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AUSTRALIAN
MARXIST
REVIEW

Journal of the Communist Party of Australia

ISSUE 35NOVEMBER 1995

Observations on the setbacks to socialism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe

The Communist Party of Canada welcomes this opportunity to exchange ideas on the setbacks to socialism in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. The revolutionary transformations that lie ahead require that we fully comprehend the most recent lessons of the contest between socialism and capitalism.

The 1917 October Revolution placed before the working class practical tasks of building socialism. For almost 75 years, socialism in the Soviet Union and later Eastern Europe was more than a theory. The actual creation of socialist societies posed the main tasks, realities and problems for both the working and capitalist classes, determining much of 20th Century history.

Now with the recent reverses to socialism, it is vital to assimilate rapidly the rich lessons of socialism in this century. This has immense practical significance for all nations and the whole working class. Imperialism is far from solving its great contradictions.

Imperialism stands in the way of a world without war and exploitation. This makes it incumbent upon Marxist-Leninist forces to evaluate correctly socialism's advances and reverses, and prepare for the ever more necessary task of ridding the earth of imperialism.  

1. Problems and tasks of Marxism and socialism in this century

The October Revolution shook the world for most of this century. For the first time, the working class, in alliance with peasants, won power long enough to begin building socialism in one country. To begin evaluating socialism in this century, it is useful to recall key theories as they were developed prior to the October Revolution. Marx's view of the 1871 Paris Commune was quoted by Lenin in 1905:

"The Commune was ... to serve as a lever for uprooting the economic foundations upon which rests the existence of classes, and therefore of class rule. The working class did not expect miracles from the Commune. They have no ready-made utopias to introduce par decret du peuple. They know that in order to work out their own emancipation and along with it that higher form to which present society is irresistibly tending by its own economical agencies, they will have to pass through long struggles, through a series of historic processes, transforming circumstances and men. They have no ideals to realise, but to set free the elements of the new society with which old collapsing bourgeois society itself is pregnant."1

In their last joint preface to the Communist Manifesto in 1872, Marx and Engels noted that some details had become "out of date", going on to say:

"One thing especially was proved by the Commune, viz, that 'the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for its own purposes'..."

In his State and Revolution, Lenin was concerned with the steps taken by the Commune about the state. He noted that the workers after taking power will smash the old bureaucratic apparatus, and take measures observed by Marx and Engels in the Commune to prevent the workers from themselves becoming bureaucrats:

"... (1) not only election, but recall at any time; (2) pay not to exceed that of a workman; (3) immediate introduction of control and supervision by all, so that all may become 'bureaucrats' for a time and that, therefore, nobody may be able to become a 'bureaucrat'."2

This much was clear to Marxists before the October Revolution: that for the working class to have power, the "bureaucracy" must be all working people, replacing the old bureaucracy; and especially that such a democratic "bureaucracy" is a condition for the working class to win its own emancipation and create a higher form of society.

This century's history is framed by the democratic and socialist advances, and the recent reversals, which followed the October Revolution. The military, economic and ideological contest between capitalism and socialism, between the revolutionary working class and imperialism, was at times severe and dramatic, and at times socialism and sections of imperialism co-operated, such as during the anti-fascist alliance during the Second World War.

The wealth of experience of working class rule in the 20th century covers all areas of theory, tactics and strategy. But socialism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe always depended on the working and peasant classes' alliance, and on the leadership of the communist parties for these classes' revolutionary democratic rule.

It is therefore important to examine the extent to which departures from this condition led to the recent setbacks to socialism. For example, one observation is that the CPSU's 1961 program opened the door to ambiguous interpretations of working class power. That program said:

"However varied the forms of a new, people's state power in the period of socialist construction their essence will be the same – dictatorship of the proletariat, which represents genuine democracy, democracy for the working people."

This is Marxist, although it has a seemingly unneeded definition. But the program continues elsewhere:

"The state, which arose as a state of the dictatorship of the proletariat, has, in the new, contemporary stage, become a state of the entire people, an organ expressing the interests and will of the people as a whole."

Here the program allows an inconsistency: the proletariat is equated with the whole people, i.e. a classless society, and the whole state. Let us go on to relate how one Soviet author, F Burlatsky, described this ambiguity after the 1961 Congress:

"The definition of a state made by Marxist-Leninists in the past is obviously inadequate to describe the state of the whole people. The state of the whole people is not the instrument of one class. It represents the interests and the will of all the classes and sections of society. It is not an instrument for the suppression by one class of the others, because there are none to be suppressed in Soviet society."3

Here Burlatsky departs from the basic definition of the state as an instrument of class rule, and fails to say which class has power. He elsewhere lists features of this new stage of the state:

"...spectacular growth of the country's productive forces and other resources; gradual eradication of distinctions between the various classes, and the formation of a homogeneous working people's society; further coming together of the nations and consolidation of the socio-political and ideological unity of society; greatly improved international position of the Soviet Union conditioned by the emergence of the world socialist system and the advantage gained in the balance of forces by socialism and peace over imperialism and war."4

This is a rather early departure from a valid evaluation of the situation, and especially from any idea of the possibility of negative shifts in the balance of forces.

