On Socialism

Anirban Biswas

Let it be made clear at the outset that this writer is an activist, not a philosopher or Marxologist, and his reading of socialism and Marxism is limited. That is why he has thought it apposite to put his thoughts in writing in a straightforward manner, even at the risk of being called superficial and inaccurate. He can, however, say in self-defence that he has tried to be plain and logical in his approach, and he is an inquisitive activist, not a theoretician. With this apology, he ventures to put forward his thoughts.

Socialism and communism were words in vogue for the greater part of the twentieth century. They seemed to symbolize ideas like equality and freedom. To many, the future of mankind seemed to have been revealed in the Soviet Union and then in China. Even those who did not call themselves communists did not object to their being called socialists. Within the communist camp, the great Sino-Soviet ideological-political debate pained many, and this divide influenced the division within communist parties in different countries. Yet there continued to exist the idea that there is, after all, something that could be called communism and socialism.

The collapse of the Soviet Union, and the tumultuous events in Eastern Europe, along with the reversals in China, too glaring to be ignored, led, however, to a fierce attack on socialism, communism and Marxism. There had already been an undercurrent of opposing Marxism in various forms all through the twentieth century. Opponents of Marxism often found it convenient to equate Marxism with economic determinism, and sometimes to construct different apparently class- neutral abstractions, of which neoclassical and modern neo¬neoclassical economics are embodiments. Towards the end of the twentieth century, Marxism and socialism seemed to be pushed into a corner, reduced to a subject of academic and historical interest, rather than of living debate. Notions like post-modernism and post-colonialism became fashionable words. The thrust of all these, for all practical purposes, was that whatever the assumed or real vices of capitalism, we have to accept it and must not rack our brains and waste our energies in pursuing, in theory as well as in practice, the utopia called socialism, because all the problems of the people could be solved within the framework of capitalism if the problems could be diagnosed with a little more judiciousness. Concurrently, the onward march of ‘globalization’, helped consolidate the hegemony of one capitalist superpower which appeared invincible. Countries like China and India, seemingly two rapidly emerging powers, appeared to have accepted the phenomena of globalization and liberalization, despite rising inequalities of income and wealth.

One point needs to be stressed in this connection. Although opposing Marxism came to be a fashion, these critics have been unable to disprove Marx’s views on classes, which can be succinctly put as follows: (1) the existence of classes is bound up with the particular historical phase in the development of production; (2) the class struggle in capitalist societies necessarily leads to the dictatorship of the proletariat; (3) this dictatorship itself only constitutes the transition to the abolition of all classes and to a classless society ( Marx’s letter to J. Weydemeyer, March 5, 1852). It should be clear that failure to disprove the historical character of the existence of classes led to the clever thesis of the ‘end of history’. This thesis was propagated after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the reversal in Eastern Europe and China. Its supporters paraded the success of the ‘tiger’ economies of East Asia and, after their reduction to lambs, that of globalization in order to buttress their arguments. Conscientious and more perspicacious thinkers, however, were not so easily convinced. Some of them, such as Amit Bhaduri, pointed out the contradictions of globalization, and the futility of pursuing a forward-looking strategy by India and other third world countries. But many suffered from a sense of dejection - being shaken by the gigantic reversals - from which they are yet to recover. The other side of the picture is that a strong self¬critical intellectual movement emerged all over the world among genuine Marxists who had not lost faith, although they were, and still are, not very clear about how socialism is to be achieved and how a future socialist society would function.

The supposed belief in the final triumph of capitalism did not take long to crumble. The global meltdown that started in 2008 and is far from over yet, has provided a watershed, leading the advocates of globalization into a cul de sac, reinforcing the notion that capitalism cannot deliver the people from their sufferings. The neo-liberal utopia that had come to represent the dominant intellectual trend was struck a severe blow, because the reality of growing mass poverty, unemployment, serious ecological damage and dislocation of whole societies was too glaring to be ignored. The crisis of capitalism has given rise to two mutually opposite outcomes.

