Socialism was once regarded as a new faith for skeptical age. A faith that promised a world of harmony and abundance – if only – “the property was shared by all and distributed equally. ” The idea of socialism had spread farther and faster than any other political idea in history. Yet, almost in a blink of an eye, it all collapsed like a pack of cards. In this article, U. Mahesh Prabhu traces the history of Socialism and its offshoots, including Communism, Fascism & Maoism, which were apparently based on “absolute science and thought.”
In 1800s Robert Owen was known for “progressive ideas” in industry. His cotton mill in New Lanark in Scotland was considered as the most heralded industrial enterprise of its day. Owen had shortened working hours, restricted child labors and even provided sick pays to his employees. Owen cared not just how his 2000 employees worked; but also how they lived. However, the people in his mill premises had to live by his rules. They had specific rules to follow, including how often they had to put out the trash when they bathed, they couldn’t be publicly drunk and the amount of time they had to spend their families. The education was a key part of Owen’s plan. Rather than employing his employee’s children at work in the factory, he put them in school thereby creating the first pre-school in the United Kingdom – it was called “The Institute for the formation of Character”. Owen developed a theory for human nature which remained the fundamental idea of Socialism. It resurfaced time and again in history. Owen believed strongly that he could mold human character. He propounded the idea that man’s character must be shaped by society and must not be allowed to shape by oneself. He was of the belief that if you began at birth and put a child in a superior environment then through education and liberation you can produce a “perfect character”. Not surprisingly people took Owen seriously.
When he arrived in America, in 1825, a joint session of Congress was convened. The audience included President James Monroe and President-elect John Quincy Adams. In his speech, Owen announced that he had purchased an entire village in Indiana and that he would further his ideas there. He wanted this community to be based on true equality. It was named “New Harmony”.
On April 27, 1825, Robert Owen welcomed 800 people to New Harmony. One group in particular which was immensely attracted to New Harmony were the intellectuals. The village soon became center of progressive thought and experiment. The town had education for all levels – from infant to adult. There was a newspaper, books of significant knowledge, people advocating equal rights for women as well as the abolition of slavery!
To coincide with the 50th Anniversary of United States’ Declaration of Independence, in 1826, Owen issued what he saw as the next step in the “liberation of humankind”. He called it the “Declaration of Mental Independence”. “From here forward” he proclaimed, “man was free from the trinity of evil, from all world’s misery and vice, traditional religion, conventional marriages, and private property.” The last of these was key. The quest to do away with private property would animate socialism for the next 150 years. Somehow Owen couldn’t get himself to turn over ownership of his property to the very community he had founded. None seem to mind mainly because people could live there for free. All goods produced were distributed at the village store. Unsurprisingly it wasn’t an efficient system.
Eventually, New Harmony became a huge group of idealists in one isolated place, thinking about the idea of community; it only had thinkers – not doers. In time those businesses that were once thriving under the leadership of Owen were either sputtering or getting out of business altogether. Then, just two years after the birth of his “New Harmony”, Owen’s great experiment collapsed.
After returning from New Harmony to Manchester, England, Robert Owen and his followers constructed gathering places for Socialist believers; they called it “Home of Science”. Each week adherents of Owen’s ideas flocked there in thousands for inspiration. Their services were called “meetings”. “Sermons” were relabelled as “lectures”. Their idea was to promote “equality and brotherhood”.
Despite the failure at New Harmony and other early attempts to bring Socialism into practice the idea continued to maintain the excitement levels. It is believed to have inspired two young philosophers who were to convert the Utopian hope into faith by arguing that Socialism “wasn’t only desirable – it was inevitable”. These two were; Fredric Engels & Karl Marx.
In 1843 the Manchester Congregation included a 22-year-old German journalist and radical thinker named Fredric Engels. For a young man rebelling against his capitalist parents, the “meetings” held a great appeal. He was sent from Germany to Manchester in England since his father considered his “radical socialist” friends back home as a “bad influence”; little did his father know that England was fast becoming a center for the socialist movement.
In England Engels threw himself into writing books that would become popular among the English working class during the industrial revolution. That’s because workers in 1840s England lead miserable lives in squalid conditions, they worked 16-18 hours a day, child labors were rampant, and diseases were everywhere. It was a difficult time for working-class.
Engels was of the belief that industry workers would come to realize that history was working in their favor and therefore history would radicalize them. He began advocating these ideas in his articles across many socialist publications including Robert Owen’s “New Moral World” of which 25-year-old Karl Marx too was an active contributor. They began mutual admiration after reading their pieces. They met in 1844 in Paris. Marx was considered a prophet but much of Marx’s ideas come from Engels. Engels had laid the foundation for much of what Marx was to write upon. It was, also, owing to Engel’s financial support that the idea of Marxism came into being.
In 1848 when revolution dubbed as “Spring of Nations” began spreading around Europe, Marx & Engels headed to Germany to join the barricades. They had just finished writing a pamphlet for workers organization based in London known as “Communist Manifesto”. The Communist Manifesto predicted that if Capitalism progressed the working class would become so large and so poor that revolution would be inevitable resulting in a socialist state. They felt that in time government would become unnecessary and give way to a new stateless society, which Marx and Engels called, “Communism”.
They tried to convince their people that “no matter what the struggle… whatever happens to you no matter how desperate your political struggles seem… History is working its way towards this outcome.” Many socialist, then, had brought their argument and as a result, the Communist Manifesto became one of the most influential pamphlets in history. It was translated into every major European language by the turn of the century.
But for Marx, the manifesto was just a small summary. He then went to lay out the most comprehensive theory of Socialism. In 1851, Marx wrote to Engels that he desired to finish it in five weeks. But then five weeks grew into five years and so on and so forth. All throughout the time, Marx was dependent only on Engels for financial support. It took Marx nearly twenty years to finish his “masterpiece”. In 1867 the first volume of Das Kapital was published. It was regarded as a breakthrough in economic thought. Through this book, protagonists of Marx claimed that the author had accomplished for Socialists what Darwin had accomplished for biology.
