Commentary Magazine


Socialism: Guilty As Charged

Dear C.,

It has been over a decade since this silence as durable as an iron curtain descended between us. In these circumstances, I have had to depend on others to learn how you regard me these days: how, at a recent social gathering, you referred to me as “one of the two tragedies of the New Left” (the other being a former Brecht scholar who now publishes guides to the nude beaches of America); how my apostasy has inflicted an emotional wound, as though in changing my political views and leaving the Left I had personally betrayed you.

I understand this. How could it be otherwise for people like us, for whom politics was less a matter of practical decisions than of moral choices? We saw ourselves as partisans of a cause that confirmed our humanity (even as it denied humanity to those who opposed us). To leave such ranks was not a simple matter, like abandoning a misconception or admitting a mistake. It was more like accusing one’s comrades. Like condemning a life.

Our choice of politics was never a matter of partial commitments; to choose the Left was to define a way of being in the world. (For us, the personal was always political.) It was choosing a future in which human beings would finally live as they were meant to live: no longer self-alienated and divided, but equal, harmonious, and whole.

Grandiose as this project was, it was not something we had invented, but the inspiration for a movement that was coterminous with modernity itself. As one of our mentors had taught us, the Left was launched at the time of the French Revolution by Gracchus Babeuf and the “Conspiracy of the Equals.” (The Babeuf conspiracy, Marx wrote, “gave rise to the Communist idea, . . . the principle of the modern world.”) With a terrible simplicity the Babouvists pledged themselves to “equality or death,” swiftly finding the latter—in a prophetic irony—on the Revolution’s own busy and bloodstained guillotine.

The new radicals proclaimed a Theology of Reason in which equality of condition was the natural and true order of creation. In their Genesis, it was the loss of equality that was the ultimate source of mankind’s suffering and evil, just as the arrogant pride of the primal couple had provoked their Fall in the religious myths now discarded. Private property became a secular version of original sin. Through property, society reimposed on every generation the travails of inequality and evil and the toils of injustice. Redemption from worldly suffering was possible only through the Revolution that would abolish property and open the gates to the socialist Eden—to Paradise regained.

The ideas embodied in this theology of liberation became the inspiration for the rise of the political Left, and have remained so ever since. It was only half a century later, however, that Marx first articulated the idea of a historical redemption, in the way that became resonant for us:

Communism is the positive abolition of private property, of human self-alienation, and thus the real appropriation of human nature through and for man. It is therefore the return of man himself as a social, i.e., really human, being. . . . [Emphasis in original]

This was our revolutionary vision: by a historical coup we would create the conditions for a return to the state of true humanity whose realization had been blocked by the alienating hierarchies of private property. All the unjust institutions of class history, which had distorted, divided, and oppressed mankind, would be abolished and human innocence reborn. In the service of this cause, no sacrifice seemed too great, no burden too onerous: we were the Christopher Columbuses of the human future, the avatars of a new world in the womb of the old.

How could I divorce myself from a mission like this without betraying those whom I had left behind? Especially without betraying those like yourself who had been my guides and my comrades in the 60’s through the moral wilderness created by the disintegration of the Old Left.

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I was the scion of that Old Left—of Communists, in fact—and I was troubled by the crimes the “Khrushchev Report” of 1956 had recently unveiled. Yet even as the unmarked graves of Stalin’s victims were reopened and their wounds bled afresh, a New Left raised its collective voice to proclaim that it was Stalinism which had died, not socialism. In the moral and political confusion of those years, this view of the matter helped to restore my radical beliefs. And so I joined you and the other pioneers of the New Left who condemned Stalinism and its brutal past and pledged to keep the socialist faith.

What was the meaning of this refusal to admit that our ideas had been wrong? For thirty years, with only a minority in dissent, the best minds of the Left had hailed the flowering of the “progressive” state in Soviet Russia. They had made the defense of Soviet “achievements” the sine qua non of what it was to be socially conscious and morally correct. Now the Kremlin itself had acknowledged the monstrous “mistakes” of the progressive experiment, confirming the most damning charges of its political enemies. Yet in the face of such epic criminality and collusion, all we could think of doing was to renew our dedication to the goals that had proved so destructive in the first place.

To be sure, our radical generation was hardly the first (and would not be the last) to go through this cycle of guilt and renewed dedication. It was a process that had begun 200 years earlier, in that dawn of human Fraternity and Reason, which also devolved into fratricidal terror and military empire. But how had the redemptive illusions that inspired the Left been kept alive in generation after generation, despite the inexorable rebuke of human tragedy that attended each of its triumphs?

