It is 20 years since Socialism in the Soviet Union and Eastern/Central Europe started to collapse. I have written extensively on this blogÂ and onÂ my other site (see link to The Unorthodox Website) about this, but here I want to look at it from a slightly different angle.
The immediate cause of the collapse of the system was, ironicallly, Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of ‘glasnost’ and ‘perestroika’; ‘openness’ and ‘restructuring’. Both came far too late to save SovietÂ Socialism, and in fact had the opposite effect. The final nail in its coffin was the hard-line coup against Gorbachev’s reforms in August 1991, when already the Soviet ’empire’ had disintegrated, with the Baltic States leaving the Soviet Union, East Germany reunited with (orÂ some would argueÂ ‘annexed’ by) West Germany, and the other Eastern/Central European abandoning Socialism. Even the Yugoslav federation, not part of the Soviet ’empire’, was starting to break up into warring nation states.
Capitalism and Socialism are two fundamentallyÂ opposed political, economic and social systems. Capitalism appeals to selfishness and human greed, whilst trueÂ Socialism is altruistic and puts the needs of society first. For Socialism to work properly, therefore, it needs a high degree of maturity, self-sacrifice and commitment from the population as a whole, and from those playing leading roles.
Capitalism works by offering people the prospect of endless shiny new gadgets and consumer goods and services, even when they can’t afford them and have to get themselves into huge debt to acquire them. We don’t really need to own our own homes, drive flashy gas-guzzling cars and have all the latest gadgets and technology. It is capitalism which tells us this is what we need, and it is destroying not only our environment and the planet itself, but causes economic crises, wars and is also extremely damaging to human spirituality. The materialistic goals of capitalism are not only unsatisfying spiritually, but they can only be sustained by exploitation of both human and natural resources. In particular, the blatant exploitation of a huge, grossly underpaid labor force in the underdeveloped world, and to a lesser extent, in the former Socialist countries, few of which have so far managed to win decent wages and conditions thru trade union activism.
In Gorbachev’s Soviet Union, the policies he introduced of glasnost and perestroikaÂ were far tooÂ little andÂ too late to be successful. The whole system of bureaucratic State enterprises needed overhauling and breaking down into smaller, competitive units, as in Yugoslavia. The political system needed democratizing, with free elections and alternative political parties. But this couldn’t be done in one go. The bureacracy and inefficiency needed to be dealt with first, and this was hampered byÂ the crippling arms and space race with the United States. It was deliberate U.S. policy to sabotage the Soviet economy by forcing upon it a huge, unsustainable defense budget in the nuclear arms race with America, and ultimately it succeeded in breaking the Soviet economy.
But the conditions under which Socialism was established in the Soviet Union, Eastern/Central Europe, Asia and elsewhere were by no means ideal either. In the aftermath of World Wars, following on from ruthless dictatorships in many cases. The Soviet Union emerged from the First World War, only a few months after the Tsarist autocratic dictatorship was overthrown by Karensky’s short-lived attempt at democracy. The Socialist states of Eastern/Central Europe and Asia (China, Korea, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia) emerged from the Second World War and the Axis dictatorships/occupations led by Nazi Germany and Hirohito’s Japan.
Even the milder form of Socialism in Britain attempted by Clem Attlee’s post-War Labour government was attempting to build up a war-ravaged country in the middle of austerity, and using the same bureacratic State monopoly model which was ultimately to prove inefficient in the Soviet Union and elsewhere.
Ultimately, human greed and selfishness insured Socialism would collapse. Wave a shiny new car, house, washing-machine and other consumer gadgets in front of most people and they will grab it with both hands, even if it gets them into unrepayable debt when they find that Capitalism does not guarantee them a job for life and security into old age. Even the imperfect Socialism of the Soviet Union and Eastern/Central Europe/Asia did that.
Many of the problems emanated from the corruption of politicians and bureaucrats in the one-party dictatorships and coalitions dominated by one party in the so-called ‘people’s democracies’. They would only have been genuine ‘people’s democracies’ if the broad mass of the people hadÂ become politically active on a day-to-day basis by joining the relevant political parties and organizations, and attending endless meetings every day. Society was just not mature enough for this kind of self-governing system, as I have stated elsewhere.
Gorbachev’s policies of glasnost and perestroika were fine in themselves, but coming when they did they not only panicked the hard-line Communists and corrupt politicians/bureaucrats into staging a coup, but they demolished overnightÂ the Iron Curtain, which was all that sustained Socialism. No longer would the Soviet Union intervene to prevent Socialist countries in Eastern/Central Europe going their own way, so thousands started streaming West thru Hungary and other Socialist countries which opened up their borders, symbolized by the demolishing of the Berlin Wall in 1989, 20 years ago this October.