Engels survived Marx by 12 years. It was owing to Engels public relations skills that Marxism spread to workers movement in Germany and across Europe like wildfire. But by the time Engels died in 1895 many of the perceptive socialist were able to notice a crack in the Marxist doctrine.
By the end of the 19th-century Marxist theory had been there for around 50 years. Yet most of Marx prediction of “inevitable revolution” wasn’t happening. The workers weren’t getting much poor nor were they turned into a revolutionary.
In 1878 Chancellor Otto Von Bismarck had outlawed all Socialist activities thereby driving many socialist party workers into exile. Among those workers was a young banker named Eduard Bernstein. He soon became the editor of the socialist party’s clandestine newspaper first in Switzerland and then England. When in England he became extremely close to Marx and Engels. After the death of Engels, he was regarded as one of the most important Socialist figures.
Bernstein had lived in a very different era than his mentors. Standards of living were fast changing but just not the way Karl Marx had predicted. It wasn’t long before Bernstein began to question his Marxist faith. He found Capitalism evolving to include the working class owing to which the working class wasn’t becoming any poor. He couldn’t but concluded that there were significant limitations of Marx’s theories. Bernstein’s critique began to be known as “revisionism” and stirred debate among the socialists around the world. When Bernstein declared that “… the final goal of socialism is nothing to me. The movement is everything.” It really cost consternation in the party because people thought that Bernstein had given up the great goal which was to break down Capitalism. It was as if the Pope had ceased to be a Catholic!
This debate stirred by Bernstein was being carefully followed by a 29-year-old Siberian exile. His response to the Bernstein’s criticism would forever change the face of Socialism. His name was Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov – better known as Lenin.
Known as the most exuberant workaholic person of his time in Russia – a country that didn’t have a work ethic – he was said to be working enormously hard. He was also smart and had supreme self-confidence. When Lenin was 17 his older brother Sasha was executed for having plotted to kill Czar Alexander III. After the university officials came to know that Lenin was the brother of an executed criminal he was immediately expelled from the university. Then he had not just timed but also the socialist literature which his executed brother had left behind. After reading various works on Socialism and Marxism he decided that it was important to become a revolutionary.
Although Lenin disagreed with Bernstein, he agreed on the fact that workers weren’t becoming revolutionaries. When Lenin returned from an exile he developed an idea that could be understood as a politics based on the absence of trust. Since he couldn’t trust the workers to make a revolution Lenin decided that the only people he could trust for revolution is his fellow full-time revolutionaries. In simple: he and his pals were to make the revolutions on behalf of the workers – although without their permission! For Lenin, this was just more than an idea or theory.
In the summer of 1914, 50 years of peace in Europe came to a bloody end. Soon the entire continent was mired in the fiercest conflict the world had yet seen. The Great War had hit Russia particularly hard. There was a breakdown of transports and worse inflation. The winter was very harsh and there was no food for everyone.
By early 1917 the Czarist regime was dwindling. As Russian troops were battling Germany in the west strikes and protests spread across the country. Then in Petrograd, a group of soldiers mutinied. It was the beginning of what was to be known as the “February Revolution”. To prevent a similar mutiny on the front the czar abdicated the throne. Power fell into the hands of a provisional government. This led to chaos and anarchy quickly. Lands were being ceased by peasants, villages were declaring their independence and even sewing their own flags. All the bonds that held the Russian nation began melting away. Russia was crumbling by every passing day.
Many Russian socialists had welcomed the liberal provisional government but not Lenin. He had lived in Europe in exile for most of the past 15 years. All the while he was dreaming and scheming to arm a strong party in Russia – the Bolsheviks. Even ordering bank robberies and extortion to finance his party activities. The chaos was just the chance he was waiting for.
On October 25, 1917, the Bolsheviks struck. When Bolsheviks took to power they were a tiny minority and soon the Bolshevik regime found itself embroiled in a civil war which it won militarily. Much of their success was credited to their use of propaganda machinery. Through posters leaflets and speeches Lenin tried to convince Russians as to who were the enemies of the people and who would be their saviors. But Lenin didn’t stop with the propaganda. The enemies of the people were marked for retribution including priests, rich peasants, and political opponents.
Lenin began with Nicholas II – the last tsar to reign over Russia. The tsar was massacred along with his doctor, friends, and kith and kin. In August of 1918 people who was taken as prisoners without a trial were shot in cold blood. Those who were alive were to be banished to forced labor camps.
Under Lenin and his followers, millions had died in the hands of the state. Lenin had not many sympathies for human beings in general. He believed, and strongly, that the human race was so rotten that killing them was actually progressive. So, amid terror and war, Lenin was building a system of government unlike anything seen before. Along with the old regime, Russia’s capitalist industries, the banks, and the church were all completely destroyed replacing them all with single institution – the party.
Most of the Bolsheviks had no experience in business or administration yet they managed to draw a plan to run a country with world’s fifth largest economy and its third largest population. The result were far cry from “heaven on earth”.
By 1920s there were massive famines, the industry had broken down, rails and roads stopped working, the economy had fallen apart and people were reverting to the most primitive type of bartering. There were, consequentially, massive loss of life. It was a nightmare. By this time Russia was known as Union of Soviet Socialist Republics where the Bolsheviks called themselves as “Communists”. Until then Communists as a term was long interchangeable with socialism. But when Lenin broke all ties with the rest of the world socialists and found a new international movement he made it clear that he had big plans for his brand of revolution.
Lenin said many times that his revolution won’t be confined to Russia. He wanted to export his revolution to the industrial countries of the west; including Germany, Great Britain and ultimately to the United States.
In the Marxist scheme of things the most advanced capitalist country was the one that was to be transformed first and that was United States of America. But ironically the socialism never took roots in America unlike all other developed countries basically because its main constituency the working class the labour unions simply didn’t except it, even though they considered it for a while.
