’ system had long been in crisis thanks to lack of democracy, absence of civil and political rights, weakness of civil society, repression of dissent, loss of legitimacy of the rulers, severe shortages of consumer goods, and a dysfunctional economy made worse by extreme bureaucratisation of planning, itself detached from people’s needs.

In some cases, mis-planning led to such oddities as a glut of grain or vegetables left to rot in the fields for lack of transportation; production of unmatched pairs of socks (double the number of left-foot socks than right-foot ones); or rewarding managers of aircraft or lift/elevator factories in direct proportion to the amount of steel consumed (when efficiency would mean minimising its use!)
Even in East Germany, the most industrialised and richest of the European Communist states, such anomalies were all too visible in 1976-77 when I first visited East Berlin—dilapidated, in contrast to the shining (if subsidised) jewel that West Berlin was. The Dollar-Mark market exchange rate was twice higher than the official one. A poor Third World citizen like me got countless offers for my old US-branded jeans, five times higher than the price of brand-new ones!

However, these anomalies and social and political dissonances, which imploded in 1989-90, were themselves the result of long-festering structural factors and processes which underlay the extreme bureaucratisation of the Soviet Communist party soon after the Revolution of 1917, itself a historic achievement. The Revolution remained confined to one country, and a backward one at that, after the European working class movement, despite its awesome strength, failed to win power elsewhere.

This is not to underrate the Bolsheviks’ great success in overthrowing Czarism or capitalism, and making the USSR’s working people arbiters of their own fate by creating new modes of organisation of society and economy and a novel state based on Soviets, or workers’ and peasants’ councils.

However, the new system—isolated, subjected to multiple privations, and forced into curtailing democratic rights—soon degenerated. The Soviets died out. The degeneration produced Stalinism, which purged the once-democratic Communist party of its entire revolutionary leadership, ossified all state structures, subjugated the international working-class movement to the narrow dictates of ‘socialism in one country’, thus subverting global revolutionary possibilities, and visited untold cruelties upon the Soviet people.

The USSR experienced a moment of triumph during World War-II as a bulwark against Nazism and fascism. As the War’s part-victor, it exported its brand of socialism to Central and Eastern Europe. But all these regimes were dominated by parasitic leaderships subservient to the Soviet Union where a tyrannical state apparatus had been consolidated, which enjoyed very little popular legitimacy.

Stalin’s successors failed to reform the system, although they engineered some industrialisation and generated growth with a modicum of social and economic rights for the people. Even these gains were compromised by the growing unpopularity of the Soviet system and lack of opportunities for democratic participation. This led to a hollowing out of all progressive content from the system under a succession of regimes led by Khrushchev, Brezhnev and other leaders.

Nevertheless, the Soviet Union continued to offer a political-military counterweight to Western domination during the Cold War, without which the world order would have been even more unbalanced. But this meant overspending on military and nuclear programmes, which imposed an enormous burden on the Eastern Bloc economies, at the expense of popular welfare. Finally, this burden took a heavy toll on the USSR, especially after its ruinous intervention in Afghanistan—a prelude to a massive systemic crisis.

Although Soviet-style socialism, based on statism, vanguardism and regimentation, couldn’t become a model for the international working-class movement, its very existence forced post-War capitalism to ‘civilise’ itself through a rudimentary welfare state. The ‘Golden Age of Capitalism’ (1945-73) spread democratisation and relative mass prosperity in the West on an unprecedented scale, and built the foundations for the generally high living standards that prevail even today.

As the Soviet economic-political crisis worsened, alternatives—however flawed—towards greater political freedom became visible to the public, with the lure of comparatively higher living standards. It was now willing to abandon socialism and embrace capitalism, albeit of a degraded, crony, criminalised variety. Gorbachev saw the writing on the Wall (literally!) and jettisoned socialism.

Tragically, Indian Communists never understood the deep roots of the crisis of ‘actually existing socialism’, going back to the 1920s. They blamed ‘revisionism’, Gorbachev’s ‘errors’ and tactical mistakes by other Soviet bloc leaders for the collapse of international socialism.

They had no structural explanation for the collapse and refused to critically re-examine the ideological premises, strategic approaches, political doctrines and practices, and organisational principles that underlay the Soviet model of socialism, the sole version of socialism they knew.
Some Communists soon replaced it with the Chinese model although China, with its neoliberal capitalism, lack of democracy, huge foreign and domestic private investment, and ecologically destructive growth, can hardly be considered socialist despite the state’s preponderance in society.

The Indian Left’s failure to explain the Soviet cataclysm demoralised its cadres. But it was lucky to be able to grow for more two decades—largely because of domestic factors. Now that growth too has halted. The Left is in steep decline, which will be accelerated by its failure to evolve an independent alternative conception of socialism based on coherent and secure ideological-political foundations which correspond to contemporary reality and are yet in consonance with Marxism.

The triumph of capitalism didn’t deliver the promised liberal-democratic order, peace and prosperity to the people of the former socialist states. Instead, they saw the rise of a new plutocracy which looted public wealth while the majority was deprived of social security and subsidised education, food and housing. NATO and the European Union expanded Eastwards, raising the prospect of a new Cold War with Russia by fomenting the Orange and Rose revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia. 

As I discovered last fortnight in Berlin, even German reunification remains incomplete and menaced by prejudices against East Germans. East Germany’s per-capita GDP is still one-third less than the West’s. Fortyfour percent of Easterners considers their wages ‘unfair’, compared to about one-third of Westerners. A recent survey says 4 out of 10 Berliners don’t feel at home in a united Berlin; 52 percent would consider leaving it for a good job elsewhere.

Worse, global capitalism, no longer challenged by socialism or ‘the emerging powers’, has become even more predatory in its corporatist-neoliberal avatar. It’s dispossessing and impoverishing people, horrendously increasing wealth and income disparities, privatising natural resources,
destroying climate balances, and dismantling what’s left of the welfare state.

Capitalism has proved utterly bankrupt especially since the Great Recession beginning 2008. Market-based pseudo-solutions have prevented recovery. Such growth as there has been is paltry, uncertain and jobless. Capitalism cannot solve the grave problems of poverty, inequality within and between nations, climate change, or gender and caste discrimination.

This only reinforces the case for socialism, the only alternative to the inequality, lack of social cohesion, militarism and erosion of democracy that today’s capitalism is synonymous with. But to be viable and appealing, such socialism must be robustly democratic, internationalist, participatory, not limited to centralised planning, amenable to popular control, and truly emancipatory.

There’s much to learn here from Latin America’s recent experience of radical politics, including participatory budgeting, civil society involvement and grassroots democracy. But India’s Left will have to evolve its own model of socialism that’s appropriate to local conditions and the peculiarities of India’s amalgam of neoliberalism and Hindutva. Such socialism has a bright future.
Next Story
Share it