Some people who lived in the former Socialist countries are nostalgic for at least some things that kind of society gave them, others say the whole thing was a ‘sham’ and not Socialist at all. As a former Communist, I most definitely side with the former.
As with all things in this world involving humans, the Socialism achieved was imperfect, you could even say distorted. But Socialism it most certainly was. The vast majority of the means of production, distribution and exchange were publicly owned, though the State monopolies prevalent in most Socialist countries, and also introduced into capitalist countries like Britain after the Second World War, were not always the most efficient form of public ownership. Cooperatives and small scale publicly owned enterprises competing in a Socialist market place worked much more efficiently in Yugoslavia, for instance. But some nationalized industries were far more efficient than their privatized versions which followed. Just look at the appalling state of the railways in UK since de-nationalization for instance, not least the London Underground system.
The former Socialist countries also provided the basic necessities for the people, and gave them security from cradle to the grave. They abolished unemployment, they created good education and health services, they provided cheap subsidized accommodation (even if sometimes overcrowded) for people, and subsidized basic foodstuffs (even if there were eternal queues for many items). They all had excellent and cheap public transport networks, and guaranteed pensions for the elderly.
All this amounts to a Socialist, caring society in my book, as opposed to the uncaring capitalist free market society where in some countries they check your credit rating or health insurance policy before picking you up off the floor, putting you in an ambulance and rushing you to hospital. Or where millions are thrown on to the dole and made to feel useless, and where pensions depend on the casino mentality of the stock exchanges. Capitalism is a cruel, uncaring and ultimately doomed system, which trundles from one economic crisis to the next one, with only the arms industry and constant wars saving it from complete collapse. Being based on the exploitation of labor and maximum short-term profits, it encourages unemployment, low wages in many countries of the underdeveloped world, and living on credit in the developed world. All this creates an extremely unstable system.
To understand why the former Socialist countries had an imperfect, distorted form of Socialism which could not progress to the ultimate self-governing society of Communism, we have to examine the two opposing concepts of ‘democracy’.
The Soviet Union and its allies expounded ‘Socialist democracy’, while the Western countries dismissed this as mere dictatorship, and expounded multi-party democracy – what the Soviet bloc termed ‘bourgeois democracy’.
The difference was fundamental. In theory, Socialist democracy involved the people directly in taking control of society, led by the working-class and its vanguard political party, the Marxist-Leninist (or Communist) Party. The one-party State, or one-party dominated coalition, was designed to eliminate class distinctions (or put another way, to crush all classes opposed to Socialism) in order to create a classless society where everyone worked and enjoyed the fruits of their labor free from exploitation. Socialist democracy meant the masses taking direct control thru the Party, the democratic organizations, the soviets, etc. Ultimately, so the theory went, the self-governing classless society would emerge, the State would wither away, and the Communist utopia would be achieved.
Capitalist or bourgeois democracy had no such high-minded ideals. It gave no pretence of trying to create a self-governing society, or giving the people real day-to-day power. Instead it offered a choice of mainly capitalist political parties to the electorate, who nominated candidates to represent them. The ordinary person had little to do but put a cross on a ballot paper every few years. They were not encouraged, in most capitalist countries, to join the political parties en masse, much less to take control of society themselves. Socialist, Communist and other political parties were allowed, but were marginalized largely because most of the media was spouting anti-Socialist, capitalist propaganda. The Labour Party in Britain had a Marxist-sounding policy on paper, waved and sung The Red Flag, but even its most leftwing government, that of Clement Attlee in the immediate post-War years, still left the Monarchy, the class system and most of the private enterprise capitalist system intact. To its credit it took into public ownership some of the commanding heights of the economy, the utility companies and transport. And it created the National Health Service. All Socialist ventures. Unfortunately successive Conservative and Labour governments have privatized nearly everything, and even the NHS is not what it once was as private medicine/medical insurance is encouraged and NHS wards and whole hospitals closed. The area lotteries created by the crazy financial system of competing health boards actually increases public wastage of money, as each health authority tries to push as many of its costs on to other health authorities even if it involves more overall expense. For instance, I used to collect my medication from the hospital pharmacy on my three monthly visits. Now I have to get some thru my GP, involving that surgery and the chemist, whilst other medication now has to be delivered by courier at enormous expense and inconvenience from miles away. So the cost of providing my medication has increased tremendously, but it is now spread over several health authorities, each one pretending it is saving money. This is neither Socialism nor capitalism, just appalling short-sightedness and bad management.
But back to Socialst democracy versus bourgeois democracy. We can all see that Socialist democracy did not in practice work out. For whatever reason, the masses never joined the Party and the other political organizations in sufficient numbers, or if they did, they did not become active on a day-to-day basis. So it was all too easy for careerists, criminal elements and other opportunists to take advantage of this public apathy and take over control of the State. I have talked to a member of one of these former ruling Parties, and she told me quite bluntly that she only joined to further her career prospects. She had no Socialist principles at all, only herself and her immediate family mattered. Thus the ruling parties in the Socialist countries became corrupted. There’s an old saying – all power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
Of course not all members of the ruling parties in the Socialist countries were just opportunists. There were many ordinary people believing in Socialism, and many idealist Communists and Socialists trying to build a better society. While they may not have been outnumbered, they were certainly out-maneuvered by the opportunists, who gained control spurred on by their own selfish interests.