It was only two decades later, when I had reached the end of my own radical journey and had had my second thoughts, that I began asking myself this question. And it was only then that I was able at last to see how our own modest histories provided the basis of an answer.

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You have had no second thoughts. Even as I write, you and many others of my former comrades are engaged in yet one more defiant resurrection, bringing into being yet one more generation of the Left, as eager to believe in the fantasy of a new world as we were then. In this annus mirabilis of Communist collapse, when the socialist idea is being repudiated throughout the expanse of the Soviet empire by the very masses it claimed to liberate, all of you are still searching for ways to deny what has happened.

For you, the socialist idea is still capable of an immaculate birth from the bloody conception of the socialist state. You seek to evade the lesson of revolutionary history by writing the phrase ACTUALLY EXISTING SOCIALISM in bold letters across its pages, thus distinguishing the socialism of your faith from the socialism that has failed. The historic bankruptcy of the planned societies created by Marxist dictators, a human catastrophe extending across nearly three quarters of a century and encompassing numberless ruined lives, is not to be entered in the balance sheet of the Left. This would require of you an accurate accounting and an agonizing self-appraisal. Instead, the bankruptcy is to be seen as someone else’s.

Thus, in the spring of 1989, in a Dissent article entitled “Toward a New Socialism,” the late Michael Harrington (the leader of the self-described Democratic Socialists of America) wrote:

In part the current crisis of socialism is the result of misunderstandings on the part of non-and anti-socialists and, unfortunately, even of some socialists themselves; . . . for at least a generation practically no democratic socialist has accepted [this] underlying assumption: that the Soviet Union and similar societies are either exemplars or approximations of socialism.

There is nothing new in this shell game. It is the same rescue operation that we ourselves performed on Stalinism after 1956, when our slogan was: Stalinism Is Dead—Long Live Socialism. Today you and your “progressive” comrades look on the demonstrations for democracy that are bringing an end to Communist history and are certain that this is not a judgment on the ideas that inspired that history in the first place.

“The vast social upheaval inaugurated by Gorbachev is only entering its fifth year,” observed Daniel Singer, the literal (and intellectual) godson of our old teacher Isaac Deutscher, in the 1989 May Day issue of the Nation. Singer then advised his readers that

one major question dominates the transformation that is under way: was 1917 a historical quirk, an aberration, a parenthesis that is now coming to an end? Or, to put the same question less gloomily, was it a utopian attempt, a portent of things to come in another place and another age? Put either way, the question implies that the whole Soviet venture can only have a capitalist ending. Yet there is another possibility. This is that for all its strange beginning in backward Russia, . . . 1917 was the beginning of a process, of a vast movement that continues to search for another world. . . .

Actually Existing Socialism Is Dead—Long Live Socialism. This is the political formula of the Left—of your Left—today.

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Of course, the possibilities of “another world” that Singer so amazingly still locates in the Soviet Union were found by our own generation in the third-world revolutions of the post-Stalin era. The Cuban and Chinese “experiments” had begun by declaring their independence from the old discredited Soviet “model,” and yet, as if shaped by some invisible Marxist hand, had ended in the same way: one-party totalitarian regimes, submerging both economy and people in despotism and despair. So, too, with Nicaragua under the Sandinistas. And in each case, the “independent” Left was there to celebrate and apologize.

What made the Left so willing to ignore the gravitational pull of Marxist prescriptions, and to discount the evils of Marxist rule, was a vision that was not so much Marxist in any strict sense as (to borrow the term used by the radical sociologist C. Wright Mills) Marxisant. This perspective, decreeing a divorce between present reality and the future to come, was the heart of our radical illusion. Our confidence in the outcome of the historical process allowed us to put our talents on the Communist side of the cold-war conflict (or at least against the anti-Communist side), even though we recognized “really existing Communism” as an offense to the spirit of the socialism we believed in.

The British historian E.P. Thompson, a former Communist and a founder of the New Left, explained the paradox by which we had given our allegiance to an intellectual abstraction and wound up acting as partisans of a reality we disdained:

In general, our allegiance to Communism was political: it arose from inexorable choices in a partisan world in which neutrality seemed impossible. . . . But our intellectual allegiance was to Marxism. . . . Thus there is a sense in which, even before 1956, our solidarity was given not to Communist states in their existence, but in their potential—not for what they were but for what—given a diminution in the cold war—they might become.

