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How Contemporary Movements for an Ecosocialist Alternative Can Succeed Where Socialist Movements in the 20th Century Failed

Charles Posa McFadden and Karen Howell McFadden

This article continues an argument we began in Learning from history, previously published on Evidently, socialist movements arose historically under circumstances that were not necessarily favorable to the enduring achievement of a socialist alternative. Under these circumstances some socialist movements set their sights no higher than the achievement of modest reforms of capitalism. Others declared their revolutionary successes to be the beginning of a socialist transformation. None so far have provided models in practice of an enduring alternative. 

Our next, concluding article will advance a strategic perspective for the achievement in the present century of ecosocialism, by which we mean an enduring ecologically sustainable socialist system, one that necessarily must be global. Here we identify from history two internal weaknesses within the socialist movements of the 20th century that must be minimized in this century if an enduring socialist transformation is to be achieved.   

If today capitalism is the principal cause of the existential crisis humanity now faces, then it is more urgent than ever that its socialist opponents identify and reduce the reflection within their own organizational and political practices of behaviors that best serve to perpetuate the existing class-divided social system. 

Fortunately, capitalism has itself created more favorable conditions for the success of socialist movements in this century. We have in mind the socialization on a global scale of the productive system enabled by the advent of digital technology. The current level of socialization includes means of communication and production favorable to global democratic management. The only major change now needed is a new social purpose, the prioritization of the need for a more just, ecologically sustainable society over the individual right to private profit accumulation.

Here we identify and address two of the principal cultural characteristics upon which class society rests, namely authoritarianism and careerism. These characteristics are essential to social cohesion within class-divided societies, but also constitute barriers to the level of social cooperation needed for the achievement of an ecologically sustainable alternative. 

Historical and current models of socialism meriting critical reflection

Given the complexity and diversity of social organization, no selection of historical examples of socialism can provide a comprehensive typology. The following overlapping currents concern us here. 

1. The emergence in countries from a historically recent feudal past of authoritarian governments claiming to be socialist or communist. The former USSR and the present People’s Republic of China can serve as examples. Michael Harrington (1989) in Socialism: Past and Future recognized Soviet socialism as part of an historical process, a means by which underdeveloped countries could develop in the face of competition from more developed capitalist nations. Describing this model, he wrote (p79.): “Socialism, as defined in Soviet practice, was a bureaucratically controlled and planned nationalized economy that carried out the function of ‘primitive accumulation’ and thus achieved rapid modernization. The state owned the means of production which made some people think it must be socialist; but the Party and bureaucracy ‘owned’ the state by virtue of a dictatorial monopoly of political power.”  He further commented that “such a situation was a moral disaster for socialism, the corruption of the ideal from within, a ‘false brother’ with a superficially plausible claim to authenticity.”   

After an initial period of revolutionary social transformation, including educational and cultural development, and with a continuing declared commitment to improving the welfare of workers, farmers, women, children, the elderly and the formerly oppressed national and ethnic minorities, other phenomena also emerged as characteristic of states that followed the Soviet example.  These other, less salutary and ultimately constraining features included a single ruling “vanguard” political party, often a cult of the personality of a single leader (imitating feudal culture), bureaucratically centralized planning (by appointees of the “vanguard” party), widespread alienation of the majority of the population excluded from effective participation in decision-making, and in some cases even the creation and use of “political” prisoners as slave labor. It should not be surprising, then, that the more developed capitalist countries, through concessions their ruling elites made to the working class (while still preserving their own privileged positions), were able to achieve a higher rate of growth of labor productivity, which in turn translated into military superiority that contributed to the collapse of the former USSR and most of its closest allies.   

Again, our aim here is not to litigate history. It is likely that no other form of socialism was possible in those industrially less developed countries that first embarked on a socialist path.  Indeed, after centuries of cultural accommodation to slave-master, serf-lord and boss-worker relationships and faced with unrestrained opposition from the world’s remaining military superpower, even today it would be impossible for any single government electing to embark on a socialist path to be secure in such an undertaking. To do so requires international solidarity that includes the working people in the home bases of the imperialist states, particularly the USA, which serves as the military arm of the entire transnational capitalist class. And within breakaway states, rapid educational-cultural and economic development featuring full participation of working people in organizational, workplace and governmental decisions would be required. Short of these conditions, we should not be surprised by outcomes that resemble those in the former USSR.   

