ON THE CONTRADICTIONS OF SOCIALISM

Lens, Sidney

REFLECTIONS On the contradictions of socialism Sidney Lens There is an old story about a socialist on a soapbox, haranguing a crowd. "Comes the revolution,11 he says, "we'll all eat strawberries...

...There will be conflicts, and there will be at least the seeds of bureaucracy and corruption...
...Revolutions occur in times of crisis and chaos, and they must inevitably grapple with a host of threatening realities: the antagonism of hostile nations...
...But the protection of free speech, assembly, press, and other fundamental freedoms must be a vital and inherent part of any socialist revolution...
...An important step, I believe, is to have a clear concept of what we mean by the word "revolution...
...Socialist revolutions like capitalist revolutions can be derailed...
...Both nations, for example, had only negligible electric output before World War II...
...In a three-way dispute over the course to be pursued, Stalin's argument for extremely rapid accumulation of capital prevailed...
...Is it possible that after all this time the Russian people have not yet been won over to socialism and must be repressed lest they topple the present regime...
...One-quarter to one-third of a small gross national product was set aside for capital investment, depriving the Soviet citizenry of consumer goods and demanding sacrifices that could be enforced only through terrible and enduring police repression...
...As Eduard Bernstein, the socialist "revisionist," observed long ago, "revolution" is not an act or a goal but a process...
...Though Karl Marx provided an incisive analysis of capital formation under capitalism, for instance, no one has adequately explained how primitive capital should be formed under socialism...
...That is the central dilemma that confronts this generation of radicals: The Left has a credible critique of what exists, but the alternative it poses is tarnished by living examples that are not attractive that are, in fact, repulsive...
...Do they envision a centralized authority, as in the Soviet Union, which controls almost every conceivable economic transaction and sets almost every price and wage...
...The people of China enjoy a higher standard of living and much greater stability than they did when they faced famine every few years...
...Yet even within this process there were countercurrents, periods of "liberalization," and realignments of power and policy...
...I would like to hold and share the conviction that there is a better alternative for if socialism is not the alternative to the militarism, repression, instability, and injustice of capitalism, what is...
...Perhaps a socialist regime must deny democratic prerogatives when it comes to power in order to forestall a counterrevolution but for sixty-one years...
...Similar concerns, I suspect, underlie the conflict between Kampuchea and Vietnam...
...The revolutionary process in a country with China's history must combine nationalist and socialist goals...
...Comes the revolution, comrade," the socialist replies, "you'll have to eat strawberries and cream...
...As for the Soviet Union, how can one explain its suppression of free speech, free press, and free trade unions years after the revolution...
...Worse still, how can socialist China regard socialist Russia as its chief enemy and insist, in its domestic and foreign propaganda, that war with the Soviet Union is "inevitable...
...Humanist socialism may ultimately create a humane society, but it will not create a perfect one...
...We can learn from their errors and build our own future...
...it merely makes such solutions possible if the revolutionary process stays on course...
...Is it permissible for the state to lower living standards to form capital as was done under Stalin...
...Another area that needs intensive discussion among those who want to pursue the path to socialism is the protection of democratic rights...
...How much autonomy should the smaller nations enjoy...
...China's hostility toward the Soviet Union also becomes more understandable when the Chinese revolution is considered as a process rather than as a single event, to be set in concrete...
...But they did not expect the reality to be so deformed as to resemble in many respects the evil that socialism was supposedly challenging...
...One part of the explanation, often overlooked, is that the promise has been fulfilled up to a point...
...Still, how can one defend a socialist regime that sweeps its people from the cities by military force, without consulting them, without seeking their advice or consent...
...Some radicals sneer at "bourgeois democracy" because its democratic prerogatives are often more myth than reality...
...Why can't they resolve their disputes peacefully, in the spirit of "working class internationalism...
...The point of the story is, I suppose, that "the revolution" doesn't always live up to its promise...
...The Soviet Union has sustained a steady and impressive pace of economic development by drawing on a great reservoir of redundant labor in the Soviet villages, but now that reservoir is nearly drained...
...In socialist as in bourgeois revolution, "eternal vigilance is the price of liber-ty...
