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The State of Socialism: A Note on Terminology

  • Andrew Roberts

Scholars use a variety of terms to refer to the regimes of the former Soviet bloc. Some prefer communist, while others use socialist or state socialist. In this article, Andrew Roberts argues that communism is the better choice. Using socialism or state socialism to refer to these regimes stretches the concept unnecessarily, making one label refer to two regimes with little in common. This conceptual stretching has two negative consequences. First, it impedes efficient scholarly communication. Second, it impoverishes political debate by diminishing the achievements of democratic socialists. A solution to this problem is to use the term communist to refer to Soviet-style regimes.

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I thank Sheri Berman, John. Bushnell, Diane Koenker, Victor Shih, Paul Thomas, Michael Wallerstein, and an anonymous reviewer for helpful comments. The epigraph is taken from C. Banc and A. Dundes, First Prize: Fifteen Years! An Annotated Collection of Romanian Political Jokes (Rutherford, N.J., 1986), 63.

1. Higley, John and Lengyel, György, Elites after State Socialism: Theories and Analysis (Lanham, Md., 2000); Kaminski, Bartolomiej, The Collapse of State Socialism: The Case of Poland (Princeton, 1991); Kornai, Janos, The Socialist System: The Political Economy of Communism (Princeton, 1992).

2. White, Stephen, Communism and Its Collapse (London, 2001).

3. For example, Slavic Review 52, no. 2 (Summer 1993) contains one article entitled “Nationalism and National Sentiment in Post-Socialist Romania” and another entitled “Thinking about Post-Communist Transitions: How Different Are They?“

4. When I refer to regime in this paper, I depart slightly from standard usage, which mainly concerns the political system. My usage is broader and includes both political and economic arrangements, a usage justified by the close fusion between politics and economics in these countries.

5. Since writing this paper, it has come to my attention that others have made similar arguments. Archie Brown, for example, writes, “Most objective analysts of those systems have, with good reason, chosen to call them Communist rather than socialist. The term, ‘socialist,’ embraces a far wider range of social movements and governments than those which owed their allegiance to Marxism-Leninism… Communist Parties were far from having a monopoly on the understanding of socialism.” Brown, Archie, “Communism,” in Smelser, Neil J. and Bakes, Paul B., eds., International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences (Amsterdam, 2001), 2323.

6. I referenced JSTOR on 9 November 2003. For those attempting to replicate the analysis for the most recent period, minor discrepancies may appear because JSTOR continually adds articles that were originally behind the moving wall.

7. Throughout the paper I use the terms eastern Europe, eastern Bloc or Soviet Bloc, and Soviet-style system to include all of the regimes that committed themselves to achieving communism. These terms are meant to include China, Vietnam, North Korea, and Cuba in addition to the Soviet Union and its satellites. I do not know a better formulation that avoids the contentious words communism and socialism.

8. To capture articles that used only socialism or only communism (and not both), I subtracted the number of articles that used both terms from the initial search. I did not use the adjectival forms, communist or socialist, because of standard formulations like the Communist Party of the Soviet Union or the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The terms communism and socialism provide greater, though far from complete, assurance that the reference is to regime type.

9. One anonymous reviewer suggested that usage may have differed between the United States and Europe. Since Europeans are used to both communist and socialist parties, they may be more likely to distinguish between communism and socialism. I tested this hypothesis very imperfectly by comparing an American journal (Slavic Review) with a British journal (Europe-Asia Studies). Although I did not find any significant differences in usage, these results cannot be conclusive both for the methodological reasons mentioned below and because I did not control for the nationality of the author, which would be the decisive factor.

10. One flaw in these results is that a single book may be reviewed in several journals.

11. Only six book reviews included both terms. In two of these cases, multiple books were under review.

12. It would also be interesting to cross-tabulate these results by discipline or methodology. Anecdotal evidence suggests that differences in terminology are not correlated with any theoretical approach or political orientation. Janos Kornai believes in free markets and Katherine Verdery finds inspiration in Marx, yet both prefer the term socialism. Similarly, we can find both die-hard communists and die-hard anticommunists sharing the term communism.

