On Criticising Past Socialist Projects

 - by Kay


Before we can engage with the challenge of analysing past socialist projects in the internet era we must first look at the way the internet, and social media specifically influences the way we discuss politics and history. In an environment dominated by character limits and people often just reading headlines before deciding what they think about something, many political stances are not explorations of the topic, but statements of intent.

Let’s use the USSR as an example. If a person believes the USSR was generally a positive thing in the 20th century, even if they are willing to accept that it failed in some places, it can still be much easier for them to concisely display their support of the USSR via pithy statements such as “Stalin did nothing wrong” to align yourself with other people who support the USSR. Likewise, if another person views USSR as a revisionist distortion of the goals set out by the revolution, but is still prepared to acknowledge some areas where it succeeded, it can still be much easier to align themselves with people who do not support the USSR and/or hold anti-authoritarian stances with their own one liners about “Tankies” and “Red Fascists”.

Now that we’ve each picked our teams we can begin the work of selectively trawling for information on the USSR to find ammunition with which to attack the enemy team, proving once and for all that the Soviet Union was either a perfect utopia or a giant death camp. Things are either Good or Bad and once you decide which thing is which the discussion kind of has itself.

A problem of the internet era is that for nearly any stance, there exists evidence in support of it, if you simplify the stance enough. If your stance is “USSR Good” you can quote any number of quality of life improvements (reduction of homelessness, progress in women’s rights) and be technically correct. If your stance is “USSR Bad” you can quote the wholesale deportation of specific nationalities. Also technically correct.

This is reinforced by the argument style we apply to currently living people. If you can provide evidence of a person doing or saying something bigoted or otherwise harmful you now have a source in your back pocket and can freely respond to any mention of that person with “X is problematic because Y” and be technically correct. The thing with random celebrities who say racist shit is they are: a) individuals, b) given an opportunity to respond to these criticisms with the possibility of positive change and aiming to make amends as well as the possibility of doubling down or outright denial.

Applying this same way of thinking to, say, the leader of a party with membership numbering in the millions at the head of a country made up of a complex bureaucratic network and declaring, with the benefit of hindsight, that something they did was harmful or generally a failure, therefore “USSR bad” is not a helpful way to view history, and with these men long dead and unable to actually respond to these criticisms (and they are often valid criticisms, though some may be ahistorical) it doesn’t have the same possibility of positive improvement that it does when applied to a living person.

We need to let go of the concept of past socialist states and leaders being Good or Bad and accept them for what they are: a massive resource of lessons (both positive and negative) to take forward in the struggle to build socialism and oppose the stranglehold of global capitalism. As well as an attempt (with varying degrees of success) to actualize the will of that country's proletariat, for better or worse. No socialist project exists in isolation (philosophical, economic, geographic, or historical). The ideas of their time and their people will have an impact on them and some of those ideas WILL be wrong, and even dangerous. We need to deprioritize scoring Gotcha Points on dead men (it’s worth noting just how many of them ARE men) and constructively analyse the environment that breeds such policies.

Having established what sort of criticisms are NOT useful we now need to look at what kind of criticisms ARE useful.

As Marxists we have a question that we must ask of socialist projects first and foremost. What is their approach to the contradictions of class society? This should be the starting point of asking the second question, and the question that matters much more than applying some moralistic Bad or Good status: Are they building socialism? Building socialism will not always look the same, it will not be without setbacks, and it will be imperfect. The goal is not perfection, the goal is to build a better world by ending class contradictions by bringing the struggle between classes to its natural conclusion: the withering away of classes. Taking a single failure and reasoning that this project has therefore failed is to not accept the fact that socialism is built in the real world, by real, fallible people, and it is to assume that any mistakes suddenly render the progress made in the struggle for liberation somehow irrelevant. Some failures reverse the direction of travel of the class struggle and others do not.

What does it look like when a socialist project is taking an approach to the class struggle that does not aim to progress toward that ultimate goal of elimination of class society, therefore descending into revisionism? Continuing to use the USSR as an example we can learn a lot about the face of revisionism from the likes of Nikita Khrushchev, who proposed a policy of “Peaceful Coexistence” between the proletariat and capitalist classes, both in individual countries and globally, and asserted that revolution could be carried out without violence, through the ballot box, with the approval of the state.

History has, of course, undone that sort of wishful thinking, but its indicative of an abandonment of the most fundamental principle of building socialism: The goal is to end class society. The class in power, the bourgeoisie, will not allow this to happen peacefully and uninterfered with, as has been demonstrated by the Cold War itself and countless coups, propaganda campaigns, and outright military opposition. Khrushchev’s proposition was, in effect, to put the class struggle on the back burner and prioritise the strengthening the USSR's productive capacities from within; and while still espousing "revolution" but only on terms that the ruling classes of other countries knew were generally doomed to failure or at best reformism in order to develop better ties with the imperialist powers, headed by the USA.

To criticize a socialist project for not completing the massive undertaking of transforming their entire society and production model within your personal timeline is not a good faith engagement with the struggles we face in the fight against capitalism. However, criticizing a socialist project for stunting that development and deprioritizing the class struggle in order to play at conventional global power politics, which they would ultimately go on to lose (inevitably, as the terms of these power politics are dictated by capitalism) is completely justified.

A socialist project demonising other oppressed groups, or agricultural reforms which when improperly implemented add to the immense hardship and starvation caused by drought can be cause for criticism but is not always cause for abandonment. It is important that we be critical and understand both where socialist projects have gone wrong, and also, where in spite of this, their role in historical context is still worth defending. Most importantly, we must remain conscious of the difference between an error and a betrayal of the revolution, even where there is a relationship between the two. Failure should be an indictment reserved for cases where direction of class struggle has actually been reversed.

The failures of socialist projects, especially when it comes to replicating oppression based on sexuality and race, often mirror the same trends in capitalist nations of the time. Communism is not the inverse of capitalism. It is the progression beyond the class contradictions that prevent our society from flourishing. A revolution will take on aspects of the society that birthed it, for better or worse. The continuation of such bigotries are to be corrected, not used as a bludgeon to beat down efforts at socialism and allow capitalist powers, who have no love for those oppressed groups, to further their global hegemony.

We must always strive to learn from the mistakes of our past, but we must also learn from our successes. We have an incredible history of proletarian struggle, a history we should be proud of. We cannot allow bourgeois idealism to prevent us upholding our greatest victories just because we have also known failure.