The purpose of this blog is to provide analytical commentary on formal and informal labour organisations and their attempts to resist ever more brutal forms of exploitation in today’s neo-liberal, global capitalism.

Friday, 8 November 2013

Why socialism can be nothing else than ‘real’: Lessons from ‘really existing socialism’ – Part II.

In Part I of this essay, we have seen some of the oppositions used in thinking about socialist economies (static vs. dynamic, closed vs. open economies, plan vs. market coordination). In this second part, I will deal with some of the premises on which thinking about the social consequences of socialist economies is based. I will look more particularly at the role of consumerist desires and informal networks of relations as a way to challenge how we think about both socialism and capitalism today.

Social inequalities and their mitigation: networks of social relations vs. autonomous consumerist identities

Another common accusation against socialism is that it generated important social inequalities that went counter its professed goals of proletarian brotherhood. The economy of shortage struck disproportionately the large masses of workers while shielding the nomenklatura, and resulted thus in an unequal society based on privilege and positions. By contrast, capitalist societies generated general abundance that trickled down the social ladder, while social mobility inscribed in market competition made for shifting, if still present social inequalities.

But again, the picture is skewed. If we compare before (socialist) and after 1989 (capitalist) societies in the East the reverse appears to be the case. Indeed, even during the dark decade of the 1980s, socialism did not generate social inequalities to the scale of current neo-liberal capitalism. By contrast, more than two decades of neoliberal reform brought the new capitalist ruling class to pinnacles of power never achieved by socialism’s nomenklatura.

This is because under socialism market-induced inequalities were strongly contained by the dominance of redistributive mechanisms and the special place given to workers in the socialist society. The valuing of work, and especially of physical work, meant that pay differentials between the latter and intellectual work were not very high. Given official ideology and the specificities of production processes under socialism, workers had relative power, especially at the shop-floor level. If real socialism stood for various levels of political surveillance, especially of its intellectual strata, it also stood for social mobility, and, in its last decades, universal access to employment, healthcare, and education. The irony is that not only the working classes benefitted from them, but also the intellectuals, including those who sought to conquer a dissident voice in the West.

Moreover, under socialism, the development of black and gray markets has resulted in the diffusion of market control among a significant portion of the population, namely small farmers and other actors in the second economy. Finally, socialism also provided the institutional setting for forms of living that encouraged social amalgamation in the new socialist blocs built for the increasingly numerous working classes following from industrialization; as well as for those that encouraged a more balanced urbanization and the continuation of rural living revolving around a combination of commuter industrial labour force and small subsistence farming (seen now as a pathway to sustainable living).

The transition from socialism to capitalism led to the sharp downsizing of the social and economic functions of the state, as well as to the concentration of market control at the top of society. Indeed, successive privatizations, combined with the increasing importance of informal and illegal transactions in post-socialist capitalism led to the increased control over the market by large players, such as local entrepratchiks and CEOs of Western multinationals. Class inequalities in CEE thus became much higher after its demise than during the socialist period.

Social redistribution had also been strong in capitalist societies after the Second World War, a strange echo resulting from workers’ struggles and ruling classes’ fears of contamination with the East’s version of socialism. After the 1970s, as the state was progressively hollowed out, capitalist societies downplayed redistribution and social solidarity to the profit of the idea of an autonomous consumerist identity as an area where social inequality would be resolved. Consumption was thus seen as an area where socialism, plagued by shortages, notoriously failed. And the urge to consume as a means of self-realisation was presented as a major driver behind its fall in Central and Eastern Europe.

But while socialist citizens definitely wanted access to material wellbeing, this does not mean that their standards of what constitutes a good life covered the same range of consumer goods, nor that they gave the same meaning to these goods as in capitalist societies. Importantly, access to collectively produced goods such as healthcare, education and social benefits, rather than strictly individual consumer goods, was paramount in their scheme, as it continued to be after socialism’s demise. But most interestingly, socialism also provided the setting for some (unwanted) experiments in non-commodity forms of exchange and access to goods - through the proliferation of the informal and unplanned economy, and in social arrangements that put a premium on the development of networks of personal relations - as opposed to contractual, commodified ones. Under socialism, consumption had thus channels that departed from commodity ones, and aims that were linked not so much to personal, autonomous self-realisation, as to the improvement of one’s family standing in a web of personal social relations. Thus, CEE populations went to the streets to demand “down with communism” not because all they wanted was to quick jump into a consumerist and thoroughly capitalist paradise, but because they wanted socialism to live up to its promises: that of access to consumer goods, but also, more importantly, to a larger set of social rights (decent work, universal education and healthcare, etc.).

