Brief History Of The Socialist Movement, Q&A on Socialism

2011/edited 2020

Marx and Engels

The development of Socialism parallels the course of the historical evolution of capitalism. Groups such as the Levelers in 17th century Britain and the Utopian Movement of the 18th and 19th centuries preceded Marxist Socialism. Unlike those movements Marxism is based on a historical materialist perspective derived from an analysis of capitalism rather than an idealist anticipation of a world after capitalism. Marxist socialism emphasizes the revolutionary potential of the working class as a whole instead of advocating for action by small groups of upper-class individuals as a substitute for mass action (as in Anarchism, Proudhonism, Blanquism). Karl Marx (1818-1883) and Frederick Engels (1820-1895) were students of German philosophy which reached its peak in the 19th century. Marx and Engels based their philosophy on the work of the Philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) but believed his observations on nature were contradicted by his idealism. Like other “Left Hegelians” such as Ludwig Feuerbach they combined Hegel’s analytic approach with scientific materialism.

Marx and Engels relied on a Hegelian “Dialectical” Materialist outlook to approach the vital questions of their day. They quickly became leaders of the Socialist movement because of their strong positions and major contributions to the development of socialist politics and philosophy. Their research and elaboration of political economy and revolutionary tactics; their emphasis on science and their enduring outline of the course of world history has long made revolutionary socialism synonymous with “Marxism.” The young Marx and Engels joined a group of exiled German radicals called the Communist League and in 1848 wrote the league’s constitutional document, the Communist Manifesto. Marx and Engels helped found the International Workingman’s Association — also known as the First International — in 1864. The International united disparate left groupings including the Anarchist tendencies. Following the Paris Commune — the first successful overthrow of the state by the working class in 1871 — differences in the International between Anarchists and Socialists led to its dissolution.

In the course of roughly one half-century three Socialist international organizations were founded: the International Workingman’s Association (1864-1876), a union of ultimately antagonistic “left” tendencies, the Second “Social-Democratic” International (1889-1914), and the Third “Communist” International (1919-1943). In 1938 the current supporting the exiled Russian leader Leon Trotsky — who had always opposed the betrayal of the Third International by the right wing bureaucracy in the Soviet Union — founded another International: the Trotskyist Fourth International (1938-1953). These currents reflected the ebb and flow of the Socialist movement: the effect of a long period of relative stability in the West determined the character of the Second International; the Revolutionary upsurge during the First World War led to the foundation of the Third International and the response to the coup de tat of Stalinism in the Soviet Union necessitated the Fourth International. As a token to the United States and Great Britain during World War II the Stalinists shut down the Third International in 1943. By then, the Third International had long since become nothing more than a foreign policy tool wholly subjected to the national interests of the Soviet Union.

Marx, Engels and the First International

Marx and Engels first set out a scientific appraisal of the principles and theories of socialism. Marx and Engels spent decades researching Capitalism and analyzed its historical development, the rules by which it functioned and the course of its future crisis. Like their predecessors in the socialist movement, Marx and Engels looked forward to a more democratic and fulfilling society. In distinction from earlier tendencies of socialism they identified the emerging working class as the agent for social change and built mass working class parties under the banner of the First and Second Internationals.

The Second International

The socialist movement embodied in the Second International and its widespread cultural influence contributed decisively to the progressive era at the end of the nineteenth century. It was difficult, however, for the Social Democratic parties to maintain the principles of socialism within organizations which committed themselves to gradual party building in the context of the official political system. Such was the case with the very successful Social Democratic Party of Germany. The membership of the parties of the Second International was very socially diverse, poorly disciplined and largely ignorant of Marxist theory and history.

When capitalism went through a crisis beginning with the First World War the Social Democratic parties were in no shape to contribute to the class struggle. On the contrary, they became defenders of capitalism. Today the parties which make use of Social Democratic titles are no different from any other capitalist parties in composition or activity. They have retained the names and claims to “tradition,”, however, to help promote illusions that they still represent an alternative.  The genuine socialists who responded to the crisis of the First World War with resolve were able to achieve a historic though short-lived success in Russia in 1917.

