Socialism and Communism

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What is socialism? According to a Hungarian joke made during the "gentle revolution" of 1989, it is the "longest and most painful road from capitalism to capitalism" (Garton Ash 1990). Although this biting definition was fashionably cynical about Soviet-type societies in the wake of their fall, it provides no substantive insights into one of the major social organizational forms of modern history.

The origins of socialism are obscure. Intellectual historians have traced its beginnings to the religious utopias of the Old Testament (Laidler 1968), the principles of Mosaic law (Gray 1963), the anti-individualism of the radical sects that emerged after the French Revolution (Lichtheim 1969), and the publication of the Communist Manifesto (Sweezy 1983). As well as can be determined, the term made its first appearance in Italian print in 1803, although its meaning at that time differed somewhat from the current interpretations (Cole 1959). For this reason, the origin of the term usually is attributed to the London Co-Operative Magazine, where it was used to designate followers of Robert Owen (Nuti 1981). The first French usage followed shortly thereafter when, in 1832, a French periodical, Le Globe, used it to characterize the writings of Saint-Simon (Bell 1968; Kolakowski 1978).

Despite its complicated origins, by 1840 the concept was used commonly throughout Europe and was making its way across the Atlantic to the United States. By the early 1920s, the Soviet Union had already claimed "socialism" as its overall organizing principle; ironically, at that time, over 260 definitions of the term were available in the social scientific literature (Griffith 1924), rendering its meaning somewhat ambiguous. Since then, further transformations of the concept have appeared; for instance, scholars now differentiate among Chinese socialism, corporatist socialism, democratic socialism, radical socialism, and Russian socialism.

The common core of socialist ideas is hard to define. To be sure, all socialists were critical of the competitive and unequal nature of capitalist society, and without fail, they championed a more egalitarian and just future. At the same time, their visions of the organization of a socialist future were sufficiently diverse to render a single definition of the term practically impossible. It is frequently assumed, for example, that all socialists wanted to establish communal ownership, yet many were content with the centralization of resources in the hands of the state (e.g., Bernstein 1961) and others actually protested the abolition of private property (e.g., Saint-Simon 1964). Battles also were waged over the role of the state: Some believed that centrally managed administrative organs would become superfluous under a socialist regime (Proudhon 1966), while others regarded those organs as essential for the management of community affairs (e.g., Cabet 1975). Many argued that the freedom of the individual must be guaranteed at all costs even under socialism (e.g., Fourier 1971), while others were willing to impose limitations on such freedom in the name of equality and efficient production (Mao 1971). Finally, some believed that socialism could be realized through gradual reforms (Bernstein 1961), while others thought that it was possible only through a major revolution (Lenin 1971).

Because of the nontrivial nature of these differences, a single definition of socialism is likely to conceal more than it illuminates. For this reason, it is more productive to highlight features of the concept by examining separately some of the best known schools of socialist thought.


In the view of utopian socialists, socialism was a romantic vision whose purpose was not necessarily to be realized but to serve as an ideal against which the evils of capitalism could be compared. The specific content of this vision varied from author to author, but two central themes can be identified.

The ideal of community was the first of those themes. From Fourier to Cabet, through Owen and Saint-Simon, all utopian theorists championed a new social order organized around small communities. In most sketches of socialism, this vision was realized in an agrarian setting (e.g., Cabet 1975), although some required advanced industrial development (e.g., Saint-Simon 1964). In either case, however, it was assumed that those communities would be based on fellowship, harmony, and altruism—virtues that utopian theorists favored on moral grounds over bourgeois individualism.

Nostalgia for the past is the second common theme in utopian socialist thought. It frequently appeared in utopian novels and usually assumed one of two forms. In some versions, the protagonists in those novels were returned to a romanticized preindustrialism, while in others, they returned to an even more distant past, such as the Middle Ages (e.g., Morris 1970). Despite such variation in the settings of those novels, the message they sought to convey was more or less the same: In the transition to industrial capitalism, people abandoned the "golden age" of social harmony and replaced it with a fragmented and competitive social order that is unable to provide for the full satisfaction of human needs.

