Socialism’s Agenda Time

By Stephen Gowans

From 1928, when the Soviet Union laid the foundations of its socialist economy, until the late 1980s, when Gorbachev began to dismantle them, the Soviet economy grew without pause, except during the period of the Nazi war machine’s scorched-earth invasion. Unemployment and later economic insecurity became ills of the past.

True, growth slowed beginning in the 1970s, but the major culprits were the diversion of budgets and R&D to the military to counter threats of US and NATO aggression, and growing resource extraction costs, not the alleged inefficiencies of public ownership and central planning, as is now widely believed. (1)

In fact, Soviet socialism—while it existed–worked better than capitalism in producing economic growth.

From 1928 to 1989, GDP per capita grew in the USSR by a factor of 5.2, compared to 4.0 in Western Europe and 3.3 in the major industrial offshoots of Western Europe—the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

And importantly, Soviet growth happened without the recurrent recessions—and their attendant pain in unemployment, hunger, and despair–that were routine features of the capitalist economies over the same period.

Indeed, while capitalism was mired in a major depression during the 1930s, leaving hundreds of millions without work, the Soviet economy was expanding rapidly, absorbing all available manpower. And while the dual ills of inflation and unemployment ran rampant in the stagflation crisis that roiled the capitalist economies during the 1970s, the Soviet economy expanded without interruption and without inflation or joblessness.

But that’s not what we’re told today. The received wisdom—rooted not in reality but Cold War propaganda—is that the Soviet economy collapsed under the weight of it inefficiencies, and that the demise of the USSR proves that an economic system based on public ownership, central planning and production for use, is unworkable. Even many Marxists believe this, touting the merits of “market socialism” as the only workable alternative.

And yet the Soviet economy’s record of peacetime expansion and full employment remained unblemished until Gorbachev began to experiment with the very same market socialism that many Marxists now embrace.

Hence, Soviet socialism’s reputation for being unworkable is underserved. A slow-down in economic growth—having as much to do with US efforts to cripple the USSR by embroiling it in a ruinous arms race as it did with internal problems–has been transformed into a myth about economic collapse.

Myths work both ways. While they can turn successes into what appear to be failures, then can also turn failures into what appear to be successes.

So it is with capitalism. With a major bank bailout needed to rescue it, the US economy in recession on Main Street, European economies falling like dominoes under the weight of stagnation and mounting debt, and long-term unemployment stuck at alarmingly high levels with no sign of improvement, few people are pointing out the obvious: capitalism isn’t working. Had the Soviet economy’s record been as bad, it would have long ago been judged, not as inefficient, but as an inhumane disaster—a pox on humanity to be eradicated as quickly as possible.

And yet, in a period of deep crisis for capitalism, many of the Marxist organizations that you would think would be hammering home the point that surely, we can do better than capitalism, aren’t. Instead—with notable and inspiring exceptions–they’re talking about other things—about how the main battle is against “the Right”, by which is meant Republicans and Conservatives, and how socialism won’t be on the agenda for another 500 years.

Another 500 years?

There’s a self-fulfilling prophesy here. Socialism doesn’t boil up spontaneously and come knocking at the door asking politely to be put on the agenda. Like any agenda item, someone has to put it there. If socialism is always deferred to a distant future, no matter how deeply capitalism sinks into crisis, no matter what toll capitalism needlessly takes on the lives of hundreds of millions, no matter how pressing the need for socialism’s arrival, it will never show up on the agenda – not in 500 years, not in 1,000.

The future—as mass unemployment, worsening economic malaise, and austerity make clear–has arrived.

Surely we can do better than capitalism. The time to put socialism on the agenda is now.

1. For discussions of Soviet economic performance see: Robert C. Allen. 2003. Farm to Factory: A Reinterpretation of the Soviet Industrial Revolution. Princeton University Press, 2003; David M. Kotz. “The Demise of the Soviet Union and the International Socialist Movement Today”. Paper written for the International Symposium on the 20th Anniversary of the Former Soviet Union and its Impact, Beijing, April 23, 2011; and Roger Keeran and Thomas Kenny. “A Rejoinder to Erwin Marquit’s Critique of Socialism Betrayed”. Nature, Society, and Thought, vol. 17, no. 3. 2004.

13 thoughts on “Socialism’s Agenda Time

  1. I am 59. I have been living in socialist Czechoslovakia till 1988. In 1988-1990, 1992-1996 in USA. And now again in capitalist Slovakia. Paradoxically, I realize that socialism in Slovakia was economical, cultural, educational a humanity miracle with comparison to our capitalism now. I was so surprised about my opinion that I wrote book about that, which is free on
    (download – stiahnut knihu)
    Karol Ondrias

  2. Re: Aug. 12 Joe ndenge’s comments

    What you’re saying is pure bourgeois subjectivism. Conversely, Marxism is scientific, rational and self-critical.