Not only that, but the Soviet Union itself started breaking up when the Baltic States, incorporated into the USSR by Stalin during World War II, demanded and got independence. There was then no stopping the process of disintegration, especially after the anti-Gorbachev coup which itself collapsed and let in Boris Yeltsin, the bumbling, often drunken leader who presided over the complete break-up of the Soviet Union.
The only way the whole system could have possibly been saved would have been restructuring in both the economic and political arenas in a much more organized and gradual way. The vast State monopolies, with a few exceptions like transport and utility companies,Â had to be broken up into Yugoslav-style cooperatives and smaller, competing public enterprises. Free elections with other political parties participating and putting up rival candidatesÂ should have beenÂ allowed, but onlyÂ within the constraints of Socialist Constitutions. These ConstitutionsÂ would have preservedÂ some form of public ownership and control of the means of production, distribution and exchange as the basis of the economy, andÂ made unconstitutional (and thereforeÂ not permissable) the introduction of Capitalist, free-market economies in these countries.
This would have prevented political parties being elected and then immediately dismanting Socialism, which in all honesty is impossible to do successfully after it has been established for so many decades. Even imperfect Socialism was preferable to allowing corrupt politicians, bureaucrats and foreign capitalists to grab the industries and services once owned by the State on behalf of the people. There was no way ordinary people could own substantialÂ shares in these industries and services – those who tried in Albania and elsewhere lost their life-savings in huge pyramid scams. It would always be the rich at home and abroad who would benefit from the introduction of a free-market economy. And worst of all, by and large, the same corrupt politicians and bureaucrats remained in power long after the Socialist era, many still in power 20 years later.
Socialism could only revert to a more primitive economic/political system successfullyÂ by goingÂ right back to the beginning and giving every citizen/family a plot of land, a few crops, farm animals and raw building materials,Â then starting the whole process over again from primitive communism, thru tribalism, feudalism, Capitalism, Socialism to, hopefully one day, Communism proper. That too would have been, of course, totally impractical.
So the State assets were handed over lock, stock and barrel to home-grown criminal elements, corrupt politicians/bureaucrats and Western capitalists. The most undemocratic counter-revolution which could have taken place, with the labor force in the former Socialist countries immediately becoming a source of exploitation. They wereÂ paid low wages and at the same time lost all the social benefits/State subsidies and security Socialism gave them. For example, North Korea still pays very low wages in cash terms, but then the workforce have jobs for life, a guaranteed pension, pay no taxes, no rents,Â they enjoy State subsidiesÂ and have many other social and public services to look after them from cradle to grave. Under Socialism, cash in the wage packet is not the only way wealth is shared out, it is more in the nature of ‘pocket money’ for luxuries once the free or cheap essentials have been acquired.
A democratized Socialist Constitution in the SocialistÂ countries coupled with a breakdown of the State monopolies into Market Socialism public enterprises would have allowed a more gradual change. Opposition anti-SocialistÂ parties elected to power would thenÂ have had to draw up a new non-Socialist Constitution, and put it before the electorate in a referendum in each of the Socialist countries. Usually something like 66 percent of the eligible electorate have to vote ‘Yes’ for such a Constitutional change to be valid.
This would at least have given time for Socialists to convince 35 or moreÂ percent of the electorate that throwing out the security of Socialism was not something to be rushed into. Not when Socialism was already reforming itself by organizing a more efficient Socialist market economy based on cooperatives and smaller public enterprises.
But ultimately, a system like Socialism can only work when society, that is people in their millions, are spiritually advanced enough to be altruistic, much less materialistic, and willing to abandon certain luxuries (like gas-guzzling cars and other environmentally damaging and unsocial gadgets),Â and to commit themselves to service to the community and self-sacrifice in order to help society as a whole. This wouldÂ mean most people becoming more politically active than justÂ putting a cross on a ballot paper every few years.
It may be many years or even centuries before people as a whole reach that level of maturity, but our hands may be forced far sooner. Capitalism is an unstable system, lurching from crisis to crisis in the search for unsustainable profits and other unearned income (including living on credit with high rates of interest). In the past, only one thing has saved Capitalism time and time again from complete collapse, and that has been wars and military build-ups. This is, in effect, State spending along Socialist lines -Â a command economy, but not for the benefit of society, just to make the arms companies rich, build up the economy and full employment, and kill many millions in the process. There is then plenty of work for everyone, first making armaments, then rebuilding the war-damaged cities, etc. as a result of this senseless destruction.
The only alternative to either Socialism or endless Capitalist/Imperialist wars, is Fascism, another distorted form of a State command economy designed to benefit one national or racist group at the expense of all others.
So one day we must wake up to the fact that we face endless wars and instability, fascist dictatorship, or alternatively we can take direct control and implement a true Socialist people’s democracy, which will require endless commitment and self-sacrifice from all citizensÂ for the common good. Until people are mature and spiritually advanced enough for this, wars, instability, and possible fascist dictatorship is all we have to look forward to I’m afraid.