In the hands of scientific socialists, the idea of socialism represented more than just an attractive dream (Marx and Engels 1968). Karl Marx, for example, considered it a historically possible future for capitalism, as he assumed that the internal contradictions of capitalism would create some of the preconditions for socialism. According to his theory of historical materialism, the demands made by capitalist development will create increasingly grave crises for the ruling class. He maintained that with the mechanization of production and the concentration of capital in the hands of a few, there will be greater polarization in terms of class inequalities and an increase in the degree of exploitation of the working class. As capitalism enters its advanced stage, the condition of the working class will deteriorate and the struggle over the quality of its existence will intensify. At first, the war between the "two hostile camps" of capitalist society (the bourgeoisie and the proletariat) will be waged within the boundaries of particular nation-states. However, as capitalism expands into new markets internationally, workers across the world will be forced to unite in their effort to overthrow capitalist society. Socialism, according to Marx, will emerge out of this final instance of class struggle.

It is ironic that the "father of socialism" never provided a detailed blueprint for his model of the future. It is evident from a number of passages, however, that Marx envisioned two stages in the evolution of socialism. In the lower stage (which he referred to as socialism, or the "dictatorship of the proletariat"), he foreshadowed major improvements in the human condition. He predicted, for example, that private property would be abolished, the forces of production would be nationalized and placed in the hands of the state, rights of inheritance would be eliminated, universal suffrage would be introduced, state representatives would be elected from among the working people, and education would become accessible to all. At the same time, because Marx expected this to be a transitional stage, he believed that some elements of capitalist society would continue to prevail. Specifically, he mentioned that income inequalities would continue to exist in the lower stage because workers would still be paid according to the amount of work they contributed to the social good.

At some point, according to Marx, this transitional phase in the development of human history would evolve into the higher stage of socialism, a stage that he often referred to as communism, or the "realm of freedom." Under communism, work would no longer be an obligation but a free and creative activity, alienation would be transcended, the production process would be under the direct control of the producers, and rewards would be distributed in accordance with the principle of "to each according to his need" rather than "to each according to his ability."

Scientific socialism gained considerable popularity among French, German, and British socialists during the nineteenth century. Many agreed with Marx's assessment of bourgeois society and were attracted to his vision of the future. As the century progressed, however, and the Marxist scenario still appeared to be far away, some began to raise questions about the continued relevance of scientific socialism in the modern age. The main protagonist in this debate was Eduard Bernstein, a leading advocate of democratic socialism.

Bernstein and his followers called into question various elements of scientific socialism, but they were especially concerned about Marx's predictions concerning the development of industrial capitalism. On the basis of new empirical evidence, Bernstein (1961) noted that the standard of living at the turn of the century was improving rather than deteriorating, class inequalities were far from polarized, and the ownership of capital, rather than being concentrated in the hands of a few, was becoming diversified. In addition, he observed that general strikes were becoming less common and socialist parties were gaining considerable strength in the political organization of the state. In light of those findings, Bernstein called for a revision of the Marxist program and offered a new interpretation of socialism.

According to Bernstein, democracy was the most important feature of socialist society. He discouraged his confederates from describing socialism as a "dictatorship of the proletariat" and recommended that they acknowledge its fundamentally pluralist character. Of course, for Bernstein, the significance of democracy was not simply that it guaranteed the representation of minority rights under socialism; it was also that it assured a peaceful transition from capitalism through a series of parliamentary reforms. For many later socialists, this emphasis on reform came to represent the essence of democratic socialism; it was this idea, in fact, that earned the "revisionist" label for this school of socialist thought.

Needless to say, Bernstein was not the only theorist to revise Marx's ideas on socialism. In the early part of the twentieth century, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin (1971) also amended the concept by adding to it several new notions, some of which were derived from his experience with political organization in tsarist Russia. Taken together, these propositions constitute Russian socialism, also known as Bolshevik theory.

