Einstein famously remarked, “insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”. So why, if socialism has been tried before and seemingly failed we are told, are Marxists still fighting for socialism? To answer this, it is important to understand what took place with the Soviet Union, and other countries calling themselves “socialist”.
In 1917, the working class in Russia took power as the result of a mass revolutionary movement. The economy was taken out of the hands of the capitalists and landlords and society was run through the democratic control of the workers and poor peasants through workers councils (aka. “soviets”). Such measures represented the beginnings of a transition from capitalism towards socialism.
However, Lenin, Trotsky and the Bolsheviks never thought it would be possible to “build socialism in one country” but saw the Russian Revolution as the beginning of the World Revolution. As capitalism is a world system, socialism must be a world system.
This was soon confirmed in practice, when revolutions or revolutionary situations developed all across Europe, including in Germany, Austria, Hungary, Italy, France, Spain, and even Britain.
The failure of the working class to take power in these countries was not through lack of determination on their part. It was due to the lack of a revolutionary party, which would have been able to harness all the energy of the masses towards the conquest of power.
Hence the revolution in Russia was left isolated. Instead of being able to link up the vast resources of Russia, with the advanced industry of Europe, the Russian economy was left shattered after years of war.
As Marxists, we understand the ability to create a society free from the horrors of poverty, unemployment, hunger, and so on, is ultimately determined by the level of the productive forces (industry, agriculture, science, and technique), as well as their ownership and control.
Marx himself remarked: “A development of the productive forces is the absolutely necessary practical premise [of socialism], because without it want is generalised, and with want the struggle for necessities begins again, and that means that all the old crap must revive.”
The Russia of the early 1920s, after years of war, suffered catastrophic industrial and agricultural collapse. Want was indeed generalised. It was in this context, with millions of workers killed or exhausted by years of struggle, that participation in the soviets dried up and a layer of privileged bureaucrats began to usurp control.
Even by 1920, the number of state officials and bureaucrats numbered nearly 6 million. Most of these came from the privileged layers of the old Tsarist regime and it was this layer that Stalin came to power to represent.
Hence the totalitarian dictatorship, which was necessary to maintain the rule of the bureaucrats and destroy all links with the genuine traditions of the October revolution. As well as exterminating the Old Bolsheviks, all forms of workers’ democracy were crushed.
Without the democratic participation of the working class in planning and running society, the Soviet economy became suffocated by bureaucratic mismanagement and waste.
With the Soviet economy stagnating, a layer of the bureaucracy moved in the 1990s to restore capitalism (with themselves now as billionaires), as Trotsky predicted decades earlier in The Revolution Betrayed. Despite the horrors of the Stalinist regime, which genuine Marxists never supported, the restoration of capitalism was a disaster for the working class.
The task facing the working class today is to fight for genuine socialism not the crude distortion of the Stalinist regimes. It is Stalinism which ultimately failed not socialism.
For Marxists, workers’ democracy is the lifeblood of a socialist state. Most important of all is to understand that socialism in one country is not possible. That is why we are internationalists, that is why we fight for socialism not just here in Britain but throughout the world. This is the socialism we are fighting for – one which will sweep away the real failure of modern times: capitalism.