The Premises of the Breakdown of the Communist System
by Dr. Morris M. Mottale
The ideas generally subsumed under “Marxism” were those contained in the writings of Karl Marx and a variety of other thinkers and political leaders who have all claimed at one time or another to be true “Marxists.” Marxism is not very systematic, and Marx himself as an encyclopedic thinker and sometime leader did not arrive at his theoretical stands all at once. His ideas developed and changed as he faced new situations and his own interests shifted. In the 1840’s, as a student of philosophy, and in his early youth, he was strongly influenced by the philosophy of idealism as elaborated by the German philosopher Hegel. But he turned against idealism and became a follower of the philosophy of another German thinker, Feuerbach, which is usually known as “materialism,” a rather generic term used to cover a variety of philosophical orientations. Marx came to the conclusion that, contrary to what Hegel had expounded, it is not ideas that change the world, and became equally convinced that the world needed radical changing. Society can be changed—he affirmed—only by changing economic relationships and consequently their social structures. He consequently shifted his major theoretical orientations from philosophy to economics and sociology; as a result he wrote Capital, which later became the gospel of organized Marxist political parties.2Yet Marx wrote much more than Capital. His writings are voluminous and extensive. They touch a wide variety of subjects and form a huge source from which those who claim to be his followers have often made arbitrary selections. Even before his death, different interpretations of his theories had taken place. After Marx’s death, his writings were systematized, explained, elaborated, and developed by his collaborator and lifelong friend, Friedrich Engels, who in the process added ideas of his own. The Russian revolutionary, Lenin, and his followers referred to the contents of the works of both authors as “Marxism,” which were, in turn, commented upon in different ways, reinterpreted and applied to different social and political circumstances, modified and revised. Under Lenin’s successor—Stalin—Marxist theory came to be known as Marxism-Leninism. Through the absolute monopoly of power, Stalin alone gave out the orthodox interpretations of Marxism-Leninism, ruthlessly eliminating those who disagreed. With the death of Stalin, and the partial demise of his theories and policies, the primacy of the theoretical pronouncements of Soviet ideologists came to be questioned by the Marxists of Eastern Europe, where the Soviets had established Communist regimes similar to their own after World War II.
The official, quasi-official, and unofficial interpretations of Marxism consequently proliferated. Even though national orientations gave and still give the official body of Marxism-Leninism certain national and ethnic peculiarities, in the main it is possible to distinguish certain ideological characteristics. In fact even after the demise of the Soviet Union and the collapse of the Soviet Empire, the ideology was upheld by the remnants of the communist parties in Western and Eastern Europe and in Russia and as of 2011 was still the official ideology of Cuba, Vietnam, China, Laos, and North Korea.
Armed rebels from the Middle East such as the PKK in Turkey-the Kurdish Workers Party- to Marxist-Leninist-Maoist parties and rebels in Nepal and India found inspiration in Marxian ideology. In Latin America, Peru had seen decades old revolts by Sendero Luminoso, a guerilla terrorist organization founded by Abimael Guzman who claimed to be the new Marxist prophet in the footsteps of Lenin, Stalin and Mao. Columbia was still plagued by groups that traced their ideology to some interpretation of Marxism almost half a century of Marxist inspired guerilla war. In Central America, Nicaragua was ruled by the Sandinista regime that claimed to have some of its roots in Marxism. By 2011 Wall street and other financial centers of the world were being occupied by youth some of whom were denouncing capitalism in stark Marxian rhetoric, while in Europe remnants of the communist parties could be found in many European states.
Marxism and Alienation
In 1932 some of Marx’s early philosophical writings were published for the first time. They are known as his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts. They provided the theoretical background for a debate on alienation among his followers both in the West and in Eastern Europe, and to date they are still influential in buttressing anti-liberal anti-capitalist ideological pronouncements in the international system.3 The original body of theories came to be defined from the very beginning of the evolution of Marxism and Socialist parties as the orthodox position, that is to say, the position official Marxist theoreticians expounded in the 19th and 20th centuries as being the true, correct, and only way to interpret social reality, and by which the various socialist governments in Eastern Europe, in Russia, and other Communist states came to “officially” abide.
