An attempt at an accessible, jargon-free explanation of how capitalism returned in the socialist countries of the 20th century

Something I just wrote up for a learning comrade to explain the Marxist-Leninist-Maoist understanding of how and why socialist countries slip back into capitalism. I think it is very accessible and avoids as much jargon as humanly possible. This is what we say happened to the USSR by the ’50s and the PRC in 1978. I welcome criticism (mostly from fellow MLMs. MLs with whom I have standing debates: I will get back to you eventually).

so Mao made many breaks with previous communist leaders. he declared that the Chinese communist movement had learned a lot from the Soviet experience, which was doing its best as the very first attempt at creating a socialist country, but at the same time saying that it was obvious in hindsight that they had also made major mistakes that did not get corrected–not just mistakes of judgment in one-off situations, but also that they were working from a theory that was incorrect in places.

Mao said that Stalin’s contributions were 70% correct, 30% incorrect. virtually everything that Mao disagreed with Stalin on had to do with the role of the masses in a socialist country. Stalin declared that once the proletariat had taken over, the only capitalists remaining were the leftover ones, or people who still had unreformed capitalist sympathies from the old society.

Mao disagreed. watching Stalin be replaced by Khrushchev, who very much betrayed the spirit of Marxism-Leninism, Mao asked himself where Khrushchev and all those who supported him had come from. Khrushchev had never been a capitalist or anything like it, and had been a communist for a long time. Mao broke fundamentally with Stalin’s idea, declaring that in fact new capitalist-minded people were being created all the time under socialism. and not only that, but capitalist-minded people are power-seeking people, so wherever they emerge in society, they will try to climb the ranks into the governing communist party, and implement as much of their capitalist ideology as possible. MLMs believe this understanding is completely correct. like Mao, we say that socialism is a transitional period, neither fully capitalist nor fully communist, and the heart of which direction it is headed in depends on who controls the party–is it the people and their genuine representatives? or is it capitalist-minded people who have climbed the ranks and seized power?

but this leaves the question of where the capitalist-minded people come from. well, where do they come from in our society? the babies of capitalists and workers do not spring into the world with pre-formed capitalist or proletarian inclinations. instead, they develop these through very specific life experiences that shape what they believe in, what they are passionate about, what they have struggled with, how much they have been given, and so on.

so the nature of socialism is that it is a transitional period, and the completion of this transition is not something that can happen overnight. in fact, it will be impossible for this transition to be complete until the whole world has had communist revolutions where parties that are genuine representatives of the proletariat have seized power. until then, there are certain compromises, you might call them, that are necessary to cope with the fact that economically powerful and heavily armed countries that are the enemies of socialism (such as the united states) still exist. another compromise that has to be made is the fact that you cannot build a socialist economy overnight–you have to transform the preexisting capitalist economy into a socialist one, which means you have to keep certain capitalist-type operations running in order to keep things stable and producing during this economic transformation.

the essence of these compromises is that they represent unequal relationships between people. there must be a hierarchy in the military–but there is always the temptation for those at the top of the military to prioritize the increasing of military power as much as possible over the goal of maintaining genuine democratic people power in the country. inevitably, some people in the military leadership will start to think more and more about raw military power, and will prioritize less and less the democratic control of the people. how can they make the military strong? more missiles! more tanks! more jets! but someone has to make those things. and every hour a worker spends in the factory is an hour that they do not get to spend investigating their society, or studying, or debating politics, or talking with their representatives.

thus, there is a direct conflict of interest between how much the country produces (in the short term, at least–not in the long term), and how much it makes sure the population is well-informed, and independent-minded, and able to investigate things to draw their own conclusions.

so it is not *inevitable* that all people in leadership positions will put “production in command” instead of “(genuine democratic) politics in command.” but what is inevitable is that *some* leaders will. really this is the essence of the conflict between capitalism and communism. capitalism says “produce as much as possible, who cares what good it does!” and communism says “let’s produce what we need, for those who need it, in a way that is maximally beneficial to the whole society and for a better and better future–and let’s do this by making sure the least advantaged are empowered *first*, and then once we have achieved equality, maintaining it firmly.”

this happens at every level. a manager in a factory has more of an interest in the workers they are managing to produce more, because the manager has a greater responsibility to look after the well-being of the entire country, and what’s more, of course, high productivity reflects well on the manager. but the workers, of course, want to work no more than is necessary. this again does not mean that there will not be good managers–there will be lots of good managers. but as long as this unequal relationship continues, *some* managers will continue to get more and more production-minded instead of communist-minded.

these are the people, whether they come from positions of leadership in factories, or the military, or universities, or even in the party itself, who slip beyond the pale and lose sight of the point of communism to begin with. these are the people who will aggregate in the party. if nothing is done, soon the party will fill with them, and they will in turn use their positions of power in the party to change policy, sharpening those hierarchical relationships. they will make workers work longer and longer hours, and increase the pay of managers more and more, and make military leaders less and less accountable to the soldiers they command, and give university administrators more and more power over students. and thus there is a feedback cycle, where before long, capitalist-minded, production-first thinking has taken an iron hold on the entire government. and we say that at that point, it is once again a capitalist government, regardless of what it calls itself.

the answer to this problem is proletarian cultural revolution, which you can read more about here: