Has Socialism Been ‘Tried?’

Recently I’ve hinted at the fact that I’m going to be winding down my blogging and social media operation. This is due to several reasons, one of them being that I have a completely new life on which to focus, and the other being that I’ve really said all there is to be said for the foreseeable future on topics like Russia, Ukraine, and propaganda associated with them. During the time I have been blogging, I have often had to keep my personal politics in check so as to prevent my readership getting whittled down to a tiny portion of far-leftists who like reading long theoretical polemics. At the same time, my views have evolved radically thanks not only to my ongoing study of various subjects, but also due to exposure and challenge to different viewpoints. But with the blog at its near end, I think I shall indulge on my soapbox and answer a question that seems to come up in a lot of discussions recently. With this out of the way, proceed if you dare.

How many times have you seen this brilliant meme: Someone like one of those Turning Point USA chuds shows a bunch of pictures of bad things that happened under 20th century “socialist” regimes and then sarcastically writes “But socialism has never been tried!” The implication here is that modern socialists, who of course are all social media obsessed millennial snowflakes, have no answer to those horrific events of the 20th century other than what amounts to a “No True Scotsman” fallacy by saying that socialism hasn’t actually been implemented.

Now to be fair, there are some self-proclaimed socialists or Communists who are guilty of doing this. I suspect that most of them tend to be younger people with very little historical or theoretical knowledge in most cases. I’ve always suspected the process goes something like this:

  1. Young person wants to be edgy and rebellious, gets attracted to Communism, usually for aesthetic reasons.
  2. Parent, teacher, or someone on the internet says something like, “You’re a Communist?! Don’t you know that Communism killed 100 million/150 million/200 million/1 billion/all the people?!”
  3. Disheartened, young person goes online and finds some kind of Trotskyite page.
  4. Young person proudly proclaims, “That wasn’t Communism! It was Stalinism!
  5. Checkmate

Despite the fact that a combination of youth plus poor education more likely accounts for most of these instances, I think it’s safe to say that one can find a fair number of adults who should no better either making this argument, or at best, making an argument which sounds like “That wasn’t true socialism!”

However, there are very sound reasons for a person to declare that what we commonly think of as socialist societies were not in fact objectively socialist. Whether they are just pulling a No True Scotsman or actually making sense really depends on their definition of socialism and whether or not they can substantiate their argument with objective evidence.

What I intend to do in this post is explain how or why someone may legitimately question whether or not a society was socialist and thus why for such people bringing up the activities of 20th century “socialist” regimes may in fact be nothing but a red herring and thus an invalid argument.

What is more, I’m going to attempt to do this in the most approachable way possible, without delving too deep into obscure historical events or theoretical texts. Obviously this means sacrificing detail in some places, and some arguments may not be fully represented or they may be omitted entirely (I’m sure there are plenty of tendencies I’ve never heard of still, and new ones form as well). I realize this approach will piss off some partisans or even just those leftists who love thorough theoretical polemics, but they are not my primary audience- the layperson is.

 

Can you ‘try’ socialism?

In order to answer the question as to whether or not socialism has been “tried” we need to deal with the question, which is already distorted. I have always hated the phrasing of “But socialism/Communism has never been tried.” Saying “try socialism” sounds like “try rebooting your router.” You don’t just “try” a mode of production. And speaking of modes of production, we should probably start with the definition of socialism. That in itself can get pretty complex very quickly, which is why I’m going to stick with Merriam-Webster’s definitions in this case:

Definition of socialism
1 : any of various economic and political theories advocating collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods
2 a : a system of society or group living in which there is no private property
b : a system or condition of society in which the means of production are owned and controlled by the state
3 : a stage of society in Marxist theory transitional between capitalism and communism and distinguished by unequal distribution of goods and pay according to work done

Already we have some statements that socialists of several tendencies would vehemently dispute, but we’ll get into that later.

Another problem with definitions is that the people who tend to make fun of the “No True Socialism” trope more often than not happen to be the very same people who tend to label almost anything socialism. Public libraries? Socialism! Single-payer healthcare? Socialism! Food stamps? SOCIALISM!  Indeed, many of these people spent eight years telling us how Barack Obama was not just a socialist, but a Marxist socialist…and a radical Islamist too.

And since we’re merely talking about the problems with definitions, we cannot ignore the fact that there are plenty of self-proclaimed socialists or people sympathetic to socialism who are also guilty of applying the label to things that have nothing to do with socialism. For example, in this pro-Bernie Sanders video, Sarah Silverman actually calls fire departments socialist.

 

 

Whichever side we’re talking about when it comes to throwing the S-word around, the result is the same- total failure because if these things were in fact socialist, then nearly all the world is by-definition socialist because every country has some kind of taxes, state intervention in the economy, fire departments, etc.

In order not to stray too far from the matter at hand the definition which most concerns us is the third one, as it is related to Marxist theory and it is Marxist theory which was nominally the foundation of the 20th century “socialist” regimes.

But if we ignore the problems with the phrase “try socialism/Communism” for a second and just ask the question as to whether socialist or communist (note the little c) societies ever existed at all, let me answer that in the affirmative.

Hunter-gatherer society was what Marx and Engels labeled “primitive communism.” Virtually all able-bodied members of the tribe were engaged in labor to survive, private property did not exist, and class distinctions were also virtually non-existent. Prior to the agricultural revolution, humankind spent quite a long time in this state. Sorry, but The Flintstones lied to you when it depicted prehistoric society as capitalist post-war America with dinosaurs. Of course while the egalitarian aspect and lack of class differentiation might seem enticing, primitive communism was no utopia. People lived that way simply because there was no other choice. Imagine life on an island where you are shipwrecked with some other people. As you organize labor to survive you’re unlikely to replicate the traditional modern corporate hierarchy, but whatever relief you get from that lifestyle is negated by the fact that you barely eke out enough resources to survive day-by-day.

In more modern times, there have been and in some cases still are small-scale examples of socialist societies. These range from large territories like the so-called “Free Territory” in Ukraine and anarchist Catalonia during the Spanish Civil War to isolated communes or big projects like the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria (often still called Rojava). On the American frontier, groups of pioneers often adopted a communist lifestyle, distributing resources according to need.

But what of the most obvious examples of 20th century socialism, i.e. those states born of “socialist revolutions” which proclaimed themselves to be socialist and run by socialist or Communist parties? This is where it gets complicated. Some people would say they were never socialist. Trotskyites, for example, might call them “deformed workers states.” Left Communists and anarchists refer to them as state capitalist (this refers to a system where the role of the capitalist class is replaced by the state). Anti-revisionist Marxist-Leninists will typically argue that certain states were socialist when they had certain policies but that theoretical revisionism led them to adopt policies that made them state capitalist and thus led to their downfall.

Where do I fall on this spectrum? I would say that at least the Soviet Union and Socialist Albania achieved what could rightly be called a primitive, rudimentary form of modern socialism, but that in both cases concern for things such as geopolitics (for the USSR) and the security of the regime (pretty much every self-proclaimed 20th century “socialist” state) far outweighed the goal of building a functioning socialist society and more importantly, a socialist society aimed at achieving the original goals of socialism in the first place- greater freedom, equality, justice, etc. That being said, please keep in mind that me saying this or that regime was objectively socialist is entirely independent of my judgement of that regime or any of its actions. Whether or not a particular society or country is socialist or capitalist is a matter of concrete, objective factors and not the color on a flag, the name of the ruling party, or the declarations of the government.

Does socialism/Communism kill?

No, it does not.

Oh…You want an explanation. Okay fine. First of all I find the claim that Communism or socialism kills to be quite ridiculous because the same people who make this claim not only never talk about how many people capitalism has killed (which would necessarily be far higher than any 20th century Communist body count), but they don’t even acknowledge that capitalism can kill. Either they’ll label a dictatorial regime “socialist” even when said regime was allied with the West during the Cold War and never claimed to be socialist, or they will say that these are the actions of bad actors like governments and not the fault of the capitalist system. It stands to reason that if Communism can kill people, capitalism must be able to as well.

At the most superficial level, most people who were killed under self-proclaimed socialist regimes died for the same reasons as those killed by capitalist regimes. Namely you had a certain group of people in power who feared losing it in one form or another, and thus engaged in repressive measures to hold onto that power. In other cases (though you could argue that this is at its root, the same as the previous reason), the state put economic goals above humanitarian ones. This sort of thing affects millions of people throughout the world literally every year.

Now at this point someone might perk up and say, “Wait a minute! Surely you wouldn’t say that Nazism doesn’t kill people!” No, I wouldn’t say that, but in terms of mode of production Nazi Germany was, brace yourself, a capitalist state. You can argue about the increased role of the state in economic affairs, but in this sense Nazi Germany didn’t differ much from many other countries during the era, including the United States.

The reason Nazism kills is because mass killing is literally a part of the ideology. It’s all laid out very clearly by Adolf Hitler. The “race” needs to survive and thus needs room to expand and secure resources to feed a growing population. Racial or ethnic mixing leads to “blood poisoning” according to Nazi eugenics, so that “living space” needs to be cleansed of foreign elements. The conquest and extermination of entire groups of people, according to the Social Darwinism-influenced worldview of the Nazis, was seen as entirely natural if not positive. It is worth nothing that the Nazis got such ideas largely from the American eugenics movement, which enjoyed generous funding from leading capitalists.

