How should the contemporary socialist left relate to the history of ‘actually existing socialism’?

Lenin danced in the snow on the day that his Soviet Republic had officially lasted longer than the 1871 Paris Commune. Did you know that?

Slavoj Žižek mentioned that detail to me when I interviewed him two weeks ago for my podcast and YouTube show Give them an argument and I’ve been turning it over in my head ever since.

The Paris Commune was a radically democratic experiment in which ordinary workers, soldiers, and small tradesmen taking over a major city from the capitalist class and running it on their own for the first time in the history of the world. Marx criticized the Communards for not nationalizing the Bank of France or marching immediately on the reactionary government that still ruled the rest of the country from Versailles. He thought these steps might have given them a fighting chance at avoiding the defeat and massacre that happened seventy days after the Commune was declared on March 18th, 1871. But in his book The Civil War in France, Marx praised the Communards for taking steps like replacing the standing army and police with “the armed people,” making every public official subject to immediate recall by his constituents at any time and for any reason (and limiting such officials to the average salary of a skilled worker), and turning over factories abandoned by fleeing capitalists to worker cooperatives. All of these things, he said, made it a “glorious harbinger” of the new society he hoped would overtake the dying capitalist order.

Soviet poster from 1960s praising the Paris Commune. The subtitle reads: “Those who died for the Paris Commune are rising under the red banner of the Soviets.”

Lenin celebrated when the Soviet experiment had lasted 71 days. In the end, it lasted for 74 years as well as midwifing the creation of similar societies around the world. In some cases this was done by inspiring and providing material aid to genuinely heroic anti-imperialist revolutions that arose organically in societies like Cuba and Vietnam. In countries like Poland, Romania, East Germany, and Hungary, the Soviet model was imposed by the army that had just liberated these societies from fascism and, however many citizens of these societies celebrated this as an advance into a socialist future, there’s no denying that a very significant portion of these populations experienced the establishment of these ‘People’s Democracies’ as an absorption into a foreign empire.

When Marx said that the Paris Commune was a glorious harbinger of socialism, he was pointing to the features that made the Commune more deeply democratic than any capitalist parliamentary democracy that had ever existed. The Soviet Union and the ‘People’s Democracies’ in Eastern Europe were considerably less democratic in almost every way. Multi-party or even meaningfully multi-candidate elections didn’t exist. Neither did any sort of independent press. And even in the workplace, the main site in which Marxists, anarchists, and other radical critics of capitalism had always located the ‘undemocraticness’ of the old system, ordinary working people had considerably less autonomy than western workers who were at least allowed to form genuine trade unions that weren’t just rubber stamps for the ‘boss.’

That ‘boss,’ on the other hand, wasn’t a private owner seeking to accumulate profits but a ‘public sector’ that was no longer one sector among others but, for most of the lifespan of most of these states, the entire economy. This distinction made a real difference and often for the good.

Party bosses and state officials might have had various economic privileges ordinary workers lacked, but to compare the relative share of their societies resources these bureaucrats sucked up with the wealth accumulated by robber barons like Jeff Bezos —currently on track to become the world’s first trillionaire on the basis of the literally back-breaking labor of the workers in his warehouses — is like comparing a few mosquito bites to a visit from Count Dracula. The very real inefficiencies of Soviet-style planning, to which we’ll return in a moment, led to extreme frustration by consumers who had pockets full of rubles or zlotys or marks and nothing they wanted to buy on the shelves of state grocery stores, but with a few horrifying exceptions in the Stalin-era USSR and Mao’s China, no one had to worry about their basic material needs. And there were massive advances in gender equality in a very short period of time. As Kristin Ghodsee documents in her book Why women have better sex under socialism: And other arguments for economic independence, this in turn led to significant improvements in interpersonal relationships. Many women in capitalist societies stay in bad, unfulfilling, or even abusive relationships because of economic insecurity. Doing away with this situation was a real human advance, and whatever good may have come from the fall of that system at the end of the 1980s, the reversion of formerly ‘Communist’ countries to what have often been distinctly more patriarchal patterns was a civilizational step backward.

In my time on the socialist left, both here in the United States in conversations with socialists in Eastern Europe, I’ve often run into confusion and controversy about what, if anything, the contemporary socialist left should say about this messy combination of historical facts. Millenial and Zoomer socialists, raised on a diet of simplistic and often exaggerated anti-communist propaganda, are sometimes tempted to overcompensate and declare that Stalinism was “good, actually.” Anyone who has logged as much time as I unfortunately have on left-wing social media will have seen a good bit of this sort of thing.

Edward Michael Harrington Jr. (February 24, 1928 – July 31, 1989) was an American democratic socialist, writer, author of The Other America, political activist, political theorist, professor of political science, radio commentator and founding member of the Democratic Socialists of America; source: Wikipedia.