    Spend some time around Communists and you’ll find this out for yourself.

  3. Whichever way, arguments on political ideologies should never become so religeous. Instead such should take a more objective,scientific and pragmatic stance. This means analysis should credit whatever is positive be it on the right or left wing; spoting shortfalls on either wing. To be honest both capitalist and socialist writs seem subjective and religionist, hence lack in critical thinking and self-introspection. This is the unfortunate emotive pitfall when such arguments emerge!

  4. Thanks spartacus for your responce to the american social democrat.I have heard that the soviet harvest of 32-33 was actually good[as compared with preceeding years].Many of the photographic evidence used by the hearst press to accuse the USSR of famine come from the early twenties,and not the 30,s when there was indeed a famine caused by the foreign interventionist armies from the west during thier atempts to destroy the young soviet state.

  5. Regarding AmericanSocialist, Aug. 9th 7:10am

    I hope the comments you have received in reply to your post will cause a reconsideration of your position.

    It’s very difficult to find reliable information on the history of the Communist movement, and the comment “the Reds killed millions” is one of the most enduring, ridiculous, and baseless assertions that Communists still have to face. Any scientific analysis of history reveals it to be false. Spartacus is spot on with the reference to Arch-Getty, a historian who isn’t even in the Communist camp, but obviously objects to the garbage turned out by the Right. And Gowans uses the right term, “religion”, when he describes anti-Communism, because it’s precisely that: dogmatic, irrational, false, and in the interests of the ruling class alone.

    If you are sincere about learning the truth of this movement you should take seriously the kind of things said above by Spartacus and look to sites like this one to learn more.

    The Right, and all supporters of capitalism, hate socialism. They especially hate the Communists, because we’re the only ones who have ever seriously challenged them (indeed during the 20th century, at times, it looked as it capitalism could well be wiped out completely).

    That’s why they hate us, fear us, and have invested a gargantuan amount of time, money and effort into smearing us. In some parts of the world it’s worked. Regardless, this isn’t a battle that capitalism can win in the long run.

  6. Regarding Gowans, Aug. 9th 10:52.

    I agree that the “stop the Right” approach can be woefully limited, and only go as far as “hurray for Obama” on occasion. I’m just saying that it doesn’t always work like that. For example, both the CP of Canada and CP-USA both talk of “blocking the Right” – but whereas the former goes on to give comprehensive reasons to replace capitalism with socialism, the latter simply says “vote Democrat and we’ll talk about socialism at some distant point in the future”.

    That’s why the CP-USA is tearing itself apart and degenerating into a social-dem outfit, and the CP of Canada is doing neither.

    Regarding comments on the CP-USA and the world communist movement, I’m well aware of the differences among parties, I’m merely saying that the CP-USA has gone so far out of the fold it’s not taken seriously even by most (or perhaps all) fraternal parties. It is now not even on a spectrum of what could be considered Marxist-Leninist. This is not the case with the other parties that attend the International Meeting of Workers and Communist Parties (which the CP-USA doesn’t seem to care about any more any way).

    OK, the CP of Britain could be seen as “soft” too, for the same reasons as the CP-USA. But I would suggest closer analysis reveals this not to be the case. Whatever you think of the CPB, it is not a social-democratic party, and it is not dumping all over Marxism-Leninism (and communist history) like the leadership of the CP-USA.

  7. American Socialist. Capitalism in America has become a religion….the Soviet system, with its purges and famines, certainly was not socialist.

    Gowans. Capitalism isn’t the only religion in the US. So, too, is anti-Sovietism. I wonder what you think of the American and French Revolutions, what with the Terror, the numberless killings, the expulsions, the jailings.

  8. Chevy P. Running a stop-the-right campaign and aggressively making the case for socialism are not mutually exclusive.

    Gowans. Agreed. But it’s a question of what you want to emphasize: stopping the conservatives from forming the next government, or putting socialism on the agenda. Unless you think stopping McCain has led to a socialist America, they’re not the same thing.

    Chevy P. The stop-the-right approach is nothing if not a way to clearly and confidently make the case for smashing capitalism.

    Gowans. It’s neither clear nor confident. A clear and confident case for smashing capitalism is: Let’s smash capitalism, and here are the reasons why.