Personal informal networks are not, however, the monopoly of socialist societies or of disenfranchised post-socialist citizens. Depending on the institutional context and on their content, they can change from benign alternatives to individualist consumerism into predatory practices reproducing blatant social inequalities. Neoliberal capitalism generates with increasing speed these latter types of informal networks - such as those involved in lobbying or the funding of political campaigns, in the "creative accounting" that companies use to avoid paying taxes, or in the corruption linking public officials, private entrepreneurs and multinational companies. In this respect we could wonder whether contemporary capitalism, post-socialist or not, is not, in the end, more about patron-client relationships than contractual ones. Corruption would thus be a prerequisite not so much of socialism and its legacies, but of our own contemporary neoliberal capitalism.

We need thus to move our thinking of really existing socialism beyond the image of a static, closed shortage economy, and into grasping it as a dynamic space of social struggle and transformation in an evolving global context. The story of socialism thus still needs to be told. We know very little about socialism (and its aftermath) from the point of view of labour history. Even less do we know of workplace experiences and struggles in general, or of socialist and post-socialist experiments in worker self-determination in particular. Many of those who have had a direct experience of socialism as workers have quit the world of employment in the meantime. These means we have less and less informants for studies in the oral history of socialism, but also less and less witnesses who could invoke their direct experience under socialism as lived testimonies to the possibility of alternatives. It’s true that they are worn out after half a century of relentless attacks on their worker status and marginalisation of their voice, but at least for now we still have them with us – waiting for a bridge to be made towards their once mighty experience of a different world.

Further reading:

Stan, S. 2008. “Faire marcher le marché: l’anthropologie à l’épreuve de l’économie post-socialiste, Anthropologie et sociétés, special number on Mondes socialistes et (post)socialistes, 32, 1-2 : 43-64.

Stan, S. 2005. "De la nostalgie à l'abjection: la mémoire du socialisme à l'épreuve de la transformation post-socialiste", Ethnologies, 27, 2 : 79-105.

Sabina Stan is Lecturer in Anthropology and Sociology at Dublin City University, Ireland, and currently a fellow at the Centre for Advanced Study at the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters.


  1. Sabina Stam's argument for the socialism represented by the Communist bloc depends on a refutation of the (neo)liberal view of such. It thus forgets or conceals the labour, left, libertarian, anarchist or autonomist critique of state-defined socialism. It also fails to consider the experiences and attitudes of the peoples of these countries (plural because the peoples included Jews, Romani and many other ethnic/national/religious minorities).

    The repeated uprisings - often labour based and violently repressed - in various of these countries are not considered. Nor that the regimes were eventually overthrown or collapsed due to the active or passive hostility of the majority of their populations.

    Anyone can get a better understanding of popular attitudes by recourse to the anti-Communist jokes passed mouth to mouth, despite the risk of imprisonment or worse (I have a collection I can publish here or pass to Sabina personally).

    It would, surely, be more realistic to treat these regimes not as socialist but as statist, industrialist, modernising, patriarchal, militaristic, chauvinist, racist. That they might have been inspired by socialism, that socialists might have fought for them, that socialists existed within them, makes them no more socialist than do so many claims elsewhere to be 'democratic'.

    As for the dictatorship of the proletariat, this was clearly a dictatorship over the proletariat, with unions possibly providing social services but always finally subordinate to the party-state.

    As Brecht's little man quipped after the Berlin Uprising of 1953, 'There has clearly been a total breakdown in confidence between the people and the state: I propose we dissolve the people and elect a new one in its place'.

    The universal worker joke was 'They pretend to pay us and we pretend to work'. Here's another one, 'Socialism is the stage of human development between capitalism and...capitalism'. (The predictive power of this one is greater than that of any socialist analysis I am aware of).

    Any 'Ostalgia' still existing amongst the peoples of Easter and Central Europe can be compared with that of British people for the wartime UK. This is a sense of community created by people confronted by a situation over which they have no control. Any re-imagination, any re-invention of an alternative to capitalism will surely have to be constructed out of less polluted material.

    And surely the final evidence of the nature of these regimes is the social, political and cultural desert they left when they finally collapsed. Where was 'socialist man' here (in the same hole as 'socialist woman', though she was deeper down it)?

    I look forward to Sabina's response to this. I am also curious about her own background here, whether she lived under this 'socialism' or is, rather, a specialist on it. For myself, I was a British Communist who worked for international Communist organisations in Prague, once in the 1950s, once in the 1960s. On the second occasion, Soviet tanks came in to return Czechoslovakia to what Sabina, curiously, calls socialism).

  2. Thanks to Peter Waterman for his thoughtful and incisive comments. My essay was primarily concerned not with the evaluation of CEE socialism, but with the way people came to talk about it after 1989. Seeing this brand of socialism as a unitary, homogenous phenomenon not only justified the ruthless post-socialist privatisation of what were socially produced goods but also serves to obscure CEE peoples’ experiences during that period. Having said that, I more than agree with Peter that knowledge of CEE socialism is important. I will address here two sources of this knowledge that Peter implicitly advances in his comments: 1) the personal experience of the analyst, and 2) popular socialist jokes. I will pinpoint to some of their limits, and advance that we need to go beyond them in order to really understand CEE socialism.

    The first of these sources is personal experience. Yes, I lived through Romanian socialism (mainly the 1970s and 1980s) and found myself on 21st of December 1989 in Bucharest’s Piata Universitatii shouting with thousands of others ‘down with communism’. This experience is however not as transparent as it seems in hindsight. What did demonstrators want to be over in those moments? Definitely, they wished to put a stop to the 1980s’ declining material standards and rising political surveillance by increasing their democratic participation in both politics and the economy (and in that sense radical democratic critiques of CEE socialism are very much warranted). But did that mean they asked for neoliberal capitalism? In 1989, apart from the minority of the already liberal intelligentsia, most CEE workers did not seek and end to employment guarantees and universal access to education and healthcare, or the 1-dollar sale of state companies. Otherwise said, they did not want an abolishment of socialism, but its more truthful fulfillment. Unfortunately, the post-socialist alliance between the CEE and Western liberal elites managed to silence those voices (as ‘nostalgia’) and impose a totally different course to the region’s history.

    Caution is also warranted when using the second source invoked by Peter, namely jokes. The joke of ‘they pretend to pay us, we pretend to work’ is relevant more of the way in which CEE socialism is painted in neo-liberal accounts than of the actual socialist experience of CEE peoples. Especially in the 1980s, the problem was not the level of workers’ wages but the fact that they could not buy much on the formal consumer goods market. Worker paychecks were higher during the last decades of socialism than immediately after its fall. In Romania, it took post-socialist wages more than a decade to get back to 1989 levels – only for minimal wage to stabilize in the last years below Chinese Levels (see Stan and Erne 2013 at: As for ‘pretending to work’, surely that would be a bluntly inaccurate qualification of the work experience of the millions of workers that lived and worked during the 45 years of CEE socialism (Greek workers are undergoing now a similar rhetorical backlash, transformed as they are in the cheating lazy good-for-nothings at the root of their country’s and Europe’s crisis). (continued in the next comment)

  3. (continuation from the previous comments) To understand the functioning of socialist economies we need thus more than single experiences or jokes. Fortunately, we do have a number of studies done already during socialism by a number of sociologists and anthropologists (M. Burawoy, K. Verdery, D. Kideckel, S. Sampson, C. Hann among others). Their studies paint a picture that is neither apologetic nor miserablist. They document such un-palatable findings for today’s bitter neo-liberal taste as considerable control of workers at the shop level or social mobility through state provided education and access to cheap housing. But, of course, we would need more studies to be able to engage in a honest evaluation of the social and economic performance of CEE socialisms across time, regions and sectors, and not in the least of trade unions’ role during socialism.

    Finally, in doing so we should be careful to avoid approaching real social processes in terms of conformity to a supposedly pure model. Thinking in terms of pollution, i.e. seeing CEE socialism as ‘dirty’, only serves to maintain the existing social order by excluding what is constructed as ‘dirt’ (see Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger). This is exactly what the post-socialist neo-liberal offensive did after 1989: in its view, CEE socialism badly infringed on the market model of behavior and as such it needed to be completely overhauled in favor of ‘pure capitalism’. Unfortunately, Western left wing intellectuals chose to engage in a similar wholesale condemnation of CEE socialism, in the name of the purity of their alternative societal models. Social world is however always polluted. I doubt whether we can imagine, and even less build, a more just society without a critical but honest engagement with the socialist experiment in the East.

  4. Thanks for your forceful but civil response, Sabina, but it only convinces me that you are indeed engaging in an argument with neo-liberals and neo-liberalism rather than an investigation or evaluation of what I would call 'state-socialist' world, era and ideology.

    Obviously one has to go beyond popular humour and personal experience in evaluating state-socialism. I have not read the particular writers/works you refer to but have several shelves of writings and documents on Communist Czechoslovakia, overwhelmingly written by left and/or radical democratic critics, of which the most penetrating are those by Czechoslovaks, such as Jiri Pelikan, who became a Communist during the resistance to the Nazis, who was General Secretary of the International Union of Students when I worked for it, 1955-8, and later became Director of the TV, a prominent supporter of 'socialism with a human face' in 1968, and editor of a Czech dissident journal as a socialist exile in Italy.

