The Specter of Capitalism

The Specter of Capitalism

Letter From Europe.


The rulers of the capitalist world who came to Paris for the bicentennial celebrations last month were in a smug mood. True, the great French Revolution was not the last, but the bourgeois order now looks more solidly entrenched than it has for quite a time. So, 1789 could be celebrated because 1917 is apparently a dead end, or at least is being presented as such with the full power of the propaganda machine. The bloody leap backward in China in June and the simultaneous rejection of the regime by Polish voters have been used to drum the rather contradictory message that the communist world is both totalitarian and crumbling from within. The massacre in Beijing allowed the propagandists to stress the evil and unreformable nature of communism, while events in Poland, Hungary and the Soviet Union enabled them to boast at the same time that a specter is haunting Eastern Europe, the specter of capitalism.

To peddle this message the propagandists could not afford to be very choosy. They had to present the students and workers singing “The Internationale” in Tiananmen Square as the worshipers of capitalism. They were also bound to conceal the fact that today’s villain, Deng Xiaoping, the executioner in chief, had only yesterday been their hero, praised as the man capable of putting “capitalist substance into socialist forms” and given as an example to Mikhail Gorbachev because Deng has put the accent on consumer goods instead of bothering about democratic nonsense. All that is now conveniently forgotten. The hypocrisy should take nobody by surprise, coming from an establishment that had previously demonstrated, in connection with Solidarity, that it could hate labor unions at home and love them beyond the Elbe. Those who still cherished illusions about the official Western proclamations of sympathy for the Chinese rebels were quickly undeceived. When it was suggested that, in the new circumstances, Britain should guarantee the right of entry to the Chinese from Hong Kong with British passports, Her Majesty’s government rejected the very idea. Its charity went as far as to make exceptions for the happy few with fat wallets: visas for those with Visa cards. As a British member of Parliament put it, Margaret Thatcher is an advocate of “Access-card democracy.”

But their hypocrisy does not justify our complacency. The crisis of socialism does exist, even if the “free market” ideologues try to exploit it to their advantage. Moscow’s Congress of People’s Deputies, behaving as if it were a constituent assembly; the Polish elections; the Hungarian round table, foreshadowing another condemnation of a “communist” regime—each day some event reminds us that an era is definitely coming to an end. But if the twilight of a reign is obvious, the shape of its successor is not. Will the Soviet bloc begin to build socialism in democratic fashion or will it pay for past sins by a capitalist restoration? The latter risk can no longer be ruled out, but Western propaganda has managed to draw from recent events the categorical conclusion that capitalism is eternal because socialism (and communism even more so) is either a utopia à rebours or a figment of the imagination. The success of this campaign makes it imperative to rehearse in a new context the old argument against the identification of socialism with Soviet reality.

The Lasting Curse

The inquiry takes us back to the origins, to the fact that the Revolution happened in backward Russia and did not spread to the advanced capitalist countries for which it was designed in Marx’s conception. The isolated Bolsheviks, unless they gave up power, had to industrialize the conquered territory, to carry out within a short spell the “primitive accumulation,” including the massive uprooting of peasants, that had taken decades of ruthless oppression to accomplish in the Western countries. Whether Stalinism, with its “concentrationary” universe and its Byzantine cult, was the inevitable political product of this vast social upheaval will be disputed by historians for generations. But inevitable or not, the birth of the system and its development have a bearing on the current debate.

The institutions of the new regime and its mechanisms of management did not grow out of a mature capitalism at the end of its tether. Land was not collectivized because efficient smallholders had reached their limits. Workers did not take over modem factories to end their alienation. Planning was not introduced to replace a mechanism unable to translate rising productivity into value benefiting society as a whole. The system did not transcend capitalism; it acted as a substitute designed to perform capitalism’s early tasks, including the dirtiest. And this strange social formation was being presented as a model of socialism.

Still, Russia was an example. The pioneering feat of the Bolsheviks inspired millions of downtrodden and exploited throughout the world, spurring them to action. But Stalin reduced the international communist movement to a tool of Soviet policy and turned “Marxism-Leninism” into a religion. The more or less necessary evils performed in Russia were hailed as virtue and the Soviet Union was presented as a model for the world at large. Professional anticommunists and Stalin’s stooges agreed on only one thing—namely, that this was socialism. This is the system, somehow propped up and revarnished, now being discarded in various parts of the Soviet bloc. It is obviously absurd to accuse Gorbachev of “dismantling socialism” (though quite legitimate to ask what he proposes to put in the place of the crumbling edifice that exists).