The Russian Revolution and the Third International

Like the Paris Commune in 1871 – the first workers revolution – the Russian Revolution was isolated. Unlike the Paris Commune the Russian Revolution survived an enormous military offensive against it by the world powers, who promoted hysterical fear of the revolution at home. The situation of Russia at that time could not be worse. All efforts were expended merely to save the doubly war-battered and blockaded country from complete collapse. When revolutions in Germany, Italy, Hungary, China and other countries were beaten back by the capitalist class and the Social Democratic parties the Soviet Union had to face the prospect of complete isolation.

Degeneration of the Soviet Union

Increasingly occupying positions of practical power in the crisis-ridden Soviet Union were a rising layer of bureaucrats who in the vast majority were not serious socialists in any sense. They were on the whole simple careerists who felt that world capitalism shouldn’t be provoked, much less confronted by the isolated Soviet Union. The bureaucrats felt that the leaders of the 1917 revolution, a small minority of their own party, were a thorn in their side. Security and extension of their privileges and the status quo was their overriding priority.

In the aftermath of the failure of the world revolution – when socialism was at its weakest in its world and in its domestic position – the bureaucracy under their chief representative Joseph Stalin carried out a bloody coup-de-tat, annihilating by the end of the 1930s almost every original member of the revolutionary party and consolidating bureaucratic control over the country in the ironic name of “socialism.”  The bureaucracy had come to feel that it could no longer afford talk of socialist democracy, revolution or equality. 

In their relationships to the Soviet population and the world working class the bureaucracy based themselves first and foremost on the monstrous lie that they were the successors of the revolutionary leadership and that the political and social life of the Soviet Union as they maintained it represented “socialism.” This practice is motivated by the same instincts as the capitalist’s duplicitous promotion of “democracy” and “the nation,” but represents an especially involved and convoluted smokescreen born out of the peculiarities and contradictions of the period and place.

On their part the capitalists, who funded countless academic careers for the sake of “exposing” the Soviet system and proving every Soviet idea wrong, agreed wholeheartedly and without second thought that the Stalinists were right in calling themselves “socialists” and laying claim to the heritage of the socialist movement and the Russian Revolution. The self-declared “objective” criticism and exposures of the Soviet system pursued compulsively by capitalist academics and politicians stopped completely in the face of an opportunity to condemn the socialist movement by endorsing without comment the allegation on which the entire Stalinist system was based.   In 1991, the Stalinists divided up the socialized property of the Soviet Union among themselves, becoming a new capitalist class and continuing to rule the splintered Soviet countries as such. These Stalinists transformed into capitalists met with only praise from the capitalist writers in the west, who now hailed their continued rule as “democracy” and “liberty.”

Opposing Stalinism from the beginning was the Left Opposition in the Soviet Union, at the head of which stood the co-leader (with Vladimir Lenin) of the Russian Revolution, Leon Trotsky. In the ranks of the Left Opposition were joined all the brightest and most accomplished veterans of the revolution. More veterans of the 1917 revolution entered the opposition as the domination of the Bureaucracy became increasingly clear. In 1927, the opposition included the highest leaders of the party who had succeeded Lenin after his death in 1924, including Trotsky, Grigory Zionviev and Lev Kamenev – but by this time Stalin was in too strong a position to be ousted. The bureaucrats suppressed the opposition, beginning with the exiling of Trotsky. From 1936-1940 the Stalinists engineered a succession of show trials and executed or imprisoned not only all those who represented socialism and the revolution in the Soviet Union but also their families, relatives, friends and acquaintances. After this, there was no one left in the Soviet Union to oppose Stalinism. In exile – before he too was assassinated by Stalin – Trotsky rebuilt the socialist movement in opposition to Stalinism. The Fourth International carried on the principles of the socialist movement and the Russian Revolution.