13. There appears to be much more consensus on the term postcommunism which beats postsocialism in full-text searches by 174 to 41. Post-state socialism is naturally too much of a mouthful.

14. Marx, Karl and Engels, Friedrich, The Communist Manifesto (New York, 1988), 48.

15. Engels, Friedrich, Socialism: Utopian or Scientific (London, 2001).

16. It is important to note that much of what is conventionally referred to as Marxism is the work of Friedrich Engels.

17. Sassoon, Donald, One Hundred Years of Socialism: The West European Left in the Twentieth Century (New York, 1996), 9.

18. Sassoon, One Hundred Years of Socialism, 31.

19. Earlier, thinkers such as William Morris had claimed the word communist.

20. Before the Russian Revolution, it was impossible to speak of socialist or communist regimes because these groups had never held a share of power.

21. Wright, Tony, Socialisms: Old and New, 2d ed. (London, 1996), 23.

22. Paul Thomas, “Socialism,” in Smelser and Bakes, eds., International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences, 14486.

23. Cf. “Soviet Communism” in David Miller, The Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Political Thought (New York, 1987), 498.

24. When Romania changed its official designation from the Romanian People's Republic to the Socialist Republic of Romania, citizens joked: “What do you think, have we reached 100% socialism or can things still get worse?” Cf. Banc and Dundes, First Prize: Fifteen Years! 91.

25. Cf. Evans, Alfred B. Jr., “Developed Socialism in Soviet Ideology,” Soviet Studies 29, no. 3 (July 1977), and Evans, Alfred B. Jr., “The Decline of Developed Socialism: Some Trends in Recent Soviet Ideology,” Soviet Studies 38, no. 1 (January 1986).

26. “Soviet Communism,” in Miller, The Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Political Thought, 499.

27. Kornai, The Socialist System, 10. He does, however, recognize the confusion involved in referring to both eastern European states and Scandinavian welfare states as socialist. Katherine Verdery's justification is similar. Cf. Katherine Verdery, What Was Socialism, and What Comes Next? (Princeton, 1996), 235w2.

28. This rule may be more appropriate to individuals and small, democratic groups than to larger, nondemocratic entities like regimes.

29. Evidence of the power of the communist ideal to lead individuals to make the ultimate sacrifice can be found in Arthur Koestler's classic Darkness at Noon (New York, 1968).

30. Kubik refers to “two distinct syndromes of values.” Kubik, Jan, The Power of Symbols against the Symbols of Power: The Rise of Solidarity and the Fall of State Socialism in Poland (State College, 1994), 6973.

31. These connotations may have more general applicability. A colleague recounted to me how a manuscript reviewer pointed out her tendency to use the term socialism in positive contexts and communism in negative ones. She had been unaware of even using two separate terms.

32. Another reason for holding on to the term socialism was that the Soviet Union wanted a monopoly on defining this term.

33. Quoted in Kundera, Milan, The Art of the Novel (New York, 1993), 148-49.

34. Chehabi, H. E. and Linz, Juan J., eds., Sultanistic Regimes (Baltimore, 1998).

35. An even more deceptive term that was common in the region is people's democracy.

36. This is true even excluding National Socialism or Nazism.

37. Wright, Anthony, “Social Democracy and Democratic Socialism,” in Eatwell, Roger and Wright, Anthony, eds., Contemporary Political Ideologies (London, 1999), 81.

38. Berman, Sheri, “The Roots and Rationale of Social Democracy,” Social Philosophy and Policy 20, no. 1 (Winter 2003): 114.

39. Ibid.

40. Western European socialists were among the earliest and bitterest critics of Soviet communism. Animal Farm's author considered himself a socialist. On the other hand, Russian communists viewed the reformist socialism of the German SPD as their greatest enemy, and, for this reason, they made “organizational exclusivity” a key principle of the Comintern. Sympathizers with communism could not simultaneously hold membership in socialist or social democratic parties. As Archie Brown points out, “it was with good reason that Communist leaders and theoreticians regarded the democratic socialist parties of Western Europe as their most dangerous ideological enemies. It was very late in the Soviet era before reformist Communists in Russia as well as in Central Europe became part of a one-way, East-West convergence whereby they increasingly embraced a social democratic variant of socialism.” Cf. Brown, Archie, “The Study of Totalitarianism and Authoritarianism,” in Hayward, Jack, Barry, Brian, and Brown, Archie, eds., The British Study of Politics in the Twentieth Century (Oxford, 1999), 346.