On the other hand, it has strengthened forces of racialism and religious fanaticism, as exemplified by the victory of Donald Trump in the USA and the temporary victory of Hindutva fanatics in India. On the other hand, there has taken place a revival of interest in Marxism, socialism and communism, along with vigorous struggles, not always consciously, against the concrete manifestations of globalization and liberalization. There is nothing unnatural about this. If it is thought that one must get rid of the belief in the efficacy of capitalism in solving the problems of humanity, then one must think about socialism, which is the negation of capitalism.

But it must be admitted that interest in socialism has its problems, which need to be reflected upon seriously. The experience of the erstwhile Soviet Union and China have shown that the problems of socialism, both economic and political, are too intricate to permit readymade solutions and that the possibility of re-emergence and even restoration of capitalism with all its attendant evils, mainly control of the means of production by a handful of persons, is always there. So, when it is agreed that the prosperity of mankind under capitalism is a reactionary utopia, there must be serious questioning on what the true nature of socialism could be, and whether and how far the development of post-revolutionary societies, where revolutions had been led by communist parties, fitted in with this nature, i.e., whether there was a real transitional process towards communism.

China once seemed to be the model to be followed by the toiling people and this notion fired the imagination of radical youth all over the world, craving for a better human society. Now, it is a fact that in China, economic disparity has risen astronomically over the last three decades and collective ownership of the means of production has been dismantled almost entirely in the name of ‘market socialism’. Many Chinese names now figure in the list of the wealthiest persons of the world. Clearly, a dictatorship of the bourgeoisie has come to be established in the name of the communist party. The communist party, it must be admitted, was, during the phase of the new democratic revolution, the platform of all anti¬imperialist and anti-feudal forces who were not all necessarily devoted to the ideal of communism. After the successful completion of the revolution, the communist party served as the platform of genuine revolutionaries who wanted their country to move towards socialism and communism and to formulate suitable economic policies towards that end. But during this phase, there were other elements inside the communist party who wanted to move along a capitalist path of development. It is clear that these elements and their ideological followers won in the end. In the Soviet Union, the way the term ‘socialism’ has been done away with proves even more clearly the existence of representatives of the bourgeoisie inside the communist party. The leaders of the communist party themselves proclaimed the demise of socialism. Before this proclamation, Boris Yeltsin, the spokesman of the Russian ruling class, was the secretary of the Moscow City Committee of the CPSU. The way the change of regime took place shows that the leaders of the communist party had achieved a self-identification with the bourgeoisie.

Some pertinent questions arise. What is the real form of socialism led by the dictatorship of the proletariat? What is the form of governance under this dictatorship? Is it the dictatorship of the party that has come to power after a successful revolution and claims to represent the working people? If not, how to differentiate the dictatorship of the proletariat from that of the party? What are the economic and social contradictions that continuously undermine the dictatorship of the proletariat or people’s democratic dictatorship and reproduce bourgeois relations? If it is accepted that one must not consider capitalism as the terminus of history, and that socialism is its necessary negation, one must also find out why and where the earlier experiments failed. One must analyse why these methods did not qualify as real models of socialism, and what were the real reasons for their collapse.

Simple common sense suggests that setting up a dictatorship of the proletariat by eliminating bourgeois ownership of the means of production, bourgeois political power and bourgeois ideological structure implies a drastic change in the pattern of governance of the society and economy. There should also be no disagreement that this drastic change must be accompanied by a greater degree of democracy and social and economic equality than in the earlier system. What should be the form of such a dictatorship?

Here the model of the Paris Commune of 1871 may be invoked, because it affords valuable insights into the subject. What did the Commune, which lasted only three months, do, or try to do? The first decree of the Commune was the suppression of the standing army, and its replacement by armed people. Besides, it was decreed that the police were to be converted into paid employees of the Commune, subject to recall; the judiciary and the executive were to be constituted by elected representatives of the people, and their wages were to be no higher than workers’ emoluments. Thus, the Commune was not a state proper, and it put into concrete shape a system of democracy that was far deeper and broader than bourgeois democracy. It was the political form of the dictatorship of the proletariat at last discovered.