Why and how did the Stalinist bureaucracy take control of the Soviet Union? This question can only be answered by understanding the historical conditions, contradictions and struggles that gave birth to the Socialist movement and to the Soviet Union. It was within the context of the Russian Civil War (1918-1922), the defeat of the international revolution and the isolation and backwardness of the Soviet Union that the conciliatory, counter-revolutionary forces of Stalinism came to power. It was not without struggle and the displacement of the Socialist leadership of the Soviet Union that this occurred and it was not without the repudiation of the revolutionary internationalism of the Bolsheviks during the first years after the Revolution. After sixty-four years of “Peaceful Coexistence” with capitalism and the stifling of revolution at home and abroad in the name of Socialism the Stalinist bureaucracy dissolved the Soviet Union in 1991 — dividing amongst themselves the socialized property of the country. Today Russia and the other post-soviet states are still led by the former members of the Communist Party as capitalists in a conventional parliamentary setup. Socialists must emphasize tirelessly that Stalinism does not equal Socialism but instead its opposite — counter-revolution. Countries such as Cuba and China are not and never were Socialist or even representative of the working class.


What is the working class?

The working class is so called because its role in the economy is to provide labor in return for its means of subsistence, and because it does not own economic property (the means of production). It is therefore “Propertyless” or Proletarian. In past times, working classes in particular historical epochs did own the means of production, for instance medieval serfs. The capitalist economy instead is based on the ownership of the means of production by the capitalist class and the hiring of “free labor” i.e. the worker sells his labor value to the capitalist who returns to the worker his means of subsistence. The means of subsistence represents a certain cost to the capitalist which is less, together with his other costs, than the price of his product. This feature of capitalism is explored by Marx in his book “Capital.” The realization of this surplus value is a function of the entire capitalist world economy through which is distributed the tendency to realize profit for the capitalist class.  

Claims and Truths about Socialism

CLAIM: Under socialism, government bureaucrats control the nation’s political life

TRUTH: Under Socialism everything from official political and administrative positions, to legislation and policy is decided democratically via direct citizen involvement. This contrasts with a make-believe “representative” ballot system invoked on special occasions.

CLAIM: Under Socialism, everything is nationalized

TRUTH: Under Socialism, the major industries, banks and financial institutions are put under democratic control of their workers and the public. Small and medium sized businesses on the other hand are given support and protections and are integrated into the socialized economy.

CLAIM: Socialism means there is only one party.

TRUTH: Under Socialism all viewpoints are represented freely and are open for debate. Under Socialism there are many more than just two parties or viewpoints to vote on – or rather “acclaim” – occasionally and from a distance.

CLAIM: Socialism means no one has personal property

TRUTH: On the contrary, Socialism guarantees for the first time that all people have the right to certain personal property which they do -not- have any right to under capitalism (such as a home, healthcare, full education, employment and a basic standard of living), and socialism does not take -any- personal property away. Socialism is only concerned with socializing privately held -productive- property being hoarded by giant corporations and banks — like natural resources, factories, large landholdings, machinery, technology and financial capital.

CLAIM: Socialism means government decides what products you consume.

TRUTH: Consumers decide directly and democratically what products they want. Consumer demand is measured far more accurately under socialism than under capitalism and production is geared toward consumer needs and expanding consumer product quality instead of squeezing profit.

CLAIM: Socialism would “take away the profit motive” leading to the destruction of the human race

TRUTH: Socialism would encourage high quality work and useful work in particular fields, but the “profit motive” on the whole is a myth of the capitalist era. It is based on a cynical view of a false “human nature” which is in reality just a snapshot of life under capitalism. Under Socialism all people would be free to pursue what fields interested them and be fully rewarded for their efforts as under no system previously existing. No human being needs to be given ten or a thousand times the wealth of his or her fellow human being; there is more than enough for everyone.

CLAIM: Socialism would try to change everything all at once, for instance by abolishing money or establishing “communes.”

