Socialism constitutes various economic, social, and political ideologies that are applied in the governance of states. These systems are guided by principles of social ownership of property and democrat control of all means of production (Mills 2005). Despite the existence of different varieties of socialism based on their political ideologies or mechanism for economic and social controls, social ownership constitutes a common phenomenon that encapsulates all socialist ideologies. Soviet Russia presented a major blow to socialists, as they experienced its demise in 1991. However, elsewhere, socialism showed signs of booming success. For example, China remained strongly inclined on principles of socialism. Despite China’s threat to overtake the US (capitalistic nation) after clinching the second position in terms of global economic power in 2010, little signs exist for the PRC to depart from its socialist economic, social, and political ideologies. This situation raises an important scholarly question on why socialism would collapse in the USSR while at the same time prevailing in China. Therefore, the position that presents the USSR and the PRC’s experience as a proof of the impossibility of socialism is not conclusive but warrants a discussion.
The USSR and PRC’s Experience with Socialism
The claim that the USSR and PRC’s experience with socialism makes the ideology impossible requires an examination of such experiences in conjunction with the tenets of socialism that make it ineffective compared to another theoretical economic and political ideology such as capitalism. Barkley and Marina (2004) assert that socialism promised societies that adopted it as a social, political, and economic model that the concept would deliver prosperity and/or increase security and equality. However, as evidenced by the case of the USSR, it not only delivered misery but also increased tyranny and poverty levels. This statement is open to criticism and opposition. However, the assertion is significant. In fact, for the sharing of property and wealth to occur under socialism, a means of generating the concept has to be in place. The USSR attempted socialism, which achieved incredible success in the short-run. However, after the country’s revolution, socialism failed. The counter-revolution regime won the communists, thus helping to uphold the values of capitalism. When Stalin acquired power, socialism was no more in Russia.
The failure of socialism in the USSR does not imply that such a system is always doomed to fail. A more profound cause of failure of the system was because capitalism is necessary when it comes to facilitating the success of socialism (Mills 2005). Capitalism increases production levels through mechanisms that lead to worker exploitation. Issues such as high production levels of an economy and workforce exploitation lead to revolution, which guarantees the development of socialism (Beaulieu 2011). The processes ensure that an economy has more resources to be shared among its population. This outcome was not the case for the USSR. It attempted to skip capitalism to adopt communism directly. This situation currently applies in the context of China. Agrarian societies do not support socialism or communism (Beaulieu 2011).
Lenin (1917) asserts that all states rise because of their need to maintain checks for class antithesis. In the class conflicts and struggles, states end up becoming powerful in protecting the interest of economically endowed classes while exploiting and/or holding down those who are economically oppressed. In this sense, the state was the organ that was responsible for subjugating the slaves and serfs. In the process of these struggles, a time comes when, ‘warring classes balance each other so nearly that the state power, as ostensible mediator, acquires, for the moment, a certain degree of independence of both’ (Lenin 1917, p.8). During this time, capitalism is replaced by an alternative ideology, namely, socialism, which fosters collective inclusion of masses. The USSR exemplifies such a phenomenon where ‘Soviets have already become impotent while the bourgeoisie is not yet strong enough simply to disperse them’ (Lenin 1917, p.8). However, challenges emerge on the sustainability of socialism in the long-term, especially in nations that have strong revolution forces as experienced in the case of the USSR.
Newman (2005) reveals how socialism fails because it is inconsistent with behaviour of people. This observation is perhaps the case, considering its failure in the USSR and other countries across the globe. Socialism does not encourage the use of incentives to enhance economic prosperity. Incentives are paramount in capitalistic economies. In this context, Verdery (1996, p.67) asserts, ‘Market prices, the profit-and-loss system of accounting, and private property rights provide an efficient, interrelated system of incentives to guide and direct economic behaviour’. The success of capitalism relies on the assertion that incentives are incredible success factors for economic prosperity.
