Can Socialism Work?

If capitalism can’t protect the environment, what can? One of the arguments used against socialists is that the Stalinist states of the ex-Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and so on called themselves socialist. Yet they also destroyed the environment, often to an even greater degree than in the West.

While these countries did indeed base themselves on state ownership of industry and resources, and an attempt to plan production across different sectors of the economy, they were not socialist. The mass of people had no democratic control over society or industry. Instead, they were dictatorships where a handful of bureaucrats at the top made all the decisions. What did they care if the planning quotas and targets they set in Moscow, Warsaw or Budapest had disastrous consequences hundreds or even thousands of miles away? Even when targets were met, there was massive waste. Between 1966 and 1970, of 1,500,000 tractors delivered in the ex-Soviet Union, 1,150,000 were written off.

During the existence of these states (and today, in China and elsewhere), genuine Marxists, while defending the advantages of nationalization, never supported the system. A political revolution was needed to replace the bureaucrats with genuinely democratic control.

Stalinism and Nature

The Stalinist bureaucracy believed they were all powerful, able to dictate to people and nature alike. This produced an arrogant one-sided approach to science and, hence, to the environment. Nature was to be conquered on the path of progress. Russian scientists were forced to cling to unproven and discredited theories which suited the bureaucracy. While scientific works were produced claiming they were inspired by Stalin, any who argued that the environmental factors should be considered in planning and development were denounced as “geographical determinists” and traitors. A whole series of disasters, from massive failings in the Soviet grain crop and starvation because of a refusal to accept ‘Western’ theories of genetics to the explosion of the nuclear power station at Chernobyl in the Ukraine, were the result.

Mad, hair-brained schemes were tried without regard to the results as parts of the Stalinist world became giant laboratories. The disastrous consequences of such policies right across the ex-Stalinist world show the dangers in a narrow interpretation of the benefits of technology and science, without regard for the medium and long-term consequences of certain processes (the ‘second and third consequences’ that Engels spoke about – see Chapter 2).

Stalinism completely failed to understand a Marxist approach to nature, in the rush to industrialize the Soviet Union in its early years. At the First Congress of Soviet Writers in 1926, for example, V. Zazubrin made a speech indicating all that was wrong with such an approach: “Let the fragile green breast of Siberia be dressed in the cement armor of the cities, armed with the stone muzzles of factory chimneys, and girded with iron belts of railroads. Let the taiga be burned and felled, let the steppes be trampled … Only in cement and iron can the fraternal union of all peoples, the iron brotherhood of all mankind, be forged.”

Disappearing Sea

Water and sea pollution show the catastrophic effects of some of the policies of the former rulers of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. A plan to turn the river-basins of the Aral Sea into a huge cotton-growing area, by diverting rivers and streams for irrigations, has, instead, led to the land becoming salted and useless. The Aral Sea itself has lost two thirds of its volume since 1960. The coastline has retreated between 60 and 120 km, leaving fishing villages and ports stranded. Where once there was a sea, there are now 36,000 square kilometers of salt plains (an area about the same size as the Netherlands), which every year the wind storms whip up, carrying 75 million tons of salt mixed with toxic chemicals long distances, poisoning the soil and causing illnesses. The fishing industry, which once produced a catch of 50,000 tons per year, has disappeared, and wildlife and agriculture have been decimated.

The rivers have virtually disappeared and those that remain are poisoned with salt and farm chemicals. Still, people drink it. In one region, Karakalpakstan, life expectancy is 20 years lower than the rest of the former Soviet Union. A huge range of illnesses affect the population, with 97% of women anemic and infant mortality at 80 deaths per thousand born. Four out of five babies are born anemic and one in twenty have congenital disorders.

The Polish Academy of Sciences describe the country as the most polluted in the world. Air pollution in cities is up to 50 times legal, 78% of the forests have air pollution damage, most of the water is too polluted to drink, and a quarter of the soil is too contaminated to grow food. This pollution was one of the factors that pushed the people to overthrow the bureaucracy.

The end of Stalinism has not brought an end to pollution, only increased poverty and unemployment. Russia has experienced the biggest drop in industrial output in the history of modern economics since 1990. Environmental destruction, even above the level it was under the old regime, is all that the ‘market’ will offer. As it moves into the profitable areas of industry and agriculture in the ex-Stalinist moves it will leave behind it a trail of destruction on a par with the ‘new lands’ it ‘conquered’ elsewhere in the world.

A determined effort for economic growth in a backward, poverty-stricken economy such as Russia after 1917 was understandable. However to succeed it needed to be carried out in a balanced manner with the active involvement of the people. What happened, however, was an unbalanced dash for growth with many zigzags, after the coming to power of Stalin’s dictatorship, in 1924. Although it led to massive improvements in the living standards of the mass of the population, the bureaucracy’s imitation of all the production processes of capitalism in a desperate attempt to catch up was a disaster. It had nothing to do with the Marxist approach to nature, economic growth or human needs.

But the growth shouldn’t be a goal of society just for the sake of it, it must be for the production of goods and services for people, nor just for the sake of figures and meeting targets. A new, socialist society would measure growth in a new way. It certainly wouldn’t be the same as today, when the amount of work created by cleaning up an oil spill is valued in the same way as the work created by insulating homes.

What Difference Would Democracy Make?

The many workers in the former Stalinist states who could see the disastrous consequences of particular processes were either ignored when they complained, or sometimes even ‘disposed of’. These states show the critical need for the involvement of workers, peasants or rural workers and consumers, for democratic checks and balances. The existence of independent trade unions, mass political parties and campaign organizations in the West have provided some control to the attacks on the environment. In the Stalinist and neo-colonial countries, where workers are brutally oppressed, these controls hardly exist so the ravages go unchecked.

Democracy is necessary for socialism. Without it inevitably a publicly owned economy would clog up and grind to stagnation. In the early days of the Soviet Union, when heavy industry was being developed, the lack of democracy meant that serious mistakes were made. However, it was not decisive in preventing the development of the basic sectors – steel, coal, the railways and so on.

Once the economy became more sophisticated, however the lack of democratic checks and accountability meant that it began to grind to a halt. An economy producing over a million types of, sometimes quite complex, consumer goods cannot be run ‘by command’ from a central planning office in Moscow, or anywhere else for that matter. Workers have to be involved at a workplace level in determining the most effective methods of production; consumers have to have a say over the quality of goods being produced; and society as a whole, through local, regional and national government has to ensure that resources are directed to where they are needed and to manage the way in which the different parts of the economy ‘fit together’.

This process would be facilitated by the explosion of information technology and computers. It would also be possible in a modern socialist economy to radically reduce the working week, freeing people from the day-to-day grind work to be able to fully participate in society as a whole. Elected representatives, subject to the right of recall by their electors and paid no more than the people they represent, would combine with people with specialist knowledge – scientists, architects and other technicians – to plan and regulate the economy and social and environmental policy.

A fully democratic society, where the wealth was held in common, would mean that no one section, class or caste would have interests separate from others. There would be nowhere to push – or externalize – environmental costs on to. What possible reason would such a society have to wreck the medium or long-term common good through short-term and short-sighted policies that make a quick profit?

Economic and political democracy and control at all levels is the only way to ensure than an economy based on public ownership reflects both the needs of people and the interests of the environment. There is no such thing as socialism without democracy.