The Minefield of Historical Communism

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?

A: No.

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).:

  1. Did Marx change the course of history? If so, how is one man’s genius as a historical force theorizable in Marxist terms?
  2. 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?

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  1. Livius Drusus

    Planning and public ownership are ideas that I wish the Left would revive since the historical record of planning is not nearly as bad as is usually made out. From the standpoint of living standards the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc countries were improvements over Imperial Russia and the old states and empires of Eastern Europe, especially when you compare their performance to other underdeveloped countries. Soviet economic performance should have been compared to Turkey or the Latin American countries and not the advanced capitalist economies of North America and Western Europe that got a head start on everyone else and benefited from imperialism. Outside of the Eastern Bloc some capitalist countries like France and Japan also successfully used planning to foster economic growth. With advances in computer technology it is probable that planning would be more effective today than it was in the 20th century. Paul Cockshott and Allin Cottrell have written a bit about this.

    The biggest problems with planning are likely to be political. How would you combine public ownership and planning with democracy? How do make sure a new elite of technocrats doesn’t come to dominate society? How do you take advantage of technological advancements without also getting a surveillance state as well?

    1. Louis Fyne

      —since the historical record of planning is not nearly as bad as is usually made out.

      to disagree… LeCorbiusier-inspired public housing? Robert Moses and others demolishing the Bronx and other well-established urban communities? Post WWII “progressive urban planning” induced urban sprawl? UK public housing 1960’s/1970’s?

      In the area of urban planning, top-down planning has been pretty negative, unless your name is Napoleon III. and even then you’d disagree if it was your house that was demolished to make way for the Champs-Elysees. but hey, you gotta crack eggs to make an omelet. your mileage may vary.

      1. Robin Kash

        Planning happens. The US ag sector is a prime example. The planners are a confluence of money people looking for somwhere to put their dollars, farm organizations seeking to enlarge their power, exporters, USDA scribes who post the bills and write the regs to which they all sing.

        1. Left in Wisconsin

          Yes. The choice is not planning or no planning. The choice is good planning or bad planning. Good planning would be competent and take social interests into account. Bad planning would be incompetent and/or not take social interests into account.

      2. jrs

        “Post WWII “progressive urban planning” induced urban sprawl? ”

        this really wasn’t the sole or in some cases the most important cause of sprawl, there was a lot of plain old profit motive involved as well. But as for government policies: they could have certainly have been better thought out if we knew then what we know now.

        1. Yves Smith

          Sprawl existed well before WWII. The big original driver were electrical trolley which started in the teens and twenties. This was the early middle class white flight (and let us not forget that back then, even Irish immigrants weren’t considered white).

        2. Anon

          What induced “the progressive urban sprawl” was rising wages after WWII, coupled with an improved highway system (Route 66 gave way to the Interstate) and the “freedom” of a personal automobile.

          I grew up in San Francisco (post WWII) and the transition from electric trolley to auto domination was quite obvious by the time I went to university. That’s when the suburbs surrounding SF exploded. (The population of CA has quadrupled in my lifetime; ~60 yrs.) The City population has remained relatively constant.

          In any case, government (public) expenditure/planning/infrastructure will be exploited by land developers at every opportunity. Capitalism at it’s finest.

      3. Yves Smith

        I beg to differ and due to the condition of my eye, it would involve a some wear and tear for me to provide links, but trust me, they exist and are from decent sources.

        You forget that the reason the US was so freaked out about Communism was that in the then USSR, collective planning achieved industrialization in a vastly more compressed time frame than had taken place organically in market economies. Even though the USSR had the advantage of being able to copy and implement current technologies (as opposed to invent them), basically only the communist USSR and China industrialized rapidly in the 20th century from a very much behind position (peasant societies).

        This was the big reason economists got a seat at the policy table in the 1940s and 1950s, which they never gave up: the US was concerned that the USSR and potentially China could as planned economies (which among other things could suppress consumption) could mobilize resources BETTER than a “market” economy. This fear was confirmed by the 1957 Sputnik launch.

        And some studies I have seen recently said that in fact the first generation of so of central planning was highly successful. But what started to happen is that bureaucrats in the regions would start feeding the central planners bad data and/or hide resources basically so they didn’t have to make people in their area work so hard and in worst cases, to grift. So the quality of information needed to go a good job of central planning decayed over time.

        If they had our surveillance state resources, who knows how the push and pull between the planners and the implementers might stand now.

      4. Joe

        Urban planning did a far better job than the current capitalist free for all that has created a national housing crisis.

        You also fail to address the dramatic rise in living standards that occurred under communism.

        Frankly I find your POV to be just another variant of anti-communism. you gloss it with a rational veneer, but that’s all.

        Let’s take your term ‘Leninist dictatorship.” Sounds awful until one looks at the alternative, which would have been a victory by the Whites, the counter-revolutionaries.

        You also state that “that even the best ones (I’ve heard Kadar’s Hungary and Cuba cited most often in this context; readers?) were pretty bad.” Bad for whom? Poll after poll shows that the masses in the former communist nations of Eastern Europe believe that life was better under communism. So your POV here lacks even an attempt at class analysis of communism, and that’s a fatal falw.

        1. Outis Philalithopoulos Post author

          You seem confused about whom you are addressing. I said nothing about urban planning, although Louis Fyne did.

          What is the substance of your disagreement with the post?

          Me: Some self-described communist regimes had serious problems. But there’s good news! That doesn’t mean it’s nonsensical to work towards a substantially better world to live in. It doesn’t even mean that central planning always fails.

          It does mean that it’s unproductive to think about this topic in terms of “you’re either with us, or you’re against us.” One can have critiques of historical communist regimes, even quite fundamental ones, without it implying any sort of acceptance of the status quo.

          You: You’re either with us or you’re against us! You said that communist regimes weren’t always good, so you’re an anticommunist ideologue!

          If the primary purpose of my post was to argue that historical communism, even today, functions as a trap, whereby people feel that to be “on the side of the Left,” they also have to defend communism from any and all attackers – then we agree, in the sense that you just provided strong evidence for my point.

          Nothing that you wrote is in any way germane as a counterargument. Instead, you produced a number of additional assertions that range from irrelevant to blatantly misleading.

          You bring up economic development that occurred under communism. If you have evidence that communist countries developed much faster than capitalist countries starting from similar stages of development, that might be interesting, if true – but in any case, I don’t see its relevance to anything I wrote.

          “Leninist” is not a scary, “awful-sounding” term. It has a precise meaning, referring to the specific sort of communism that Lenin theorized and that Rosa Luxemburg criticized (see quotes elsewhere on this thread), in which the Party is ruled top down, and the Party in turn dictates policy to the rest of the country in the name of the proletariat.

          “Sounds awful until one looks at the alternative, which would have been a victory by the Whites, the counter-revolutionaries.” This statement falls apart immediately:

          Politics is not a simple binary choice. There were many ways things could have gone differently:
          (1) Lenin could have respected the election results of the Constituent Assembly, as he had promised and as a majority of the Bolsheviks wanted to. The result would have been a victory by the Socialist Revolutionaries, with the Bolsheviks as the most significant minority party.
          (2) Lenin could have called for new elections (as Rosa Luxemburg proposed) and then respected those results. If he had done so, the Bolsheviks might have done better although they might not have won.
          (3) Lenin could have proclaimed rule by the soviets, as he did, and then actually have respected the decisions of the soviets instead of annulling them when they did things he disagreed with.

          And so on.

          But let’s ignore all that, and assume that there really were only two choices – victory by the Whites, or the way things actually turned out. Are you sure that victory by the Whites would have been so much worse than rule by Stalin?

          In your final paragraph, you either misunderstood what you read, or you intentionally quoted it in a misleading way. The full context of the passage is “It would take a lot of work to [study the various self-described historical communist regimes] right. But it wouldn’t surprise me if the conclusion ended up being that even the best ones… were pretty bad.”

          Let’s see: I said that I didn’t know what the performance of all the different regimes was, in different times and places and for different social strata – but even if the conclusion was that they were all pretty bad, then this wouldn’t be cause for despair. You characterized this as me saying that they were all pretty bad, and quoted me out of context in order to make that sound plausible. You then used that to jump on a soapbox and claim, preposterously, that I had reached this “conclusion” by ignoring the lot of the “masses” under communism.

          This sort of misrepresentation, deliberate or not, is a violation of Site Policies. Do not do it again.

    2. Matthew Cunningham-Cook

      It’s clear from this article that the author has never read any Hegel, Marx, Lenin, Stalin or Mao–people who he deigns to talk about in a purportedly intelligent way.

      This particular question– “If so, how is one man’s genius as a historical force theorizable in Marxist terms?” indicates that Outis has no idea what the terms “dialectics” or “dialectical materialism” actually mean.

      Reading suggestions: Hegel’s Phenomenology, then Marx’s Alienated Labor, The Communist Manifesto (the whole thing), and volume 1 of Capital.

      1. Donald

        Can you give a rough notion of what we would learn in a few paragraphs? I understand that if it would really require reading thousands of pages to understand the issues you aren’t going to be able to prove anything in a few hundred words, but you could probably outline the conclusions you think we would reach.

        1. Matthew Cunningham-Cook

          I think the best thing that reading Hegel and Marx gives you is a vocabulary to talk about history in an intelligent way, that is, in a dialectical and contingent way as opposed to a metaphysical and ontological type of way.

          That vocabulary includes:

          1. Dialectics and contradiction; movement; change, supersession, thesis and antithesis (from Hegel)
          2. Dialectical materialism, materialism, class struggle, exploitation, the labor theory of value, the circulation of money and commodities (C-M-C), the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, commodity fetishism, and species-being. (From Marx.)

      2. Outis Philalithopoulos Post author

        I’ve read all of your reading suggestions already except for the Phenomenology of Spirit. But the idea of dialectic isn’t from Hegel – it’s from Fichte.

        If you think the answer to the question is obvious, then give it. Simply getting pissy doesn’t lead anyone to assume you have anything interesting to say.

        The most influential attempt to theorize the role of intellectuals within a Marxist framework that I know of is Gramsci’s. Gramsci said that it was mistaken to see intellectuals as a separate class defined by their professional activity. Instead, according to him, each (economically defined) class produced its own subcadre of “organic intellectuals” that would then function as advocates for that class’s interests.

        It’s an interesting idea. It fits some intellectual cultures better than others. Where it has trouble is explaining Marx and Engels. In what sense were Marx and Engels “organically” proletarian? In his polemics with other 19th century socialists, Marx constantly ripped them apart as confined within the mental limitations of their bourgeois background. To explain how Marx and Engels, on the other hand, managed to burst out of those limitations, one resorts to…? Their idealism? But another frequent feature in Marx’s polemical rhetoric is to reject explanations in which the ideal sneaks in in place of the material.