But that did not mean that there was no need to crush the resistance of the bourgeoisie which had wielded state power and was determined to come back. This task was not carried out sufficiently. Lenin pointed out this inadequacy and the distinguishing characteristics of this suppression in these brilliant lines penned during the tumultuous days of the Russian Revolution:

It is still necessary to suppress the bourgeoisie and crush their resistance. This was particularly necessary for the Commune; and one of the reasons for its defeat was that it did not do this with sufficient determination. The organ of suppression, however, is here the majority of the population, and not a minority, as was always the case under slavery, serfdom and wage slavery. And since the majority of the people itself suppresses its oppressors, a ‘special force’ for suppression is no longer necessary! In this sense, the state begins to wither away. Instead of the special institutions of a privileged minority (privileged officialdom, the chiefs of the standing army), the majority itself can directly fulfil all these functions, and the more the functions of state power are performed by the people as a whole, the less need there is for the existence of this power.

It may be noted that while emphasizing the need for suppression, Lenin did not mention the need for a standing army.

The reasons for the defeat of the Commune were many and varied, but the principles it upheld continued to be discussed. As far as this writer’s limited experience goes, these discussions have in fact gained in momentum after the reversals in the Soviet Union and China. The Commune was defeated by external aggression, but the Russian Revolution of 1917 was not. In Russia, the concept of Soviet power became popular even before the capture of power by the Bolsheviks who were initially a minority in the Soviets. They expanded their influence during World War I with the slogan of ‘land, peace and bread’, not of ‘All Power to the Soviets.’ They brought back the latter slogan on the eve of the November uprising. By virtue of an alliance with Left Social Revolutionaries, they were able to extend their support base to the countryside too.

The immediate aftermath of the revolution was a period of fighting outside intervention and the Kolchaks and Denikins. After the defeat of the enemies aided by Western powers, there began attempts at reconstruction, but there was no sign of the withering away of the state. During the period of the five-year plans, the Soviet Union made rapid strides in many fields. But an important lesson of the Paris Commune, namely, the performing of the functions of the state by the broad masses of the people, was gradually lost. The Soviets continued to exist but their pivotal role gradually diminished; at least, there was no indication that the functions of state power were performed by the people as a whole. It might be that the party leaders and party-appointed bureaucrats were not conscious representatives of the bourgeoisie, but when the arms of the state are strengthened rather than weakened during the phase of construction of socialism, seeds are germinated for a reversal to capitalism, not for an advancement to communism. It may be argued with some plausibility that impressive performances of the Soviet Union before the Second World War in respect of industrial production and welfare measures like improved health care, job security and universal education, as well as its remarkable resilience in the face of the Great Depression of the 1930s, served to hide this important gap in the building of socialism, supposed to be the first phase of the communist society. But the gap was amply revealed in Stalin’s denial of the existence of classes in the Soviet Union in 1935 after the completion of the collectivization programme.

A classless society cannot operate alongside a huge state machinery, because such a state is, according to the basic Marxist principle, an instrument of class rule. The standard argument for maintaining a huge standing army was, and still is, that such an army is necessary to fight external aggression. But why could not armed militias of the people do the job? It may be unfair to suggest that Stalin was a state capitalist knave, but there should be no denying that he did not take proper lessons from Marx’s (and Lenin’s) observations on the Paris Commune as well as Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Programme. On the question of the state as an instrument of class rule, it is hard to find a conceptual difference between Stalin and his successors, who denounced him scurrilously. They proclaimed the theory of ‘the state for the whole people’, which only echoed Stalin’s denial of the existence of classes in the Soviet Union.

