We want to change the world, and, therefore, we must ponder why people now have less confidence in the possibility of moving beyond the reign of capital than their ancestors did more than 150 years ago, when Marx and Engels wrote The Communist Manifesto, or simply at the beginning of this century, before the Bolshevik Revolution. There are two connected webs of explanation, woven around the declining popular belief in the inevitability of socialism and the unexpected resilience of capitalism.
We quite rightly deny that socialism ever existed in Eastern Europe and refuse to accept Stalin’s crimes as part of an alleged socialist record. But 1917 is a date in our heritage, and we must draw lessons from what happened afterward. Things that used to be taken for granted must now be scrutinized and often rejected. It was vaguely assumed–though, admittedly, never said plainly–that once the revolution occurred, there would be a more or less smooth, more or less inexorable advance toward a socialist future. We now know that even if forces seeking a socialist solution were to take power in the advanced countries of Western Europe, the transition would be a lengthy period, far from smooth, full of difficulties and risks, including not just reversals but possible restorations.
There are two reasons for the surprising longevity of capitalism. One is that it has taken much longer than Marx thought for the reign of capital to stretch across the world and to eliminate precapitalist forms in the conquered territory; passages in The Communist Manifesto about foreign expansion read as if they were written today about globalization. Naturally, capitalism does not have to invade the whole planet and mop up every nook and cranny before it makes its exit from the historical stage. It can and should be removed long before. Nevertheless, this room for expansion did help, and still does to some extent, in the process of its survival. The second reason lies in the system’s underestimated capacity for what we called distorted growth, spurred by the creation of artificial needs and the purposely wasteful use of resources. Advertising and obsolescence, as somebody has remarked, are more sophisticated ways of destroying value than is coffee burning.
One of the great attractions of Marxism was its subtle association of economic necessity and political will: The capitalist system seemed historically condemned; the objective development of the productive forces was aggravating its contradictions, but it would only fall under the subjective pressure and the blows of the revolutionary labor movement. This could take the form of a very fatalistic version that may be summed up in terms closer to Calvin than Marx: You are predestined for paradise, but you will get there only if you deserve it through your own action or obedience. Before the First World War, under the Second International, the theory was reduced to a very mechanistic interpretation, the productive forces more or less doing it on their own, with the help of an expectant but passive movement. Then, under the Soviet Union and particularly in Stalin’s hands, the whole combination was broken into pieces. There was no need for democratic pressure from below, because economic development was going to bring the stage of communism to Russia. At the same time, all sorts of shortcuts were possible; in 1936, at the height of the purges, it was proclaimed that the Soviet Union had achieved the penultimate phase, that it was already a socialist society, with communism on the horizon. To top it all, iron discipline was required from Soviet citizens and from the obedient foreign faithful so that the USSR could reach its historical destination. We know what happened to this unholy mixture of religious belief and barrack-room discipline.