        1. Ulysses

          “In what sense were Marx and Engels “organically” proletarian?”

          Great question!

          The simple answer, given by Gramsci, and any other serious student of their works, is that they were not proletarian at all, but class traitors, actively working against their own class interests.

          Indeed, Engels often noted that he first came to England specifically to exploit the workers who worked at his father’s textile factory in Manchester.

          1. H. Alexander Ivey

            Yeah! Gramsci’s right. His model allows for negative or ‘false’ values (Marx as a class traitor). Most models are too simplistic, they don’t allow for or account for negative actions. For example, mainstream economics, which states that their core person is ‘rational’. But their definition of rational behaviour is always positive. A rational person would not lie or be false-it’s outside of their model for a person to lie. This modelling assumption is too simplistic, making the model wrong.

            As an aside, I think this expansion of rationalilty to a bi-nomial definition could be an extension of Professor Outis 2011 work (black listed economics professor).

        2. Matthew Cunningham-Cook

          Individuals can remake history as part of a relationship with ongoing material forces in which the latter is primary in a dialectic between the material and spiritual. This is exactly what Marx meant by putting the rational kernel inside of Hegel’s dialectic–not that there’s no such thing as the spiritual/ideal/theoretical, but that it is the junior partner in a dialectic with the material.

          So of course Marx and Marxists absolutely reject the idea of great man historiography, the analysis is that Marx responded to concrete material developments with a theory to match it, “translating it into forms of thought.” Theory responds to practice, which in turn responds to theory, which in turn responds to more practice, but the *driver* of the development is material progress.

          It’s really pretty simple, and it’s been extensively discussed in Marxism for over a century. For those of us who have studied the texts, we get pissy when someone asks a question, implying that they have some substantive knowledge of the topic at hand when in reality the question in of itself reveals a shocking level of ignorance.

          1. Outis Philalithopoulos Post author

            Your final paragraph is another instance of you trying to browbeat someone into submission. It contributes nothing to your argument. Please stop.

            You are still not responding to the problem that I have posed – but I can try to phrase it more clearly in a follow-up. And maybe you’ll have a good answer for it – we’ll see.

            It’s tricky because I don’t know exactly what you believe about certain questions:

            (1) Do you think that “really existing communism” in the 20th century was genuine communism? If so, then we have one set of questions.

            (2) But maybe you don’t. If not, then were the self-described communist states ones that originated out of the ordinary workings of material forces, or were they ones that would never have existed in their historical forms if Marx had not lived?

            1. Matthew Cunningham cook

              Ok sure re the civility argument.

              Your most recent comment suggests an undialectical reading of history in that of course self described Marxist states read Marx and have a relationship to Marxism. But there’s no straight foamed runway here. There is contingency and contradiction, antagonisms and supersessions. This way of dialectical thinking is counter to your metaphysical and ontological reading of the history of communism. Given that Dialectical materialism is the foundation stone of communist thought it is deeply important for the purposes of honesty and good faith for writers to understand and think in a dialectical way before attempting a taxonomy.

              1. Outis Philalithopoulos Post author

                I’m not proposing the questions I gave as straightforward yes-or-no questions. You can consider them as extreme “idealized” possibilities if you prefer, and situate your own response with all the nuance and contingency you consider appropriate.

                Your response at present allows you to say everything and nothing. If you can provide some sort of indication of how you theorize the self-described Marxist states, then I can respond. Right now, there’s no there there.

          2. Yves Smith

            This is an ad hominem attack and against site rules.

            I’ve been working with Outis for nearly a decade. He’s a pure mathematician and meticulous about parsing the structure of arguments, including the use of terms and too often slippery redefinitions on the fly to reach desired rhetorical ends. He does not reach any of his conclusions causally or without backup.

            Your argument amounts to “Marxists [which may not be Marx since we know Keynesians are not Keynes} say X and you disagree, so I don’t even have to explain.” That is not up to our standards of comments.

            Moreover, if we were to accept your form of argumentation, we should also all listen to people like Ken Rogoff and Larry Summers because they are orthodox neoliberals, and ignore Steve Keen and Michael Hudson, who actually predicted the financial crisis.

        3. Vatch

          But the idea of dialectic isn’t from Hegel – it’s from Fichte.

          In a sense, doesn’t it go back to Plato?

              1. Outis Philalithopoulos Post author

                In your other comment, you pasted in the text of an entire Wikipedia article. Please don’t do this. Provide a link instead.

                What is worse, if you had read the comment you just responded to, you would have realized that I had already linked to a Wikipedia article that says almost exactly the same things as the one you linked to. So I already knew everything you copied.

                Nor does either Wikipedia support your claim about Kant vs. Fichte, not that it’s of primary importance. From the article I linked to:

                Thomas McFarland […] identifies Immanuel Kant’s Kritik der reinen Vernunft (1781) as the genesis of the thesis/antithesis dyad.

                Dyad. Not triad.

                Fichte’s Grundlage der gesammten Wissenschaftslehre (1794) resolved Kant’s dyad by synthesis, […] Fichte employed the triadic idea “thesis–antithesis–synthesis” as a formula for the explanation of change. Fichte was the first to use the trilogy of words together, in his Grundriss des Eigenthümlichen der Wissenschaftslehre, in Rücksicht auf das theoretische Vermögen

                What does the article you linked to say?

                Hegel ascribed that terminology to Kant. Carrying on Kant’s work, Fichte greatly elaborated on the synthesis model, and popularized it.

                Hmmm, do these contradict each other? It certainly sounds like Fichte is responsible for resolving Kant’s dyad into a triad, and Hegel mis-ascribed the terminology to Kant. You are following in Hegel’s erroneous footsteps.

                Now if you have any comments that are germane to the substantive points made in the post, feel free. Here are some types of behavior that don’t count as germane:

                (1) Addressing the messenger rather than the message.
                (2) Trying to freeze the discussion in your own preferred theoretical vocabulary.

                1. relstprof

                  Outis, thanks for the post. A lot of interesting information.

                  Fichte did indeed develop the dialectical terminology which Hegel then employed in his own thought. Hegel’s use of Aufhebung employs the idea throughout his “mature” work, including the Wissenschaft der Logik that he updated throughout his life. Charles Taylor’s classic Hegel (1975) the second chapter I think, acknowledges Fichte and does an admirable job explaining how Hegel’s thought coalesced around the sublation idea.

                  Marx had to wrestle against certain idealist axioms from Hegel’s output (Christian trinitarian notions of Father-Son-Spirit as the Aufhebung of absolute Geist) but he tried, with others. This is a part of his lasting legacy.

                  Looking forward to your next post.

        4. Sue

          Marx, Theses on Feuerbach:
          “The chief defect of all hitherto existing materialism – that of Feuerbach included – is that the thing, reality, sensuousness, is conceived only in the form of the object or of contemplation, but not as sensuous human activity, practice, not subjectively. Hence, in contradistinction to materialism, the active side was developed abstractly by idealism – which, of course, does not know real, sensuous activity as such”
          This a very important paragraph. The apparent opposition materialism/idealism has very much been overcome in the last decades with seminal works in cultural anthropology and its different ramifications such as ethnography.

      3. Alex Morfesis

        Sir Matthew…the only marx that has ever understood finance and commerce was groucho…although his brother was trusted to manufacture parts to handle the bomb dropped by the enola gay(marman clamp/marman ring), the impression one gets of groucho and his family as just comedians is a useful “legend”…

        Like Nietzsche, karl marx is the creation of future publicists and clouded history…as you suggest one should “read” the manifesto…perhaps you could take a moment to “inspect” the 1848 “manifesto” that no one actually read contemporaneously…you will notice an address for a publisher…if that publication were presented today, many would ask how it is a publisher licensed and authorized to operate in the financial district(the corporation of the city of london) would be “distributing” such a purported anti-business document…further, many might ask how karl could afford to hang out and do all this…and eventually someone would point out the same bank account…same one…that funded the creation of the great multinational conglomerate now commonly known as “Phillips”, was also the same account which allowed karl to ruminate about life without actually having to worry about it…

        karl was a wandering poet…

        a traveling minstrel…

        great philosopher.??..

        not so much…

        that his future publicists turned him into something he never was…

        most definitely…

        The “manifesto” had zero effect on the turmoil and events of 1848 & could not since it was published and distributed “after” the fact…

        Have bought and mostly read those comedy sketch books you describe as “authoritative” reads and eventually used them as door stops for a while until that course has run itself out…

        My most enlightening moment in life was my first travels to greece from nyc in my teen years…hear in the good olde u.s. of hey hey hey, my thoughts and ramblings were often met by the buzz cut crew as “communism” & screamed at by some of my mothers cuban friends as “fidelista” & “communista”…rather funny considering that others were calling my family slumlords…

        but five minutes off an airplane in athens…

        without changing one vowel…

        the “amerikanaki” was obviously a “capitalist pig”…

        All economic theories are toilet paper…

        The burning of the tally sticks 185 years ago might have had some bad karma…but other than that, economics is and has always been voodoo and doodoo…

        He who has had the bullets makes the rules…business and legal tender is backed by lead…never gold…

        Those who grow up in supportive familial circumstances have an advantage over those considered throwaway children…

        Although they don’t make grandmas like they used to, there are still plenty of them out there fighting the good fight…

        Karl is the opium for some of the masses…

  2. jw

    Blackshirts and Reds by Michael Parenti is an excellent book about fascism, “really existing socialism”, and neoliberalism. I can’t recommend it enough. Betrayal of Trust by Laurie Garrett is an excellent account of the collapse of public health in the Eastern Bloc and the West. More people died of alcoholism in Russia in the 1990s through “social murder” than in the Great Purge, by the way. Moshe Lewin’s the Soviet Century is good as is Ronald Suny’s the Soviet Experiment. Isaac Deutscher’s biography of Stalin is a nuanced Trotskyist account. Frankly, if people accurately tallied up the deaths and inefficiencies under capitalism and imperialism, Stalin and Mao were quaint. The Brits starved something like 30 million Indians in the 19th century, but no one talks about it. Suharto murdered about a million people, once again no one talks about it. It reminds me of the single-payer-debate in the US: people complain about the cost without realizing they pay more under the current regime. Communism looks bad until you realize the charnel house that is capitalism.

    1. Moneta

      I’m sure there are millions of people who have had better lives under communism than millions living in the US.

      1. vlade


        You really should read up on what was happening in the USSR/Eastern Bloc. Or better, talk to someone who lived there.

        Stalin killed more of his citizens than Germans did. A lot of them for no other reason that they happened to be in the wrong part of the world at a wrong time.

