About this site

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

2. Ideological Responses

The ideological responses to the crisis of existing socialism by constituents of what was previously known as the International Communist and Workers' movement (and among our own members) is still so varied and tentative that it is early days to attempt a neat categorisation. But at the risk of oversimplification, we identify a number of broad tendencies against which we must guard:

Finding excuses for Stalinism

Attributing the crisis to the pace of perestroika

Acting as if we have declared a moratorium on socialist criticism of capitalism and imperialism and, worst of all,

Concluding that socialist theory made the distortions inevitable.

A. Sticking to Stalinism

The term 'Stalinism' is used to denote the bureaucraticauthoritarian style of leadership (of parties both in and out of power) which denuded the party and the practice of socialism of most of its democratic content and concentrated power in the hands of a tiny, selfperpetuating elite.

While the mould for Stalinism was cast under Stalin's leadership it is not suggested that he bears sole responsibility for its negative practices. The essential content of Stalinism socialism without democracy was retained even after Stalin in the Soviet Union (until Gorbachev's intervention), albeit without some of the terror, brutality and judicial distortions associated with Stalin himself.

Among a diminishing minority there is still a reluctance to look squarely in the mirror of history and to concede that the socialism it reflects has, on balance, been so distorted that an appeal to its positive achievements (and of course there have been many) sounds hollow and very much like special pleading. It is surely now obvious that if the socialist world stands in tatters at this historic moment it is due to the Stalinist distortions.

We should have little patience with the plea in mitigation that, in the circumstances, the Stalinist excesses (such as forced collectivisation) brought about some positive economic achievements. Statistics showing high growth rates during Stalin's time prove only that methods of primitive accumulation can stimulate purely quantitative growth in the early stages of capitalism or socialism but at what human cost? In any case, more and more evidence is emerging daily that, in the long run, the excesses inhibited the economic potential of socialism.

Another familiar plea in mitigation is that the mobilising effect of the Stalin cult helped save socialism from military defeat. It is, however, now becoming clear that the virtual destruction of the command personnel of the Red Army, the lack of effective preparation against Hitler's onslaught and Stalin's dictatorial and damaging interventions in the conduct of the war could have cost the Soviet Union its victory.

Vigilance is clearly needed against the preperestroika styles of work and thinking which infected virtually every party (including ours) and moulded its members for so many decades. It is not enough merely to engage in the selfpitying cry: 'we were misled'; we should rather ask why so many communists allowed themselves to become so blinded for so long. And, more importantly, why they behaved like Stalinists towards those of their comrades who raised even the slightest doubt about the 'purity' of Stalin's brand of socialism.

In the socialist world there are still outposts which unashamedly mourn the retreat from Stalinism and use its dogmas to 'justify' undemocratic and tyrannical practices. It is clearly a matter of time before popular revulsion leads to a transformation. In general, those who still defend the Stalinist model even in a qualified way are a dying breed; at the ideological level they will undoubtedly be left behind and they need not detain us here.

B. Blaming Gorbachev

Most communists, of course, concede that a great deal 'went wrong' and needs to be corrected. Some, however, fear that the corrective methods are so hasty and extreme that, in the end, they may do more harm than good. The enemies of socialism, so it is argued, are being given new powerful weapons with which to destroy socialism and to return to capitalism. The pace of Gorbachev's perestroika and glasnost are, either directly or indirectly, blamed for the 'collapse' of communist political hegemony in countries like Poland, Hungary, GDR and Czechoslovakia.

In the countries mentioned, despite the advantage of over 40 years of a monopoly of education, the media, etc., the parties in power could not find a significant section of the class they claimed to represent (or, for that matter, even a majority of their own membership) to defend them or their version of socialism. To blame perestroika and glasnost for the ailments of socialism is like blaming the diagnosis and the prescription for the illness. Indeed, the only way to ensure the future of socialism is to grasp the nettle with the political courage of a Gorbachev.

