Why 'Socialism' Failed In Soviet Russia and Elsewhere

There are several reasons why socialism couldn't be built in the former Soviet Union (fSU) given the conditions that faced Lenin and the Bolsheviks.

[In what follows I am using "socialist" and "communist" (and their cognates) interchangeably and, in most cases, in conformity with Marx's understanding of those terms.]

(1) As Marx saw things, communism could only be built in countries where there was massive abundance (i.e., a very highly developed economy coupled with high levels of productivity). This wasn't the case in the fSU — or, indeed, in China, Cuba, much of E Europe, Vietnam, N Korea, Laos, Cambodia, and Venezuela. They were/are all backward economies or were recovering from war. Socialism can’t exist where there is scarcity. [Why that is so will be explained on request.] So Lenin and the Bolsheviks looked to the massive productive capacity of the German economy to come to their aid -- on that, see below.

[However, Marx began to change his mind later in life and thought some form of socialism might be possible in Russia, but it is arguable that by then he was in his dotage.]

(2) Equally, if not more important is the following: a communist society can only be built by the working class organised for and by themselves, acting democratically on their own behalf, not relying on anyone else to do it for them. The Russian revolution was initially led by the urban working class (in alliance with the peasantry), but that class was cut to ribbons by WW1 -- and then all but destroyed as an effective social, political and economic force as a result of the Russian Civil War and the famine that followed. Socialism can’t be built if there is no powerful and politically engaged proletariat (i.e., the urban working class under capitalism). [Again, why that is so will be explained on request.]

So, Lenin and the Bolsheviks argued that their revolution was doomed unless the revolutions spreading across Europe at that time succeeded (in Hungary and Italy, but far more importantly in Germany). Those revolutions failed for various reasons, and with that the prospects for the fSU nose-dived.

The revolutions in China and Cuba weren't even proletarian revolutions (howsoever popular they might have been at the time), but were prosecuted by guerrilla armies comprised largely of peasants, students, and 'intellectuals', etc. Whatever emerged as a result -- and independently of the aims of those taking part, howsoever well-intentioned they might have been -- could in no way be communist (except in name alone). Communism can’t be created by by-passing the proletariat. More-or-less the same can be said about Vietnam (which, despite the rhetoric, was a nationalist, not a communist, revolutionary war, first against the French and then against the USA), Laos and Cambodia. North Korea was set up as a puppet regime which only existed and survived because of the backing of the red army (Russian and Chinese). The 'revolutions' in E Europe in the years following WW2 were the result of invading red army tanks, and so could only be called socialist by someone with a twisted sense of humour.

Related to the above there are a few additional considerations, which are a little more theoretical, that differentiate Lenin’s approach to socialism from Stalin and Mao’s, the most important of which are the following:

(3) There are in fact two forms of socialism:

(a) 'Socialism from above',


(b) 'Socialism from below'.

The first form seeks to bring ‘socialism’ to the mass of the population, whether they want it or not. It is imposed from above (by a centralised, or even a democratically elected, state), as its name suggests.

This approach has been adopted by various political movements and ideologies, including Stalinism, Maoism, Castroism, Chavezism (as we have seen in Venezuela), Social Democracy [SD]. Democratic Socialism [DS], and conspiratorial Blanquism (which many confuse with Leninism).


Often, the population acquiesce to this form of socialism, and they might even welcome it at first — until they discover it doesn't work. That is because it leaves the mass of the population passive and hence unchanged. Left like this they are always going to be a threat to the new ruling class that has been formed as a result — as indeed we saw in Russia, E Europe, and much of the rest of the planet over the last century. On that, follow this link:


That is because 'Socialism from above' either:

(i) Leaves the class structure of society unchanged (as is the case with SD and DS), or

(ii) It introduces a new ruling elite (as was the case with all forms of ‘Communism’).

But, in both cases, the great mass of the population remains exploited and/or oppressed for their pains.

[Many confuse the above statist/corporatist forms of socialism with Marxism. They will struggle long and hard and to no avail to find anything in Marx’s writings that supports such a gross distortion of his ideas. It is also worth adding that ‘Communism’ and Marxism parted company in the fSU in the mid-1920s after Lenin died, and the Stalinists seized power.]

Every time the above form of socialism has been tried it has failed, or is now failing. That because:

(iii) In the case of SD/DS, the rich and powerful will always fight this lukewarm version of 'socialism', try to strangle it to death, or manoeuvre/force its leaders to compromise what few socialist principles they retain so that SD/DS gradually become a pale reflection of those parties and ideologies that genuinely and openly represent the interests of the ruling elite — that is, so that they begin to resemble to some extent Conservative and other right-wing parties — as we have repeatedly seen in the USA, UK, France, Spain, Germany, Italy, S America, Scandinavia, Australia, Canada, etc., etc. So, SD/DS doesn't change society in any fundamental way and leaves class division -- and hence the rich and powerful -- in place at the top. They try to run capitalism better than conservatives, and fail miserably. Whoever is in office under this form of ‘socialism’, the top 1% are always in power (they control the army, the police, the courts, the media, etc.), which means that SD/DS politicians, no matter how well meaning they might be, will either have to accommodate to the 1% and their ideologues in the media, or they will be out on their ears.

This is part of the reason for the rise in ‘populism’ across the globe right now, as the mass of the population reacts to the long-term failure of SD/DS and ‘liberal democracy’, which have in general looked after the interests of the rich an powerful not the working majority they claim to represent.