        I really wish you managed to talk to some of the Ukrainians who lived through Stalin induced famine, and survived ONLY BECASUE THEY ATE THEIR OWN SIBLINGS! Yes, families were effectively deciding who to eat so that the rest could survive, because there was literally nothing else to eat – and that nothing includes grass (which was too dried out to be even slightly edible). They had really three choices :
        – die of hunger
        – to be shot by the army when they tried to escape the area
        – cannibalism.

        Unfortunately, most of those are dying out now, and hardly anyone in the world is really interested in it.

        1. Moneta

          Have you looked at the US disenfranchised?

          Or the billions producing our dollar store junk thanks to a monetary system that protects dysfunctional systems and dictatorships across the planet?

          Nothing happens in a vacuum.

        2. PKMKII

          Moneta didn’t say everyone under communism had better lived than millions in the US, just some of them. Yes, Stalin slaughtered a lot of his citizens, but he didn’t kill them all.

          1. jrs

            well yes the Soviet Union did last longer than just the period under Stalin, so that period may have been that bad for many, but it wasn’t the entire of it (I am not justifying Stalin here obviously).

            1. witters

              It is awkward when – as has happened with me – a Russian comes to the West – fleeing our beneficient “Shock Treatment” – and then shocks one by saying in anger at my casual derogatory comment about Stalin, “Listen, Stalin wasn’t all bad!” And then goes on to bemoan the horrors of the West. He finished, in the corridor of the Department, by insisting that contemporary Westen University Education Administration was “Worse than under Brezhnev”, and to accuse us – the West – of having sold them, the Soviets, a bag of ideological nonsense about capitalism and freedom. And then invited me to his home for borsch and table tennis.

              Vlade would set him straight, but I went and had the borscht and played – and lost – the table tennis.

        3. rkka

          “Stalin killed more of his citizens than Germans did.”

          Stalin did not kill 27 million Soviets. He’s responsible for about 700 thousand executions.

          And he built the military/industrial economy that prevented Poles & Ukrainians & Balts getting the full GeneralPlan Ost treatment.

          There would be few of them now, if Adolf had gotten the chance…

            1. rkka

              Even accepting Snyder’s analysis, Stalin did not kill as many Soviet citizens as the Germans did.

              Stalin built the military-industrial complex that ensured that GeneralPlan Ost failed.

      2. kukuzel

        I grew up in the Communist block in the 70-ies and 80-ies. I’ve now lived in the US for about 20 years. Comparing the lives of the people on minimum or low wages in the US with those similarly placed in the Communist block economies is in my view indisputably in favor of the Communist bloc. Free child care, education, provided at decent quality, and practically EVERYONE owned a home – a small one, but nonetheless a normal home, that you paid off over 30 years with your state guaranteed job. No interest loans from simple savings pools managed on rotational principle at work (my parents used them extensively). Nearly everyone in the cities had a small summer cottage and a small garden that produced vegetables – for recreation and added self-sufficiency, and not to mention a boost to communities. Yeah, our family car was a Trabant – a laughable vehicle for the US consumer, even absurd by today’s standards. But we didn’t have and didn’t need 6-lane highways either, so the Trabi was adequate. And yeah, many personal freedoms were severely limited, and there was a lack of culture of law – but that was more attributable to historic backwardness, because that culture of law is even more absent today.

        As a middle class professional today in Silicon Valley earning way beyond the median income in the US, I am struggling to provide a similar level or security for my family and a similar quality of community life and good education. Bottom line, this level of security is probably only achievable for under 5% of the US households.

        So yeah, I agree with the statement.

        So for all those focused on the committed atrocities, don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. There were good things and we have lost them. Probably forever.

        1. Outis Philalithopoulos Post author

          Thanks for your comment – can you tell us a little more about which countries you lived in (and, if possible, which ones you thought worked better than others)? As I said in my post, I’m interested in learning more about the specificities of particular countries.

          1. kukuzel

            I grew up in Bulgaria. I also have memories from a summer camp and middle school exchange program in Czechoslovakia in the 80ies, and the standard of living and the culture of people there seemed much higher. For example, my Czech host family (the parents worked in an electronic watch factory, in a small town east of Prague – they could have been engineers possibly and not line workers as they seemed well educated) had a small two-story single family concrete house, with a small rye-grass lawn and a barbeque – luxuries that we in Bulgaria did not have. They also had a bathtub – again a luxury I was not familiar with in Bulgarian homes. I remember that the stores and pastry shops in my hosts’ town looked nicer and had more and better quality items.

            One other thing I remember: the bread and tap water were not as good as in Bulgaria. I guess not everything is explainable by the economic system alone :)…

            Nowadays reliable info about the standard of living of those times is harder and harder to find – and it seems that any info is used to ridicule it rather than try to genuinely understand how it was achieved. My relatives like to talk about it, and what they share is not all rosy. But all of the baby boomer generation who came of age in the 60ies, 70ies and 80ies managed to raise and educate 2 kids on average, and acquire a modest but adequate home – ALL. Note that people needed a special permission to acquire a second home. Homelessness and crime virtually did not exist. I think it can safely be said that 90% of society had a solid basic standard of living – no vacations on the Bahamas, no diamonds on your wife’s finger and no latest model BMW in your garage, but you knew the big items were taken care of.

            The problems that the Communist bloc countries developed in the 80ies were problems of growth. Liberalization of the regime was under way and clearly understood as necessary by the leadership – but that process failed – because it was taken advantage of, both internally and externally.

            1. kukuzel

              I want to add one more thing: today, in my observation, the generation X and millennials in Bulgaria can only afford to live on the meager incomes their jobs provide because they have a free flat or house from their parents or grandparents. Gradually home ownership levels are eroding and more and more people have to rent, just like in the mature “developed” economies. That is a time bomb that will enslave all but few. This is one factor that I see mentioned nowhere – how Communism, given its objections to private property, actually allowed the vast majority of working people to build a base of wealth in their homes – that is to this day supporting the economic balance of the country.

              There is a program under way currently in Bulgaria to upgrade the insulation of Communist era apartment blocs. There are discussions on TV and press about how many billions of euros this costs. Well, I would say – then how about putting this in perspective to the cost of actually BUILDING all of this housing fund which was done in the prior era?? Imagine the billions upon billions that were spent by this society to build 100s of thousands of units, affordable units, with green spaces around them, schools etc. Can you imagine a program of that magnitude anywhere today?
              So these are the contrasts that emerge, and I would much rather have the discussion be about that – and not about the horrors of Stalinism or other Communist totalitarianism. Those should not be ever forgotten or concealed, but what would be really useful today in our Western society is the good things that Communist regimes managed to achieve – because they are very illuminating about what is economically possible to achieve.

              1. Outis Philalithopoulos Post author

                kukuzel, thanks so much for all of this highly detailed information.

                On your last point, what I actually think we should strive for is the ability not to have to choose between the two kinds of discourses you indicate. It shouldn’t be a playground contest over “Well, your system’s more horrible.” It should be about us being able to say – for example – I want to be able to have these positive aspects from the Bulgarian communist years without having to have these negative ones.

                Or to put it another way, not having to take societies as blocs.

                That means having to tease apart the extent to which positive aspects were or were not achieved through means that also led to the negative aspects. But this kind of analysis has to be done anyway – even if the idea were to return to something like this or this other particular society, it would still not work without adapting the earlier model to changed circumstances.

        2. Lee

          The collapse of the Soviet Union was a disaster for many Russians. The one Russian family I know well were well-off prior to the collapse but for an extended period they could not provide for their two daughters so they asked my wife and I to sponsor and serve as wards for one of them who had lived with us under a student exchange program. Her mother had worked as an industrial chemist and her father had worked in IT for financial institutions. The father died a death of despair; he drank himself to death. The mother now teaches college level chem. The daughter who remained with us now works for a well known US company making films, is married and has two children. The daughter who remained in Russia is a marine biologist. This family, well educated and dedicated to their work and each other did well under the Soviet system and their lot has improved immensely under Putin.

          1. Outis Philalithopoulos Post author

            I have read that Putin’s economic policies are somewhat “right-wing” in their tendencies.

            I don’t know whether this is accurate although maybe some readers do. If it is, though, it would suggest that what made the difference in Russia is not so much communism versus capitalism but a strong state (Putin, communism) versus a weak state (the 90s).

            1. Foppe

              From Stone’s interviews, I very much got the sense that he’s a fiscal conservative in his outlook/understanding of the economy, even as he is wary of neoliberalism for other reasons, and he’s quite focused on improving the standard of living of the many. I imagine having to square that gives him headaches, so I’d guess he’d be quite pleased with MMT if he were to ever be introduced to it. Don’t know enough about specific policies his govts have pursued to say more, though.

              1. rkka

                The main thin Putin has done is curbed the untrammeled power the Oligarchs enjoyed under Yeltsin. He did this by nailing the flagrant tax fraud Khodorkovsky to the wall.

                Russian oligarchs are still immensely wealthy, but they now know that there are limits to their predation, and that they will pay dearly if they exceed them. They now pay their taxes and their wages, things they considered optional under Yeltsin.

                Putin is extremely careful about government debt, remembering how it was for Russia being bound by chains of unpayable debt in the late 1990s, when fully half of government revenues went to service the Soviet debt Russia took on in 1992.

        3. Yves Smith

          FWIW. I have a Romanian-French friend who still speaks fondly of her Trabant, even though she’d have to take the engine inside the house in the winter and have her passengers get out and walk when it was taking ski gear up steep hills near the slopes. But it would run on cooking oil in a pinch and was a breeze to repair.

          1. MikeC

            While in the Peace Corps serving in Africa (after 2010), I had a former military doctor (originally from Moldavia) who I’d see due to ongoing health issues. He served in Angola as a doctor during the civil wars and had pictures of the people he helped who were injured in the war. He was hands down the most competent doctor I saw who was employed by the PC. This was by a wide margin of competence too. I had not illusions about the Peace Corps and it purpose (to put the kind face on US empire?). We’d talk quite a bit, and he was still bitter about the collapse of the Soviet Union, and Gorbachev who he blamed for its demise, due to the lower standards of living and hardships now faced by many in the Eastern bloc and in Russia itself. In all honesty, though I identify with the far Left, this was new to me since I never realized that anyone would long for those days since all I ever heard about as a youth (due to propaganda of course) was about long bread lines and the gray world of the lives of those in the Soviet Union. Kukezel’s comments above, and other information I have gained over the time had somewhat expanded my ideas and understanding regarding the system, as have my growing understanding of just how unjust our system in the US is becoming more unjust year after year.