...The Yugoslavs, and the Hungarians to an extent, have adopted an attractive system of worker participation in decision-making called "selfmanagement...
...The first socialist nation found 'We need not squander our energies apologizing lor other people's revolutions...' itself in critical need of capital to develop its industry and improve the lot of its people...
...For all their grim defects, the socialist states are not without virtue...
...It is bound to drive Moscow and Peking especially Moscow in the same direction...
...Why would a pacifist choose socialism when socialist countries are talking war and waging war against each other...
...A generation or two ago, young radicals held a vision that encompassed the ideals of peace, freedom, prosperity, equality, internationalism an unblemished Utopia, a "beautiful tomorrow...
...Moreover, some of the experiments under way in socialist countries are in keeping with that vision of a "beautiful tomorrow...
...in the villages, there would be no food for the cities but the means used to achieve that purpose were brutal and oppressive, and hardly consistent with the socialist ideal...
...The encirclement exists, to be sure but how would freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and free trade unions threaten a socialist state that has survived for two-thirds of a century...
...Why would a humanist choose socialism when socialist countries suppress civil liberties...
...the difficulty of accumulating capital to build or rebuild an economy...
...the need to train a population steeped in autocracy or colonialism for a culture of independence...
...The seizure of state power does not automatically ensure the solution of acute social problems...
...The result was what Paul Sweezy and Milovan Djilas have described as a new ruling class...
...Obviously no revolution can end with the seizure of power...
...Finally, there is the question of "proletarian internationalism...
...Or do they have in mind a decentralized form of planning, in which individuals at the grass roots have a major role in decision-making...
...Even Indira Gandhi, when I interviewed her some years ago, had to concede that "the Chinese revolution has done much more for its people than we have...
...Comes the revolution,11 he says, "we'll all eat strawberries and cream...
...let us assume that the published estimates of up to a million are gross exaggerations and that the actual number is in the hundreds...
...Ibelieve the Left will find no way to overcome this formidable handicap until there is a resurgence of the kind of "socialism with a human face" that emerged in Czechoslovakia in 1968 preferably this time in the Soviet Union and China...
...The Soviet Union, now enjoying a trillion-dollar annual gross national product, certainly provides for its citizens much better than Russia did in czarist days...
...I know the purpose of the population shift without more labor Sidney Lens, a veteran labor leader and peace activist, is a contributing editor of The Progressive...
...The lesson the Left must draw from these deformities is that the struggle for social justice must continue even under a "revolutionary regime...
...Having said all that, we must still admit and try to understand the deformities in the socialist world, and do what we can to avoid those deformities in defining our own perspectives for the future...
...Socialist theory has never cogently explained how socialist nations should relate to each other particularly how small and weak nations should relate to large and powerful ones...
...How can China, in the interest of isolating and encircling the Soviet Union, support the strengthening of NATO and the rearmament of Japan...
...How can one justify, for instance, the forced migrations in People's Kampuchea (Cambodia...
...Like most people, I would like to cherish the vision of a beautiful tomorrow...
...Equally elusive is the logic of the Soviet invasions of Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968...
...Lenin warned that so long as there was economic scarcity, some would seek special power and privilege at the expense of the rest and such corruption, he added, unless vigorously resisted, would corrupt the revolution itself...
...only one that works from the bottom up as Ota Sik envisioned it for Czechoslovakia, and Tito for Yugoslavia can now assure sturdy economic development...
...Socialists understood that the dream could not be realized overnight strawberries and cream would have to wait a while...
...And how can China's socialist government maintain cozy relationships with such dictatorships as those in Zaire and Chile...
...Mao Tse-tung evidently harbored similar misgivings when he initiated the "cultural revolution,, to curb the power of the Chinese bureaucracy...
...Our recognition of these circumstances does not excuse what has happened in the socialist world, nor does it mitigate the pain of men and women in Russia and China whose freedoms are circumscribed, who are denied jobs or status because of dissident views, who are falsely arrested, falsely convicted, and even executed without due process...
...I don't know how many have died in those migrations...
...colony...
...A "planned" economy that operates from the top down, as the Soviet economy does today, cannot achieve such objectives...
...Why would a worker choose socialism when socialist countries deny the right to strike...
...The socialist movement can facilitate this process by drawing more specific blueprints of the future...
...Or consider China and India, both of which were at the low extreme in economic development when they achieved independence in the late 1940s, with China somewhat worse off than India...
...Socialism, too, has its Hamilton-Jefferson rivalries Stalin versus Bukharin, Stalin versus Trotsky, Rakosi versus Nagy, Stalin versus Tito, Novotny versus Dubcek, Mao Tse-tung versus Liu Shao-chi...
...Until that time comes, however, we are stuck with our dilemma how to explain the failure of socialist reality to measure up to socialist promise...
...Inevitably, the Soviet Union became a police state and a chasm opened between its leaders and the people they were repressing...
...Or consider the current conflict between Kampuchea and Vietnam: How is it possible for two socialist states to wage war against each other...
...The subversion of democracy in the Soviet Union was not an inherent trait of socialism but a consequence of historic circumstance and economic development...
...How should they resolve disputes without recourse to war...
...Apologists for the Soviets contend the Kremlin cannot "afford" democracy because it is encircled by a hostile capitalist world...
...Cuban workers and peasants are economically more secure than they were when Cuba was a de facto U.S...
...The Soviets can continue to forge ahead only by introducing a higher level of technology, comparable to the West's, and by drawing on the energies and talents of their people to increase productivity...
...How will they ultimately join into a single international sovereignty...
...China and Cuba have made limited progress in reorienting individual citizens toward a higher level of social consciousness...
...One need only compare socialist Bulgaria and capitalist (or feudal) Turkey, which were at comparable stages of backwardness before World War II...
...It would be helpful, of course, if today's radicals could point to a living example of that "beautiful tomorrow...
...It must continue forever, for there are always new problems to define and solve, new ways to deal with them, and new hazards along the way...
...It could not obtain credits from abroad, and it feared recurrence of the foreign military intervention to which it had been subjected from 1918 to 1920...
...The centralized system was forced on the Soviets by their economic isolation, but it should have been replaced long ago, I believe, by decentralized forms of planning...
...If the Soviets had been prepared to cope with this problem, they might have prevented some of the gross excesses of Stalinism, or at least strengthened, to some extent, the hand of Stalin's democratic adversaries...
...In Peking's relations with Moscow, it is the nationalist element that dominates fear of a powerful and potentially threatening northern neighbor rather than the abstract socialist principle of "proletarian internationalism...
...I wish I could resolve these contradictions for myself in simple, unambiguous terms...
...Unless the Soviets give free rein to the imagination of their workers and managers, the economy itself will be stifled and free rein must mean free discussion, free assembly, free unions, and real participation in decision-making...
...That was the main consideration that drove Czechoslovakia to embrace "socialism with a human face" in 1968...
...Are we to believe that the workers and peasants of these two countries were unable to see for themselves the benefits of socialism and had to be held in line by military force and police repression...
...Turkey's continues to be small 30,000 villages still lack electricity whereas kilowatt production in Bulgaria has jumped forty times and all but a few remote mountain villages are electrified...
...Today Bulgaria's per capita income is more than double Turkey's, and the gap in other fields is equally substantial...
...And by comparison with the Third World the only fair comparison socialist countries have made remarkable strides in education, health care, science, and many other fields...
...Revolutions are necessary from time to time because the present has become impossible, not because the future they create is certain to be idyllic...
...But in its absence, we need not squander our energies apologizing for other people's revolutions that have gone awry...
...When we view revolution as a process rather than as a final product, the course of the revolutions in the Soviet Union, China, and other countries becomes more comprehensible...
...The Chinese may soon follow their example...
...A listener complains, "But I don't like strawberries and cream...
...How should their economic and political efforts be coordinated without allowing the larger nations to dominate the smaller...
...Similarly, socialist theorists ought to spell out in detail their conceptions of "socialist planning...
...I expect this to happen and within our lifetime not because of any moral imperative in the socialist world but because sheer economic necessity will demand it...

Vol. 43 • March 1979 • No. 3


 
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