The lack of universal suffrage and the existence of a single party claiming to represent the working class and the toiling people in general stifle the initiative of the masses. It may be recalled that Rosa Luxemburg, the great German revolutionary, had anticipated this possibility with commendable foresight. Within a year of the November Revolution, she wrote from a prison cell:

With the repression of political life in the land as a whole, life in the Soviets must also become more and more crippled. Without general elections, without unrestricted freedom of press and assembly, without free struggle of opinion, life dies out in every public institution, becomes a mere semblance of life, in which only the bureaucracy remains the active element. ...a dictatorship, to be sure, not the dictatorship of the proletariat, however, but only the dictatorship of a handful of politicians, that is, a dictatorship in the bourgeois sense.

She also emphasized that, against crimes and degeneration, “draconian measures are powerless. On the contrary, they cause still further corruption. The only anti-toxin: the idealism and social activity of the masses, unlimited political freedom.”

The standard argument for not allowing the functioning of any party other than the communist party was the need for suppression of bourgeois and reactionary ideas. This argument was patently illusory, because if bourgeois ideas were sought to be suppressed in this way, they would crop up from within the community party itself and, if the people were disarmed, make a bourgeois victory easier. On the other hand, if the people are armed, and the proletariat is really in power, there is no need to be afraid of universal suffrage and complete freedom of assembly and speech. Here lies the significance of Luxemburg’s observation on the futility of draconian measures. Bourgeois ideas and bourgeois relations spring up from international sources and, more importantly, from the contradictions in the socialist society itself - the contradictions between mental and manual labour, between the working class and the peasantry, between town and country etc. Even if the leaders of the ruling party are genuinely revolutionary, draconian measures cannot wipe out the contradictions, nor can they eliminate bourgeois ideas advocating the control of state-aided technocratic-managerial classes.

On the management of the economy, it can be said that the Soviet economy gradually came to be more statist than socialist, with the chain of command remaining external to the workers. The command remained in the hands of the party-approved planning body, plant managers and party leadership, with gradual alienation from direct producers. This truth was suppressed by equating state ownership and planning with socialism.

The features of statism were summarised, of course in the name of socialism, by Stalin in the following words:

They [the means of production] are only allocated by the state to its enterprises. In the second place, when transferring means of production to any enterprise, the state does not at all lose the ownership of them; on the contrary, it retains it fully. In the third place, the directors of enterprises who receive means of production from the Soviet state, far from becoming their owners, are deemed to be the agents of the state in the utilisation of the means of production in accordance with the plans established by the state.

One cannot find anything here about the role of the working class, unless one axiomatically takes the state and plant directors to be representative of the working class. Here the state may as well be taken as a large corporation having branches all over the country and having total control of the means of production, but having no likeness with Soviet power as conceived by Lenin. Charles Bettelheim, the French Marxist thinker, grasped this point well when he remarked in course of his debate with Paul Sweezy: “Control by the workers over their conditions of existence requires above all the dismantling of the old state apparatus and its replacement by a radically different apparatus. A new apparatus that is essentially similar to the old apparatus will of necessity reproduce the same social relationships.”

It may be noted that Albert Einstein, the great physicist and social thinker, had pointed out in his famous article ‘Why Socialism?’(1949) the essentially exploitative, dehumanizing and anarchic nature of capitalist production, and argued that only social ownership of the means of production could give a lasting peace to the people.

Einstein, however, was not able to see through the problems of building socialism nor to identify the contradictions that might remain in a post-revolutionary society. In other words, he could not suggest what social ownership really meant.

In Soviet society, the contradiction between industry and agriculture remained. What took place was some sort of primitive socialist accumulation through which the peasantry was expropriated. Mao Zedong grasped this point well when he said,
The Soviet Union has adopted measures which squeeze the peasants very hard. It takes away too much from the peasants at too low a price through its system of obligatory sales and other measures. This method of capital accumulation has seriously dampened the enthusiasm for production. You want the hen to lay more eggs and yet you don’t feed it. You want the horse to run fast and yet you don’t let it graze. What kind of logic is that!

It was argued that extraction of surplus from agriculture was necessary for industrialization and, in return, the collective farms were to be provided with the service of machine tractor stations. Such mechanistic and economistic ideas, which clearly imply a subordination of collective farms to state-owned machine tractor stations, only served to heighten the contradiction between industry and agriculture. On the other hand, the control of party-led bureaucrats and managers gave birth to a state-class with growing power. The Soviets were weakened and the concept of Soviet power came to exist only formally. It is clear that from this state-class grew the bourgeoisie of the later period.