            I am not knowledgeable enough, possibly not smart enough, to understand the finer points of the discussion here concerning Marx, but I do think it possible for we as a species to create better systems to organize our world other than one predicated on the profit motive. Besides being unsustainable in a world of finite resources and the possibility that we humans will destroy the possibility to exist, we need to creatively try new forms of organization. The problem with the concentration of power of present day capitalism is that it seems so adaptable to new ways to effectively change. I know some Marx but am limited, but he was very impressed with capitalism’s way to adapt to preserve itself.

            Unfortunately, at times I become too cynical about the ability of the human species intellect and abitlity to go beyond short-term solutions. We just may not be able to get past our limitations as a creature. In short, I just don’t know if we are smart enough to do what is best for survival. Like my Peace Corps doctor, I too sometimes wax nostalgic for a past that will never return, back to the sixties when it seemed the distribution of wealth was more egalitarian, unions brought about some economic justice, and the concentration of power and wealth was not so dramatic as it is today. I just never know if I was too blind, or deluded, at the time to see that maybe those weren’t actually better times in that the system itself was built upon the same exploitation has existed in all of US history. So all this good discussion at times brings me back to the question–is our historical evolution not far enough along a continuum for us to change before it is too late? That’s a bummer of a thought, I know, but the present political manifestations keep blunting any optimism I still possess.

            1. Anon

              I too sometimes wax nostalgic for a past that will never return, back to the sixties when it seemed the distribution of wealth was more egalitarian, unions brought about some economic justice, and the concentration of power and wealth was not so dramatic as it is today.

              That was “white priveledge” back then. It’s passing is what led to Trump and the epidemic of homelessness.

        4. rkka

          For many Russians, those gardens on the outskirts of town meant not starving to death under the ‘FreeMarketDemocraticReforms’ in the 1990s.

          When Soviet genocide ended in Bulgaria in 1989, it had a growing population of 9 million. It is now 6.3 million, and in 2016 deaths exceeded births by 1.6 to 1.

          Oh the delights of Capitalism and EU & NATO membership!

          1. xenophon61

            Well, Greece absorbed a fair number of Bulgarians, young to middle-aged women mostly, who fled during the nineties.

            Some even had college degrees, and ended up in basement-level unskilled jobs (typically as illegal aliens): cleaning ladies, nannies, or nurses for the elderly (as a rule, in my part of the world, infirm parents stay at home).

            I have first-hand knowledge of their character and abilities, and can only assume that during that period of political transition, things were pretty bad for most, even the educated middle class.

            Furthermore, an important aspect of the post-USSR era, throughout the Balkans and the slavic former satellite states, was a huge spike in human trafficking.

            A local stereotype is that of a Bulgarian prostitute, lap dancing for an overweight Greek redneck, in a shady bar, somewhere in the cotton-producing plains of Thessaly. The tectonic forces of Eastern-block collapse were significant.

            Allow me to add a personal note, hoping you will not consider it out of line for a first-time poster: I find it very naive that we frame the discussion in terms like whether Stalin was “bad”, whether “a solid roof and a barbeque” was widely present, or the colorful aspects of relying on a two-stroke Trabant for family transportation.

            In Greece, we had it all: barbeques, solid roofs, the sweet smell of Trabi’s exhaust. We also had a true civil war, between a U.S.-backed state and a (very strong) communist insurgency.

            As with the race issue over at your part of the world, it is impossible to present the issues in “good” / “bad” / “old days” terms.

            Myself, I believe that only the European Social Democracy experiment, as implemented in, say, Germany, most scandinavian states and France, nurtured a prosperous, benevolent society that, somehow, also managed to alleviate centuries’ worth of hatred, not to mention class warfare.

            1. Outis Philalithopoulos Post author

              Your personal experiences are worth hearing about and your point about wishing for nuance is reasonable. But it isn’t fair to be too upset with other commenters for providing only pieces of the puzzle – on any given point, to give a careful, complete picture would require a book. If you feel like particular important details are missing, then just contribute them.

              It’s true that a lot of binary distinctions are overblown. Do you think it’s naive to talk about whether Hitler was “bad”? Personally, I don’t think it’s “naive” to say that Stalinism is a system that we should not hold up as a model. Saying so doesn’t entail believing that everything that happened in that regime was motivated by a plan to increase the amount of evil in the world. Nor does it exclude discussion of nuances.

              1. joe defiant

                For all those living in Iraq, Syria, Nicaragua, Chile, and 50-60 other countries the US has had troops/agents in, as well as black, brown, very poor, victims of the drug war holding up american style corporatism should not be held up as a model. Due to the current and historical anti-russian and anti-communist fervor in the USA people become defensive when others use subjective terms like good or bad.

    2. Carolinian

      Thanks for this. Perhaps the latest crime of “capitalism”–40,000 civilians may have died under American and Iraqi bombs and shells as Mosul was “liberated.” Rather than visit mass violence on their own people the US and Britain have turned it outward and then claimed it was unfortunately necessary.

      As for the above post, I think it may be minimizing the degree to which capitalist opposition shaped communism. This Stephen Cohen article that I linked the other day suggests that the Soviets under Glasnost may have been moving toward a more democratic form of communism but that was subverted by the greed of its own oligarchs and open US support for Yeltsin who crushed democracy and wrecked the country.

      1. Outis Philalithopoulos Post author

        The Stephen Cohen article is interesting and I’m puzzled as to why you think it is somehow incompatible with anything that I said in the post.

        When you say we should emphasize more the extent to which capitalist opposition shaped communism, you fail to address my response that this argument proves too much. Every regime or institution faces some sort of opposition. This opposition partly constrains how it can act. Why couldn’t you just as easily say, “Everything that Monsanto (or Uber, or Goldman, etc., etc.) does has to be understood considering that they are operating in a fearsome competitive environment, where at the first sign of weakness, their competitors were ready to crush them”?

        Rossana Rossanda, who had every reason in the world to want to find extenuating circumstances for the regime she had “loved,” was unable to convince herself that the argument you are proposing sufficed to conjure away the moral problem. See below (response to Ulysses) where I quote from her book at length.

        I also think you are engaging in sloppy reasoning when you attribute 40,000 deaths at Mosul to “capitalism.” That’s the same kind of lack of concern to agents used in the Black Book when it attributes massive numbers of war deaths to “communism.”

        1. Carolinian

          If America had never invaded Iraq would those 40,000 still be alive? I’d say there’s a persuasive case that they would be. And there’s also a persuasive case that George W. Bush’s motives had everything to do with capitalist imperatives, oil imperialism, the profits of the MIC etc.

          And I’m not trying to defend Soviet communism since IMO both sides of the Cold War divide were misguided. I’m just saying that from the very beginning the attitude of the capitalist countries was that communism was something that couldn’t be allowed to succeed lest the contagion spread. So it’s hard for us to know how, say, Cuba might have turned out absent so much US meddling.

          1. Yves Smith

            You haven’t established that this was a result of “capitalism”. There is a big gap in your logic. Countries of all isms have been scrapping for valuable resources since the onset of nation-states.

          2. MikeC

            Cuba is a great example. My understanding is that Castro was not a communist but due to the economic and military assault on his country he had no choice but to align with the USSR. Look at present day Venezuela,or the 2009 coup in Honduras, maybe the recent coup in Brazil, or the many other American backed coups (Iran 1953). Every time a country wants to try a different way to bring about a different way of dealing with problems outside the US dominated, and increasingly neoliberal paradigm, it gets undermined by the US, either directly or indirectly. In many cases, until the overthrow comes about, the government in power has no choice but to clamp down on civil liberties to try to contain the counter forces that are back by the US. We then rail against the antidemocratic and authoritarian actions of the government, and all the code words of freedom, democracy, blah blah blah get thrown at the rationale for the subversion, It’s damn hard to go a different route, though it now seems the US is losing its post WWII grip on the game,

      2. optimader

        Perhaps the latest crime of “capitalism”–40,000 civilians may have died under American and Iraqi bombs and shells as Mosul was “liberated.”

        is this an indictment of capitalism or of US politicians delusion of “transformation” and the inertia of the MIC?
        correlation is not causation File under: crimes of Stalin, Mao, PolPot and Castro

      3. MikeC

        And though I am not a historian on the subject, it does seem in the years 1918 to about 1921 when Russia was being attacked by four outside armies, the US included, and also being undermined economically from the West, as in any society under seige, the impulse is to strenghten control at the top and to take strong arm measures to control internal opposition. Though we’ll never know, I wonder along what lines Russia might have developed.Maybe authoritarian central control may not have been so drastic and other experiments in establishing a more equal state might have been employed.

        1. Outis Philalithopoulos Post author

          The existence of external pressures did not singlehandedly determine Lenin’s choices. In 1904, long before the Revolution, Rosa Luxemburg criticized Lenin’s vision, as follows:

          One Step Forward, Two Steps Backward, written by Lenin, an outstanding member of the Iskra group, is a methodical exposition of the ideas of the ultra-centralist tendency in the Russian movement. The viewpoint presented with incomparable vigor and logic in this book, is that of pitiless centralism. Laid down as principles are: 1. The necessity of selecting, and constituting as a separate corps, all the active revolutionists, as distinguished from the unorganized, though revolutionary, mass surrounding this elite.

          Lenin’s thesis is that the party Central Committee should have the privilege of naming all the local committees of the party. It should have the right to appoint the effective organs of all local bodies from Geneva to Liege, from Tomsk to Irkutsk. It should also have the right to impose on all of them its own ready-made rules of party conduct. It should have the right to rule without appeal on such questions as the dissolution and reconstitution of local organizations. This way, the Central Committee could determine, to suit itself, the composition of the highest party organs. The Central Committee would be the only thinking element in the party. All other groupings would be its executive limbs.

          Once the Russian Revolution was underway, there were multiple points where different decisions could have been made. After seizing power in a coup (the “October Revolution” of 1917), free elections were held as planned for a Constituent Assembly. Here are five positions that were taken:

          (1) Karl Kautsky, one of the most prestigious academic Marxists at the time, opposed the coup, considering it a blanquist putsch. According to Kautsky, it would have been better to adhere to democratic procedures.

          (2) Lenin had called for the Constituent Assembly elections, and after the coup he indicated that he would let it rule. In the elections, however, the Bolsheviks received 22-25% of the vote (see tables here). They lost by a crushing margin to the Socialist Revolutionaries, who received by 57-58% of the vote. Nevertheless, in early December 1917, a majority of the Bolshevik delegates supported accepting the results of the elections.

          (3) Lenin and Trotsky argued that the results of the elections had distorted the Bolsheviks’ true strength. Rosa Luxemburg, who had, against Kautsky, supported the October Revolution, agreed that the elections results were misleading. She therefore argued:

          Since the Constituent Assembly was elected long before the decisive turning point, the October Revolution, and its composition reflected the picture of the vanished past and not of the new state of affairs, then it follows automatically that the outgrown and therefore still-born Constituent Assembly should have been annulled, and without delay, new elections to a new Constituent Assembly should have been arranged.

