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Real socialism, better known as actually existing socialism or developed socialism (Russian: реальный социализм or развитой социализм), was an ideological catchphrase popularized during the Brezhnev era in the Eastern Bloc countries and the Soviet Union.
The term referred to the Soviet-type economic planning implemented by the Eastern Bloc at that particular time. From the 1960s onward, countries such as Poland, East Germany, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia began to argue that their policies represented what was realistically feasible given their level of productivity, even if it did not conform to the Marxist concept of socialism.
The concept of real socialism alluded to a future highly developed socialist system. However, the lagging productivity growth and insufficient standard of living in the Comecon countries caused the phrase "real socialism" to be increasingly perceived as dishonest and unreal. The actual party claims of nomenclatory socialism began to acquire not only negative, but also sarcastic meanings. In later years and especially after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the term began to be remembered as only one thing, i.e. as a reference for Soviet-style socialism.[note 1]
After World War II, the terms "real socialism" or "really existing socialism" gradually became the predominating euphemisms used as self-description of the Eastern Bloc states' political and economical systems and their society models. De jure often referred to as "(democratic) people's republics", these states were ruled by a communist party, some of which were ruled autocratically and had adapted a form of planned economy and propagated socialism and/or communism as their ideology. The term "real (-ly existing) socialism" was introduced to explain the obvious gap between the propagated ideological framework and the political and economical reality faced by these states' societies. As Communist Party activist Irwin Silber put it in 1994,
The term 'actually existing socialism’ is not (despite the quotation marks) a sarcasm; in fact, while obviously containing an implicit irony, the phrase itself was coined by Soviet Marxist-Leninists and was widely used by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) and its supporters in polemics with those who postulated a model of socialism significantly different from the system developed in the Soviet Union. Its point was that various alternatives to the Soviet-derived model existed only in the minds of their advocates, while 'actual socialism' existed in the real world.
The role of the Sino-Soviet split
Another aspect of the term real socialism related to the Sino-Soviet split and other ideological disagreements between the Soviet Union and its satellite states on one side and the People's Republic of China and the followers of a more Maoist brand of communist ideology on the other. The Sino-inspired communist movement, which had grown so rapidly worldwide as a "radical left" alternative to Soviet ideas, had claimed that the Soviet Union was no longer socialist and had betrayed the revolution. To counter this claim of Marxist revisionism, the Soviets called their version "real socialism", implying that other models of socialism were unrealistic.
Soviet popular culture
The term was also used in an ironical criticism. The "reality" of "real socialism" was used against it. In particular, the term became a target of numerous political jokes in the Soviet Union, the following being typical examples:
- "Do you know the boundary between real socialism and communism?" – "The border runs along the Kremlin's wall" [hinting that only rulers of the Soviet Union live in the bright communist future promised by Karl Marx].
- "What is real socialism?" – "This is when you cannot yet get everything without money, but you already cannot buy anything for your money" [hinting at the long lines and frequent shortages of consumer goods in the Soviet stores].
- Armenian Radio was asked: "Is it possible to build real socialism in Armenia?". Armenian Radio answers: "Yes, but it would be better to do it in Georgia".
- See definitions and descriptions of "real socialism" in the following:
- Kyu-Young Lee, "System Transformation in Poland since 1989: A view on the transformation of the real-socialist system." Including List of References. Graduate School of International Studies, Sogang University.
- Krzysztof Brzechczyn, The Collapse of Real Socialism in Eastern Europe. Adam Mickiewicz University, Department of Philosophy. The Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies in History and Archaeology. Vol. 1, No. 2, pp. 105–133
- Jacek Tittenbrun, The Collapse of 'Real Socialism` in Poland. Paul & Co Pub Consortium ISBN 1-85756-043-4
- Robert W. Cox, "Real socialism" in historical perspective. Pages 177–183. Google Docs. Retrieved November 3, 2011. See term: "actually existing socialism" in Rudolph Bahro's The Alternative in Eastern Europe, Note 3, p. 190.
- Victor Sebestyen (2010). Revolution 1989: The Fall of the Soviet Empire. ISBN 978-0-7538-2709-3.
- "Brezhnev on the Theory of Developed Socialism". Macalester College. 2 September 2015. Retrieved 30 May 2017.
- Socjalizm Realny (Real Socialism) Encyklopedia Interia. (in Polish) Retrieved November 22, 2013.
- Hey, Patrizia (2010). Die sowjetische Polenpolitik Anfang der 1980er Jahre und die Verhängung des Kriegsrechts in der Volksrepublik Polen. Tatsächliche sowjetische Bedrohung oder erfolgreicher Bluff? [The Soviet policy towards Poland in the early 1980s and the imposition of martial law in the People's Republic of Poland. Actual Soviet threat or successful bluff?]. Studien zu Konflikt und Kooperation im Osten (in German). Vol. 19. Münster: LIT. p. 31. ISBN 9783643107718.
- "A Guide To The Left". New Internationalist. 1985-11-05. Retrieved 2021-09-21.
- A. Lebowitz, Michael. The Contradictions of "Real Socialism".
- Silber, Irwin (1994). Socialism: What went wrong? (PDF). Pluto Press – via Marxist Internet Archive.
- "The Alternative in Eastern Europe" (PDF). New Left Review. November–December 1977. Retrieved 21 September 2021.
Socialism as it actually exists, irrespective of its many achievements, is characterized by: the persistence of wage-labour, commodity production and money; the rationalization of the traditional division of labour; a cultivation of social inequalities that extends far beyond the range of money incomes; official corporations for the ordering and tutelage of the population; liquidation of the freedoms conquered by the masses in the bourgeois era, instead of the preservation and realization of these freedoms (only consider the all-embracing censorship, and the pronounced formality and factual unreality of so-called socialist democracy). It is also characterized by: a staff of functionaries, a standing army and police, which are all responsible only to those above them; the duplication of the unwieldy state machine into a state and a party apparatus; its isolation within national frontiers.
- Frank, Pierre; Rosenzweig, Mark; Vale, Michel (1980). "Was". International Journal of Politics. Taylor & Francis, Ltd. 10 (2/3): 152–167. ISSN 0012-8783. JSTOR 40470166. Retrieved 21 September 2021.
- Benedikt Sarnov, Our Soviet Newspeak: A Short Encyclopedia of Real Socialism (Наш советский новояз. Маленькая энциклопедия реального социализма). "Real Socialism", pages 472-474. Moscow: 2002, ISBN 5-85646-059-6.
- Real socialism from A Dictionary of Sociology, 1998, originally published by Oxford University Press.