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Journal of the Communist Party of Australia


Factors contributing to the failure of the socialist system in Europe

Professor Dr. Vassil Prodanov

The fall of the socialist system in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union has taken by surprise its supporters and enemies. No deep analyses and serious academic studies of the causes which brought about the collapse in these countries have been made up to the present moment. During the last five years in my country Bulgaria, the comprehension of the rapid changes was embarrassed because of the extremely strong political confrontation in the context of the so-called "velvet revolution".

Most of the evaluations of the system of "real socialism" have been quite superficial because they have been given in situations of severe political struggle within the ex-communist party and between this party and other political forces.

These evaluations have also been influenced by a phenomenon of a "psychological pendulum" that brought about the strong wave of anti-communism and right-wing sentiments in Eastern Europe between 1990 and 1992.

In principle the negative traits of the past in these evaluations were comprehended also as causes of the breakdown of "real socialism" or "communism". Ideological stigmatising replaced the objective causes.

The political visions varied between the right-wing statement that some criminal and abnormal regimes had disappeared and the opposite position that a counter-revolution had been carried out as a result of the subversive actions of the world imperialism.

In fact, attitudes towards 45 years of "socialist development" were not just central topic of ideological debate but also a centre of a political war to justify or deny the right of existence of the ex-communist party as a legitimate force.

The views of the party have also been changing in the course of the development of its ideology from Marxist-Leninist towards the positions of a modern left-wing social-democratic party.

Three different types of understanding of the causes of the fall of the old system dominated at different times:

1) 1989 and 1990. The major accusations are against "deformations" of socialism by the "authoritarian regime" of Todor Jivkov and its retreat from the teaching, traditions and ideals of socialism.

The beginning of all "deformations" in Bulgaria is seen in 1947 when, as a result of Stalin's intervention, the establishment of people's democratic model of development of the country was interrupted.

In the long run, these "deformations" brought about the crises of the system. The major cause of the troubles is the lack of democracy and the reason for this lack is first of all subjective – some people: Jivkov, Stalin, etc.

2) 1991 to 1993. At that time the communist party was renamed the Bulgarian Socialist Party and accepted leftist Western European social democratic ideology.

It is a time of strongest political confrontation, the climax of the anti-communist wave, demands for the party to be banned, enacting of "de-communisation laws" restricting the rights of some groups of citizens. There is more or less right-wing ideological hegemony in the media and vocabulary of the political forces.

At that time many socialist leaders accepted the language and images of description of the past from their adversaries and especially the formula that a "transition from totalitarianism to democracy" was taking place.

"Real socialism" is accepted as "totalitarianism" now and the shortcomings bringing about the collapse of the previous system are the major features of any totalitarian system.

The two main types of totalitarian systems are considered to be "fascism" and "communism". Adopting the way this notion is used in the rhetoric of the Reagan administration, "communism" is considered as the worst form.

"Totalitarianism", however, is not the best concept for understanding the real essence of the societies of "real socialism" and the causes of their collapse. It is rather an ideological conception with many contradicting meanings.

It is well known that it came under increasing conceptual criticism from the 1960s. The conclusions of this criticism are presented by B. Barber in The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Political Thought (ed. D. Miller, Oxford/Cambridge, 1991).

There is a "tone from the outset for the ideological use of the idea of totalitarianism, which would become a significant weapon in the West's arsenal of political rhetoric.... The confusing history of the idea of totalitarianism would seem to suggest that it is not merely an essentially contested concept on the model of liberty or democracy, or a value-laden normative idea in the fashion of all significant political ideas, but a term the primary meanings and uses of which are exclusively ideological. Having been employed to describe regimes as diverse as those of Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, Plato's Republic, Ch'in Dynasty, fascist Italy, Sandinista Nicaragua, India during the Mauryu Dynasty, the Roman Empire under Diocletian, Geneva under Calvin, Japan under the Meiji, ancient Sparta, and the United States not only in the 196Os but also in the 1848s, the term would appear to lack any useful social scientific meaning. It remains, however, an invaluable clue to the character of cold war ideology and thus to the sociology of knowledge in the postwar era." (pp. 525-6)

It is this ideological notion that was most aggressive in the public space in 1991-1993. It was not a useful conceptual tool to analyse and understand the main features of the societies of "real socialism" and the reasons of their crises and death.