In America, the split between the trade union and socialists goes all the way back to the very beginning of the organized labor movement in the late 19th century. Spurred by Marx & Engels, workers’ movement across Europe were gaining strength and most were taking to socialism as their guiding philosophy. In America, workers were organizing but they chose a very different path under the leadership of Samuel Gompers.
The irony about the Gompers was that he was a Marxist who forged an anti-Marxist labor movement. Gompers was born in London and moved to the United States in his teens to become a skilled cigar maker. All his early life he was a Socialist. He was reading Marx, Engels, and other classics of European socialism. He believed that the best way to organize workers is by making trade unions stronger. Gompers disagreed that workers needed intellectuals to achieve their goals. “I saw that betterment for a working man must come primarily through working men.” He’s believed to have said, adding “I saw the danger untangling alliances with intellectuals who did not understand that to experiment with the labor movement was to experiment with human lives.” Gompers and his allies favored something called “pure and simple unions” which meant using strikes and boycotts to fight for better pay and benefits rather than taking political actions to create a whole new system.
In 1886, Gompers founded the American Federation of Labour uniting individual unions across the country. As the AFL’s first president his salary would be less than a year in rolling cigars. Gompers leadership of American workers would be challenged by socialists within and without the AFL.
In 1901 some of the socialists came together to form the Socialist Party of America. At the party’s helm was a rival labor leader, a railwayman, named Eugene V. Debs. He was a fascinating person who ran for Presidential nominations five times as a Socialist Party candidate but never won. Yet he was enormously popular charismatic figure more than Gompers ever was.
By 1903, the American Federation of Labour represented more than one and a half million members. It was becoming a force to reckon with in America. At that year’s AFL convention Gompers parted his way with old socialist allies. In his address to the gathering, he said “I want to tell you Socialists that I have kept watch on your actions for over 30 years. I have been closely associated with many of you. I must say that I am completely in variance with your philosophy. Economically you are unsound, socially you are wrong and industrially you are an impossibility.”
Despite Gompers opposition, the Socialist Party continued to gain strength. Surprisingly the party got more support from farmers than from industrial workers. One of the greatest centers of the socialist base in the US was in Oklahoma. Eugene Debs won more than 16 percent of Presidential vote there in 1912. But America’s entry into World War I brought a turning point for the party.
In the World War I the socialists had to decide as to whether they’ll support their individual nations in the war or will they support the international socialist brotherhood and oppose the war workers against the other workers. American Socialist Party unlike most of the European Socialist Parties decided to oppose the US government, as well as World War I. Most trade unions like that of Gompers’, supported the war. For having spoken against the war many socialists were arrested; Eugene was arrested in 1918. He would then be sentenced to 10 years in jail. By the time he’s out of jail, the socialist party is pretty much a shell.
The socialist party never gained its pre-war strength; not even during the great depression. Gompers and American Federation of Labour had by end of WWI emerged as the principal Voice of America’s Workers. In many ways, Americanism overpowered Socialism in the US. Americanism provided a greater social structure and lifestyle to all its citizens than socialism ever promised.
When Americanism killed any prospects for Socialism it found new hope in North America. As the Socialist Party faded in the US political scene some of the farmers who embraced its ideals would take their politics north to Canada. Not many Americans today know the fact that Canada’s first socialist politician, first socialist intellectuals are Americans. Socialism in Canada, by and large, is an American import.
Between 1898 and 1915 nearly a million people emigrated from America to Canada lured by cheap farmland most settled in the Western Canadian provinces. These farmers had similar problems. They were all growing wheat and felt that they were being gouged by railroads, bankers and felt market conditions were working against them. Rather than seeing in terms of impersonal market forces – they personalized it and viewed bankers, railroad men, lawyers, etc. as their enemy. Therefore “nationalization” was seen as a solid way out.
By 1920s these organizations and their successors began to make their voices heard throughout the Prairie Provinces. They were very soon able to influence electoral politics in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta simply by the power of their numbers. But it’s not really until great depression hits Prairies in the 1920s, leading to collapse of wheat markets, that farmers began contemplating on their own independent political party.
In 1932 a new political party emerged from a conference in Saskatchewan – a Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF). The CCF is kind of a big ban among radical socialist groups formed by radical farmers, socialist labor unions and radicalized socialist intellectuals. They called for socialization essentially out of means of production and means of finance. The party later moderated its platform to appeal to a broader base.
In 1944, the CCF swept the provincial election in Saskatchewan becoming the first socialist government in North America and leaving a lasting imprint on Canadian politics. The CCF’s ideology was later adopted by the governing Liberal Party of Canada.
In 1961 the CCF became the new Democratic Party and it is still largely socialistic in its conviction and still a force in the Canadian politics. In America, some of the ideas championed by socialists also found their way into the mainstream like unemployment insurance, social security and the eight-hour work a day. But socialism itself never took root.
When Vladimir Lenin seized power in Russia in 1917 he apparently created the world’s first socialist state. But other socialists disagreed with him and said that Lenin’s socialism wasn’t improved socialism – at all! Over the next sixty years, people who called themselves as socialists, often disagreeing violently with each other, would rise to power in scores of countries all over the globe until they ruled more than 60 percent of humanity.
“I have seen the future and it works” those were the words of American journalist Lincoln Steffens after visiting the Soviet Union in 1919. Even the Bolshevik revolution that frightened people around the world; for many it seemed to be validating Marxist prophecy that socialist triumph was inevitable.
Vladimir Lenin died of a brain hemorrhage in 1924. He was only 53 years old. But in his relatively short life, he had laid out a path to power for revolutionaries around the world. What Lenin did electrify many socialist (or communist?) thinking leaders around the world. Strange but true, one of the things it did do – although indirectly – was to give birth to Fascism.
