The knowledge of the past can free us from the shackles that the future may bring with itself.
The history of Socialism in the 20th century is one of mass collectivization of state efforts at economic planning in order to transform hitherto agrarian/peasant societies into remotely industrial societies with mixed results mostly at a detriment to personal liberties (a feature of Socialism I am completely against and do not espouse). Despite the variants deployed across most of the global east (Soviet Union, Communist China, East Germany et al) and in some parts, the northern hemisphere (Cuba), a common way of identifying socialist states is through the common ownership of the means of production in the respective states. Thus, as examples from the USSR, China and Cuba would posit, a collectivization of the efforts of an entire society can indeed push for greater leaps in progress — another argument of mine would be to ask if quantifiable material progress is really progress if personal liberties are categorically impugned upon in societies where some bits of Socialism as both an ideology and an economic/political system is scientifically practiced.
At the detriment of conventional labor relations, the Soviet Union between 1929 and 1941 oversaw an accelerated effort in mass industrialization through the implementation of the first two parts of the GOELRO plan which led to an astronomical increase in the gross industrial output of the communist state, making it second only to the United States in the world, in that regard. Heavy industry dominated the economic activities in the Soviet Union (The former Tsarist state which was once an agrarian/peasant state), new technologies were invented, space exploration was pioneered, unemployment was almost non-existent, and agriculture was heavily mechanized leading to higher labor productivity. Thus, I identify the mass collectivization of efforts, common ownership of the means of production, cooperative entrepreneurship, state economic planning and high capital investments as factors for engineering the progress that the Soviet Union witnessed in its heavy industry, productivity output, class relations, national economic outcomes as well as its social transformation from a largely peasant state to an industrial state.
At the detriment of personal liberties as the ill-fated 1989 Tiananmen Square Protests would exemplify, a rapid transformation of feudalist land relations and traditional gender roles due to the resolute adoption of a Maoist form of Socialism would ensue in Communist China. Through the adoption of a Soviet Union model of economic development, Socialism in China aided a rapid industrialization in most of countryside China but largely failed in transforming the socio-economic outcomes of a lot of Chinese, with economic strife dominating the human condition until a state capitalist approach was introduced in the early 1990s. With regards to the involvement of women in major economic activities, the abolishing of feudalistic land controls as well as the thawing of traditional gender roles, the ideological intricacies of “Chinese Communism” engineered ‘some’ relative progress in Chinese societies.
From a largely feudal socio-economic structure replete with American landowners serving the American market, Cuba has transformed into a global example for how state planning and a collectivization of society-wide efforts can lead to equitable outcomes in terms of education, healthcare, affordable housing and public harm reduction/prevention. This is not to say that the staunchly Communist society has yielded considerable results in eliminating material poverty — as backed by empiricism, material poverty is still ravaging Cuba. Personal liberties are non-existent and a multiplicity of thoughts as well as a differing of opinions other than the dominant narratives spouted by the state and its armada of acolytes elicits a violent reaction likely to end in incarceration — this in my books is definitely not progress.
To conclude, my thoughts on Socialism in the 20th century is that despite its misapplication (in terms of not adhering to the tenets of democracy which the progenitors of the politico economic and ethical social model espoused — Marx et Engels), its modus operandi mostly RE state economic planning, a collectivization of efforts at scale, mass capital investments and a problems-solutions conscientization led considerable human efforts at engineering material progress in history. Without this, the United States would not have been pushed to the wall at out-innovating the USSR in the hegemonic space race. It would’ve also been impossible to imagine excellent free healthcare at scale in the Western Hemisphere, especially in these climes where hundreds of millions of people go bankrupt while trying to access life-saving medical procedures. I also argue that a legacy of Socialism for our present world is socialized medicine through which a mass collectivization of efforts and scaled capital investments from state bureaucracies is enabling us effectively fight COVID-19 globally thanks to the rapid discovery of the vaccine and its “partly” egalitarian distribution.
Basil Abia is the author of the forthcoming book After the Revolution, what next? (2021)