TRUTH: Socialism would work toward transitioning to practical social equality and is not in the slightest utopian or anarchic. Change would be swift and ultimately dramatic but socialism is built on all the previous gains and circumstances of society, not on their improvised destruction.

CLAIM: Socialism would get rid of Constitutional protections

TRUTH: Socialism would preserve all the gains of the American Revolution and classical democratic liberalism. The Bill of Rights and its protections of free speech, assembly, press, the right to trial by peers, etc, would be upheld. The Constitution and its defense of individual rights would be amended with protections of social rights, like the right to a home and a basic standard of living, quality healthcare, a complete education, full employment, access to culture and social equality in general.

CLAIM: Socialism would ban religion

TRUTH: Socialism would allow all people to practice their faiths freely, but would not subsidize or favor individual religions or religion as a whole. Socialism would maintain a strict separation of state and religion. Socialists would encourage a science-based education and an open debate about religion’s role in society.

CLAIM: every country which calls itself socialist is socialist

TRUTH: If this were true, then is the “Democratic” People’s Republic of North Korea a democratic country? Are there not objective reasons why such countries would want to self-identify as democratic, without being anything close to it? It was similarly advantageous and historically necessary for certain countries to call themselves socialist. It does not mean that they were in any sense socialist or even partially socialist.

CLAIM: The Soviet Union, China, Stalin, Mao, etc were socialist (and killed millions of people!)

TRUTH: Stalin and Mao and their imitators were third world nationalist dictators who were interested in socialism as a phraseology and a justification for their crimes. In this they were not unlike those US politicians who routinely invoke “democracy” and “human rights” when intervening in resource rich third world countries.

CLAIM: Tony Blair, Sweden, Bernie Sanders and the “Social Democrats” in Europe are Socialists

TRUTH: Social Democracy is a label inherited by several capitalist parties and politicians around the world which means they want the working class to vote for them while they carry out a capitalist program.

CLAIM: Hugo Chavez (the late president of Venezuela), Mudaro etc. are Socialists

TRUTH: Chavez (like  other Latin American populist leaders) was a third world nationalist leader who used petrodollars to fund modest social programs and/or stunts. He called himself a socialist to attract attention internationally and win votes at home because American influence in the area had been discredited.

CLAIM: Obama is a socialist / Democrats are socialists.

TRUTH: Barack Obama has transferred public money to capitalist corporations on a scale never before seen (in the name of “bailing them out”); he has advocated a corporate-friendly zero-interest rate creating stock bubbles and rerouting wealth to the rich in the United States; he has reduced regulation; slashed taxes for corporations while raising taxes for the working class; he has had his campaigns funded by capitalists (and to a greater extent than his republican rivals); he serves in a party that has been dedicated to capitalist policies for two hundred years; he has waged imperialist wars on behalf of capitalism and passed no measures to assist the working class such as a jobs program or a moratorium on foreclosures. Obama in sum is NOT a socialist but an arch-capitalist politician.

CLAIM: Hitler was a socialist, Fascism is type of socialism or is “in between” Socialism and Capitalism.

TRUTH: Hitler’s Third Reich hunted down and killed millions of socialists and millions more who were suspected of being socialists. Hitler and the Nazis hated and feared socialism above all else. Hitler was sponsored by German industrialists and elevated to the Chancellery by the conservative president Hindenburg. Socialists were the first people to be sent to concentration camps, to be followed by the other minorities who perished under the Nazis. Fascism pandered to capitalism and the big corporations, which were rewarded by fiscal measures and military contracts by Hitler and Mussolini while labor action was outlawed and trade unions broken up. Mussolini gave corporations their own branch of parliament, Hitler hooked up German corporations with minority and Prisoner of War slave labor. Fascism is an extreme right ideology based on excluding the mass of the population from democratic decision making, excluding or killing dissenting or independent minorities and propping an exclusive minority of privileged capitalists over the rest of the population. In simple terms, Fascism was good for big business — something the right has subsequently tried to forget.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s