When things go badly wrong (whether it be in a movement or a country) it is inevitable that some who have ulterior motives jump on to the bandwagon. When a gap develops between the leadership and the led, it always provides openings for real enemies. But to deal with the gap in terms only of enemy conspiracies is an ancient and discredited device. Equally, to fail to tackle mistakes or crimes merely because their exposure will give comfort to our adversaries is both shortsighted and counterproductive.

In any case, a number of additional questions still go begging:

Firstly, have we the right to conclude that the enemies of a discredited party leadership are the same as the enemies of socialism? If the type of socialism which the people have experienc ed has been rubbished in their eyes and they begin to question it, are they necessarily questioning socialism or are they rejecting its perversion?

Secondly, what doctrine of preStalinism and preMao Marxism gives a communist party (or any other party for that matter) the moral or political right to impose its hegemony or to maintain it in the face of popular rejection?

Thirdly, who has appointed us to impose and defend at all costs our version of socialism even if the overwhelming majority have become disillusioned with it?

In general, it is our view that the fact that the processes of perestroika and glasnost came too slowly, too little and too late in Eastern Europe did more than anything else to endanger the socialist perspective there. It is through these processes and they must be implemented with all possible speed that socialism has any hope of showing its essentially human face. When socialism as a world system comes into its own again as it undoubtedly will the 'Gorbachev revolution' will have played a seminal role.

C. Abandoning the Ideological Contest

We are impressed with the contribution which crusading properestroika journals (such as Moscow News and New Times) are making to the renovation of socialism. At the same time, we must not overlook the alarming tendency among many media partisans of perestroika to focus so exclusively on the blemishes of the socialist experience that the socialist critique of capitalism and imperialism finds little, if any, place.

In keeping with this excessive defensiveness, there is a tendency to underplay some of the most graphic pointers to the superior moral potential of socialist civilisation. For instance, it is a sad commentary on earlier socialist history that the Soviet people are now moved to erect monuments to the victims of the Stalin period. But the capitalist world is planning no monuments to those of its citizens ravaged by its cruelties nor to millions of victims of its colonial terror.

The transformations which have occurred in Poland, Hungary, the German Democratic Republic, Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria are revolutionary in scope. With the exception of Romania, is there another example in human history in which those in power have responded to the inevitable with such a civilised and pacific resignation?

We should remember De Gaulle's military response in 1968 when ten million workers and students filled the streets of Paris. It is not difficult to forecast how Bush or Thatcher would deal with millions in their streets supported by general strikes demanding the overthrow of their system of rule.

Some Soviet journals have become so exclusively focused on selfcriticism that the social inequalities within capitalism and the continuing plunder by international capital of the resources of the developing world through neocolonial manipulation, unequal trade and the debt burden, receive little emphasis. Middle class elements, including many journalists within socialist societies, seem mesmerised by pure technocracy; the glitter of Western consumerism, and the quality of upmarket goods, appear to overshadow the quality of life for society as a whole.(2)

There is less visible than at any time a critique of imperialism's continuing human rights violations and its gross interference in the internal affairs of sovereign states through surrogates and direct aggression, and its continuing support for banditry and racist and military dictatorships.

The gloss which is put in some of these journals on social and political conditions inside the capitalist West itself has been described by Jonathan Steele in the British Guardian as little less than 'grotesque'. In some contributions capitalism is prettified in the same generalised and unscholarly way as it used to be condemned, i.e. without researched statistics and with dogma taking the place of information. The borderline between socialism and what is called welfare capitalism is increasingly blurred.

In contrast to all this, whatever else may be happening in international relations, the ideological offensive by the representatives of capitalism against socialism is certainly at full blast.

The Western media gloat repeatedly with headlines such as 'Communism R.I.P.'. Professor Robert Heilbroner, a luminary of the New York New School, has already raised his champagne glass with a victory toast for capitalism. Asserting that the Soviet Union, China and Eastern Europe have proved that capitalism organises the material affairs of humankind more satisfactorily than socialism, he goes on to proclaim:

'Less than 75 years after it officially began, the contest between capitalism and socialism is over; capitalism has won ... the great question now seems how rapid will be the transformation of socialism into capitalism, and not the other way around.'(3)

Just in case more is needed to fulfil this prediction, some of capitalism's most powerful representatives are there to give history a helping hand. Reagan's final boast for his eight years in office was that he saw to it that not one more inch of territory in the world 'went communist'. Bush takes up the baton with: 'We can now move from containment to bring the socialist countries into the community of free nations'. The Guardian (2/6/89, United Kingdom) reports a multimillion pound initiative, endorsed by British ministers, to encourage change in Eastern Europe. And so on.