By contrast, there’s nothing in the theoretical works of Marx and Engels that allegedly served as the basis for the Soviet Union and other socialist states that says you should be exterminating people. You may argue about the ethics of expropriating capitalist property without compensation, but there’s nothing I’ve seen in the body of Marxist literature saying this is an absolute necessity. In fact, members of the bourgeois class can actually voluntarily cease being de facto capitalists if they wanted to, either by just giving their private property (means of production) away or by turning into a collectively owned enterprise with their workers. Twentieth century socialist regimes typically justified their atrocities or repression by claiming to be fighting counter-revolutionaries. None of this justifies what was done, it merely explains why it is not inherently linked to Marxist theory, let alone socialism.

Please let me make it clear that the above does not justify nor deny the very real examples of repression or atrocities committed by self-proclaimed socialist regimes. That is not the claim being disputed here, but rather the claim that “socialism kills.” In short, if socialism can kill, so can capitalism, and if we’re just going by body count, capitalism takes the high score by far, especially since 20th century socialism has been dead for over a quarter of a century.

I would also like to point out that I don’t believe that regimes which carried out repression or mass killings were not socialist simply because they did these things, even though such things really do contradict the moral values underpinning socialism and Marxism. I do think that a society that sincerely implements socialist ideals and revolutionary reforms would be less likely to commit mass atrocities or repressions, but it is foolish to assume that this alone could entirely preclude atrocities or violations of human rights. After all, even the “libertarian” socialist projects of Ukrainian Free Territory or Anarchist Catalonia were not totally devoid of violent repression against counter-revolutionaries or other actions we’d regard as unethical today.

Whose socialism? 

Getting back to the topic at hand, there are many people who have every right to insist that certain 20th century regimes (or currently existing ones like North Korea) are not socialist and thus cannot be used as an argument against them. Any group or even individual who’s definition of socialism significantly contradicts that of the Soviet Union or any such regimes has a right to object to being made to answer for them. Whether their own definition of socialism is accurate is another matter to be determined, but suffice to say it is stupid to insist that an anarchist answer for things like the Great Terror in the Soviet Union. Trotskyites on the other hand may have a weaker case, but I don’t want this to turn into an inter-Marxist polemic.

On the other hand there are many socialists of various stripes who engage in apologia for any and every self-proclaimed socialist regime. If they are going to uphold those regimes as positive role models, then they have to take responsibility for explaining and defending their actions, and to be honest this often takes the form of accusing every critical source of being linked to the CIA or Nazis. I’m not saying that there isn’t legitimate revisionist history of 20th century socialism or that many of its “crimes” have been grossly exaggerated or distorted. On the contrary- I’ve spent a fair deal of my political life studying that very history. The problem is that many of the people engaged in defense of these regimes don’t seem to have done the same homework. Instead they confine themselves to a small number of pro-party sources or even contemporary state propaganda. This may convince people who are already sympathetic but as a strategy for attracting more people and building movements it’s a dead end. I’ve even found that legitimate revisionist history is largely dead weight as well.

There is another group which may in all honesty condemn the actions of 20th century regimes, yet for whatever reason adopts the aesthetics of those regimes. Take a look at this video, for example:

 

 

 

It’s a fairly good explanation of exploitation for beginners. I can say anything about the video’s author. I don’t know if they are “Trotskyite” or “Stalinist.” What I do know is that at the end of the video “Communism” is held up as the solution to the problem of exploitation, and it is depicted with stock footage from the Soviet Union with the Soviet national anthem in the background. Or in other words- it is associated with what can only be called a failed state, one which fares well in comparison only with the old Russian Empire that preceded it and various developing countries or colonies which surrounded it. Now maybe the author is totally opposed to the policies of the Soviet Union. Maybe their ideas about what constitute socialism are totally different from the centralized, authoritarian model we saw in that state. But if you’re going to deliberately associate your socialism with that state, its symbols, leaders, aesthetics, etc., then don’t be surprised when your opponents decide that bringing up the USSR is a valid argument. Don’t wrap yourself in Soviet imagery and expect people not to associate your politics with that state. If you’re going to shackle yourself to a corpse, own it.

Socialism failed everywhere it was tried

Another common trope you might hear is this: “Sure, there were many socialist countries, but they all failed!” The implication here is that they are acknowledging that 20th century socialism was not just one monolithic entity, but that every attempt to construct socialism, regardless of variances, ultimately failed. This is still incorrect because if we’re talking about socialist states, virtually all of them patterned their politics on one model, or other models that grew out of that original model. I am of course referring to the Soviet Union. In addition to this, many of these countries’ regimes were set up by the Soviet Union and their governments more or less subordinated to the Soviets’ political demands. In other words, it’s not as if you had a variety of socialists coming to power by their own unique theories and strategies.

