Communist Party of Australia  

Home


The Guardian

Current Issue

PDF Archive

Web Archive

Pete's Corner

Subscribe

Press Fund


CPA


About Us

Why you should ...

CPA introduction


Contact Us

facebook, twitter


Major Issues

Indigenous

Unions

Health

Housing

Climate Change

Peace

Solidarity/Other


State by State

NSW, Qld, SA, Vic, WA


What's On

Topical


Resources

AMR

Links


Shop@CPA

Books, T-shirts, CDs/DVDs, Badges, Misc


 

AUSTRALIAN
MARXIST
REVIEW

Journal of the Communist Party of Australia

ISSUE 35NOVEMBER 1995

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.

Back to index page

Go to What's On Go to Shop at CPA Go to Australian Marxist Review Go to Join the CPA Go to Subscribe to the Guardian Go to the CPA Maritime Branch website Go to the Resources section of our web site Go to the PDF of the Hot Earth booklet go to the World Federation of Trade Unions web site go to the Solidnet  web site Go to Find out more about the CPA