Twelve Theses on the Crisis of "Really Existing Socialism."

By Lowy, Michael | Monthly Review, May 1991 | Go to article overview

Twelve Theses on the Crisis of "Really Existing Socialism."


Lowy, Michael, Monthly Review


1. One cannot die before being born. Communism is not dead, it is not yet born. The same applies to socialism. What the Western media call "the Communist States" and the Eastern official ideology "really existing socialism" were neither. At best, one could call them "non-capitalist societies," where private property in the main means of production had been abolished. But they were very far from socialism-a form of society where the associated producers are the masters of the process of production, a society based on the largest economic, social, and political democracy, a commonwealth liberated from all class, ethnic, and gender exploitation and oppression. Whatever their economic and social achievements or failures, these "really existing" societies had one basic common shortcoming: the lack of democracy, the exclusion of the workers, of the majority of the people, from political power.

The democratic rights-freedom of expression and organization, universal suffrage, political pluralism-are not mere "bourgeois institutions," but hard-won conquests of the labor movement. Their curtailment in the name of socialism is bureaucratic despotism. As Rosa Luxemburg (who actively supported the Russian Revolution) warned in a fraternal criticism of the Bolsheviks in 1918: Without general elections, without a free struggle of opinion, life dies out in every public institution, becomes a mere semblance of life, in which only the bureaucracy remains an active element." Although some aspects of pluralism and workers' democracy still existed during the years 1918-1923, increasingly authoritarian measures were taken. This mistake-together with the backwardness, civil war, famine, and foreign intervention in the USSR during these years-created the conditions for the appearance of the bureaucratic malignancy which, under Stalin, destroyed the Bolshevik Party and its historical leadership.

2. What the conservative or liberal media call "the death of communism" is in fact the crisis of the authoritarian and bureaucratic system of development first established in the USSR in the 1920s and 1930s on the ashes of the Russian Revolution. It is a model which had already been criticized and rejected in the name of Marxism by a whole generation of radicals, including Leon Trotsky and Christian Rakovsky, Isaac Deutscher and Abraham Leon, Heinrich Brandler and Willy Muenzenberg, Victor Serge and Andre Breton.

What is moribund and dying in Eastern Europe is not "Communism" but its bureaucratic caricature: the monopoly of power by the nomenklatura

3. This crisis is unfolding also in the USSR in a more contradictory form. After several decades of immobility and bureaucratic stagnation, a vigorous process of demolition of the Stalinist heritage took place, whose moving force was the dialectic between reforms from above-promoted by Mikhail Gorbachev and his collaborators-and the democratic movement from below-the Popular Fronts, and socialist, ecological, and reform clubs.

The politics of reform implemented by the new Soviet leadership is a mixed blessing, combining a remarkable political opening (glasnost) with a market-oriented economic restructuring (perestroika) which endangers some of the traditional rights of workers, and some very positive initiatives for nuclear disarmament with a substantial reduction of support for third world revolutions (particularly in Central America).

4. In the political and social struggle which is developing in the USSR and the other non-capitalist societies, both inside the nomenklatura and in civil society, several alternatives confront each other in the search for a way out of the Stalinist model: (a) the conservation of the authoritarian political system combined with significant market-oriented reforms the Deng Xiaoping model, (b) the relative democratization of political structures and the introduction of market mechanisms in the economic management-the USSR, Bulgaria, Romania, (c) a democratization according to the Western model and the generalization of the market economy-that is, the restoration of capitalism-as in other Eastern European countries, (d) the thorough democratization of political power and a socialist/democratic planning of the economy-the program of radical trade unionists and socialist oppositionists, not implemented anywhere as of yet. …

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