At the other end of the spectrum, socialists of my stripe — very roughly, I think of myself as a ‘democratic Marxist’ in the tradition of Michael Harrington, my Jacobin editor Bhaskar Sunkara, or for that matter many honorable dissident Communists in twentieth century Eastern Europe — may be tempted when confronted with the memory of the Soviet experiment to simply shudder and change the subject. They can point out with some justice the extreme gap between what Marx, Engels, and other early socialists meant by ‘socialism’ and the caricature of that vision that existed in those societies, as well as the continuous tradition of anti-Stalinist Marxists pointing out that gap. Even in 1918 Rosa Luxemburg was taking Lenin and Trotsky to task for the authoritarian aspects of their project, and by the 1920s Trotsky himself had become alarmed enough at what the society he’d played such an important role in creating in the first place was becoming that he ended up going first into opposition and then exile and ultimately giving his life for his criticisms of Soviet realities. When Michael Harrington, Barbara Ehrenreich and their comrades founded the Democratic Socialists of America, which has become newly important in left politics after decades as a fringe organization only known to political obsessives, they put the D in DSA precisely to differentiate it from the deeply authoritarian system that existed in the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, and elsewhere.

At the same time, those of us who celebrate the real achievements of social democracy in Western Europe, Scandinavia and elsewhere — even while thinking that social democracy is insufficient and that our long-term horizon must go beyond capitalism entirely — should frankly acknowledge the fact that the western bloc’s Cold War competition with the USSR was a meaningful element in the mixture of factors that allowed such important reforms to be enacted in the first place. The slow-motion unraveling of much of that progress, along with the horrors visited on countries like Iraq in a unipolar world, have been enormous human costs of the global victory of western capitalism over its ‘Communist’ rival.

On the other hand, it’s equally undeniable that, even if the Soviet experience wasn’t all bread lines and gulags, bread lines and gulags were a real and important part of the story. Anti-communist propaganda may have been simplistic in important ways, and may have often exaggerated the real horrors of that system, but that propaganda would have been a lot less effective if the realities of that system hadn’t given the propagandists so much real material to exploit. Ultimately, the existence of societies that were deeply dysfunctional in many dimensions of their economic lives and which brutally suppressed freedom of dissent in every area from street protests to workplace militancy to the ballot box and did all this in the name of socialism, was far more effective anti-socialist propaganda than anything the right wing could ever come up with on their own. Marx thought workers’ revolutions would happen in developed nations with working-class majorities. No revolutions have come close to happening in any of these societies since the Stalin era. (The major putative counter-example, the wave of student and worker militancy in France in 1968, was seen as a potentially anti-capitalist revolution by a significant portion of the students, but by very few

American anti-Communist poster from the 1950s. Source: Wikipedia.

French workers.) Anti-capitalist revolutions only took place in societies that already lacked political democracy, meaning that the transition to ‘Communism’ didn’t mean giving up already established democratic rights. It’s unknowable whether any such revolutions would have happened in the ‘first world’ in a timeline where Stalin and Brezhnev and the rest had never existed, but it’s undeniable that the relative openness to socialist ideas that’s developed in recent years in some countries in the imperialist core has owed a lot to the Cold War retreating into the historical rearview mirror and the defenders of the capitalist order thus having lost their most effective tool of anti-socialist propaganda. Certainly, here in the United States of Anti-Communism, there’s just no way that Bernie Sanders could have won 22 states in a Democratic primary in 2016 while calling himself a “democratic socialist,” or come even closer in the first few contests in 2020, or that we could have a whole ‘squad’ of Congresswomen who embrace the label, if deeply repressive ‘socialist’ states still controlled much of the world.

In light of all that, as my friend and comrade Matt McManus has put it, it’s extraordinarily frustrating when online leftists seem to think that it’s a good use of their time to have scholastic debates about exactly how many Chinese peasants starved to death in the Great Leap Forward — and even more frustrating when no one seems to even think about what sort of image of the left that creates outside of our ideological bubble. When I’ve met people at DSA meetings who call themselves ‘Marxists-Leninists’ and who defend what ‘tankies’ used to call ‘actually existing socialism’ (back when it actually existed), I’ve wanted to scream at them. ‘Don’t you know what the D stands for? Why do you think we call ourselves this?’ I haven’t done this. I’m a very polite person. (Just watch the video of my debate with reactionary lunatic Stefan Molyneux for evidence of that!) But I’ve wanted to. So I certainly understand the impulse of some contemporary socialists to respond to questions about the Soviet experience by saying, essentially, ‘Why are you asking about that? It has nothing to do with us.’

I can also understand some of the impulses underlying ‘tankie-dom.’ Armchair critiques of political actors navigating a messy world are often frustrating. As part of recent debates about how to achieve important reforms like Medicare for All in the United States, I’ve seen some American leftists with no connection to the labor movement demanding that labor leaders somehow will a general strike into existence — in a country where only 6.2% of private sector workers even belong to a union. When I think about how annoying I find that, I can understand how some of the ‘tankies’ I’m prone to grumbling about might say, ‘It’s a bit much for leftists living in relative comfort in the imperialist heartland to second guess the decisions of past revolutionaries trying to survive intense imperialist assaults in unimaginably fraught circumstances.’