          (4) In January, 1918, Lenin dissolved the Constituent Assembly, proclaiming rule by the Soviets. The Socialist Revolutionaries and their allies decided to work within the Soviet system. In the spring of 1918, reelections within the Soviets often returned anti-Bolshevik majorities.

          (5) However, the Bolsheviks annulled the results of these elections.

          There were further turning points as well, further roads not taken. More from Luxemburg:

          But socialist democracy is not something which begins only in the promised land after the foundations of socialist economy are created; it does not come as some sort of Christmas present for the worthy people who, in the interim, have loyally supported a handful of socialist dictators. Socialist democracy begins simultaneously with the beginnings of the destruction of class rule and of the construction of socialism. It begins at the very moment of the seizure of power by the socialist party. It is the same thing as the dictatorship of the proletariat.

          Yes, dictatorship! But this dictatorship consists in the manner of applying democracy, not in its elimination, but in energetic, resolute attacks upon the well-entrenched rights and economic relationships of bourgeois society, without which a socialist transformation cannot be accomplished. But this dictatorship must be the work of the class and not of a little leading minority in the name of the class – that is, it must proceed step by step out of the active participation of the masses; it must be under their direct influence, subjected to the control of complete public activity; it must arise out of the growing political training of the mass of the people.

      4. Plenue

        Whenever comparison is made of the death tolls of capitalism and communism, I’m struck by how the focus is always on singular incidents. A famine, a war, a purge. Capitalism can be easily made to have a much smaller body count because we don’t count all the ‘normal’, ‘unavoidable’, ‘natural’ deaths. But what about the day to day toll of the normal operation of capitalism? All the people who die every year because we leave health care up the ‘the market’? The ‘deaths from despair’ because business never wants to increase wages and drug companies have an interest in selling pills? The tens of thousands of deaths attributable to guns, enabled by a gun culture explicitly driven by a corporate desire to sell guns and ammunition? The tens of thousands who die annually in car accidents because we simply ‘must’ have so many automobiles and not more public transport? What about all the lives taken and immiserated by the ‘war on drugs’ and the profit motive of private prisons?

        And all of the above is surely just the tip of the iceberg. And capitalism is older than communism, no matter what date you consider to be year zero. If we take capitalism to be the dominate norm, that is completely ubiquitous and impacts every aspect of society, who knows how many deaths can be both directly and indirectly attributed to it.

    3. Vatch

      The Brits starved something like 30 million Indians in the 19th century,

      Source, please. Note that prior to 1857, the British control over India was incomplete. Many of the famine deaths prior to that were unrelated to British rule. I think I’ve seen estimates that about 5 million people died in 1876 and again in 1896. I’m not defending British rule — they had no right to be there, and they did not care about the needs of the people that they ruled. I’m just wondering about the number 30 million.

      if people accurately tallied up the deaths and inefficiencies under capitalism and imperialism, Stalin and Mao were quaint.

      False. In addition to what happened in Ukraine and Kazakhstan in 1931-1933, we need to consider the catastrophe of Mao’s Great Leap Forward from 1958 to 1962. The low estimate of deaths from starvation is 30 million, and in Frank Dikötter’s book Mao’s Great Famine, the author estimates that at least 45 million died of starvation. That’s just a 4 – 5 year period.

      1. Carolinian

        Perhaps the Russians could claim that the 20 million plus Russians who died during WW2 were victims of capitalism not to mention all those who died in WW1. The point is that neither system has clean hands when it comes to violence. They just have different targets.

        1. Vatch

          There’s a difference between deaths in wartime and deaths in peacetime. They’re equally horrible, but it’s harder to pick an economic ideology to blame for wartime deaths. After all, Stalin helped start the European portion of WWII with the Molotov Von Ribbentrop Pact. So one could say that those 20 million deaths were partly caused by communism.

          1. Carolinian

            One reason many in the West were at first complacent about Hitler coming to power was the hope that he would take out the Soviets. I’d say there’s a case to be made that the whole second half of the 20th century was shaped by the Russian Revolution and the reaction to it. Hitler was always going to invade Russia. He hoped Britain and others would join him in his crusade. When WW2 was over there were many who thought we should keep going and take out the Soviets too, even if with nuclear weapons. Some people it seems still think that even though Russians are no longer communists.

            So it’s a power struggle of course, but in the 20th cent it was very much an ideological struggle. Perhaps anti-communism was just an excuse but having been there I’d say the Cold Warriors were true believers.

            1. Vatch

              Hitler was always going to invade Russia.

              Very likely true. But first he had to invade Poland, and he would have done that later if it had not been for his Nonaggression Pact with the Soviets. Meanwhile, if the invasion of Poland had been delayed, Britain and France would have improved their military capabilities, because they knew what Hitler was up to after he seized Czechoslovakia earlier in 1939. Stalin made it easier for Hitler in 1939.

              1. Alex Morfesis

                Could we just order summary execution for anyone who brings up mass deaths from the past ?? Only semi snarking…

                most wars seem to come from grandfathers telling their grandsons things that never were…

                Someone kills some trees and throws some ink on them to work on tenure 50…75..100…200…500 years after the fact…

                Why does anyone believe anything anyone writes or says??

                The dead are dead…we can’t bring them back and
                they won’t have noticed
                we avenged them…because they are dead…

                Can we even agree on what is going on around the world today as we speak & communicate ??

                Trump being investigated by the watchful eye of the fool who was filling in crossword puzzle books his first few weeks in office allowing the events of 9-11 to occur…??

                How funny is that ??

                We have the self proclaimed righteous (privately owned) 1$t amendment acela vanity press cutting and pasting talking points while almost never publishing the contents of the federal register or congressional research service reports…and it’s not just an american phenomenon…most countries have “official gazettes”…none of the “great and brave journalists” bother actually reporting on the business of government…

                The dead are dead…nothing will bring them back…and those who killed them are also probably dead…

                For those who submit and do not resist, most leadership will seem benevolent…for those with other thoughts…death will come sooner than originally planned…

                There is plenty of history…when one is handed “atrocities” one should ask why this and why now ??

                War is easy…peace is difficult…

                The difficult road is less boring

              2. rkka

                “Very likely true. But first he had to invade Poland, and he would have done that later if it had not been for his Nonaggression Pact with the Soviets.”

                Totally false. Hitler was determined to attack Poland on 26 August 1939, Pact or no. The only thing he feared was Western intervention. He got the Pact on 23 August, yet for some reason on 25 August he cancelled the attack on Poland, despite the fact that he had the Pact. Do you know why? I do…

          2. Katsue

            By the time of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, a European war was already unavoidable. The farce of Non-Intervention in the Spanish Civil War, the Munich Agreement, and Poland’s participation in the partition of Czechoslovakia, had totally discredited Litvinov’s pro-Western foreign policy.

      2. jw

        Sources: Late Victorian Holocausts by Mike Davis and Epidemics and History by Sheldon Watts both deal with the staggering death toll of British rule in India (roughly 30 million).
        Perilous Passage by Amiya Bagchi has a more rigorous count and analysis of India, China, and other countries subjected to imperialism.

        Regarding the Ukraine, the Best Sons for the Fatherland by Lynn Viola details the second civil war that was collectivization. Peasants didn’t want to give up grain, so they killed Party members, killed their livestock, destroyed their equipment, etc.

        I’ve read Dikotter. The problem with his death tolls is fertility and birth rates drop during famine. You can’t extrapolate pre-famine birth rates and say “oh, these people weren’t born therefore those count as deaths.” They did the same thing with deaths in Kampuchea. And yes, millions did die of famine in the Ukraine and Kazkhanstan. I’m not disputing that. I’m disputing this notion that Stalin and Mao were worse than Hitler. They were not. It’s misleading to say “Stalin killed more of his citizens than Hitler did” because most of the killings by Nazis were of Slavs. The Soviets lost well over 20 million people due to the Nazis genocidal plans.

        Regarding China, you know the bloodiest civil war/famine in history? The Taiping Rebellion, which was the result of the Brits shoving opium down China’s throat. Mao was no saint, but mortality rates in China were far higher before the 1949 revolution than after. See for instance Mobo Gao’s the Battle for China’s Past or William Hinton’s Through a Glass Darkly.

        Ultimately, purges and famines miss another huge source of deaths: disease. Mao’s China and Stalin’s Russia made astounding leaps in public health, eliminating smallpox for one. Conveniently, these millions of lives saved are ignored by Western hysterics. This isn’t to say Stalinism and Maoism are desirable. It is to say that the picture requires nuance. There is a reason Mao and Stalin are still revered by millions of people in China and Russia.

        1. Vatch

          Thanks for the references.

          “I’m disputing this notion that Stalin and Mao were worse than Hitler.”

          I’m not sure who said that Stalin and Mao were worse than Hitler, but in my opinion they were approximately the same.

          Yes, I’m aware of the Taiping Rebellion. Much more deadly than World War I.

          Why are Stalin and Mao still revered by some people? Probably for similar reasons as the reverence that some Americans have for Reagan and Trump: people sometimes believe weird things. As for smallpox, that’s been eliminated everywhere (we hope); not just in Russia and China.

          1. bugs

            On Mao’s reputation in the Chinese countryside from Monthly Review:

            “Although the revolutionary programs/movements resulted in significant hardships — on the rural population (the Great Leap Forward, 1958-61) or the intellectuals (the Cultural Revolution, 1966-76) — they both produced concrete achievements in the countryside that led to impressive gains in agricultural production and in people’s lives. In contrast, the post-Mao era “reforms” have resulted so far in a huge growth of inequality in China, with the rural population suffering greatly by the dismantling of public support for health and education.

            “[I]t is clear that significant hardships were created by grain shortages induced, at least partially, by the policies of the Great Leap Forward. However, during my research in rural China over the past twenty-five years — including extensive interviews with farmers in Jimo County in Shandong Province — I have not come across a single farmer who believed that Mao lost popularity because of the Great Leap Forward. “

        2. Tim

          Dikotter is a grotesque neoliberal apologist for imperialist drug dealers. He is also a fabulist in his treatment of the effects of heroin/opiate addiction in late 19th/early 20th century China. Given that we in the US are now experiencing a staggering public health disaster with respect to opiate consumption by the immiserated proletariat, Dikotter’s attempts to minimize the impacts of opiates on Chinese public health is ghoulish at best.

          1. Vatch

            Well, that doesn’t seem relevant to the artificial famine of the Great Leap Forward, but I’m curious. What’s your source for your claim that he is an apologist for drug dealers? Did he write something bad about the opium wars? Clearly the behavior of Britain in that context was atrocious.