Add to this the fact that some self-proclaimed “socialist” nations never even achieved the type of “socialism” found in the USSR or China. The modern case of Venezuela is even more instructive. Here is a state where the regime actively portrayed itself as “socialist,” and even popularized a theory it called “21st Century Socialism.” In reality Venezuela could never have been called socialist. In fact, here’s Fox News making exactly that point by noting how the country’s economy is still dominated by the private sector. Of course I’m sure for Fox News at least, Venezuela becomes “socialist” any time they’re doing a story about empty stores and food riots.

So what went wrong?

This is a question that people have devoted entire books to, and I promised at the beginning that I would make this as layperson friendly as possible. But based on my study and experience living under an authoritarian regime, I’d say that what it all boils down to is the balance between security and freedom. To understand this, we must go back to what many consider to be the first “socialist revolution,” the Paris Commune of 1871.

To give you the bare-bones rundown on this revolution, basically the French empire got its ass kicked at the battle of Sedan by Prussia in a conflict appropriately named the Franco-Prussian War.  French Emperor Napoleon III was captured on the field. In early 1871, the acting French government was forced to sign an armistice with Germany, under which it had to disarm its army but not its National Guard. Eventually radicalized Parisian workers, many of whom served in the National Guard, refused to accept the government’s authority, and using their arms they proceeded to essentially seize power within Paris.

Contemporary socialists like Karl Marx and anarchists like Petr Kropotkin and Mikhail Bakunin watched developments within the Commune with great interests. To this day different left tendencies still argue over the nature of the Commune- was it socialist akin to something Marxists would advocate, was it an early attempt at anarchism, or did it not go far enough in eliminating the state? One thing that is certain about the Commune is that it did display unprecedented levels of freedom. It certainly couldn’t be called totalitarian by any stretch of the imagination. Even members of the local bourgeoisie were floored to see how society functioned without the intervention of legions of policemen in certain neighborhoods.

If the Paris Commune sounds like a great utopia, hold up for a second. It had one flaw, namely it was crushed within about two months and as many as 20,000 Communards were killed, mostly in mass shootings. Marauding French soldiers reestablished the authority of the government with violence, rape, and pillage. This experience weighed heavily on the minds of socialist revolutionaries worldwide after the fact. It was certainly on the minds of Bolshevik leaders like Vladimir Lenin and Josef Stalin. History taught that revolution leads to counter-revolution, and not only did the Bolsheviks have the historical case of the Paris Commune to point to, but they also had the aftermath of Russia’s failed 1905 Revolution to consider when planning revolution in 1917. Once power was seized, letting go could easily mean bloody repression on the scale of Paris 1871 if not much worse.

In general, the Paris Commune raised a question that still remains with us today- how do you liberate society, and maximize freedom, while simultaneously securing that society from more powerful forces that wish to crush the revolution? Historically anarchists have shown the ability to establish very free societies, albeit ones that are either short-lived or if they do last, ones which do not manage to equal the standards of living in developed capitalist nations. On the other hand, the Marxist-Leninist model has managed to conquer huge swathes of land and withstand the worst onslaughts in modern history, but they utilized incredibly authoritarian means to do so and ultimately failed to achieve their economic promises or convince a majority of people to fight for the preservation of the system.

Today there is such a struggle going on in Syria, where the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) led the fight against ISIS in Syria and created what is known as the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria. Currently it is facing an armed invasion by Turkey and its Islamist Syrian proxies, and if the Assad regime decides to get involved with Russian help, the autonomous territory will be in a critical situation.

The PYD claims it is building a confederation where people exercise control over decision making via local direct democracy and the election of representatives to higher bodies. Those who observe on the ground, however, say this is not exactly true, and that while local communities do have control over local issues, the PYD is firmly in control of the area. But this just raises another question: Given the situation the whole territory finds itself in, doesn’t it make perfect sense for the well-organized, well-armed (relatively) PYD to exercise more direct control, if only because of the war?

A fanatical anarchist might insist that war doesn’t justify the suspension of what they see to be essential liberties (an argument heard during the Spanish Civil War as well as in America after 9/11). Others might see the centralized measures as justified by the circumstances. But if we choose the latter, we must also ask as to what sort of actions are justifiable.

In the Soviet Union, which in many ways became the model to one degree or another for every other self-proclaimed socialist state, heavy-handed measures were used, often with terrible results. For example, in the book Farm to Factory, Robert Allen shows that the advantage in industrialization gained by collectivization (which of course led to the Holodomor and a lot of other excess deaths in Russia and Kazakhstan) was only slightly higher than what they would have achieved had they stuck with the NEP (New Economic Policy). But more industrialization means more tanks to fight the war that Stalin predicted was coming as far back as 1931, right? Well that argument might work better had the USSR not performed so dismally in the start of the war with Germany despite all its tanks and planes. At the battle of Dubno (also called the first battle of Brody), the Red Army had around 3,500 tanks against 750 German tanks and the latter won. The Soviets lost 800 of their tanks and many of them never made it to the front lines thanks to mechanical failure or lack of fuel.