Benito Mussolini in Italy, too, would declare pretty soon that he too is a “revolutionary”. Like Lenin, for Mussolini, making a revolution is the ultimate thing. And all that he actually did was he threw the “proletariat” (read people) and put in the vanguard of the proletariat the nation instead. It may be hard to believe that after his declaration as a “revolutionary” a great many socialists became nationalist only to support a fascist. Hitler’s nationalist socialism retains a lot of socialist principles but adds on the implacable hatred of the Jews.
Benito Mussolini joined Adolph Hitler to launch a World War even more devastating than the last. The alliance between Germany, Italy and Imperial Japan placed Mussolini and his bloody opposition to his old socialist comrades.
However, in the end, as we all know, the grandiose ambition of Fascism went up in smoke. The world at last glimpsed Mussolini’s body strung up at an abandoned gas station in Milan. The very next day Hitler shot himself. With the end of Mussolini and Hitler, the ideology of Fascism collapsed. But the death of this strange offshoot only paved the way for other branches of socialism to flourish.
In the aftermath of WWII communism spread like never before. The Soviet Union’s military gains in WWII prepared the stage for communist governments to take power in Eastern Europe and Northern Korea. But communism’s biggest post-war conquest was yet to come. Four years after the war’s end insurgent communist forces in China drove the pro-western nationalist government off the mainland towards Taiwan.
In January 1949, the communists marched into Beijing to declare the birth of the People’s Republic of China. Their leader was a 55-year-old intellectual named Mao Zedong. Mao was revolutionary. He did not believe in normalcy, he did not believe in routine, he disliked bureaucracy. What he did was to mobilize millions of peasants to join the communist revolution.
Mao gave to the Chinese people what came to be known as the Iron Rice Bowl. A promise of “lifelong economic security”. But the price was submission to the party. The party would soon control everything; the books people read, the clothes they wore, even whom they married and how many children they’ll have.
Mao felt that he needed to change the people as they are at once. He used education to cut the people off from their previous culture. Unlike Lenin who allowed his people to read Russian classics and gave access to the old literature, Mao cut it all! All Chinese people under Mao could read was the Red Book. His idea was: by cutting the Chinese people from their past he’d end the age-old class struggle and make them better being.
For nearly a decade China followed the Soviet model; nationalized industry and collectivized agriculture. But the results were disappointing and Mao became disillusioned with Lenin’s Communism. To revise the Communism, which had sprung from Socialism, Mao began the infamous “Great Leap Forward”. At the core of the great leap forward was a new Chinese institution – the People’s Communes, more than 23,000 of them consisting of more than half a billion people!
By mobilizing his country’s vast labor pool he believed his experiment would catapult China ahead of the West – in both, agriculture and industry. But the country’s frenzied commitment to the Great Leap Forward leads only to impossibly high production quotas and inferior products. In one program the government tried to speedup steel production by encouraging peasants to build “backyard steel mills” in communes across China. For raw materials, the peasants donated iron goods from their own homes, including woks and other utensils. Unfortunately, the steel produced was worthless. Similar experiments in agriculture backfired. Peasants were forced to work long hours every day. They were totally exhausted and weren’t even given enough food to eat. They were literally starving. It is estimated that this utopian idea leads to the death of 30-14 million Chinese peasants.
A century earlier Karl Marx had dreamt of a final stage of socialism – a society of complete human fulfilled. Where a person might hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon and write poetry in the evening. He called it Communism. Unfortunately, in Russia and China, the word had come to mean something very different.
Although Communism was far from the only form of socialism to flourish after the war, in Western Europe and few other countries competing versions were making new gains. It was called “Democratic Socialism” or more often “Social Democracy”. Its adherent believed that the truly humane and democratic essence of socialism could still be reclaimed from “imposters” like Fascism and Communism.
British Labour Party was not started as a socialist party. It was started as a Labour Party for the Labour Unions to get some more clout through representation in politics. It then attracted more and more middle-class intellectuals who were socialists. To make the middle-class socialists happy the party adopted a platform which explicitly embraced socialism as the party’s ideology under Clause 4 of the party constitution in 1918.
After World War II much of Britain was in ruins. In June 1945 the country held its first General Election in nearly a decade. The choice was between Winston Churchill and Clement Atlee. Two men who had fought the Germans had different visions as to how to build Britain. Labor under Atlee won that election by a landslide. Socialism had never before won such a clear mandate. The election was fought on a clear issue of Welfare State. Atlee had more viable idea appealing to voters which Churchill didn’t. Atlee’s government remained in power for no more than six years. Before it left office in 1951 it had nationalized much of the country’s industry and introduced an array of social welfare programs. Owing to huge costs of rebuilding and supporting the government programs the British Empire was unable to hold on to its distant colonies. No wonder that one by one the colonies began to be freed.
1948 marked the birth of Israel from part of the British trusteeship of Palestine. For decades the Zionist movement had been struggling to create a Jewish state by settling Jews in Palestine. Many of these settlements were collective socialist villages called Kibbutzim. Kibbutz was nestled along the western bank of Sea of Galilee. It was founded in 1937 by a group of young socialists. The first leaders of the modern state of Israel were essentially from these Kibbutz villages. In many ways, Kibbutz was socialism on a human scale. Instead of government owning everything as it did in the Soviet Union and to a lesser extent in Britain the community-owned everything and made all decisions collectively. The kibbutz was essentially started with inspiration from Marx’s maxim “from each according to his ability to each according to his need”. There was no private property. They were all shared in a democratic fashion where each and every need was brought forth a committee. It was, in turn, the community’s decision by vote that would decide if, or not, the particular need was to be satisfied. Here you needed no salary because all needs were readily satisfied. It won’t be wrong to say that without Kibbutz there wouldn’t have been a state of Israel.
Like many other communal experiments, including Robert Owen’s ‘New Harmony’, the Kibbutz even tried to shape family life. There were roles for husbands, wives, families, and children. Much was unique about the Jewish state, but choosing socialism as its strategy for development Israel was a part of a swelling tide.
