AS Labour’s support begins to rise in the opinion polls, we can expect to see all kinds of mud flung at Jeremy Corbyn by the Tories and their mass media. Some of it will have an ideological content that socialists cannot ignore.
For instance, the Labour leader and some of his shadow cabinet colleagues will be accused of representing an ideology and a system of society — socialism — that has failed as an alternative to dynamic, successful capitalism.
The lazy, cowardly or unconvincing response would be to disown all past and present attempts to construct such an alternative.
There were, it is true, very negative features about the basic model of socialism developed in the former Soviet Union and the communist-run states of eastern and central Europe. A significantly different model emerged in Yugoslavia. China embarked on its own path of socialist development 70 years ago. North Korea, Cuba and Vietnam broke free from foreign domination and under-development during the second half of the 20th century.
All these societies bore the birthmarks of their own particular circumstances, some of which have blighted aspects of their subsequent progress. The socialist states of the Soviet Union and Europe had to be built amid the terrible ruins of imperialist war and fascist occupation.
People’s China had to throw off the yoke of European and Japanese colonial domination. North Korea and Vietnam won their independence in the teeth of genocidal bombing campaigns by US military forces. Cuba’s revolutionaries cleared their country of its gangsters, whether political or criminal, and have never been forgiven by its vengeful neighbour to the north.
In almost every case, the Western powers have used their arsenal of economic, political and military weapons to defend or restore the rotten, corrupt and brutal regimes displaced by the forces of national liberation and socialism.
Not surprisingly, therefore, many of these early attempts to create socialist societies found it difficult if not impossible to realise their full potential, especially in the sphere of people’s democratic self-government. Yet, too, for long periods of their existence, these economies achieved full employment and grew at faster rates than capitalist countries at an equivalent starting point in their development.
This was true of the Soviet Union from the 1930s to the 1970s and of the socialist countries of Europe from the late 1940s to the early 1980s. It has certainly been the case in China from the early 1980s to the present day.
Western propagandists like to attribute China’s phenomenal success to its deployment of private capital and market mechanisms. In reality, China’s levels of public ownership, centralised planning and Communist Party-directed state control still define its economy as “socialist” rather than a “free market” capitalist one.
Socially, the socialist countries made enormous advances in the eradication of extreme poverty, disease, illiteracy, gender discrimination, anti-social criminality and other aspects of social inequality. Culture and the arts were brought to the mass of the people on a scale unknown in many developing countries in the Western world.
Two recent reports highlight the achievements of socialism on two very different continents. The first is the German government’s survey of the impact of unification 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
It reveals that many citizens of the former German Democratic Republic believe they were safer, happier and valued more in the old socialist system there. For all the survey’s boasting about economic modernisation and new investment, the takeover by West German politicians and capitalists has meant a catastrophic loss of jobs, social provision, status and social solidarity for millions of Germans in the east.
Of course, this does not mean that lessons should not be learnt from the mistakes and weaknesses of the socialist system in the GDR and elsewhere in matters of technology, planning, the environment and popular participation.
The other report, in the British Medical Journal, points to Cuba’s magnificent advances in healthcare, education and the empowerment of women. Here is a socialist society which places the welfare of its people at the centre of decision-making, in the sharpest contrast to the grim record of other Latin American societies dominated by US imperialism and local corrupt elites.
To echo the late South African communist leader Joe Slovo: socialism may fail in some early attempts, but capitalism fails a billion unemployed, sick, displaced or destitute people every day.
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