For a definitive account of the demise of the USSR see that by economist David M. Kotz and journalist Fred Weir (2007, Routledge) Russia’s Path from Gorbachev to Putin: The Demise of the Soviet System and the New Russia. Time permitting, this should be read together with Michael A. Lebowitz (2012, Monthly Review Press) The Contradictions of Real Socialism: the conductor and the conducted. As well, see Stephen Resnick and Richard D. Wolff (2002, Routledge) Class Theory and History: Capitalism and Communism in the USSR. Also of historical interest is Martin Nicolaus (1975, Liberation Press, Chicago) Restoration of Capitalism in the Soviet Union (available for reading online at Note that already in 1975, Nicolaus, the translator into English of Marx’s Grundrisse, observed that industrial managers in the USSR had from 1965 been given control of the enterprises’ capital, one step removed from centralized Communist Party management, but still a far cry from the concept of socialist enterprises managed by their workers.

2. Capitalist states characterized by socialist reforms, frequently heralded as examples of socialism when achieved through the efforts of socialist parties, but alternatively, and perhaps more accurately, described as examples of welfare capitalism. This general form of so-called socialism is characterized by belief that capitalism is a natural system – the end of social evolution, a result that can at best be ameliorated by socialist reforms. In and out of government, the leaders of these socialist parties take their place within the ruling political and economic elites of their capitalist nations, often subordinating the interests of working people to the interests of the ruling capitalist class at home and in competition with other countries. This slippery slope has frequently led to morally reprehensible neutrality or worse in relation to the attacks of their nation’s ruling classes on working people (as in the current austerity regimes in Europe and North America) and breaches with the principle of international human solidarity (as in the treatment of immigrant labor in Europe and North America).

Depending on the country in which they live, many readers will not have difficulty identifying at least one ostensibly socialist political party that has at one time or another governed their country. Even in the United States there have been many influential spokespersons for socialist ideas. These include American political scientist Michael Harrington (1928-1989), an internationally prominent democratic socialist, whose arguments had – and arguably still have – significant influence within the US Democratic Party. Billed by its publisher as “the classic text on the role of socialism in modern society”, Socialism: Past and Future by Michael Harrington (first published in 1989 and republished in 2011 by Arcade Publishing, New York) is worth the reader’s attention, as noted previously. In it, Harrington argued: “The welfare state was … not simply the result of socialist and liberal conscience and working-class struggle. It was also a functional imperative of the capitalist socialization process itself, a way of allowing the system to absorb the enormous productivity of the new forms of collective labor.” (p 12). 

Authoritarian practices as internal causes of failure of socialist movements and governments

Exploitative rights are maintained by authoritarian behaviour. Stewardship responsibilities and usufruct rights are upheld by democratic behavior. With this understanding it goes without saying that the latter correspond to the aims of a just, sustainable society. Authoritarian behavior, justified by a claim of authorship or divine authority, is bound to the practice of exploiting nature and people for personal gain at their expense.     

Acquiescence to the authority of capital – the characteristic of reformist socialism – and the alternative of achieving socialism by means of a dictatorship – the defining characteristic of authoritarian socialism - are both reflections of exploitative intention. Both acquiescence to capital and revolutionary dictatorship ultimately serve the maintenance of the system that is presumably to be reformed or replaced. Here, of course, we are using the word, dictatorship, with the meaning popularly ascribed to it and not in Karl Marx’s (German language) use of this term to mean temporary martial law in the face of counterrevolutionary violence. 

Acquiescence to the authority of capital is also a characteristic of what is pejoratively known as “business” unionism and of other purely defensive organizations, those which lack perspective and moral commitment to a society beyond capitalism. Such defensive organizations, however necessary a role they may play, are likely in turn to adopt organizational practices that mirror those of capitalism, including bureaucratic, hierarchical chains of command.  

