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Dissecting the failure of Soviet ‘socialism’

Real SocialismReview by John Riddell of The Contradictions of “Real Socialism”: The Conductor and the Conducted, by Michael A. Lebowitz, New York: Monthly Review 2012.

In current discussions of twenty-first century socialism, the work of Michael Lebowitz has a unique merit: it is rooted in the experience of Cuba and Venezuela, where efforts in recent decades to move toward socialism have been the most vigorous. Quotations from Che Guevara and Hugo Chávez set the tone.

Lebowitz’s vision of the path to a socialist future is developed in several recent volumes (see “Selective Bibliography,” below). His Contradictions of “Real Socialism”, by contrast, analyzes the failure of the most concerted attempt to launch a transition to socialism, which took place in the Soviet Union and, after 1945, in allied states in Eastern Europe. As late as the early 1960s, the Soviet Union was widely hailed for setting the pace in economic growth among industrialized countries. But already its dynamism was flagging. Its downhill course from sputnik (the world’s first artificial satellite, 1957) to zastoy (stagnation) and collapse took only 34 years. Read more…

Trotsky on the role of workers’ democracy and markets in socialist planning

Leon Trotsky

Leon Trotsky

Introductory note by John Riddell: The following two excerpts from articles by Leon Trotsky present his thoughts on the state of the Soviet economy in 1932–3, at the close of a five-year campaign of forced-pace industrialization. Trotsky’s remarks on planning, markets, bureaucracy, and rank-and-file democracy are highly relevant to all twenty-first century efforts to launch a transition to a socialist economy.

In the first text, from his October 1932 article “The Soviet Economy in Danger,” the exiled Bolshevik leader examines the interplay of planning, trade conducted through markets, and economic regulation by the masses. The full text is available at, from which this excerpt is taken. The article was written in the final year of the first Five Year Plan, during which industrialization at a forced pace was accompanied by severe economic distortions, the deportation or arrest of close to two million supposedly privileged peasants (kulaks), a deep crisis in agriculture, and – in 1932-33 – widespread famine.

The second text, taken from the conclusion of Trotsky’s April 1933 article, “Problems of the Soviet Regime,” provides a concise summary of the damage caused by a bureaucratic approach to economic planning. See also Trotsky’s 1937 study of Soviet society and economy, The Revolution Betrayed.
Read more…

Socialist planning and the bureaucratic economy

By John Riddell. The following previously unpublished position paper, pulled from my archives, was written in 1992. I am posting it in conjunction with my review of Michael Lebowitz’s Contradictions of ‘Real Socialism’.

My comments raised many of the themes found in Lebowitz’s writings of that time, of which I was then quite unaware. My approach, however, gives more emphasis to the problem of economic allocation and the role of non-capitalist markets. Read more…

Lenin the unifier: The Comintern compromise of 1921

Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (Lenin)

Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (Lenin)

By John Riddell. In 1921, a time of declining mass struggles, the Communist International (Comintern) was thrown off course by insistent demands at every level of the organization for the young movement to launch confrontational actions, even if Communists must fight almost alone. In mid-1921, the Comintern’s Third Congress turned decisively away from this policy. Under the slogan “To the masses,” it adopted, on Lenin’s insistence, the strategy of unifying working people in struggle that was codified six months later as the “united front.”

Nonetheless, the Third Congress has been much criticized for its handling of such ultraleft errors. Marxist writer Tony Cliff branded the congress “the great cover-up.”[1] The publication this year of my edition of the congress proceedings (To the Masses: Proceedings of the Third Congress of the Communist International, 1921) has now provided a basis to reassess this verdict.[2] Read more…

Lars Lih: Russia 1917 — Bolshevism was fully armed

Pravda editor Lev Kamenev

Pravda editor Lev Kamenev

Did the Bolsheviks, as has often been argued, set aside their pre-1914 strategy in April 1917 on Lenin’s insistence? Recent studies by Lars Lih criticize this thesis, maintaining that the actual course followed by the Bolsheviks in 1917 was close to that of pre-war “Old Bolshevism.”

In the following article, Lih tests his conclusion by examining the editorial course of the Bolsheviks’ main newspaper, Pravda, soon after the February revolution and before Lenin’s return to Russia.

Lih’s text is followed by both a translation and the original Russian text of a March 1917 Pravda editorial by Lev Kamenev, and by a note on further reading.

Read more…

Creegan: In April 1917 Lenin insisted on overthrow of the government

Response by Jim Creegan to Lars T. Lih’s ‘Bolshevism Was Fully Armed’[1]

See also:

By Jim Creegan. Lars Lih’s article, ‘The Bolsheviks were fully armed’(February 26), seems to me to suffer from the absence of at least two crucial distinctions.

The first – and more important – concerns Lih’s view, which he shares with the CPGB, that there was no operational difference between, on the one hand, the Bolshevik slogan of ‘revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry’ and, on the other, Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution and Lenin’s April theses. On the contrary, the differences were of great practical significance. Read more…

Lih: The Bolsheviks achieved a mighty peoples revolution

Rejoinder to Jim Creegan’s “Lenin insisted on overthrow of the Provisional Government.” First published in Weekly Worker, 26 March 2015.