At the same time there was a new philosophical movement inside institutional Marxist ideology, which came to be known as “revisionism”. The term “revisionist” had a long history and was applied originally to the German Social Democrat Eduard Bernstein who, at the turn of the 19th century, argued against the opinion of other German Marxists stating that Marx’s theories had certain flaws. Largely because of the controversy Bernstein aroused, the term “revisionist” came to carry negative connotations among Marxists and officially established communist governments. In time the term came to be employed by official communist theoreticians to brand those Marxists whose new interpretations of Marx do not coincide with the ideological justifications for the existence of Marxist regimes in Eastern Europe and in Russia, and who explicitly and implicitly criticized the Communist Party and its political legitimacy. The post WWII “revisionists” wanted to come closer to the Marx as represented in his youthful works as opposed to the official ideological establishment’s catechism.
In the Western discussion of Marxism, the debate had centered on alienation since the early 1930’s, when Marx’s early Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts were first published. In Eastern Europe, however, the controversy on alienation came to the fore only after de-Stalinization in 1956. The reasons for this considerable lag lay on the one hand in the dogmatic association of Marxism-Leninism with “dialectical materialism” which Stalin had transformed into a form of catechism, and on the other in the extreme critical force of the concept of alienation, which would have obviously been ideologically explosive for the Stalinist regime and its satellites in Eastern Europe.
For this reason then, the early writings of Marx were never published in large inexpensive editions in Russian. They were considered to be relatively insignificant works by a Marx still under the influence of Hegel. However, the evolution of Marxist thought from the 1950s onward showed that there was a continuous relationship between the “early” Marx with his humanistic orientations, and his later works. Quite certainly Marx was being, arguably, misconstrued if his later economic theory is simply perceived as a model of the “pure” capitalist market economy. Only after the open rejection of Stalin (not necessarily Stalinism) did it become “permissible” to study the early works of Marx in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, and from then on attempts were made to present and the march toward its fulfillment as the realization of the Marxian ideal.
The term alienation has an ancient history, being used in common discourse to identify feelings of estrangement or of detachment from self and others; and in law to describe the act of transferring property or ownership to another. In modern terms, however, “alienation” has been used by philosophers, psychologists, and sociologists to refer to an extraordinary variety of psychological, sociological and political phenomena, among others, anxiety states, anomie, despair, depersonalization, rootlessness, apathy, social disorganization, loneliness, atomization, powerlessness, meaninglessness, isolation, pessimism and the loss of beliefs and values. Karl Marx gave alienation a sociological frame of reference. He posited that the worker was alienated from the product of his labor and from the means of production, because of a certain socio-economic system—namely commodity-production—that had come into existence with the Industrial Revolution. Upon these beliefs he built a vast critique of that system known today rather generically as capitalism. The Eastern European revisionists from the 50s onwards made use of Marx’s own concept of alienation to criticize political systems and societies of the communist world whose leadership claimed that it had fulfilled Marx’s vision of an unalienated world.4
To evaluate its significance one question can be brought forth, namely what factors accounted for the methodological appeal of the Marxian conceptualization of alienation among Eastern European political critics of their own communist establishment. The Marxian critique of established communism was the harbinger for later intellectual dissent at large in the Eastern Bloc, which built the foundations for the collapse of the regimes that Lenin and his followers had built from the First World War onward. Even after the demise of the Soviet Union and its satellites, the debate on alienation contained various themes that can be subsumed under a general typology of the concept drawn essentially from Marx. Alienating conditions include: the state and the bureaucracy, labor as a commodity, the division of labor, and alienation from the self.
These four types of alienation are essentially extrapolations from the large body of Marx’s writings, which characterized the debate on the Marxian message. Their implication must be understood in the light of Marx’s early writings and the tension between his critical and constructive thought. Marx, for instance, did not elaborate on the future evolution of the state and the bureaucracy. He did, however, criticize them within the context of his own times. As for the division of labor, he was not particularly specific on this subject either. He assumed that it was a function of class divisions based along the lines of the ownership of the means of production as it had evolved from primitive communism onward.
