Communist Party of Australia

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Journal of the Communist Party of Australia


Thoughts on the factors that determined the defeat of the socialist system in Europe

The timeliness and necessity of socialism

The Central Committee of the Tudeh Party of Iran is greatly honoured to be invited and to be able to participate at this important and timely conference on one of the most dramatic developments in the latter half of the 20th Century.

Allow me to express the deep gratitude of the Tudeh Party of Iran to the Communist Party of Greece for organising and hosting this event and providing this excellent opportunity for us to discuss our points of view.

The Tudeh Party of Iran has always believed that the October Revolution and the inception of socialism in Russia has been an epoch making event. As believers of scientific socialism, we  cannot do anything but accept that the defeat of the socialist system in the USSR and Eastern Europe has had and will continue to have significant consequences for the working class movement world-wide.

It is our view that the discussion about these important setbacks will continue for some time to come and only through sincere scientific and objective research will we be able to arrive at genuine conclusions facilitating the progress of the movement in its historic mission.

In the following presentation, we do not claim that we have touched upon all factors, but we sincerely hope that our thoughts on the following factors, which we consider of central significance, will help to support this important discussion.

The 20th Century awoke with the chimes of the Great October Revolution, and for the first time human society was faced with a structure set up with the aim of achieving equality, employment and freedom for all. With the victory of the October Revolution, the world took a determined step on the path of immense, unpredictable change.

The ideas which were put forward by Marx and Engels in the 19th Century in order to change the world and free humanity from inequality, exploitation and deprivation, were put to a historic test, to determine the degree of their practicability. We will not be exaggerating if we assert that with the victory of the October Revolution, the monolithic old world order broke down.

The October victory put an end to the myth of the invincibility of the capitalist system and proved in practice that the anti-thesis of capitalism is socialism.

It will not be an exaggeration to declare that the October Revolution irrevocably changed the world and its values. The understanding and empathy with the new values put forward by Marx and Engels broke down the old system and challenged the values of societies with diverse historical and cultural backgrounds, and despite capitalism's wishes to the contrary, replaced them with a new, more humane system of values.

The construction of a socialist system in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union was a complex and difficult experience which was attempted without the benefit of any previous or existing experience, and for this reason, as Lenin too declared, major mistakes were inevitable in this process.

The efforts of Marxists to practically develop a socialist system have been faced with difficulties, retreats and also with significant successes. It is the duty of today's upholders of socialism to review the past experience, study its strengths and weaknesses, its deviations and the problems encountered while translating theory into practice.

In reviewing past experience, studying the successes and failures of the socialist system, we aim to equip the working class with the effective tools needed if it is to achieve socialism and reinvigorate the struggle for it.

Since 1989 the end of the socialist system has often has been referred to as a "collapse". In as much that the rapidity of the social, economic and political changes fundamentally changed the character of the socialist states in a relatively short historical period, the word collapse may be appropriate.

However, collapse in some respects implies the changes were entirely or predominantly due to internal factors, rather than a combination of the internal and external, or even the external providing not only a context but also a starting point for all internal considerations which affected socialist development and subsequent defeat.

In this presentation we argue that socialism's defeat, especially in the Soviet Union, was a multifaceted phenomenon which had its origins in the historical foundation of the revolution itself, its subsequent struggle to develop the productive forces, and the unavoidable international economic, military and political competition with imperialism.

In considering the factors influencing developments in the socialist countries, careful examination of principal theoretical concepts is vital.

It is argued, with some justification, that following Lenin's work to develop the theoretical heritage of Marx and Engels, enough attention has not always been directed to studying the complexities of transition from an exploitative economic and social order to a society based on the concepts of equality and freedom.

The politics of transition through the stages towards developed capitalism have been well researched and understood. They form the roots of scientific socialism. However, the politics of socialist transformation are by comparison relatively unexplored.

According to historical materialism, revolutionary advance is inherently based on the development of the productive forces. In all socio-economic formations, the elements of the "new" gradually develop and mature even though the "old" system is still dominant.

Our scientific approach to development of socio-economic formations is based on the understanding that in every social system based on exploitation, there comes a stage when the "old" production relations inhibit the further development of "new" productive forces.

At this point of the development of the "new" in its relationship with the "old", a revolutionary change takes place and the "new" becomes dominant through a qualitative change.

However, application of this generalised understanding of the method of development of socio-economic systems to explain the transition from capitalism to working class power needs further study.

Unlike the emergence of feudalism out of the system based on slavery, then capitalism from within feudalism, the economic forms of working class power – i.e. social ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange – cannot emerge within capitalism but can only develop after a revolution.

Does this represent a departure from our basic understanding of historical materialism?

On the contrary, we accept Lenin's contribution to the theory of transition that the imperialist stage of capitalist development represents its highest point, the contradictions between the social character of production and its monopoly ownership become intolerable, for sustainable advance the system must change.

