Lessons learned 30 years after the demise of socialist countries

The demise of socialism in the USSR, Eastern Europe, Yugoslavia, and Mongolia began 30 years ago. The result was a catastrophic loss and tragedy, most of all for the people of those countries who paid an incalculable price.

In the Soviet Union and elsewhere, a nascent criminal capitalist class, including many former communists, in alliance with U.S. imperialism, materialized itself by brazenly looting the accumulated socialist wealth created by the working class and people.

Over time, these oligarchs consolidated themselves into a new capitalist ruling class. The opposition was primarily outlawed, freedom of press squashed, and an authoritarian state arose in place of Soviet socialism.

Today, Russia’s economy is dominated by private corporations controlled by the oligarchs with a limited state sector, most notably in energy and military production. Wealth inequality is among the most extreme in the world.

Russia is an emerging capitalist power challenging the dominant global status of U.S imperialism. Russia’s foreign policy is driven by nationalism, reasserting its role on the world stage and traditional geographic spheres, and breaking the hostile NATO encirclement.

The USSR – A complex and contradictory history

The USSR, the world’s first socialist experiment, made extraordinary accomplishments for humankind. Socialism industrialized a backward country in a generation, raised living standards, extended universal health care, literacy and education, child care, and affordable housing.

It adopted the most advanced constitution in human history. Revolutionary advances were made in creating forms of working-class governance, extending equal rights to women and oppressed peoples.

The USSR was decisive in defeating German fascism and selflessly gave enormous solidarity to developing economies and national liberation movements throughout its existence.

But there were also mistakes and errors in policy, crimes, and violations of democracy which contributed mightily to its downfall.

And Soviet socialism developed under the worst circumstances imaginable and not of its choosing. They included the immense destruction and death of World War I, the legacy of feudalism with its extreme backwardness, a vast peasantry and small working class, a brutal and oppressive czarist autocracy intertwined with the Russian Orthodox state church, anti-Semitism, the legacy of national oppression, and a lack of democratic traditions and institutions.

Its development was further shaped by hostile capitalist encirclement, foreign intervention, civil war, and then isolation.

With the threat of fascism rising in Germany, the Soviet Union was forced into accelerated development. Under Stalin, this forced march was combined with fear of enemies, foreign and internal, real and increasingly invented. Political differences were viewed as political threats, and a culture of uniformity prevailed.

Fear of future imperialist aggression and war governed the USSR’s dominant relationship with the Eastern European socialist-oriented governments (themselves established in the wake of the destruction of World War II), including military and political intervention.

Enormous resources were diverted during the Cold War global competition and nuclear arms race with the U.S. which could have been used to address the needs of the Soviet people.

Socialism’s economic development, the limitations on democracy, and the militarization of Soviet society were shaped by these factors. They created grounds for authoritarianism, the emergence of a single party state, and the enshrinement in the constitution of its ruling status. They also led to the development of a cult of personality around Stalin from the 1930s to the 1950s.

Instead of continually revolutionizing itself and adapting to new conditions, forces within the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) resisted change and the need to address mounting problems with socialist development.

By the time of the counter-revolution and collapse of the USSR, the CPSU was deeply divided, largely paralyzed, weighted with careerists, corruption, and dogma, and increasingly distanced from the people. Even though a majority of Soviet people supported socialism, albeit, in renovated form, there was no mass defense of the CPSU.

The demise of socialism in the USSR and elsewhere marked the end of an era and with it the end of the socialist model of a centrally planned economy, total state ownership, and egalitarian wages. This model and its increasingly negative impact on economic growth, the inadequate supply of consumer goods, and limits on the freedom to travel, dissent, and grassroots democracy were all crucial factors in its downfall.

China, Vietnam, and Cuba all abandoned this socialist economic model in favor of mixed economies with active state sectors and integration into the global economy to achieve the material basis for developed socialism.

Even though the world has changed dramatically, these countries (along with Bolivia, Venezuela, Laos, etc.) are still building their own brands of socialism in the context of a dominant global capitalist system. They have faced, and still face, similar obstacles including underdevelopment, hostile encirclement, constant external efforts to destabilize, and economic isolation.

These countries are charting their own path of socialist construction, including the system of democracy, shaped by their own traditions.

They face the challenge of building a socialist democracy with space for political pluralism reflecting the existence of multiple classes and class struggle, diverse political tendencies, and a diverse civil society without restricting the flow of information, dissent, and critical public discourse.

The role of communist parties is seen as central to mobilizing the working-class and guiding developments in China, Vietnam, and Cuba. The communist parties in these countries are undergoing reforms to strengthen their leadership and bring them closer to the people, including combatting elitism, corruption, and careerism.

I describe these socialist-oriented societies as evolving democracies because, for the most part, broad reforms in civil society, legal, judicial, regulatory, and electoral structures are also taking place. The most notable include steps toward direct elections in China and the adoption of a new constitution in Cuba, a dynamic grassroots process that involved the entire nation.

More significant change will likely occur through the rising generations and transformative social movements, like the environmental movement in China.

Lessons for a 21st century socialism

The experience from the era of “real existing socialism” that ended 30 years ago provides some powerful lessons for envisioning a new, 21st century democratic and green socialism and working-class led governance. They include:

1. The path to achieving a working-class-led state or full socialist development has no universal models. Socialist revolutions in different countries take place in a multiplicity of forms and ways under very different circumstances.