The best known contribution of this school of thought to socialist theory is the idea of the "vanguard party." According to Lenin, Marx was unduly optimistic in his belief that the proletariat could develop the necessary class consciousness to overthrow capitalism. If left to their own devices, Lenin claimed, workers would defend only their immediate (i.e., economic or trade union) interests and would not know how to translate them into revolutionary action. To assist them in this task, he suggested that a vanguard party of intellectuals must be formed, the task of which would be to develop a revolutionary theory, "go among the masses," and politically educate the proletariat. From the point of view of Bolshevik theory, therefore, the success of the socialist revolution depends not on the political maturity of the working class but on the strength of the vanguard party.

A second feature of Russian socialism that sets it apart from the Marxist scheme is grounded in its claim that the prospects of a proletarian revolution can arise not only in advanced industrial societies but also in precapitalist economic formations. Given the importance of the vanguard party in Lenin's version of socialism, this idea makes perfect sense: As long as a country is equipped with a group of willing, dedicated, and professional revolutionaries, it should be able to make the transition to socialism without the benefits of advanced technology or without having passed through the capitalist stage.

Last but not least, Lenin took from Marx the idea that socialism will come in two stages. In terms of his scheme, however, the lower stage (the "dictatorship of the proletariat") would not be a brief transitional period but would require a whole epoch in human history. During this time, the bourgeois state would be "smashed," the class rule of the proletariat would be institutionalized, and opponents of the socialist regime would be suppressed by the "special coercive force" of the proletarian state. The higher state of socialism ("communism") would be realized once the socialist state had "withered away" and democracy had become a "force of habit."

Russian socialism constitutes one of many indigenous graftings of the socialist vision. Another well-known attempt in this direction was made by Mao Zedong (1971), who accommodated the idea of socialism to the conditions of a peasant country. Those revisions led to the emergence of what is known as Chinese socialism or Maoism.

Unlike most interpretations of socialism, Mao's is famous for its glorification of the peasantry. Earlier socialists, among them Marx and Lenin, were skeptical about the revolutionary potential of agricultural laborers. For the most part, they regarded them as inherently petty bourgeois and, consequently, as unlikely allies of the proletariat. Mao argued, however, that in a peasant country such as China, traditionally conceived paths to socialism are not viable because they require the mass mobilization of something that his type of country does not have: an industrial proletariat. He insisted therefore that the socialist revolution in China was a peasant revolution and had no reservations about organizing agricultural workers into a revolutionary force.

Another trademark of Chinese socialism is its lack of confidence in the guaranteed future of socialism. According to Mao's writings, socialist victories are not everlasting; even as the dust from the revolution begins to settle, old inequalities can resurface and new ones may emerge. For this reason, the work of revolutionaries is never complete: They must be constantly on guard against opposition and be prepared to wage a permanent revolution.


During the nineteenth century, a number of communities were established to attempt the realization of the socialist vision, including Etienne Cabe's Icaria in Illinois, Charles Fourier's Brook Farm in Massachusetts, William Lane's New Australia in Paraguay, and Robert Owen's New Harmony in Indiana. In nearly all these cases, an attempt was made to isolate a small group of dedicated socialists from the rest of society and create a model environment for efficient production and egalitarian social exchange. The documented history of these communities suggests that they experienced varying amounts of success (Ross 1935). Some attracted a large number of followers (e.g., Icaria) and prospered for more than a decade (e.g., Brook Farm). Others were fraught with hardships from the beginning (e.g., New Australia), and some collapsed within a few years (e.g., New Harmony). In the end, however, all the utopian experiments failed: They suffered from lack of preparation and meager financial support, harsh living environments and a dearth of agricultural skills, heterogeneous membership, and a lack of long-term commitment to the socialist vision. The individuals who flocked to those communities were sufficiently adventuresome to embark on a project to build a new world but were not prepared for the trials of pioneering.

