Why I think the people were genuinely in power in the socialist countries of the twentieth century, and why these examples reveal the route forward for humanity

If the challenges of constructing a socialist society and economy [in the early Soviet Union] were formidable, the achievements were truly remarkable. A new mode of production which neither rested on exploitation nor experienced the destructive economic crises of capitalist market forces was established. A modern socialist industrial base and a system of collectivized agriculture were created. A central planning mechanism was able to give overall direction to economic development. It was a system of planning that made it possible to rapidly expand aggregate industrial capacity, to promote the development of the more backward republics and regions, and to marshal resources and capabilities on a monumental scale as part of the heroic effort to defeat German imperialism (1500 major factories were relocated eastward in the span of a few weeks). The slogan of the First Five Year Plan was “we are building a new world,” and millions of workers and peasants, especially during the late 1920s and early 1930s, were fired with a spirit of “storming the heavens” and doing this for the cause of world revolution.

The collectivization drive ignited a genuine upheaval against centuries-old authority, tradition, and oppression in the countryside. The old educational system was overhauled and opened up to the masses, and young workers were mobilized as a social force to confront the old and hidebound. Artists, writers, and other cultural workers chronicled the great changes taking place in society, and an art to serve the revolution was struggled for and debated over. And the new workers’ state gave support to and helped to formulate the line for revolutionary struggles throughout the world. In all, these were real and historic accomplishments.

Lotta, “Introduction,” in Maoist Economics and the Revolutionary Road to Communism: The Shanghai Textbook.

A friend of mine asked me whether I think any socialist revolution ever achieved its intended goal. Below was my attempt to tell him why I think the answer is “yes.”

It’s a pretty good summary of why I think anyone looking for a way out of capitalism should look to the socialist countries of the twentieth century for answers. Comrades should feel encouraged to criticize or add to my response.

I can safely say that I think the answer is “yes” for the Soviet and Chinese revolutions–for the Soviet revolution from 1917 to 1956 or so, and for the Chinese revolution from 1949 to 1978 or so.

According to the Marxist understanding of history, ever since the emergence of class society around 15,000 years ago (in some places), society has been a dictatorship of one class over the rest of classes. “Dictatorship” here means that one class–as a class–gets what it wants, and no law or any other contrivance stands in it way. Marx and Engels theorized that in order to bring about an end to class society, the proletariat and its allies–the other toiling classes, mainly the peasantry-would have to seize power and, using all available tools, reconstruct society so that there was no class distinction anymore, and all economic decisions would be made not according to what profited some specific subset of individuals but truly by all of society collectively through a democratic process. The result would be communism, a stateless, classless, moneyless society.

The question then is whether or not these postrevolutionary societies were dictatorships of the proletariat moving in the direction of communism. I think the answer is yes for all of these countries. I think a fairly productive way to think about these questions is to pull out the metaphor of “motion toward” communism. In this metaphor, we could say that the initial revolutions were accelerating factors, imparting a good deal of momentum in the direction of communism, but that at a certain point for all of these countries, they slowed and then began sliding backward toward capitalism.

We know that these revolutions were more than just coups–they involved tens or hundreds of millions of people who were consciously changing their society, reorganizing almost every aspect of it, from the way the political system was structured, to the way production was undertaken (it became more collective and democratic), to the relations between men and nonmen and between adults and children.

In ascending order, these are the reasons I think it’s fair to say that a dictatorship of the proletariat was achieved:

1. On a very material level, the very broad masses began to receive the prerequisites for acting as a self-conscious political power–a high-quality, all-around education, as well as the universal guarantee of basic needs. (https://gowans.wordpress.com/2012/12/21/do-publicly-owned-planned-economies-work/) It seems unthinkable that every single individual in a society (besides self-declared enemies of the communist project) would be given these things if the intention was to continue subjugating some specific subsection of it.

2. There was a stark reduction in economic inequality, significantly undermining one of the main roots of class society: the ability for some subset of society to use its resources to bribe (or pay off, or “hire,” or whatever) others to help control the rest of society.

3. There were very deep social changes that came about, indicating that the radical participation of the broad masses was underway. Some big things I can think of are the abolition of beauty contests, mass participation in communal living arrangements, and worker self-management in workplaces. To some extent it’s hard to quantitatively measure “mass participation” and “trans-valuation of societal values,” but I think these things as symptoms speak volumes.