One of the basic conflicts in Marxist theory from its inception was the tension between its professed materialism and its theory of dialectics. The union of dialectics and materialism from the start, however, was very shaky. Marxists from the nineteenth century onward disagreed as to how to unite the two and split into those materialists who claimed that dialectics was a Hegelian mystification which was to be analyzed away in favor of a consistent materialism, and those dialecticians who emphasized dialectics, claiming that without it materialism sunk into a vulgar mechanism, unable to account for knowledge, man’s activity, or the supposed contradictions found in nature. It is very likely that this philosophical debate itself on the significance of materialism reflected the various strains to be found in the evolution of European intellectual history. At the simplest definitional level, it meant the origins of the physical world and ideas were to be found in matter, while the theory of dialectics had its origins in defining the evolution of ideas and the interpretations of the world as the constant synthesis of opposing points of view and ideologies. Marx, along with Engels, basically saw ideas and ideologies as rationalizations for economic organization and domination, which evolved and were characterized by revolutions in the mode of production. In this case, the interpretation of history was seen as the interaction between the economic elements within a society, principally land, labor, and the division of labor, all together being the engines of history and class conflict. Class was defined in terms of ownership of property and the means of production, which evolved along particular historical material lines.
Closely related to this issue was a second dispute with some historical significance which divided Marxists in the Soviet bloc and amongst its sympathizers outside the Iron Curtain. It centered on the relation between the early writings of Marx, which were philosophical, humanistic, and posthumously published, and those of his later life, whether taken in conjunction with those of Engels or not. The dispute was between those humanists who emphasize the young Marx and his humanism—and the “scientific socialists” who emphasize the older Marx and the sociological and economic aspects characteristic of Capital. The dispute also involved the question of whether Engels was to be treated as speaking for Marx, or whether Marx’s materialistic interpretation of history was to be preserved inviolate from Engels’ formulation of it.
A third division, also dating back to the nineteenth century, was based on differing interpretations of man’s role in history. One school, emphasizing historical determinism, argued that when conditions were right the revolution which Marx predicted would have taken place and socialism and communism would follow. The laws of economics and of history work themselves out by necessity. At best one could help ease the birth pangs of the new society. The other group, in contrast, though using much the same language, argued that man must make his history within his given conditions; Lenin led the activist group, arguing that the revolution would not come spontaneously among the workers, but that when conditions were ripe the revolution had to be led by those who were ready to do so. Lenin’s activist interpretation of history became dominant, and formed one of the clearer and more generally accepted tenets of the communist parties of the 20th century and many other political parties that came to be inspired by his model of political activism in Africa, the Middle East, Latin America, and Asia. It became fashionable to discuss African socialism and Arab/Islamic socialism for decades to come. But how freedom was to be interpreted and how determinism was to be handled within Marxism remained open questions.
A fourth factor in Marxism which led to different emphases and interpretations was the conflict between Marx’s critical analysis of capitalism and his own exposition of a future society. Most of Marx’s efforts were concerned with criticizing the capitalist economic system in particular. He wished to change society, as he saw it as historically flawed. A thoughtful critic, he was also a revolutionary and; he not only called on the proletariat to revolt and seize the means of production, but predicted that they would do so. Absorbed by his research into the laws of capitalist economy and embroiled in the labor movement, Marx gave little thought to the establishment of communism. This would take care of itself once conditions were changed. But since he left so little to guide the builders of communism, they had to provide theories of their own, thus bringing to the fore the issue of what is communism was supposed to be. Paradoxically, when communism collapsed in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union no one had really given any thought to the evolution from communism back to liberal democratic capitalism in its many variations. In fact, in some Eastern European countries and the Soviet Union, the transition was oftentimes politically and economically painful and in the former Yugoslavia, it resulted in a bloody civil war and ethnic partition.
The Failure of Utopia
In reviewing the debate on alienation, one question can be posed in the light of this paper, and that is the overall historical significance of the controversy within the evolution of Marxism.
