Without overlooking the fact that there were without a doubt some very severe errors (which I believe have been learned from), I nonetheless think that the great majority of what are called the “crimes” or “disasters” usually blamed on the governments of the socialist countries of the 20th century are:
– misunderstandings of the natural context (e.g., famines caused by droughts that would have occurred no matter which government was in power),
– misunderstandings of the economic context (e.g., the fact that these countries began extremely poor and had long been the sites of a deep and broad deprivation that it is unrealistic to expect to end suddenly),
– misunderstandings of the historical context (wars were fought for the working class to take control of these countries, which destroyed much of the infrastructure and killed a huge proportion of the country’s working people),
– misunderstandings of the political context (every revolution, including, for example, the French Revolution, invariably requires repression of a large section of society that is suddenly dispossessed of its privilege and angry about it; expecting unending repression from socialism based on what we see in the first few years after each successful socialist revolution would be like seeing the repression of the old classes during the French Revolution and concluding that all of capitalism would include such heavy and overt repression forever), and/or
– straight-up misrepresentations or even fabrications offered to us by a public school system, a mainstream media, an academia, and a government that are all in the final instance controlled by a group of people—the capitalist class—who have every incentive to tell any lies they can get away with about the movement to achieve communism, because that movement is 100% antithetical to their interests. What’s more, these ruling institutions have been the dominant factor influencing Western culture and historical understanding for so long that the people themselves have become a re-transmitter of these ideas.
On top of that, we must reject the entire philosophy that is standard in capitalist countries for talking about the socialist countries. That philosophy for viewing historical periods says that our main mission is to tell a story to sum up the virtue and vice, pain vs. pleasure, in these times and places as self-contained periods of moral history.
This misses the whole point of why these revolutions occurred in the first place: they were the first steps on the path toward an entirely new epoch in human society–the epoch of communism. Our primary motivation for evaluating those periods is to learn what they can teach us about pushing forward the communist struggle.
We are scientists. The Wright brothers had two failures before they achieved sustained flight.
When we study these revolutions, we study them not to give them a score on the morality scale, 1 to 100, but instead to learn from them in order to try to achieve flight and then achieve sustained flight–successfully taking off from a country that is still divided by class and national oppression and flying steadily in the direction of an entirely communist planet.
A great quote from Lenin in 1918 on that final point:
“All that we knew, all that the best experts on capitalist society, the greatest minds who foresaw its development, exactly indicated to us was that transformation was historically inevitable and must proceed along a certain main line, that private ownership of the means of production was doomed by history, that it would burst, that the exploiters would inevitably be expropriated. This was established with scientific precision, and we knew this when we grasped the banner of socialism, when we declared ourselves socialists, when we founded socialist parties, when we transformed society. We knew this when we took power for the purpose of proceeding with socialist reorganisation; but we could not know the forms of transformation, or the rate of development of the concrete reorganisation. Collective experience, the experience of millions can alone give us decisive guidance in this respect, precisely because, for our task, for the task of building socialism, the experience of the hundreds and hundreds of thousands of those upper sections which have made history up to now in feudal society and in capitalist society is insufficient. We cannot proceed in this way precisely because we rely on joint experience, on the experience of millions of working people.”