41. Interestingly, leftist parties in countries speaking Romance languages tend to call themselves socialist, while those in Germanic countries prefer the term social democratic.

42. Founded in 1974 as the Confederation of Socialist Parties of the European Community, it was renamed the Party of European Socialists in 1992.

43. Theorists of party families almost unanimously place communist parties and socialist/social democratic parties in separate families. Cf. Peter Mair and Cas Mudde, “The Party Family and Its Study',” Annual Review of Political Science 1 (1998): 221.

44. Sartori, Giovanni, “Concept Misinformation in Comparative Politics,” American Political Science Review 64, no. 4 (December 1970): 1033-53.

45. Cf. Collier, Ruth Berins, Paths toward Democracy: Working Class and Elites in Western Europe and South America (New York, 1999).

46. Cf. Gøsta Esping-Andersen, The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism (Princeton, 1990).

47. For a time, they agreed on state ownership of the means of production but differed radically on its extent and the means for carrying it out. Collectivizing agriculture and nationalizing small businesses and doing so through forcible expropriation has always been beyond the pale for western European socialists.

48. The emergence of Eurocommunism in the 1970s and 1980s suggests either that western European socialists had become too mainstream or that Soviet communists had become too extreme.

49. Other adjectives placed in front of socialism include Utopian, scientific, revolutionary, evolutionary, actually existing, market, guild, and fabian.

50. The phenomenon of conceptual stretching leading to conceptual emptying may be more general. What David Collier and Steven Levitsky describe as the stretching of the term democracy seems to have impoverished our ability to distinguish types of authoritarian regimes. Collier, and Levitsky, , “Democracy with Adjectives: Conceptual Innovation in Comparative Research,” World Politics 49, no. 3 (April 1997): 430-51.

51. Paul Thomas writes, “Both authoritarian communism and democratic socialism laid claim to a lineage deriving from Marx; but they had little else in common.” Cf. Thomas, “Socialism,” in Smelser and Bakes, eds., International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences, 14486.

52. Kornai seems to be aware of this confusion. He gives his The Socialist System the subtitle The Political Economy of Communism “for the sake of easier perception by those who have not yet read the book.” Kornai, The Socialist System, 10.

53. Lipset, Seymour Martin and Marks, Gary, It Didn't Happen Here: Why Socialism Failed in the United States (New York, 2000).

54. Poland's former Minister of Finance Leszek Balcerowicz points to a “tendency towards an almost unlimited expansion of the concept of socialism” even in the Comecon countries. His explanation is that “facing, on the one hand, a grave crisis in their countries but unwilling, on the other hand, to openly admit the failure of this ideology, some of these parties have been proposing radical changes, while claiming that they represent modifications of their (fundamentally unchanged) concept of socialism. This is probably meant to convey the impression that there was nothing basically wrong with official doctrine from the very beginning.” He also notes that reform economists in the region turned to the same tactic in an attempt “to neutralize ideological attacks” against their proposed reforms and “provide some face-saving for the authorities.” Cf. Leszek Balcerowicz, Socialism, Capitalism, Transformation (Budapest, 1995), 20-21.

55. “Socialism,” in Miller, The Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Political Thought, 485.

56. Britannica defines socialism as “a system of social organization in which private property and the distribution of income are subject to social control.” However, it goes on to say, “There are many different forms of socialism, depending on what is meant by ‘social control’ and on the extent to which, as well as by whom, this control is exercised over civil society.” The same of course could be said for any -ism; fill in the blanks correctly and you get any regime you wish. The definition concludes with the following sentence: “The adoption of some national welfare ideas by strenuously nonsocialist systems such as the United States testified to both the strength of many socialist ideals and the protean adaptability of many socialist practices that made socialism itself so difficult to define.” “Socialism,” Encyclopaedia Britannica (Chicago, 1991), 10:926.

