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Tyrannies ruling in the name of socialism

“China and Cuba, like the former Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc, have nothing to do with socialism. We support the struggles of workers in these countries against the bureaucratic ruling class.”
— From the ISO “Where We Stand”

It would be wrong to argue that the collapse of the Soviet Union has rendered irrelevant questions about what sort of system it was.

Though the pall of “Soviet socialism”—with its bureaucratic police methods—no longer hangs over the socialist movement, we still must answer the questions: What was the nature of the Soviet Union? Was it socialist in fact or in name only? Was it an inevitable outcome of what the Russian revolutionaries set out to do in 1917?

The same questions must also apply to those countries where similar societies were set up—China and Cuba, for example. How we answer these questions today determines whether Marxism is a living system of thought that can help us change the world, or whether it is obsolete.

To defend the social relations in either of these societies as somehow socialist—where wages are low, workers have few rights, and political parties other than the official state party are banned—is to make a mockery of socialism. Cuba today—much less so China, because of its lurch to the market—still stands as an apparent alternative to capitalism on the left. It is necessary to make a clear distinction, however, between the defense of Cuba’s sovereignty against the U.S. blockade and other attacks on the island, and defense of Cuba’s economic and political system.


The most honest historical accounts of the Russian Revolution acknowledge that the October Revolution was led by a mass working-class party that enjoyed the support of the majority of the working class in Russia. The revolution established soviet power—that is, it created a workers’ state based upon the elected councils of workers, soldiers and sailors that had arisen during the February Revolution.

But only months into the revolutionary process, the new workers’ state began to falter. Bureaucracy re-emerged, democracy began to wither, and a gradual process began in which the end result was a new bureaucratic regime that the revolution’s initiators had never intended.

What went wrong?

Marx once wrote, “A development of the productive forces is the absolute practical premise of communism because without it, want is generalized, and that means that all the old crap must revive again.”

World capitalism had created the material conditions of abundance that made socialism a real possibility. However, in no single country, least of all Russia, did the material conditions exist such that socialism could be built in isolation. Generalized want, that is poverty, creates the conditions in which the “old crap”—inequality, class divisions, and oppression—revives, regardless of the intentions of those attempting to change society. This is the dilemma the Bolsheviks faced. That’s why they banked the ultimate success of the revolution on its spreading to other countries like Germany and becoming the signal for revolutions internationally. Looking back in 1921, Lenin remarked:

“It was clear to us that without the support of the international world revolution the victory of the proletarian revolution was impossible. Before the revolution, and even after it, we thought: either revolution breaks out in the other countries, in the capitalistically more developed countries, immediately, or at least very quickly, or we must perish. In spite of this conviction, we did all we possibly could to preserve the Soviet system under all circumstances, come what may, because we knew that we were not only working for ourselves, but also for the international revolution.”

The Russian revolution produced an outpouring of sympathy and sparked a series of struggles and revolts worldwide. The European working class was restive, and in some instances revolutionary. In Italy workers occupied the factories, and in German the Kaiser was overthrown, ushering an era of mass strikes, protest, and insurrection. But these efforts ended in failure; no successful European revolution came to Russia’s aid. The revolutionary government in Russia faced an onslaught of counterrevolutionary “white” armies, foreign invasion, starvation and economic collapse. The civil war brought mass depopulation of Russia’s major cities and the breakdown of industry. The mobilization of the nation’s resources overwhelmed the weak shoots of workers’ power that the revolution had created. The necessity of mobilizing for total war to save the revolution, combined with the terrible economic privation, obliterated soviet democracy and replaced it with a command structure that gave the revolution success in the civil war, but at the cost of strangling the revolution’s very reason for being.

What kind of state arose in besieged Russia? It was socialist only in name. Workers did not hold power. Yet the old capitalists and landowners were gone, and their military defeat in the civil war meant they were not coming back. The state, governed by a single party, owned the means of production.

Many argued that since private property had been abolished, and since the market inside Russia was eventually abolished, Russia was no longer capitalist. Yet Russia remained in the orbit of world capitalism.

The ruling bureaucracy under Stalin consolidated its power by exiling and murdering the majority of Bolsheviks, including Trotsky. It was clearly a new ruling class—it controlled the means of production, it held state power, and it ruled by bureaucratic fiat.

But it was not free to do whatever it liked. In order to consolidate its power, it was compelled to make Russia militarily competitive with the West. That meant squeezing the workers and peasantry and using every last drop of surplus wealth to build up Russia’s military might.

The new bureaucratic ruling class embarked on a period of massive state accumulation to achieve this goal. Russia achieved industrialization at a forced pace that compressed what took centuries in Britain into a few decades. This drive to accumulate, imposed on Russia’s new rulers by its competitors, marked Russia’s turn to state capitalism.


What about China?

If in Russia workers lost power when the revolution degenerated, in China workers never had it.

The Red Army that seized state power in 1949 after a protracted guerrilla war was drawn largely from the peasantry. It had almost no workers in it and it was led by a declassed intelligentsia. This army, rather than any social class, became the source of revolutionary power.