3) After 1994. This was a time of decreasing political confrontation, economic collapse, high unemployment, robbery of enormous wealth from the state created from the work of several generations of the Bulgarian people, and fast processes of social differentiation. About 90% of the people became two times poorer.

There was strong disappointment with the processes of transition to pluralist democracy and market economy. It brought about mass nostalgia for the security and way of life of "real socialism".

In a study of public opinion in October 1994, the respondents were asked to evaluate the 45 years of socialist development.

Eight (8) per cent of them replied that those had been "successful years"; 32 per cent said that "the achievements had been more than the failures"; 24 per cent replied that "there had been good and bad things"; 16 per cent said "the negative had been more than the positive"; and only 12 per cent replied that these had been only "lost years".

But that means that the use of the term "totalitarian" – suggesting only negative features of the past years – coincided with the attitudes of only 12 per cent of the population.

As a result, the model of "totalitarian socialism" (or "totalitarian communism") became inadequate in the mass consciousness and lost its force as a way of interpreting "real socialism" and the reasons of its failure.

In the new program of the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), approved in 1994, the term "totalitarian" is missing. The party claims that it is against the deformations that have taken place and at the same times is against the depreciating and total defamation of the achievements.

Four main reasons for the collapse of "real socialism" are enumerated:

1)  The inefficient, bureaucratic, command-administrative economic system of totally centralised planning that liquidated the private property, market and competitive power of the economy.

2) The authoritarian political system that did not function democratically and suppressed some important rights and freedoms of the citizens.

3) The coalescence of the ruling communist parties with the state that brought about heavy deformations of the role and internal self-development of the parties as socio-political and parliamentary formations.

4) The crises of the political and governmental elites that put control of parties and the state in the hands of people with mediocre political, intellectual, professional and moral qualities.

At the same time, the program of the BSP points out that it is necessary to make a deeper analysis of the failure of Eastern European "real socialism" and that this is a difficult epistemological, social and political task that should be solved in the future.

Methodologically, the study of the causes of the fall of "real socialism" could be accomplished from the point of view of different approaches.

The most elementary approach is factorial analyses – an enumeration of the factors for the failure of "real socialism" as is done in the program of the BCS. The full list of factors which are used to interpret the failure in Bulgarian political life and theoretical literature is as follows:

1) Economic causes – bureaucratic and inefficient central planning and state property, lack of flexibility in the market.

2) "Exhausting" of the model of extensive economic development that was useful in the first stages of socialist development to carry out fast industrialisation but became inefficient later.

3) Political causes – the lack of democracy: "dictatorship of the proletariat", authoritarian or "totalitarian" rule.

4) The new technological revolution and inability of the societies of "real socialism" to adapt to the new realities. The "socialist systems" were a possible way of fast modernisation of backward societies but did not work in "post-industrial conditions".

5) The fusion of the communist party and the state.

6) Bad and mediocre people at the top of government or crises of political and governmental elites.

7) Development of a new ruling class – the "nomenklatura".

8) The under-development and backwardness of countries where Marxist teaching was applied.

9) The subversive actions of world imperialism, ideological diversions, the armaments race, etc.

10) The treason of Gorbachov or other people from the ruling top of the Soviet Union and other Eastern European countries.

11) The "conspiracy" of the "nomenklatura" to introduce capitalism in order to transform its political power into the power of private owners distributing between themselves the wealth created from several generations of their peoples.

12) The utopian character of Marxism or Marxism-Leninism giving birth to "abnormal societies" that were not viable.

13) The use of violence, of violent revolutions in order to create these societies.

14) The lack of strategy, conception, clear goals during "perestroika" when the Soviet ruling elite tried to adapt, to change "real socialism" according to the new realities.

These reforms came too late, they should have started in 1968 according to some criticisms. According to other critiques, these reforms had to begin, as in China, from the economic and not the political area.

Just because the first move was political democratisation without economic changes, the social system as a whole was destabilised and broke down.

15) The new "information revolution" and global media which made impossible the continued existence of "closed societies" and control of the ruling elite over the minds of their peoples.

16) The "long wave of Kondratiev" in the developed Western economies that could explain the debt crises of the ex-socialist countries in Europe and as a result the collapse of their economies and societies.

Each of these proposed factors as interpretations of the upsetting in the former socialist countries in Europe could be scrutinised and critically accepted or rejected.