It is true that the foremost leader of the Chinese revolution was aware of this and of the need to eliminate the contradictions step by step. But for a long time since the 1950s, China continued to practice an eight-grade wage system of distribution according to work and exchange through money. Although the urban-rural differentials in income were considerably narrowed, the operation of the commodity system engendered capitalist forces within the party and the state. It was against these forces that the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution was sought to be directed. Mao Zedong did not suffer from the Stalinist illusion about the non-existence of classes and understood clearly that the bourgeoisie existed right inside the party: it is this understanding that propelled him to launch the Cultural Revolution. One may, however, ask with some reasonableness: why was the Cultural Revolution which bombarded the bourgeois headquarters inside the party defeated? One plausible answer is that the scope of the class struggle was unnecessarily widened while the basis of the rebirth of the bourgeois forms, namely, the gradations in the wage system and the prevalence of commodity relations, were not sufficiently taken into account. The primacy of content over form regarding the control of means of production was not sufficiently grasped, and the shrewd representatives of the bourgeoisie lying inside the party skilfully took advantage of this to capture power after Mao’s death. Chang Chun Chiao, one of the so-called ‘gang of four’, had recognized the problem in writing by saying that we must see more clearly the problem of ownership in the relations of production. But it is incorrect to attach no importance to whether the issue of system of ownership has been resolved in form or in reality, to the reaction exerted on the system of ownership by the two other aspects of the relations between men and the forms of distribution and to the reaction exerted on the economic base by the superstructure; these two aspects and the superstructure may play a decisive role under given circumstances. Politics is the concentrated expression of economics. The correctness or incorrectness of the ideological and political line and the control of leadership in the hands of one class or another, decide which class owns a factory.

These lines show an awareness that the class issue regarding ownership of the means of production was far from settled even after the first wave of the Cultural Revolution had subsided. The fact is that the capitalist roaders inside the party were victorious while the army stood a silent spectator. At least it did not intervene in favour of the supporters, activists and leaders of the Cultural Revolution. It is necessary to keep in mind that during the new democratic revolution, the masses of peasants and workers armed themselves and defeated the Japanese imperialists and the Chiang clique. Mao Zedong was possibly aware of this and wanted the army to be a part of the Cultural Revolution, but neither he nor his close comrades tried to dissolve the standing army and replace it with armed peasants and workers. Involving the army in a struggle to resist capitalist restoration while allowing it to retain the character of a standing army, is a contradiction in itself. It is certainly a delusion to suppose that the people meekly accepted the profound changes, decollectivization of agriculture and free reins to the new bourgeoisie, in post¬Mao China. But they had to submit to it because they had already been disarmed. Political power thus came out of the barrel of the gun. Today’s China is in a strong internal political crisis and the resistance led by ‘neo- Maoists’ are growing, the outcome of which is as yet uncertain.

Politics being the concentrated expression of economics, it is necessary to understand, or at least try to understand, the economic roots of this restoration. A socialist model must rely on the self-management by the toiling people of the enterprises, agricultural and industrial. To the extent this is achieved, the state is progressively decentralized, but the state must perform the tasks of coordinating accumulation and distribution on a national scale, given the differences in productivity and natural conditions. This process must go until the self-management of enterprises extends into wider circles of cooperation. Thus, the non-state gradually comes to replace the state after a long struggle. It may be said that self-management by producers in the Soviet Revolution receded into the background in the bid ‘to catch up with the West’. In China too, this self-management was circumscribed by administrative planning from above. This type of administrative planning was relaxed in the immediate post-war period but it was accompanied by two major changes that definitely indicated a reversal to capitalism. One was the dismantling of the commune system and the second was the ‘open door’ policy to foreign capital. The first step definitely generated the seeds of a transition to capitalism. By the second step, foreign capital was given the opportunity to exploit the Chinese working class in various ways, such as depriving the workers of such enterprises of their legitimate constitutional rights regarding wages and social security. This ‘open door’ policy was followed by privatization of industrial enterprises. Over two decades, more than two- thirds of industrial employment came to be concentrated enterprises owned by foreigners or domestic private capitalists. (Chandra, 2007)

