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“Socialism” in East Germany? Is Obama Then Sorta “Socialist” Too?

By • Oct 30th, 2009 • Category: Commentaries

czech_students_surround_soviet_tanks_1968
Source: KASAMA

In our discussion of Heresy: On New Demarcations & Coherent Theory, a commentator (T1) argued strongly saying that East Germany (the GDR) should be considered socialist. Selucha responded that despite “socialist elements,” East Germany could not be considered a revolutionary society.

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I would say that the three claims of socialism in East Germany were not that remarkable for capitalist countries:

* welfare state features,
* state ownership of industry,
* government party self-labeling itself “socialist”

And that we can’t consider a society “socialist” based on just the presence of those “features” — i.e. socialism is not defined by either forms or official rhetoric. And this becomes clear when you start to compare societies.

Certainly Scandinavian countries have (in many case) put themselves forward as their own form of “socialism.”

And, when I was in West Germany during this period (i.e. the 1960s), the ruling party there was the SPD (known as “die Roten”, “the Reds”) and headed by Willy Brandt (who like Honecker had a resume with the anti-Nazi resistance, and was described as a “socialist.”) And so on…

Were those “socialist elements” in West Germany as well? There is in such designations a tendency to see modern capitalist welfare states as somehow “socialist.” And in particular to see public social services as those “socialist elements.”

The DDR did have some social benefits. The whole place felt like a big intramural sports league — with group fitness and team-building being a particular fascination. In the DDR (German Democratic Republic, in the east) there was a system of day care centers, for example. Is that what we are talking about?

But was it really different in that regard to its neighbors just to the West? (I.e. Denmark, West Germany, Sweden, etc.) Was that a “socialist” thing, or a development of all (capitalist!) countries in that region of north central Europe? Were these welfare systems a way highly socialized modern European capitalism defended itself (in a social-democratic counterinsurgency way) from the advance of radical proletarian revolution — or were they signs of the socialist revolution itself?

Similarly the eastern countries had a relatively high degree of state ownership compared, say, to the U.S. or Sweden. (Sweden has a famous welfare state system, but a very low degree of state nationalization of industry.) But industry and agriculture were not particularly nationalized in Eastern Europe compared to some western countries. I have seen for example comparisons between “socialist” Poland and capitalist Peru in the 1970s. Poland did not have a higher degree of state ownership of industry than Peru (i.e. basic industry were state owned in both). Peru had a network of state owned farms in the 1970s — while Poland’s agriculture remained largely uncollectivized and almost completely small capitalist family farms.

In fact, it is true of MANY “developing” countries in the Third World that their basic industries were nationalized in the 1960s (before the later “neo-liberal” changes) and that foreign capitalist investment then came through international loans to the state and its state sector. And in fact that feature of capitalist third world industrialization is tied to Mao’s conceptualization of “bureaucratic capitalism” as a major (oppressive) feature of semi-feudal, semi-colonial countries.

Such state ownership of basic industry was at that time a common (even typical) feature of developing capitalist economies in much of the world. India’s state steel sector, for example, received investment loans from the Soviet Union in a rather typically imperialist and exploitative way.

And yes, East Germany had an oppressive apparatus of organized informants and state surveillance — but it was not that much different from the operations of many governments in the west in its intrusiveness and semipermanent threat. In other words, the anti-communist Cold Warriors were wrong in their bogus distinction between “authoritarian” good guys versus the “totalitarian” bad guys.

Experiences in the Soviet Bloc

I spent a month traveling in the East Bloc country of Czechoslovakia (officially CSSR — CzechoSlovak Socialist Republic). And I was constantly struck by the way everyone spoke their mind. It was after the Prague Spring, and right after the 1969’s Warsaw Pact invasion (that included Soviet, but also East German and Mongolian troops) — and there, right in the middle of this occupation, people held rallies and debates wherever I was. They seemed to argue quite openly about the future and their political desires. The political level of these discussions was very low (comparable to the U.S.) — largely because people had obviously been quite excluded from politics in the preceding decades. I suspect part of the political freedom they felt came from the fact that no one was supporting (or reporting back to) the hated new Husak government the Soviet invaders had just imposed.

But still, even under occupation, the Czechoslovakia I traveled through did not feel like a “sordid police state.” But everyone I met (including Germans, Poles, Hungarians, Yugoslavs) said the same thing: “We couldn’t talk like this across the border back in the DDR or in the USSR.”