In socialist nations, incentives play a minimal role. In fact, they may not be considered in administrative policies in their totality. Such nations have centralised economies that lack market prices and no individual ownership of property. The nations also lack effective strategies that can direct the economy with the view of inducing the appropriate human behaviour. For example, price encompasses an important incentive for a capitalistic economy. It is absent in a socialist economy. It helps in transmitting relativity of scarcity of recourses to promote efficient use of wealth in producing goods and services. For instance, in the 1970s, OPEC cartel led to a reduction of oil supplies to the extent of causing dramatic increase in commodity prices (Hoang 2013). Valuable information was then transmitted throughout economies through price adjustments. The plan to increase pump prices made people respond appropriately by carpooling, purchasing cars with less consumption capacity, and taking advantage of public transportation. On the supplier side, high prices pushed explorers to increase their examination of efforts that could lead to the discovery of more fossil fuel resources around the globe. These merits are absent in socialist societies. Consequently, the USSR could not overcome the demerits of the system.
Socialism in PRC has shown chances of success. However, in the USSR, it only depicted these signs immediately after revolution before failing in 1991. Hence, a possible argument is that socialism fails when an economy depicts imperfections in its application. This claim suggests that socialism does not have deficiencies. Rather, socialist economies do not practice it in its pure form. Consistent with this argument, Wiseman (2015) asserts that Marxists mainly conduct theoretical comparisons between the ideal socialism and the defective capitalism in practice. Therefore, it is possible to arrive at a claim, which suggests that capitalism is inferior compared to perfect socialism. However, if perfection is taken as an option, selecting economic and political systems to control a state becomes a misplaced idea. In a world of perfection, things would work just perfectly, irrespective of the system selected in any one nation. Consequently, the observed issues such as the failure of socialism in the USSR and its continued success in China imply a situation where imperfections in one context arise to the extent of escalating to levels where the system fails while such deficiencies do not grow in the other context to levels of causing total failure (Hoang 2013).
Bringing China into context in the discussion of the inevitability of socialism from failure, leadership emerges as an important force that determines the success of socialism as an economic and political ideology. Mikhail Gorbachev took his nation to a different path compared to Deng Xiao Ping during the 1989 crisis. Gorbachev acquired power when Soviet was in the process of stagnating economically (Hoang 2013). The leader was an incomer who had no attachments to Stalinist period. Therefore, his policies were also largely inconsistent with those adopted by communist leaders who had preceded him. Gorbachev was much after political openness and the restructuring of the Soviet economy. He believed that doing so would make Soviets acquire better mechanisms for participating in the state affairs where economic restructuring would encourage the deployment of incentives together with reducing the implications of central planning on economic development (Ellman 2014). According to Gorbachev, this strategy would help in restoring communist party’s legitimacy.
Hasty reforms not only introduced conflicting forces but also increased confusion that heralded the destruction of communist party in the USSR. Through the confusion, the public acquired an opportunity for knowing the imperfection of socialism, especially in economic planning, including controversies that surrounded Stalin’s Massacre. In the same time, Soviet reduced its control over Russia, including its satellite overage. Nationalism developed speedily in the satellites, which resulted in the opposition of foreign powers’ control. The communist party became less popular. Communist hardliners attempted to stop reforms that had been introduced by Gorbachev via arresting him. However, due to unpopular support, they failed massively. Without intensive analysis of political situations within the USSR, Gorbachev introduced reforms hurriedly. He introduced uncontrollable forces, which would herald the failure of the empire and ideologies of socialism within a short time, thus paving way for state capitalism.
The case of PRC was different. The government adopted reforms, but deployed the military to ensure that those who opposed anti-communist were crushed. Reforms were accomplished in 1978 in PRC when the government reduced distortion of prices and/or transferred land rights to households from communal farms. This situation had the implication of getting millions of poor households living in rural areas from poverty. Deng Xiao Ping was behind these reforms. Compared to Gorbachev, Deng Xiao traded economic reforms with some state control without letting loose political power. A good case in point includes Beijing’s intellectuals and students who were crushed by the military. Despite having witnessed political reforms in the USSR, the demonstrations staged in Beijing would not overturn to become a revolution.
Every political and economic ideology has its merits and demerits. Arguing that the experiences of the USSR and the PRC prove that socialism is impossible is open to criticism. While socialism failed in the USSR, China has maintained it, although it has integrated capitalistic ideologies into its economic system through direct foreign investments by corporations and other entities from capitalistic nations. Today, over 90% of top 1000 rich people in PRC identify themselves with CCP, a communist party. However, challenges remain whether socialism will last until the next decade in China, considering the rising number of middle-class people and new generation leaders who are alienated from the Cold War era. Only with time that it will become evident whether socialism associated with communism will continue holding the nation together and maintaining the track of current economic prosperity of the PRC. The USSR socialism failed to withstand such winds of change.
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