            1. Tim

              Dikotter’s inability to write truthfully about the public health effects of widespread opiate addiction bears directly on his scholarly credibility. Which is to say, he is not credible.

              “Did he write something about about the opium wars”

              Google is your friend, a search for Dikotter and opium comes up with plenty of links to Dikotter’s work. Nice try at sea lioning though.

              1. Vatch

                You’re the one who made a claim, so you’re the one who has an obligation to back it up. I don’t spend time researching Google every time I see something that I don’t know about on the internet. Whether Dikötter is correct about opium has no bearing on the correctness of his claims about the Great Leap Forward. If you don’t trust Dikötter, you can read “Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958-1962”, by Yang Jisheng, or “Hungry Ghosts: Mao’s Secret Famine”, by Jasper Becker. The horrible artificial famine is a well known historical fact.

          2. Plenue

            I don’t know about his writings about the Opium Wars, but in relation to Mao’s famine the man is an ass and a plagiarist. Better to read Tombstone by Yang Jisheng, a journalist who Dikotter would go on to both ripoff and then smear as someone who just copied his information from the internet.

            1. Vatch

              I assume you’re referring to page 347 of Dikötter’s book, where he both praises and criticize’s Yang’s book. Later on the same page, Dikötter unreservedly praises a book by Lin Yunhui, which doesn’t appear to be available in an English translation, unfortunately.

              In a sense, all writers of secondary histories plagiarize primary sources. Plagiarizing other secondary source is wrong. I couldn’t find any references on the web to Dikötter’s plagiarism, but I may have used the wrong search terms. Whatever Dikötter’s flaws may be, the famine really occurred, and it was horrible.

  3. animalogic

    I would like to thank the author for taking such an open minded, non doctrinaire attitude to this subject.
    That’s not to suggest I agree with all his conclusions. Nor does the Q & A approach always prove…enlightening.
    “Q: Was Stalinism good?
    A: No.”
    The question is easy & the answer is correct. Of course, there is a small wrinkle: most historians agree that it was the USSR that made the primary contribution to the defeat of Nazi Germany.
    Q: to what degree did “Stalinism” enable the USSR to defeat the Nazis ?
    A: It’s an open question. It’s often forgotten that the USSR came very close to defeat in 41′-42′. In part because of Stalin’s interference in military matters. But, would the USSR have had ANY chance of victory “but for” the “crash” industrialisation instituted by Stalin in the 30’s ? If you allow that crash industrialisation was a necessary, (not sufficient) condition for eventuaL victory – can we give Stalin any credit ?
    “Q: Is it at least true that a planned economy always fails?
    A: Probably not.” But is that the right question ? Isn’t the right question, “to what degree/extent can an economy be planned & succeed ?” (An “economy” is almost be definition “planned”. The most basic law on property, succession etc IS planning ).
    Some of the author’s Q & A’s are very good:
    “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.” I think the author probably means “programmatically” when he says “consciously” but his point remains valid: change occurs because people have ideas which they seek to implement.

    1. Outis Philalithopoulos Post author

      A few responses: First, I agree that your question on whether the 30s industrialization was crucial is worth posing. On Stalin’s interference in 1941-1942, yes, and it’s also true that Stalin was initially blindsided by Hitler’s attack – he was pretty faithful to Molotov-Ribbentrop while it lasted.

      On “programmatic” versus “conscious,” I agree that your wording is more precise, but my purpose there was to paraphrase standard ideological constructions.

      The purpose of the Q & A was to illustrate how some questions can be answered even when we don’t know all the historical details. I can’t provide a general answer to, “To what extent can an economy be planned and succeed?” – can you? As I indicated in the article, I think the more fundamental question is in any case, “In what circumstances would you want the economy to be planned, and what sort of planning do you have in mind?”

      1. visitor

        “In what circumstances would you want the economy to be planned, and what sort of planning do you have in mind?”

        An answer was given in “Organizations”, written by March and Simon in the 1950s: in case of war.

        The observation that during WWII every major player (UK, USA, Germany, Japan, USSR), no matter which economic principles it followed, turned to and relied upon a planned economy, with central resource allocation, dirigiste production schedules and centrally rationed consumption, led those authors to analyze markets and planing entities, as well as participating organizations as problem-solving mechanisms geared to processing information and reducing uncertainty. Interestingly, it appears that in the USSR, WWII led to a moderate relaxation of planning in some sectors of the economy.

        Basically, when the stakes are very high (of a survival nature), the resources to put into use of a massive (i.e. national) and comprehensive scale, and there is no time to let multiple entities experiment and find out a “best” approach through trial and error (through the market and its creative destruction), then a centrally planned economy is simply more effective.

        I presume that once climate change will really bite and massive, survival-level solutions will be required really fast to mitigate or counter-act it, most countries will be forced to turn to a planned economy modus — no matter what proponents of markets, four-freedoms or free trade will argue.

      2. rkka

        The advanced Western Allied armies were not ‘blindsided, in 1940, yet Western armies numbering about 3 million folded up or ran for the coast after six weeks, costing the German army only ~27,000 troops killed.

        In the first seven weeks of Op Barbarissa those bumbling Soviets killed over 83,000 German troops, as well as thousands more Finnish, Slovak, Italian, Hungarian, & Romanian troops.

        1. Outis Philalithopoulos Post author

          According to Wikipedia,

          The initial momentum of the German ground and air attack completely destroyed the Soviet organizational command and control within the first few hours, paralyzing every level of command from the infantry platoon to the Soviet High Command in Moscow. Moscow not only failed to grasp the magnitude of the catastrophe that confronted the Soviet forces in the border area, but Stalin’s first reaction was also disbelief.

          The same article indicates that fighting went sharply in favor of the Germans for the first ten days, and then resistance stiffened and the Germans realized they had seriously underestimated Soviet strength.

          1. rkka

            A similar paralysis struck the Allied high commands in 1940, with similar effects. The ‘Blitzkreig’ worked by disrupting the opponent army’s ‘central nervous system’ in a manner of speaking. In 1940 this happened despite the fact that the Western armies were fully mobilized and alerted for a war they themselves had declared nine months previous.

            Stalin was not the only one to lose his prewar army to the initial German attack. He was unique in having provided the collossal military-industrial infrastructure for rapidly raising and equipping a new army while the war still raged.

        2. Plenue

          “those bumbling Soviets”

          I’m not sure if this is supposed to be sarcastic or not, but bumbling is not only accurate, it’s far too generous to the Soviet military response to being invaded. ‘Pants on head retarded’ is perhaps closer to the truth. Stalin’s rapid industrialization may have given the USSR the means to ultimately defeat Germany, but his insane, paranoid move to completely purge his officers corp went a long way to severely undermining Soviet military ability. Not just by killing or exiling almost everyone who remotely had any idea of what they were doing, but by also created a culture of complete subservience and a vacuum of original, dynamic thinking.

          The Soviet response was idiotic, at all levels, right up to Stalin, the head idiot (who for the first week wasn’t actively making idiotic decisions for the simple reason that he was basically catatonic and locked himself in his room).

          Those German losses might seem impressive, and in comparison to their much lighter losses in all their previous campaigns they are. But you’re comparing them to Soviet losses of half a million killed outright, and nearly three million captured (including half a million reservists who never even got to finish mobilizing), as the Germans formed kessel after kessel and the Soviets fell for it over and over again. On the equipment side we’re talking about 20,000 each of aircraft and tanks destroyed. Losing basically half your entire military manpower and most of your combat vehicle pool in the first few weeks would be laughable if it weren’t so tragic and horrific.

          The Soviet response essentially boiled down to ‘hold your positions at all costs’ and ‘bum rush the enemy en masse’. The latter having been the same exact strategy they employed against freaking Finland in the Winter War, in which the Soviets managed through sheer idiocy to turn a complete, utterly one-sided advantage in men and materiel (Finnish tanks numbered in the dozens, Soviet in the thousands) into a negotiated peace where Finland merely had to concede some land. How does a single Finnish sniper, Simo Hayha, manage to personally rack up more than 500 kills? Because his enemy is lead by utter morons.

          Ultimately Germany on the Eastern Front was defeated by a combination of the sheer size of the territory it was attempting to conquer, harsh winter conditions, and the Soviets having a seemingly endless supply of warm bodies to stupidly throw into the meat grinder. Once the Germans lost their initial momentum, it was impossible to ever fully regain it. Russians take great pride in the extreme losses the Soviets incurred in the ‘Great Patriotic War’, but in large part the body count got so high because the Soviet leadership made so many utterly asinine decisions.

          1. rkka

            “I’m not sure if this is supposed to be sarcastic or not, but bumbling is not only accurate, it’s far too generous to the Soviet military response to being invaded. ‘Pants on head retarded’ is perhaps closer to the truth. ”

            And that differs from the Anglo-French response in 1940 how?

            “Ultimately Germany on the Eastern Front was defeated by a combination of the sheer size of the territory it was attempting to conquer, harsh winter conditions, and the Soviets having a seemingly endless supply of warm bodies to stupidly throw into the meat grinder. ”

            Actually, the Chief of the German General Staff Halder was beginning to express deep concern about two weeks in, while the weather was still plenty warm, noting efforts to break up the German combined-arms team in order to isolate the German infantry from its armor and artillery & beat up in it, something that simply didn’t occur in the West the year before.

            “…but in large part the body count got so high because the Soviet leadership made so many utterly asinine decisions.”

            Noting the stark difference in the POW survival rates in German captivity, had the Germans chosen to treat their French guests as barbarically as they treated their Soviet, French military deaths would have mounted to well over a million. So in large part, the Soviet body count got so high because the Germans invaded the USSR with a genocidal intention that simply was not directed at the British or the French.

            1. Plenue

              I like how you don’t actually address or dispute any of my specific points, like how the Soviets basically lost half their entire military and most of their vehicle pool in a matter of weeks.

              Are you seriously comparing getting half your entire military killed or captured and the majority of your equipment destroyed to the French being strategically outmaneuvered and the British managing to extract most of their army?

              1. rkka

                “I like how you don’t actually address or dispute any of my specific points,
                like how the Soviets basically lost half their entire military and most of
                their vehicle pool in a matter of weeks.”

                Be more specific about where the military losses occurred, because even in the early days the war went differently, depending on place, commander, and dispositions. For instance, Army Group South faced heavy going from the start, Kirponos managing to execute a staged withdrawal out of the immediate border region featuring repeated counterattacks against the flanks of Panzer Group Kleist. Similarly, Kuznetsov was able to manage a fighting withdrawal along the Baltic coast, and suffered no major encirclements. Pavlov in the center faced two Panzer Groups, and frankly, since no Western army at the time knew how to stop even one, the disaster he experienced in the Western Special Military District is not surprising.