By 1979 socialism was losing its appeal in Israel. Founders of the Kibbutzim movement had believed that the communal way of life would embed itself ever more strongly over time. But as the years passed the trend on the Kibbutzim was away from collectivism. After Israeli statehood the move towards more private lifestyle accelerated; members began to receive small amounts of cash allowances to spend as they wished. The changes extended to families as well. The
Kibbutz children had lived and slept in a communal children house but by the early 1970s, some parents were beginning to have second thoughts. Although the communal sleeping sounded very nice it was enormously frustrating for the parents particularly mothers who felt that they weren’t getting enough of their children. The children houses slowly began to empty. Many of the Kibbutzians took loans to add kid’s room to their parent’s homes.
In the midst of such internal change, the Kibbutzians suffered a major blow in May 1977 when Menachem Begin carried a conservative government to power for the first time in Israel’s history. The old Labour government was out and with it end subsidies, tax breaks, and contracts that had been bestowed upon the Kibbutzim. There was a time when Israel wouldn’t have been comprehended without Kibbutzim. That’s because they lived in the problematic areas and produced food. Kibbutzim were considered as heroes of the Jewish nation. The conservatives hinted that Kibbutzim had outlived their purpose and that people of Kibbutz were like any other Israelis and had to start being independent. When debt crisis hit Israeli in 1985 Kibbutzim found themselves holding loans which couldn’t pay back. The younger generation was becoming disillusioned about life in Kibbutz and the idea eventually met its dead end.
Sixty countries in the developing world would adopt some form of socialisms around the 1960s. Of these nations most were in Africa. Among the most influential African socialist leader was Julius Nyerere. He became his country’s first President after its freedom in 1959. He desired to overcome all the major hurdles facing his country, including Ignorance, Poverty, and Disease with Socialism fused with the social customs of Tanzania. Like any other socialists, Nyerere nationalized banks and industries in order to give workers control of the means of production. Foreign investments were turned away in the name of self-reliance. In Nyerere’s own words “Socialism was to pave the way for true independence.”
Nyerere as a part of his grand socialist project directed his country to reorganize their communities into “Ujamaa” villages. These were to be the pillars of his socialism. They were to provide access to schools, hospitals, and water. Nyerere’s vision of socialism won a lot of admiration in the west. As the cold war intensified many saw this as an alternative to Soviet-styled socialism in the third world. Support, both moral and financial, poured in.
By 60s it was beginning to appear that Julius Nyerere’s version of socialism was not as democratic as his supporters had hoped. In 1965 three years after he was elected President, he amended his country’s constitution to ban all political parties but his own. When Nyerere was asked if one party system would provide safeguards against abuse of power his answer was “… to some extent there are safeguards but I have sufficient powers under the constitution to be a dictator. “
Nyerere was by now looking away from the west for a model of socialism more suited to a poor country like Tanzania. In 1965 he made his first visit to China. The year he went to China Tanzania was in famine; the country had a little more than 15 million in population. After the visit, China began to take interest in Tanzania’s development. It would eventually contribute $2 billion in economic aid; more than it gave to any other country. As the friendship between the two countries deepened Nyerere’s version of socialism began inclining more and more towards the Chinese model (read Maoism).
In 1967 Tanzania began to overhaul its schools. The casting of the old western system. Students would now learn practical trade skills and socialist ideology. Practical education in physics, science, and biology ceased. Tanzanian people did not embrace all the aspects of Nyerere’s socialist experiments. As much as he asked them they simply didn’t move towards his proposed “Ujamaa” villages. In 1973 Nyerere lost patience. He ordered all Tanzanians to move to planned villages within 3 years. There were problems from the start. Most of the villages had fundamental problems including access to clean drinking water. Yet, Nyerere moved people from their home by force. Results were devastating. The food production was reduced to almost zilch.
Before forcing people to Ujamaa villages Tanzania had produced enough surplus corn to export more than half a million tonnes a year. Just 4 years later the country had to import nearly as much to feed itself. The government-owned industry was in no better state either. Losses were only increased by the day. Conflict with Uganda and an increase in international oil prices things began going worse for Tanzania. Julius Nyerere had succeeded in creating a nation, but socialism had failed to make it prosper. His socialism failed the Tanzanians miserably!
By 1960s in Europe, socialism wasn’t working as promised. Their promises were falling short on many counts. The economy was essentially dying. It was a fool’s paradise. In 1971 the Times of London called the country’s economic condition as a “British Disease”. The world was changing and it seemed as if British industries couldn’t simply keep on. Laws designed to protect British workers now prevented the management from changing old practices. Workers demanded ever higher wages even though productivity stagnated. By 1975 British inflation had hit 24 percent. What happened was that as wage settlement became higher it pushed inflation higher leading to an inflationary spiral which was very difficult to control.
Since 1945, Labour and Conservative governments alike had preserved Clement Atlee’s social welfare programs and most of its nationalizations. But by mid-1970s growing faction within the conservative party placed the blame squarely on Atlee’s government. In their view what had basically happened was that socialism’s disruptive trade unions and expensive welfare state led to a precipitous political and economic decline of the country. Welfare state which created a dependency culture had robbed people of the initiative as well as responsibilities. It disrupted the market, made it impossible for the country to get anything really done.
Among the most outspoken of these conservatives was the party’s new leader Margret Thatcher. Thatcher couldn’t bear to believe in the idea that British decline was to be taken for granted. She rejected that with her guts. She thought Britain should be great. Searching around for what was wrong. She decided that what economy needed was a dynamic shakedown to make people self-reliant again. She decided to break down the trade union movement.
In the summer of 1978, the Labour Party was in power and was gearing up for a new general election. They felt what they needed was to have a year of very low inflation so they imposed a norm on trade unions of around 5 percent increase in wages. In December of that year, the first test of the norm came in a strike at the Ford Motor Company. The Ford settled for about 16 percent which was way above 5 percent norm. At that moment the floodgates opened and all sorts of workers who were asking for higher wages put those demand to their government. Throughout December 1978 and January 1979 massive strike shook the country. It came to know as “Winter of Discontent”.