This does not answer the degree to which the crisis originated earlier than under the last Soviet governments. Nor does it answer the degree to which the internal and external causes of the crisis are related, which they surely are, if only because the working class is national in form only, as it is put in the Communist Manifesto.

And in that international respect, it leaves open the question of the immediate influence of the disunity in the working class between revolutionary and reformist sections, especially when it is known that crises of imperialism can provoke serious divisions in the working class, such as during the First World War.

Some other distortions of socialism were criticised and apparently halted, such as the cult of the individual and abuse of power under Stalin. Other differences and crises arose in the world communist movement after the Second World War, affecting its practical and ideological unity.  

2. Socialist and capitalist crises today

The best solution to this lack of unity and ideological discord should have been the continued successes of socialism. But rather a gradual accumulation of difficulties occurred, ending in crisis. At our 31st Convention this year, the Communist Party of Canada made some preliminary observations about the crisis of socialism (see appendix) summarised here:

"Subjective and unresearched reactions are giving way to more sober, scientific analysis of both the objective and subjective causes of the crisis. The crisis of socialism came about as a result of a combination of related internal and external causes. Communists must not lose sight of or underestimate the role of external factors. The class hatred of capitalism for all things socialist goes back even beyond the 125 years since the Paris Commune.

"The precise internal causes of the crisis require much more research. In our view, the internal causes did not spring from the intrinsic nature of socialism, but rather from distortions and outright departures from socialist theory and practice. We believe study should be concentrated in three primary subject areas. The first area relates to the economic reconstruction of socialism. Despite early success, contradictions accumulated in socialist economic management ....

"The second main area deals with the role of the vanguard party, its relationship to the administration of the state, and its political connection to the working class, and to the people as a whole. Glaring errors and distortions arose in this area. At root, these problems reflected a fundamental underestimation of the role of democracy in constructing socialism, and stunted the political role of the working class in leading this transformation and the building of a new society.

"The third main area relates to the neglect and stagnation of theory, and its dogmatic and inappropriate application, for instance, in estimating the world situation, in underestimating the resilience of capitalism, in proclaiming the irreversibility of socialist advances and relying on a military balance of forces between socialism and capitalism, as well as errors and insensitivity to the national question and the environment.

"Perhaps the most costly result of the ossification of Marxist- Leninist theory was the weakening of the Party itself, including its ability to identify and combat the rise of opportunist, reformist and openly counter-revolutionary views within and beyond its own ranks."

The crisis of socialism has created new realities, problems and tasks. What is reassuring is that we know the material and technological basis of socialism is much firmer than ever before. It is more clear to many that the apologists of capitalism can claim only a limited victory, despite having created the maximum amount of confusion about socialism.

Although the losses are incalculable, not all the gains of socialism are gone, and pro-socialist forces are winning back some ground. As our 1992 30th Convention put it, it is easier to change governments and ideologies than an entire socio-economic system. But unless the ideological and political struggle is based on valid theory, more reverses are possible.

During the last 50 years following the Second World War, imperialism's development has been relatively peaceful and until the 1970s somewhat stable. Imperialism was able to develop its productive forces, although wastefully and by impoverishing working people. Especially in the last 20 years ever broader sections of working people have experienced an increasingly precarious existence. Imperialism offers an ever smaller minority of people a life with a future.

3. Conclusion

The Communist Party of Canada is working to block further reversals to socialism, the working class and world peace. We recognise these urgent struggles at the national level must be combined with international co-ordination among communists, and by labour and its allies. The need to curb imperialism makes a broad and anti-imperialist front capable of uniting all progressive streams an imperative goal.

We also recognise the need to examine constantly the theoretical issues raised by the advances and setbacks to socialism. An important lesson is that theoretical distortions of Marxism- Leninism led some sections of the international communist movement, including in Canada, to rely too much on existing socialism to pave the way forward and to block imperialism.

This has made it more important than ever to learn from and take advantage of the main contradictions within imperialism. History has not ended, and the sources of modern socialism have not disappeared from capitalism. The Communist Party of Canada is confident that socialism will triumph.