Now suppose the USSR had tried a different strategy to defend itself from a fascist threat. Rather than centralized control and repression, the government stressed liberty and worker control of their means of production based on the concept that a populace which experiences such freedom will be more likely to defend it to the death. Programs like Ukrainianization are allowed to continue, but without the heavy-handed methods that drew some pushback from the Russian-speaking populace. In short, the Soviet government decides that their best weapon is their society itself (in fact Stalin would later claim that it was the USSR’s socialist system that really deserved credit for the victory in WWII).

Obviously this is a very counter-factual scenario, but what we can say for sure is that the methodology used by the USSR to defend itself from foreign invasion not only costs millions of lives directly and indirectly, but also failed to establish a sustainable socialist system capable of surpassing the capitalist West. In our counter-factual version, the USSR might have instead built a society where every man, woman, and child was more than willing to defend the gains they felt they’d made from any foreign invader. The invading Axis troops might find no crowds cheering them as liberators, willing collaborators, no mass of soldiers surrendering in droves. Seeing as how even in 1941 there were people (including many Ukrainians) who defended the USSR that tenaciously in spite of everything that had proceeded the war, it isn’t too far-fetched to imagine that had the Soviet system not been so repressive far more people would have rallied to the colors from day one instead of after months of defeat. More importantly, perhaps the Soviet stagnation and collapse never would have happened, and perhaps today the Western capitalist world would be struggling like Cuba while a massive socialist super-continent enjoys the benefits of a system run according to human need and not the profit motive of the few.

But for now it is enough to say that in the case of 20th century socialism, much of what bad did happen had nothing to do with socialist theory but rather military and geopolitical considerations. This by no means absolves the decision makers who were responsible. With actions like the deportation of entire ethnic groups they put strategic and geopolitical goals above the humanistic values of socialism. By putting rapid industrialization ahead of any concern for the peasants producing grain, the authorities essentially committed the same crime that capitalists have been committing for centuries up to this day. Specifically, they put economic results above human life. If that is socialism, or more specifically if that is what socialism must inherently be, then we would be right to reject it today. But the simple truth is that this is not inherent in socialism, nor is it inevitable.

So what can be done? 

Again, laying out a solution to the problem of how to implement socialism is far beyond the scope of this article, but I would like to lay out a few points.

The first is that it is important to remember that Karl Marx really didn’t write much about this socialism or Communism that he envisioned. To Marx this would be like the utopian socialists which he tried to distance himself from. Rather Marx analyzed and critiqued capitalism; he concerned himself more with understanding the problem, not the solution. What we’ve seen in the decades since his death is that in spite of all the failures of 20th century socialism, Marx’s critique of capitalism not only still holds up, but is far more explanatory than mainstream neo-classical or Austrian school economics. This means the ball is in our court to determine how we resolve the contradictions of capitalism in order to create a better, more moral system.

Many solutions and combinations thereof have been suggested in order to build a socialist society, besides the 20th century centralized state-based methods. Some of them include labor-time calculation using computer networks, some form of a Universal Basic Income, sovereign wealth funds, or the de-commodification of goods deemed necessary to life.

As for my own opinions about what socialism will be, in recent years I have come to realize that the foundation of building socialism must be ethical. Put simply, capitalism is immoral. It forces people to act in immoral ways. It is also unsustainable. The Earth and the universe do not require there to be human life. Earth has had mass extinction events before. Now that we are faced by existential crises such as climate change and everything that can result from that change, we cannot sit back and hope that the world’s richest capitalists will see enough promise of profit in sustainable technology to redirect sufficient investment into that field. We cannot properly husband Earth’s resources to preserve human life on this planet if we are divided into national and racial groupings at odds with one another. Oh you’re a patriot? You love your country? Well nobody’s going to give a shit about your country and its illustrious history after mankind is wiped out following a massive war over resources exacerbated by irreversible environmental degradation. Capitalist apologists insist that somehow capitalism can solve all these problems itself, but history and the present say otherwise, and the longer we wait, the worse things get.

Apart from being rooted in ethics, socialism must be rooted in human rights. Karl Marx’s son-in-law, Paul LaFargue, once wrote an excellent satirical piece called “The Rights of Horse and the Rights of Man.” In it, LaFargue lampooned the liberal idea of the rights of man (what we’d later call human rights) by pointing out that in society of that era, the rights of horses, who were given shelter, food, and the greatest of care by their owners, were much more desirable than the so-called rights of man. Truly he was right on the money, but unfortunately many decades later I know many socialists tend to discard the concept of human rights as a meaningless liberal idea. That liberal society is hypocritical when it comes to human rights doesn’t negate the concept itself- only liberal society and the capitalist system. Human rights implies an equality of humans which simply does not exist in capitalist society. Thus as socialists our aim should be not to simply roll our eyes when we hear liberals speak of human rights, but rather take up that torch and use it to beat them over the head with it. For example, have you ever read Article 25 of the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights? The first paragraph reads:

Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.