4. Speaking only of the Chinese revolution here, the fact that the cultural revolution was able to be launched at all, and in fact that it was carried through to a large degree. In my opinion, the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution is the high point in all of human history. Here’s the rundown on it: the Soviet Union had started to slide back toward capitalism. That became obvious to people in China. The USSR began to act like an imperialist power, and seemed to be prioritizing military and economic power on the international scene over the preservation of a thoroughgoing and deeply-rooted democratic character to their society. Seeing this, and seeing that the same bureaucratization and stagnation had also begun to take root in their own society, the Maoist wing of the Chinese leadership launched the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, whose most prominent motto was “bombard the [party] headquarters.”

The GPCR was a call for the Chinese people to take courage and call out party officials who had become corrupt, factory managers who had begun to usurp power to themselves, university administrators who had begun to act with interests contrary to the democratically controlled education of the students, and so on–and though it had many flaws in its execution, it was very successful in many places. I think the GPCR is proof that additional acceleration in the direction toward communism can (and must) be imparted after the initial revolutionary push.

That being the case, I think it is also proof that we can get there–that we can overcome capitalism once and for all and abolish class. This is a very insightful document on the GPCR, if you’re interested, including criticisms of its failures, shortcomings, excesses, etc.: http://www.mlmrsg.com/attachments/article/72/CRpaper-Final.pdf

That document also explains better than I could what went wrong in the Soviet Union and, ultimately, in China itself. The quickest way to put it is that the USSR never really had a cultural revolution, and the PRC had theirs too late to save their dictatorship of the proletariat.

For whatever it’s worth, the following is a list of books from a reddit comment, offered as sources for people looking for further evidence on this question.

Why the USSR was socialist under Stalin:
The Restoration of Capitalism in the USSR by Martin Nicolaus.
The Need for Planning by Joseph Ball.
An Introduction to Stalin by Bruce Franklin.
Another View of Stalin by Ludo Martens.
Class Struggles in the USSR, First and Second Period by Charles Bettelheim.
Economic Problems of Socialism in the USSR by Joseph Stalin.
Reassessing the History of Soviet Workers: Opportunities to Criticize and Participate in Decision-Making and Life and Terror in Stalin’s Russia by Robert Thurston
State and Society under Stalin: Constitution and Elections in the 1930s and Stalinist Terror: New Perspectives by J. Arch Getty

Why China was socialist under Mao:
Fundamentals of Political Economy by FPE Working Group
China’s Industrial Revolution by Stephen Andors
Fanshen by William Hinton
The Chinese Road to Socialism by E. L. Wheelwright and Bruce McFarlane
China’s Economy and the Maoist Strategy by John Gurley
Chinese Economic Development by Chris Bramall
The Battle for China’s Past by Mobo Gao
Evaluating the Cultural Revolution in China and its Legacy for the Future by MLMRSG
Cultural Revolution and Industrial Organization in China by Charles Bettelheim

Why Albania was socialist under Hoxha:
Pickaxe and Rifle by William Ash

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On the wastefulness and inefficiency of capitalism

A good friend of mine was questioning the pro-capitalist logic of “competition brings out more creativity” and asked (semi-rhetorically),

“I imagine that a LOT of resources are wasted on things like marketing, corporate espionage, lawsuits, duplication of efforts, etc. Does the ‘creativity boost’ of competition balance out the waste?”

I wanted to share what I commented to add to his point about the wastefulness of capitalism:

you kind of mention this, but there are also certain jobs like insurance-company actuary that would just totally disappear if we decided to just give everyone healthcare. no need to decide how much to charge someone for insurance if they just get the care no matter what.

and more deeply, it also depends on what we’re counting as a good return on resources invested. the standard claim is that the intrinsic value that businesses create can be precisely and directly measured by the amount of money the company receives.

but really, one could take relatively small amounts of resources and give them directly to the poor people of the world in the form of infrastructure and land, and one would have created so much more value than if one used that same amount of money to buy this year’s laptops and trucks and clothing etc. for the wealthy.

but of course, what is produced is what makes money, which depends not at all on how much value it adds to human life but on whether it can be sold to those who already have expendable money.

relatedly, there’s also the fact that if something that has already been produced and it would hurt profits to sell it, it is destroyed rather than given away.

there’s also planned obsolescence.

there’s also the incredibly environmentally destructive nature of capitalism, which collapses natural systems through overusing them that otherwise would have provided steady supplies of resources and “natural services” indefinitely (http://bit.ly/CapitalistEcocide).

