What was in the coffin at the funeral of socialism? (1990)

Submitted by martin on 19 November, 2009 - 12:28 Author: Sean Matgamna

BOURGEOIS propagandists and ex-Stalinists alike tell us that we are witnessing the end of socialism. Socialism is dying of shame, failure and self disgust before our eyes in Eastern Europe. Socialism has been tried and is now deservedly rejected as an all-round social and historical failure.

It is rejected most explicitly by the working class who, for example, gave the right the bulk of its vote in last month’s East German election.

The workers want capitalism, and socialism, “history’s great dream” — so bourgeois and ex-socialist propagandists alike say — goes the way of other ignorant yearnings and strivings, taking its place in the museum of quackery alongside such relics of barbarism as alchemy.

For sixty and more years, “socialism”, in common discourse, has been what existed in the USSR. The ideas conveyed by the words socialism and communism before Stalin established his system sixty years ago faded into the mists of pre-history, and “socialism” came to be the theory and practice of Stalinism — what became known in the ‘70s as “actually existing socialism”.

That was “socialism”. There has been no other socialism (unless some fool wants to cite Western “democratic socialism”, Sweden for example).

And yes, it is this “actually existing socialism” that is ceasing to exist, melting like islands of ice in the warm seas of international capitalism. And yes, its enemies are the very working class in whose name the “socialist” states claimed their historic legitimacy

So much for “socialism”, “actually existing socialism’ . But for the socialism of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky, Luxemburg and Gramsci, it is a good thing that millions of people in Eastern Europe and in the Soviet Union have risen in revolt against ‘socialism” and “communism”. In fact it is, paradoxically, the best thing that has happened for socialists in fully half a century.

The fact that those millions hate and despise “socialism” is the best pledge we could have that socialism has a future, that socialism is indeed the “wave of the future.”

This becomes clear when you ask yourself the question: what have the workers revolted against when they revolted against “socialism”? What has been proved or disproved by the indisputable failure of the Stalinist system?

The workers and others have revolted against:

• National oppression by the USSR and within the USSR.

• Subordination of individuals, social groups, and nations to an all-powerful regulating state through which a bureaucratic ruling class exercised its dictatorship

• The denial of free speech, free press, free assembly, free organisations.

• Exploitation and poverty, combined with outrageous privilege for the ruling class.

They want instead:

• National and individual freedom.

• Democracy.

• Prosperity and equality — an end, at least, to the peculiarly glaring sort of inequality imposed on the Eastern Bloc by bureaucratic privilege.

That the workers think they can get these things, or get more of them, under a market system, is very important, and determines what happens now, but it is not the whole story. It is not even the gist of the story. And it is not the end but the beginning of the chapter that opened in the East in the autumn of 1989.

And what has the failure of Stalinist “socialism” proved?

• That rigidly bureaucratic systems, where all power, decision, initiative and resources are concentrated in the hands of the state, cannot plan their economies effectively. No true Marxist ever believed they could.

• That the workers become alienated when a supposed “workers’ state” actually means rule over them by privileged bureaucrats.

• That socialism is impossible without freedom and democracy, without free initiative and comprehensive self-rule.

• That socialism is impossible when the socialists set out to develop backward national economies, rather than the working class seizing power on the basis of the technology created by advanced capitalism and beginning with equality and freedom.

Eastern Europe proves all these things. But then its evidence vindicates, rather than disproves, the ideas of Karl Marx.

Marx argued that:

• Socialism would grow out of advanced capitalism, which had developed the means of production far enough that want could be abolished almost immediately;

• Socialism would be the creation of the mass of the people, led by the working class, and, by definition, therefore, democratic;

• Socialism would immediately destroy the bureaucratic state machine, substituting an accountable system of working-class administration.

What came to be known as “socialism”, and in fact was “actually existing socialism”, was never socialism. Lenin and Trotsky and the Bolsheviks did not believe that socialism was possible in the backward Tsarist empire. What they believed was that the workers could take power there, and make the first in a chain of revolutions that would reach the advanced countries where socialism was possible.

The revolutions in Western Europe were betrayed and defeated. In isolation, the Stalinist mutation, a new form of class society with collective property, emerged by way of a bloody one-sided civil war against the workers of the USSR, led by the genuine Marxists, Trotsky and his comrades. After World War 2 it spread.

Stalinism was never socialism. But the revolt against it is socialism in embryo — the mass self-assertion and revolt of millions of people is the raw material of socialism.

It would be a true miracle if the workers in the Stalinist countries had political clarity after years in darkness. It would be remarkable if they were not confused by the official “socialism” which meant tyranny and poverty, and by the capitalism of Western Europe which means comparative liberty and prosperity.

What they are gaining now is the freedom to think, to organise, the freedom to struggle and to learn from their struggle. Out of this, the first steps towards socialism — independent workers’ organisations, parties and trade unions — will emerge again in countries in which History did indeed seem to have ended in hell forty or more years ago. In the East, working-class history- has begun again.

Working classes which fail to shape their own history sometimes get a second chance — in the first place the chance to learn from and not repeat that history.

“Socialism” is dead. Long live socialism!

March 1990