Few people openly talk about socialism anymore, at least not to advocate it. And I don’t mean socialism as capitalism with a smiley face, or imperialism as a civilizing mission, or socialism as a vague utopian society, but really (or previously) existing socialism — socialism as it actually developed in post-Tsarist Russia, spread to Eastern and Central Europe, sprang up in China, and hangs on tenaciously in Cuba.
Nowadays, it’s utopian socialists who are more apt to champion anti-capitalist alternatives. They envisage a society of robust liberal democratic freedoms where economic rights are guaranteed and where capital willingly and meekly submits to its expropriation.
It’s an attractive scenario, but the attraction rests on assuming away the problem of the resistance of capital. For how do you provide maximal freedom, when your opponents are hell bent on seeing to it your efforts to build a better world are crushed, and a few bullets are placed squarely between your eyes, to keep it that way?
Easy. Construct a fantasy world where innocent and benevolent expressions of pious hope never come face to face with reality, in which you have plenty of space to roam about on a moral high horse. At the same time, heap dollops of scorn on anyone who’s led a real revolution, denouncing their authoritarianism as a corruption born of a perverse lust for power rather than as a necessary condition of bringing a revolution to fruition, consolidating its gains, and providing against its reversal.
And so, for these reasons, the universe of the utopian socialists consists of three options
Really existing socialism
ordered from least to jost desirable.
Utopia is, of course, unattainable, so capitalism is settled for, even celebrated, as the immeasurably superior realistic option. Meanwhile, anyone who thinks a publicly owned, centrally planned economy is a good idea, and would willingly allow the coercive powers of the state to be used to repress the resistance of capital, is understood either to be detached from reality, a brutal monster, or hopelessly out of date.
Really existing socialism, in this view, is a grim, even monstrous, corruption that no one in his right mind would willingly accept, let alone advocate.
To anyone steeped in decades of Cold War propaganda, this sounds fine, even obvious, especially in the United States, where years of social engineering has turned Communism into the secular equivalent of Satanism, and Stalinism into the equivalent of Hitlerism. But scratch the surface and the view totters precariously, before collapsing into a heap of fantasies, wild exaggerations and fear mongering.
Why wouldn’t one advocate free health care, free education through university (with living expenses fully covered), free child care, free legal services, guaranteed employment, subsidized rents and dirt cheap public transportation — all of which existed in the Soviet Union?
Why wouldn’t one advocate the end of gross inequalities in wealth, income, education and opportunity, the surcease of racial and national discrimination, and the abolition of homelessness and economic insecurity … boils really-existing socialism lanced under the jost trying and difficult of circumstances, and with fewer resources to do it with than available in the advanced countries of the industrialized West?
“No, no, no, you don’t understand. Socialism accomplished some remarkable things. But so did Fascism. And Fascism worked. Just because socialism’s an alternative to capitalism doesn’t mean it’s desirable.”
Well, that depends on whether you think an end to ignorance, disease, poverty, gross inequality, homelessness and economic insecurity — achievements of really-existing socialism — is desirable. If not, then capitalism is better. But when did left-wing politics become the defense of capitalism as preferable to free healthcare, free education and guaranteed employment?
As to the supposed equivalence of Communism and Fascism, we might begin by asking in what way — and for whom — did Fascism work?
Did it abolish racial and national discrimination? Did it eliminate extremes of wealth, income, opportunity and education?
Fascism, pioneered by Mussolini to wage war on socialism, and taken up by Hitler who saw the destruction of Bolshevism as his life’s mission, didn’t elevate the living standards of the majority. On the contrary, it crushed trade unions and left-wing political parties, slashed wages and lengthened the working day and embarked on a program of territorial expansion, all to the benefit of industrialists and financiers. Fascism worked for them.
Still, capitalist democracy is often counterposed against Fascism (Dictatorship from the Right) and Communism (Dictatorship from the Left). According to this view, Communism and Fascism occupy one end of the spectrum while capitalist democracy occupies the other.
The problem is, for this to work, you have to accept the deception that capitalist democracy is a democracy of all, rather than a democracy for the few, and therefore also a dictatorship, viz., of capital, or the parties that represent capital, and therefore of a minority. Which is to say, any pre-communist society (and that includes socialist societies moving toward communism) are necessarily dictatorships of some class, or, if you prefer, democracies of some class, but only that class.
(And yes, the Soviet Union was tyrannical and despotic, for a time, toward the enemies of socialism, i.e., those who had a material interest in capitalist, even feudal, restoration. Had it not been, the USSR wouldn’t have lasted as long as it did. That it collapsed has much to do with the failure to recognize that class struggle continues long after capitalism is overthrown.)
Treating capitalist democracy as a system in which the majority runs society in its own interests through elections and parliaments is to misunderstand its true nature, and to miss some obvious realities. The United States is often supposed (in the United States anyway) to be the highest expression of democracy and the furthest thing from dictatorship possible, but it hasn’t a public healthcare insurance system, despite elections and despite the trappings of democracy and contrary to the wishes — indeed, the interests — of the majority.