Yes indeed: our solidarity was given to states in their potential. We refused to become anti-Communist cold warriors and offered “critical support” to repulsive Communist regimes because we believed they would change. It was the “humanist potential” of societies with socialist foundations, not their totalitarian realities, that claimed our allegiance. (By the same reasoning, we were unimpressed by the democratic realities of the capitalist West, because it was axiomatic that private property rendered them oppressive and incapable of “fundamental” reform.) We refused to join in the attack on the Communist camp in the cold-war battles, no matter how morally justified, because we did not want to aid those seeking to destroy the seeds of the future that the Left had sown in Soviet Russia. We were determined to defend what Trotsky had called “the gains of October”—the socialist edicts of the Bolshevik Revolution that had abolished private property and paved the way for a better world. It was our perception of the epoch-making character of these “gains” that defined our radical faith.

This faith was the key to the double standards that ruled our thinking and caused us so much difficulty in winning adherents. For we were constantly vulnerable to attack by our conservative opponents for the support (however “critical”) we gave to totalitarian states where values we claimed to champion—freedom and human rights—were absent, and for the enmity (however disguised as friendly criticism) we directed at the Western democracies where such values were present.

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These double standards took many forms. One was the invocation of moral absolutes in judging capitalist regimes, while relativistic historical criteria were used to evaluate their socialist counterparts. Unlike capitalist injustice, repellent practices in the socialist bloc were always placed in their “proper” context and thereby “understood” as the product of preexisting social and political conditions—i.e., as attempts to cope with intractable legacies of a soon to be discarded past.

Secondly, capitalist and socialist regimes were always assessed under different assumptions about their future prospects. Repressions by conservatives like Pinochet in Chile were never seen as preludes to democratic restorations but condemned instead as unmitigated evils. By contrast, the far greater and more durable repressions of revolutionary regimes like the one in Cuba were invariably minimized as necessary and temporary stages along the path to a progressive future.

Finally, in left-wing arguments the negative aspects of existing socialism were always attributed to capitalist influences (survival of the elements of the old society, impact of anti-Communist “encirclement,” tyranny of the world market, etc.), but the reverse possibility was never considered. Thus, leftist histories ritualistically invoked Hitler to explain the rise of Stalinism (the necessity of a draconian industrialization to meet the Nazi threat) but never viewed Stalinism as a factor contributing to the rise of Hitler. Yet beginning with the socialist assault on bourgeois democracy and the forced-labor camps (which were a probable inspiration for Auschwitz), Stalinism was a far more palpable influence in shaping German politics in the 30’s than was Nazism in Soviet developments. The “Trotskyite conspiracy with the Mikado and Hitler”—the cabal which the infamous Moscow show trials of the 30’s claimed to expose—was a Stalinist myth; but the alliance that German Communists formed with the Nazi party to destroy the Weimar Republic was an actual Stalinist plot. Without this alliance, Hitler would never have come to power.

The same double standard underlay the Left’s failure to understand the cold war that followed the allied victory in 1945. Leftist cold-war histories refuse to concede that the anti-Communist policies of the Western powers were a reasonable response to the threat they faced; instead, the threat itself is viewed as a fantasy of anti-Communist paranoia. Soviet militarism and imperialism, including the occupation of Eastern Europe, are discounted as defensive reactions to Western containment. But the same Western actions, in particular the anti-Communist military build-up, are then alleged to have had no influence on the unilateral Soviet withdrawal from Eastern Europe in 1989 which summarily ended the cold war. In sum, positive developments in the Soviet bloc come from within; negative developments are consequences of the counterrevolutionary encirclement.

The double standard that informs the argument of the Left is the expression of its own false consciousness, the reflex by which it defends an identity rooted in its belief in the redemptive power of the socialist idea. To the Left it is obvious that the revolution cannot be judged by the same standards as the counterrevolution: the first is a project to create a truly human future, the latter only an attempt to preserve an anti-human past. No matter how destructively revolution fails, it always deserves allegiance, because revolutionary evil is only a birth pang of the future.

It was this birth in which I finally ceased to believe. The imagined future in whose name all these actual revolutions had been relieved of their failures and absolved of their sins was, I eventually came to see, nothing more than a mistaken idea.