Experiments with socialism in the twentieth century were more successful and longer-lasting than their utopian counterparts. After the Russian Revolution, 1917–1923, the Soviet Union was the first country to call itself socialist. By the middle of the century, however, there were regimes in Europe, Asia, Latin America, Africa, and the Near East modeling themselves after the Soviet scheme (Hollander 1983). At the risk of oversimplifying, the following traits may be identified as the most important features of those "actually existing" (Bahro 1978) socialist societies: (1) They were characterized by a common ownership of the means of production and distribution. (2) Their economic activities were centrally planned by the state, and market forces played little or no role in the allocation of their resources. (3) One party ruled their political life and legitimated itself by reference to some version of Marxism and Leninism. (4) That party dominated their political culture with a unitary ideology and directed all their executive, legislative, and judiciary powers.

In their purest form, Soviet-type societies have secured a number of major achievements. Within decades of the revolution, they industrialized their outmoded economies (Berend and Ránki 1974), guaranteed full employment and attained price stability (Nove 1989), incorporated women into the labor force (Rueschemeyer and Szelényi 1989), developed their natural resources and advanced science and technology (Nuti 1981), strengthened their military power (Starr 1988), and improved their educational, health care, and welfare systems (Ferge 1979). Along with those changes, socialist societies made a strong commitment to reducing income, educational, and occupational differentials after World War II (Szelényi 1998). Empirically, a number of studies have shown that those formally egalitarian policies have had impressive results: In nearly all these countries, inequalities in income have decreased (Matthews 1972; Walder 1989), educational opportunities have expanded (Lane 1976), and distinctions of prestige between manual and nonmanual occupations have narrowed (Parkin 1971; Giddens 1973). Policies also were implemented by socialist states to reduce the intergenerational transmission of social inequalities: Inheritance of wealth was eliminated, and quotas were imposed on educational and occupational recruitment to favor children from the working class and from peasant families (Simkus and Andorka 1982; Szelényi and Aschaffenburg 1993). Perhaps in part as a result of these changes, socialist societies carved out for themselves a position of considerable importance in the world system in the twentieth century. In the 1960s, for example, the Soviet Union competed directly with the United States in space exploration, the race for military power, and the development of science, technology, athletics, and the arts.

The economic and social miracles achieved by these countries in the years after World War II could not be sustained, however. By the early 1970s, centrally managed economies began to exhibit multiple signs of strain. Bureaucratic blunders on the part of state officials resulted in poor investment decisions (Nove 1983b), frequent bottlenecks created breakdowns in production (Bauer 1978), chronic shortages of consumer items provoked anger and dissatisfaction among the citizens (Kornai 1986), and curious managerial techniques (in the form of bribing, hoarding, and informal networking) had to be developed to mitigate the ineffective relationship between economic units and the state (Stark 1986).

Problems with central management, of course, were not restricted to the economic sphere. With a growing number of empirical studies during the 1970s (see Hollander 1983), the social and political consequences of Soviet-type planning became evident, although most scholars continued to be impressed by the initially positive outcome of egalitarian state policies in socialist societies. At the same time, they soon began to realize that the quotas introduced after World War II were often applied inconsistently and in almost all circumstances disturbingly short-lived (Szelényi 1998). It is clear from these studies that the initial attempts to "build socialism" soon were overturned by a "second stage" in socialist development (Kelley and Klein 1986) that was marked by the crystallization of inequalities and the emergence of new privileges (Ossowski 1963; Nove 1983a). By the 1970s, many of those societies began to demonstrate substantial inequalities in their prestige hierarchies (Inkeles 1966), patterns of social mobility (Connor 1979), opportunities for educational attainment (Simkus and Andorka 1982), and distribution of monetary and nonmonetary rewards (Szelényi 1976; Walder 1986).