    Stop-the-right is equivalent to vote Democrat or for a third party candidate where the Democrat hasn’t a hope. Maybe I’m dense, but I can’t see the connection between that and “let’s build socialism.”

    Chevy P. I would simply urge readers not to look at what the CPUSA is doing as example of the modern Communist movement.

    Gowans: This implies that the modern communist movement is mostly homogeneous, apart from the CPUSA, which is anomalous. Neither is true. There are many kinds of communist parties and the Communist Party of Britain is not a whole lot different from the CPUSA.

  9. You claim that you are a history major and a socialist. Now, I have no reliable knowledge on you and your past, but I seriously doubt both of your claims. Let’s start with your “historical” claims. You claim that the Soviets “killed” tens of mllions people in:

    -purges: A very un-historical claim for a so-called “historian”. A good historian should know that the term “purges” relates to the massive expulsions of members from the party, based on an idea that after some time the party becomes corrupted and needs to be “purified” by expelling some of its unreliable members (which doesn’t means that they were executed, but they just lost they party card).
    The term which you might be looking for is Yezhovshchina, that is, a mass terror campaign that was unleashed by the Stalin and the party center against suspected Nazi infiltrators inside the party that were allegedly planning a coup with the help of the military and foreign intelligence agencies. The subsequent terror was indeed quite a brutal and bloody affair, but victims were far from “tens of millions”, or even millions. According to the J. Arch. Getty. “Excesses are not permitted’: Mass Terror and Stalinist Governance in the Late 1930s.” The Russian Review 61 (January 2002), 113-138; the total number of executions was 623 000 (a little more than was killed by US “democracy” in Hiroshima and Nagasaki), with the majority of people (387 000) being executed by local authorities, without the approval of party center (that is, Stalin), which was unable to control the situation (which is fantastically explained by Getty in his books). So, something about 236 000 people were executed on the orders of the Stalin, which is still a great loss of life, but far away from idiotic claims of tens of millions “killed” people.

    – ethnic cleansing: This is a complete bullshit claim. The Cold War period has left us with an enormous amount of books and studies, in which it is asserted that the time of concessions in the soviet policy of the twenties as regards ethnic minorities was immediately followed by a policy of ethnic cleansing, ethnic terror and assimilation (russification in this case).
    More recent studies however, show on the contrary an “impressive continuation of the soviet policy for the development of ethnic minorities during the whole Stalin period and after that” (G.Surry, The revenge of the past, 1993 and Y. Slezkine, The USSR as Communal Apartment, in the Slavic Review 53, 1994). T. Martin in “The Affirmative Action Empire, p.13-18, 2001” even puts that no country ever in history managed to apply such fully-fledged projects for the development of ethnic minorities as the Soviet Union did “for the first time in history.”

    -famines: Yes, there was a Soviet famine of 1932-33, but contrary to the misconceptions present in mass media (from which I suppose you, as a serious “historian”, gather your “knowledge”), it didn’t result from forced confiscation of grain by the Soviet government (according to the research carried out by historian Marc Tauger, less than 1% of harvest was taken during the climax of the famine), but from local droughts that affected the grain yields in certain areas and kulak sabotage of agriculture which crippled production. According to serious researchers of this famine (especially Marc Tauger), the famine was not “man-made”, but was a result of rather complicated natural and human actions resulting in an estimated 1-2 million (depending on the source) deaths. If you want an example of man-made famine, look for “Bengal famine” from 1943, which was caused by good “democrat” Churchill. Btw; you use the term “killed”, which sounds as if the Soviet Government intentionally killed those people by denying them food that was available, and which, if applied to capitalist countries, could blame them not for millions, but for billions of human lives lost thanks to their disastrous economic system.

    So much for your “historical” claims. Now, I will touch upon your claim of Soviet Union being a “horrible political system, and a pox on humanity.” This claim is very typical for western phony-leftists, especially those who are posing as such mainly because of their identity crisis, than for their care for workers. Soviet Union was not a “terrible” political system. US is. The SU provided each of their citizen a job, decent free healthcare, free education, low-cost housing, lack of homelesness, unemloyment, criminal and a society that allowed for a life with dignity for those that worked. I come from one of those “terrible” socialist countries and I may assure you that it was not at least terrible. Majority of people actually regret for good, old socialist days and the same feeling is shared by people all over the former socialist bloc. You should consult the public opinion surveys made about that topic. Mr. Gowans has wrote a nice article about East Germany and how, today, the majority of East Germans think that their life was better under the “terrible” political system that they had.