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The intellectual figure who most influenced my realization of this liberating fact was another member of our New Left vanguard, the Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski. In the 60’s, Kolakowski had written Towards A Marxist Humanism, whose chapter titles read like stages of our radical rebirth. But in the 70’s, after leaving Poland for the West, he published a comprehensive history of Marxist thought, the world view we all had spent half a lifetime inhabiting.1 In three volumes and 1,500 pages Kolakowski analyzed the entire corpus of this intellectual tradition. Then, having paid critical homage to an argument which had dominated so much of humanity’s fate over the last hundred years (and his own destiny as well), he added an epilogue which began with these words: “Marxism has been the greatest fantasy of our century.” This struck me as the most personally courageous judgment a man with Kolakowski’s history could have made.

It was appropriate that the final terrain of battle should be Marxism. For Thompson had it right, our allegiance was to Marxism. Not to this particular thesis or that doctrinal principle, but to the paradigm itself: politics as civil war; history as a drama of social redemption. If we remained in the ranks of the Marxist Left, it was not because we failed to recognize the harsh facts that Marxists had created, but because we did not want to betray the vision we shared with the creators.

And so the question that would irrevocably come to divide us was not whether Marxists had committed this revolutionary crime, or whether that revolutionary solution had veered off course, but whether the Marxist idea itself could be held accountable for the horrors that had been perpetrated in its name.

It was on this very point that Kolakowski threw down his gauntlet, declaring that Marx’s ideas could not be rescued from the human ruins they had created, that “the primordial intention” of Marx’s dream was itself “not innocent.” Marxism, Kolakowski announced at the outset of his book, was an idea that “began in Promethean humanism and culminated in the monstrous tyranny of Stalinism.” History had shown, and analysis confirmed, that there was no reason to expect that socialism could ever become real “except in the cruel form of despotism.” The idea of socialism could not be freed from the taint incurred by its actual practice and thus revitalized, as Thompson and the New Left proposed, because it was the idea that had created the despotism in the first place.

The claim that the “Promethean” idea of the Left had led directly to the socialist debacle depended on making two historical connections—between Marxism and Leninism, and between Leninism and Stalinism—thus establishing the continuity of the radical fate. This, hardly anyone on the Left could stomach. A reviewer in Dissent called Kolakowski “unfair to Marx.” Michael Harrington took a similar position in his review in the New Republic. The response of our own mutual friend and close comrade, the English New Leftist Ralph Miliband, was one of even greater contempt:

To speak of Stalinism as following naturally and ineluctably from Leninism is unwarranted. However, to speak of Stalinism as “one possible interpretation of Marx’s doctrine” is not only unwarranted but false.

A decade has passed since Miliband wrote this. In the East it is the era of glasnost, the silence of the past is broken, the lies exposed, and the Soviets themselves now acknowledge the genesis of Stalinism in Lenin. But it is the causal link between Marxism and Stalinism that is the real issue, encompassing both.

Stalinism is not a possible interpretation of Marx’s doctrine. What could Miliband (and the rest of you) have been thinking to have blotted out so much of the world we know? Forget the Soviet planners and managers who were the architects of the Stalinist empire and found a precedent and rationale in Marx for all their actions and social constructions, including the party dictatorship and the political police, the collectivization and the terror, the show trials and the gulag. These, after all, were practical men. Consider instead the intellectuals who managed to be Marxists and Stalinists through all these nightmares of the socialist epoch: Althusser and Brecht, Lukács and Gramsci, Bloch and Benjamin, Hobsbawm and Thompson, too. Subtle Hegelians and social progressives, they were all promoters of the Stalinist cancer, devoting their formidable intellects and talents to its metastatic growth. Were they illiterate to consider themselves Marxists and Stalinists? And what of the tens of thousands of party intellectuals all over the world, among them Nobel-prizewinning scientists and renowned artists, who saw no particular difficulty in assimilating Stalin’s gulag to Marx’s utopia, socialist humanism to the Soviet state?

The truth is that Stalinism was not just one possible interpretation of Marxism. In the recorded history of left-wing revolutionary movements it was undoubtedly the prevailing interpretation—of all the interpretations of Marx’s doctrine since the Communist Manifesto, the one adhered to by the most people for the longest time. Maoism, Castroism, Vietnamese Communism, etc., the ideologies of the actually existing Marxist states—these make up the category of Stalinist Marxisms.

This truth leftist intellectuals like you are determined to avoid: the record of the real lives of real human beings, whose task is not just to interpret texts but to move people and to govern them. When Marxism has been put into practice by real historical actors, it has invariably taken a Stalinist form, producing the worst tyrannies and oppressions that mankind has ever known.