The political inequalities that characterized Soviet-type societies during their heyday are well documented in the literature. Many studies have shown, for example, that Communist Party functionaries and the so-called nomenklatura elite enjoyed definite social, political, and economic advantages: They attended party schools, shopped at special stores, vacationed at the most desirable holiday resorts, and had better access to decisionmaking posts (Szelényi 1987). In addition to those privileges, they were more likely to receive state-subsidized housing, purchase a car or vacation home, eat meat several times a week, and participate in cultural activities. Such differences in the allocation of goods and resources have led many to conclude that the political sphere was central to the stratification system of socialist societies (Goldthorpe 1966; Bauman 1974). Indeed, some scholars have suggested that the political elite may well have constituted a New (dominant) Class in socialist regimes (Djilas 1957; Konrád and Szelényi 1979).

In light of these problems as well as the apparent failure of the egalitarian experiment, socialist states made a number of attempts to reform their ailing economies. Yugoslavia began this trend by introducing a new economic program that combined free market principles with workers' self-management; in 1949, Yugoslav leaders abandoned central planning, tied wages to the financial success of firms, and liberalized foreign trade (Sirc 1979). Hungary followed suit in 1968 by introducing its own version of market socialism (Hare et al. 1981), and China joined the trend in the late 1970s with similar economic reforms (Nee 1989).

Partial reprivatization, however, was not the only way for centrally managed economies to embark on the road to recovery. East Germany, for example, refused to combine planning with market reforms and chose to strengthen the operation of its central management (Szelényi 1989). In an effort to "scienticize" economic planning, East German leaders purchased state-of-the-art computers and sophisticated econometric programs to model the behavior of thousands of firms and anticipate the needs of millions of consumers. Cuba also refrained from market reforms in the late 1960s (Leogrande 1981). Hoping to prevent the restoration of capitalism in his country, Fidel Castro argued against the implementation of profit incentives to motivate workers. Instead, he introduce a rigorous political education program, the main purpose of which was to convince workers that they needed to expend maximum effort at work not for personal financial benefit but out of a moral commitment to socialism.

Despite those efforts to revitalize their economies, socialist societies were unable to recover from their experiences with overcentralization. Paradoxically, perhaps, reform plans were applied inconsistently, market rules were not followed rigorously, and the state continued its paternalistic practice of bailing out unsuccessful firms. Meanwhile, political opposition to those regimes continued to grow: Peasants asked for market reforms (Lewis 1979), workers demanded a say in management (Pravda 1979; Kennedy 1991), and intellectuals called for expanded political democracy and protection of their civil rights (Harman 1983). In the spring of 1989, many of those conflicts came to a head as a "gentle revolution" began to unfold in those countries. With a few exceptions, Soviet-type societies formally accepted the principles of multiparty democracy and announced their intention to move in the direction of a market economy.


If attempts to establish the socialist vision during the twentieth century were fraught with social and economic problems, efforts to undo the structure of existing socialist societies have proved equally challenging. Perhaps the biggest task facing postcommunist societies is to conquer the economic legacies of socialism and make the transition to capitalism without the assistance of a capitalist class (Eyal et al. 1998). In this sense, the postcommunist revolution in Central Europe resembles the Russian Revolution. In 1917, a group of intellectuals constituted themselves as a political class in a peasant country to lead a "proletarian revolution" without a proletariat but with the express purpose of creating a proletariat. In 1989, a fraction of the intelligentsia seized power in Central Europe and sought to lead a "bourgeois revolution" without a bourgeoisie but with the objective of creating a bourgeoisie (Szelényi et al. 1995).

Needless to say, this objective was not an easy one. In all formerly socialist countries, the economic infrastructure was poorly developed and arguably deteriorating, the industrial firms of classical socialism were too large to be privatized easily, and the transition to a postindustrial service economy had not progressed very far (Böröcz and Róna-Tas 1995; Volgyes 1995). The distinctive feature of the transition is that despite such seeming homogeneity in the conditions of origin, there was great heterogeneity in the pathways to capitalism. For example, the East German model is one of centrally managed privatization in the context, of course, of West German "colonization." By contrast, the Czech reformers acquiesced entirely to the "invisible hand" of capitalism, by which all workers were granted vouchers that could be redeemed for shares in any company. Finally, in Hungary, the transformation is best described as a form of "political capitalism" (Hankiss 1990; Staniszkis 1991), by which former communist bureaucrats used their political position to accumulate wealth and buy state companies. Where these privatization strategies will lead remains unclear, but one thing is certain: There is no single plan for designing capitalism, just as there was no simple blueprint for establishing socialism (Stark 1992).