    To sum up. Your opinion about former socialist countries is mainly influnced by anti-communist propaganda, distortions of history and something which you nicely describe as capitalism being the religion in America and thus influencing even some so-called leftists into accepting the ideas of the dominant class in US, that is, socialism of the XX century being one giant failure. Should I even describe how pathetic it is to deny the historical achievements of socialism of the XX century, hoping that by spitting on our past, whether good or bad, you will somehow better succeed in convincing people that socialism is the solution for our current problems. That is a very naive and ultra-leftist (thinking that everything that doesn’t fit into our dreams of perfection and flawnesness is not a socialism and that it is automatically a failure) way of thinking.

    All the best to you and congratulations to Mr. Gowans for yet another great post.

  10. Hi americansocialist,

    I lived in one of those Soviet bloc countries (Hungary) during the late phase of “socialism”. I’ve mixed feelings. First of all, the political climate wasn’t that bad, oppression was rather subtle, covert. My funniest feeling is, after 20 years of “democracy”, now we have no more freedom than in the 80s. This applies even more to the USA, since she is much more advanced than us 🙂 , and now resembles a police state of the good old days. Hungary still needs to catch up with this.

    Be careful with the numbers of killed during the purges etc. they had been wildly inflated for political reasons.

    During the “socialism” the economy was kinda socialist. It had problems, and looked very inefficient in those days, but now I know the other side. The market economy is not better either. Furthermore, there was a real social net in the ancient regime. Poverty etc was almost unknown. From the late 70s, there was an apparent slowdown, as the article mentions, but up to the middle of the 80, the economy could keep up. We had a world class medical service, agriculture, education. Now it’s gone of course.

  11. As with the discussion in the comments section for the recent article “Obama Better than Bush? Yes, But for Who?” there is a point being made in this piece about the tactics of Marxist organizations and parties concentrating on a “stop the right” approach rather than aggressively putting forward the case for Socialism.

    I just want to make the point that the two things are not mutually exclusive. Pointing out to ordinary people, many of whom may well be totally apolitical, that the right poses an intensely serious threat does not mean a given Communist Party is failing to “put Socialism on the agenda”.

    On the contrary, the “stop the right” approach is nothing if not a way in to clearly and confidently make the case for smashing capitalism and building socialism (which very definitely includes elaborating on the great successes of the current and past socialist states, like the USSR, and their demonstrable superiority to capitalism).

    It may or may not be appropriate to get into the specifics of naming organizations here, but I can wholly sympathize with Marxists in Canada or the US who look at the leadership of the CP-USA and its slavish obedience to Obama (despite the outrage this has caused among many ordinary CP-USA members) and wonder what on earth could possibly justify it.

    The answer is, of course, it cannot be justified, and many rank and file members of the CP-USA have gone to great lengths to detail how a campaign focussed exclusively on “stopping the right” has lead to a wilful blindness as to the real character of the Obama regime.

    There is a very real struggle taking place today inside the CP-USA between those who want to transform the party into a social-democratic appendage of the Democrats (the attitude of the Sam Webb leadership) and those who wish to maintain and build a Marxist-Leninist party. A lot has been written on this subject on the blog “Marxism-Leninism Today”, operated by CP-USA members, as well as other places on the internet.

    Just for the record, I am not a member of the CP-USA, but I take a close interest in what is happening there (as do Communists every where) as an example of the political abyss that awaits Marxists who drift into revisionism.

    I would simply urge readers not to look at what the CP-USA is doing as an example of the modern Communist movement. The US party leadership around Sam Webb has been severely criticized by parties all over the world not just for its failure to stand up to Obama but for embarking on a program of dissolving the party’s Marxist-Leninist character.

    Marxist-Leninist parties still exist all over the world and are growing in strength again after the disastrous period of Soviet collapse: in Canada, Britain, Australia, and beyond. Actually there aren’t many countries any where in the world they don’t exist. Parties have recently been (re)founded in Norway, Honduras, Puerto Rico and Mexico. And they assuredly do not follow the revisionist, liquidationist and class-collaborationist approach of the CP-USA!

  12. As a history major I frequently bump into people who insist that “socialism never works – the Soviet Union proved it!” No matter what counter argument I make regarding the Soviet Union going from an agrarian economy in 1920 to capable of beating German war industry twenty years later they will never listen because capitalism in America has become a religion.

    Now certainly the Soviet Union was a horrible political system, and a pox on humanity. You’re talking about full employment, but the Soviets killed tens of millions of their own people in purges, ethnic cleansing, and famines. I hesitate to describe the Soviet system as socialism at all, since socialism in my mind is a system by and for the people, and the Soviet system certainly was not.

    Socialism is on the other hand a viable economic alternative for solving problems in America today.

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