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I ask again, then: what persuaded us to believe (as you still do) that socialism, having begun everywhere so badly, nevertheless possessed the power to reform itself into something better? To be something other than it had been? To pass through the purgatory of its Stalinist tragedies and become the paradise of our imaginations?

The lineage of this belief could be traced back to the original anti-Stalinist: Trotsky. The legendary Trotsky defied Stalin’s tyranny in the name of the revolution and, refusing to give up his principles, gave up his power instead. While the Father of the Peoples was slaughtering millions in the 1930’s, Trotsky waited in his Mexican exile for Russia’s proletariat to rise up against its new masters and restore the revolution to its rightful path. But as the waves of the opposition disappeared into the gulag, and the prospect of rebellion became impossibly remote, even Trotsky began to waver in his faith.

By the eve of World War II, Trotsky’s despair had grown to such insupportable dimensions that he made a final wager. He declared that the cataclysm the world had just entered would be a test for the socialist faith. If the great war did not lead to a new revolution, socialists would be compelled to admit their defeat—that “the present USSR was the precursor of a new and universal system of exploitation,” and that the socialist program had “petered out as a utopia.” Trotsky did not survive to see the coming of peace and the unraveling of his Marxist dreams. In 1940, his personal dilemma was resolved when one of Stalin’s agents gained entrance to the fortress of his exile in Mexico, and buried an ice pick in his head.

But Trotsky’s fantasy survived. In 1953, Stalin died. When his passing led to a period of “de-Stalinization,” a new generation on the Left convinced itself that the long-awaited metamorphosis was at last taking place. With Stalin’s death came the Khrushchev thaw, the famous speech lifting the veil on the bloody past, and a relaxation of the terror. To those on the Left who had refused to give up, these were signs that the Stalinist caterpillar, having lodged itself in the cocoon of a backward empire, was at last becoming the socialist butterfly of which they had dreamed.

You and I and all our comrades of the New Left had our own legend to explain this transformation. It came from Isaac Deutscher, who had emerged from the prewar battles over Trotskyism to become the foremost interpreter of the Russian Revolution to our radical generation.

Deutscher’s analysis began with the reality that was given to us: the fact of Stalinism. But instead of despairing like his mentor Trotsky, Deutscher explained why Stalinism, in spite of itself, was being transformed into socialism. In Trotsky’s own theories Deutscher had found an answer to Trotsky’s pessimism. While Trotsky had worried that there would be no revolution from below, Deutscher showed us why it was coming from above.

Stalinism, Deutscher wrote, was “an amalgamation of Marxism with the semi-barbarous and quite barbarous traditions and the primitive magic of an essentially pre-industrial . . . society.” In short, Stalinism was the fulfillment of Lenin’s famous prescription: with barbarism we will drive barbarism out of Russia. “By fostering Russia’s industrialization and modernization Stalinism had with its own hands uprooted itself and prepared its ‘withering away.’ ”

As Deutscher saw it, the backwardness of Russian society had provided the Bolsheviks not only with a revolutionary opportunity, but also with a historical advantage. They could avail themselves of modern technologies and social theories. Instead of relying on the anarchic impulses of capitalist investment, they could employ the superior methods of socialist planning. The result would be a modern economy more efficient and productive than those of their capitalist competitors. Wrote Deutscher:

Superior efficiency necessarily translates itself, albeit with a delay, into higher standards of living. These should lead to the softening of social tensions, the weakening of antagonisms between bureaucracy and workers, and workers and peasants, to the further lessening of terror, and to the further growth of civil liberties.

Deutscher wrote these words in 1957, the year in which the Soviets celebrated the 40th anniversary of the revolution by launching the first man into space. The feat exemplified the progress that had been achieved in a single generation and heralded the approaching end of the Soviets’ technological “apprenticeship” to the West.

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Deutscher’s intoxcating mix of optimism and “realism” became the foundation of our political revival. The turn Marxism had taken in 1917, creating a socialist economy within a totalitarian state, had posed a seemingly insoluble riddle. How could socialist progress be reconciled with such a stark retreat into social darkness? What had happened to Marx’s insight that the productive mode determined the architecture of social relations? Building on Trotsky’s analysis, Deutscher showed the only way out of the dilemma that would preserve our radical faith.

