During the tumultuous months of 1989 the Western view that world communism is in a profound crisis seems to have been dramatically confirmed.footnote1 All Eastern Europe has moved sharply towards a multi-party system in which the Communist Party is likely to be in a minority; and the Hungarian and Polish economies are rapidly acquiring a substantial capitalist sector. In China the dominant group in the Communist Party has suppressed the democratic movement by crude force. Socialism outside the Communist world has also been in something of a crisis since the 1970s. In 1939 and even in 1965 it seemed probable—at least to most socialists—that socialism would become the dominant world system, in either its communist or its democratic socialist form, or through some kind of convergence between capitalism and socialism. But by the late 1980s most of the industrialized capitalist countries had emerged from economic crisis technologically more advanced and economically more powerful; throughout the industrialized world, which now includes former third-world countries such as Taiwan and South Korea, socialism seemed to be on the retreat.

This bleak view of the prospects for communism and democratic socialism may be a superficial extrapolation from the trends of the past two decades. It was only after many centuries of turmoil, through a long process of advances and retreats, that capitalism established itself as the dominant world economic system. Perhaps in the longer perspective of the next century or two, the 1970s and 1980s may seem to be merely a period of temporary retreat in the rise of socialism. Perhaps in this perspective Soviet developments since the 1920s (or since 1917?) may seem to be a disastrous if educative false start.

It seems to me that many of the traditional socialist arguments against private capitalism remain as powerful in 1990 as they were a century ago. There is a strong practical and moral case for some kind of socialist world order. Most of the advanced countries continue to be class-divided societies with extreme inequalities of wealth and power. The rest of the world remains impoverished, and now also bears the burden of a crippling debt to the advanced capitalist countries. Moreover, industrialization has brought with it grave ecological problems on a world scale. Can these problems be solved, and the world economy prosper, without some kind of national and international planning and regulation of the activities of supra-national companies?

It is in this context of uncertainty about the future of human society, acute and obvious in the Communist world, but also chronic in the non-Communist world, that we should think about the grand programme of political and economic reform launched by Gorbachev and his colleagues. Soviet ‘new thinking’ since 1985, at first vague and hesitant, has involved a startling transformation of ideas, in internal as well as in international affairs. So far the economy has in practice remained largely unreformed, and the first steps towards reform have plunged the economy into a deeper crisis. But some elements of a new model of socialism have emerged which in major aspects contradicts not only the traditional Soviet model but also the visions of the socialist future depicted by Lenin and even by Marx. The present article explores this new Soviet approach in the context both of the history of socialist thought and of the traditional Soviet model.

Precursors of modern socialism may be found in Plato’s Republic and Thomas More’s Utopia, and in the visions of the future of Gerrard Winstanley and the seventeenth-century English Levellers. But the term ‘Socialism’ was apparently first used by Robert Owen in 1827, and it was in nineteenth-century Europe that Socialism became a popular political creed.