  1. Lenin, "Paris Commune and Tasks of Democratic Dictatorship (July 1905) in On the Paris Commune, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1974, pp117-118 (Or see Karl Marx, "Address of the General Council of the International Working Men's Association on the Civil War in France, 1871," in The Civil War in France, International Publishers, New York, 1940, pp61-62
  2. Lenin, "The State and Revolution" in Collected Works, Progress Publishers, Moscow, I964, p. 486
  3. F. Burlatsky, The State and Communism, Progress Publishers, Moscow, no date (c.1961) p106
  4. Ibid, p83  

APPENDIX

The crisis and future of socialism

From the draft documents for 31st Convention Communist Party of Canada May 19-22, 1995

Imperialism appears stronger today, despite its deepening contradictions, than at any time since the Great October Socialist Revolution of 1917. Several objective causes have contributed to this situation. Not least, the leading capitalist powers have been able to successfully utilise – and in many respects, monopolise – the record advances in the scientific and technological revolution of the past two decades. The accelerating process of capital accumulation strengthens the capitalist class as a whole, especially the largest transnationals and banks. But the single most important cause responsible for shifting the world balance of forces, with all its negative consequences for humanity, was the collapse and dismemberment of the socialist community of states, in the first place the former USSR.

During and immediately following this collapse, there was a tendency in some left and democratic circles to welcome the crisis for various reasons. Some who had assimilated anti- communist lies came to believe that the demise of socialist governments in Eastern Europe would somehow "liberate" those peoples from totalitarianism and open the door to a "kinder, gentler socialism", in other words a return to capitalism with a social democratic government. Others, basing themselves on a pseudo-leftist analysis, considered that the crisis would ignite a "real" workers' revolution, unleashing an upsurge which might also spread to the Western, capitalist world. Still others became convinced that – if nothing else – the collapse of the Soviet Union would end the "Cold War" and the arms race, create the conditions for collective security and peace, and allow the redirection of vital resources to the needs of the people and the environment.

These illusions were quickly shattered by subsequent events. All but the most jaded and cynical have been forced to re-think their estimation of the role played by existing socialism, and the consequences of this historic setback for world peace and social development.

At root, such views share one main feature: a gross underestimation of the accomplishments of socialism over seven decades, both for the working people of the socialist community and for humanity as a whole. Even in the face of relentless imperialist pressure, including two devastating military invasions, Soviet socialism proved remarkably capable of mobilising society to defend itself, to achieve full employment and to provide for the basic and expanding social needs of hundreds of millions of working people. In this sense, socialism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe was an historic attempt by the working class of these countries to create a world free from exploitation and oppression, in the face of immense obstacles.

Internationally, the Soviet Union played the decisive role in the defeat of European fascism, a matter of record despite the efforts of bourgeois historians to obscure its place of honour in that epic struggle. The USSR and the socialist community championed the cause of decolonisation, supported liberation movements throughout the Third World, and provided vital assistance to the newly emergent states, helping to break the hegemony of their former colonial masters. Its peace policy also restricted – although did not entirely prevent – imperialism's military adventurism.

Socialism also benefitted the working class in the advanced capitalist countries, apart from its moral and political solidarity. Socialism's very existence and emancipating vision brought indirect yet tangible pressure to bear on the ruling class in capitalist countries to grant substantial concessions to working people in the form of labour rights, the 40-hour week, unemployment insurance, women's rights, health care, public education, pensions, affirmative action, etc – gains which had already been achieved under socialism. Capitalism feared the growing revolutionary sentiments among the working and oppressed classes, stimulated by failure to grant these reforms. This fear, combined with the direct struggles of the workers themselves for these basic social demands, played a key role in winning many social reforms. Now, the dismantling of the socialist community is one of the main reasons these same gains are under sharp attack in Canada and other advanced capitalist countries.

Some time has now passed since the crisis and collapse of the socialist community. Immediate, subjective and unresearched reactions are giving way to more sober, scientific analysis of both the objective and subjective causes of the crisis and counter-revolution in the countries where socialist governments have been overthrown. The debate within the communist movement and the left in general over the causes of the crisis in socialism will likely continue for some time yet.

Our Party should avoid the temptation to arrive prematurely at final judgements, either out of a desire to put this matter behind us and "move on" to other matters, or out of concern that a lingering multiplicity of views may be harmful for the unity of the party. Patience is called for precisely because this problem is so complex, touching on virtually every theoretical, strategic and practical question relating to socialism, and because a sound, substantiated answer is so vital to the future of socialism.

At the same time, it is possible for – and indeed incumbent upon – our party to put forward certain preliminary views on this question.