Revisionists seemed to share the use of the category of ‘alienation’ as encompassing in a general way the inability of man to master the institutions of his social life, as well as a general tendency to interpret social phenomena by seeking to study changing conflicts of interests and to identify in the conflict of ideas reflections of certain social conflicts. Such a minimal common denominator could not include a belief in immutable historical laws, the idea of the inevitability of socialism—or the notion that class differences or class struggle explains all the phenomena of the “Marxian” superstructure.
In a rather mystified and scholastic fashion, revisionists were putting forth a socialist model of society, which, in their opinion would have better articulated the fundamental goal of socialism—an unalienated society. Through implication, the essential feature of the revisionist model became the decentralization of decision-making—whether social, political or economic. It became in turn a realization of the Marxian paradigm of a free man, that is to say an individual conscious of social reality, and master of his destiny. This model was juxtaposed to ‘Stalinism,’ its characteristic feature being centralization, while its dynamics was given by the Communist Party.
“Centralization” and “decentralization” could not be so easily dealt with. Two more or less distinct notions were implied by these terms. The first related the degree of centralization to the range of choice of the individual in a socialist society. Thus an organization could become more decentralized with respect to choice, if the range of alternatives open to subordinates had increased. The second notion related the degree of centralization of authority, to the control which can be exercised over subordinates. Thus an organization becomes more centralized, with respect to authority, if there is an increase in the range of alternatives that the authorities can impose on subordinates. “Socialism” in this case came to imply two different, and possibly mutually exclusive, meanings: social ownership of the means of production, or state ownership—i.e. Communist Party control, through a vast bureaucracy, of the pace and direction of economic, social, and political change. The political legitimacy of these models of socialism was in turn a function of the significance and interpretation given to Marx’s writings, and the subsequent interaction between the pursuit of power and ideology.
The existence of revisionism was in itself symptomatic of the deficiencies of the orthodox, or more traditional, socialist model of society, and its failure to fulfill the Marxian paradigm of the free man—this apart from the consistency and validity of the paradigm itself. The possibility that Marx may have erred in his anthropology did not appear in the revisionist-orthodox debate; hence the controversy on alienation may very well have been meaningless. This, however, did not mean that there is no meaningful conclusion for a political and intellectual historian that can be drawn from the debate. It could be interpreted within the wider context of power and ideology.
For instance if one accepts the Marxist and Paretian methodological tenets that ideology is—among other things—an attempt to justify and legitimize certain modes and types of political and economic dominance, then the existence of the debate had a political and historical meaning. In the case of alienation, the problem of system building along “scientific” lines—as Marxism considers itself a science—was compounded by the presence of ideology and the degree of importance that was given to it by Marxists.
The problem faced by orthodoxy within Marxism-Leninism was that the partial demise of Stalin in Communist historiography placed the rulers of the State—to be more precise, the USSR—in an awkward position. An ideology which was no longer able to claim universality, enforced by ruthless, violent and unchallengeable authority, strived nevertheless to retain its dogmatic integrity and in this form to continue to impose itself in Eastern Europe, among societies which were in turn sundered by polycentric and centrifugal forces. The popular revolts in Eastern Europe throughout Soviet period were examples of it, as it was in Tito’s Yugoslavia which left Stalin’s fold after 1948 and proceeded to develop its own economic system. To be sure the old phraseology about internationalism, historical laws, the inevitability of socialism, and dialectical materialism, was still used up till the late 1980s and indeed could not be abandoned, since it justified the claims of the Soviet state to impose its control over the other Eastern European countries. Similarly, the old phraseology was necessary in those countries where the ruling classes owed their existence only to the fact that the Soviet Union had been decisive in their accession to power.