This concept should form one of the foundations of a future socialist society. What is this but a call for distribution according to one’s needs? More importantly, what liberal democratic society today actually manages to avoid violating this human right?

In the future, socialism must be democratic. This might not mean direct democracy for every aspect of life (after all, the idea of socialism is to work less and attending endless councils or meetings counts as work), but any organ with any measure of vested authority needs to be accountable to the people it serves. The idea that the entire working class can be “represented” by one party which will inevitably act in its interests because it is run by “true Marxist-Leninists” (whatever that even means) has been disproved by history.

On that latter note, socialism will also need to be pluralistic somehow. This might sound like heresy to some, but one cannot ignore the fact that the world’s most successful capitalist countries are often run by two or at most a handful of parties, which often hate each other with a passion, and yet somehow the capitalist system runs along like clockwork (well, clockwork with periodic crises and environmental degradation). The United States, for example, has a remarkably stable political system from the time of the ratification of the Constitution till today, when the President is a man whose brain is being feasted upon by spirochetes. If one insists that socialism can only be built by one hegemonic “party of the working class,” we must ask what basis there is for this claim when that exact system failed. If someone says “because Stalinism!” or “because revisionism,” they must then explain why things like Stalin or revisionists managed to irreversibly fuck everything up. Andrew Johnson was a shit president and got impeached. Nixon was forced to resign. The system went on, as usual.

One key component that might help solve the mystery as to why capitalist countries manage to maintain stability in spite of cutthroat competitive political systems is the concept of rule of law. Of course as socialists when someone speaks of rule of law we should always ask “whose law?” But as with concepts like freedom or human rights, it does not mean the idea should be dismissed offhand. If we look at the government of the Soviet Union, for example, we see that almost nothing worked the way it was supposed to according to the Soviet constitution (which also changed several times). The Supreme Soviet was elected via universal suffrage, but real power in the USSR was in the Central Committee of the Communist Party and in particular, the Politburo (which was chosen by the Central Committee during party congresses). In post Soviet Russia today, the State Duma and Federation Council are basically rubber stamp legislative organs which offer no opposition to President Putin, but apart from that one point power nominally rests more or less where its supposed to even in the kleptocratic, authoritarian Russian Federation. The result of the lack of rule of law in the USSR (and many other socialist countries patterned after it) was that politics almost always boiled down to conspiracies and interpersonal struggles within the party, out of sight of most of the people this party supposedly represented.

Another reason rule of law is crucial is in order to facilitate direct democracy. Within a firm set of rules establishing citizens’ rights and responsibilities, direct democracy could become nothing but mob rule. Some things shouldn’t be left up to the majority, particularly things that violate human rights. One’s individual freedoms end where another’s begins. Rule of law can also help explain how pluralism can exist in a socialist society. The idea that every member of society would become a committed anarchist or Marxist-Leninist is simply a pipe dream. If anything, the cult of the individual in advanced capitalist society means that many people would reject such labels simply in an attempt to be different or not follow the crowd. Is this a disaster? Does it make socialism impossible? Not at all.

To understand why, just watch people playing football or basketball in a park. Here you have people with different values, life experience, beliefs, religions, etc., and yet they all manage to play this competitive game without continually resorting to fist fights or rampant cheating. The reason is because in order to accomplish the task of playing a game of basketball, everyone agrees to certain basic rules. Sure, arguments do occur and in formal games referees are necessary to enforce closer observance of the rules, but nobody can dispute the fact that countless games of pickup basketball or football are routinely played in parks around the world, many concluding without incident.

The lesson from this is that a socialist society can exist without everyone declaring themselves to be a fervent socialist or even a socialist at all. We do this by making everything based on core ground rules that everyone can abide by. This is where human rights and the moral imperative shine. Virtually all religions around the world have some form of what we call “the Golden Rule.” Socialism must advance its form of this as the basis for cooperation between people with disparate personal beliefs and values.