There was a great strike at gravediggers at Liverpool as a result of which dead bodies were being piled up since they weren’t buried. There were similar strikes among public services which lead to heaps of garbage on the streets. The government was being unable to do anything about it. In December 1978, the Labour government despite lots of difficulties still had the lead in the polls in comparison with Conservatives. It was supposedly a tiny lead of around 2-4%. By end of February 1979, less than three months later, Thatcher was out in the front with 20 percent lead!
By the late 1970s, roughly 60% of the world’s population was ruled by the socialism of some kind. Communists ruled China, Russia, Eastern Europe and much of Asia. Third world socialist governments controlled few nations in the Middle East and Africa. Social democratic parties held majorities in much of Western Europe. Even with all its problems socialism was still a chosen path. Then unexpectedly the pendulum began to swing.
In December 1978 the Chinese Communist Party yielded to the vision of a new leader – Deng Xiaoping. Den’s plan for China began with “four modernizations” of Agriculture, Industry, Technology, and Defence. Changed laid ahead for democratic world as well. The following spring Margret Thatcher became the first female Prime Minister of Britain. Central to a campaign which was a promise to reverse the legacy of Clement Atlee. She began by privatizing many of the nationalized industries.
As Regan took office signs of strains were beginning to appear in the Soviet empire. In summer of 1980 Polish workers defied the communist government by going on strike at Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk. The strike grew into an independent trade union committed to democracy. Soon it would count one of every four poles as members.
Meanwhile, the Kremlin faced a crisis in leadership. In March of 1985 Soviet leaders gathered in the Red Square for the funeral of Constantine Cherenkov third Soviet leader to die in office in past two years. Their choice for a new leader was fateful. Mikhail Gorbachev may have been the last true believer in the revolution’s ideals. But his attempt to recover true socialism from communist bureaucracy would shake the Soviet Union to its foundations.
Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev grew up in the nineteen thirties. It was a period known as “Great Terror”. Under the rule of Joseph Stalin, millions were arrested and often executed. Scholars say that as many as 20 million people died. By the time Gorbachev became General Secretary in 1985 he realized that the Soviet system was not only cruel, but it was also hopelessly inefficient. But for Gorbachev the problem wasn’t the Soviet system itself; it was how that system was being run. He focused on bureaucracy. He invented a system to handle this bureaucracy was called Perestroika. He set out to cut the red tape. What he forgot was that the entire system was made of red tape!
As Gorbachev struggle to clear the path in true socialism in the Soviet Union; the socialist idea was being redefined in China. Deng Xiaoping said that his reforms were being created with Chinese characteristics. Many observers found it more like Capitalism!
The country had just emerged from one of the most devastating periods in its history. After the failure of Great Leap Forward; Mao launched the Culture Revolution. His idea was to cleanse the country of creepy capitalists and bourgeois influence. But Mao’s revolution went out of control. Over the next decade, over 100 million Chinese were persecuted. This included the officials of the Chinese communist party.
Deng Xiaoping was with communist movement from the beginning. He served as one of the Mao’s closest advisers. But his pragmatic outlook had more than once landed him in trouble. During the Cultural Revolution, he was twice purged from power. Deng’s family fared worse. The Red Guard drove his brothers to suicide and his oldest son was made to jump out of the window which left him paraplegic. But Den’s fortune would soon change. Mao’s death in 1976 gave rise to a vicious power struggle in which Deng came out on top!
In 1978, 18 families in China’s Qinghai province made a secret pact. They would divide their collective farms into individual plots. They would work individually and each family could keep whatever profits they earned. If any of them got arrested the others promised to care for their children. When Deng heard about this from one of the governors; he said: “… don’t stop that let’s see how it works out.” When he realized that the plan was working, he decided that this is a way to go and inculcated much of the ideas into his policies. Every single commune was decollectivized. This led to prosperity in China. The country grew at 10% annually and it stayed so for over a decade thereafter.
But China was still a communist country. Beneath the rising tide of economic and personal freedom, the political system remained largely unchanged. In the beginning, Deng Xiaoping thought he could have both economic reform as well as political reform. But when solidarity movement began in Poland there was this great fear in the Chinese leadership, so they eventually began to clamp down.
On May 15, 1989, the Soviet General Secretary Gorbachev boarded a jetliner for Beijing. This historic visit was to rest 30 struggle for leadership for the communist world. An elaborate welcome ceremony was planned at Beijing’s great hall of the people. Suddenly a message comes to Gorbachev on the airplane saying that Chinese have changed the plans when you land we’ll have the alternate ceremony and we’re not going to the great hall of people. The reason is the Tiananmen Square was filled with thousands of demonstrators demanding the end of Communist rule in China! By the third day of Gorbachev’s visit to China, a million people occupy square and surrounding area. Once the Soviet leader departed Deng ordered his troops to clear the square. To this day none knows as to how many people lost their lives or were injured.
Even though Deng put down the political reform in China he ordered that the economic reforms must resume. In 1993 the national people’s congress enshrined the term “Socialist Market Economy” in the constitution.
Deng and Gorbachev were two reformers who set out to rescue socialism. But they ran two different paths. While Deng focused on overhauling the economy Gorbachev turned his focus to the political system.
Gorbachev spoke of a word – Glasnost – that meant openness. The Soviet people were now free to talk about the subject they were earlier forbidden. The nation soon found itself awash about the revelations of crimes committed by Joseph Stalin. People realized how unjust, inequitable and stupid economically the entire regime was. People began to blame not just Stalin but the entire system! People were turning against the Soviet regime itself.
