Socialism in Europe: Experiences and Lessons from the 20th Century and Prospects for the 21st Century

Autor: Lothar Bisky <(at)>, Téma: International, Vydáno dne: 02. 10. 2008

Speech by Lothar Bisky, Chairman of the European Left Party, delivered to the International Department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China during the visit of the EL official delegation to the People’s Republic of China.

Dear comrades,

Let me first – also on behalf of the Delegation of the European Left – express my thanks for this opportunity to offer my viewpoint and my opinion on the experiences and prospects for socialism in the 21st century. This is a subject that is definitely ripe for a fruitful exchange between the Party of the European Left and the Chinese Communist Party. With this in mind, I hope to get to know your views of the developments of Europe and your experiences in the development of China, and I look forward to an interesting exchange.

In the 20th century we saw the first attempts, with a long-term view, to create a society based on the ideas of Marx and Engels, a society free from exploitation and repression that guaranteed all people a share of wellbeing and the chance to express their personalities freely.  There is no argument that this attempt was anything other than legitimate, especially when, as in my homeland, it came as an answer to the catastrophe that was the Second World War.

EL delegation during discussion at ID CC CPC.In addition, we must deal with the fact that state socialism in Europe at the end of the 20th century failed without exception – first and foremost in its motherland, the Soviet Union.

1989/90 is also, geopolitcally, the decisive starting point of this analysis.  The collapse of state socialism in Eastern and Central Europe is not an intra-European/-Asian event – it has affected the course of world history, and its effects can still be felt.

Let us now take a look at the starting conditions of the attempt at making a real socialist society. There, where its development was first attempted with the victory of the Bolshevik Revolution – in Russia and the countries that later became the Soviet Union – the conditions for developing a socialist society were, as you can imagine, poor. In large part, the territory of the Soviet Union was undeveloped by comparison to the capitalist countries. Feudal relationships were also still powerful. The country had also been weakened by the war. In addition, the Civil War and the attack by the Entente powers directly followed the victory in the Revolution, so that the need to consolidate power shaped the policies of the Communists. The consolidation of power, as it was theoretically grounded by Marx and Engels and then clearly emphasised by Lenin, would remain the guiding principle of the socialist/communist parties in the state socialist countries till their collapse.

From this starting point, the Soviet Union – and later the other socialist states, under various conditions - succeeded in stimulating significant economic growth after the consolidation of the socialist system in society. This was the basis for achievements in science, technology and culture and was accompanied by a clear improvement in living standards. Not for no reason do many people in Eastern Europe now look back on the era of socialism as a time of comparatively high material living standards, and in some respects of cultural flowering. The certain social homogeneity despite different ways of living, in the towns, in the country, among workers or intellectuals, was understood as an expression of social equality.

However, it must be borne in mind that the struggle to consolidate power and the force needed for this – for example the forced collectivisation of agriculture – both secured the new social system’s existence and limited its development even at the start.

As long as the successes – economic, scientific, technical and cultural – justified the ruling powers, the majority of the population continued to support the new social system, even if they had perhaps not decided for it personally themselves. However, as patronising policies and state intervention began to impede the development of society, as living standards stagnated and became a blight on intellectual and cultural life, it became increasingly clear that the façade of the system could only be upheld by overexploitation of the economy and, perhaps even worse, at the cost of the environment. People began to turn away from the state and the parties leading it, and went over to the clearly more effective social model in the conflict between systems.

A social order that is based fundamentally on the cooperation of, if not all people, at least the overwhelming majority, can only use force to compensate for such a situation for a certain length of time.  By the time this insight filtered into the leaders of the national parties, it was too late. What had been conceived as a cautious opening of valves could not direct the pressure of necessary reform into constructive channels, but became instead an opening of the floodgates, which partly surprised even the Western Cold War powers.

The former national parties had to come to terms with the reasons for their failure. At the extraordinary SED-PDS Party Conference in December 1989, our comrade Michael Schuman, who died tragically much too young, put it thus:

“The symptoms of this abuse of power are now obvious:

  • Concentration of power in the hands of an arrogant autocrat,
  • Control of the economy by a command centre that lacks an understanding of the elementary requirements for production and welfare in society, and for the quality of life of the population,
  • Regimentation and bureaucratisation of culture, science and education, which raised criticism abroad,
  • Political repression of the citizens of our republic, and the criminalisation of dissention, 
  • Transformation of the media into an information desert and an abhorrent propaganda machine,
  • Marginalisation of the party’s mass members in all party internal decision-making processes.

In such an environment of abuse of power, the morass of corruption and self-seeking enrichment spread.  Unbearable flights of despotism among the ruling elite and several emulators at a lower level have brought our party into disrepute. A deep rift opened between leaders and people, and between the party leadership and the party masses. From those individuals and groups who wanted change, a comprehensive popular movement grew. They demanded their rights in the streets, as the country threatened to collapse under a mass exodus.

The movement to renew socialism is, in its own way, a revolutionary movement. The members of the Politburo vilified the people’s movement as counter-revolution, and wanted to suppress it by force.  In fact, in this situation they were the counter-revolutionaries.”

But even those causes that lay deeper in the history of the 20th century communist and socialist movements - which I sought to outline above – were analysed in 1989/1990. This was also necessary. The deformations and unspeakable crimes of Stalinism discredited not just those politicians responsible and their parties, but also the idea of socialism among the people. In the speech quoted, Michael Schumann spoke for the party as a whole: “We are breaking irrevocably with Stalinism as a system.”  This basic consensus was also reached in 2004 at the foundation of the Party of the European Left, in Rome, as a continuing task in the rehabilitation of the history of the socialist movement in Europe.

