I was just at a conference that looked at the importance of Piketty’s most recent book for the future of capitalism. In talking about it, several participants mentioned the VoC literature. The acronym (which I thought at first referred to the Dutch East India Company) refers to the literature dealing with the “varieties of capitalism”. That made me think of the fact (which I discuss in my forthcoming book “Global inequality…”) that for the first time in history the entire globe is capitalist. In effect, for the first time in history, capitalism, defined as a system of the private ownership of the means of production, free wage labor, and rational pursuit of profit, does not have to share the globe with the “varieties of feudalism” or “varieties of socialism”. It has won.
But it also made me think of a project that I had in mind for some time and which I do not think I would manage ever to do, namely a reassessment of socialism. I think that the project would have to deal with two issues. First, to explain the rise and fall of socialism within a Marxist framework of successive modes of production. And second, to look at the legacies of socialism. Let me briefly go over both.
The first problem is something that everybody who believes that societies develop in some rational (or at least rationalizable) and not random fashion has to address: was socialism an anomaly, was it a detour from a normal historical path, was it a fallback into a kind of feudalism, or was it a step forward, made too hastily before, as Marx might have said, the forces of production and social consciousness were sufficiently developed? In the same vein, one has to ask if things might have looked differently if socialism had “naturally” developed where it was supposed to develop, namely in the most developed parts of the world, rather than in the semi-feudal Russia and the less developed parts of Europe. Should have then the left-wing forces furthered and nurtured the development of capitalism, in the expectation that the more it developed the closer the day of the Communist revolution, as the “legal Marxists” in Russia thought, or as Brad DeLong, at the conference where I was, attributed to Hilferding in the Germany of the 1920s?
That line of thought would imply that “voluntarism”, the forcing of transition to socialism too early when the underlying social system was not ready for it, might have been responsible for many of the negative features of socialism. But that line of thought is not, in my opinion, sufficiently persuasive because it skips too easily over (1) the fact that there were certain authoritarian features of socialism, implied in planning, that even had socialism won in the most developed countries, would have manifested themselves and thus seem inherent to it, and (2) leaves unexplained why a “voluntaristic” experiment was sufficiently powerful to have imposed itself to start with (if we do not believe that history is just lots of “sound and fury”). So, these are, I think, broader “philosophy of history” questions that the rise and fall of socialism poses to our thinking.
The second range of issues is more congenial to social science- and empirically-minded types like myself. These are, in part, the issues that can be put under the heading of the “premature welfare state”. Socialist economies, having taken place (with the exception of Czechoslovakia and Eastern Germany) in the less developed parts of Eurasia and in Cuba, have hurled these societies, within a remarkably short period of time, into modernism. They introduced welfare provisions (pensions, child benefits, guaranteed jobs) that were largely out of step with the economic level of development of the countries. These relatively heavy welfare states were politically impossible to dismantle after the fall of Communism even if one believes that they were too onerous (or unsustainable): the popular support for them was just too strong.
Modernization also meant rapid industrialization and urbanization. That in turn had its impact on family formation, fertility rates, sexual freedom, gender roles and ethnic discrimination. It is not an accident that the formerly socialist counties almost invariably (Poland being an exception) have extremely low fertility rates. They had such low rates not only during the last period of socialism when the societies went through a period of stagnation, but continued doing so in the two-and-half decades of return to capitalism.
Even if formal equality of women and ethnic groups did not erase gender or ethnic discrimination during socialism, it made it difficult to practice openly. The fall of socialism had ambivalent and contradictory effects on such forms of discrimination, depending on the country (hence the need for a “variety of socialism” literature). In some countries it led to the slippage into the pre-socialist gender and ethnic discrimination or intolerance, leading, as most notably in the former Yugoslavia, but also in Russia, Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia etc., to ethnic and religious wars. In some countries, gender-stereotyped roles returned with a vengeance. Thus in several aspects, one could argue that the imposition of socially progressive norms, once the compulsion that kept these norms in place dissolved, led to an explosion of the most retrograde racial, ethnic and gender prejudices. Socialist ideology seemed to have forced populations too abruptly, too far and too violently from their “natural state” of prejudice which then, in a reaction, once the pressure of the political correctness released, went backwards much more than it would have done otherwise.
But that explanation is incomplete because it overlooks that in some ways socialism effected irreversible and positive change: women, free to enter the education system as equals, to find employment and become earners were not going to be put back into the feudal box again. Thus the share of university-educated women remains high in all former socialist countries and the share of women-managers in Russia is among the highest in the world. Sexual freedoms too are among the highest in the world.
It is within the same context of socialism that we need to look at China’s developments. Would have China developed the powerful economy that it has today without a massive social transformation carried out by Mao and (the young) Deng: reinforcement of the nation-state, rejection of foreign meddling (“kowtowing”), creation of a domestically-educated scientific elite, mass education, increased longevity, gender equality? These seem to have been the bases on which (the older) Deng in China but also even more dramatically Vietnam built market economies, and without which they might have been unable to create dynamic national, and not merely globally peripheral, economies. It is not obvious that without socialism China would have become “the new core”.
But one cannot discard the possibility that the single-party system which socialism bequeathed to these counties might, if one day it collapses into a multiparty democracy in a violent way, push these societies back into the past. So our reassessment of socialism is not only of an antiquarian interest. It raises, I think, many questions about the future trajectory of Russia and Cuba in matters such as population growth, family formation and the role of women or ethnic groups (what will be the position of Black Cubans in a capitalist Cuba?). In the cases of Vietnam and China, it leads us to ask whether the political transition when it occurs, will be such that it would lead them to a Singapore-like one-party regime that would maintain economic growth, or in contrast, because of social and political turmoil, would set them back several decades and jeopardize the most important legacy of socialism in both countries: nation-state consciousness brought about by the anti-colonialist, socialist-led struggle.