An Article in Two Parts, by Craig Collins

Part One: Socialist Mythology vs. Statist Reality

The founders of “scientific socialism,” Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, assumed it was quite possible, even historically inevitable, for working people to democratically govern an industrial society. However, they never went into detail about how this would work. Even today, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, many orthodox Marxists persist in believing that vast, complex, globalized, industrial economies can be run by and for the workers who operate the machinery of production. In fact, doctrinaire Marxists still cling to the fantasy that worker-run industrial socialism is not only possible, it is the historically destined, superior replacement for industrial capitalism.

This Marxist conviction is dubious for two reasons. First, history has demonstrated that after many attempts, and despite their best intentions, the leaders of “socialist” revolutions have never succeeded in building an industrial society run by and for working people. Second, the primary underlying reason for this failure flows from the structural requirements of industrial society. Fossil-fueled industrial economies exert a powerful influence over their social and political structures. The extensive, intricate, hierarchical configuration of carbon-powered industrialism appears structurally unsuited and deeply resistant to bottom-up, democratic management.

Socialist Revolutions Without Socialism

As originally intended by Marx and Engels, a socialist society would be run democratically, by the vast majority of working people, on the basis of human need, not profit. In other words, socialism meant economic, social, and political democracy. They believed worker-run socialism would eventually become classless communism, as industry produced enough wealth to satisfy everyone’s basic needs and people became accustomed to contributing their abilities to a commonwealth that encouraged their talents and potentials in return.

When socialist-led revolutions seized political power in Russia, China, and elsewhere, Marxists were quick to label these countries “socialist.” They were convinced that their ruling communist parties would industrialize these countries and bring them under democratic, working class control. Meanwhile, in Western Europe, reform-minded Marxists believed working people could gain power over their industrial economies through the ballot instead of the bullet.

Western capitalists were worried when these self-proclaimed socialist revolutions came to power. They feared that thriving workers’ democracies could make capitalism look inferior and inspire more class rebellions around the world. They tried to eliminate, subvert, and vilify these socialist experiments whenever possible. But sabotage failed to prevent these experiments in “socialist construction” from rapidly industrializing.

Unfortunately, industrialization was never accompanied by economic democracy. Whether socialist parties were elected or seized power through revolution, they were never able to bring an industrial economy under the democratic management of working people. For years Marxists excused the failure of self-proclaimed socialist governments to promote democracy in the workplace, community, and government. There was substantial truth in their excuses.

The conditions for promoting democracy were definitely not ideal in the USSR, China, or any of the other countries where communist parties came to power. These countries were not the advanced industrial societies Marx and Engels believed would become the birthplace of socialism. The working class was not the majority; instead, it was a poorly organized minority in underdeveloped nations of peasant farmers.

But even though the Soviet Union and China fell short of their vision of working class democracy, most Marxists were hopeful that they were a work-in-progress. They claimed economic democracy would come later, after a modern industrial economy was constructed under the direction of the communist party’s central planners. Unfortunately, later morphed into never. Although the USSR and China industrialized and the “socialist” nations of Eastern Europe modernized rapidly after World War II, efforts to promote genuine economic and political democracy never gained traction, even after the working class was the vast majority of society.

In fact, no self-proclaimed socialist country, from Poland and East Germany to Cuba and Vietnam, ever achieved the type of economic and political democracy Marx, Engels, and most socialist revolutionaries envisioned. Instead, what passed for socialism were statist societies ruled from above by an elite cadre of party officials and central planners. Needless to say, the proponents of capitalism seized every opportunity to disparage and vilify the idea of communism and socialism whenever these statist governments failed to live up to their self-proclaimed socialist ideals, which they invariably did.

The rulers of statist systems insisted they were Marxists, leading their socialist nations toward a classless, communist society. Yet, as time passed, it appeared that centrally planned industrial systems consistently fostered an entrenched, privileged class of party officials and central planners rather than a socialist democracy run by and for working people.1 Yet, both communist and capitalist cold warriors insisted on mislabeling these statist societies “socialist” and either condemned them as grim totalitarian tyrannies or extolled them as prosperous workers’ democracies.