As far as it goes, this is a reasonable impulse. I would argue that much of what happened in those states was not necessitated by those circumstances, and that even temporary defeat would have been better for the long-term prospects of global socialism that grinding the majority of the population under the heel of a police state that most would resent to one extent or another (especially combined with those inefficiencies of planning), but I can still agree that sitting in moralistic judgment of past decision-makers shouldn’t be the main point. Genuine monsters like Hitler and Stalin deserve eternal condemnation but the vast majority of political actors on all sides of most historical battles were just muddling through a terrain with no clear map, rationalizing the defects of whatever system they happened to be operating in (as well as their own material interests and often murky ideological assumptions), and hoping for the best. The important thing is to learn whatever lessons we can from the past and apply them to our program for the future.

Were the Soviet Union and the rest ‘socialist’? That looks like a simple descriptive question but really it’s a complicated normative one. What we mean by ‘capitalism’ and hence what we mean when we label the alternative we advocate ‘socialism’ ultimately depends on which aspects of the current system we find objectionable (or objectionable in a way we take other objectionable features to flow from or something along those lines).

If ‘socialism’ just means the socialization of the means of production in the sense in which state ownership is a form of ‘socialization’ (even in a deeply undemocratic society where there’s no sense in which the society as a whole socially owns the state) then the USSR was obviously socialist. On the other hand, if capitalism is just a society largely organized around the production of commodities for sale, then the Russian Revolution just substituted ‘state capitalism’ for ‘private capitalism.’ Some western Marxists took that line at the time and some still do.

I don’t think either of these are particularly useful ways to talk about ‘capitalism’ and ‘socialism.’ If the socialist impulse is about anything it’s about eliminating the division of society into a class of rulers and a subservient labor force. ‘Socializing’ the means of production in a way that gives ordinary people not one iota of control over them just doesn’t satisfy that goal. So making a distinction between (what used to be) ‘actually existing socialism’ and what we mean by ‘socialism’ makes sense. But saying that the USSR and the rest didn’t count as ‘socialist’ because they hadn’t abolished money as a medium of exchange (they didn’t “overcome the commodity form” in the argot of these theorists) means saying that any kind of society we could hope to achieve in the near future, even after the most radical revolutionary break from the status quo we can hypothetically imagine, would end up being disqualified from counting as ‘socialist.’ Even if we could bracket away all political problems, the obstacles are logistical. Soviet workers were still paid with rubles and they used them to buy consumer products, but even the level of de-marketization Soviet society had achieved led to a severe disconnect between production and consumption. It’s easy to trivialize this issue but it was a major reason that Soviet workers didn’t fight to defend that system. And it’s not at all obvious that combining the mechanics of Soviet-style planning with political democracy, so that the head of some future equivalent of the planning office Gosplan was elected (or even if every local commune had its own little Gosplan) any of that would solve that problem.

Perhaps future technological developments could solve it. Perhaps they could even generate a society in which we could go well beyond the Soviet level of planning to eliminate money entirely. Some versions of this vision, like the ‘Fully Automated Luxury Communism’ envisioned by Aaron Bastani, are deeply appealing to me. But while we’re waiting for technological breakthroughs or logistical insights to help us figure out how to do that, I’d like to end the rule of wealthy parasites over everyone else and to bring about workers’ control of the means of production — which is another historically important way of using the term ‘socialism.’

What might that look like? Here’s one straightforward vision that I’ve argued for elsewhere: We can decommodify things like health care and education that many societies have successfully decommodified, and nationalize the ‘commanding heights’ of the economy, and if we do still need a private or quasi-private sector we can at least have it be composed of worker-owned firms financed by state-owned banks.

There’s lots of room for reasonable disagreement among socialists about whether this is the best possible blueprint for a future society. But any plausible blueprint is going to have to be drawn up with one eye on what actually happened under ‘actually existing socialism.’

Treating that experience as simply irrelevant because it wasn’t what we mean by socialism or dogmatically defending the record of deeply flawed and authoritarian societies means not learning the many lessons that ‘actually existing socialism’ can teach us about how to organize a non-capitalist society. Dismissing the negative lessons, whether for tankie-ish reasons or on the grounds that real socialism allegedly wouldn’t run into the same problems, is every bit as much of a mistake as dismissing the positive lessons on the basis of simplistic anti-communism. If we’re going to create the kind of world about which it would be retroactively accurate to say that the Paris Commune was a harbinger of it, we can’t afford to discount anything we can use to help us figure out how to do that.

The iconic 11th thesis on Feuerbach as it appears in the original German manuscript; source: Wikipedia.

The point shouldn’t be to either celebrate or damn a system that, however long it lasted after those first seventy-one days, still ceased to exist decades ago. It’s to use it to learn how to construct something better. To rephrase this in more succinct language borrowed from my favorite nineteenth century philosopher, “the point is to change it.”

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