In struggle with highly centralized institutions, whether a feudal state, a capitalist-run corporation, a government in which power is centralized in its executive branch, the military and security agencies, or right wing political parties, popular forces have frequently countered by resort to the creation of equally centralized organizations. The constitutions of these, exemplified by the various communist political parties, frequently included provisions for the practice of democratic centralism, combining elements of bottom-up democratic decision-making with elements of centralized leadership. See, for greater detail:  In practice, however, centralism frequently overwhelmed internal democracy, usually justified as a necessity, whether that was the case or not. The invariable result, however, was the weakening of the popular struggles through attrition of grassroots enthusiasm and initiative and ultimate retreat from any initial gains that were achieved.  

When translated into governance, such as the revolutionary governments of Russia in 1917 and China in 1949, the results of so-called “democratic” centralism often included centralism in the extreme form of a leadership cult, for example, the cult of Joseph Stalin in the Soviet Union, and Mao Zedong in the People’s Republic of China, and in more extreme cases to acts of violence and even barbarism initiated by the leadership. The biography of Joseph Stalin provides a clear, if extreme, historical example. Informative in that respect is the Stalin biography written by Leon Trotsky, which the reader can find at The lessons to be learned might include recognition that authoritarianism teaches authoritarianism. It ultimately undermines the effort to move beyond capitalism and, in the most extreme cases, can even lead to barbarism, including genocide and similar crimes against humanity.

Careerism as an internal cause of failure of socialist movements and governments

One consequence of exploitative relationships is the determination of many individuals to achieve individual independence from their exploiters. Private purpose replaces social purpose as the highest priority. For those without a firm guarantee that their basic needs and those of their dependents will be met in most foreseeable circumstances, this priority is understandable, if not morally justifiable. But the result is the disease of careerism, defined as exercising private purpose at the expense of social purpose. This disease is endemic to capitalism.

This disease is also evident in the priority some of our parliamentary political “representatives” and many of our organizational leaders give to advancing their own careers over serving the interests of their constituents and members. This has repeatedly been and is likely to continue to be a source of undermining democratic movements within capitalism. Such careerist practices teach careerism, evident in the profession of politics or management as a career when the ends are personal rather than social.     

20th century “vanguard Marxism” and “real socialism”

We conclude this article with further consideration of the Soviet Union as an ostensible model of socialism. For over seven decades it stood as a defiant antagonist to the world’s dominant imperialist powers, inspiring revolutionary movements within every country on Earth. Hundreds of millions of people, including both its supporters and detractors, accepted its claim to be a socialist alternative to capitalism. 

In The Contradictions of Real Socialism: the conductor and the conducted, Michael Lebowitz (2012, Monthly Review Press) argues that “real socialism”, by which he refers to the model of socialism exemplified by the former Soviet Union, failed precisely because the people were not engaged in the building of the new institutions, including engagement in democratic forms of production. This role of creating new institutions and making all the important decisions about how and for what purposes they would function was usurped by the new bureaucracy, which Lebowitz described as “Vanguard Marxism”. Re-created in this top-down process was the alienation characteristic of the system they were trying to replace. 

As a Canadian scholar studying the work of Marx, Lebowitz contends that the post World War II descendants of the early Russian revolutionaries failed to understand and practice the essence of Marx’s new theory of human society. Lost in their reading of Marx was recognition of Marx’s emphasis on the all-round development of human beings as the alternative to their alienation under capitalism. For this, people needed to be thoroughly engaged in the creation of the new society. It is through such engagement in creating something new, including participating in making all the important decisions, that we also develop. Human development takes place, and can only take place, by thoroughly democratic participation in the building of the new institutions we need.  

Marx hoped to expose this reality through a careful examination and exposition of the nature of capitalism, in which the capitalists and their representatives appropriate for themselves the right to make all the decisions about production, distribution and how the profits earned are expended.  Although Marx’s work on Capital: A Critique of Political Economy remained incomplete, with only three of several planned volumes completed, the latter two by Frederick Engels, Lebowitz contends that Marx nevertheless succeeded in revealing how the profit motive at the heart of capitalism drives capitalists to put the growth of capital ahead of all other considerations, including people and nature.   

