By Greg Godels
June 27, 2022
As the Soviet Union and our historical memory of it disappear in the rear-view mirror, ideological clarity about socialism disappears with it. It is not that the Soviet Union had a monopoly on socialist thinking– there were certainly contributors from within and without the then-existing socialist world who reflected different times, different circumstances, and different traditions– but the Soviet Union represented a historical constant, an evolving constant that connected the rise of revolutionary Marxism in the early twentieth century to later socialist thought.
One didn’t have to agree with Soviet socialist theory in the late twentieth century, but one had to reckon with it; one had to locate one’s thinking longitudinally and latitudinally from that pole.
Because it served as a frame of reference for other leftist movements– purported Communist, non-Communist, and anti-Communist leftism– there was a certain logic to the politics of the global left, best expressed by the division between the Communist, revolutionary left and the social-democratic, reformist left. These two trends captured left politics, with various wrinkles and departures playing a lesser role.
Subsequent to the demise of the Soviet Union, left ideology became unhinged. Social democracy retreated to applying a modest, slightly more human face to capitalist triumphalism, reaching full-expression with the self-described Third Way of Clinton, Blair, and Hollande. Without competition from the historical legacy of revolutionary Marxism (Marxism-Leninism), a rightward swing was inevitable.
Within the Marxist-Leninist movement, frustration and disappointment led to bitter fights, splits, and retreat to what Lenin described so well as “the years of reaction” after the defeat of the 1905 Russian revolution:
All the revolutionary and opposition parties were smashed. Depression, demoralisation, splits, discord, defection, and pornography took the place of politics. There was an ever greater drift towards philosophical idealism; mysticism became the garb of counter-revolutionary sentiments… It is at moments of need that one learns who one’s friends are. “
-Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder
Many academic Marxists– theorists whose ideas never took root in the working class, but who commanded much influence, nonetheless– abandoned revolutionary socialism for social criticism, spurred on by a shiny new intellectual toy, postmodernism. The ideology that coalesced around the idea of class was shattered into the politics of individual identities and varied interests. Too often this thinking seeped into left-wing politics, confusing younger comrades, by nature, enthralled with the new.
Other academics believed that they had found a more rigorous foundation for Marxism in the neo-positivism of optimized choice, self-interest, and individualism, the growing intellectual consensus of bourgeois social science. After sterile debates– often couched in formal language– proponents concluded that the most interesting, most original ideas in Marxism could not be reduced to statements about isolated individuals maximizing their self-perceived, narrow, immediate interests. So Marxism must be abandoned to preserve the beloved method, a patent absurdity!
In the last decade of the 20th century, a process of soul searching had begun in major sections of the left, especially in the West. Both the centrality of class politics and the legacy goal of constructing socialism receded in the newly minted approaches of the broad left.
In the wake of the 2007-2009 global economic crisis, the idea of class reemerged, albeit in a simplistic, primitive way. In 2011, activists, organizing around the slogan “Occupy!”, introduced the dichotomy of the 1% and the 99% as an expression of the great and growing inequalities of wealth and income in the US. Lacking any grasp of the complexities of class and strata, the slogan “the 99%” was bound to conjure an illusory unity of the supposed have-nots that was naive and unattainable. And the idea of “the 1%” reduced the historically evolved power and rule of the capitalist class to a mere actuarial number.
The retreat from class (as Ellen Meiksins Wood so aptly characterized it) continued unabated. And the retreat from any real advocacy of socialism accompanied it.
Dissatisfaction with a soulless Democratic Party increasingly catering to a more affluent, petty bourgeois base, revived an interest in social democracy in the US. This new interest grew from the campaign of independent Democrat Bernie Sanders who refused to renounce the moniker “socialist.” Young people, in particular, were drawn in great numbers to a ‘legitimized’ socialism, energizing a number of leftist organizations and electoral campaigns.
Ironically, this new social democratic moment occurred in the US when social democracy in Europe– its traditional address– was discredited and marginalized.
While acceptance of the word “socialism” in the US was welcome, it was attached to a tepid, incremental socialism deeply embedded in the Democratic Party and virtually indistinguishable from its 1930s New Deal precedent.
Certainly, this leftish turn was welcome, and the freeing of the word “socialism” from its Red Scare chains marked progress.
But so-called democratic “socialism” was not socialism by any measure, but a brand associated with the left-wing of the Democratic Party.
The retreat from the real– real-existing and real-theoretical– socialism and the abandonment of the tool of class analysis disables and disarms the left in every way, leaving it vacillating between accommodating capitalism with patchwork reforms and surrendering the socialist project all together until a time off in the distant future.
My own advocacy of socialism has often been met with the patronizing dismissal: “Sure, but tell us how we get there from here.”
But we can’t get anywhere unless we settle on where we want to go. And surely, we must choose our route collectively.
The signs that our left has abandoned the goal of socialism, along with class partisanship abound… unfortunately.
The contradiction– and the Marxist term is most appropriate– between surging inflation and shrinking growth has capitalist policy makers in a bind. Their consensus– and their consensus follows from bourgeois theory– is that spending must be retarded. The conventional way to do this is through restraining economic activity, exactly what the Federal Reserve’s interest-rate increases are meant to do.
Given that a hard braking of the economy will inevitably produce widespread and deep pain on an already struggling working class, one would think that this would be a powerful, unassailable argument for socialism. Given that this moment in US history presents a seemingly intractable problem for the ruling class with only two possible and disastrous outcomes– escalating inflation or a deep recession– that the left would lay the portended disaster at the doorstep of capitalism.
But, no, that is not happening.
Instead, the left is blaming the Federal Reserve or searching vainly for ways to save capitalism from its dilemma.