In other words: Sure East Germany had a social welfare system, but not one much more elaborate to its Swedish neighbor. And sure Poland had a state sector, but not much more developed than countries like Peru etc. Yes East Germany had low (or hidden) unemployment — but not lower than West Germany (which then had a semi-permanent labor shortage).

And yes, the Eastern European governments used “socialist” rhetoric to legitimize themselves — but was that so different from the Mexican governments’ rhetoric about “revolution” or anti-imperialism? Or the Manley government in Jamaica? Or the “socialism” of Burma/Myanmar’s ugly military rulers? Or the dogmatic paper “communism” of the CPI(Marxist) that has run semifeudal West Bengal for decades? Or the popular front government in 1930s France?

Is it so hard to see that capitalist (and imperialist) societies can have nominally “communist” governments — and yet not be socialist?

Particular Social Formations and Their Political Coloration

Out of the 1945 collapse of the Nazi expansion, and out of the fighting entry of the Soviet Army into that space, emerged a set of postwar social formations that had not had any real or deep radical transformations. They had the superficial trappings (the forms) of state ownership and “communist” political labeling (which were naturally demanded by the Soviet leadership). But they were, imho, as capitalist (in essence) as the countries to their west — and in many ways their governments were even less popular and legitimized because they had been so obviously imposed externally. (We posted writings by the German communist Bertold Brecht on some of these developments — particularly the east Berlin workers uprising of 1953.)

The exceptions in the East were (of course) Albania and Yugoslavia, where the new postwar governments arose from indigenous resistance movements (though with a lot more Soviet external help than they generally acknowledged). And those governments too had socialist and communist rhetoric. And, while I don’t know much about the internal history and development of Albania (does anyone?) — there is a lot of evidence that Yugoslavia was the very first example of this new kind of social formation — a capitalist society with a government calling itself “communist.”

In other words, this was not (as T1 asked) simply some mechanical matter of “it’s externally imposed, so it can’t be socialist.”

Even in Yugoslavia, which had an indigenous anti-Nazi resistance movement creating a new multinational federation out of Nazi occupation, the resulting formation was capitalist. In fact Tito pioneered this new phenomenon in history: State capitalism with a phony communist veneer.

I wrote an analysis of this Yugoslav history in the 1990s when Yugoslavia shattered into vicious local wars, and the Clinton government then attacked Serbia. Some left forces argue at the time that Clinton’s war on Serbia was an attack on the sole remaining “socialist’ state. Check out How Capitalism Caused the Balkan Wars.

And in answer to the question asked earlier: this article is an example of how “state capitalism” is a category within materialist analysis, not not simply an “epithet.”

Socialist Elements? What about Obama Then?

So are there “socialist elements”? Well it depends on your definitions.

Certainly the rightwing in the U.S. is on a rampage around this: They accuse Obama of being a socialist for wanting tiny state involvement in health care reform. They equate nationalized (west European style) health care with communism and Marxism. And some of them also consider income taxes, public schools, paper money, government firehouses, etc. to be “socialist elements.”

Should we agree that “Obama has socialist elements in his program?” Should we (like some on the left) support him on that basis?

I think we should disagree with the rightwing — and say “Obama is no socialist — and we should know.”

And overall, I also don’t think we should treat “social welfare programs + government lipservice to communism” as semi-socialist. (I also don’t think we should view neo-liberal privatization, say of the PRI-created structures in Mexico, as the dismantling of “socialist elements” in those societies.)

If we that, we would be conceding quite a bit in what we imagine (and expect) about genuine socialism.

Here is one way of looking at it: A society is either socialist or capitalist. Ultimately a society is either defined by capitalism (i.e. governed by the law of value), or its direction is defined by something else (the road of ongoing and deepening socialist transformation, where the people’s interests are through various political mediations in command of the direction of society).

In my view, welfare benefits, state ownership of some industry, etc. are really common features of some modern capitalism – reflecting its growing socialization, and the wealth of some imperialist countries (including both Germanies!). And these things also reflect, in some ways, features that show modern capitalism on the doorstep of new leaps in socialization. (And in that narrow sense alone they are, perhaps, “socialist elements.”)

I don’t think we should lower our sights and goals in that way — or cheapen the word “socialism” by reducing it to “day care centers plus state ownership plus informants.”

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