Of course this rhetoric, however tinged by Orwellian features, may have had a concrete substance during the initial stages of capital formation in the USSR. However, by the mid-1970s it had somehow fallen behind the technical and managerial requirements of an extensive and all-inclusive planning system. Revisionism, apparently, filled this gap. On the other hand, the same old ideology was needed to justify the political supremacy of the Communist Party, and as a result there ensued a paradoxical conflict between the fulfillment of certain ideological precepts and their functional prerequisites. In other words ‘ends and means’ became mutually exclusive. This becomes even clearer if we consider the fact that in the old socialist commonwealth—with no representative systems—there could not have been a legitimization of power other than ideological: the ruling party proclaimed itself to be the embodiment of the genuine interests and the genuine will of the working masses.
Of course the existence and continuity of a socialist regime was not only a function of terror and arbitrariness. There were social layers—e.g., bureaucrats—with vested interests in the indefinite duration of those regimes. But their interests—prestige, financial remuneration, and the like—come into conflict with the chiliastic goals that the elites themselves had articulated at one time or another within the basic context of the Marxian millennium. An example of such a conflict was the new social inequality emerging from the socialist system itself, an inequality which came forth once the initial stage of capital formation was over as exemplified by the existence of the special privileges given to high bureaucrats and high party members. This particular period was critical owing to the fact that the pledge of social equality—to which the socialist promise was organically subscribed—was for the first time put to practical test.
It became obvious by this time that “equality” of opportunity, substituted for the initial equality of actual rewards, while meaningless in conditions of distributional equality, was not achievable when distributional equality did not exist. In this case, then, as in capitalist societies, scarce resources were unequally distributed. The tendency of the privileged strata to transform their share into the hereditary asset for their descendants evolved in turn into two processes: increasingly differential access to the means of educational achievement, and the growing role of the market in allocating vital goods for personal consumption. There was a new class ruling over “the working classes.”
Revisionists were trying to correct these imbalances, which they assumed were a function of a system that was not a realization of Marx’s dream. Their solution, the decentralized model of socialism implicitly put forth by them, was not a novel ideal in the historical evolution of institutional Marxism.
It had been present in Russia during the Revolution; Gramsci, the Italian Communist theoretician, elaborated on it; and the Yugoslavs had attempted to put it in practice once they broke with the Soviet Union and shed the Leninist character of the Communist Party in 1948. Its recurrence in Czechoslovakia twenty years later caused enough alarm in the USSR to send an army to stop its implementation. The fundamental assumption behind the decentralized system was the admission that workers are entitled to dispose freely of the surplus value created. It followed from such an assumption that:
- Social property and production administered not by a single, allegedly omniscient center, but rather by the entire body of direct producers and workers.
- These new structures were to expand from the economy to social and political relations, ensuring the withering away of the state and its administrative apparatus.
- As a corollary of 1 and 2, the Communist Party was supposed to divest itself of the political and administrative control of the state and its main function became the implementation of decentralization—i.e., the realization of its own disappearance.
The restoration of the market-economy—a prerequisite to economic decentralization—was not an end to itself. Though it contained alienating features—namely the commercialization of human values—it would have only disappeared when production reached a point where goods would be so plentiful that they would no longer possess “value”.
On the actual political implementation of decentralized socialism, revisionists were not specific or clear: indeed their very model contained at least one contradictory element, and that was the existence of an alienating market as a means toward a de-alienated society. And of course there was the overriding question as to whether the model was technically feasible. While there was some evidence that the partial application of this model had been somewhat successful in Yugoslavia in economic terms, it was not such a panacea for that country’s social and political problems, and which eventually resulted in the violent collapse of the Yugoslav multiethnic federation. The implementation of the revisionist model, outside Yugoslavia, was contingent on the “withering away” of the political and bureaucratic power of the Communist Party, one that took place only and paradoxically with the collapse of the Soviet Union. After Gorbachev’s realization that the old orthodox system of state and party control did not guarantee the success of the Soviet Union in its competition with the United States and its allies for world hegemony, Gorbachev’s attempt to “modernize” the Soviet system failed.