I think above all socialism must produce results for the people living under it. If it’s super democratic but requires a communal lifestyle far below that of developed capitalist societies, it will only attract people who personally happen to value living in that society. It will not be able to attract large swathes of any populace or expand and overthrow existing capitalist systems. On the other side of the coin, if it is just as authoritarian as a right-wing capitalist system, it will produce only bitterness and resentment, which leads to betrayal and collapse. In short, a socialist society needs to give people tangible benefits they simply cannot get in any capitalist society. It must go beyond things like free healthcare or higher education, which is in fact quite common in developed capitalist countries which are not named the United States of America. Most of all, I think people need to truly, viscerally feel that they personally own a share of society, a share of their country, and that is also paired with a responsibility to defend it. If they let up and capitalism is restored, that which they own will be taken from them and they will no longer be fully in control of their own lives and destinies. If people feel they truly own a share of the means of production and the society itself, they’ll defend it even when times are tough and their socialist revolution is at a disadvantage relative to the capitalist states. If everything is owned by the state and the worker exercises little to no control over that property, they’ll question whether it matters if that property is owned by the state or a private capitalist.

Lastly, on the topic of defense of the revolution, future socialists must realize that the key to defense will not be large conventional military forces and secret police, as the Soviets used. None of these things managed to stave off the collapse of those societies. If there is a socialist revolution anywhere, surrounding capitalist states will try to strangle it. They will resort to the playbook that worked during the 20th century- exert pressure, stoke fear and paranoia, and wait for the socialists themselves to tear themselves apart. Future socialists must not fall for that trap. They must never fall victim to institutions like intelligence agencies or conventional, traditional armies. I would recommend a small volunteer professional force augmented by conscript reservists of both sexes. Both would train together to excel in unconventional warfare. Any invading army would find every town crawling with snipers, spies, assassins, and IED teams. Special teams should be ready to carry out operations against the invader internationally, striking at legitimate targets on a global stage. Having an open policy towards media and engaging with global audiences in their languages would also help garner the power of public opinion (a crucial factor in many successful insurgencies) and stymie attempts to crush the socialist country in question with military force.

Conclusion

It’s important to realize that I’m merely putting forth a few very general observations here, based on many years of study and experience. Don’t look at these recommendations as answers but rather questions that need to be discussed. I need to discuss them myself because I don’t believe I have adequate answers yet. I do realize that many of these observations may sound heretical to socialists of various tendencies, but what every one of those tendencies must admit is that to one degree or another, their politics have thus far failed to abolish capitalism.

My approach to politics is very much influenced by the martial arts of judo and Brazilian jiu-jitsu (itself derived from judo). For those not familiar with the art, judo was developed by Kano Jigoro by refining traditional jiu-jitsu techniques so they could be practiced against a fully-resisting opponent in real time. While traditional styles of jiu-jitsu from that era emphasized “lethal” techniques, Kano rightly determined that techniques which could not be practiced in real time would be unreliable. In forming the Kodokan school of judo, Kano and his students would have to go through challenge matches with representatives of other schools, even if it meant facing their deadly techniques. Kano’s students almost always came out on top, proving the efficacy of his art. When judo was introduced to the Gracie family of Brazil by the master Maeda Mitsuyo, it went through a similar refining process in no-holds-barred streetfights. Decades later, Brazilian jiu-jitsu would help popularize mixed-martial arts competition in the United States and demonstrate that efficacy once again.

The lesson here is that you have to go with what works, and discard that which has been shown either to not work at all in real-life conditions or to be unreliable. Even after grappling arts like Brazilian jiu-jitsu, judo, and sambo, as well as striking arts like Western and Thai boxing demonstrated their efficacy in MMA competitions, the representatives of discredited traditional martial arts were undaunted. They began dreaming up excuses as to why their martial arts were useless in the ring yet deadly on the street.

 

And look, I realize that building a totally different society with a different mode of production is far more complicated than a martial arts system, and of course there are external factors that will be outside of any socialist party or organization’s control. But that’s just more reason to discard techniques or policies which have been proven not to work or proven not to be sustainable instead of making excuses for failure and insisting on defending or advocating the same failed policies out of some fetishized love of some historical leader we never lived under and might not want to have lived under if we were being honest. That may sound harsh but that’s reality, and as socialists we’re supposed to be guided by reality and not our imaginations.

Anyway, that’s the end of my massive quasi-polemic. I am happy to try to answer any reasonable questions. In the near future I promise to get back to the usual observations about Russia and Ukraine, as well as the dick jokes. At least before I decide to wrap all this blogging business up for good.

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8 thoughts on “Has Socialism Been ‘Tried?’

  1. DOS_Hacker (@DShK0)

    The last part about importance of the trial and error approach is spot on. Capitalism thrives on it. Socialists often dismissed it as “not scientific”, but even if they stop doing this, there are compatibility issues. Trial and error works when it has single and simple metric of success, like efficiency in capitalism, survival in evolution, win in a fight. But ethics-based systems don’t have such a metric.

    This also might be one of the causes of Soviet regime’s degeneration, not just Stalin or “hostile environment”. They ( smartest of them) understood the need for experimentation, NEP was exactly that. But on metrics, they were in total darkness. In the end the simplest metric was chosen, the state power.

