During its near 70-year existence, the Soviet Union showed how socialist state power, planning and public ownership could transform society in the interests of the mass of the population.
The Bolsheviks and their allies took state power in Russia in 1917 and used it to withdraw from the imperialist war and defeat counter-revolutionary forces. Fourteen foreign armies, including those of Britain, the United States (US) and Poland, invaded Russia in 1918 to ‘strangle Bolshevism in its cradle’, in the words of Winston Churchill. This imperialist ambition to destroy Soviet power was to continue through most of the 20th century.
Nevertheless, Russia and the other countries of the Soviet Union were transformed from semi-feudal, semi-capitalist monarchist dictatorships into modern societies with near-full employment, universally free education and healthcare, affordable housing for all, extensive and cheap public transport, impressive scientific and cultural facilities, rights for women and degrees of self-government for formerly oppressed nationalities. This was achieved through a world-historic break with capitalist ownership and social relations, on the basis of social ownership of industry and centralised economic planning.
But the struggle to survive and to build socialism in the face of powerful external as well as internal enemies also led to distortions in society that might otherwise have been avoided. In particular, a bureaucratic-command system of economic and political rule became entrenched. The Communist Party of the Soviet Union and the trade unions became integrated into the apparatus of the state, eroding working class and popular democracy. Marxism-Leninism was used dogmatically to justify the status quo rather than make objective assessments of it.
At times, and in the late 1930s in particular, severe violations of socialist democracy and law occurred. Large numbers of people innocent of subversion or sabotage were persecuted, imprisoned and executed. This aided the world-wide campaign of lies and distortions aimed at the Soviet Union, the international communist movement and the concept of socialism.
Yet central organisation and rapid, massive industrialisation enabled the Soviet Red Army to smash Hitler’s war machine, halt the Nazi genocide and liberate much of Europe from fascism,
Following World War Two, the US Marshall Plan financed the rebuilding of capitalist economies in western Europe. The Soviet Union, with 26 million dead and much of its land and productive capacity destroyed, was left to its own devices.
The Soviets once again constructed a society of full employment, housing, public transport and high-quality health and education services for all. This same feat was accomplished in the newly socialist countries of war-ravaged eastern Europe, where the Soviet model of society was promoted in both its positive and negative aspects.
At the same time, the socialist countries launched programmes of solidarity with progressive and national liberation movements around the world that operated over three decades.
But under pressure from the arms race launched by the US and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), the Soviet bureaucratic-command system was unable to utilise the full fruits of the scientific and technological revolution (STR) beyond the military, space and medical fields. From the mid-1970s, economic growth in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe began to fall behind that of the most advanced capitalist countries, notably Japan and West Germany. The ruling communist parties failed to counter the appeal of capitalist ‘consumerism’ materially and ideologically, as their own citizens made unfavourable comparisons that took no account of imperialism’s super-exploitation of the Third World.
While women participated more extensively in politics, science, education and employment than their counterparts in capitalist society, they encountered limits to their promotion. Some professions lost their status as women came to predominate in them. National autonomy in party, state and cultural affairs was limited in practice by centralised control.
The increasing failure to mobilise the party, the working class and the people to solve these and other economic, social and political problems led eventually to stagnation and political collapse in eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, from 1989. Significantly, there were no mass movements to defend the socialist system against counter-revolution.
Yet the weaknesses and failures of the Soviet model of socialism have since been overtaken by the calamities of capitalist restoration. Public economic property has passed into the hands of Western TNCs, state bureaucrats and home-grown gangsters. Millions of workers have lost their jobs, pensions and trade union rights. Public and welfare services have collapsed. The peoples of the former Soviet Union experienced the biggest reductions in life expectancy ever recorded. National and ethnic differences have exploded into terrorism and war. In some countries, the brutal trafficking and sexual exploitation of women is widespread.
Determined not to experience counter-revolution and its consequences, China’s communists have placed great emphasis on economic and social development. State power is being used to combine economic planning and public ownership with private capital and market mechanisms. The aim is to build a socialist society in its primary stage. Already, state-directed policies have lifted more than 600 million people – almost half the population – out of extreme poverty since 1981, a feat unequalled in history.
The foreign policy of the People’s Republic of China has sought to uphold the principles of national sovereignty and peaceful co-existence, while carrying out foreign investment policies that also benefit host countries substantially.
Yet, as the Communist Party of China (CPC) itself acknowledges, problems in Chinese society of social inequality, the lack of universal welfare provisions, corruption and underdeveloped trade unionism need to be further addressed and rectified. Advances have been made in extending democratic rights without the CPC weakening its leading role in political life. The importance of renewing democracy inside the party and in wider society should not be underestimated.
The Cuban model of socialism seeks to involve the masses of people in the defence of national sovereignty against US imperialist subversion, mobilising them also to solve economic, social and environmental problems. The result is a society with the most advanced health and education services in the Third World, bold policies to expand food production and minimise carbon emissions and an internationalist foreign policy to assist oppressed and disadvantaged peoples around the world. Most recently, Cuba has embarked upon policies to develop and diversify industry and services.
The experience of communists and socialists attempting to build socialism indicates the importance of mobilising wide support for progressive and revolutionary change, making inroads into the economic and political power of the monopoly capitalists, taking the bold steps necessary from government office to state power, exerting popular sovereignty and involving the mass of the people at every stage in the revolutionary process, including the exercise of political power.
Each country must find its own path to socialism, applying general principles to specific national conditions in their international context. Each will develop its own model of socialism in tune with the culture and aspirations of its people. In Britain and its constituent nations, taking the road to socialism can only be done successfully if those differing national conditions are taken fully into account.
History also demonstrates that taking state power and beginning to construct a socialist society can occur in one or more countries at a time, reflecting the reality of uneven economic and political development under capitalism. This explodes the abstract and defeatist myth that socialist revolution can only be a single-stage and wholly or primarily global process.