It is important to note that it served the interests of both sides to mislabel these statist systems “socialist” or “communist.” Western capitalist governments wanted to discourage their citizens from seeing socialism as a viable alternative, so they highlighted the worst qualities of these state-planned economies to portray socialism as an grim totalitarian system. From the other side, the ruling parties of these statist economies proclaimed themselves to be the leaders of prosperous socialist democracies on the path to classless communism, while glossing over the bleak realities of industrial statism with glowing propaganda.

Thus, for opposite reasons, both sides of the Cold War tacitly agreed with the self-serving fiction that these statist industrial societies were genuine examples of socialism. So when the Soviet system imploded and China integrated itself back into the global capitalist system, it became a commonly accepted myth that socialism (and communism) had failed and capitalism had won the Cold War. When actually, what failed was statist industrialism.

Statist Industrialism: Fake Socialism

In reality, genuine democratic socialism has never existed despite the self-serving claims of both sides to the contrary. Does this mean industrial societies are stuck with capitalism? No. History has proven that industrial societies can possess relations of production other than profit-driven capitalism. Just as the agricultural societies generated despotic, slave, feudal, and capitalist class relations at different places and points in history, modern industrialism’s brief 200-year lifespan has generated a spectrum of economic relations as well. But none of them have been democratic. Instead it appears that the complex, large scale, highly centralized, vertically integrated nature of industrial society is unable to accommodate authentic, bottom-up, democratic control over this top-down economic process.

History demonstrates that industrialism can be dominated by capitalist owners out to maximize their profits or by central planners who manage the economy to benefit themselves while governing in the name of the people. Thus, the actual distance been industrial capitalism and the industrial statism falsely labeled “socialist” or “communist” is much narrower than either old-line Marxists or free-market ideologues want to admit. Throughout the 20th century, capitalists and communists waged ideological warfare over which type of industrial system was superior—privately run or government planned. But these arguments exaggerated the actual, real world differences between state-run (“socialist”) and corporate-run (capitalist) industrial systems. In doing so, they hid the pervasive similarities between these two versions of industrial society.

During the Cold War, most Marxists asserted that the state-planned, industrial societies they called “socialist,” were far superior to capitalism. They denounced capitalism as a crisis-ridden system that benefitted the few by exploiting the labor of the vast majority. These Marxists believed that government-planned industrial economies would outlaw labor exploitation for private profit and promote the general welfare of all. Conversely, free market ideologues insisted these statist industrial economies (that they also called communist or socialist) suppressed economic liberty; stifled competition, efficiency, and innovation; and imposed totalitarian control over every aspect of life. The original meaning of “socialism” and “communism” was lost in this ideological shadow boxing.

Why Socialism Failed: Some Inadequate Answers

There are multiple theories for why democratic socialism failed. Some critics of revolution insist that the leaders of socialist insurrections were merely power-driven opportunists who never intended to bring the working class into power. However, to be a valid explanation for the universal failure of democratic socialism this would have to be true across the board, for all those who led and organized every socialist revolution.

History provides no evidence for the assertion that none of the revolutionaries who risked their lives to lead anti-capitalist revolutions were sincerely committed to democratic socialism. Of course, there are always opportunists in every political movement. But it is inaccurate to claim that socialism failed because these revolutionary Marxists were never genuinely committed to democratic socialism. Instead, most either believed the communist party represented working people or hoped to bring the working class into power eventually. Yet, despite their best intentions, this never happened. Why?

As Engels reminds us, sometimes our intentions, “are from the outset incapable of realization, or the means of attaining them are insufficient.” He goes on to explain that when our intentions are unattainable, “the conflict of innumerable individual wills…for the most part, produce results quite other than those they intended–often quite the opposite.”2 The socialist-led revolutions of the 20th century did indeed produce results quite other than those they intended. Yes, they were able to launch nations down a path of state-planned industrialization that did not operate according to the profit-driven imperatives of capitalism. But these statist systems bore no further resemblance to democratic socialism.