Socialists in the former socialist states – when they did not leave socialism altogether in their disappointment – learnt a lesson in large part in 1989/1990: Civil and social rights cannot be divided; freedom and justice are two sides of the same coin. Having one without the other leads to a deformed society.

The collapse of state socialism also had an effect on the leftwing parties of Western, Northern and Southern Europe.  Their existence was also connected to the fortunes of the socialist faction: this was partly by design, and partly because they were seen as connected to developments in Central and Eastern Europe by society in their own countries. They found different solutions to this challenge. The results ranged from blind defence to critical confrontation, resulting in the constructive development of leftwing theory and political practice. There was also another matter: in their approaches to the key issues put to them in their societies, they combined the “classic” socialist viewpoints, which above all followed party-political considerations, with the ideas and experiences of the “new social movement”, with ecological, feminist and other emancipatory approaches. They have brought this wealth of experience to the European Left. Even though not all members of the European Left see themselves as socialists, the contemplation of European socialism in the 21st century still profits greatly from these experiences.

The thoughts on the prospects of socialism in the 21st century come from these very different sources and experiences. Thus by necessity it became a matter of course that, besides the key lessons from the experiences of 20th century socialism - the indivisibility of civil and social rights – a high value is placed on the pluralism of opinions in discussions with in the party. Nobody has the complete, all-encompassing answers to the complex social problems of developed neoliberal capitalism. For this reason, there are various approaches to the problem within the European Left.  From its discussions, the European Left aims to develop common answers and offerings for society, presenting alternatives to neoliberal society in Europe and worldwide. The EL wants to offer a society that is ecologically and economically more sustainable, fairer socially, and governed by more equality between the sexes. The question is: How do we develop a society where solidarity reconciles freedom and equality with each other?

The Left found itself in a deep crisis after the historic break in 1989. Even today, it is on the defensive within society. However the voices asking for an alternative world, with alternatives to the prevailing neoliberalism, are growing louder.  These alternatives are essential: current capitalism is making the prophecies of the Communist Manifesto into reality. And I quote:

“Society suddenly finds itself put back into a state of momentary barbarism; …because there is too much civilization, too much means of subsistence, too much industry, too much commerce. Productive forces… have become too powerful for these conditions…  The conditions of society are too narrow to comprise the wealth created by them. - And how does the bourgeoisie get over these crises? On the one hand, by enforced destruction of a mass of productive forces; on the other, by the conquest of new markets, and by the more thorough exploitation of the old ones. But how? They do this by paving the way for more extensive and more destructive crises, and by diminishing the means whereby crises are prevented.”

The global competition to lower taxes, shorten pensions and downgrade jobs only has one winner: financial capital. It even makes a return on the sale of a used-up business. If business does not fight against politics, then economic substance will be destroyed first, as well as economic power in the regions, the chance to build self-sufficient economic structures, and the power to make changes in socio-economic employment will be minimised. After such desertification, politics has no powers for construction for the future. Politics is – as Fausto Bertinotti clearly explained – in a crisis.
The European Left, as well as many from other points on the social spectrum, cannot accept this. In order to win back political powers for change, to take a modern stance of opposition, it is important to me that the European Left remains a multi-party project and develops in the direction it has embarked upon. Pluralism is not arbitrary, but means the common definition of significant political goals out of very different sources, viewpoints, life experiences and ideas. We can only meet the big challenges if we combine the experience of trade unionists with the ideas of the free software movement, if we defend the social campaign in the towns and in the country, and free research and learning at universities together with the peace movement and environmental initiatives. We need these various political experiences, in order to – as Fauso Bertinotti says – create a critical mass, whose political alternatives will be heard and will force its way into the social debate.

Fausto Bertinotti summarised the task facing us in his speech “Massa Critica. E nuovo soggetto Politico. Come correre e cercare la strada”: “We must act fast and at the same time find a way”, if a new political issue should arise. He asked in his speech where the public identity for an alternative would come from.

Perhaps my answer is a little simple, but I do not think we will have to search for so long for it. Let us take what was valid for a long time in cultural conflicts during the hard work of the transformation analysis of globalised capitalism, of socialism in the 21st century, namely the identity of openness for other experiences, other cultures, other approaches to finding a solution – all for a common goal.

The Left, in its search for the socialism of the 21st century, must answer the questions about the economic foundation of a fair society – an economic foundation, which offers the basis for the social equality we are striving for, and at the same time conserves natural resources and does not consume them. The Left must consider a new configuration of state, market and civil society – an important issue in modern socialist theory – in which timely functions of a responsible state, controlled by society, the contribution of civil society and the progress for civilisation realised by the market are all brought to fruition. At the same time, the Left must develop ideas for education all people in a world that is changing ever faster, for cultural diversity in a world that is coming ever closer together, and where neoliberal capitalism is sacrificing cultural assets in the interests of exploitations; ideas, which see the peaceful resolution of international problems as a fertile ground for innovation in social development.

In this way, the European Left is counting in its policy development on the opportunities that globalisation offers alongside its well-known risks, as well as on European integration, freedom and equality, ecologically sustainable economic development, democratisation and gender equality.

Beijing, 11 September 2008