(iv) On the other hand, Communist regimes leave the capitalist world largely intact, isolating themselves from the international division of labour, which in the long run renders their economies inefficient and totally incapable of competing with the rest of the world. Hence, they are doomed to fail. They either (a) slowly strangle themselves to death (as we saw in E Europe and the fSU), (b) they adopt ‘market reforms’ and emulate ‘free market capitalism’ (as we are now seeing in China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and Cuba), or (c) are smothered by the imperial powers (as happened in Nicaragua, and might be about to happen in Venezuela).

As Engels, Lenin and Trotsky argued, islands of socialism can't be created in a sea of capitalism, and any attempt to do so will always fail. Post-1925 ‘communism’ disagreed, but history has shown that Engels, Lenin and Trotsky were right -- that form of ‘communism’ has been refuted by history, many times over.

(v) The second form of socialism, 'Socialism from below', represents Marx, Engels's, Lenin and Trotsky’s view. It involves the great mass of the working population creating a socialist society for themselves, not waiting for anyone, or any party, to do it for them.

This form of socialism is international, echoing Marx's "Workers of the world unite!"; it has to spread and take over the core economies of capitalism so that it can't be strangled in the above manner — as the proletariat of each country rebel. Follow this link for more details:


We aren't talking about invasion here; an invasion by an external or foreign socialist country or force won't change the working class of the country invaded in the required manner -- they have to change themselves, in their own way by their own revolution. Each strike, for example, is a mini-rehearsal for this (whether those involved appreciate this or not), whereby striking workers and their families have to learn to organise in their own communities, sharing ideas, money, clothing, food, shelter, etc. In effect they have to run a mini-socialist society for a few weeks or months. These are, in effect, mini-dress rehearsals for a working class revolution.

This is a basic fact about Marx’s view of socialism that SD-ers, Stalin, Mao, Castro and all the rest who advocate socialism from above, fail to comprehend, so determined are they to impose ‘socialism’ on other countries, or, indeed, on their own people.

Self-Emancipation in Marx and Engels

(4) Again, connected with the above, and primarily in the case of the fSU, when Stalin and his henchmen seized power in the mid-1920s, they knew full well that the capitalist states would either strangle them to death or they would invade and destroy them.

This they would do in order to quarantine the Bolshevik revolution, guarantee it failed, or physically destroy it to prevent the idea spreading that ordinary working people are capable of re-making society by themselves and in their own interests, expropriating the productive capacity of society by taking it out of the hands of the ruling elite.

But, the fSU in the mid-1920s was still economically backward, its industry and working population all but destroyed by WW1 and the Civil War that followed. As Stalin argued, they would have to make up the yawning gap between their economy and the rest of the capitalist world in a generation or they would be crushed.

[That is indeed what was attempted by Nazis in 1941, who had been regarded by many in the UK and the USA, for example, as ‘good anti-communists’ only a few years earlier.]

This meant that the Stalinist regime would have to impose an anti-democratic, autocratic and oppressive regime on the mass of the working population of the fSU. That is because, in order to catch up the state would have to subject the working population to super-exploitation -- whereby, the proportion of wealth going to that section of society would be reduced almost to subsistence levels, and often even below that (hence the massive famines, for example in the Ukraine) -- so that investment in heavy industry could be maximised. This in turn meant that the state had to become totalitarian, executing and terrorising hundreds of thousands, including nearly every one of the leading revolutionaries of 1917, since working people would resist, as they always have done, such extreme economic deprivations imposed anti-democratically. Only absolute terror would intimidate the population enough.

‘Communism’ destroyed itself by such moves — moves forced on it by trying to create ‘socialism in one country’. Attempting to catch up with ‘the west’ forced the Stalinist regime to trample on every socialist principle it once espoused. In order to compete with capitalism, it had to emulate it. It thus became its own opposite.

Tyrannies ruling in the name of socialism

To a greater or lesser extent, the same considerations applied right across the former ‘communist’ block.

Hence, these regimes were never popular; quite the reverse, in fact — and when many of them fell nearly 30 years ago not one single proletarian hand was raised in their defence. Indeed, workers were glad to see the back of them and many joined in their demolition.

So, Marxist socialism itself hasn't failed; it just hasn't been road-tested yet. No one knows if it will work, but there are good reasons to suppose it will:


More details here:

Two souls of socialism - socialism from above vs socialism from below

State Capitalism in Russia

How Marxism Works


Whenever I post anything about Marx, Marxism, or socialism, right-wing Quorans pile into me about the ‘evils of communism’, as if I haven’t heard this a thousand times already, or as if they were the very first to make such points. Or, indeed, as if one more splenetic outburst will make me 'see the light'. In order to forestall the seemingly inevitable, and to save me having to make the same points over and over again in response, such irate individuals are encouraged to follow the above links for my pre-emptive answer.

Abusive Quorans, 'point-scorers', and time wasters will have their posts deleted and will be blocked. I am tired of being patient with such individuals, with having to make the same points over and over that have already been made made above (and at the links I have posted), as well as with having to be all sweetness and light in return to abusers.

Some complain that this is censorship; it isn't. It is to remind such individuals that if they are abusive, merely want to 'score points', or can't be bothered to read and then reply to my actual arguments, they can't expect me to listen to them in return.

Those who want to be civil and argue like grown-ups and address what I have actually argued, not what they think I have argued, will, of course, be listened to.

I don't issue second warnings.