                “Are you seriously comparing getting half your entire military killed or
                captured and the majority of your equipment destroyed to the French being
                strategically outmaneuvered”

                Pretty much the entire French army went into German POW camps, and pretty
                much all of the French Army’s equipment got captured, and joined Polish
                equipment in training young German recruits.

                Pavlov got outmaneuvered, as badly as Gamelin, and they lost similar
                proportions of their forces & equipment. Kuznetsov & Kirponos, not so much.

                “and the British managing to extract most of their army?”

                Thank a Frenchman for that, though it helps a very great deal that the RN
                returned for tens of thousands of French troops on the last day. The RN
                maintained a glorious tradition that day.

                However, out of embarassment over repeated trouncings at the hands of a brilliant division commander way overpromoted (Rommel), British propaganda had to turn him into some kind of world-historical force, so it isn’t at all clear that the British army had any better solutions to the Blitzkreig in 1941 to early 1942 than Pavlov did, until that overpromoted brilliant division commander let victory at 2nd Tobruk go to his head and put himself into logistically untenable position at Alamein.

    2. Vatch

      Yes, the Soviet Union contributed more to the defeat of Nazi Germany than any other country. We are entering into an area where the discussion has sometimes been very angry in the past on this site. In addition to their huge role in the defeat of the Nazis, the Soviets also enabled the Nazi invasion of Poland. Indeed, the Soviets themselves invaded half of Poland under their agreement with the Nazis.

      The Soviets helped to win the war that they helped to start.

      1. Yves Smith

        Not correct. The USSR tried repeatedly to ally with England and France as Germany was arming and was rebuffed. Did you forget that many upper class Brits in the 1930s saw the Nazis as muscular allies versus the USSR? The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was a desperate defensive move.

        1. rkka

          Very true Yves. The only important thing the Soviet government got out of the Anglo-French-Soviet military staff talks in Moscow 10-23 August 1939 was a clear view of the utter unseriousness of Western war planning. When Soviet defense minister Marshal Voroshilov asked his counterparts General Dolomenc & Admiral Drax if the Red Army would be able to enter Poland to fight the Germans in the event of a German invasion of Poland, the British Deputy Chiefs of Staff wrote a paper making it clear that Soviet intervention was Poland’s only hope of sustaining resistance for more than a brief period of time, two weeks in the opinion of CIGS General Ironside, and that His Majesty’s Government should exert the strongest pressure on the Polish government to get them to agree to accept a Soviet intervention. The DCoSs believed that this was the only hope of a short war. Without that intervention, the only hope was to restore Poland after Germany was defeated at the end of a long war, and the longer the war lasted the less chance of Poland “… emerging from it in anything like its present form.” The DCoS also predicted that if the Poles refused, which they did, the Soviet government “…would concert with Germany in a new division of the spoils…”

          Unfortunately, PM Neville Chamberlain agreed with the Polish government, and no such pressure was exerted. The Pact was the predictable, and predicted, outcome of the blind anticommunism of Neville Chamberlain and the Polish government.

          1. Vatch

            It astonishes me that people criticize the Poles for their desire to avoid having Soviet soldiers on their land. Less than 20 years before that, they fought a war against the Soviets, and for more than a century, about half of Poland was under control of the Russian empire. If the Poles had allowed Soviets on their land, it would have been generations before they left.

            1. rkka

              The Polish government had two options in the late Summer of 1939:

              1) Accept Soviet assistance.
              2) Be utterly conquered & occupied by Nazi Germany and get the full GeneralPlan Ost treatment.

              By the choice the Polish government made, Poland avoided none of:
              1) German conquest and occupation.
              2) Soviet postwar occupation.

              Poland’s foreign policy in the Late Summer of 1939 was an utter catastrophic failure, and the only thing that failure cannot be attributed to is insufficient suspicion of the Soviets, because it was total.

                1. rkka

                  The DCoS wrote their paper on 16 August 1939, a week before Herr Ribbentrop flew to Moscow. Not hindsight at all.

  4. PlutoniumKun

    First off, thanks for introducing me to the concept of the ‘motte and bailey’ argument. Its a great description of a particular type of argument from ideologues of all types that really irritates me.

    You’ve pointed out one of the reasons why I’ve never self-identified as communist, anarchist, feminist or any other of the myriad ‘isms’ on the left. I even hesitate sometimes at ‘socialist’. There are too many assumptions built into any of those identifications which I’m not always comfortable defending.

    I think that constructing an ‘ideal’ fair and equitable society is an impossibility. There are too many variables in history and sociology and human behavior. And democracy has a nasty habit of producing answers that idealists don’t like. I see it as a process, not an end – a messy one of step by step building a world that is more equal, more fair, more environmentally sustainable, with a deeper sense of justice, while accepting that the building blocks of that society might not be very sturdy and will need constant maintenance and repair, and that sometimes you might have to step back and start again. And sometimes, really unpleasant compromises will have to be made in order to achieve a greater good.

    One reason I love NC so much is that instead of starting from some sort of idealised notion of how the world should work, is that it addresses how the real world of economics and sociology actually exists, and asks us to think very hard about how to make it better. Its the articles and discussions here which have forced me to question my own assumptions and idealisms and think much harder about how a better society would actually function, not in a ‘we’ll all live together in co-operatives and play guitar and draw from our Universal Income and guaranteed pensions’, but how it will really work.

    1. Ulysses

      “I think that constructing an ‘ideal’ fair and equitable society is an impossibility. There are too many variables in history and sociology and human behavior. And democracy has a nasty habit of producing answers that idealists don’t like. I see it as a process, not an end – a messy one of step by step building a world that is more equal, more fair, more environmentally sustainable, with a deeper sense of justice, while accepting that the building blocks of that society might not be very sturdy and will need constant maintenance and repair, and that sometimes you might have to step back and start again. And sometimes, really unpleasant compromises will have to be made in order to achieve a greater good.”

      Excellent points! Yet your last sentence raises a serious question– greater good for who? Very often, neoliberals fudge the answer to this by reifying an abstraction they call “the economy.”

      “We know it’s hard on the eight out of ten people in this de-industrializing nation who will see their living standards decline, but globalization is “good for the economy” in the long run.”

      The more honest version of this statement would replace the word “economy” with “obscenely wealthy banksters and kleptocrats, and a small number of their enablers and servants to whom they allow a bit of wealth to trickle down.”

      1. Moneta

        If you ask your children how a cake can be fairly distributed, all answers will probably be different. Now imagine this negotiation across 7 billion people.

        Guess who gets to cut? Usually the one already in power or the one with a more entitled attitude. It’s rarely the most fair individual who gets his/her way.

        1. witters

          Actually, re the kids. If they have a handle on the idea of fairness – so 3ish and up – they are remarkably sensitive to what fairness rerquires, and how this relates to everyone arround the cake. You try it. It will be divided equally – unless, say, there is someone with an injury or medical conditon or something rather awful – and they will then give that person a bigger slice, and a smaller equal one for everyone else. I’ve had a fair bit of experience in this matter. (I suspect this wonderfully cheering fact it is what Jesus was reminding us of when he said “Become like little children”.)

                1. witters

                  No worries. Though I do think the right way – the fair way – to divide a birthday cake at a birthday party is as I suggested above. Anyway, that’s what I’ve found the kids think. (I have wondered if the very idea of a birthday cake at a birthday party is itself a morally socialising device/practice.)

          1. Richard

            Where I teach (an elementary school), one teacher has a wonderful way to demonstrate the difference between fairness and equity. A picture of a bunch of kids, trying to look over a fence at a baseball game. Some are tall enough to see over the fence, some are not, but the fence is the same size for everyone. That’s fairness. Immediately, kids begin to grasp that fairness doesn’t work for everyone at every time. In the second picture, the shorter kids are standing on boxes and crates, which of course demonstrates equity.
            We do this with children, to teach them that we all have areas where we need more support, and if I read a bit more with Bridget than Juan, there is a reason for that, and it (usually) has to do with equity.
            Every year I am blown away by what wonderful creatures 7 and 8 year olds are, and they definitely haven’t developed all the sick rationalizations adults have on the subject of fairness. But we also do a lot of teaching around social behavior, and at the age I teach most of them haven’t fully outgrown the narcissism of their earlier years.

            1. witters

              Not sure I see how the fact that the fence is, say, 5 feet high, has anything to do with fairness at all. How can the fence qua fence be fair or unfair here, and to anyone? Surely fairnesss comes in in relation to human distribution of a shared good (or harm) – where the good here is us seeing a baseball game. So if we all go to see the game, and it turns out that half of us are too short to see over the fence, then fairness in the shared project (us, together, watching the ball game) leads to exactly that outcome you want to asssociate with “equity” as opposed to “fairness”. I think trying to set fairness against equity here is to get into a bit of a muddle.

              1. Richard

                I was responding to Moneta’s comment ie some people need more calories than others. So fairness as distinct from equity is indeed a cogent point. Not a question of trying to set them against each other, of course, just two different things.
                And hmm, not really sure if I really get your fence point, but I’ll grant you it might not be the most satisfying analogy and sorry it was unclear. The question she’d ask of the class is, “is the fence being unfair”? and of course no, so the idea is that fairness alone isn’t enough, you need equity.
                And now I realize that was unclear, sorry!

                1. Moneta

                  All these comments go to show my initial point: they show how hard it is to determine what is fair/equitable.

                  Most of us talk about fairness but when comes distribution time, definitions morph.

                  Fairness and equity are not clear cut.

                  1. A

                    . . . that’s probably because there is a distinction (and a difference) between them.

                    Again, it’s a birthday cake (largesse). When it comes to health care, that’s different.

    2. Uahsenaa

      I suppose I don’t disagree with your point in principle, but coming at this from the perspective of labor organizing and what have you, solidarity of purpose quite often demands a certain degree of (lax) identity signaling so you can easily identify who your comrades/fellow travelers are. A management/worker framing of the dynamics at play in any given place of employment may not perfectly reflect the nuances of that place’s social organization but it does provide a handy rule of thumb for action for those who don’t want to write a graduate thesis simply in order figure who’s on their side and who isn’t. Arnade’s front row/back row works in a similar way. It’s not perfect, but it’s been rather effective in identifying how certain educated groups are at least complicit with the aims of plutocrats.

      As for advocating for the “ideal,” this could just as easily be understood as staking a strong bargaining position. You always ask for more than you think you’ll get. So, that doesn’t mean a group’s utopian demands reflect an inability to see the practicalities of the here and now. It could just as easily mean “we know where we are, but we’re always striving for better.”

