By Outis Philalithopoulos, a ghost haunted by the mystery of the origins of modern political ideas.
[as if speaking on the telephone]
– “Huh? No, I have nothing to be ashamed of. I mean… I don’t think I’ve done anything particularly serious.” […]
– “Oh, you mean back then! Oh… back then… back then I acted like everybody else.” […]
– “What? Was I communist? Well. I do like blunt questions. You want to know if I was communist?”
– “You know what, let’s go there. Because nowadays no one talks about it, everyone pretends like it never happened and instead these things ought to be clarified, once and for all!”Giorgio Gaber, Qualcuno era comunista (1991)
Saying anything on the subject of historical communism without knowing one’s audience means venturing out onto treacherous soil. Hence the title.
But when one knows one’s audience, communism also provides extremely succinct ways to signal belonging to an in-group.
Sure roads to favor among anticommunists include complaining about how Stalin’s crimes are minimized compared to Nazi ones, marveling over the Left’s refusal to ask tough questions about the meaning of the fall of communism, and adducing similarities between communism and fascism.
Readers’ experiences may differ, but I have found that when talking to people who self-identify as Left, it rarely hurts to cite Marx sparingly but favorably, to discuss the history of the Soviet Union without affecting a particularly moralistic tone, and to get angry about sloppy comparisons of communism with fascism.
Some of this makes sense as defensive tactics in the context of the long US history of McCarthyism and quasi-McCarthyism. I want to be able to mention things that Marx said that were perceptive without having to pair them with ritualized reminders that capitalism didn’t collapse on its own. I want to be able to be curious about the history of the Soviet Union without coming off as a subversive.
But maybe too much time is spent playing defense. Perhaps there are important and potentially troubling questions that are thereby neglected. When Raymond Aron said in 1955:
[The Left in Western countries] is compromised by the rigors of Stalinist totalitarianism, which claims the name of the Left, and which the Left doesn’t dare to disavow entirely […]
was he exaggerating? Maybe, but maybe not, and wouldn’t it matter if the critique was valid at the time?
Thinking about these things, I found myself seized by a sort of despondency. To get a halfway idea about anything that happened in the history of the various communist regimes, you would have to read very widely. The topic is so ideologically overcharged that you would have to weigh carefully anything you read from any source. To do a really competent job, you would have to learn Russian and Chinese.
But then it occurred to me that often the point of talking about this sort of history is to answer broad questions about human nature and social possibilities. With some surprise, I realized that I suspect I have answers to many of these questions. Beyond these, what remains is still important, but more approachable.
What follows now are a list of these big questions, and how I would answer them. At the end, I will discuss some thorny problems.
Q: Was Stalinism good?
Q: How about other systems of national communism?
A: To answer this properly, you’d need to study each of them carefully, making sure to take each one’s historical specificity into account. It would take a lot of work to do it right. But it wouldn’t surprise me if the conclusion ended up being that even the best ones (I’ve heard Kadar’s Hungary and Cuba cited most often in this context; readers?) were pretty bad.
Q: Are the problems of historical communism explainable in terms of the opposition that communism experienced from reactionaries?
A: Sometimes this dynamic played a role – one thinks of Latin American countries that tried to institute various left-leaning social programs, and then, between economic pressure and the threat of military subversion, ended up being pushed into the arms of the USSR.
But in general, this sounds like a weak excuse that could be – and is – used by all regimes and systems.
Q: Was Marx a figure who managed to stand above history and accurately grasp its long-term dynamics?
A: No. The existence of Hari Seldon-like figures is not very compatible with a Marxist worldview, so either Marx was Seldon and Marxism is inconsistent, or Marx wasn’t Seldon.
Maybe that is too glib. Here are a couple more historical developments that are hard to square with Marxism (taking due account of the usual motte-and-bailey slipperiness).:
- Did Marx change the course of history? If so, how is one man’s genius as a historical force theorizable in Marxist terms?
- If the communist governments of the 20th century were not the next stage in the development of productive forces, how were they produced by history?
I know of, or can imagine, Marxist or quasi-Marxist attempts to answer these questions. But the answers I’m familiar with have to be grafted on to the theory – they don’t come out of internal resources of the theory itself.
Q: So is it possible to create a world where no one ever disagrees with one another and where no one is ever unhappy or dissatisfied?
A: Presumably not. Would you want to? And was the experience of historical communism really necessary in order to answer this question?
Q: So is there no alternative?
A: Why would this follow? Are the only three options (1) heaven on earth, or if not, (2) wretched Leninist dictatorships, or (3) the status quo?
Q: I mean, is there no chance of ending up with a society considerably better than what we have today?
A: No, there is a chance. There have been a huge variety of societies in human history. Some of them were clearly worse than others. It’s hard to imagine the future. The idea that Roman society was the pinnacle of human civilization was probably pretty prevalent during the heyday of the Roman Empire.
Q: Well, is it at least true that attempts to change a society consciously lead to catastrophe?