The first observation concerns the importance of an objective, balanced approach. For years prior to the onset of the crisis, it was all too common for communists, to the degree to which we conceded the existence of problems within socialist society, to ascribe these difficulties to external factors in the main. This was a thoroughly unscientific, undialectical approach.

Equally erroneous was the approach, championed by reaction but also taken up by reformist and opportunist currents within the international communist movement, that the primary causes for the crisis derived from the very dynamic of socialist society itself. In our view, the crisis and collapse of existing socialism came about as a result of a combination of related internal and external causes.

External causes

In drawing preliminary lessons from the crisis, communists must not lose sight of or underestimate the role of external factors. The class hatred of capitalism for all things socialist goes back even beyond the 125 years since the Paris Commune, the first revolutionary working class experiment which capitalism drowned in blood. It certainly marked relations between imperialism and Soviet Russia from the earliest days of the Revolution. Imperialism has never ended its 'war of attrition' to crush socialism, from the days of the foreign intervention in 1918-21, when 14 different imperialist countries (including Canada) sent troops to Russia to aid the White, counter-revolutionary armies, up until the present.

These external, imperialist pressures on socialism are well known. Constant military pressure served a dual purpose both to pose a very real threat and to force the socialist community to divert key resources from peaceful social and economic development.

Economic pressure was used to undermine the socialist economy, by cutting off exchanges of knowledge and technology, and restricting access to foreign markets.

Unflagging propaganda efforts exerted ideological pressure on socialism, to undermine people's confidence and to cultivate bourgeois values and aspirations

Finally, imperialism conducted an unceasing war of outright subversion by various intelligence services, activities which were always denied but about which it now openly boasts.

Every crack in the armour, every mistake committed, every departure from socialist principles, was seized upon and exploited by imperialism to further weaken socialism. The constant external pressures forced the leadership of socialist countries into numerous errors which, in turn, accumulated and ultimately did great damage to the revolutionary cause.

Some of the internal causes of the crisis were rooted in the historical circumstances of the countries attempting to build socialism. The relative backwardness of Russia contained a telling duality to which Lenin called attention. In his view, it was precisely Russia's status as the weak "link" in the imperialist chain which made the revolution easier to accomplish, but this backwardness compared to the advanced capitalist countries of the day would also make the building of socialism that much more difficult. Lenin's prognosis turned out to be soberingly accurate.

Internal causes

This still leaves the question of the precise internal causes of the crisis and collapse, a problem which requires much more research and study. In our view, the internal causes did not spring from the intrinsic nature of socialism, but rather from distortions and outright departures from socialist theory and practice. Although all aspects of socialist experience should be reviewed, we believe study should be concentrated in three primary subject areas.

The first area relates to the economic construction of socialism – the problem of the "transition period" from capitalist relations to socialist relations, and subsequently to communist relations.

Despite early success, over time contradictions accumulated in the area of socialist economic management: inefficiencies in the deployment of labour and other resources; weaknesses in the timely introduction of science and technology in production; departures from socialist principles of economic distribution; and inadequacies in the planning mechanism.

The second main area deals with the role of the vanguard party in the construction of socialism, its relationship to the administration of the state, and its political connection to the working class, and to the people as a whole.

Glaring errors and distortions arose in this area, reflected not least in the alienation of the communist party leadership and structure from its class and mass base and vice versa; in the rise of stifling bureaucratism and commandism; in the identification and merging of party and state structures; in the erosion of inner-party democracy; and in the resultant growth of careerism and opportunism inside the party.

At root, these problems reflected a fundamental underestimation of the role of democracy in constructing socialism, and stunted the development of the political role, and thus the empowerment, of the working class in leading this transformation and the building of a new society.

The third main area relates to the neglect and stagnation of theory under socialism, and its dogmatic and inappropriate application.

Theoretical errors, for instance, in estimating the world situation, in underestimating the resilience of capitalism, in proclaiming the irreversibility of socialist advances and relying on a military balance of forces between socialism and capitalism, as well as errors and insensitivity with respect to the national question and the environment – all these adversely affected foreign and domestic policies that flowed from these mistakes.

Perhaps the most costly result of the ossification of Marxist-Leninist theory was the weakening of the Party itself, including its ability to identify and combat the rise of opportunist, reformist and openly counter-revolutionary views within and beyond its own ranks.

Avoiding errors and distortions

Studying these problems and drawing lessons from the recent crisis is a matter of vital importance for the entire communist movement in rectifying our own work, updating our strategy and tactics, and reaffirming the vision of socialism for workers and all those searching for an alternative to capitalism. Avoiding errors and distortions – getting it right – in the next "wave" of socialist transformations will be the main challenge before the working class and its revolutionary vanguard.

