A common argument made on the left is the allegation that real socialism has never been tried. This has, naturally, caught the attention of many right wing bloggers, memers, and think tanks who make fun of such a notion. But the question itself is a valid one, and one worth exploring by anyone who claims to be intellectually honest.


(One of the right-wing memes in question)

What even is Socialism? What is Communism?

There are no words more commonly misunderstood today than the words socialism and communism. Socialism is, admittedly, an umbrella term. For instance, Hitler’s use of the term ‘socialism’ is radically different from, say, Lenin’s or Rosa Luxemburg’s use of the term. But when referring to economic systems, such as capitalism, feudalism, or socialism, we are generally referring to the Marxist definition of the term socialism. Of course, there is an extremely common, yet incorrect view that the word socialism means government ownership and control over the economy. But as we shall see, the term socialism in and of itself has nothing to do with the government.

So what is the Marxist or economic definition of socialism? It’s actually quite simple. It means: “an economic system characterized by social ownership and democratic control of the means of production (meaning industry, workplaces, enterprises, factories, etc.)” Here is a list of 9 sources, courtesy of Wikipedia, that validate this definition of the term. Such an economic system means, practically speaking that those who produce the wealth in an enterprise, have democratic control over where that wealth goes. Those who produce the all the wealth in society, own and control where all of that wealth goes and how it is used. There is no problem of “running out of other people’s money” as Margret Thatcher famously said, because socialism means social ownership of the means of producing wealth, the expropriation of the expropriators, not temporarily riding a ‘red wave’ off the hoarded wealth of the few. The popularity of this quote by Thatcher is but a testament to the crisis of ignorance and political illiteracy in our society today. Generally the philosophy of socialism, according to Lenin, is “from each according to their ability, to each according to their work“, meaning that workers are paid in proportion to their work. It is a pure myth that “everyone gets paid the same under socialism”, or even under communism. This can be distinguished from communism, which embodies the philosophy “from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs“, and this typically refers to a stateless, classless, moneyless society, which is not the topic of this post. Socialism is the lowest stage of communism, it is the economic system of a society in transition to communism. The economic system itself implies democracy. The political system of socialism also implies democracy, but not in the bourgeois or capitalist sense of the word.

In a socialist society, political power rests in the hands of the workers, the proletariat, or what we would call “the 99%” in modern political discourse. This means political power is not subject almost exclusively to the will of wealthy corporate donors, super PACS, political philanthropists, and corporations- but rather to the free opinions of the people themselves. In essence it means divorcing money from politics entirely. Marx claimed that “the first step in the revolution by the working class, is to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class, to win the battle for democracy.” There is no such thing as a true “democracy for all”, for capitalist and worker at the same time. We see that in America this “democracy for all” turns in practice, into a dictatorship of the capitalist class, just as the early democracy of the early Greek Republics was a democracy and a dictatorship of the slave owners at the same time, as only the slave owners had any real power under such a system.

The verdict of history is quite clear- political democracy without industrial democracy amounts to virtual oligarchy in practice. A true “democracy for all” implies equal representation to all members of society without regard to personal wealth, meaning that the working class, the proletariat, or the 99%, would in effect hold all power over the capitalist minority- not through force of arms or political repression, but through the democratic system itself. In this sense, the “dictatorship of the capitalist class” is turned into a “dictatorship of the proletarian class”, just as the dictatorship of the ruling class in feudalism was turned into a dictatorship of the capitalist class in the 18th century, just as the dictatorship of the slave owners was turned into a democracy of the ruling class under feudalism before that. But once the proletariat has power for itself, once it democratizes the economy and society as a whole, class society itself disappears, as no distinction is left between those who own the means of production, and those who toil. This is only possible if the power held by the few is redistributed to the many, if the enterprise itself is democratized. Only in such a society can “we the people” refer to the people as they actually exist and not to meaningless abstractions. The form of democracy here is far more radical in scope than the democracy of our bourgeois society.

Were the USSR, China, North Korea, etc. ‘real socialism’? Were they Communist?

As for communism, no society in the 20th century ever called itself communist. Communism itself implies a stateless, classless, moneyless society- a society without private (not personal) property. The USSR stands for the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The USSR called itself socialist, not communist. Communism has existed historically, 9/10 of the existence of the human species was under what Marx called ‘primitive communism’. The communities built by the early Christian Apostles in the first century AD, as recorded in the Book of Acts, were ardently communistic, more so than the USSR or Karl Marx himself. Socialism, however, is a different question.

In the USSR, People’s Republic of China, North Korea, and other “people’s democracies” of the cold war, there can be little doubt that the means of production were socially owned. The form of ownership this took, most often, was in the form of state ownership. There are other forms of social ownership that would qualify for a socialist system including but not limited to employee ownership, cooperative ownership, citizen ownership of equity, common ownership, collective ownership, etc. State ownership can qualify as social ownership, so the “people’s democracies” clearly meet the first standard for what could be called socialist. However, socialism by its very nature implies democracy, democracy that is industrial as well as political, and moreover, democracy can only exist in a society that allows unlimited individual liberty.

As Marxist revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg said in 1918,

“…it is a well-known and indisputable fact that without a free and untrammeled press, without the unlimited right of association and assemblage, the rule of the broad masses of the people is entirely unthinkable…

Freedom only for the supporters of the government, only for the members of one party – however numerous they may be – is no freedom at all. Freedom is always and exclusively freedom for the one who thinks differently. Not because of any fanatical concept of “justice” but because all that is instructive, wholesome and purifying in political freedom depends on this essential characteristic, and its effectiveness vanishes when “freedom” becomes a special privilege.