In March 1989 the Soviet Union held the first parliamentary election in its history. But 1989 had only got the undoing of the Soviet empire. Poland was first to fall. Solidarity – the independent trade union had managed to survive underground through the 1980s. Faced with rising discontent the Polish communists finally gave in to demands for the parliamentary elections. Even though there were free elections held there was a trick. A certain number of seats were guaranteed for the government which the opposition was not allowed to run against and yet it may be the only time in history the candidates ran unopposed and still lost. Solidarity had won 99 of 100 seats in the new Senate. While all this happened Moscow stood by all in silence. As a result, many of the Soviet republics began to assert their independence while Gorbachev failed to lay the ground for the post-Soviet union of sovereign states.
A group of hard-line communists in Moscow had had enough. In August 1991 they launched a coup and placed Gorbachev under house arrest. Tanks and troops appeared on the streets of Moscow. Then something remarkable happened. Hundreds and thousands of citizens poured in to resist, even soldiers joined them. In the middle of it, all was Boris Yeltsin the newly elected leader of the Russian Federation. His popularity had now eclipsed Gorbachev’s. After the coup collapsed it was Yeltsin who issued a decree that effectively outlawed the communist party. In the following months, the Russian Republics voted one by one to declare their independence. On Christmas day in 1991, Gorbachev resigned as the leader of the disintegrating Soviet Union. The once fearsome socialist power was no more!
With the fall of the Soviet Union, the era of totalitarian socialism effectively came to a close. But the end of Communism didn’t mean the end of socialism. As if surprisingly, Social Democratic parties were making comebacks across Europe. By late 1990s they governed 12 out of 15 states in European Union. But many of these parties looked less and less like the socialists have looked in the past. They were inching closer towards Capitalist ideas and ideals!
The most daring revisionist socialist was Britain’s Tony Blair, who led the labor party to victory in 1997 with a landslide vote. The party as Blair recreated was way different from the party of Atlee.
When Tony Blair declared “Let us say what we mean and mean what we say. And Stop saying what we don’t mean and start saying what we do mean…” everyone in the Labour Party knew what he was talking about. He was talking about Clause 4 of the Labour Party’s Charter that committed it to “common ownership”. Blair wanted to make clear to voters that the party was no longer believed in this kind of socialism. But the clause was in the charter since 1918 and many in the Labour party weren’t willing to give it up without a fight. For them, it was like changing the prayer book in the Church of England.
Following year Labour delegates gathered at Methodist central hall in Westminster where the original clause was adopted seventy years before to vote the same clause’ fate. 65% favored Blair. In essence, the Labour Party was no more socialist!
As the 1997 General Elections approached Labour strategy seemed to be working. By the evening of May 2, 1997, the votes have been counted. Labour rose to its largest win ever – even surpassing Atlee’s record victory in 1945! Blair easily won re-election in 2001.
Eventually, as many as 14 social democratic heads of state from Europe, South Africa, and New Zealand embraced similar policies. As they talked about the importance of inclusion and the social safety net they increasingly acknowledged the necessity for Capitalism.
India was often regarded as a “Crown of the British Empire” until its independence in 1947. According to its “father of the nation” Mahatma Gandhi free India would do well by having as may self-sufficient villages as possible. Needless to say, the much-lauded “Gandhian Economy” was more Socialist in its character.
After Independence India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was busy recruiting economists to find a magical solution to India’s ailing economy. He was amused by a young applied statistician named Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis. He presented to Nehru a single mathematical formula which was immediately hailed as “pioneering”.
Now known as Feldman-Mahalanobis Model; it was essentially a neo-Marxist model of economic development. It was originally created by Soviet Economist named G. A. Feldman somewhere in 1928. Mahalanobis had presented it to Nehru in 1953 owing to which he became the key economist of India’s second five-year plan. The model suggested that in order to reach a high standard in consumption it’s important to make a substantial investment in building capacity for production of capital goods.
The model was put to practice in 1956 as a theoretical pathway of India’s second five-year plan. After two years of its implementation, unforeseen troubles like unexpected and unavoidable costs contributed to increased money supply and growing inflation. Eventually, Mahalanobis idea was put to rest only to consider alternative socialist ideas.
As a result, British Raj was replaced with License Raj i.e. Red Tape and Bureaucracy. So worse was the system that it took anywhere between 12 to 24 months to import a computer worth $1,500 until the 1980s. As it happened elsewhere the licenses were procured often using corrupt means. As a result, there were no incentives for innovation and goods produced domestically were of low quality. Upon that people had to wait for over 15 years to buy a car. Overprotected, over administered as well as over planned – the permit raj proved to be an external brake on the economy.
Socialist ideas were even enshrined in Indian Constitution from Article 36 to 51 under Directive Principles of State Policy or DPSP. It promotes equal rights for labor in the management of industries and lays emphasis on protecting the “weaker” sections like any other socialist state. Socialism as an idea gained momentum in India after it was endorsed by nationalistic leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru and Subhas Chandra Bose. This was because during that time socialist economies like USSR were doing better than capitalist economies like the USA.
Socialism as a concept was in fact imposed upon India by then ruling party Indian National Congress (INC) through a resolution passed at its Avadi Session in 1955 in which it was declared that:
“In order to realize object of Congress and to further the objectives stated in the Preamble and Directive Principles of State Policy of the Constitution of India, Planning should take place with a view to the establishment of a socialistic pattern of a society, where the principal means of production are under social ownership or control, progression is progressively speeded up and there is equitable distribution of national wealth…”
During the infamous “Emergency” of 1976 India’s then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi added the words “Socialist Secular” to make India a “Sovereign Socialist Secular Democratic Republic” through the 42nd Amendment.
Even the Supreme Court of India has favored socialism in its ruling. In GB Pant University of Agriculture & Technology v/s State of Uttar Pradesh (2000) it declared “Democratic socialism aims to end poverty, ignorance, disease, and inequality of opportunity.” In 1983 Nakara v/s Union of India Supreme Court of India had observed that role of Indian socialism is a “blend of Marxism & Gandhism, leaning heavily towards Gandhian Socialism”.
As the years passed flaws in Indian socialism began to grow evident. There was excessive bureaucracy and red tape, extremely high nationalization of resources, onerous regulations for any new business to commence a business, discouragement of imports, exports as well as innovations and too many restrictions on foreign investments. Owing to these shortcomings India began to entangle itself in deep financial crisis without thinking of undoing socialist ideas even once. It was only after disintegration of USSR in 1991 that India began rethinking on its socialist credentials – seriously.
There’s a reason why India never considered free market theory before the 90s. When Indira Gandhi became India’s first lady Prime Minister in 1966 its economy was extremely weak. The country had just begun facing more fiscal problems after the war with Pakistan. The problem was worsened by the drought-induced food crisis that spawned famines across the country. This was the worst recession since India’s independence. She began at first by taking steps to liberalize the economy and by agreeing to the devaluation of Indian Rupees in exchange for foreign aid. The economy managed to grow at 4.1% over 1966-69. But the external aid promised by United States government and International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, meant to ease the short-run costs of adjustments to a liberalized economy, never materialized. American policymakers had complained of continued restrictions imposed on the economy. The Indo-US ties began to strain also due to Gandhi’s criticism of the American bombing campaign in Vietnam and because of President Johnson’s policy of withholding food grain shipments to coerce Indian support for the war. In such circumstances, Indira Gandhi began doubting the intention of “Capitalist” Americans and soon buried the liberalization process.
She then began moving towards US’s arch-rival USSR to find “socialist alternatives” that were best suited for India. By this time Grain diplomacy and currency devaluation became matters of intense national pride in India. She swore never to seek food aid – again. She also began to painstakingly build the foreign exchange reserve. When food stocks slumped after a poor harvest in 1972 the government made it a point to use foreign exchange to buy US wheat commercially rather than seeking food aid.
After the infamous 1976 emergency, Indira Gandhi was out for a while. When she regained power from Janata Government (which was even worse socialist) the economy was in even worse stage. The country had the strongest recession of (-5.2%) in the history of modern India with inflation at 18.2%! Although Indira Gandhi continued professing socialist beliefs the sixth five-year plan was very different from her earlier populist plans like “Garibi-Hatao”. She began to show pragmatism instead of populism. She focused on greater efficiency of state-owned enterprises and stimulating private sector through deregulation and liberalization of the market. Her government subsequently launched “Operation Forward” in 1982, her first conscious attempt at reform. Thus, as a result, the sixth five-year plan was by far the most successful plan showing an average growth of 5.7% over 1980-85.
Indira Gandhi’s son Rajiv too followed the same model of socialism. In his election manifesto of 1984, he didn’t mention many social reforms but after assuming office he tried to liberalize the country’s economy. He did so by providing incentives to make private production profitable. Subsidies were given to corporates to increase production – especially for durable goods. It was hoped that it’d increase economic growth and improve the quality of investment. But he faced stiff opposition from his own party leaders who thought “it would open economy to external negative economic influences.” Rural and tribal people protested because they saw him as “pro-rich” and “pro-city” reformer.
Eventually, Rajiv’s indecisive leadership proved costly for India. When he had assumed office in 1985 the country had a balance of payments problems. By 1990 it had escalated into a serious economic crisis. The government of India was close to default! Reserve Bank of India refused new credit and India’s foreign exchange reserve had been reduced to such a point that India could barely finance three weeks of imports. As a result, the Indian government had to airlift national gold reserve as a pledge to the IMF in exchange for a loan to cover the balance of payment debts.
After Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, the country was led by PV Narasimha Rao who took a bold and courageous step to economically liberalize India. Rao’s reforms progressed furthest in the areas of opening up to foreign investment, reforming capital markets, deregulating domestic businesses and reforming trade regimes. His government goals were intended for reducing the fiscal deficit, privatization of the public sector and increasing investment in infrastructure. In subtle terms, Rao took India away from socialist ideas. This benefited India fairly well.
Although Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangha (RSS) and its affiliate organization claimed to uphold and hail the spirit of Hindutva and Hinduism there’s very little Hindu or Vedic about their political ideology. Hinduism has its roots firmly grounded in the Vedas which were written in Sanskrit. These Vedic texts which were significantly scientific in nature were later reduced to religious texts when people began reciting them in temples without understanding their deeper meanings.
Most of the Pracharaks (Volunteers) of RSS have no idea of the way in which their ancestors lived and performed in the community for thousands of years. They were further made to be defensive when Mahatma Gandhi was murdered by Nathuram Godse. Godse apparently had affiliations to RSS according to the propaganda of Congress leaders. This was incorrect because Godse was actively a part of Hindu Mahasabha which was at loggerheads with RSS. In a way to free themselves from this propaganda some of the RSS leaders began to adore Mahatma Gandhi in their speeches as well as writings. They never knew that Gandhi’s idea of “Ramarajya” or “Swarajya” had little or nothing to do with Vedic ideas or ideals. They were greatly socialist in nature. RSS affiliate organization Swadeshi Jagaran Manch (SJM) which apparently propagated Gandhian Socialism was utterly socialist.
The primary goal prescribed by RSS to its Pracharaks as well as Indians – at large – was “sacrifice for the nation”. Even today Pracharaks are directed to live a Spartan life refraining from carnal pleasure. They are given no remuneration – only paltry sum as expenses. It won’t be wrong to suggest that money beyond a particular measure is regarded as “evil” by this organization. Many members of RSS believe that money, and not greed, is the root cause of all evil. Sometimes they even cite some Sanskrit quotes to support their assumptions. For them, any Sanskrit is Vedic in origin. Nothing can be far from the truth. Therefore it’s not surprising to understand their criticism of Capitalism. No wonder that they seldom criticized Nehru, Indira or any other Congress leaders for their socialist ideals or policy.
On the contrary, when RSS’ political arm Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power through a coalition National Democratic Front government in 1998 they had to face the ire of RSS leaders when they sought to undo many of the previous Congress government’s socialist policies. RSS was particularly critical of privatization policies.