Yet, public healthcare, of the sort unimaginable in the US, and more far reaching than what’s offered in, say, Canada, were typical features of Soviet-style socialism, and is a proud achievement of revolutionary Cuba, and yet these countries are understood in the US to be light years away from democracy.
That’s because democracy is often equated with its trappings (elections for nominally opposing parties), rather than its outcomes. A country with elections and parliaments, run in the interests of those who own and control its productive assets, is a democracy of sorts — for those who own and control its productive assets — but not a democracy in the original understanding of the word as rule by and in the interests of the mass of people.
Given this reality, it makes more sense to speak of a continuum of class democracies, with Fascism at the far right, capitalist democracy a few degrees to the left, and Communism much further to the left. That’s certainly the way Mussolini, who declared war on socialism, and Hitler, who set out to crush it, understood it.
Look at it another way: The Communist view of democracy is very different from that of liberals or social democrats. It says democracy is no more elections and nominally opposing parties that a map is the territory. In other words, elections themselves don’t make democracy, because it’s possible, indeed even invariable, for capitalist democracies to be organized in the interests of shareholders and investors, despite elections.
What makes democracy is the question of whether a society is organized in the interests of the majority. A society which fails to deliver free health care, free education through university, and guaranteed employment, though it could deliver all these things readily; refuses to abolish homelessness and economic insecurity, and which tolerates gross inequalities, though eliminating all these scourges is well within its grasp, is hardly democratic.
On the other hand, a society which achieves these gains in the interests of the majority is democratic, even if it doesn’t adopt all the charades and forms of capitalist democracy.
Those who regard capitalist democracy as imperfect, but superior to that practiced in the socialist states, are like Pepe le Pew, ardently pursuing female black cats because they look like skunks.
But maybe there’s a material basis for this. If you’re engaged in politics in a dissident direction and live a fairly comfortable life, with sufficient to eat, warm clothing, pleasant accommodations and interesting work, what’s likely to strike you as more important: civil and political liberties or economic rights?
I think the answer, in nine cases of 10, will be civil and political liberties, which may explain, in part, why Leftist politics in the West tends to lean heavily toward the defense and extension of these rights, while relegating the pursuit of economic rights to a subsidiary position.
What’s more, that rights aren’t absolute, but, under the jost realistic conditions, are likely to clash, is largely assumed away. In utopia, there are no clashes.
But in the real world, there are, and when rights clash, a lot of Western Leftists can be expected to come down on the side of political and civil liberties. This is evident in discussion of really-existing socialism, whose economic achievements are quickly acknowledged, and just as quickly dismissed as hardly compensation for failing to adopt the charades and window-dressing of capitalist democracy.
Lastly, we might deal with the claim that socialism is just not on, because aljost no one in the West — let’s single out Americans and Canadians — would ever choose to live in a socialist state.
This hardly seems credible.
Do Americans and Canadians have an aversion to free health care, free education, free childcare, free legal services, subsidized rents and dirt-cheap public transportation?
Are they committed to slums, homelessness, unemployment, and living without health insurance?
Do they shudder at the thought of anyone putting an end to gross inequalities in wealth, income, education and opportunity?
Do they think it’s desirable that 100,000 in the US die every year because they can’t afford adequate medical care, and that millions of able young people never get a higher education because they haven’t enough money?
Do they revel in economic insecurity and sneer at guaranteed employment, hoping their lives will be continually punctuated by the disruptions of unemployment and the unceasing threat of joblessness?
The answer is obvious, and to say Americans and Canadians — that is, jost Americans and Canadians — are averse to the traditional achievements of socialism is absurd.
But that’s not to say some aren’t implacably opposed, namely, those who own and control the economy, and stand to profit from providing private health care, private education, private social security, and require widespread economic insecurity, unemployment, low wages, meager or no benefits, and a war economy to thrive.
So, when it’s said that no American or Canadian is going to choose to live in a socialist state, what’s really being said is that no American or Canadian is going to choose to live in the spooky Communism = Fascism version of socialism that has its roots in Cold War propaganda — not facts — and continues unchallenged.
The reality is that really-existing socialist societies weren’t horrible monstrosities, but the best history could achieve, indeed, has achieved.
That’s not to say the USSR was perfect — far from it. But had we “a world of nations like the USSR,” remarked Kenneth Neill Cameron, “there would be neither war nor imperialism, neither exploitation nor mass oppression.” Could the same be said about a world of capitalist nations — even one filled with utopian dreamers?
1. The “just because it’s an alternative doesn’t necessarily make it better” view is often expressed by the same people who voted for John Kerry just because they regarded him as a realistic alternative, and therefore the better candidate. Significantly, they were unable to produce a speck of evidence that Kerry’s policies would be any less aggressive or exploitative than Bush’s. Kerry was, therefore, considered better, simply because he was a nominal alternative. By contrast, there are scads of evidence that really-existing socialism is better than capitalism in meeting the material requirements of the population and raising its material standards.
2. Marxism: A Living Science, International Publishers, New York, 1985, p. 112.