Awarding Party members special privileges and perks backfired, and in fact doomed the whole Socialist experiment. Lenin, Trotsky and others should have nipped it in the bud in the early years of Soviet power, as the Krondstadt rebellion demanded. Encouraging Party membership by offering ‘perks’ and ‘privileges’ was appealing to the baser human instincts rather than altruism, so naturally attracted selfish opportunists, careerists and criminal elements into the Party and other political organizations where they soon seized control. Thank goodness millions of true Socialists and Communists remained to at least insure the basic Socialist framework of society remained intact, but they were not powerful or numerous enough to weed out the corrupt elements and annul the special privileges awarded to Party members and State bureaucrats, which was the fatal flaw in the whole system. Had there been a level playing field for everyone, the inefficiencies of the five-year plans and vast State monopolies would have been dealt with, but the ruling clique were shielded from the deficiencies of the highly centralized system. The bureaucrat ordering gold bathplugs and trimmings for his or her luxury bath in their luxury apartment and enjoying the best food from special shops and restaurants, was not even aware let alone concerned about the shortage of bathplugs elsewhere, the overcrowded accommodation or the food shortages in shops resulting in huge queues for most commodities. All this could have been solved by breaking down the State monopolies into smaller, competing units and cooperatives – this system worked very well in Socialist Yugoslavia.
It naturally created public cynicism and distrust when they saw Party members getting luxury homes, access to luxury goods and imports from the West, while they lived in grotty apartments and had to queue for hours for basic foodstuffs.
So a new ruling-class or ruling clique emerged in the Socialist countries. Even genuine Socialists and Communists were corrupted by the perks of Party membership and the State bureaucracy. After all, they were active in the Party, trying to build a better society, with some considerable success as I outlined above, so felt they were due some reward.
This was, however, a grave mistake. It was also far too optimistic to expect the broad mass of the people to become political animals overnight and take control of society, attending endless meetings, and being eternally vigilant to stop careerists and opportunists taking over. Society was nowhere near mature enough for this sort of self-governing society, the so-called Democratic Dictatorship of the Proletariat. It required boundless personal commitment, political astuteness and awareness, discipline, responsibility and self-denial from millions upon millions of people on a day-to-day basis. Thus the whole idea was doomed from the start. Human nature, being what it is, would be bound to produce a very distorted form of Socialism which, while providing the basic needs, stability and security for the population, would reserve the luxuries of life for the ruling elite, a new ruling-class of bureaucrats and politicians.
To sum up, Socialism wasn’t a sham, it was just imperfect or distorted. And Socialist democracy wasn’t a sham either – it failed because the masses were not politically mature and committed enough to make it work. So it then BECAME a sham. There is a difference. Once the opportunists had gained control of the Party and the other State organizations, then they ruled with an iron fist from above, and it was very difficult for the masses to wrest power back from them. The only way to do this successfully was from WITHIN the Party and the mass organizations, not by demonstrating in the streets which just brought in the tanks. Some did work inside the Party, and the film ‘Goodbye Lenin’ about a woman who used such methods in the old GDR (East Germany) shows that if millions had done this the one-party or national coalition system could have been made to work. But the lesson we have learnt from the 20th Century experments, is that society is nowhere near mature enough to make such a system work, and may never be. It is just too dangerous, and far too easy for self-interest groups to gain control.
So as well as plurality and competition in the economic public sector thru cooperatives and competing publicly owned enterprises, there must also be plurality and competition in the political sphere. Free elections with rival parties putting up rival candidates. This could be within a Socialist Constitution of course, so that whatever party is elected is unable to introduce a capitalist system, but can administer its own brand of Socialism, which could be as different as the old Stalinist Albanian and cooperative Yugoslav brands. To re-introduce a capitalist private enterprise economy any winning political party would have to first overthrow the Socialist Constitution in a national referendum, usually requiring a substantial majority of the ELIGIBLE electorate (not just those bothering to vote). 66% of the electorate is normally required to approve such a major change. This is to achieve stability, thus the US Constitution enshrines free enterprise, the unwritten British constitution enshrines the Monarchy, etc. Socialists would now have an uphill struggle to get a Socialist Constitution in place anywhere as they have been dismantled in most countries. Tragic, as many of these Socialist states were not just imposed from above, but arose from groundswell opinion. For instance the Communists swept to power in free elections in post-War Czechoslovakia, and the Socialist Unity Party (a merger of the Social Democrat and Communist Parties) won 50% of the vote in free elections held in October 1946 in the then Soviet zone of Germany (apart from the then united Berlin which still had separate Communist and Social Democratic Parties). This 50% of the vote is far more than most Western parties achieve in elections to form a majority government, many of which are elected on a minority vote because of the many political parties competing and dividing the opposition.
Vietnam also had a popular uprising which supported Ho Chi-Minh the Communist independence leader in his crusade against first French and then US imperialism. Many Cubans who have not gone into exile in Florida support the Socialist system there initiated by Fidel Castro in the 1959 revolution overthrowing the fascist US-backed Batista regime.
It would be necessary to get approval from two-thirds of the electorate in order to enshrine Socialism in any national constitution, so leftists would first have to win power in a general election and put true Socialism into practice, an efficient brand of Socialism which worked far better than the insecurities, instablity and constant wars of capitalism.
No it wasn’t all a sham. It was a human attempt at building a better society, which was as imperfect as the humans involved in their millions. But if we have learnt from the mistakes of the past, we will not repeat them, and will do a better job next time.
At least Socialism was trying to build a better society – capitalism, based on the market place and pure greed, makes not even the slightest pretence of doing so. At the first crisis, it creates another war killing thousands if not millions to boost the arms industry, create full employment and put it on its feet again. If that’s the kind of world you want, you’re welcome to it. I’m soon out of it!