For most of the 20th century, the common image of "socialism" was the USSR and the other states modelled on it, China, Cuba, and so on.
There were always socialists who were critical of Stalin's or Khrushchev's USSR, seeing it as an unacceptably bureaucratic version of socialism, and keen to create a more democratic version in their own countries. By the late 1960s or early 1970s, a big majority even in the official Communist Parties was highly critical of Brezhnev's USSR. But most of those who criticised the USSR clung to the idea that some other USSR-model state - China, Vietnam, Cuba.... - was a beacon, a living proof of how humanity could advance beyond capitalism.
Only a small minority of Marxists said plainly that the whole Stalinist-USSR model - a state with a single bureaucratic "party" hierarchy controlling both industry and all the supposed "mass organisations", with no freedom of autonomous trade-union or other organisation for the working class - was not socialist and needed a workers' revolution to sweep it away just as much as ordinary capitalism did.
The collapse-from-inside of that Stalinist USSR model in 1989-91 consequently threw the left into disarray. In the East European states previously dominated by Russia, and Russia itself, the majority of the population, including the working class, rose up and successfully demanded the installation of a capitalist market economy and parliamentary democracy (though often the market economy they got was much more brutal than they had bargained for, and the parliamentary democracy much more limited).
China and Vietnam had already started to embrace global-market capitalism, and quickly pushed further in that direction. Cuba maintained some of the old model, but alongside an increasingly important dollar sector of its economy. The nearest to an unrepentant version of the old supposed "socialism" was (and still is) North Korea, and not many leftists liked that.
Some socialists became inactive or demoralised after the collapse of the Stalinist USSR model. Some clung to Cuba (or new regimes which looked as if they might move a bit towards the Cuban model, like Chavez's Venezuela) as beacons. We believe that the reconstruction of the left demands a clear and through revival of the ideas of those Marxists who always radically rejected the Stalinist model.
In 1991, when the USSR collapsed, we went onto the streets with the headline "Stand up for socialism" and subhead: "Stalinism was the opposite of socialism". A common response, gleeful or sad, was: "Socialism is dead, darling!"
For decades we'd championed the underground workers' movements and the oppressed nationalities in the Stalinist states. We'd waged war on the idea - familiar in the labour movement - that states like the USSR, China and Cuba were socialist in any sense.
Stalinism was as distant from socialism as modern capitalism is - perhaps more so. It was a system of extreme exploitation of workers and peasants, run by a backward bureaucratic ruling class with a monopoly of power. It was the opposite of the ideas of Marx and Lenin. Far from representing the working class, the Stalinist systems relentlessly persecuted working class dissidents, especially those who organised independent trade unions.
Along with the lie that Stalinism was socialism, the triumphant capitalist classes have peddled many other lies.
Lie #1: Leninism bred Stalinism Lenin and the Bolsheviks led the workers to power in 1917. They fought ruthlessly against the bourgeoisie and the opponents of socialism. They smashed the walls of the Tsarist prison-house of nations. Far from substituting for the working class, the Bolshevik party, by its leadership and farsightedness, allowed the working class to reach a level of mass action never seen before.
The Bolsheviks based themselves on democratic working class councils (called Soviets). Their goal was working class democracy. They did not believe socialism was possible in backward Russia: only that Russian workers could take power first. They maintained their bridgehead for workers' revolution in the most difficult circumstances.
The Bolsheviks were fallible human beings, acting in times of great crises. Mistakes they made amidst civil war and economic collapse are proper subjects for debate. As their critic (and comrade) Rosa Luxemburg wrote in 1918, the Bolsheviks did not claim everything they did was a perfect model of socialist action for everywhere, at all times.
But what the Bolsheviks were not was the root of Stalinist counter-revolution, which (amongst other crimes) murdered most of the Bolsheviks who had helped make the 1917 revolution, who still alive in the mid-1930s.
When things began to go wrong in the early 1920s the Bolsheviks stood their ground. Workers' risings were defeated in the West. Invasions and civil war wrecked the soviets. The Bolshevik party divided. One section took the road to the bureaucratic counter-revolution. The loyal revolutionaries, led by Trotsky, fought the counter-revolution on a programme for working class self-defence and renewing the party and the soviets.
Trotsky and his comrades went down to bloody defeat. Stalinism rose above the graves of Bolsheviks, just as it rose hideously above the murdered socialist hopes of the Russian and international working class. By the late 1930s Stalin had slaughtered all the leading activists not only from the Trotskyist, but also from his earlier allies, Bukharin's "Right Communist" faction and his own Stalinist faction.
Stalinism was not Bolshevism, any more than it was any variety of socialism. Trotsky put it well when he said a river of working class and socialist blood separated Stalinism from Bolshevism.
Lie#2: Capitalism is naturalŠ the disintegration of "state socialism" proves this In the Communist Manifesto, Marx credited capitalism with boosting human capacity to change and control our environment and thus creating the possibility of humanity rising above its "pre-history", out of the social jungle into a classless, socialist society. Marxists criticise the waste, irrationality and savage inhumanity of capitalism, but at the same time see capitalism as the necessary forerunner of socialism.
Capitalism has not become less irrational and inhuman since the Stalinist experiment in "state socialism" failed. Wage slavery and exploitation are still at the heart and root of capitalism. In a world of vast productivity and excess food production, 150 million children (by UN statistics) do not get enough to eat.