But what is more important is that the factorial explanation is methodologically the lowest possible level of understanding of the reasons for the fate of the former socialist countries. It does not explain which of them is more important or which may be the basis for the others.

A higher possible level is the typological one. This involves distinguishing or combining different groups of factors because they are from the same area and are closely connected one with another:

1) Doctrinal – the utopian character of Marxism, socialism, communism; or distortion and misinterpretation of Marx's or Lenin's original teachings by their followers; or their views were valid for the 19th or the first half of the 20th Century, for developed or undeveloped countries, but then became obsolete and non-doctrinal – bad ways of applying a true teaching; objective economic and political reasons, etc.

2) Objective – the backwardness of the countries where socialist revolutions took place; exhausting of the economic model of extensive development; new technological revolution, etc and subjective – mediocrity, mistakes, low morality or criminal actions of the leaders or ruling elites, their lack of abilities and interests to see the necessity to improve "real socialism", to accommodate it to the new realities; their privileges, treason, desire to transform their political power into the power of private owners, etc.

3) External – world capitalism and its subversive activity, "cold war"; necessity of arms race, intelligence services, ideological war, global media, new technological revolution, etc and internal – economic, political, moral, etc.

4) Economic factors – the economic backwardness of the countries where revolutions took place; excessive centralisation, central planning, neglect of the market and private property; lack of economic incentives for higher productivity and technological innovations, etc political factors – "totalitarian" or authoritarian regimes, "dictatorship of the proletariat", fusion of party and state, "nomenklatura" as a specific estate or class with privileges and interests, etc ideological factors – ideological struggle and ideological diversion, psychological war, the cultural and "information imperialism" of the developed capitalist states, using the new information technologies, satellites, cable, computer and digital systems to de-legitimate ideologically the former socialist societies cultural factors – socialist revolutions took place in countries without the Western liberal democratic political culture where the Western models of pluralist parliamentary democracy are not applicable. Even now the application of such democracy in Russia is impossible and even harmful, according to some well-known Russian intellectuals and dissidents like A. Solyenitzin, A. Zinoviev and A. Michalcov-Konchalovski.

The separation of groups of factors, however, is also not enough for good comprehension of the reasons for the upsetting of the former socialist countries. A methodologically higher approach is the system approach.

This implies that some types of factors are taken as leading, integrating a system as a whole or being most important as the determining force for the others.

The system approach, however, depends on the general philosophical, ideological, value and political views of the people. That means that various kinds of systems of factors could be proposed.

In political life, the most important system views are those determined by general political and ideological views. Accordingly, in our political life right-wing and left-wing models of comprehension of the former socialist societies and the causes of their breaking down could be found.

Right-wing models. They in principle are inclined to emphasise the original utopian, non-democratic character, orientation to violence of Marxism, Marxism-Leninism or any socialist teaching at all. The result of this teaching is an "abnormal", "totalitarian", "authoritarian", economically inefficient system predestined to failure.

This means there were no positive features in the former socialist countries, or that these features were secondary and not so important.

Left-wing models. These take into consideration both positive and negative traits of the former socialist societies in various proportions. There are several types of left models:

a) Extreme-left: This emphasises the subjective reasons for the collapse of the system – the actions, interests, morality of the leaders and their treason, mediocrity, greed; or the actions of the foreign capitalist circles and states.

b) Traditional left: This emphasises first of all some objective economic reasons – shortcomings of the economic model or "exhausting" at some stage and the negative aspects of political life as a result of the peculiarity of the economic basis.

c) Modern left: This applies a concrete and historical approach taking into account these societies in their development and the historical explanation of the system of factors in them.

From this point of view, some actions and features are justified, necessary or not, positive or negative only in some concrete context.

The new technological revolution and economic changes on a world-wide scale from the 1960s made necessary further development and redefinition of the left doctrines and identity.

The leaderships of the former socialist countries have been behind this adaptation of their system to the new reality that brought about increasing negative processes in their economies and political life, crises in some countries and approaching crises in others.

When they decided to make reforms during the time of Gorbachov, they did it without any strategy and it caused deepening of the crises, destabilisation and the crash of their social system.

Our opinion is that the deep study of the destiny and causes of the upsetting of the former socialist countries in Europe lies ahead.

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