57. We should remember that it was not long ago that how a regime was labeled influenced foreign policy. This happened most famously with Jeane Kirkpatrick's distinction between authoritarian and totalitarian regimes. Though this is no longer the case today, the distinction between democratic and nondemocratic seems to have this potential. The lesson here is that such distinctions need to be backed up by careful empirical analysis. Cf. Jeane Kirkpatrick, “Dictatorships and Double Standards,” Commentary (November 1979).

58. von Hayek, Friedrich, Road to Serfdom (Chicago, 1994).

59. Muravchik, Joshua, Heaven on Earth: The Rise and Fall of Socialism (San Francisco, 2002).

60. The new Czech president, Václav Klaus, recendy proclaimed that he is not an anticommunist because in his view most anticommunists are socialists who believe in the same ideals as communists. Cf. Václav Klaus, “Vaclav Klaus o komunismu,” Lidové Noviny, 26 April 2003.

61. Crowley, Stephen, Hot Coal, Cold Steel: Russian and Ukrainian Workers from the End of the Soviet Union to the Post-Communist Transformations (Ann Arbor, 1997).

62. The same of course applies to the tendency to equate conservatism with fascism.

63. Even parties calling themselves social democratic (e.g., the German SPD) have traditionally seen themselves as pursuing socialism.

64. There is perhaps a general rule that party platforms are stickier than actual governing practices. Clause IV of the British Labour Party Constitution calling for “common ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange” was eliminated only in 1995.

65. The political scientist Robert Dahl invented the term polyarchy to refer to these polities for just this reason. Dahl, Cf. Robert, Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition (New Haven, 1971).

66. Friedrich, Carl and Brzezinski, Zbigniew, Totalitarian Dictatorship and Autocracy (Cambridge, Mass., 1956); Arendt, Hannah, The Origins oj'Totalitarianism (New York, 1951).

67. The first book I could find with “state socialism” in the title is David Lane's The End of Inequality? Stratification under State Socialism (Hammondsworth, 1971). Interestingly, the term does appear earlier (even in the nineteenth century), but in reference to states as diverse as the Confederate States of America, Bismarck's Germany, and interwar Britain. I have not seen an explanation of its origins with respect to eastern Europe. Valerie Bunce, however, notes that the term state socialism traditionally refers to all the nations of eastern Europe except Yugoslavia, which should instead be called “socialist.” Bunce, Valerie, Subversive Institutions: The Design and Destruction of Socialism and the State (Cambridge, Eng., 1999), 165nl.

68. Even if they had changed significantly, this is not reflected in academic nomenclature. Few scholars talk of a regime transition during the forty years of communist party rule in eastern Europe and fewer still use separate terms for the period before and after the transition.

69. In any case the new regimes did not come to resemble western European socialism. They remained dictatorships that restricted private enterprise.

70. This is not to say that all communist regimes were exactly alike (excellent work on the variations among these countries abounds). The argument here is simply that it is easy to distinguish communist dictatorships from other forms of authoritarianism. Poland was clearly not Peru and Czechoslovakia was obviously not Chad.

71. Bunce, Valerie, “Should Transitologists Be Grounded?Slavic Review 54, no. 1 (Spring 1995): 119.

72. This does not, however, correspond to the quantitative analysis presented above.

73. Thinkers as diverse as Janos Kornai and Friedrich Hayek have made this argument.

74. Excluding communist regimes from the purview of socialism would significantly assist in defining this regime type.

75. The political scientist Sheri Berman has been working on a better set of conceptualizations of the vast area between communism and capitalism. Cf. Sheri Berman, “Rediscovering Social Democracy,” Dissent (Fall 2000). I would argue that socialist should be used to describe regimes and parties that try to give the state greater control over the economy—for example, through nationalization, planning, safety nets—but do so without a monopoly party, without forced mobilization of citizens, without prohibition of private ownership, and without impinging on civil rights and political liberties. Socialists are committed to social and economic justice and to achieving these goals through legal, democratic means. This definition, however, is far from watertight. Valery Giscard d'Estaing believed that countries became socialist when they passed a certain threshold of public spending.

76. With market reforms in China and Cuba (North Korea remains a holdout), we are seeing an actual, rather than a conceptual, emptying of communism. Like feudalism, the term, however, retains historical meaning.

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Slavic Review
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