See also:



By Lars T. Lih. Jim Creegan’s letter on the Kamenev editorial from March 1917 brings up issues that demand further discussion. Before turning to these wider issues, however, let me challenge some of Creegan’s factual assertions. I am not “oblivious” to the fact that the Provisional Government of 1917 remained loyal to tsarist treaty commitments—and neither were the Bolsheviks! Articles in Pravda in March 1917 denounced the imperialist war and the government’s commitment to it. Read more…

Review: An essential resource on communism’s early years

John Riddell (ed.), To The Masses: Proceedings of the Third Congress of the Communist International, 1921, Brill, Leiden & Boston, 2015, x + 1299 pp.

By Ian Birchall. The years following the Russian Revolution of 1917 were a high-point of working-class struggle and organisation. The first four congresses of the Communist International – those attended by Lenin (and from which Stalin was notably absent) remain a point of reference for many on the left. And yet it is only now that we are able to get a full picture of what occurred at those four congresses.

John Riddell has produced the complete proceedings of the Third Congress (1921) to join his previous volumes on the First, Second and Fourth Congresses.[1] Riddell and his team of collaborators have produced a work of a high standard of scholarship, with the translation carefully checked against sources in several languages. Read more…

1915: The youth challenge to war

Willi Münzenberg, 1920

Willi Münzenberg, 1920

100 years ago today: An international meeting of youth representatives adopted a ringing manifesto against the First World War.

By John Riddell. On April 7, 1915, a meeting of youth representatives in Bern, Switzerland, adopted a ringing manifesto against the war then raging in Europe and relaunched the international socialist youth movement on an antiwar platform.

The Socialist Youth International, formed in 1907, had campaigned actively against militarism. But when the war broke out, its bureau ceased functioning, and fraternal ties among its member organizations were broken off. The initiative to rebuild the International came from socialist youth in neutral Switzerland, neutral Italy and also in Stuttgart–the home of Clara Zetkin and a stronghold of antiwar forces in the German Social Democracy.

Youth leagues with a total membership of 34,000 were represented at the Bern meeting, with delegates representing Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Poland, Bulgaria and Russia. Read more…

1915: Socialist women unite against war

100 years ago today: The first international socialist conference against World War 1

By John Riddell. Eight months into the First World War, socialist women united across the battle-lines in adopting the first international socialist appeal to stop the war.

Their statement, translated below, ended, “Down with capitalism, which sacrifices untold millions to the wealth and power of the propertied! Down with the war! Forward to socialism!”

The 29 conference delegates came from Russia, Poland, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, the Netherlands, France, and Britain. They met March 26-28, 1915, in the People’s House of Bern in neutral Switzerland. Read more…

Quebec’s long struggle to build a democratic left party

The following comprehensive and insightful interview with a long-time Quebec socialist activist was translated by Richard Fidler and first posted on his blog, Life on the Left. Reposted by permission. — JR

Paul Cliche

Paul Cliche

Introduction by Richard Fidler. There is probably no one more qualified to describe the 60-year struggle in Quebec to build a democratic and progressive left party than Paul Cliche. As a journalist and union activist, Cliche (who will be 80 years old in May of this year) was at various times a member of the Parti social-démocratique (PSD), the Parti socialiste du Québec (PSQ), the Front d’action politique (FRAP), and is currently a prominent member of Québec solidaire (QS).

In the following interview, Paul Cliche presents his analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of each of these experiences, and discusses in particular detail the lengthy process that led to the founding of Québec solidaire, which currently has three members elected to the Quebec National Assembly.[1] Read more…

The Comintern’s workers’ government debate (1): Introduction

By John Riddell. Efforts by working people to gain governmental power in our new century, as most recently in Greece, have drawn attention to the Communist International’s historic discussion on this issue at its Fourth World Congress in Moscow in 1922. Published here are all significant comments on this issue from the congress record, plus the segment of its Theses on Tactics taking up this question, and my commentary setting the historical context. Delegates’ comments on this point were spread over many congress sessions and are made available here in one place for the first time in any language. Read more…

The Comintern workers’ government debate (2): Delegate speeches

These excerpts are also published in Toward the United Front: Proceedings and Resolutions of the Fourth Congress of the Communist International (TUF), edited by John Riddell, Haymarket Books 2012. They are published here for the first time as a single text. Excerpts are copyright © John Riddell 2011. For other excerpts see workers’ government debate home page. Read more…

The Comintern workers’ government debate (3): Resolution

This text is also published in Toward the United Front: Proceedings and Resolutions of the Fourth Congress of the Communist International, edited by John Riddell, Haymarket Books 2012, pp. 1159-62. It makes up section 11 of the congress’s “Theses on Tactics.” The relationship of this text to other published versions of the resolution is explained in footnote 6. Copyright © John Riddell 2011. For other excerpts see Workers’ government debate home page.

As a general propagandistic slogan, the workers’ government (or workers’ and peasants’ government) can be used almost everywhere. As an immediate political slogan, however, the workers’ government is most important in countries where bourgeois society is particularly unstable, where the relationship of forces between the workers’ parties and the bourgeoisie places the question of government on the agenda as a practical problem requiring immediate solution. In these countries, the slogan of the workers’ government flows unavoidably from the entire united front tactic. Read more…

The Comintern workers’ government debate (4): Background

The Comintern workers’ government debate (4): Background

This text is also published in Toward the United Front: Proceedings and Resolutions of the Fourth Congress of the Communist International (TUF), edited by John Riddell, Haymarket Books 2012, pp. 22-27. The excerpt is copyright © John Riddell 2011. The text is followed here by a “Who’s Who” of participants in the congress debate on the workers’ government. For other excerpts, see Workers’ government debate home page. Read more…


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