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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 1 New Delhi December 23, 2017 - Annual Number

The Rise and Fall of Socialism

Sunday 24 December 2017


by Samit Kar

On November 7, 1917, the world could experience an alternative form of governance when socialism came into being in the Soviet Union. But despite an incredible sacrifice of crores of human lives, socialism was unable to deliver and soon it suffered its eclipse. Why did it happen? There are, no doubt, many reasons behind the failure of socialism. The present paper highlights one of the fundamental causes without taking into consideration the entire range of causes due to obvious reasons on the occasion of 100 years of socialism.

Karl Marx and Frederick Engels said in the opening words of The Communist Manifesto (1848): “The History of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle.” To Marx and his associates, the dynamics of class struggle had been the principal driving force towards the onward march of social evolution leading to the transition of socio-economic formations. Karl was born on May 5, 1818 in Trier, a town in Germany. His father was a well-to-do expert in jurisprudence and a Privy Councillor. He wished to see Karl succeed him and take up the profession of a lawyer. But since early childhood Karl was known to be a different type of lad who was always interested to cook up fantastic stories and indulge in a spate of infantile mischiefs. He was very lovable and used to earn enormous affection due to his sweet and enjoyable dispensation. He was also known to be very simple, kind hearted whose heart always used to bleed for those whom he believed to be impoverished and exploited. Thus, he was naughty since early childhood but never ill-mannered and harsh.

When Marx was about to shed his teens, he became rather pained to come across the grave miseries of modernity in the then emerging Capitalism during its sunrise days. He began to realise that something needs to be accomplished in order to allay the sufferings of the teeming millions afflicted by the new industrial order. The German ghettos inhabited by the industrial working class put forth a pathetic image as they had to lead a sub-human life. He could know that the life and livelihood of this class of men and women living in other countries of Western Europe were in no way better. While witnessing this appalling servitude of the industrial working class, he began to prepare his mind and soon pledged to work tirelessly to alter the power dynamics of the capitalist world order. Resultantly, he disagreed to follow the footsteps of his father to become a lawyer and instead, became a die-hard follower of Georg Hegel.

Georg Hegel during the mid-19th century had become an iconic figure among the German youth as he could successfully drive home his theoretical premise: Every phase in the course of social evolution is destined to suffer its doom by virtue of the power of the negative—impregnated in each and every social formation. Hegel clarified in terms of his famous Philosophy of Dialectic that each social formation, ever since the human history could find expression, had to undergo the triadic schema thesis, anti-thesis and synthesis. In this way, the rise and fall of each social formation may lead to the genesis of the new social formation from the debris of the old. But it needs to be borne in mind that the birth of the new is indeed not completely bereft of the old. This means, the rise of the new social formation does contain enough rudiments of the earlier social formation(s). This revolutionary and path-breaking philosophical insight of Hegel was able to make a significant mark in the annals of philosophy and a large number of German youth joined the fray called ‘The Young Hegelian Circle’. Marx was indeed of no exception and not only did he become an ardent follower of the Hegelian philosophical discourse, he even became one of the leading organisers of the Circle.

Marx’s intellectual association with Hegel later proved to be short-lived and soon he began to distance from his mentor believing that the Hegelian social philosophy had been a representation of one-sided accentuation. Marx said, Hegel attached his entire attention to explain change in terms of the power of the intellectuals, the elites and those who hold the vantaged position in society. But he could not comprehend the power of the real, living men, that is, the down-trodden and the marginal men. Thus, he arrived at his concluding point: Hegelian Dialectic is standing on its head. My task is to put it on its feet. Marx after severing his relation from Hegel showed his intellectual allegiance to yet another great German social philosopher of his time—Ludwig Feuerbach. Marx said, unlike Hegel, Feuerbach could correctly comprehend the practical activity of mankind.

However, soon Marx became disillusioned with Feuerbach too and said if Hegelian dialectic was idealist, Feuerbach’s materialism was mechanical. He gave up the idealistic and the mechanistic aspects of social philosophy of Hegel and Feuerbach, respectively. In this way, he borrowed dialectic from Hegel and materalism from Feuerbach and developed his philosophy of Dialectical Materialism while incorporating his famous thesis on Totality.

The philosophy of Dialectical Materialism is known to be the methodology of Marx’s social thought. In his entire understanding, Marx focused on the imperative of contradiction as the midwife of change. He adhered to the Hegelian philosophy in the early part of his life as the latter always insisted that every phase of social formation is always in a state of flux. Incessant change is a ubiquitos social phenomenon. Marx was heavily drawn to this concept as he understood, had this been a reality, capitalism was bound to face the nadir as it possess the inherent seeds of destruction. As a matter of fact, each phase of social formation thus possesses a similar property.

If capitalism is bound to suffer its own decimation, how can socialism remain beyond a similar purview?

Marx’s social philosophy was indeed emancipatory and revolutionary. But it was perhaps too much passionate and humanist. Therefore, he only believed in the doom of capitalism and failed to reconcile whether socialism may face a similar onslaught. As a staunch humanist, he propagated the theory of Social Revolution in order to artificially expedite the processes of social evolution from a class-based to a classless society. He wss uncompromising and indeed restless to see a rosy image of society while putting the hitherto subjugated masses at the helm of affairs.

But after the withering away of socialism within the span of several decades in the Soviet Union and numerous East European countries, there arises a pertinent question: whether social evolution is perhaps the only way to attain social progress. The concept of social revolution, however romantic it may sound, is perhaps not consistent with the dynamics of modernity wherein the modern state power does have the brutest form of repressive machinery in possession. The death-knell of socialism was sounded due to the intrinsic logic of change as the genesis of contradiction is ubiquitos in nature and does not refrain to be in vogue selectively as Marx believed that the same might remain operative only in capitalism for the cause of the greater good of mankind. Thus, socialism broke into bits and pieces even after the sacrifice of crores of human lives.

The author is an Associate Professor of Sociology, Maulana Azad College, Kolkata.

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