    I think that their major criticism of state-socialism was the absence of democracy - of any meaningful surpassing of liberal democracy:

    'People are unhappy about the restrictions on criticism here in the DDR. Could the government not publish a list of things they are allowed to criticise?' (Brecht's Herr Kreuner, freely translated).

    You do not confront this democratic deficit though it was precisely the repression of freedom of expression (won by liberal, democratic and socialist social movements under capitalism) that led to such violent uprisings as in Hungary 1956, and to mass passivity when state socialism collapsed and all the - customarily malfunctioning - factories, shops, educational and health establishments were privatised in the most extreme and brutal manner.

    I am aware of a certain 'Ostalgia' in the former DDR, as well as a considerable vote for (reformed?) Communists in the Czech Republic. But we could only know what aspects of 'really existing socialism' they want back, and why, if they were surveyed. If you have such evidence, I'd be interested to hear of it. But if they wanted the Full Monty, I would find that tragic, since it would mean that they conflate socialism with the travesty of such. Just as, in the West, a majority think they are living under democracy - thus conflating this with something that has to be called liberal, parliamentary or bourgeois democracy (and is decreasingly democratic).

    So I do not think you are doing socialism a good service by seeking for elements thereof amongst the ruins of a state-socialism that did not surpass liberal-democratic capitalism but - at best - competed with it, reproducing many of its worst features (environmental destruction). And a self-exiled Czech philosopher told me in The Hague, 1972, 'The only thing worse than the fetishism of commodities is the fetishism without the commodities'.

    So if socialism is to be revived it has to be reinvented. And such a reinvention can take recourse to rather more productive experiences and ideas than those of the late and little-lamented Communist world.

    Further telling evidence:


    A queue has been standing outside the store for three hours. Two militiamen approach. 'All Jewish citizens step out of the queue and go home'. An hour passes: 'Now would anyone who joined the Party after 1945 get out of the line and go home'. Another hour passes. Finally no one is left apart from a handful of old Party members. 'OK comrades, now you will understand that because of certain temporary distribution problems there is no food in the store'. And one of the old Communists says, 'Why do the Jews always get the best of everything?'.


    'Have you got any fish?' 'No, this is the butcher's, we are the ones that don't have meat. The one that has no fish is the fishmongers'.

    Sorry for further (Anti-State Communist) jokes. But as we all know, one joke can tell us as much as 1,000 words.


    Peter W.

  5. Dear Peter,
    Your diagnosis in paragraph one of your last comment is perfectly right. I think it is indeed more urgent and pragmatically important to engage with neo-liberal critiques than with anarchist ones.
    For one, a point that I tried to make in my essay is that we need to move beyond understanding CEE socialism as a phenomenon unitary in time and space and that can be characterised by its internal dynamics alone. Left as well as right wing discussions about the nature of CEE socialism many times remain at exactly that level of generality (or essentialism).
    For two, radical left-wing discussions also many times remain at a what we could call a theoretical level. What anarchism does not have at this moment is precisely neo-liberalism’s practical bearing on people’s lives. Given its embeddedness in EU’s and CEE states’ policies, neo-liberalism has an immediate, concrete impact on the destinies of CEE populations. Engaging in a critique of neo-liberal views on CEE socialism is therefore more than a theoretical discussion about possible models of social existence, but an attempt to redefine here and now claims to various principles of social organisation.
    Finally, I feel there is an urgent need to reconsider people’s experience during CEE socialism. I do agree that there was a considerable ‘democratic deficit’ as you put it, and definitely people resented the power of the party and state nomenklatura. But I doubt this deficit can be equated with mass passivity or mass endorsement of undemocratic political forces after 1989. At least in Romania, the case that I know better, people did resist and protest privatisation and restructuring, not in the least of some public goods developed during socialism. In CEE, demands for the preservation of public goods such as healthcare have their roots not so much in western European social democratic models of welfare (now moving at a high speed towards its commercialisation through the introduction of new public management) but in the common socialist experience of universal access to healthcare. Trashing in block CEE’s socialist experiment thus unfortunately makes the game of neo-liberal attacks on these very socialist gains.
    So would CEE peoples get a second (theoretical) chance with how they are considered by radical left-wing western intellectuals? Is there a possibility to envisage, for example, that, if some battles were lost in post-socialist CEE, this does not mean that they were not fought by them?


Comments welcome!