    Reply
    1. Shalcker

      Rather they defaulted to “survival of country” which then turned into “survival of regime” that was set up to guarantee it.

      Reply
    2. Jim Kovpak Post author

      First I should say thanks for reading this to the end. I did not expect many people to do that.

      On your second point there is an interested criticism of Soviet policy raised by none other than Fidel Castro in his autobiography My Life. When he talks about NEP and collectivization, he points out that the Soviet government always went to extremes. First there’s War Communism, and the peasants don’t like it, so they go with NEP- full capitalism in the countryside. But then they want rapid industrialization and that’s not working, so the go full speed into collectivization (despite claims that it was supposed to be voluntary). There seems to be not moderation. To those that would defend collectivization, they’d have to explain why, then, did the Soviet government actually decollectivize some land during the late famine period (when it became undeniable that a famine was happening). Land was decollectivized where it was deemed more efficient to do so, meaning that on a small scale the Soviet government had admitted an error in that policy.

      Of course this is just Castro’s opinion, but it is telling that in spite of a much more difficult situation and hostile environment, the regime he set up still survives and evolves without any inkling of popular uprising while the USSR basically collapsed without a fight.

      Reply
  2. arschpirat

    I have a few questions, to Jim or anybody who is capable of providing an answer.

    Ima start with the one I’m bothered with the most atm. I understand how the distribution of goods according to ones need can work in a primitive, prehistoric society, where the groups are small and the goods, well, mostly food, sticks and stones or whatever. But how is this supposed to work in a complex 21st century society? What If I want a new mountainbike, who is to determine, whether this need is necessary or not, because, you know mountainbikes, are not easily manufactured, there is a complex supply chain in place in order to provide the raw materials, and the manufacturing process is rather complex by itself too, you’ll need different types of specialsits to produce them. (obviously, the MTB is just an example, I just sit in my living room and my bike is in front of me …).

    Reply
    1. Jim Kovpak Post author

      There are a number of takes on this question.

      One is that distribution according to need would never cover all products, but just essential things like housing, food, clothing, etc.

      In Marx’s work, he refers to a higher and lower stage of Communism, with the lower one being defined by “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his WORK (some people say contribution).” This means that people get out of society what they put it, minus deductions for certain things like healthcare, infrastructure, etc. (but in a way they’re getting that back in the form of those products). Later, these two “stages” of Communism would be called socialism and Communism, respectively.

      So:

      Socialism = distribution according to work

      Communism = there is material abundance and distribution is according to need

      Paul Cockshott wrote a brilliant series of works on the topic of creating modern socialism (look up the book Towards the New Socialism, which is available for free online). In it, he shows how the value of products could be based on labor time, which becomes like a “price.” Money in his model would be replaced by this time credit so you would pay for products with minutes and hours rather than dollars and cents (in a way we already do this, but we think of money as the medium rather than the amount of work done to earn that money, and we are also not paid the full value of our labor).

      He envisioned a market for consumer goods, where “prices” would fluctuate around the average social labor time of products. In a sense this is how normal supply and demand works. Products start with a price based on costs of production and fluctuate around that based on supply and demand.

      Of course Cockshott’s system is not exactly distribution according to need, but he posited that a sort of basic income could be established for essential goods.

      Another aspect of distribution according to need is that just because something is “free” doesn’t mean it won’t be accounted for or that people will be able to just walk in and walk away with every mountain bike they can carry. The bike shop would determine the regulations surrounding this transaction in a democratic way involving its owners, who would also be its workers.

      But whatever shape this system takes, one thing we understand is that humans do have basic, objective needs like food, shelter, healthcare, etc. The most important form of distribution according to need concerns these things. If these things are decommodified and provided to everyone, it’s not really a problem that TVs are still a commodity. People will have the choice of what kind of work they want to do, and if they choose to spend whatever compensation they get from that work on a TV, that would be their business.

      The reason essential needs must be cared for is that it is the lack of this provision that gives you a proletariat that can be exploited by a capitalist class. The proletariat have no other means of fulfilling those needs but by selling their labor power to acquire money. The exploitative relationship means that they rarely make enough to totally break their dependence on the capitalist class for work.

      When the essential needs are met and homelessness or starvation are not a threat, workers would have little incentive to accept the exploitative terms of capitalists. Here the capitalists would have their back against the wall, because they’d have to compete to get the workers’ interest. But of course this cuts into their profits, making the deal bad for them. Hopefully these empowered workers would eventually come to the conclusion that the capitalists are not necessary at all, and they could start taking over businesses and running them themselves.

      Reply
    1. gbd_crwx

      Btw, sorry to hear about the end of this blog, but I guess it makes sense. If you start a new one give us a noyice here please.

      Reply

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