Russia in 1917 proved to be the weakest link. But not the most economically "developed" in terms of capital accumulation, level of productive forces or in the nature of production itself.

The Bolsheviks inherited a country spreading over huge area – one-sixth of the world. But this huge land did not constitute a cohesive system. They could not take it all on. Communications of all kinds were inadequate, the distribution system was uneven. There were huge problems posed by a peasant economy.

A basic problem was that the area inherited was geographically too large leading to the benefits of socialism, which in turn was aggravated through the existence and persistence of an international capitalist order.

This inevitably raises questions which are outside previously held notions in the classics of Marxism. What were these consequences? How were they dealt with?

It should be recognised that in Russia, the working class by and large by-passed the experience of the sharpening of the contradictions between the development of the forces of production and the relations of production.

In theory, the first socialist revolutions were generally expected to take place in the more advanced economies of Western Europe and North America where the forces of production were most developed and where social and socialist consciousness amongst the working class was more advanced. However, the reality dictated otherwise and the theory needed to be adapted accordingly.

The above reality alone was responsible for major anomalies in the development of political fortunes of the Soviet system. A direct result was low level of development of the productive forces in the countryside and the persistence of a pre-capitalist peasantry.

During the short period of his guiding role for the revolutionary state, Lenin tried to address the above factor. His many references to the idea of state capitalism, his introduction of the New Economic Policy (NEP), and his references to "many transitional stages" in the process of socialist transformation in Russia were all to deal with this deficiency of the new situation.

In the 1918 Congress of the Party, Lenin stated

:"... taken by the wave of enthusiasm that had awakened people, firstly political enthusiasm, then military enthusiasm, we believed that we could perform only on the basis of this enthusiasm economic tasks with the same magnitude of political and military tasks. We thought, or perhaps we supposed without having studied enough, that it was possible to organise in a direct form, on the basis of the simple existence of the proletarian state, state production and state distribution of goods, in a communist manner, in a country of small peasants. Experience has shown our mistakes. It made us see that a series of stages are necessary in the transition."

"... we have only given the first steps to free ourselves from capitalism and start the transition to socialism. We do not know and cannot know how many transitional stages there will be in socialism".

This raises questions as to whether Lenin would have followed the same path as was taken by his successors.

In the event, the Soviet Union became an industrialised modern country in the most unpromising circumstances. Soviet industrial development was based on the capital accumulation arising from forced socialisation of agricultural production.

The process of construction of the new state achieved in decades what was achieved by the capitalist societies in centuries. But this fast transition combined with the effects of the general crisis of the capitalist system during 1920s obscured the development of some economic anomalies such as the almost total dependency of the new system on the production of capital goods.

The need to divert most resources to this type of production also meant difficulty in satisfying citizens' desire for consumer goods.

One key result of this rapid transformation was the alienation of some sections of society and even antipathy towards the revolution itself.

Recognition of these specific peculiarities of Russian situation is essential if we are to understand the causes of the defeat of socialism in Eastern Europe.

There should be no doubt that the problems which surfaced later in the Soviet Union and other socialist countries had their roots in these conditions.

Let us examine the concept of labour productivity in the economies of socialist countries.

Up to the mid-1970s, all socialist economies without exception experienced increased labour productivity compared to pre- revolutionary period. But the growth was increasingly slower than in the main capitalist countries.

It seems that a simplistic analysis of capitalism's potential to overcome periodic crisis and a mechanistic understanding of the decaying character of imperialism were partly responsible for the lack of political decisiveness to carry forward some painful adjustments in the society and economy.

The tendency to assume the inevitability of the collapse of capitalism and the assumption that it would be a matter of time led to an underestimation of capitalism's potential to survive the socialist challenge.

Is it not a fact that the effects of technological revolution of 1970s and early 80s in the capitalist world largely escaped the attention of economic planners of the socialist world?

The socialist countries underestimated the capacity of capitalism to adapt itself to the new situation. We overlooked what Marx and Engels had already stated in the Communist Manifesto:

"The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production and thereby the relations of production and with them whole relations of society."

Lenin had bluntly stated that, in the final analysis, in the competition between socialism and capitalism, labour productivity will be the deciding factor.

What were the factors which prevented socialism from intensifying production? It is no secret that use of modern technology was severely limited and the concept of a second industrial revolution was absent from socialist economies. To what extent was this due to the lack of political will on the part of the working class in power?

While it would not be helpful at this stage to claim our fraternal parties in the former socialist countries lacked the necessary political will, we should not hesitate to engage in some painful questioning of all aspects of developments within these countries.

It is, however, unquestionably the case that these parties faced some massive contradictions in society which were not easily, or ever overcome.

For example, capitalism's application of new technology in all levels of the productive process leaves it with little fear of the fall-out of unemployment, it may even find such a consequence helpful in exerting pressure on the productive forces.

Developed socialism did not have this option. The continuous use of science as an aid to the masses, rather than a threat to their security and quality of life is a central challenge for scientific socialists.

