I have been assigned a monograph about the countries of real socialism. While I understand the topic and have been successful at writing up the work, I am having difficulty in finding a definition for the term 'real socialism' (which would form the introduction). I intuit that the adjective 'real' establishes a difference between the pursued (socialist) ideal and the social and economic reality in the countries of the Eastern Bloc. However, the pieces of information strictly about the term that I have found are scarce and even a bit contradictory.

For instance, in the corresponding Wikipedia article, it is not clear when exactly was the term invented (and by who). Moreover, there seems to be a conflict between the two paragraphs of the introduction:

The term referred to the Soviet-type economic planning enforced by the ruling communist parties at that particular time.

Then, in the second paragraph:

From the 1960s onward, countries such as Poland, the German Democratic Republic, Hungary and Czechoslovakia, 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, in the Deutsch version of the article, it is stated that it [the term] was invented by Erich Honecker -a leader of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany- in 1974, at one of the sessions of the aforementioned party. Unfortunately, I'm not very good with Deutsch, so I haven't understood much more.

Could you please explain

  • where does the term come from (who invented it and when);
  • what is its 'official' meaning;
  • and what does it, from the popular perspective, mean?

Note: I do not know the rules regarding using other's answer outside of this site. I have read this page, but it refers to referencing when writing an answer, not on how to use answers for one's own purpose. For the purpose of making it clear, I am not asking that someone does my task for me, and I would not copy or translate any answer directly, but rather form a new text with all the understanding that I have summed up. If this is against the site's rules, please excuse me and provide me with a link to the corresponding page. Thank you.

  • 2
    Who coined the name is history, but your other two questions should probably be asked at politics.SE instead.
    – Semaphore
    Commented Jan 11, 2015 at 3:35
  • 2
    The term is more commonly known as "actually existing socialism" in the circles I run with. Descriptive terms aren't individually invented and don't have "official" meanings. Commented Jan 11, 2015 at 6:11
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    @SamuelRussell From the Deutsch version of the Wikipedia article, it seemed as if it indeed was invented (by Erich Honecker). The English version, however, describes it as a "popularized catchphrase".
    – djsp
    Commented Jan 11, 2015 at 19:53
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    every communist claims he's a socialist and all the failed communist regimes weren't "real socialists" and that's why they failed... Who coined the phrase? Impossible to tell. Probably the second communist to excuse for the first communist who failed.
    – jwenting
    Commented Apr 23, 2015 at 9:06
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    Comments to the effect of 'people think their own socialism is real' are missing the point. The question relates to a point in Eastern Bloc history in the 60s-80s. It's an actual term which has an origin and a specific meaning in that context, in the same way that 'revisionism' or 'trotskyism' does, notwithstanding that they can mean other things in different contexts.
    – Ne Mo
    Commented Sep 8, 2021 at 8:56

3 Answers 3


In Polish there are two words which can be translated to the same English "real socialism".

The first, most commonly known, is "socrealizm", which in fact is "socialist realism", a trend in art (whatever "art" means).

The second (the one you ask about) is "socjalizm realny".

The Polish Wikipedia says the term was introduced in the USSR in 1970s. by propaganda.

This 1970s. seems to be good beginning.

The "real socialism" was created in the moment when it was clear that communism is no longer acceptable. First of all, consider the communist eras (since the end of WW2, as they are common in all Soviet Bloc):

  • installing the regime (1944-1950s) - the era of terror. Although there were strong propaganda against "enemies of the people", it was commonly recognized not-as-good-as-it-looks. This was also time of building heavy industry (mills, mines etc.) as it was believed to be the fastest way to reach the West. Also, this worshiped workers and some workers were celebrities these times. In these times the art trend "socrealizm" was official. The times were ended by two major events: death of Stalin (1953) and events in Hungary (1956), which led to bloody suppression. The Hungarian revolution was known in the Bloc and could not be kept secret.
  • Over-investing in heavy industry and failure of planned economy led to some crisis then. This, combined with Khrushchev's speech (which could have been an element of court games), finished the idea of introducing the communism. It was now allowed not to say "comrade" to one another (although party members kept it), the Hungarian events were only an accident, terrible mistake, heavy industry investments were reduced, "socrealizm" ended in art, and a new era begun.
  • This era lasted until 1968, the invasion on Czechoslovakia. The success of Warsaw Pact intervention was Pyrrhic, because this did not solve economic problems, was not accepted by people of intervening countries (in Poland it is still embarrassing) and eventually led again to overthrow leaders in the Bloc.

This moment (with few years tolerance) can be said as the start of the "real socialism". The real socialism was better socialism than communism and this what was after it. It was now "real", so it ended or fantastic (ie. dream-like) visions. It was redesigned to fulfill modern requirements. This was a form of co-operation between the party and the people (in Poland Edward Gierek asked on a meeting with workers "comrades, you will help me, won't you?" - this was a very direct addressing).

I don't know how it looked in other Soviet Bloc countries, but economy success seemed to back-up the new era. This was the time when Western culture was re-introduced (like rock-and-roll, TV, cars etc.). In Poland this was paid by taking loans, but was good to explain initial successes of this politics.

Although again in the beginning of 1980s this led to another riots, the reasoning was kept: the system is good, but it was incorrectly introduced. The real socialism is such kind of socialism that takes into account true life, it is not only a vision. This is a practice, not a theory.

The term "real socialism" is still in use (and with the same context, so it is good, but poorly introduced). On a socialist page there is an essay "What is the real socialism?", so how the socialism should change to meet the current era requirements.

  • This is in strong agreement with what I understand from my (Polish) wife.
    – andy256
    Commented Apr 24, 2015 at 0:56

What kind of socialism is "real"?
Socialism is a poorly defined term, that is often misused and abused in a political discorse. Thus, claiming that any kind of socialism is real to the detriment of other kinds, prejudges the discussion.

Without intending to be comprehensive, let me point out a few aspects of what socialism may refer to:

  • Variety of political movements that arose in the XIXth century in response to liberalism. Liberalism puts in the center the individual and the individual rights, whereas socialism prioritizes, at least to some extent, the common good over the individual. This is vary vague and there are singificant differences in interpretation between different countries, social movements, etc.
  • Socialism in the communist doctrine, as described by Marx, Lenin and their followers, is the transition stage between the imperialism (the last stage of capitalism) and the communism. In particular, all the countries of the Soviet block officially referred to themselves as socialist - the communism being only the future goal, but not the current state of affairs. In economic terms most of the property belonged to the state, which also controlled all the commercial transactions, prices, etc.
  • Social democracy is the economical system existing in many European countries, such as Sweden, France, Germany, etc. It is essentially a capitalist system, where significant part of wealth is redistributed to reduce the economic inequality ("from rich to poor"). While colloquially it is often referred to as socialism, none of these countries officially uses this term (to my knowledge).
  • In many countries there exist socialist parties, which has either history going back to the XIXth century, or which are simply former communist parties that have moderated their stance.
  • Finally, the word is frequently used without any specific historical, political or economical ideas behind it, simply because all the things social are viewed as good in comparison to all the things individual/selfish/capitalist.

Developed socialism
If we base our discussion on the Wikipedia link provided in the OP, then real socialism is actually poor rendering of the Russian term that is more literally translated as developed socialism. Although the expression real socialism might have been used alongside it, and waq probably the equivalent term in languages other than Russian, it misses the original intent of the term.

Meaning in the context of Marxism-Leninism
Marxist-Leninist philosophy interprets history as an evolution of economical relations, passing through clearly defined stages of primitive society, slavery, serfdom, capitalism, and communism. Every stage is considered as more progressive than the previous one, and is itself subdivided in sub-stages, corresponding to its growth, maturation and eventually becoming outdated - at which point it delays the development of the society and must be replaced by a more progressive stage in a course of a revolution ("necessarily violent", according to Marx). Thus, developed capitalism also means mature capitalism - a stage where the progerssive aspects of capitalism in comparison to serfdom have been fully developed, and we approach to its collapse. Developed socialism was equally supposed to mean mature socialism - a stage which had to be followed by the inevitable rise of the communism.

Developed socialism in practice
While the substages of capitalism were well classified, the transition to communism was less clear. In fact, it was originally believed that communism was to immediately follow the collapse of the capitalism, and the forced redistribution of food and goods period of the civil war that followed the Great October Socialist Revolution was referred to as military communism.

However, the inadequacy of such a view became quickly obvious, and socialism was philosophized as a transition stage between the capitalism and the communism, where the private property still exists, and the society is not yet fully classless. In fact, the liberal New Economic Policy introduced by Lenin in the aftermath of the civil war was soon followed by another attempt at forcing communism, known as Collectivisation, which soon failed and was blamed by Stalin on the excesses by local authorities.

After Stalin's death, the inability to attain communism could not be blamed anymore on the internal an external enemies, which led to proliferation of slogans such as this generation will live under the communism, later replaced by our children will live under the communism. As in Brezhnev years USSR entered the period of economic stagnation, a more elaborate theory of socialism was developed, where the socialism was made in a separate stage of social development, alongside capitalism and communism, and its ongoing sub-stage was called developed socialism. Thus

  • One could justify why building the communism was taking so long
  • The current economic state could be presented as an achievement (after all, we have reached the developed stage)
  • It held the promise of communism coming soon

Using term developed socialism instead of real socialism allows quickly to identify relevant resources, such as this article.

  • Your discussion centers on the meaning of the word "real". At least in German usage (e.g. in East Germany) the word "real" as in "Realsozialsmus", "real existierender Sozialismus" cannot be used as a synonym for "genuine".
    – Jan
    Commented Sep 8, 2021 at 9:26
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    @Jan After looking into it a bit more, I think English term 'real socialism' is really misleading, since the Russian equivalent is more literally translated as "developed socialism". I will add more about it a bit later.
    – Roger V.
    Commented Sep 8, 2021 at 9:39
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    @Jan I have expanded the answer.
    – Roger V.
    Commented Sep 8, 2021 at 12:00

To answer the three questions from the OP in a tl/dr way:

where does the term come from (who invented it and when)

Terms like "real socialism", "actually existing socialism" etc were used by official quarters of the Soviet Union and its satellites from the early 1970s on. E.g. "real existierender Sozialismus" in 1974 by Erich Honecker (East Germany), according to German Wikipedia. But the article also states that this term (or similar ones) had been in circulation for some years by the time of Honecker's speech.

what is its 'official' meaning

The official meaning is something like "socialism in practice". I.e. not the utopian socialism or communism described in Marx' works, but something that comes very close and has been/ can be realistically achieved. I would argue that the meaning of the German word "real" is not exactly the same as that of the English word "real". E.g. you can not really use it as a synonym for "genuine". cf Realpolitik. No idea about other relevant languages though.

and what does it, from the popular perspective, mean?

Not sure about the 70s and 80s and other countries, but in current German usage "realexistierender Sozialismus" is a generic and commonly used term to allude to the general situation in East Germany from roughly 1975 to 1989.

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