The CPUSA envisions “Bill of Rights socialism,” based on U.S. history and traditions and the constant struggle to expand democratic rights. It also envisions a democratic path to socialism rooted in and shaped by mass struggle of the multi-racial working class and its core allies, including people of color, women, youth, and mass democratic movements.

2. Response to the needs of people, economic and political democracy, and environmental sustainability must be at the center of any socialist project to maintain the support and engagement of the working class and people.

3. Socialist democracy must ensure a vibrant civic culture and both collective and individual rights.

4. Humans, including revolutionaries, make mistakes. But they can be corrected, including by carrying out needed reforms, if revolutionary movements promote the capacity for serious self-reflection and flexibility and avoid dogma.

5. A socialist revolution is a long and contested historical process stretching over an epoch.

6. Constant war mobilization and militarization are inhospitable to fostering democracy while building socialism. The multi-sided development of socialism requires internal and external peace.

7. Economic isolation is inhospitable to building socialism, especially in developing economies. China’s economic reforms rest on “opening up to the global economy,” and Cuba’s success is related to ending the U.S. blockade.

8. The mass communications revolution has elevated the “battle of ideas.” With the advent of the internet, there are no secrets and no way to stop the flow of information. Conversely, cyberwarfare and mass disinformation are impossible to stop and can bring down governments, affect politics, and alter election outcomes. They present new challenges to national sovereignty.

9. Repression of dissent and censorship invariably backfire. Discussion, debate, and education are necessary to win the hearts and minds of people.

Global context and the new socialist era

Humanity is at a crossroads. We face unprecedented existential threats to climate and ecology, a growing nuclear war danger, a global crisis of wealth extremes, and disruption from the oncoming technological revolution in robotics and AI.

Democracy, including the limited democratic rights won under capitalism, is under assault; the extreme right and political crises are growing in many countries.

The rising modern era of socialism is rooted in humanity’s response to these urgent interconnected and global challenges. Society will be forced to reorganize itself, reinvent communities, transform democratic institutions and methods, fully mobilize every human resource, and adopt new ways of global cooperation to address these existential threats and disruptions.

U.S. imperialism is a descending superpower in today’s world. The ability of the U.S. and other capitalist powers to define globalization and dominate the global order has been weakened. Globalization is increasingly shaped by the rise of China, emerging economies, and alternative global institutions and blocs.

The old capitalist global order is increasingly battered by crisis and contradiction. As cracks appear in the domination of U.S. imperialism, new possibilities open for countries to pursue non-capitalist paths of development.

The multi-racial American working-class and people are forging our path to socialism in this global context and in the domestic struggle to defend democracy and defeat the extreme right. U.S. socialism is being shaped in response to these urgent challenges in accord with our country’s political and social realities, our history, and our democratic traditions.

It is being shaped by the fight to expand economic and political democracy and expand worker’s rights; overcome social, racial, and gender inequity; achieve a better, more secure, humane, and joyful life and creative work; pursue a sustainable path of development; and demilitarize the economy and society.

This is why the Green New Deal, an overarching vision that meets the challenges posed by the climate crisis and wealth inequality, is so exciting. While it is not a program for socialism, it is a radical economic, structural, and social reform that if won will shift the political balance and open a new stage in the fight for green, peaceful, democratic socialism.

I believe socialism will be achieved peacefully and democratically in the U.S. through the electoral arena in conjunction with other forms of struggle (lobbying, strikes, boycotts, etc.) in the political and economic spheres and in the battle of ideas. Marx and Engels thought the possibility of a peaceful path to working-class power opened with the advent of the democratic republic and universal franchise, which was in the earliest stages of being won by the working-class movement.

In a speech to the International Workingman’s Association in 1872, Marx said, “You know that the institutions, mores, and traditions of various countries must be taken into consideration, and we do not deny that there are countries – such as America, England, and if I were more familiar with your institutions, I would perhaps also add Holland – where the workers can attain their goal by peaceful means. This being the case, we must also recognise the fact that in most countries on the Continent the lever of our revolution must be force; it is force to which we must some day appeal to erect the rule of labour.”

Democratic and socialist movements have a growing presence in the electoral arena, and an increasing number of grassroots activists, including women, people of color, trade unionists, LGBTQ people, socialists, and communists are being elected to public office.

Mass grassroots engagement will transform existing democratic institutions, including election law, and invent new democratic forms. The mass participation of a united, conscious working-class majority and its allies can block any attempt by the capitalist class to maintain power through force and violence.

This path to socialism will be charted by the broadest, most inclusive, and diverse movement and shared leadership of pro-socialist forces.

However, no advanced democratic reforms, including Medicare for All, free university education, criminal justice and electoral reform, and the Green New Deal, are possible without the defeat of Trump and the extreme right in 2020 and election of center-left governing alliances at every level.

This article is based on a presentation to the Platypus Society International Convention panel “30 Years of 1989” on April 5, 2019, at the University of Chicago.


John Bachtell
John Bachtell

John Bachtell is president of Long View Publishing Co., the publisher of People's World. He is active in electoral, labor, environmental, and social justice struggles. He grew up in Ohio, where he attended Antioch College in Yellow Springs. He currently lives in Chicago.