And no doubt that is why, thirty years later, even as the tremors of glasnost and perestroika were unhinging the equilibrium of the Communist empire, Ralph Miliband returned—with, I hear, your enthusiastic approval—to Deutscher’s prophecy as a revolutionary premise. “Much that is happening in the Soviet Union,” Miliband wrote last year, “constitutes a remarkable vindication of [Deutscher’s] confidence that powerful forces for progressive change would eventually break through seemingly impenetrable barriers.”

Yet to describe the collapse of the Soviet empire as a vindication of Deutscher’s prophecies (and thus of the Marxist tradition that underpins them) is to turn history on its head. We are indeed witnessing a form of “revolution from above” in the Soviet Union, but it is a revolution that refutes Deutscher and Marx. The events of the past year are not a triumph for socialism, but a disaster.

Seduced by Soviet advances in nuclear arms and military showpieces like Sputnik, Deutscher had labored under the illusion of generations of the Left—that the goal of revolutionary power was something other than power itself. For years the Left had decried the collusion between corporate and military interests in the capitalist West, while all that time the entire socialist economy was little more than one giant military-industrial complex. By the 1980’s, military investment absorbed 25 percent of the Soviet gross product (compared to only 6 percent in the United States) while military technology provided the only Soviet product competitive for export. Outside the military sector, as glasnost revealed, the vaunted Soviet industrial achievement was little more than a socialist mirage—imitative, inefficient, and outmoded. Straitjacketed by its central plan, the socialist world had been unable to enter the “second industrial revolution” that began to unfold in countries outside the Soviet bloc after 1945. “We were among the last to understand that in the age of information sciences the most valuable asset is knowledge, springing from human imagination and creativity,” Gorbachev complained in 1989. While capitalist nations (including recent third-world economies like South Korea) were soaring into the technological future, Russia and its satellites, caught in the contradictions of an archaic mode of production, were stagnating into a decade of zero growth, becoming economic anachronisms—what one analyst described as “a gigantic Soviet socialist rust belt.”

This reality laid the groundwork for the historic developments of the last year. The rejection of the planned economy by the leaders of actually existing socialist society, the pathetic search for the elements of a rule of law (following the relentless crusades of the past against “bourgeois rights”), the humiliating admission that the military superpower is in all other respects a third-world nation, the incapacity of the socialist mode of production to enter the technological future, and the unseemly begging for the West’s advanced technology—all this adds up to a declaration of socialism’s utter bankruptcy and historic defeat. This bankruptcy is not only moral and political, as before, but now economic as well.

It is precisely this economic bankruptcy that Deutscher did not foresee, and that forecloses any possibility of a socialist revival. Through all of these post-Khrushchev decades, such a revival had been premised on the belief that abundance would eventually flow from the cornucopia of socialist planning and that economic abundance would then lead to political deliverance—the Deutscherian thesis. The present economic bankruptcy of the Soviet bloc puts this thesis finally to rest.

Nothing underlined this bankruptcy so starkly as the opening of a McDonald’s fast-food outlet in Moscow about the time the East Germans were pulling down the Berlin Wall. The appearance of the Moscow McDonald’s revealed the prosaic truth that lay behind the creation of the Wall and the bloody epoch that had almost ended. Its Soviet customers gathered in lines whose length exceeded those waiting outside Lenin’s tomb, the altar of the revolution itself. Here, the capitalist genius for catering to the ordinary desires of ordinary people was spectacularly displayed, along with socialism’s abiding unconcern for the ordinary needs of common humanity. McDonald’s executives even found it necessary to purchase and manage their own special farm in Russia, because Soviet potatoes—the very staple of the people’s diet—were too poor in quality and unreliable in supply. Conversely, the wages of the Soviet customers were so depressed that a hamburger and fries cost half a day’s pay. And yet this most ordinary of pleasures—the bottom of the food chain in the capitalist West—was still such a luxury for Soviet consumers that it was worth a four-hour wait and a four-hour wage.

Of all the symbols for the epoch-making year, this was perhaps the most resonant for leftists of our generation. Impervious to the way the unobstructed market democratized wealth, the New Left had focused its social scorn precisely on those plebeian achievements of consumer capitalism which brought services and goods efficiently and cheaply to ordinary people. Indeed, perhaps the main theoretical contribution of our generation of New Left Marxists was an elaborate literature of cultural criticism made up of sneering commentaries on the “commodity fetishism” of bourgeois cultures and the “one-dimensional” humanity that commerce produced. For New Leftists, the leviathans of post-industrial alienation and oppression were precisely these “consumption-oriented” industries, like McDonald’s, which offered inexpensive services to the working masses. (A sister chain, the Sizzler, even offered “all you can eat” menus that embraced a variety of meats, vegetables, fruits, and pastries virtually unknown in the Soviet bloc.)