Of course even then, not all revisionists would have abided by the decentralized model of socialism, and it is probable that the degree of acceptance of the model among revisionists was inversely related to their social and political status in the Communist hierarchy at large. Seen from this historical perspective revisionism was arguably the ideological expression of upcoming elites in Eastern Europe, trying to displace the ruling class. Since the legitimization of power was acquired and justified along ideological lines, then it is understandable why any controversy was conducted along scholastic lines. Trends toward structural changes in the Eastern Bloc were not caused only by political crises and conflicts between the ruling elites of small countries and those of the Soviet Union. The Soviet economy was representative of a highly advanced industrial system, but it was still controlled and ruled by ideological principles that were surviving beyond their possible spatial and temporal usefulness.
The ensuing conflicts and their complexity caused by progress in science and technology and the competition with the United States and Europe, promoted in turn conflicting situations, based not only on the inability of individual leaders, but also on functional (or dysfunctional) changes within the socialist society itself. The rigidity and dysfunctions of the system eventually led to an attempt by Gorbachev to renovate the communist system. He did accept ideas of decentralization, openness, and individual freedom and this acceptance led quickly to a collapse of the system and the end of a state ideology and a universal ideology that in the 20th century had been the religion of intellectuals and masses.
The debate on alienation was really a symptom of the much larger problem of the inability of Marxism to cope with the evolution of societies that did not necessarily fit into the Marxist derived Leninist and post-Leninist models for the future developments of mankind. By 1992, with the full collapse of the Soviet Union and the Soviet imposed regimes in Eastern Europe, including the disintegration of the Yugoslav self management model of communism, there ensued a debate that influenced intellectual developments for another generation on the evolution of liberal democracy and its alternatives in the international system. Again the inspiration came paradoxically from Marx’s notion of the end of history, when Francis Fukuyama argued that the inevitable trend in the world was to be variations on the theme of liberal democracy and representative government as the final building blocks of modernity. He was to be countered by Samuel P. Huntington who saw instead a return to a clash of civilizations where states and nation states would cluster around primordial cultural and religious values to counter and even war with each other. The end of history had come to the communist bloc with the Marxists being unable to explain the cause of the demise of the Soviet utopia. The debate on alienation died out when liberal democracy took over Eastern Europe and made inroads into the former Soviet Union. Marxism came to be forgotten though remnants of his methodological approach still influenced the social sciences.
By 2012 Cuba, one of the last outposts of communist was restoring at least partially private property, firing people from their jobs as bureaucrats and compelling them to find a job on their own. The last remnant of a communist state, North Korea had become a patrimonial system run by a dynasty. Marxism had still an appeal in terms of some of its more critical tirades against capitalism articulated by pundits and acid critics of modern liberalism. But it was certainly not posited as salvation by large strata of the intellectual elites let alone the masses as the salvation for the economic and financial problems that had come to grip modern Western states in Europe and North America, though some small groups and even academics thought that an understanding of the modern problems of financial capitalism and globalization could still be understood in Marxian fashion. The concept of alienation had become intellectual and ideological history to be replaced with notions such as multiculturalism, feminism, and globalization. Alienation could not be found as part of an intellectual discourse among Europeans and North Americans, let alone in the developing world where radical Islamism and terrorism seemed to be the new zeitgeist. Marxists, whatever their hue, did not have an explanation for the new phenomena that had come to shape the intellectual debates of the past, though it became fashionable again amongst some strata of intellectuals of Europe and North America to talk about the “crisis of capitalism”.
Schaff, Adam. A Philosophy of Man, ed. Robert S. Cohen, trans. Olgierd Wojtaseiwicz. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1963.
_____. Marxism and the Human Individual, trans. Olgierd Wojtasiewicz. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1970.Paul Craig Roberts Alienation and the Soviet Economy: The Collapse of the Socialist Era
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Morris Mottale is Professor of International Relations and Comparative Politics and is Chair of the Department of Political Science, at The Taylor Institute for Global Enterprise Management, Franklin University Switzerland. His main teaching and research interests are in international relations, comparative politics, Middle Eastern politics, international political economy, strategic studies, energy, and mass communication. He has taught in the United States, Canada and England, and has been a research scholar at universities in North America, Europe and the Middle East, including the Harvard Center for Middle Eastern Studies. Publications include several articles and reviews on international and Middle Eastern politics, and several monographs and books.