In the face of all this, it is no exaggeration to claim that, for the moment, the socialist critique of capitalism and the drive to win the hearts and minds of humanity for socialism have been virtually abandoned. The unprecedented offensive by capitalist ideologues against socialism has indeed been met by a unilateral ideological disarmament.

To the extent that this has come about through the need to concentrate on putting our own house in order it is, at least, understandable. But, in many cases, there is an inability to distinguish between socialism in general and the incorrect methods which were used to translate it on the ground. This has led to an unjustified flirtation with certain economic and political values of capitalism.

The perversion of democracy in the socialist experience is falsely contrasted to its practice in the capitalist West as if the latter gives adequate scope for the fulfilment of democratic ideals. The economic ravages caused by excessive centralisation and commandism under socialism seem also to have pushed into the background the basic socialist critique of capitalism that a society cannot be democratic which is ruled by profit and social inequality and in which power over the most vital areas of life is outside public control.

D: Losing Faith in the Socialist Objective

Some communists have been completely overwhelmed by the soiled image of socialism which they see in the mirror of history. They conclude that it reflects not only what was (and in the case of some countries, what still is), but, in addition, what inevitably had to be in the attempts to build a socialist society as understood by the founding fathers of socialist doctrine.

If, indeed, what happened in the socialist world had to happen because of some or all of our theoretical starting points, if the Stalintype perversion is unavoidable, then there is no more to be said; we must clearly either seek an alternative to socialism or throw overboard, or at least qualify, some of its postulates.(4)

We believe, however, that the theory of Marxism, in all its essential respects, remains valid and provides an indispensable theoretical guide to achieve a society free of all forms of exploitation of person by person. The major weaknesses which have emerged in the practice of socialism are the results of distortions and misapplications. They do not flow naturally from the basic concepts of Marxism whose core is essentially humane and democratic and which project a social order with an economic potential vastly superior to that of capitalism.


1. Marx used the term 'primitive accumulation' to describe the original process of capitalist accumulation which, he maintained, was not the result of abstinence but rather of acts (including brigandage) such as the expropriation of the peasantry as happened during the British Enclosures (Capital Volume 1, Part VII). Preobrazhensky in The New Economics (1926) talked about 'primitive socialist accumulation' involving the expropriation of resources from the betteroff classes to generate capital for socialist industrial development. Here, the term is used to describe the arbitrary measures taken against the Soviet peasantry to forcibly 'enclose' them into collectives.

2. Socialism, as a transition phase to communism, is not based on full egalitarianism. But clearly the socialist maxim 'to each according to his contribution' is not applied absolutely in a socialist society which devotes a large slice of its resources to social services, subsidising basic necessities, and implementing the human right of guaranteed employment. The middle strata in socialist society are inevitably worse off than their counterparts in the West. Access to the fleshpots of consumer goods (which the West produces for the upper crust in almost mindbending variations) is more restricted when society tries to use its surplus to achieve a more just distribution of wealth.

3. The New Yorker, January 23, 1989.

4. In the recent period a number of European and African political parties have 'officially' abandoned MarxismLeninism as a theoretical guide. In the case of FRELIMO, the decision appears to be the result of second thoughts on what may, in the circumstances, have been a premature transformation of the movement into a communist vanguard. But in the case of some Western parties the decision seems to be a response (with undoubted electoral implications) to the distortions of the socialist experience rather than a reasoned conclusion that Marxism is not a viable tool in the socialist endeavour. A leading Soviet academic (reported in Work in Progress No.48, July 1987, p.7) has predicted that South Africa has no chance of becoming socialist for a century.

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. Return to the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory site.