Won’t socialism be like the Soviet Union?

Published online 5 August 2010.

I am seeing the socialism = Soviet Union meme, in various guises, even here at Orange.  I suppose that we are to imagine “socialism” as a meme spouted by right-wing zealots who think that Obama is a socialist, a meme that even Ron Paul had the sense to rebut.  And then you had this generous diary by Meteor Blades more than a year ago, suggesting a diversity of “socialist” visions.  MB’s concluding line:

No matter what The New York Times, Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter and many progressives think, socialism isn’t a dirty word. Nor an obsolete one.

This diary will attempt to address the meme head-on in an attempt to reclaim the word “socialism” from right-wing elitists.

I suppose it was this comment that started the ball rolling, or perhaps it was this comment.  Or maybe it was this comment, I don’t know.

If we are to stabilize this topic, we’ll first have to define “socialism.”  Let’s go with the definition in Wikipedia: “Socialism is an economic and political theory based on public or common ownership and cooperative management of the means of production and allocation of resources.”

So what we’re really talking about with “socialism” is democratic control over the necessities of economic life.  “The means of production” is not your personal property — it’s the whole apparatus of what it takes to supply everyone with what they need, and “public” does not mean “government” — there are plenty of governments which aren’t really public.  The public is you and me and everyone else in our society.  Sure, the “public” can be affiliated with a nation-state.  Wikipedia again: “Public is a word in the English language, either an adjective or a noun with these meanings:- (adjective) “of or pertaining to the people; (adjective) “relating to, or affecting, a nation, state, or community.”  But a public is not the nation-state, nor is it any privileged group of “the people.”

Taking back control of the word “socialism,” then, is also taking back control of the idea of the “public” that would participate in the “public control of the means of production.”  Right-wing use of the word “socialist” as an epithet, then, is disdain for the public.  The implication is that the public can’t manage the means of production, so it should be up to private individuals to do so.  It’s individualism, and elitism.



The association of the word “socialism” with dictatorship was made famous by Marx’s idea of the “dictatorship of the proletariat,” which was the idea that after the revolution the triumphant working class would stop any attempts to reimpose the “dictatorship of the bourgeoisie,” i.e. capitalism, upon the world.  This association was doubtless reinforced by the takeover of Russia by Lenin (Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov), who in fact realized in his writings toward the end of his life that “the bureaucratic apparatus of the Soviet state is nearly identical to the czarist government, save for a slightly ‘touched up surface.'”

The Soviet Union, then, had (by 1922 if not earlier) created a dictatorship of the Communist Party under the banner of the “dictatorship of the proletariat,” and reproduced the bureaucratic apparatus of the Czarist dictatorship in Russia under the banner of the “Soviet Union.”  The rest of Soviet history in the 20th century served as a sort of anticlimax to Lenin’s failed dream of “socialism.”  The Soviet Union was a state capitalist regime, in which everyone worked for the state, behaving as a single, unitary corporation.  The Five-Year Plans were like corporate production goals.  From Kees van der Pijl:

While foreign trade virtually collapsed in the 1930s, Soviet industrialization developed a state-monitored emulation of the more advanced mass production economy being developed in the US.  The Soviet leadership paid American engineering firms huge fees to draw the blue-prints for their five-year plans, ‘focused… upon single clear cut objectives to build new, gigantic, mass-production units to manufacture large quantities of simplified standard models based on proven Western designs without design changes over a long period… (221)

Thus Soviet economic development was, then, a forced-march imitation of capitalist economic development.  It operated under the banner of “socialism” but was really what Immanuel Wallerstein called a regime of “mercantilist semi-withdrawal” from the expanding capitalist world system in the 20th century.  The folks over at RedState would like to pretend that “state capitalism” is really “socialism”; we would do better to put aside Stalin’s dictionaries, and argue that what called itself “socialism” back then was really state capitalism.

The Soviet Union was an example of what Kees van der Pijl called a “contender regime.”  The world of expanding capitalism, from the late 17th century onward, spawned two different state-society complexes.  The first one, with which we are familiar, is the “Lockean heartland”; founded upon business principles of “liberty” and “property,” the “Lockean heartland” is the core of the capitalist system, the center of its imperialist activity and (later) its global corporate headquarters.

The capitalist system, then, has historically been an expanding system of capital accumulation, of private businesses which own the means of production and which make profits within an overall complex of profit-making.  This implies a society with an economy based on money and property, and a business model in which business profits are continually recycled into the drive to “compete.”  Said businesses operate by successively opening up the world to “business” on terms which are profitable to them.

At any rate, we need to return at this point to our discussion of the Soviet Union.  The second state-society complex is based on the idea of “contender states” based on what van der Pijl calls “Hobbesian” principles, after the philosopher Thomas Hobbes.  The “contender states” were typically authoritarian societies given to “forced march” methods to industrialize so as to resist the global expansion of the capitalist system.  The earliest “contender states” were entities such as Napoleonic France; the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China were the 20st century’s most successful such entities.

Thus the Soviet Union (and for that matter all of the other “contender” states) jettisoned much of what counted as socialist principles (most notably direct rule by the people) in order to conform to this “contender state” model, thus to resist an expanding capitalist system.  See Johann P. Arnason’s The Future That Failed for a fuller explanation of how this worked.