The USA is the richest country in the world. Yet millions of people will be homeless at some time over the course of a year. There's no national health scheme, and over forty million people cannot afford private cover. Capitalism is no alternative at all!
Stalinism was not an attempt to go beyond advanced capitalism. It was an experience on the fringes of world capitalism, arising out of the defeat of a working class revolution and stifling under its own contradictory bureaucratic ruling elite.
Stalinism was part of the pre-history humankind must grow beyond. So is capitalism!
Lie #3: Only a free market economy can offer democracy. Without it you get state control, and state control inevitably stifles democracy Marxists do not want a bureaucratic state, neither that of a country like Britain, where bureaucracy collaborates with the bourgeoisie, nor that of the Stalinist systems where the bureaucracy is the master of society's wealth.
We advocate a "semi-state": no standing army, no entrenched bureaucracy. The Bolsheviks wanted that too. They couldn't create it because of the backwardness and isolation of the USSR, but it is possible in a developed society like Britain.
The idea that only the market system can be the basis for democracy is like saying only wage slavery for the masses and increasing concentration of wealth and power at the top of society can be the basis of democracy! It's Orwellian logic: war is peace, lies are truth.
And the limited democracy we do have in the West was not a gift from capitalists. It came about through centuries of struggle by workers. Democracy in capitalism is limited and unstable.
Mass self-rule by the producers, dominated neither by a bureaucratic state monopoly nor by the economic rule of the multimillionaires and their officials, is a better form of democracy. It's socialist democracy.
Lie #4: Centralised planning cannot work in a complex economy, therefore capitalism is the only possible system. This argument too rests on the lie that the Stalinist command economy was socialism. State control of everything served the Stalinist elite, not the working class. Marxists never believed that a victorious working class could simply abolish the market: in 1921 Lenin set the goal of Soviet government as taking over "the commanding heights of the economy". Small traders, small farmers etc. would continue.
Once workers assume power and abolish wage slavery by taking the major means of production out of the hands of the capitalist class, socialism will operate through a combination of planning and market mechanisms for quite some time.
There's a vast difference between making decisions through democratic planning - which is certainly possible - and leaving it all to the crazy gyrations of the Stock Exchange!
How quickly a workers' planned economy moves towards replacing the market altogether is an open question. We don't know how quickly computer technology will progress, for example.
Lie #5: Communist Parties have ditched Marxism and communism: they should know what they're talking about The USSR's Stalinist rulers created an ideology expressed in stereotyped language derived from Marxism. Marxist analysis was no part of that ideological process.
Communist Parties danced like performing bears to that official "Marxism". Moscow could say on Monday that Britain and France were democratic powers opposing German fascism, on Tuesday that British and French imperialists were ganging up on peace-loving Germany, and on Wednesday that it was Anglo-French democracy against German fascism again - and the CPs would jump accordingly. (That's what happened from September 1939 to June 1941.)
These charlatans don't speak for socialism or Marxism. As the former Communist Parties have dissolved or changed their names, what has collapsed is not Bolshevism or communism but the grotesque counterfeit of Marxism and socialism shaped by Stalin, and in part, sustained by Stalin's wealth and power.
Lie#6: the collapse of Communism vindicates the reformist "social democratic" model of socialism Social democracy defined itself historically not against Stalinism, but against Bolshevism.
They either supported the bourgeoisie against the revolutionary workers, or hesitated and thus helped the bourgeoisie to win. Social democracy rescued German capitalism in 1918, thereby isolating the Russian Revolution. By betraying socialism outright or dithering in Germany and Italy, the social democrats played the role of stepfather to Stalinism.
The Bolsheviks did not lead the workers to power in the belief that socialism could be rooted in Russia. They were establishing a first outpost for a revolution all across Europe, an outpost which they knew would be doomed if the German, French, and other workers did not soon also make revolutions. Their hopes were not absurd. There were great revolutionary battles in Western Europe. But - with the help of the Western "social democratic" workers' leaders - they were defeated. Errors made by the early Communist International notwithstanding, the international Bolshevik current was entirely right against reformist social democracy.
Reformists' criticism of Stalinism have often, of course, been correct. Right on the same questions that bourgeois democrats have been right on.
Stalinism disintegrated. But it does not automatically follow that reformist social-democracy is the answer - unless we describe Stalinism as socialism and assume from its collapse that capitalism is the best we can hope for.
Reformist social-democracy is not an alternative strategy for achieving socialism. Socialism is the replacement of wage-slavery and the capitalist system built on it by a different mainspring - free, cooperative, self-administering labour. What has that got to do with the modest reforms achieved by the social democrats?
The fight for welfare-state reforms and the defence of existing welfare state provision is indeed necessary for socialists to take up. But socialists can't stop there.
Besides, today's Labour "reformist" leaders are not defending the welfare state. The fight to defend welfare state provision today is a fight directly against the Blair-Brown Labour government and indirectly against the timidity of reformist trade union leaders.
Since the 1920s, social-democratic parties have abandoned even a verbal commitment to socialism defined as something radically different from capitalism. They aspire at most to modifying capitalism, with a few welfare measures. Since the 1980s, social-democratic and Labour leaders in France, Spain, Australia, New Zealand, Germany and Italy have implemented pale-pink Thatcherite policies.
The only model of socialism restored to its proper shape and colour by the disintegration of Stalinism is the only model that ever deserved the name - the fight to organise the working class as a conscious force, a class for itself, to break bourgeois state power, abolish wage slavery and establish democratic self-rule throughout society.