With the non-applicability of the terms socialism and communism, given the divergence of the reality of Soviet socialism from the ideal as interpreted within the corpus of the Marxist-Leninist classics, an alternative term was required. ‘Actually existing socialism’, ‘developed socialism’, and ‘state socialism’ were just some of the contenders suggested by supporters and detractors alike. ‘Real socialism’, which emerged as the favoured caption, implied that the economic political, and social make-up of the Soviet bloc societies was in fact a distinct mode of production, with its own immanent tendencies, which could not be grasped either by reference to the concepts of Western social science or by the instruments of official communist ideology.
Its defining feature was the primacy of politics over economics and the intertwining of the two. Although the features of capitalism (such as distinctive property rights, and markets of commodities, capital, and labour) were absent, this did not imply the existence of socialism. The latter would have required the organization of the economy along collective lines, with co-operation through a plan which articulated the interests of the direct producers, and tied consumption, production, and investment together, through the human logic of expressed (rather than imposed) needs. State ownership of productive means in fact led to a property vacuum. Absent ownership rights fostered corruption, eroded motivation, distorted managerial priorities, and diverted state energies into control rather than planning and directive functions. The power of lobbies replaced societal interest formation and articulation. The primacy of the nomenklatura system undermined professional and expertise criteria of performance, dissipated the mechanisms of accountability, and vested power in the hands of groups who ruled this monocentric society and whose aim was the maximization of power over a non-controllable economy. Party, state bureaucracy, security apparatus, and military formed a power elite, presiding over a bureaucratically centralized, segmented society. Extensive economic growth exhausted the natural and human resources of countries tied into patterns of dependence devoid of an economic logic but rooted within the overriding needs of the military-industrial complex. Soft budgets, poor labour discipline, the politicization of the workplace, the use of the factory-based welfare system to impose labour discipline in the absence of unemployment, all became attributes of the system of redistribution. Economic interests, rather than being based upon economic rationality, were distorted by this redistributional mechanism. Finely graded occupational and hierarchical privilege incorporated most of the population into an artificial set of dependencies.
For its part, society was effectively classless, although forms of social closure existed—particularly within the partocracy and the intelligentsia. Social atomization and amorphous structures were juxtaposed to the burgeoning second society where social self-organization existed around the satisfaction of interstitial but authentic needs. These social relations substituted for the absence of civil society, the missing meso-level, connecting the individual and family to the state-sponsored organizations and institutions, and sought to break out of the segmentalism and opaqueness which allowed the rulers to manipulate sections of society, often against each other.
An interesting insider's view of real socialism is offered in Rudolf Bahro's Marxist critique of the East German State (The Alternative in Eastern Europe, 1977). Bahro identifies a fundamental contradiction in actually existing socialism, and not in class terms, but as the production of a ‘surplus consciousness’ that can transform society.