Most historians have rejected opportunism as a universal explanation for the failure of democratic socialism. But many doctrinaire Marxists went so far as to insist that any criticism of self-proclaimed socialist countries was merely capitalist propaganda. However, less ideologically rigid Marxists have offered a range of plausible reasons why democratic socialism has failed to materialize.

Some blame capitalism. Without a doubt, capitalist powers have tried very hard to vilify, abort, or undermine these revolutionary regimes at every turn. Their efforts had an definite impact. They made it very difficult for socialist experiments to succeed, while highlighting their failures to turn people against socialism. Yet these efforts at sabotage did not prevent communist parties from rapidly industrializing or claiming they were constructing socialism despite “capitalist encirclement.”3

Other Marxists blamed the failure of democratic socialism on the authoritarian rule of communist vanguard parties that monopolized power while claiming to rule in the name of the workers. There is truth in this criticism as well. Most ruling communist parties extolled their nation’s faultless leaders and the infallibility of Marxist doctrine even as they departed further and further from anything resembling democratic socialism. In fact, time after time, as countries became more complex and industrialized they became even less democratic.

The failure of democratic socialism was also blamed on the underdeveloped economies where revolutions brought communists to power. When communist parties gained power after leading successful national liberation movements in the Third World, some Marxists doubted they could create socialism in these backward peasant countries. They believed socialism would be impossible unless communist parties pursued policies of rapid industrialization to modernize their country and develop a working class majority. But even in China and the Soviet Union, where rapid modernization succeeded and the working class became the majority, no working class democracy ever materialized.

Other Marxists reasoned that when communist parties led armed insurrections followed by policies of rapid industrialization they were compelled to impose top-down programs and directives incompatible with the messy, time-consuming process of bottom-up, participatory democracy.4 There is substantial truth to these Third World focused explanations because they reflect the underlying reality that rapid industrialization is inherently resistant to democratic management.

However, it is important to note that none of these partial explanations can account for the failure of socialists in the industrialized West to establish working class democracies—either through revolutions or elections. In the more developed nations of the global economy, the revolutionary path to power has never succeeded. Some Marxists attribute this to the enormous coercive power of the corporate state; others blame the false consciousness imposed by capitalism’s ideological “hegemony” over the entire culture.5

These Marxists highlight the political complacency fostered by media-hyped consumerism, individualism, and the higher living standards found in the industrialized core of the global economy. These conditions produced a working class with no taste for revolution and a limited enthusiasm for electing “socialist” governments. If elected, socialist and communist politicians never attempted to democratize the economy. Instead, they settled for taxing corporate profits and promoting welfare state capitalism. The economy remained largely in private hands. And even when a “socialist” government exercised power over major portions of the economy, this power was never held by working people.

Ultimately, these are all partial, piecemeal explanations for the failure of democratic socialism. Some theories focus on why it failed in poor nations, others on why it failed in wealthy nations; some focus on power-hungry politicians, working class apathy, the overwhelming power of the capitalist state, or the inherent weaknesses of either reform or revolution. However, universal failure would suggest that there are more pervasive, underlying, structural reasons why neither revolutionary nor reformist efforts to build democratic socialism have ever achieved more than welfare state capitalism or statist industrialism. The essential truth remains that genuine democratic socialism has not succeeded anywhere, even though Marxists believed it would succeed everywhere.

I would like to offer an alternative hypothesis: Perhaps a rapidly expanding, multi-state, globalized industrial economy—powered by an energy base of fossil fuels—is incompatible with nationally restricted efforts to bring it under genuine democratic control. Part Two of this article will examine this hypothesis more thoroughly and consider it implications for building genuine economic democracies in the future.

Read Part Two HERE

Craig Collins Ph.D. is the author of Toxic Loopholes (Cambridge University Press), which examines America’s dysfunctional system of environmental protection. He teaches political science and environmental law at California State University East Bay and was a founding member of the Green Party of California. His forthcoming books: Marx & Mother Nature and Rising From the Ruins: Catabolic Capitalism & Green Resistance reformulate Marx’s theory of history & social change and examine the emerging struggle to replace catabolic capitalism with a thriving, just, ecologically resilient society.

Image: ‘The Ideal City’, usually attributed to Fra Carnevale, believed to have been painted between 1480-1484.