Contrary to the current fashion of using black instead of pink glasses for examining this period (see below), it should be said that economically the Soviet mechanisms did function quite successfully for a time, if judged not by socialist standards but by the tasks to which it set itself. Uprooted peasants were taught to read and turned into workers. Technicians and engineers were produced on a mass scale. Industrialization proceeded fast enough to provide the Red Army with enough guns and tanks to resist German aggression and save Europe from Nazism. Yet, once the Soviet Union had recovered from the terrible ravages of the war, it became obvious that the system of coercion and command from above, designed for illiterate muzhiks, was politically obsolete and economically counterproductive. (Incidentally, this is the model that Eastern Europe inherited when the Soviet tanks brought “revolution from above” as far as the Elbe. Like their Napoleonic counterparts, Soviet troops carried with them the progressive elements of their new order—the elimination of big landlords and capitalists, mass education and so on—although whether these progressive elements of the Stalinist package compensated for the inevitable losses of the whole area’s being sealed off from the international division of labor should be studied seriously; in the present climate a negative answer is given without examination.)

The optimistic assumption of historians was that the development of productive forces would drive the rulers to change the political institutions. The theory was right, but practice once again proved more complex. Stalin’s successors opted for a slackening rate of growth rather than the abolition of their system of power and patronage. It was not the expansion of production but a dangerous lag in it that finally forced the party establishment, after two decades of so-called stagnation, to resign itself to a radical overhaul, to Mikhail Gorbachev and perestroika.

Tbe Price of Procrastination

It was absurd to argue, as did the Western theoreticians of totalitarianism, that the Soviet bloc was unchangeable, frozen forever. Even during the long interlude under Leonid Brezhnev, society was changing, and changing fast. The deepening deepening economic crisis was due to a combination of factors: The post-Stalinist regime could no longer use the threat of deportation to discipline the working population; it did not dare yet to give the managers the right to fire workers; and it was unable to introduce an efficient alternative method of management based on democratic rights. Thus, it is true that for years the rulers resisted any reform involving the transfer of power from the top to the workers at the bottom. The main price for this delay, because of guilt by association, has been the discrediting of the very idea of socialism.

When Nikita Khrushchev toppled the statue of Stalin in 1956 and the reform movement spread throughout the communist bloc, the so-called revisionists thought theirs was a fundamentally good socialist society that simply had to get rid of terrible errors and deviations. This belief in the possibility of transformation from within survived the invasion of Hungary. The period reached its climax with the Prague Spring and its pleonastic search for “socialism with a human face.” The tanks entering Prague in 1%8 squashed such “revisionist” illusions.

The next decade was different. The Polish workers who won veto power in 1970 and the right to form independent unions ten years after were already talking of workers’ rights rather than of socialism and thinking in terms of “us,” the people, and “them,” the rulers. But things have not improved since. Delaying tactics only make matters worse. Deng Xiaoping, a known admirer of Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, has food for thought here. Back in 1981 the general could have made a deal with the labor movement by offering it a second legislative house representing workers’ councils on a national scale. Now his bargaining position and the chances of a socialist solution are both much weaker. If the clean, almost bloodless coup in Poland was self-defeating, the one in China involving a massacre was suicidal. Deng, Li Peng and their accomplices committed a double crime against socialism, through what they did and through what they have prepared: Next time the workers and students in Tiananmen Square may not be singing “The Internationale.”

It is true that, despite all that has happened, Gorbachev is now presiding over the most ambitious attempt yet to change the system from above, at least to begin with. But the climate is not quite what it used to be. Many Russians, and Lithuanians, Hungarians and Poles, are now looking to the past or to the outside world, and many have had second thoughts about socialism altogether.

Let there be no confusion between honest heart-searching and the antics of Western turncoats, onetime Stalinists or Maoists now preaching about the intrinsic evil of socialism. One of the greatest achievements of glasnost is that it has allowed the Soviet people to stretch their memory and conquer the past. One may now realistically hope that in the not-too-distant future they will be debating their revolutionary heritage with the arguments and documents of all sides at their disposal. I am not unduly shocked or surprised that in this collective reassessment a good proportion of the Soviet intelligentsia has expressed, at least in private, its preference for February 1917 and its rejection of October. For a Marxist no subjects are taboo and Lenin himself is no icon. Only, the verdict should be reached in open debate, taking into account everything, including Czarist backwardness, foreign intervention, the White terror and the isolation of the Bolsheviks. Otherwise the history of Eastern Europe will be a department of Western propaganda.

Which brings us to the relationship between the West’s economic restructuring and the East’s perestroika. For a time in the past decade the crises in the two economic blocs ran side by side, parallel but different. The Western establishment, determined to spread deregulation with unemployment as its companion, was delighted to see Alexander Solzhenitsyn and the nouveaux philosophes coming to its ideological rescue, uncovering the gulag in the mid-1970s. It thus could argue that the only alternative to its undesirable system was “hell with no exit.’’ Since then profits have handsomely recovered, but the structural crisis and unemployment have lingered. It is therefore particularly important at this stage for capitalism’s apologists to tell the tale of Soviet bankruptcy and interpret it as ultimate proof that any socialist project is doomed. The old anticommunist propagandists have discovered strange new allies, the intellectuals from Eastern Europe-—and not necessarily dissidents. Economists, sociologists, writers and stern critics at home, they are dazzled by our wealth when they come here, flattered by the reception and very reluctant to look at the seamy side of our societies. Their voiceis quite significant in the current chorus singing the end of revolutions and, therefore, the permanence of capitalism.

The Thermidor Is Not Inevitable

Despite objectively favorable circumstances, socialism as an ideological alternative is thus at its nadir in Western Europe. But this description of Europe’s ideological climate, though accurate, gives too gloomy an impression. Some backlash against socialism was inevitable. When Khrushchev removed Stalin from his coffin, the unexpected stench staggered the faithful. The dismantling of the whole system was bound to provoke tremors, Irrational dictatorship at the top had spread unreason in society, reactionary tensions, religious prejudices, racial resentments. Russian nationalismat the center fed jingoist reactions in the other republics. Perestroika did not give birth to all these pent-up emotions, it only released them, and glasnost held them up for the world to see. To render the situation even more explosive, the Soviet Union, which was supposed to open up its economic frontiers when, as Stalin put it, “it caught up and overtook America,” is now driven to do so as the technological and productivity gap has widened.

Not all the surprises, however, are unpleasant. The speed at which the frontiers of freedom have been extended in the media, in the arts, in historical knowledge, and the pace at which some power has been granted to the soviets have exceeded all expectations. The sophistication of the ordinary Soviet people when faced with the freedom of electoral choice defeated the apparatchiks and belied the skepticism of the intelligentsia. When Soviet voters choose an unknown young liberal rather than a famous writer with known jingoist connections, or when Poles pick two Solidarity leaders rather than their rivals blessed by the cardinal, one wonders whether the general mood may not be more progressive than it is being painted.

The new voice we hear coming from Eastern Europe is essentially that of the professional intelligentsia. Back in 1976 a few Polish intellectuals offered their services to victimized workers and proceeded to show that the intelligentsia can play a historical part if it is linked with a real social movement. Now, however, it is speaking for itself. It does so splendidly as the champion of glasnost, defending freedoms that are no less beautiful for being originally bourgeois. It also fights for its own privileges, for greater wage differentials, bigger social advantages and, ultimately, for replacing the apparatchiks in power. But the intelligentsia is not the whote nation, and its pushy, acquisitive members are not the whole intelligentsia, and, anyway, it will not fight in a void, as we were just reminded by the Soviet miners.

To deny the countries of Eastern Europe the title of “socialist” is not to equate them with classical capitalism. They are postrevolutionary societies sui generis, and their peculiar features will now play a significant role in the shaping of the future. Thus, the workers still cling to their revolutionary victory, the security of tenure, and the rulers do not yet know how to attack it frontally. The people of the Soviet bloc have a deep belief in social justice and equality, feelings now cursed by economic reformers, whether they call themselves “communist” or not. Last but not least, in all these countries the bulk of industry has been nationalized. Now that the fiction that the factories belong to the workers has been shattered, the question is whether the fiction will be turned into fact or whether other property relations will be evolved, leading ultimately to large-scale privatization. And it is more than a question of ownership.

Democracy is thus at the heart of the battle. It is high time to return to basic principles, to tell fashionable sophists who link freedom with the market that there can be no genuine democracy without socialism, because you cannot put a sign of equality between individuals, social groups or classes that are socially unequal. The reverse, however, is equally true. There can be no socialism without the fullest democracy. The idea is important not only because the Soviet precedent shows that to deprive the people of power, allegedly temporarily and for the best of reasons, is to ask for trouble. It is vital because unless the countries of Eastern Europe now manage to invent new forms of democracy at all levels, starting with the shop floor, they will be unable to introduce genuine overall planning, without which you cannot uproot inequalities, transform society or insert man and society into nature.

It would be pleasant to report that the Western left, responsible for the original sin of Bolshevik isolation, is now making up for it by offering a model for a socialist solution. It isn’t, and it won’t do that tomorrow. In the meantime, its second best is to tell the people of Eastern Europe about their past before “socialism” (the Russians about the czarist stench and knout, the Hungarians about Admiral Horthy’s regime, the Poles about Pilsudski and the colonels) and about our not-so-dazzling present. There remains a final valid objection. Socialism exists nowhere. It has not even been tried in the advanced countries for which it was designed. At this stage in the argument I can reply only rhetorically: The sans-culottes who 200 years ago stormed the Bastille were also venturing into the unknown. They were making history.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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