there’s also war, which you do mention already in the form of competition, but it’s probably worth noting that capitalism makes war inevitable (http://bit.ly/capitalistmassmurder), and virtually all production of armaments and troop-shipping and troop-housing etc. is pure waste. along those lines, there’s also the cost of law enforcement, which would be so dramatically smaller in a world where everyone had what they needed.

and also the way so many are left to starve, and turn to drugs etc., and human potential is eaten up in addiction, distraction, fear, and trauma, etc. this is probably the single greatest inefficiency, given the power of even one all-around(-or-close-to-it) healthy human being.

and truthfully, we even have evidence that the very claim that capitalism is better than socialism at building up advanced economies efficiently is false, like how the ussr was the third-fastest growing economy in the the world for the span of time it existed, and in fact that it grew even faster during the years when (in my opinion) their planned economy was genuinely democratically planned (http://bit.ly/doplanned).

The federal government can’t treat the white “Patriot Movement” fascists in Oregon as it treated armed black and indigenous people

I posted this to my Facebook yesterday. I thought I said something really important really well, so I wanted to post it here so I could find it again more easily and so passersby on the internet might find it more easily, too.

Black Agenda Report | Why the Feds Punk Out When Confronting White Rightwing Insurgents

“‘The Mass Black Incarceration State was designed to pre-empt any insurgency by Black people’ – but is wholly unprepared to handle armed revolt from ***the white Right, from which it also draws much of its police manpower.***”

Asterisks mine. That is the very heart of this issue. Capitalism has been breeding armies of fascists for 500 years to protect itself–and fascists, whether in white hoods or blue uniforms, work for cheap: all they want are the best of the table scraps. But since amerika is no longer alone on the world stage, the scraps are getting thinner.

But don’t get it twisted, capitalism cannot exist without this protective layer of fascists. There are only two ways this plays out:

– Fascist revolution, where the informal (and, at least to white men, subtle) domination of white, hyper-patriarchal, hyper-nationalist men becomes formalized and legal, and what was always a fake republic turns officially into an empire.

– Communist revolution, where the broad masses of toiling people (mostly women), who have always produced the vast majority of society’s wealth, defeat both the capitalists and the fascists and start building a true democracy where economics serves universal human flourishing instead of private accumulation. And the toiling class that amerika depends on is worldwide, which means both that most of the planet will be involved in this revolution and also that everyone on the planet gets their rightful piece of the european and amerikan pies they’ve been building for 500 years.

And it will play out, and soon.

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For more information about the black and indigenous armed occupations that were attacked by the federal government, see about the MOVE bombing here and the Wounded Knee massacre here.

For full effect, actually, click this to listen* on repeat while you read.

You know, it’s like, Marxism is incredibly powerful. It can pick out the underlying forces and help you make useful predictions about all political-economic situations, no matter how different.

In order to become competent at this analysis, I had to focus on what was the same in very diverse situations, over and over again.

Something about looking at this strange instrument and not knowing what it would sound like and hearing this haunting music come out of it reminded me of something very different about the world than that.

Today I saw a video of a strange and interesting bird in Palestine. I would never have imagined either the bird or this music existed.

I think of the tens of billions of species that came and ran their race on this earth, all the different ways of being a living thing, all the perfectly unique rhythms of living, made up of totally specific individuals, that swelled up and then popped like a soap bubble–and that this is still going. I feel as one feeling both being haunted and being struck by the sublimeness of how small I am, how little I will ever see.

There is such a vastness to life. And what is strange is it is unlike all other vastnesses–it is a vastness built out of struckness, out of pregnant and quiet pauses. How could you race across the planet and through time and see everything, you couldn’t, you would be slowed down by awe, again and again. And the time your awe took you would keep you from seeing any but just the tiniest fraction of it.

Humanity is amazing, but there is something bigger in this than humanity. Against my own wishes, I find myself having to come to this conclusion. What there is here is bigger than communism. I think it is good to fight to protect the particular life on this planet now and all the future life that can come from it, to protect and nurture all the seeds of hope and sacrifice that have been sown over a billion years. But nothing I’m doing can save or not save the particular thing that is striking me right now. When I think of what I’m thinking of it feels like the only appropriate action is to kneel.

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* In case it is ever lost to time, the music is a 91-second recording of music by Wolfgang A. Mozart being played on a glass harmonica by Thomas Bloch in the Paris Music Museum on Nov. 29, 2007.