Has socialism ever existed?

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By Greg Bradshaw, Socialist Party Melbourne.
In 1917 the masses of Russia rose up against their oppressors and for the first time in history (apart from the ill-fated Paris Commune) an alternative to capitalism was established: democratic socialism.

But at the beginning of the 1990s the massive Soviet Union collapsed into absolute poverty with the establishment of Russian capitalism.


Surely the fall of the USSR and the Eastern European states proves that socialism is a good idea in theory, but simply doesn?t work in practice? If not, then how did the heroic efforts of the Russian working class and some of history?s greatest revolutionaries end in capitalism and bloodshed?

The Revolution

Prior to the revolution an autocratic Tsar ruled the Russian Empire, stretching from Poland to Alaska. The Russian economy was developing extremely slowly due to harsh weather conditions, and this created mass poverty and starvation in a heavily agricultural society. At the time, capitalists could still make more money investing in land than in industry.


The trigger was the horrors of the First World War, where millions of peasants were slaughtered in the trenches, and the country gradually bled to death.


In October of 1917 a socialist revolution led by the Bolsheviks overthrew the Tsarist aristocracy and implemented the world?s first workers? state. It was based around ?soviets?: a Russian term for democratic committees of workers and soldiers. These were originally created to organise the revolution, but were to become the democratic basis of the new socialist society. At no stage did the Bolsheviks put forward the idea of a ?one party state?, for which there is no foundation in Marxism.


The success of the revolution in Russia sent shivers through capitalists across the globe. So the imperialist nations, including US troops and British forces (of which a small contingent of Australian soldiers were part!) launched a cruel and bloody civil war in Russia, on the side of the pro-Tsarist armies, to crush the workers? democracy.


Amazingly, against the combined might of the global imperialist powers the Russian workers and peasants emerged victorious. This victory would have been almost impossible without the support of workers in the West. Imperialism could not risk too much involvement lest they agitate their own oppressed to the point of revolt. It was dangerous times for global capitalism.


But victory came at a terrible price. Famine and disease ravaged the lands that made up the USSR, first by Tsarist oppression, then by the economic dislocation of World War One and the civil war. It was years of intense work by a war-weary Russian working class just to re-organise society close to a pre-war level.


Karl Marx had envisaged the first socialist state to emerge from the most advanced capitalist country. However, the chains of capitalism broke at its weakest link. Leon Trotsky spelt out the dangers of an underdeveloped socialist state in a sea of global capitalism: ?Either the Russian revolution will raise the whirlwind of struggle in the west, or the capitalists of all countries will crush our revolution.?


The Bolsheviks had no illusions that an isolated and underdeveloped Russian economy was not extremely vulnerable, and relied on the victory of workers in some advanced capitalist countries.


Unfortunately, all the attempts to overthrow capitalism (in Germany, Britain, Poland, Hungary, Italy and so on) were thwarted. In part this was owing to the workers? movements mistakes and inexperience, but mostly it was due to the betrayals of the European social-democratic parties, and their allies in the reformist trade union bureaucracies.

The Workers? State

For the first period, a workers? state must operate with the economic means it has inherited from capitalism. It must use the skilled people trained under capitalism, and thus some of the methods of capitalism that went with it: the division of labour, the payment of wages, and so forth.


An entire transformation of the state apparatus was impossible inside the isolated and underdeveloped Soviet Union. Hundreds of thousands of specialist positions existed in the state apparatus, far too many to be filled by the Bolsheviks. And many of the most advanced workers who rallied to the front lines during the civil war had been killed.
Specialists under capitalism and its technical apparatus are workers on a wage, but are given privileges so that their material interests are the same as the ruling class. In a socialist society, these privileges are eroded through the material advance of working class conditions, and the positions themselves slowly eroded with the self-control and management of an educated working class. In this way the class divisions, and thus the state – an implement of class rule, disappears.


Only the command of the working people over society can eradicate the remnants of capitalism forever, and through that engage in a true form of direct, participatory democracy. However, in the backward agrarian society of the USSR, the vast majority of the population was made up of illiterate peasants, who knew nothing of the processes of urban industrial production.


These specialists then, could not be replaced ? they had to be kept on in the new government. But their privileges could not be entirely removed either, or their allegiance would shift away from the new workers? state. With day to day administration lying in the hands of this privileged layer of specialists, the democratic soviets became removed from the running of society and were corrupted by privileged interests. Eventually they shut down through stagnation.


The advanced of the working class fought against the rise of the bureaucracy and the man who represented their interests in society: Joseph Stalin. But they could offer no immediate solution, because inside Russia, there was none. Only the conquest of power by the working class in developed countries, and the provision of large-scale technical assistance to their brothers and sisters in Russia, could remove the basis of bureaucratic power.

The Rise of Stalin

In 1921 the Bolsheviks were forced to implement a ?New Economic Policy?, recognising the problems and barriers that inhibited the Russian economy. It provided profit incentives to the capitalists and richer peasants who dominated the agricultural industry to step up production for the market as a means of feeding the towns and cities.


The NEP was successful in its aims, but strengthened the position of the privileged layers in society. It was a dangerous and desperate tactical shift. It was known it could only be a temporary measure, and Trotsky warned that eventually the power of the kulaks (rich farmers) would grow so much as to threaten the workers? state. Their pressure on the workers? leaders was already increasing, and the balance of forces was tilting further and further against the working class.


It was in this period Stalin came to the fore. It was not his abilities, nor his personality, nor even his conscious intentions that turned this colourless individual into the dictator of later years. Stalin?s rise to power was a direct consequence of the changes in class forces in society.


Stalin began to create secret pacts with other members of the leadership to ensure his policies and interests were adopted. These pacts used underhanded tactics such as vote rigging within the party to prevent Trotsky and his Left Opposition from sending delegates to conferences.


With the defeat of the German revolution it became clear Russia faced a long period of isolation. So Stalin propagated the idea that internationalism, at the very heart of socialism, was mere wishful thinking, and that the ?practical tasks? of the revolution needed to be prioritised. Furthermore, he thought it best not encourage revolution to the workers in other countries, lest it spark another imperialist invasion in his.
The direct result was Stalin?s ?theory? of ?Socialism in One Country? ? a blatant attempt at theoretical justification for his policies of nationalism and centralised bureaucracy. The introduction of this policy signified the abandonment of Marxist analysis, and also the death of the healthy workers? state. All Marxist opposition to Stalin?s bureaucracy was banned from 1927 onwards, smashing the final aspects of democracy.


Trotsky and his Opposition members were either exiled from the Soviet Union or murdered by Stalin?s henchmen, and were amongst Stalin?s first victims. Virtually all of Trotsky?s extended family were murdered by Stalin until Trotsky himself was assassinated in Mexico, 1940. Until that day, Trotsky continued to play the leading role in the defence of Marxism and the workers? struggle against the attacks (both ideological and physical) of Stalinism.


Stalin soon realised that Trotsky?s warnings about the rise of the kulaks were correct, and concluded that they would eventually threaten his power at the head of the degenerated workers? state. In 1930, Stalin forcefully collectivised all the peasants? land in an attempt to boost the economy and control the kulaks. Rural Russia was convulsed by civil war as peasants slaughtered their animals before giving them to the regime. An estimated ten million people perished as a direct consequence of this bureaucratic decree, and whole communities and ethnicities were murdered or deported to the gulags.

The Fall of the USSR

After his decimation of the peasantry, Stalin was forced to implement a program of industrialisation that had previously been pushed for vehemently by Trotsky, and abolish the NEP. Much to Stalin?s surprise, the Soviet Union, in largely the space of a decade, went from an agrarian based society to an industrial giant rivalling the capitalist superpowers.


The transformation was unprecedented ? most capitalist countries had taken centuries of development to get to this point. This was due to the fact that the chaotic market-system (intrinsic to capitalism) had been replaced with a planned economy, which enabled enormous growth.


However, the restrictions of the bureaucratic regime were obvious too, including huge wastage of up to 30% of production, and a poor quality of goods. Only a democratic system of control over production can ensure that goods are produced at a suitable quantity and quality to suit society?s needs. For a planned economy, democracy is essential ? it?s like oxygen for the body ? and it was the destruction of democratic workers? control which led ultimately to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989-91.


The total death toll under Stalin?s regime is estimated at twelve to fifteen million. Rivers of blood separate that totalitarian regime and the workers? state established by Lenin, Trotsky and the Bolsheviks. The workers? movement must explain that the horrors of Stalinism and the ?communist? states hold no link to our ideas ? despite their symbolism and the claims of modern day capitalists.


The historical defeat of the working class in Russia can be put down to the eradication of democracy, and consequently to the turn away from internationalism. But the failure of the USSR was no failure of socialism. Genuine socialism must be based on a non-capitalist planned economy; one that must be linked to democratic control and management at all levels in society.
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