The politics of its main leader, Mao Zedong, were not so much Marxism—though Mao used some Marxist terminology—but agrarian populism combined with radical nationalism. According to Mao, this vast army of former peasants, with almost no workers, was “the main instrument of the dictatorship of the proletariat.”

When Mao’s army marched into the main cities, it issued communiqués urging the workers to remain calm and obey orders. Essentially, the Communist Party’s aim was to utilize state power to bring about national unity, land reform and launch industrial development, using Stalin’s Russia in the 1930s as its model. Trade unions, in the words of historian Nigel Harris, became “disciplinary and propaganda agencies of management and state.”

The main difference between Stalin and Mao’s ideology is that while Stalin emphasized the inevitable march of the productive forces, Mao emphasized the role of will power in transforming society. The population was exhorted through slogans to work as hard as possible for the glory of the Chinese state. This was a product of China’s economic backwardness. The theory of the Chinese communists was that the material limitations of China’s development could be overcome quickly through sheer acts of will power based on the mass mobilization of China’s vast reservoir of human labor.

The most famous example of Mao’s voluntarism was the Great Leap Forward of 1958, when the state embarked on a policy designed to mobilize millions of people in rural communes to expand output. Wildly unrealistic plans for increasing steel output were devised. The attempt to burst through the objective barriers to fast growth had an opposite effect, creating a breakdown in industry and massive economic dislocation and famine.

China’s transition since the 1970s from a state capitalist economy to one allowing for greater leeway for private capital represented not a transition from socialism to capitalism, but from one to another form of capitalist development. “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics” is not socialism at all, but bureaucratically planned private capitalism.


The Cuban Revolution of 1959, like Mao’s, involved the toppling of a dictatorial regime by a guerrilla army. The most significant difference is that while Mao’s Red Army numbered in the hundreds of thousands, Fidel Castro’s army numbered at most 2,000. As in China, workers in the Cuban revolution played no significant role in the revolution, though they supported it. It was the guerrillas who marched from the Sierra Maestra to seize power, not in the name of socialism (that came later), but in the name of nationalist and populist ideals.

The revolution was wildly popular for its land, educational and economic reforms, but the Cuban masses neither carried out the revolution nor created the state that emerged from it. For Fidel, the mass organizations created after the seizure of power were sounding boards and conduits for his policies rather than organs of mass struggle and self-organization.

As Che Guevara wrote, “The mass carries out with matchless enthusiasm and discipline the tasks set by the government, whether in the field of the economy, culture, defense, sports, etc. The initiative generally comes from Fidel, or from the revolutionary leadership, and is explained to the people, who make it their own.”

Fidel only declared the revolution socialist retroactively, after his forces crushed the U.S.-led Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 and increasing U.S. hostility and counterrevolutionary measures compelled him to wrest control of the economy from hostile Cuban capitalists and move closer into Russia’s orbit.

Like Mao, Castro and Guevara’s politics were voluntarist. Writes Nigel Harris, the guerrillas believed that “armed struggle creates the objective conditions for winning power, and, in Castro’s words, those conditions can be created in the ‘immense majority of Latin American countries’ if between four and seven dedicated guerrillas can be found.” The Cuban model of guerrilla warfare proved successful, however, only in Cuba. Che died heroically but tragically, while trying unsuccessfully to establish a guerrilla base in Bolivia.

This was a far cry from the politics of Marx and Engels, who argued that the “dictatorship of the proletariat” meant the rule of the working class, not a dictatorship of a minority. Engels, in his criticism of August Blanqui, a French socialist who believed that revolution would be brought to the masses by a minority, wrote:

“From Blanqui’s assumption, that any revolution may be made by the outbreak of a small revolutionary minority, follows of itself the necessity of a dictatorship after the success of the venture.

“This is, of course, a dictatorship, not of the entire revolutionary class, the proletariat, but of the small minority that has made the revolution, and who are themselves previously organized under the dictatorship of one or several individuals.”

Socialism is working-class self-emancipation

What is notable about the ideology of the Cuban and Chinese revolutions, as well as of Stalin, is that they turn the basic tenets of Marxism on their head. For Marxism, socialism can only succeed as a movement of the international working class. There can be no socialism in one country.

Stalin pioneered the slogan “socialism in one country,” and the foundation of Che, Castro and Mao’s politics was first and foremost nationalism and national development. For Marxism, socialism can only be achieved through the self-emancipation of the working class and the oppressed.

In the Chinese and Cuban revolutions, the working class played at best a passive role, with the center stage taken by armies acting in the name of the working class, which itself never seized nor held state power at any moment.

In Marxism, the workers’ state—armed democracy—is a transitory body with the purpose of ensuring that the old ruling classes cannot regain power. Its purpose is ensure the abolition of class distinctions, after which it begins to “wither away.”

In Stalin’s Russia—and in the national versions of “socialism” it inspired—the state is continually strengthened. This is a kind of inverted proof, as the existence of all state power is, that classes in those societies have not been abolished.