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Opinion - What went wrong with the socialist project

2021-03-10  Staff Reporter

Opinion - What went wrong with the socialist project
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Gerson Uaripi Tjihenuna

In the seventies and eighties, a good number of political activists in both Namibia and South Africa – especially the then youth – were attracted by the ideals of socialism. 

The great October Socialist Revolution of 1917 that ushered in the birth of the first socialist state, the then Soviet Union and the Chinese Socialist Revolution led by Chairman Mao Tsedung were, for example, regarded as success stories by some of us. 

On the African continent, upon assuming power, both FRELIMO in Mozambique and the MPLA in Angola embarked upon the path of establishing socialist states. The socialist ideals were so much attractive to some of us as young activists, so much so that we decided to create a study group on socialism at the then United Nations Institute for Namibia (UNIN) that was based in Lusaka, Zambia.

This study group was under the mentorship of our Political Science lecturers, especially the late Chris Hesse (from Ghana) and the late Hidipo Hamutenya. Our discussions would cover a wide variety of topics, but the analytical perspective or frame of reference was always Marxist-Leninist.

Some of the people who did not go through our experience might think that those of us who identified ourselves as socialists were just idealists. Need I remind the readers that, at the end of the day, Apartheid as an ideology was underpinned by capitalist production relations that drew huge profits from black cheap labour; and that was done with the support of the leading western capitalist countries which also had vested economic interests in both South Africa and Namibia. 

Apart from the African countries and some other developing countries, it was the socialist countries that were at the forefront of supporting our struggle. And, lest we forget, it was the ideal of socialist international solidarity that motivated Cuba to support the MPLA government in Angola and our struggle for independence.  

The central idea behind socialism, which was later to lead to communism, as conceived by Marx and Engels, was a more humane society. It was a call for brotherhood, solidarity and equality of all the people.  The creation of a socialist state, under the leadership of the working class, was to, ideally, lead to a classless society and the abolition of the state as an instrument of class rule. Unfortunately, what unfolded in the then Soviet Union and other socialist countries was contrary to that original idea. In the former socialist countries, the Communist Party – the vanguard of the revolution – became a monster unto itself controlled by the party elite at the expense of the workers, peasants and other strata in society. 

The dictatorship of the proletariat (working class) was replaced by the dictatorship of the party. No other political parties were allowed and no free trade unions were allowed; the trade unions had to be affiliated with the ruling Communist Party. The state also controlled the media and almost all the aspects of social and political life; this resulted in the “suffocation” of the free competition of ideas. 

Rosa Luxemburg, a leftist Polish intellectual who was disillusioned by Soviet Socialism, was to remark: “…without the free competition of ideas, life in public institutions dies.” The means of production (industries and banks) were owned and controlled by the state and there was no room for market forces of supply and demand.

As we all know by now, in the absence of the free competition of ideas and products, the quality of political life and the quality of products is compromised. Thus, in a developing country like Namibia, the ideal economic model should be the one that allows room for a controlled “free market” guided by a developmental state to protect the poor and the vulnerable.

The internal contradictions that I referred to above - the absence of free competition of ideas and products as well the top-heavy centralization of political power – were the main cause of the collapse of the socialist states in Eastern and Central Europe. 

The notion that has been peddled by some socialists that western propaganda and sabotage were the main cause for the collapse of these socialist states does not hold water. The external contradictions were secondary; it was the internal contradictions that were the primary cause of this collapse.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union and other socialist countries in Eastern and Central Europe in the 1990s, socialism, as an international project, was forced on the back foot. Unlike the Cold War period, which was characterised by superpower rivalry between the US and the Soviet Union in a bipolarised international system – pitching multi-party democracy and capitalism on the one hand against socialism and one-party rule on the other – by the mid-nineties the world was completely different. 

Multi-party democracy and neo-liberal economic policies have now gained international currency and “acceptance” as the two core sets of norms underpinning what has come to be known as the good governance paradigm. 

For those who are quick to dismiss socialism as mere idealism, I would refer them to the small island of Cuba that has, against all odds, achieved a lot in terms of social rights (housing, free health care, free education and basic nutrition for all).  These social gains have been validated and confirmed by the UNDP Human Development Index. 

Motivated by the ideals of international solidarity, Cuba was also the first country to send hundreds of doctors to Italy to help curb the spread of coronavirus in March 2020 when the virus broke out there for the first time. 

The original socialist ideals were very humane, but the practical implementation of the socialist project ran into serious problems because of the internal contradictions stated above. Vladimir Lenin, the leader of the Great October Socialist Revolution in the then Soviet Union titled one of his books, “What is to be done”? I would ask the same question today: what is to be done? In other words, do we throw out the baby with the bathwater, or do we re-visit the socialist project? I would leave that open-ended question for others to answer.

2021-03-10  Staff Reporter

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