Although most discussions of the transition to postcommunism have focused on the economic legacies of socialism, the political legacies are no less problematic as some form of successful marketization is sought. There are two political legacies of particular interest here. First, after forty years of communist rule and rampant political deception, the reigning view among East European workers involved considerable cynicism toward political elites, and such deep-seated cynicism could not be overcome immediately even when new leaders were vying for power (Kovrig 1995). This cynicism undermined popular support for long-term sacrifices of the sort that all marketization strategies would necessarily entail. Second, the concept of marketization was not completely endorsed by the general population, as there was a long heritage of support for state paternalism in which basic needs, such as health care, education, and a living wage, were guaranteed (Szelényi et al. 1996). There was also widespread concern that marketization would increase inequality to levels that were unacceptably high. It has to borne in mind, then, that the transition to a market economy was undertaken simultaneously with a transition to political democracy. Democratic regimes, for all their possible virtues, are not necessarily well suited for revolutionary economic transformations and the popular sacrifice that such transformations typically imply (O'Donnell and Schmitter 1986).

Finally, the emergence of postcommunism is further complicated by the social legacies of communism. Most notably, the transition to the high-unemployment economy of postcommunism created special problems of legitimacy for a new market society, since Central Europeans had come to expect full employment from the state (Moskoff 1994). Similarly, one of the great successes of communism was its low levels of income inequality (relative to the capitalist alternative), and consequently, the sudden and visible increases in inequality in the postcommunist world were not readily accepted. It was all the more problematic that the prime beneficiaries of this growing wealth were in some instances the former communist elites themselves (Róna-Tas 1994; Fodor et al. 1995; Szelényi and Szelényi 1995). For all its economic failings and political repression, actually existing socialism was at least partially consistent with the original vision of social egalitarianism, and one cannot expect such success to be relinquished without a struggle.


The question remains: Can the idea of socialism survive the reality of the past eighty years? For some, the answer to this question is in the negative, as the failings of socialism are so dramatic that the concept of socialism is inextricably associated with its particular realization, thus rendering it effectively dead for all of history ( Jowitt 1992). This is, then, a peculiar form of path dependency in which the possibly premature turn to socialism in the early twentieth century proved in the end to be its historical downfall. As a fallback position, one might argue that while socialism is perhaps dead in all the countries that experienced its "grief and shame" (Djilas 1998), it might nonetheless surface anew in countries that never underwent this premature experiment. Is there, in other words, a viable base for socialism in the Western world? The standard postmaterialist position on this score is that the base for socialism was at its strongest in the early twentieth century but has since dissipated with the decline in the size of the working class, the weakening of trade unions, and the associated rise of interest politics focusing on issues such as the environment, nuclear war, and gender politics (Inglehart 1983; Piven 1992). The implication is that socialism is dead not because of its tarnished history but because there is no longer a substantial base of working-class supporters.

This line of reasoning, for all its appeal, is not easily reconciled with the continuing support for social democratic policies and communist political leaders in formerly socialist countries. In many formerly communist societies, the initially extreme anticommunist sentiment weakened quickly, and the Communist Party was returned to power in the "second round" elections (Szelényi et al. 1996). Moreover, public opinion polls in those countries consistently reveal that the general population remains supportive of fundamentally social democratic policies even while disavowing support for highly repressive forms of communism of the sort that characterized Soviet-type societies. Under this formulation, a more mature civil society is in formation that probably will pursue a "Swedish form" of social democracy that maintains some elements of classical socialism (i.e., economic egalitarianism) yet abandons others (i.e., political inegalitarianism and repression).


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Szonja SzelÉnyi