Furthermore, the question of productivity of labour also influences the level and quality of the social achievements of socialism.

While increasing production, socialist enterprises must also provide wide ranging high quality social welfare. This has an economic cost which also limited re-investment.

The only way to overcome this seemingly contradictory pressures is to achieve higher labour productivity which itself is dependent on technological advance and industrial modernisation.

Economic activities within the socialist countries and with the outside world were operated on a socialist basis. On the one hand, the Soviet Union subsidised other socialist countries. On the other hand, the socialist system was not able to trade internationally on a profitable basis.

The trade relations of socialist system with the Third World in general can be broken into the following categories: provision of means of production, assistance to develop various resources, subsidised support and supply of arms to most developing nations or national liberation movements. These all put a very heavy burden on the economy.

The aggressiveness of capitalism and open declaration of intent to destroy the socialist system resulted in a lengthy arms race with catastrophic results.

The need to combat the military threat forced the Soviet Union into a program of arms production which absorbed badly needed resources and distorted the economy.

Direction of national economies meant that the investment in modern technology was only carried out in the arms industries. This also limited choice in consumer production which also affected the attractiveness of socialism in its competition with capitalism.

After the initial period following the Second World War, capitalism's ideological offensive against socialism took a new and very sophisticated form.

Ideological warfare waged by imperialism in the form of Radio Free Europe or other agencies were only part of a very carefully planned and well resourced offensive. Capitalist propaganda directly questioned the validity of new concepts such as social provision, collective advance and solidarity.

Weakness of the governing communist and workers parties in educating and politically convincing people of the supremacy of collective advance in socialist society over individual self-advance promoted by capitalism developed into passivity towards the system.

Soviets which were originally introduced as the forms of socialist self-government were effectively abandoned. It is an irony that it was the last version of the Soviet Constitution which recognised that "Soviet people should know no other power over them than the power of their own organisation through the soviets".

It is clear from experience that communist and workers in the socialist countries of East Europe failed at crucial stages to fulfill their historic task of directing the society in the course toward socialism.

They displayed weaknesses in constructively and effectively tackling capitalist propaganda aimed at sowing doubts in the minds of the masses and in particular the youth.

This was one reason why in the capitalism's agitation against socialism issues such as rock music, video, jeans and even such decadent cultural issues such as pornographic films and magazines featured as effective weapons.

Socialism is inherently democratic. It relies on the participation of masses in every sphere of life in the society. The role of the party, as the political vanguard, is essential to constantly improve popular mobilisation around the main topics of concern to the society.

People in socialist society should feel empowered through their organisations (Soviets) to take charge of society. Education and genuine political participation are most important tools to be employed by the party.

It is to its historic credit that the Soviet Communist Party lifted the illiterate masses out of ignorance in a very short time.

General and technical education in the socialist countries became a priority, but this too gave rise to contradictions. Greater material expectations and cultural diversity were two results.

However, in the context of a hostile and aggressive imperialism eager to destabilise socialist society and global communications, such expectations and diversity were not easy to accommodate.

Unfortunately socialism's response was sometimes coercive and socialist democracy was often replaced with paranoia and fear.

It is no secret that the socialist societies experienced difficulty in coping with ideological pluralism. While this was partly due to hostile imperialist activities, the simplification of complex phenomena such as socio-economic relations in the society and conflicting attitudes to them played a destructive role.

There was a belief that every critic hated the system and wished to see its doom. Therefore, anyone who was not for it was against it. It became less clear who was against the socialist system and who was merely critical of some methods. The result was the creation of a weakness in the society that was difficult to overcome.

Despite setbacks and retreats and the mistakes committed during the course of the socialist experiment in Europe, it is a fact that the former Soviet Union was successfully transformed from a backward agrarian hinterland into a superpower both economically and militarily.

The fact that the Soviet Union even succeeded in overtaking some of the most advanced capitalist countries in many respects such as industrial-agricultural production, space travel and scientific research, its commitment to genuine social and welfare provision showed that a society with these values was possible.

The idea of the equality of individuals, the equality of men and women, the idea of the establishment of peace in place of war and aggression, and the wish to build a a society in which the needs of the people are met, had such deep roots in the warp and weft of the psyche of humanity that, in a short time, it succeeded in mobilising millions for the realisation of such human and epoch-making wishes.

As communists in the post-Soviet era, we face unprecedented challenges. The scale of socialism's defeat cannot be underestimated, capitalism considers itself victorious.

However, we know too that capitalism cannot escape its own contradictions arising from the class struggle.

Today communists face two key challenges: to learn and study the nature of the historic setbacks of the late 1980s and early 1990s and to engage in the on-going class struggle which will mean building new alliances against capitalism and projecting the ideas and values of socialism.

Just as socialism has helped to shape the 20th Century, it will and must be a deciding factor in shaping the destiny of the 21st Century.

Comrades, it is up to us. The struggle is there to win.

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