According to Rosa Luxemburg, no society without genuine democracy and unlimited political and personal freedom qualifies as a ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’, or a socialist society. This is fully in line with the basic principles of Marxism. Luxemburg not only understood this, but also prophetically foreshadowed the Stalinist despotism that would follow in the later 20th century and cold war:

“Without general elections, without unrestricted freedom of press and assembly, without a free struggle of opinion, life dies out in every public institution, becomes a mere semblance of life, in which only the bureaucracy remains as the active element. Public life gradually falls asleep, a few dozen party leaders of inexhaustible energy and boundless experience direct and rule. Among them, in reality only a dozen outstanding heads do the leading and an elite of the working class is invited from time to time to meetings where they are to applaud the speeches of the leaders, and to approve proposed resolutions unanimously – at bottom, then, a clique affair – a dictatorship, to be sure, not the dictatorship of the proletariat but only the dictatorship of a handful of politicians, that is a dictatorship in the bourgeois sense, in the sense of the rule of the Jacobins! Yes, we can go even further: such conditions must inevitably cause a brutalization of public life: attempted assassinations, shooting of hostages, etc.”

The principle of democracy is universal to socialism.

“Democracy is the road to socialism.” -Karl Marx

“Socialism needs democracy like the human body needs oxygen.” -Leon Trotsky

“There is no democracy without Socialism and No Socialism without Democracy”      -Rosa Luxemburg

So, based on this definition, the question becomes a simple one. Were the “people’s democracies” of the 20th century (such as the USSR, China, North Korea, etc.) genuinely democratic? If you believe the USSR was an example of real socialism in practice, this implies, naturally, that you believe the USSR was a genuinely democratic economic and political system, as it claimed to be. If you say, “No, the USSR was a totalitarian dictatorship, not a genuine democracy”, then you are basically saying “the USSR wasn’t actually a socialist society”. Stalinism tries to justify itself ideologically by cherry picking from the ideas of Marx, Engels, and Lenin. Even with this cherry picking, Stalinist society still calls itself a “free and democratic” society. If a Stalinist society openly admitted it was not democratic, it would not be able to call itself socialist. If a Stalinist society openly admitted it was not a free society, it would not be able to call itself socialist. Here we find one of the most sinister attributes of Stalinism. In 1989 one of the most common rallying cries of the German workers was “Freedom of the press!” This was a danger to the regime not because it was in principle opposed to a free press, but on the contrary, because “officially”, freedom of the press already existed. “Officially”, there was no press censorship at all. Article 9 of the constitution of the German Democratic Republic’s (GDR, or East Germany) blatantly stipulates, “There is no press censorship.” Needless to say, Rosa Luxemburg’s writings were censored in the GDR, in spite of Rosa’s face appearing on GDR currency, and in spite of GDR soldiers being sent to guard statues made to her by the GDR state.

This Stalinist formalism is the same defense North Korea uses to dodge criticism of its human rights abuses. A UN representative of the North Korean regime asked the United Nations “Have you read our constitution?” as a response to criticisms of its well-documented religious persecution. Of course, the North Korean constitution “officially” guarantees freedom of religion. It even goes further than this:

Article 66.

All citizens who have reached the age of 17 have the right to elect and to be elected, irrespective of sex, race, occupation, length of residence, property status, education, party affiliation, political views or religious belief.
Citizens serving in the armed forces also have the right to elect and to be elected.
A person who has been disenfranchised by a Court decision and a person legally certified insane do not have the right to elect or to be elected.

Article 67.

Citizens are guaranteed freedom of speech, the press, assembly, demonstration and association.
The State shall guarantee the conditions for the free activities of democratic political parties and social organizations.

Article 68.

Citizens have freedom of religious belief. This right is granted through the approval of the construction of religious buildings and the holding of religious ceremonies.
Religion must not be used as a pretext for drawing in foreign forces or for harming the State or social order.

Article 69.

Citizens are entitled to submit complaints and petitions.
The State shall investigate and deal with complaints and petitions impartially as stipulated by law.

Of course, anyone who used to live in North Korea will tell you these rights are not actually realized in any way whatsoever, because as Rosa Luxemburg correctly said, “freedom is always the freedom of the dissenters”. The same was no doubt the case in every other “socialist” country in the 20th century. If I was a citizen of North Korea who happened to be an anarchist running on a platform opposed to Kim Jong Un and the Workers Party of Korea in an election, I would no doubt be arrested, forcibly ‘reeducated’, or worse. Could I start a newspaper critical of the regime, calling for North Korea to open itself up to the world? Could I call for freedom of information and the introduction of the world wide web into North Korean society? As a free North Korean citizen, I’d imagine I’d have a lot to complain about, and the state has to, according to the constitution, give me not only the right to complain, but also the ability to create an organization of agitation, and the conditions for the free activities of my democratic political party or organization (i.e. the tools to print my newspaper and the ability to distribute it to the masses). Because if I don’t have that freedom, I certainly do not live in a genuinely democratic society, and I most certainly do not live in a socialist society. Not according to some abstract thinker or modern political hack, but according to the founding mothers and fathers of scientific socialism itself. This is why so many socialists today agitate saying these countries are not genuine expressions of socialism, because they are not genuinely free or democratic, even by bourgeois standards. This is why they call for socialism, this is why they condemn Stalinism and capitalism at the same time.



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