Such mundane symbols of consumer capitalism revealed the real secret of the era that was now ending, the reason why the Iron Curtain and the Berlin Wall were necessary. In 1989, for two hours’ labor at the minimum wage, an American worker could obtain, at a corner Sizzler, a feast more opulent, more nutritionally packed and gastronomically diverse than anything available to almost all the citizens of the socialist world (including the elite) at almost any price.

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In the counterrevolutionary year 1989, on the anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, a group of protesters raised a banner in Red Square that summed up an epoch: “Seventy Years on the Road to Nowhere.” They had been “over into the future” and it didn’t work.

This epic of human futility reached a poignant climax the same year, when the Soviet state formally decided to return the land it had taken from the peasants half a century before. The collectivization of agriculture in the 30’s had been the very first pillar of the socialist plan and one of the bloodiest episodes of the revolutionary era. Armies were dispatched to the countryside to confiscate the property of its recalcitrant owners, conduct mass deportations to the Siberian gulag, liquidate the “kulaks,” and herd the survivors into the collective farms of the Marxist future.

In the final class struggle, no method was considered too ruthless to midwife the new world from the old. “We are opposed by everything that has outlived the time set for it by history,” wrote Maxim Gorky in the midst of battle: “This gives us the right to consider ourselves again in a state of civil war. The conclusion naturally follows that if the enemy does not surrender, he must be destroyed.” The destruction of the class enemy—the most numerous and productive element of Soviet society at the time—was accomplished by massacres, by slow deaths in concentration camps, and by deliberately induced genocidal famine. In the end, over ten million people were killed, more than had died on all sides in World War I.

Before collectivization, Russia had been the “breadbasket of Europe,” supplying 40 percent of the world’s wheat exports in the bumper years 1909 and 1910. But socialism ended Russia’s agrarian plenty and created permanent deficits—not merely the human deficit of those who perished because of Stalinist brutalities during the collectivization, but a deficit in grain that would never be brought to harvest because of the brutality inherent in the socialist idea. Half a century after the socialist future had been established in the countryside, the Soviet Union had become a net importer of grain, unable to produce enough food to feed its own population. And so, half a century after ten million people had been killed to “socialize the countryside,” those who had expropriated the land were giving it back. (Soviet joke: What is socialism? The longest road from capitalism to capitalism.) Now the Soviet rulers themselves had begun to say that it had all been a horrible “mistake.”

Of all the scenarios of the Communist Götterdämmerung, the actual denouement had been predicted by no one. Throughout history ruling classes invariably had held fast to the foundations of their power. They had not confessed their own bankruptcy, and then proceeded to dismantle the social systems sustaining their rule, as this one had. The reason for the anomaly was that the architects of the Soviet Union had indeed made a “mistake.” The system did not work, not even in terms of sustaining the power of its ruling class.

The close of the Soviet drama was unpredicted because the very nature of the Soviet Union was without precedent. The crisis of the Soviet system was not so much a traditional crisis of legitimacy and rule, as it was the crisis of an idea—a monstrously wrong idea that had been artificially imposed on an entire society by an intellectual elite.

But if socialism was a “mistake,” it was never merely innocent in the sense that its consequences could not have been foreseen. From the very beginning, before the first drop of blood had ever been spilled, the critics of socialism had warned that it would not work and that it would end in tyranny. Already in 1872, Marx’s arch-rival in the First International, the anarchist Bakunin, described with penetrating acumen the political life of the future that Marx had in mind:

This government will not content itself with administering and governing the masses politically, as all governments do today. It will also administer the masses economically, concentrating in the hands of the state the production and division of wealth, the cultivation of land. . . . All that will demand . . . the reign of scientific intelligence, the most aristocratic, despotic, arrogant, and elitist of all regimes. There will be a new class, a new hierarchy, . . . the world will be divided into a minority ruling in the name of knowledge, and an immense ignorant majority. And then, woe unto the mass of ignorant ones!

If a leading voice in Marx’s own International could see with such clarity the oppressive implications of his revolutionary idea, there was no excuse for the generations of Marxists who promoted the idea even after it had been put into practice and the blood had begun to flow.

