This is an introduction to Socialisms: Revolutions Betrayed, Mislaid and Unmade.
This book provides accessible description and assessment of attempts to transcend capitalism in Europe, Asia and Latin America. It combines an account of travel in eight countries that have experienced some form of socialist transformation with historical analysis of what happened and what went wrong. The eight countries under examination here – Russia, Georgia, Serbia, China, North Korea, Laos, Cuba and Venezuela – went through the process of revolt against capitalism in very different ways, and the failure to build socialism in each separate case offers many lessons for those who still rebel against exploitation and oppression and who want a better world.
I make no pretence to get ‘back-stage’ and to directly see what these countries are really like in this book. Such direct empirical visible data is not actually only the stuff of Marxism at any rate; Marxism is a method of analysis which focuses on underlying political-economic processes, and for that you need historical context and an attention to the fault-lines in a social system which themselves become evident over time, evident in conscious collective attempts to change the world. I have set out some of the compass points for that kind of analysis, and you need to read my anecdotal observations against that background, a background that I flesh out in the course of this book.
There was no blueprint for socialism in the 1848 Communist Manifesto, and both Marx and Engels, along with most revolutionaries seeking an overthrow of capitalist society, have wisely avoided spelling out exactly how a socialist society would be organised. Marx’s own suggestion, in his 1875 Critique of the Gotha Programme, that post-capitalist society might travel through ‘socialist’ and then ‘communist’ stages of development offered a poisoned chalice to revolutionary leaders seeking to justify the necessarily limited steps they were taking in a hostile world. This, and the claim that it would indeed be possible to build ‘socialism in one country’ while under attack from the rest of the capitalist world, was then combined by Stalinist apologists for the bureaucratic suppression of democracy in each country they controlled with the idea that there were strict ‘stages’ of development of society. It would then be possible, they argue, to understand and justify the limitations of actually-existing socialist societies with reference to the linear path of history from slavery to feudalism to capitalism and, only after that, to socialism.
The experience of the attempt to build socialism in each of the eight countries described in this book speaks against those claims. These revolutions broke from the linear ‘stage’ model of political-economic development derived from a misreading of Marx, and they each, in their own particular way, valiantly attempted to strike out on a different path which would replace individual ownership and control of the means of production – ‘the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie’ – with collective ownership. This book describes how it was in and part of each separate revolutionary process that revolutionary Marxists insisted that the so-called ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ must, in Lenin’s words, be by definition ‘a thousand times more democratic’ than capitalism, and such an argument was eventually codified in Ernest Mandel’s 1985 document written for the Fourth International Dictatorship of the Proletariat and Socialist Democracy, and later extended by perspectives on women’s liberation and on ecosocialism in what Catherine Samary terms ‘decolonial communism’.
Revolutionary Marxists have avoided setting out a blueprint for socialism for at least three reasons, and the attempts to build ‘socialism’ explored in this book underline the importance of each of these reasons. The first is that our imagination about what socialism will look like is always conditioned and limited by the shape of present-day society. The exploitative and oppressive social relationships that make capitalist accumulation of profit by a limited few possible set a template for any alternative world we could conjure into existence. We kick against this miserable world, and we hope for something better, and that creative revolt opens up something new. A revolutionary break with capitalism then makes it possible, and it is only when we are released from the confines of class-hatred and the correlative forms of racism and sexism and systematic exclusion of those who are deemed ‘unproductive’ that we can really begin to imagine and enact something completely different.
The second reason why we avoid blueprints is that any particular present-day context is continually changing, mutating, and opening up false paths in which capitalism, which is the most fluid and innovative system of political-economic organisation that the world has ever seen, is able to adapt every proposed alternative to its own ends. Capitalism recuperates, absorbs and neutralises, each and every idea about change, and this means that every blueprint is susceptible to distortion such that progressive social programmes then became part of the problem instead of part of the solution.
The third reason is at the heart of the process of revolutionary change, a process we see sparks of in this book, sparks which are then difficult to keep burning and too-often extinguished. Socialism is not a blueprint to be handed down to people as if it were a technical solution to a problem of efficient social organisation. It is a process of self-organisation through which people learn through their own collective self-activity what is possible and discover ways to put their ideas into practice.
Each specific country operates as a particular combination of factors at play on a global scale. Complete independence of any nation state once capitalism took hold as a global system is an illusion, in some cases it is an unavoidable illusion that sustains national liberation struggles that then gives way to a process of building economic and political ties and international solidarity. That practical impossibility of socialism in one country – political-economic isolation – was accompanied by another kind of isolation, with deadly consequences.
The formation of the First, Second, Third and then Fourth Internationals was predicated on the revolutionary Marxist understanding that successful combat against capitalism and its eventual overthrow depended on the accumulation of experiences from diverse parts of the world, from parts of the working class and from among its allies. Anti-capitalist struggle is complemented and enriched by the experience of anti-colonial movements, anti-racist movements, and by women’s liberation and sexual liberation, ecological struggle and other dimensions of resistance against exploitation and oppression. Such heterogeneous complex political experiences must be drawn from across the globe so the working class itself can come to realise in its own practice the way in which its specific circumstances are intertwined with the operation of those multiple elements on an international level.
These eight attempts to build socialism in three very different parts of the world are testimony to the resistant energy and hope of people to escape from the confines of capitalism and find a better way to organise society, organise it for themselves rather than for the rich and powerful. What is amazing about these places where there was an attempt to build socialism is not that they failed but that there was a concerted struggle to go beyond capitalism. They failed, and we must learn from those failures, precisely in order that we might better succeed in the future. That guiding principle in this sympathetic examination of forms of socialism through a revolutionary Marxist lens is one grounded in solidarity with those who dared, and solidarity with those who are still steadfast in refusing what capitalism offers.
This is one of the Socialisms series of FIIMG articles