Approaching socialism

Print edition : April 19, 2013
A well-documented introduction to the approaches to socialism in different parts of the globe.

IN the mid-1980s, when the socialist People’s Republic of China showed tendencies of turning to the capitalist path of development, a commentator from the West remarked that socialism appeared to be the quickest route from feudalism to capitalism. While that was some kind of a snide remark, the rest of that decade showed that there was reason to raise doubts about the nature and future of socialism, which for a few immediately preceding decades, had appeared to be a global alternative to capitalism.

Countries in Eastern Europe, Poland, Hungary and East Germany, which had turned socialist at the end of the Second World War, “liberated” themselves and came out of the socialist bloc. By the end of the decade, the Soviet Union, which was itself experimenting with political and economic reforms, started tottering, and by 1992 it collapsed. It created great jubilation in the capitalist camp, which saw in those events not only the end of socialism but even the end of history. Soon, many countries which for long had tried to remain “neutral” decided to join the winning side. These included India, which had proclaimed itself to be a socialist republic but preferred to follow what was claimed to be a mixed economic path. It looked as though the whole world (now styled as the “globe”) with the possible exception of tiny units such as Cuba had decided to take the capitalist road to the future.

The mood changed suddenly in 2007-08. The meltdown, which started in the United States but soon became a truly global phenomenon, raised serious doubts about the ability of capitalism to provide minimum living conditions to the bulk of humanity, and even to sustain itself as a working economic order. Once more, people in different parts of the world are turning to the possibility of socialism as a workable and durable economic and political order.

Rex Sargunam’s writing on socialism must be viewed in that context. Sargunam is neither an economist nor a student of politics. By profession he is a medical practitioner. But he is deeply committed to socialism and to democracy as the two, he is convinced, are required to ensure and nurture human freedom. In fact, his position is that genuine socialism is authentic democracy.

The book consists mainly of approaches to socialism in different parts of the world. Three countries where the socialist experiment has collapsed, the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, are dealt with in some detail to figure out what went wrong. The ambiguity in China towards socialism is also examined. Cuba, one of the few countries where socialism still prevails, and the inspiration it gives to some of the South American countries also finds a place. There is a brief commentary about the manner in which India, Nepal and the Philippines have approached socialism. If so much is packed into less than 200 pages, the treatment is bound to be somewhat sketchy. But for those who are not familiar with the theme the book will be a good and documented introduction.

Briefly, Sargunam’s position is that while socialism proclaims freedom and democracy, in its implementation it went off the rails for a variety of reasons. A text that he quotes with approval and fervour is Rosa Luxemburg’s frequently invoked words: “Freedom only for the supporters of the government, only for the supporters of one party —however numerous they may be—is no freedom at all. Freedom is always an exclusive freedom for one who thinks differently, not because of any fanatical concept of ‘justice’ but because all that is instructive, wholesome and purifying in political freedom depends on this essential characteristic, and is effective and it vanishes when freedom becomes a special privilege.” It may be recalled, too, that the 1936 Constitution of the Soviet Union guaranteed not only the right to life, which included the right to work, to leisure, to education and to material support, but also the right to liberty, which included the freedom of conscience, of worship, of speech, of press, of assembly, of demonstration and organisation, freedom from arbitrary arrest, inviolability of home and of correspondence, to all irrespective of nationality or race. But within a short period there were few, very few, who could claim any of these rights.

Sargunam points out that apart from external factors such as foreign aggression, war and internal opposition, this turn of events resulted from the wrong interpretation of two of the key concepts of the socialist agenda, “Democratic Centralism” and “Dictatorship of the Proletariat”. As for the former, the emphasis was conveniently on centralism and so democracy started fading away. Similarly, dictatorship of the proletariat easily metamorphosed into dictatorship of the party. When the two were combined, power came to be concentrated in fewer and fewer hands and the rest became victims of arbitrary power, particularly under Joseph Stalin.

“Of the 1996 delegates to the 1934 Party Congress, 1,108 were later arrested, and of the 134 persons this Congress elected to the Central Committee, 98, that is 70 per cent of them, were not only arrested but shot,” points out Sargunam.

When Khrushchev, after Stalin’s demise, brought out some of these atrocities, it was thought that such happenings would be things of the past. But as Khrushchev was more interested in concentrating power in his hands, no major corrective actions were taken even to introduce intra-party democracy. More recent history of socialism in the Soviet Union and its final collapse is probably well known.

Among the socialist regimes, Czechoslovakia was the one, according to the author, that moved deliberately to “socialism with a human face”. Under a new Constitution of 1960, it was making definite progress towards this goal. But the Soviet Union under Leonid Brezhnev became suspicious about the intentions of Czechoslovakia and, using the so-called Brezhnev Doctrine that proclaimed the right of the Soviet Union to intervene in Czechoslovakia if that became necessary “to protect socialism”, sent the military into Czech territory in 1968 and crushed the Czech experiment.

Sargunam recalls the excitement and enthusiasm with which the working people of China welcomed the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 with socialism as its creed. Mao Zedong succeeded in achieving a major transformation of the Chinese economy, polity and society. But effective freedom for the bulk of the people remained a distant dream. In the post-Mao period, the thrust has been to increase the economic prosperity of the country, and as has been universally acknowledged, China did bring about something of a miracle of unprecedented economic growth within a short period of time. However, matters affecting the life of vast sections of the population, especially health care, have been neglected; economic inequalities have increased; and corruption has become rampant. Above all, there is widespread protest in different parts of the country by people who have lost jobs and livelihoods. There are also movements favouring the freedoms of speech and association and for larger political rights. Freedom remains distant and elusive.

Such being the experiences of the past and the present, what is the rationale for proclaiming “Socialism is the Future”? There is no doubt that the current crisis of capitalism, its demonstrated inability to ensure even basic livelihood for vast sections of humanity, and the manner in which all over the world democracy in capitalist regimes is captured by the few who benefit by its economic operations indicate that a different social order is required. There was a time when it was considered that the internal contradictions of capitalism would lead to its collapse and that socialism would then succeed it. Such notions about the historical inevitability of socialism have lost their validity and appeal. It is now recognised that the conditions for socialism have to be established through constant efforts in every given situation. Indeed, the task is to re-envision socialism. Every opportunity must be used to ensure that power belongs to the people, not to the rulers, not to the party. It does not happen automatically; organised effort is required.

The responsibility of parties that profess socialism is to be in the vanguard of such efforts, but the manner of channelling the efforts is contextual, depending very much on the specific realities. Sargunam pays some attention to this task. A major and positive aspect of the Indian context is the Constitution that spells out the rights of the people and the democratic political system that provides avenues to fight for people’s rights. The major hurdle is the fact that land and other resources that people require to put in their effort to make a living are owned and controlled by a few who directly exercise economic power and indirectly political power as well. The fact that there are many parties that profess socialism is also an important aspect of the context.

Sargunam has some scattered suggestions on how to move towards socialism under these conditions. Much more needs to be done. But the fact that someone whose speciality is not in this sphere has put in the committed effort in that direction is indeed commendable.

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