Lebowitz further contends that fixated on Marx’s elucidation of the working processes of capital, the nineteenth and twentieth century disciples of Marx unfortunately missed both his explicit as well as implicit insistence that the alternative to capitalism could only be found through the engagement of working people in the development of the institutions that gave priority to their own needs of free development.  

“Vanguard Marxism” - as critiqued by Lebowitz - was not the path that Marx envisioned and argued for. If anything, it was closer to its antithesis. Just as the alienation of working people from the products of their labor and thereby from nature and from each other is a fundamental characteristic of capitalism, an alternative to capitalism must include the thoroughly democratic engagement of people in creating their own, free institutions. Just as capitalism builds and rebuilds itself (expressed by Marx as the “reproduction of the relations of production”) so must the people in the new system engage in the mutual process of institutional development and self-development.

“Real socialism” was historically the first movement of global reach to attempt to replace predatory capitalism with a more rational alternative. It is not hard to attribute its failure to the historical circumstances. The minority status of the working class in Russia and many of the other leading countries of 20th century “real socialism”, the inheritance from feudalism and capitalism of authoritarian culture, low levels of literacy in many of those countries and, for both the literate and illiterate, an inadequate level of scientific culture were undoubtedly factors.  Equally important after significant internal opposition to “socialism” was defeated was the fierce external opposition of the political-economic elites of the countries that remained capitalist.  These elites succeeded in using their economic and political power to maintain their domination over most countries globally. Effective means included a combination of internal accommodation and intimidation and external aggression and threats of aggression, including the threat of using nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction.  

In these very difficult historical circumstances, the Communists turned inwards, making themselves the central planners and rulers, with debate frequently resolved by banishment to work camps or foreign exile and even, especially by Stalin and his coterie, by putting to death those who raised troublesome questions or advanced contrary views. These clearly were not favorable conditions for ending the alienation of working people from the products of their labor, from each other and from a government that presumably was to be their own. The economic stagnation that characterized most Communist countries by the early seventies contributed to their collapse by the early nineties. Despite – or perhaps in part because of – top-down reform efforts during its final decades, the Soviet system sputtered and ultimately collapsed, replaced by a ‘Jurassic Park’ version of capitalism.  

Perhaps the still fresh experience of feudalism with its centralized bureaucracies and serf labor had fueled the authoritarian practices that came to characterize the victorious Communists of the first part  of the twentieth century, including those who survived the paranoia and brutal behavior of their erstwhile comrade and leader, the former seminarian Joseph Stalin, and, after the second world war, those who in other countries had managed to survive capitalist jails and Nazi death camps to then participate in the relatively short-lived Communist governments in their liberated countries. Certainly the Civil War in Russia from 1918–1921 that pitted the revolutionary forces against internal reactionaries and external invaders, the destructive war with fascist Germany waged largely on their own territory and the nuclear armed Cold War that followed had the effects on the people of the former USSR that the capitalist class had intended.     

Although the collapse of the forms of socialism that survived Stalin left working people and nature in a weakened state, unable to effectively beat back the subsequent onslaught of neoliberal capitalism, the latter has since been exposed by the cumulative failures of its economic and social policies. The resultant global economic crisis beginning in 2007 and the accelerating degradation of the environment have led to the rapid development of resistance. What awaits is the necessary transition from an emphasis on defense of people and nature to an offensive struggle for an enduring, sustainable alternative. The neoliberal capitalists and their political representatives have constructed the foundation and created the necessity for such a social revolution – our last chance to move beyond capitalism and steer clear of the Black Hole the neoliberals would otherwise steer us into.

So, what might an alternative revolutionary political movement look like, one corresponding to the ultimate achievement of an ecologically sustainable society? In our concluding article we build upon the ideas advanced in our prior articles to argue for a strategic perspective that would set us on course to an ecologically sustainable global civilization, featuring radical democracy, environmental conservatism and unfettered cultural development with emphasis on nonviolence, human solidarity, imagination and scientific inquiry. 

Charles Posa McFadden and Karen Howell McFadden

Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada