Socialism NOW! Or maybe later?
In the 1930s, socialist revolutions had been successful only in the USSR (in other words, in most of the former Russian Empire) and neighbouring Mongolia but nowhere else. The rest of the world had still to achieve their successful revolutions. For Communist and workers’ parties, the revolution, the attaining of political power by the working class, was clearly the main task. As such, it was also assumed that it would be the most difficult.
And in the 1920s and ’30s that certainly appeared to be the case. The revolutions in Hungary, Germany and Finland had been crushed. In Russia, the revolution came close to being extinguished by a combination of civil war and foreign intervention. Counter-revolution was only narrowly defeated by the sacrifice and tenacity of the Russian workers and peasants – and their skilled class-conscious political leaders – supported by pressure from working class organisations around the world (including in Australia).
When socialists in other countries looked at the efforts of the Communists in the Soviet Union to build Socialism, they naturally focused on the successful achievements rather than on the difficulties. It was assumed that the difficulties were so obvious that attention did not need to be drawn to them.
And yet, in the Soviet Union itself, the Communist Party was very much aware of the difficulties that building socialism presented. In fact, they had had to spend years overcoming a raft of difficulties before the building of a new socialist society could even begin. Their first task after the triumph of the Revolution was to repair and rebuild following the destruction of the Civil War. It took years before they regained the level of production of the economically backward pre-WW1 Tsarist Russia.
What made their task more difficult was the fact that they had to carry it out under conditions of economic blockade. Capitalist countries tried to withhold investment capital as well as necessary goods and services. Soviet leaders had to arrange for the country to sell whatever it could, playing the greed of various capitalists against one another to slowly acquire the materiel needed for the economic development of the new society, while the Soviet people contributed little by little to building up public investment funds.
After the post-civil war reconstruction, the Soviet government needed to move on to the industrialisation of the country. Industrialisation is an essential prerequisite for socialism, for without it a society cannot produce the necessary goods required for improving the standard of living of the working people. However, an industrial workforce has to come from somewhere and when found it has to be fed, clothed and housed.
In the USSR in the 1920s, that workforce could only come from among the large numbers who scratched a living from the land. To create conditions that would enable large numbers of people to be moved from peasant farms to working in factories, the Soviet government had to socialise agriculture, changing farming from small, labour-intensive farms to large-scale collectively-owned (and hopefully) mechanised farms. A lot less people could then produce a lot more food, thus freeing up the labour-force needed for the new industries and simultaneously providing the means of feeding them.
The socialisation of agriculture in the USSR involved merging numerous small individual farms into new large farms either State-owned or collectively-owned. When that process concluded, the government was able to introduce industrialisation with the first Five Year Plan. With the introduction of industrialisation the opportunities for enticing capitalist companies to invest in the Soviet Union’s economic development grew dramatically. Lots of capitalists were unable to resist the temptation to profit from the USSR’s industrial development. Everyone from the British-based Fordson, which sold the USSR complete tractor factories, and the Lipton tea company which built tea factories for the Soviet government, to the American designers of the legendary T34 tank who sold their design to the Red Army when the US military turned it down, yielded to the inducement of profit and ignored the unofficial embargo they were ideologically expected to uphold.
In short, the period after the Revolution in Russia was fraught with difficulties. A whole new way of looking at society, at the individual’s rights and responsibilities, and their interaction with the rest of society, had to be fostered among the people. At the same time they had to be encouraged to make what were in fact enormous sacrifices even as they learned new skills and undertook a massive construction program.
They had to contend not only with economic warfare on the part of foreign capitalist governments, but also with internal sabotage and ideological warfare on the part of right-opportunist and left-sectarian elements within the Communist Party of the Soviet Union itself. At every opportunity the world’s capitalist powers also conducted constant espionage and subversion against the Soviet state.
By far the greatest difficulty, however, was the fundamental one of changing the whole basis of society from rural to industrial, from small-holder to large-scale collective, from backward and ignorant to informed and modern.
Pre-revolutionary Russia was a capitalist country, but it had been a capitalist country for only about 50 years, since serfdom, the basis of feudalism, was ended under pressure from the small but growing number of mine, mill and factory owners who needed access to more labour power than was available under feudalism.
To convert this capitalist but still very backward country to a socialist one was an enormous task that had to be undertaken under economic conditions that can only be described as poverty-stricken. Even after a decade of post-revolutionary preparation, the people of the Soviet Union had to begin the building of socialism under very adverse conditions, not least being the absence of investment capital. In contrast to the mechanisation prevalent on US construction projects, for example, similar undertakings in the USSR prior to WW2 were of necessity marked by ingenious – and labour-intensive – efforts to achieve the same results with minimum access to machinery.
The spread of fascism that led to the Second World War was unequivocally directed against the growth of support for socialism. By the time WW2 ended with the defeat of fascism, the Soviet Union had become a great power and it was able to prevent the capitalist countries from interfering with socialist revolutions in Eastern Europe. The Communists had led the Resistance against the Nazis during the War, but the capitalist powers were able to thwart the various revolutionary efforts in Western Europe by using the Catholic Church, large-scale ingestions of capital, military intervention and even resorting to widespread use of terrorist acts by their intelligence agencies.
While the system of colonialism collapsed under the impact of the liberating ideas unleashed by the war against fascism, the major imperialist powers – the USA, Britain and France – engaged in a concerted effort to “roll back Communism”. This involved the launching of a system of flagrant hostility towards the Socialist countries called the “Cold War” (and for which capitalist governments blamed those same Socialist countries!) as well as open warfare, in Algeria, Malaya, China, Greece, The Philippines, Indo-China and elsewhere, all conducted under the constant threat by the USA that it would use the Atom Bomb, of which at the time it had a monopoly.
The USA’s loss of its nuclear monopoly combined with its failure to win the war it launched on the Korean peninsula facilitated a resurgence in the national liberation movement in colonial countries. Many of those movements pursued a socialist model, to the consternation of the capitalist powers. The latter resorted to assassination, bribery and military intervention to subvert or overthrow these regimes – whenever possible before they could even begin laying the foundations for building socialism.
By the same token, the number of countries seeking a socialist future encouraged the fostering of illusions that undoubtedly hindered the revolutionary process. I remember an interview with a spokesperson for either the Afghan or Ethiopian revolutionary regime, in which he rhapsodised about how fortunate they were that “Socialism has developed to the point where we can now go direct from feudalism to socialism and by-pass the capitalist stage altogether!”
It did indeed sound wonderful, but it was an illusion. Just as feudalism is an essential stage in the development of capitalism, so capitalism is an essential stage in the development of socialism. Why? Because each successive stage in the development of society – primitive communism, slave society, feudalism, capitalism, socialism, communism – is necessarily built on the base of the means of production and the relations of production that the preceding stage has managed to establish. It is no accident that the stages I have listed occur in that order. It is not random but essential that they follow each in other in that order, for each is built on necessary developments in the preceding stage.
As Halabi and Levins said in the May 2016 issue of this journal, “In efforts to rush progress, attempts may also be made to skip necessary steps, resulting in a fall down the spiral stairway of development …”
Socialism is the stage in which ownership of the means of production is vested in the working class. But it is a stage whose methodology is derived from and still carries the characteristics of capitalism: money, wages, prices, investment capital, etc. The working class itself is created by capitalism, becomes class conscious under capitalism, and develops revolutionary ideology in the course of struggling against the injustices of capitalism. To contemplate establishing a working class state that does not first go through the stage of capitalism is a contradiction in terms. It can’t be done: the necessary prerequisites are simply not there (not least being the working class itself). In Ethiopia after the overthrow of Haile Selasse, for example, the working class was largely nonexistent. What there was comprised a small number of taxi-drivers and a similar number of dock workers who manually loaded and unloaded cargo vessels. Infrastructure was almost nonexistent – there were very few roads. Even without imperialist-sponsored aggression, it would have required major realignment of the class forces in the country and massive development to move from feudalism to capitalism before the revolutionary regime could even begin to lay the foundations for socialism.
With help from existing socialist countries and given enough time this would have been possible. However, imperialism had no intention of giving the Ethiopian revolutionaries enough time to establish a non-capitalist society. Instead of building a new society that functioned in the interests of the people of their country, the revolutionaries of Ethiopia, like those of Afghanistan, The Congo, Grenada and Nicaragua (amongst others) found themselves embroiled in wars, subversion and military coups.
Despite the courage and determination of the workers and peasants of these countries, they were unable to move to the building of socialism. In East-Asia the story was different. Although US imperialism wished to intervene in China after the triumph of the Reds in 1949, they were unable to do more than try a clandestine “Bay of Pigs” type invasion by elements of Chiang Kai-Chek’s army in Taiwan. They shipped their invasion army to northern Thailand but to their dismay discovered that the remnants of the “Chinese Nationalists” found the drug trade much more alluring than taking on the Chinese Red Army.
Any more overt military intervention by the US would have earned the wrath of the USSR, which had already shown that it would not be intimidated by the US nuclear monopoly, and which by 1949 had already rendered that monopoly null and void. Nevertheless, an attempt was made to “roll back Communism”, by way of the Korean War. Soviet weapons and Soviet advisers along with large numbers of Chinese volunteers helped the Korean people to hold the troops of the US and some other Western UN members (including Australia) to a standstill roughly where the war had begun.
The failure of conventional arms plus a successful Soviet diplomatic offensive on the theme of nuclear disarmament and the dangers of nuclear war left US President Harry S Truman no option but to sack his Army commander, the gung-ho General Douglas Macarthur, who wanted Truman to let him “nuke the Commies”.
After the failure of the Korean War to roll back Communism, US ally France tried to destroy the revolutionary forces in Indo-China, but instead received such a drubbing that French forces had to be withdrawn from the region. The US military moved in to take over the effort to stop the Reds. The war that ensued, the Vietnam War, ultimately proved a disaster for the US, but imperialism had a tremendous success when Socialism was overthrown in the USSR. The revolutionary process suffered a setback whose ramifications are still being felt.
When the Revolution triumphed in China in 1949, the country had a population of 400 million (considered huge at that time). The Revolution put an end to the internecine civil wars waged by local warlords and also brought to an end the cycle of famine and pestilence which had previously caused millions of deaths every year. This was a resounding achievement, but it had an unlooked for consequence: a population explosion. The Communist government had barely taken its first steps when it was forced to cope with a population that had doubled.
To meet the dramatically increased need for new infrastructure – health care, schools, jobs, etc, etc – China would have to rapidly develop its economy. The only marketable asset they had in quantity however was manpower. Initially the Chinese tried to take advantage of it by offering to undertake major infrastructure projects for other countries at low cost by providing their own workforce. Takers were few, however, for local workers objected to Chinese labour being imported for projects that would otherwise provide jobs for locals.
The Chinese government realised that offering foreign companies the opportunity to establish factories in China engaged in labour-intensive assembly processes was a much better way to go. Aware that encouraging the setting up of large capitalist enterprises would be fraught with undesirable social consequences (the spread of individualism, profiteering, corruption and the other concomitants of capitalism) the Chinese authorities restricted their location to certain designated economic zones.
At the same time they made it a condition of being allowed to open a plant in China, that foreign companies had to teach their Chinese staff the whole process, from design, through manufacture to marketing, so that when at the end of the 20 or 25 year contract, when the Chinese took over the plant, they would be fully conversant with its operation and potential.
Aware that, to begin building socialism they had first to establish a viable capitalist base, they set about encouraging capitalists to establish enterprises in China, but under the control of the Communist government and Party. It has proven to be a delicate as well as difficult path to follow, but despite the constant ideological and occasionally economic warfare waged against China by the USA, China’s economy has gone ahead by leaps and bounds.
Nevertheless, the demand for revolution and Socialism is a law-governed process produced by the contradictions in capitalist society. It does not go away, whatever the setbacks. To be successful, however, those campaigning for revolution must be able to distinguish between illusion and reality, between wishful thinking and achievable ends. Socialism is not built simply by declaring that that is what you are doing. Building Socialism, like the Revolution itself, is a process – and a very complex process at that.
The successful revolutionaries, rejoicing at having wrested power from the bourgeoisie, have only just begun their journey, and will have to surmount all manner of difficulties – some created by imperialism, some inherent in the process itself – before they will ultimately triumph and create a functioning new society.
But, if they rely on – and understand – the science of Marxism-Leninism, they will surely prevail.