From the June 1985 issue of the Socialist Standard
With the aid of the Oxford Student's Dictionary of Current English, Russia has officially re-defined socialism (Daily Telegraph, 8 April 1985). Why they felt it necessary to do so is another matter. Russian capitalism, controlled by the state, is beginning to lose favour with that section who regard state interference in the growing black market economy as a fetter on their activities. However, the old ideology of revolution weights heavily like an incubus on the mind and, for the time-being, politics and not economics dictates the pace at which this change is taking place.
Socialism is not an issue because the Russian working class are not socialists. After nearly 70 years of state capitalism even the state-salaried spokespeople are finding it difficult to explain the difference between the Russian system and Western capitalism. Now they have secured the services of the highly respected Oxford University Press, who have recently sold over 100,000 copies of the new dictionary to the Russian government. It appears that one of the conditions of the sale was the re-definition of certain words, including socialism, specifically to meet the needs and desires of their Russian clients. The OUP were unable to explain how it happened, but it's really quite simple: their commercial interests overwhelmed their literary integrity.
The new definition describes socialism as a "social and economic system which is replacing capitalism". We do not know where this is taking place but certainly it is not in Russia. The definition does not define anything; that was the whole point of the exercise. The Russian working class does not understand socialism and if they were provided with an accurate definition they would at least be able to compare the existing conditions with the terms of the definition and have a target to aim for. It is in the interests of the Russian capitalist class to conceal the target. References to socialism will be left vague and obscure.
It is worth noting that the Russian dictatorship. even with all its powers of propaganda and censorship, unencumbered by free speech and democratic practice, has to move some way towards providing excuses for the social conditions and the antagonism of the Russian workers to them. Like many a government in the past, it is finding out that the class struggle cannot be censored or, to use Marx's phrase, got rid of by "bold leaps or legal enactments". Certainly, there is no shortage of the latter.
Some clue as to the Russian government's intentions may be gleaned from the existing definition of socialism in the Oxford Dictionary, which was previously accepted but is now discarded. This describes socialism as "a theory or policy of social organisation, which advocates the ownership of the means of production, capital. land and property by the community as a whole". This is a contradiction. Capital is an integral part of the private property system and cannot be separated from that system. Common ownership and capital are diametrically opposed as capital is the very essence of private ownership, including state ownership. The point is. why is this definition no longer acceptable? Contradictions and impossible propositions have never worried or embarrassed the Russian dictators before. Their whole regime is a grotesque travesty of socialism yet they persist in calling it socialism.
The reason may be that within that definition, capital and socialism are not incompatible. Both can exist alongside each other. When such an unworkable and nonsensical definition is given official backing, it is liable to all sorts of interpretation. Individuals will have their own ideas of what it is supposed to mean and how to implement it. Some of the individuals will naturally include those groups who wish to promote private enterprise. The use of capital and its accumulation would be regarded as a desirable "socialist" objective.
At the moment, the Russian government is apprehensive about encouraging, or even allowing, the development of private capitalist enterprise. To begin with this could mean an increase in the production of consumer goods leading eventually to an increase in consumption. The workers' aspirations would expand and there would be pressure for a general rise in wages to meet the cost of a growing standard of living. The present policy of the Russian government is to restrict consumption and to keep wages down.
Any definition of socialism, however absurd, which allows for the independent development of private capital, apart from upsetting the existing state monopoly, is not likely to get a warm welcome in the Kremlin. Far better to change the definition so that socialism is a social and economic system which is replacing capitalism.
The socialist movement has always been plagued by ignorant definitions and descriptions of socialism and dictionaries have played no small part in this deception. An objective test of socialism is contained within its two cardinal principles: first, abolition of the system of private ownership of the means of production and distribution and its replacement by a system of production based on common ownership; and, arising from this, the abolition of the wages system and capitalist exploitation. This is the revolutionary approach to politics which workers, including those in Russia, will have to think about rather than allow themselves to be misled by definitions written by commercially-minded academics.