No one is more concerned about these questions than the Communists of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe who experienced this crisis and collapse first hand. At the same time, they are compelled to organise resistance to the imposition of capitalism in their countries.

The economies of Russia and the other states of the former Soviet Union are in virtual "free fall". Throughout Eastern Europe, public assets are being privatised, indeed given away, at a dizzying pace, an unprecedented theft of public wealth built up over years of socialist development. Services are either collapsing under funding cuts or disappearing altogether. The rights of workers, women, youth and the elderly are being trampled on. Side by side with rapid class differentiation, nationalism and neo-fascism are on the rise, Some states, most notably former Yugoslavia, have been transformed into war zones.

In Russia, the dictatorial Yeltsin regime appears to be in complete disarray and is more isolated than ever. The bloody assault on the Russian parliament in October 1993; the regime's disastrous economic policies which have caused the impoverishment of scores of millions of people by the dramatic devaluation of the ruble; the government's slavish subservience to foreign, mostly US advisors – all these events had already destroyed the regime's political standing with the mass of the Russian people.

Now, in the wake of the inglorious campaign of death and destruction in Chechnya, Yeltsin's personal political fate is firmly sealed. In this highly unstable political atmosphere, we cannot discount the possibility of a "palace coup" or the regime's replacement by even more far-right forces, led by Zhirinovsky and sections of the military elite. Calls for authoritarian solutions to the governmental crisis, such as the recent remarks of Russian general Lebed praising the former Pinochet military junta, give cause for alarm.

On the other hand, progress has been made in uniting the Communist, progressive and genuine patriotic forces throughout Russia and the other states and regions of the former USSR.

At the centre of this process are the efforts of the various Communist parties and organisations to resolve outstanding differences and re-establish unity in action. This process is difficult, but it holds the best prospects for confronting and defeating the Yeltsin regime.

In Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, the eastern part of Germany, and many other areas across Eastern Europe, the communists and other left forces are registering remarkable gains.

The situation varies from country to country, with some former Communist parties seriously diluting their political programs. Nevertheless, the growing support for both the left social-democrat and Communist parties has alarmed imperialism.

One bourgeois political analyst, A. Applebaum, recently wrote in Foreign Affairs (and reprinted in the Wall Street Journal and the Globe & Mail, 29/11/94) that the left and Communist forces are resurgent across Central and Eastern Europe, and that "Western" concern with the rise of the ultra- right in those countries "misidentified the problem". Ominously, she concluded that: "Those in Central Europe who attempt to revive such (nationalist-right) emotions after a long spell of suppression are to be commended, not condemned ... they deserve Western support, not scorn," because neo-fascism is the only force capable of stemming the left tide.

Our party expresses full solidarity with all of the socialist and communist forces in Eastern Europe in their difficult struggle to overcome the consequences of counter-revolution and to help turn their peoples back onto the path of socialism.

We also express our solidarity with China, People's Korea, Vietnam and Cuba, all of which are attempting to cope with the new situation, while coming under incredible pressure from imperialism.

Socialist China, encompassing over one-fifth of humanity, continues to achieve remarkable economic growth, while struggling to address some of the negative socio-economic phenomena which have arisen during their economic reform program.

US imperialism is attempting to derail China's growing economic power and influence by restricting trade, but faces opposition from other imperialist blocs, and from its own transnationals which are anxious to expand trade and investment with China, the largest and fastest growing economy in Asia.

The United States was pressured to lift its trade and investment sanctions against Vietnam for many of the same reasons....

In the struggle against imperialism and for progressive social change today, many fronts exist: the remaining countries with socialist governments, including China, Cuba, Vietnam and the DPRK; the left and communist movements in Eastern Europe, fighting to return their countries to the path of socialism; the democratic and anti-imperialist movements and parties in the Third World who continue to resist the dictates of international finance capital; and the struggles of the working class and its allies in advanced capitalist countries.

In today's conditions, determined challenges to the power of finance capital at the national level must be combined with international co-ordination by labour and its allies if these struggles are to be effective. Such co-operation and co-ordination is on the increase, but much more will be required.

The compelling need to curb and reverse the fortunes of imperialism makes the building of a broad democratic and anti-imperialist front, capable of bringing together and uniting all of the above progressive streams, an imperative goal for the world's people.

The international communist movement has a leading role to play in this endeavour, and the Communist Party of Canada will work to promote greater cohesion and unity in action of the world communist movement. While the task seems daunting, there is no other alternative for the future of humanity.

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