Okay, what we have identified so far is why socialism became identified with dictatorship, and thus with the Soviet Union (and of course also with “Red” China), in the 20th century in the context of an expanding capitalist system.  This last bit of information is really important for understanding how socialism can be disconnected from the concept of dictatorship.  At some future point, we may imagine, once the framework of expanding capitalism has expanded to every corner of the world, so that there really is nowhere to go, so also will disappear the “contender state” framework which has constrained “socialist experiments” so far in history.

The capitalist system tends to expand, in a way which will at some point conflict with the finite nature of planet Earth, in which its impositions upon the world lead to stress and breakdown.  The system as a whole periodically runs into crises of its own making.  These crisis tendencies can be predicted to come to a head when the world is “maxed out” on capitalist activity.  It is especially during periods of systemic crisis that the Right will be seen accusing dissenters of being “socialists” in its anxiety over perceived threats to the system.  These crises are of three types:

  1. economic — in a system in which the rich grow richer and the poor grow poorer, at some point the great masses of poor people will be unable to buy anything owned by the rich few, and the “free market” will shrink drastically in size, and stay shrunk, until the capitalist society’s inequities in wealth are mitigated.  In the literature this is called the “crisis of overproduction.”  The economic crisis of capitalism was what the world saw between 1929 and 1932 with the Great Depression.  It’s likely to recur, though under different conditions; we have the Internet now, to be sure, and the capitalist system is no longer expanding like it once was in the 20th century.
  1. political — “free markets” are not natural occurrences, but rather contraptions of political connivance.  Someone has to invent money and back up its value and enforce rules for the ownership and exchange of money and property.  Usually governments do this.  At points of crisis, inequities in wealth become politically unsustainable, and governments move to end them or suffer revolt.  Thus, for instance, the incipient capitalism of the Russian Empire, lived under conditions of stifling dictatorship, suffered the Russian Revolution.  The political crisis of capitalism is unlikely to start in the United States, though it may start elsewhere and spread here.
  1. ecological — the capitalist system on planet Earth runs a certain risk of consuming the wealth on its surface, and leaving behind a series of heaps of trash.  There is also the risk of economic collapse amidst climate change and decreasing oil supplies.  My comment here on one of bobswern’s diaries illustrates this possibilities.  The ecological crisis of capitalism has no past occurrence — though it is quite likely in the Earth’s future, given the oncoming nature of climate change.  As Minqi Li states in a recent article on China:

After centuries of global capitalist accumulation, the global environment is on the verge of collapse and there is no more ecological space for another major expansion of global capitalism. The choice is stark—either humanity will permit capitalism to destroy the environment and therefore the material basis of human civilization, or it will destroy capitalism first.


Thus at each point of crisis, if the crisis is severe enough, the system runs the risk of becoming something different, of becoming post-capitalism.  That “something different” will, for reasons I’ve stated above, not going to be anything like the Soviet Union.  Nor, for that matter, will we experience again the return of the era of kings and queens, or a recurrence of World War II.  Post-capitalism could still be dreadful, of course — but it will not be dreadful in the way Stalin was dreadful.  Time flows in one direction.

Moreover, as global capitalism has more and more thoroughly invaded the world with each passing decade, the advocates of socialism, particularly in Latin America, have distanced themselves further and further away from the old Soviet “dictatorship” model, and toward models of spreading democracy within capitalism.  Intermediate stages in this process of “democratization” were, for instance, the abortive attempts to create “socialism” through the democratically-elected government of Salvador Allende in Chile, or the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua during the 1980s.  At present, as I suggested in a recent diary, “21st-century socialism” looks a lot like the establishment of a welfare state in a capitalist democracy.

A full reclamation of the word “socialism” would at this point proceed to discuss alternative models of democratic governance which could be used to govern the means of production.  These, then, would be concepts we would use to tinker with the idea of “socialism.”  If capitalism is at some future point in danger, we should have better models than capitalist dictatorship on which we can rely.  A short list of possibilities would have to include those below:



Economic democracy is a label for a wide variety of strategies designed to grant power over economic processes to “public stakeholders.”  Wikipedia again: As a reform agenda, supporting theories and real-world examples include democratic cooperatives, fair trade, social credit, and the regionalization of food production and currency.

Consensus defines a variety of group decision-making models which attempt to incorporate the wishes of minority parties within the group into their decision-making processes.  Consensus takes much longer than merely holding a majority vote, but is well worth the extra time taken if the group wishes to further the cause of solidarity among its members.

Zapatismo.  The Zapatistas, in the state of Chiapas in Mexico, have a concept known as “buen gobierno,” in which a rotating group (each individual serves for a limited term and is subject to recall) looks after the needs of the community by following the consensus of that community as established in meetings.  If you can read Spanish you can follow the page for Caracoles y Juntos de Buen Gobierno.



I personally prefer the term “post-capitalism” to socialism, as it obliges its listeners to think about what will come after capitalist society has had its run.  Nevertheless reclaiming the term “socialism” may at some point involve the opening of minds to possible ways of imagining how “socialism” could be something other than the Soviet Union.


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