Yet so powerful was the socialist idea that even those on the Left who took their inspiration from Bakunin and later opposed the Communists could not bring themselves to defend the democratic societies of the capitalist West that the Marxists had put under siege. Like Bakunin, they were sworn enemies of capitalism, the only industrial system that worked. Yet their remedy for its deficiencies—abolishing private property and the free market—would have meant generalized poverty and revolutionary terror as surely as the statist fantasies of Marx. By promoting the socialist idea of the future and by participating in the war against the capitalist present, these non-Marxist soldiers of the Left became partners in the very tragedy they feared.

Of all Marx’s critics, it was only the partisans of capitalism like Ludwig Von Mises and Friedrich Hayek who understood the mistake that socialists had made and thus appreciated the only practical—which is to say the real—social bases of human freedom: private property and free markets. In 1922, as the Bolsheviks completed the consolidation of their political power, Von Mises published his classic indictment of the socialist idea and its destructive consequences. “The problem of economic calculation,” he wrote, “is the fundamental problem of socialism” and cannot be solved by socialist means. “Everything brought forward in favor of socialism during the last hundred years, . . . all the blood which has been spilled by the supporters of socialism, cannot make socialism workable.” Across the vast empire of societies that have put the socialist idea to the test, the names of Von Mises, Hayek, and the other prophets of capitalist economy are now revered, even as the names of Marx, Lenin, and Trotsky are despised. Yet in the socialist and Marxist press in the West, the arguments of the capitalist critics of socialism, who long ago demonstrated its impossibility and who have now been proven correct, are nowhere considered. It is as if they were never made.

For socialists like you to confront these arguments would be to confront the lesson that (to say yet again what cannot be said too often) the socialist idea has been, in its consequences, one of the worst and most destructive fantasies ever to have taken hold of the minds of men. And it is the idea that Marx conceived. For (to repeat another point that cannot be repeated too often), the Promethean project of the Left has been just this from the first minute: to abolish property and overthrow the market and thereby to establish the reign of reason and justice embodied in a social plan.

_____________

 

Toward the end of his life, Isaac Deutscher had a premonition of the disaster that has now overtaken the socialist Left. In the conclusion to his three-volume biography of Trotsky, he speculated on the fate that would befall his revolutionary hero if the socialist project itself should fail:

If the view were to be taken that all that the Bolsheviks aimed at—socialism—was no more than a fata morgana, that the revolution merely substituted one kind of exploitation and oppression for another, and could not do otherwise, then Trotsky would appear as the high priest of a god that was bound to fail, as utopia’s servant mortally entangled in his dreams and illusions.

But Deutscher did not have the strength to see the true dimensions of the catastrophe that socialism had in store. Instead, his realism only served to reveal the depths of self-delusion and self-justifying romanticism that provide sustenance for the Left. Even if such a failure were to take place, he went on to argue, the revolutionary hero

would [still] attract the respect and sympathy due to the great utopians and visionaries. . . . Even if it were true that it is man’s fate to stagger in pain and blood from defeat to defeat and to throw off one yoke only to bend his neck beneath another—even then man’s longings for a different destiny would still, like pillars of fire, relieve the darkness and gloom of the endless desert through which he has been wandering with no promised land beyond.

This is the true self-vision of the Left: an army of saints on the march against injustice, lacking itself the capacity for evil. The Left sees its revolutions as pillars of fire that light up humanity’s deserts, but burn no civilizations as they pass.

Yet consider: if no one had believed Marx’s idea, there would have been no Bolshevik Revolution. Russia might then have evolved into a modern democracy and industrial state. Hitler would not have come to power. There would have been no cold war. It is hard not to conclude that most of the bloodshed of the 20th century might not have taken place.

The Communist idea is not “the principle of the modern world,” as Marx supposed, but its anti-principle, the reactionary rejection of political individualism and the market economies of the liberal West. Wherever the revolutionary Left has triumphed, its triumph has meant not progress but economic backwardness and social poverty, cultural deprivation and the loss of political freedom for all the unfortunate peoples in its path.

By promoting the socialist idea, the realization of which required so much death and suffering to implement, and then did not work in the end, you and I have earned ourselves a share, however modest, in the responsibility for its crimes. And it is these crimes that are the real legacy of the Left of which I was, and you so tragically still are, a part.

Your Ex-Comrade,
David


Footnotes

1 Main Currents of Marxism, Oxford University Press (1978).

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