● A headline in Jacobin— a journal of “socialism”– and reposted in Portside states ominously: To Fight Inflation, The Fed is Declaring a War on Workers. No, it is not the Federal Reserve declaring war on workers. The Federal Reserve is a capitalist institution. It is always at war with workers– that’s its job. It is– as it always is– capitalism that is at war with workers. Say it! C-a-p-i-t-a-l-i-s-m…
The article ends by suggesting how capitalism could “forge” an alternative path to reducing inflation– a brief suggestion unrelated to the dilemma that capitalism finds itself facing, but having the merit of evading the elephant in the room.
● Then there is Michael Hudson’s response to the Federal Reserve’s interest-rate action, The Fed’s Austerity Program to Reduce Wages, found on numerous websites from Counterpunch to TeleSur. Hudson commands a huge following, despite having no history or connection with the organized left aside from apparent youthful happenstance with Trotskyism. His long history as a financial industry insider and his loquaciousness seem, somehow, to bolster his popularity.
Again, it is not capitalism that is responsible for the mess facing working people, but “neoliberalism,” “the tunnel vision of corporate managers and the One Percent,” and “Biden’s Cold War.” Hudson punches the explanation up by invoking his two favorite bêtes noires: debt and the rentier-class. But not capitalism.
I have no quarrel with the term “neoliberalism” if it is shorthand for the socio-politico-economic adjustment made by and for capitalism during the 1970s stagflation crisis and after the failure of Keynesian solutions. But today it is used far too often and with zeal to conjure an evil malignancy that attacks otherwise stable and enduring capitalism and imposes onerous conditions on a disgruntled, but somewhat-satisfied-with-capitalism working class.
This is sheer nonsense, of course, but it is the latent assumption behind the obsession with neoliberalism held by most left punditry. If only we could expel neoliberalism… Again, capitalism as an all-determining socio-economic formation gets a free pass.
● Professor Richard Wolff is an impressive expositor of many Marxist ideas. He is the go-to interview when center-left media, like Democracy Now!, wants to hear from Marxism. But Professor Wolf is no Marxist. Nor is he a socialist, though he might challenge this claim. While he is unquestionably dedicated and earnest, it is not to socialism that he is dedicated. Instead, he advocates for a snail’s-pace assault on capitalism through small-business-like consumer and producer cooperatives, a persisting utopian strategy of nipping away at the edges of capital. That strategy has no answer for monopoly capitalism, the capitalism of our ages.
Like so many others, Wolff demonstrates an aversion to locating capitalism as the material, formal, efficient, and final cause of today’s crises, preferring to find the reparable flaws in capitalism and to search for a fix.
In his Three Anti-Inflation Alternatives to Raising Interest Rates appearing in Economy for All, In These Times, Popular Resistance, and other places, Wolff signals more interest in finding a way to manage the inflation-stagnation crisis than attacking its cause.
Wolff proposes not one, but three alternatives available to capitalism to escape the clutches of inflation.
First, he proposes a wartime solution: ration cards. One can only imagine how that would be received by a citizenry already divided by masks, vaccines, and lockdowns, not to mention guns. Indeed, this proposal might unwittingly be a stealth spark for further misunderstanding and mindless conflict.
Second, Wolff revives the Nixon-era tactic of the wage-price freeze. Like rationing, a freeze– including Nixon’s brief wage-price freeze– freezes injustices as well and merely temporarily bottles up the growing, deep-seated inflationary pressures. In Nixon, Ford, and Carter’s case, those pressures exploded for the rest of the decade to no relief or benefit to working people. Like rationing, price freezes give the impression of action, while leaving the cause of economic distress– capitalism– untouched and unspoken.
While not mentioning socialism, Wolff’s third “alternative” invokes its spirit with the possibility of “[t]the socialization of private capitalist enterprises…” But before one can anticipate Marx’s call in The Communist Manifesto for “the abolition of bourgeois property,” Wolff dashes our hopes. He is not calling for the end of “the exploitation of the many by the few” but something else entirely. Instead, he says, let’s borrow from the history of public utility commissions that have failed so miserably to protect consumers from fraud, unjustifiable price increases, and other abuses:
Across the United States, insurance, utility, and other public commissions limit private capitalist enterprises’ freedom to raise their prices in the markets they regulate. Private capitalists in such markets cannot raise prices without the permission of those commissions to do so. A government could establish all sorts of commissions in all sorts of markets with criteria for granting or refusing such permissions. Suppose, for example, that some or all food items were socially (democratically) deemed to be basic goods, such that no producer or seller could raise its prices without approval by a federal food commission. Fighting inflation could be among the approval criteria in this case (just as that is a criterion now for the Fed’s monetary policies).
Is this less utopian, less fabulist, less unrealistic, more promising than the call to abolish bourgeois property? Is championing socialism a more remotely possible solution than establishing “commissions” that would regulate capitalist prices and, accordingly, profits? Wolff simply issues a fanciful wishlist to address an impending disaster.
A survey of the various “solutions” to the contradiction of exploding capitalist prices and slowing economic activity offered by prominent left thinkers shows that they have no solution at all. Moreover, the offered “solutions” all portend to manage capitalism better than its bourgeois managers. They all seek to improve capitalism, to make it friendlier, to tame its “excesses” while guiding it through its internally generated crises.
If today’s left refuses to seriously discuss socialism, deferring it to another time and place, it consigns the people to eternal wandering in the biblical wilderness.
It is not another half-hearted attempt at reformist or utopian change (after centuries of disappointing attempts), but a commitment to revolutionary socialism that will deliver the working class “out of the hands of the [capitalists], and to bring them up out of that land unto a good land and a large, unto a land flowing with milk and honey…” (with apologies to Exodus 3:8).
The working class deserves better than another thirty years of wandering through the wilderness of misdirection, muddled ideas, and fear of socialism.