A: What does it mean for a society to change “unconsciously”? Aren’t most social changes due to human decisions? Often proclamations of this sort can function as code for certain groups of people being allowed to change society in “natural” ways, free from “conscious” and “unnatural” “interference” from others.
There are in any case obvious counterexamples. For example, public sewer systems.
Q: Is it at least true that a planned economy always fails?
A: Probably not. The US economy was pretty dynamic during World War II. General acceptance of the legitimacy of comprehensive price controls and high upper-income tax rates was facilitated by the wartime ideological consensus, but it seems entirely possible that historical developments might lead to a system like this being deemed acceptable by the population for other reasons.
Or maybe not. Maybe I’m wrong to be skeptical of would-be “theorems” that “prove” that certain sorts of systems always work in certain ways. If I’m wrong, I’m wrong with Chesterton, who once remarked:
It is not self-evident (for instance) that even the habit of standing upright was the only path of human progress. There might have been a quadrupedal civilization, in which a city gentleman put on four boots to go to the city every morning. Or there might have been a reptilian civilization, in which he rolled up to the office on his stomach; it is impossible to say that intelligence might not have developed in such creatures.
To me, the more important question is not “Is it impossible for us to change into a reptilian society?” but “Should we want to?” Similarly for a planned economy (in whatever sense one takes the phrase).
Q: So if historical communism doesn’t imply that we aren’t allowed to imagine radical transformations in the economy or more broadly, can we just sweep the whole episode under the rug and press forward towards a brighter future of true human liberation?
A: This seems far, far too facile to me. I think the experience poses some very serious problems, three of which I will now mention. I will not try to “resolve” them, partly because each one would require a post, if not a book, and partly because I don’t have satisfactory answers.
1: Is the experience of historical communism evidence of serious problems in Marx’s thought? Is it evidence of problems within the broad revolutionary (“Left”) tradition?
“Of course not. Lenin misunderstood/oversimplified/corrupted Marxism, and the fact that Stalin was psychotic cannot possibly be laid at Marx’s door, let alone that of the Left.”
That’s the kind of response you give if you’re talking to left-leaning people and you want to take no risks. It isn’t that everyone left-leaning loves Marx – it’s that it’s such a common cultural signifier that it’s safer to assume that the person you’re talking to might feel protective toward Marx.
The argument isn’t entirely invalid. In general, the relationship between intellectuals and those who claim to be putting their ideas into practice is more complicated than simple stimulus and response.
But by itself, it reeks of tribalism. What would one think of someone who tried to absolve the theorists of colonialism of any responsibility for, say, British misrule in India, on the grounds that these theorists said very clearly that they wanted to help the natives to become more civilized? Obviously the colonial administrators misunderstood and corrupted the benevolent ideas of the theorists.
2: Large numbers of intellectuals in France and Italy, and also elsewhere, as well as much of the leadership of the 60s student movements, believed that various Leninist regimes were genuine incarnations of Left values. What does this imply about their powers of discernment? What does it imply about the historical Left?
Nothing good. I’ll touch on this question further in my next post.
3: After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the European communist parties imploded and discussion of possible alternative economies lost conviction and largely ceased. If you’re right that the failure of historical communism doesn’t mean TINA, why did this happen?
I find this baffling. It seems to suggest that left-leaning people continued to emotionally identify with the USSR well into the 80s, and to be imprisoned within the idea that it constituted a superior economic system.
One idea in Furet that might be relevant here is that the intellectual strata sympathetic to Marxism tended to set up History as a revelator of what constituted true progress. The coming to power of self-described communists in Russia, military triumph of the Soviet Union in World War II – these brought prestige and confidence to communism. At the same time, they tied the revolutionary project to the USSR and to the “verdict of history” on it, and consecrated a sort of submission to power as such, provided it was power with “liberatory intentions.”
Reading recommendations requested
I would like to look more into this; the problem is not a dearth of material but the overwhelming quantity of dogmatic and uninteresting work.
On the anticommunist side, one finds a notable tendency to try to work not within the contingencies of actual history, but to slide in and out of them so as to produce general assertions about human nature. For example, discussing how the Terror got under way in Russia easily metamorphosizes into emphatic statements about how “ideology” and the goal of a virtuous society inevitably lead to massacre, usually without much awareness that the author’s own rhetoric is thereby easing into ritual and so becoming heavily “ideological.”
On the pro-revolutionary side, one frequently finds a panoply of subtle and unsubtle apologetics.
I’m familiar enough with both of these that I can just ignore them when reading a book that is in any case significant. Rossana Rossanda’s autobiography (La ragazza del secolo scorso) has some relevant material. I read François Furet’s Passé d’une illusion and found it quite interesting, although he occasionally falls into clichés from the liberal consensus. I’m currently reading Aron’s L’opium des intellectuels – same comment. I know something about Cornelius Castoriadis’ views from his discussion/debate with Furet on the subject. Camus’ L’homme révoltée looks worthwhile. Maybe Simone Weil? Souvarine?