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