One vexing problem of socialism, or the transition between capitalism and communism, concerns the operation of commodity-market-value relations. As late as 1952, Stalin, somewhat grudgingly admitted in his Economic Problems of Socialism in the USSR, the existence of the operation of the law of value in the Soviet Union but hastened to add that it was controlled by the dictatorship of the proletariet. Implicitly, he meant to suggest that this operation was negated by planning and state-management of enterprises. History has later proved this wrong. When the dictatorship of the proletariat actually comes to be synonymous with the dictatorship of the state classes, and the basic contradictions of society remain unsolved, it is mere self-delusion to control the operation of the law of value by planning from above. Unhindered operation of the law of value definitely generates and accentuates capitalist motives; hence, the task is to eliminate, step by step, the contradictions from which they originate and grow. In other words, the task is to transform the character of the state, gradually turning it into a non-state and advancing towards a higher form of communist society.

It must not be forgotten that world capitalism has given birth to two world wars leading to loss of innumerable human lives and untold suffering. Besides, the drive for capitalist accumulation has generated numerous direct wars of aggression as well as proxy wars, and has caused incalculable damage to the environment on which the survival of mankind is crucially dependent, and has thus endangered the very basis of the existence of the human species. Moreover, massive periodic unemployment and consequent untold misery and suffering are also contributions of the decadent capitalism of today. Hence, those who aspire for a better society must realize the predatory nature of capitalist growth and think afresh of socialism and communism. At present, struggles against this predatory growth are raging all over the world. It is possible that many new and positive ideas regarding the dictatorship of the proletariat and the communist society of the future will emerge from them. We may, however, conclude this essay with the hope of the emergence of this society, for it is this hope on which the future of mankind rests. 

Hence, these profound words of Marx are still relevant and serve as a beacon- light to those who have not renounced the struggle for the transition from the realm of necessity to the realm of freedom.

In a higher phase of communist society, after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labour and with it also the antithesis between mental and physical labour has vanished; after labour has become not only a means of life but also life’s prime want; after the progressive forces have also increased with cooperative wealth flow more abundantly - only then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety
and society inscribe on its banners: From each according to its ability to each according to its need.

When this narrow horizon of bourgeois rights will be crossed is not known, but the principles remain the same.

Amin, Samir : The future of Maoism, Rainbow, 1998
Bettleheim, Charles and Sweezy, Paul, On the Transition to Socialism, Aakar, 2010 Chandra, Nirmal Kumar, Cheen Ki Ekhono Samajtantrik? (Is China Still Socialist?) in Arthaniti,Samaj O Sanskriti (Essays in Memory of Asok Rudra), People’s Book Society, Kolkata, 2007 Einstein, Albert, “Why Socialism?”Monthly Review, 1949
Lenin,V.I. The State and Revolution, Moscow, 1977
Mao Zedong, Selected Works, Volume 5, Beijing 1977
Marx, Karl, Critique of the Gotha Programme, Foreign Language Press, Beijing, 1976
Nandy, Vaskar, Foreword to Samir Amin’s book
Nandy, Vaskar, “The Sputniks Went Up and the Red Flag Came Down!”, Paper presented at Indian Institute of Advanced Studies, 1993
Rana, Santosh, “On Economics and Politics of Socialism”, For a New Democracy, July-August 2000
Raychaudhury, Dipanjan, “Party and Commune”, Frontier, Autumn number, 2011
Joseph Stalin, History of the CPSU(B), Moscow, 1951
Stalin, Economic Problems of Socialism in the USSR, Foreign Language Press, Beijing, 1972

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Vol. 54, No. 14-17, Oct 3 - 30, 2021