      1. PlutoniumKun

        I agree with you in general, but I’d make a distinction between pressing for specific aims (for example, Union recognition), and aiming to transform society. Unity of purpose and ‘signalling’ is vital if people are to unite for a specific aim. But its much harder if your aim is ‘an equal society’. You will spend more time arguing about what ‘equal’ means than actually doing things. Which is of course why the establishment loves identity politics, because it provides an infinity of possibilities for people to fall out arguing over split hairs.

        1. Left in Wisconsin

          Yes, there is a necessary dualism. On the one hand, as you say above, it is always a process, not an end. On the other hand, making progress against entrenched power IMO generally requires an image of a destination, even if that destination is always fragile and subject to undermining (as it will always be).

          Which I suppose is the issue with communism. It is conceived of as some kind of permanent end point, a Fukuyama-esque end of history. That seems extremely dubious to me.

    3. Moneta

      That is why I rarely reference my ideas in comments sections. When one does, many seem to think that the reference means one supports the entire philosophy of the quoted pundit and then one gets pigeonholed.

      1. Left in Wisconsin

        Probably so. But opponents will pigeon hole anyway. And I find being open in my politics while subjecting my ideas to scrutiny and feedback helpful.

        1. Moneta

          True but I find Marxism one of the most contentious words when discussing with Americans.

          They have a hard time seeing the difference between theoretical communism which is left leaning and the right leaning close to fascism type of communism that has been practiced up to now.

    4. Dirk77

      Yes. The author’s point that determining a good society is not a dichotomy of communism or capitalism can’t be repeated enough. No one is omniscient and so any good philosophy must be dynamic. It ultimately is trial and error with us as the experiment. I would like to think the ideas discussed in NC now in 2017 are much closer to how things are than NC in 1817, showing progress is being made. But if past lessons are not remembered that’s part of how things are too. Thanks everyone for your interesting thoughts.

  5. Vikas Saini

    Lovely to find this here. Almost all the arguments have been rattling in my head for the past couple of years. Work of this sort is crucial for the next phase, so thanks! Something is in the air…..

  6. MetalAnarchy17

    Great article. As a first time commenter, I just want to thank you and everyone else for how far ranging and thought provoking of a Blog Naked Capitalism is.
    The questions you posed are ones that I often have struggled with as a philosophically inclined leftist. As one who is as sympathetic to Anarchism as he his To Marx and his followers I have to ask, do you think Anarchist critiques of Marx (those of Bakunin and Kropotkin, for example) and Marxism are any more or less elucidating than the seemingly Liberalish ones you have mentioned (from what I’ve heard of Camus he was more of a liberal existentialist and not one that was ever exactly radical, but I’ve not read him yet so I could be very wrong). Also, do you feel that Rosa Luxembourg’s critiques of Lenin were also apologetics for Marx, if not necessary the Bolshevik interpretation of Marx, or more than that.
    As a side note, I also have to ask, Which students in the 60s thought the Soviet Union was the be all, end all. I always thought that the SDS and Situationist type groups were more Anarchist even if they sometimes thought they were Marxist.

    1. Outis Philalithopoulos Post author

      I agree that the anarchist critiques are worth discussing. I’m not particularly interested in liberal critiques per se, and to the extent that they get tangled up in their own mantras, they can become pretty frustrating. Aron and Furet are a bit different – both books were important historically, and both authors had read Marx very carefully. Aron was in some sense a “Marxian,” and Furet at one point went to the trouble of compiling a book on everything Marx wrote about the French Revolution so people would stop reading stuff into him.

      The advantage of looking at writers from far outside of the Marxist tradition is that you can sometimes find critiques that problematize features that more “inside” writers are unlikely to question. Of course, some of these critiques are more persuasive/original than others…

      On Rosa Luxemburg, it’s true that she was pretty strongly Marxist. Her critique of Lenin, like Kautsky’s, is useful in showing how Lenin’s form of Marxism was fairly marginal within the intellectual Marxist world before the Russian Revolution provided Lenin with the mantle of apparent success.

      When you say that many student leaders “were more anarchist even if they sometimes thought they were Marxist,” I think you are onto something. However, in terms of professed beliefs, I know that the Italian students used Marxist language very heavily. Re SDS, I once met a former mid-level SDS leader who told me that when he expressed reservations about the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia, he was systematically ostracized by the high-level SDS leadership. Many of those individuals wound up in the Weather Underground.

      1. MetalAnarchy17

        Thanks for the response. I am always looking for historically important books to further aid my own investigations of political ideologies, their origins and their evolutions and corruptions throughout time. I’ll have to check Furet and Aron out to see what they have to say.
        I didn’t realize that Lenin was more on the outskirts of Marxism before the October revolution took place. I always thought the he had to have had a higher profile, even before the revolution. Human history seems to have a habit of pushing formally background characters to the forefront
        I’d have never thought the SDS expelled people over Prague, but then again, I haven’t looked that much into the SDS history and what their changing political lines were. I guess it isn’t that surprising that the SDS had more Stalinist types in their ranks that were willing to excommunicate rivals. Most socialist movements had similar issues with Stalinists in the 60s and 70s.

      2. Left in Wisconsin

        Aron was in some sense a “Marxian”

        That’s interesting. IIRC, Mirowski classifies him as a Mont Pelerin neoliberal. I always found his politics hard to decipher.

        1. Outis Philalithopoulos Post author

          He was antifascist, anti-colonialist, and (at least in the early 50s) Keynesian. On Aron and Marx, see here (in French, sorry, that section doesn’t exist in the English version).

          Although I know less about his later trajectory, it may however be true that he became much more of a neoliberal as time went on. This sort of thing happens for familiar reasons – people solidify in their positions and lose initial nuances under the pressure of rhetorical combat.

    2. ejf

      Great to see another anarchist in the hood. And you bring up some great questions. To me, Bakunin never had the philosophical grip that Marx had on capitalism. Bakunin DID ride Marx and the Communist International on the meaning of the “dictatorship of the proletariat”.
      As for anarchists and the early Russian Revolution, have a look at “The Bolshevik Myth” by Alexander Berkman, Emma Goldman’s old bo.
      Having been an old New Lefty of the 60’s myself, everybody I knew of or read thought that the Soviet Union was OLD, antique, almost quaint. The same went for the Communist Party USA. Then again, the New Left never had an answer for why the Berlin Wall was around. Or why power freaks like Enver Hoxha of the People Republic of Albania were given the time of day. And don’t get me going on how Che Guevara, before he went off to Bolivia, organized the Cuban state sugar farms with political prisoners’ free labor.

      1. MetalAnarchy17

        Thanks for chiming in.
        I’ve been meaning to read Berkman for a while, and your recommendation sounds like a great place to start. I didn’t know that about Guevara, but honestly, the idea that slave labor was used in the early days of the Cuban revolution sounds like an accurate description, as sad as that is.

        I remember reading The Port Huron statement in an American Political Ideas I had recently. What you say about the New left consider the USSR quaint does remind me of the tone in that and other political statements from the 60s I have read.

        I am also glad to know that there are other anarchists here at Naked Capitalism

      2. Alejandro

        “. And don’t get me going on how Che Guevara, before he went off to Bolivia, organized the Cuban state sugar farms with political prisoners’ free labor.”

        I don’t subscribe to the cultish veneration of any individual, past or present, nor its flip-side of obsessive demonization of any individual, past or present. However, in the spirit of this excellent post and thread about “The Minefield of Historical Communism”, I would be very much interested in your adding context to this comment, e.g., their conditions pre-revolution, their conditions at the time of your claim, and the lessons learned, that may be of value to others. As far as legacy, they certainly don’t seem to export as much sugar today, but they do seem to export a lot of doctors.

  7. Watt4Bob

    A couple of quibbles;

    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?

    First, why does a discussion of British colonial misrule immediately turn to India, as opposed to Ireland?

    I’d say it is because ‘the theorists of colonialism‘ is at best a euphemism for ‘psychopathic cheer-leaders of barbarism and genocide’, and of course the Indian people are more brown than the Irish.

    There are no legitimate theories of colonialism, only rationalizations for what on it’s face is barbarous behavior, in short propaganda propagated by the perpetrators, not legitimate ‘theorists’.


    Large numbers of intellectuals in France and Italy, and also elsewhere, as well as much of the leadership of the 60s student movements, were convinced that the USSR was a genuine incarnation of Left values. What does this imply about their powers of discernment?

    This question seems to me to be part of the never-ending effort to de-legitimise all resistance to imperial capitalist barbarism by waving the Bloody-Shirt of Stalinism.

    The way I remember it, the dynamism, and turmoil of the 1960’s was not the result of naive, and misguided intellectuals and student leaders pushing a communist agenda, it was rather, a clear demonstration of the lengths to which the PTB will go to repress legitimate resistance to obviously barbarous imperialism abroad, and systemic racism everywhere.

    Socialism does not equal Communism, does not equal Stalinism, but this is the most useful fallacy that the psychopathic cheer-leaders of barbarism and genocide have cooked up to thwart the efforts of those who would teach/preach Solidarity.

    As I recall, it was very effective in the 60s, and we just witnessed its efficacy in stopping Bernie.

    Lastly, and yes, this is much more than a ‘quibble’;

    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.

    I find it baffling that anybody takes this sort of bull*hit seriously.

    1. Outis Philalithopoulos Post author

      On Ireland versus India, I have no quarrel with anything you are saying. I would have been as happy to talk about Ireland as India.

      When you say,

      This question seems to me to be part of the never-ending effort to de-legitimise all resistance to imperial capitalist barbarism by waving the Bloody-Shirt of Stalinism.

      you are engaging in a breathtaking misreading of the article. The whole point of the article is to open up ways to look radically beyond the existing system, without having to self-censor about what did and did not happen during Stalinism. I specifically reject the idea that the history of Stalinism implies that it is wrong to try to envision alternatives to capitalism.

      When you say that the 1960s “was not the result of naive, and misguided intellectuals and student leaders pushing a communist agenda” you are blatantly straw-manning. I did not say that. I did say that many of the student leaders were willing to reflexively defend “really existing communism.” If you doubt that this is true, read any history of the SDS leadership, don’t just make peremptory statements about what you imagine the 60s “stood for.”

      When you claim that the article implies that “socialism equals communism,” you are again responding to a thesis that it doesn’t argue for, and in fact takes precisely the opposite thesis.

      If you don’t think that people in the PCI and PCF continued to consider the USSR a good economic model well into the 1980s, then why did those parties collapse with the Soviet Union? You can say words like bullshit all you want, but vehemence is a poor substitute for critical thinking. I’ve asked plenty of ex-members of those parties why they stopped believing in the possibility of radical economic change and if I get an answer, it’s along the one I gave. But more often, the answer is just embarrassed silence.

      1. Watt4Bob

        One has only to contrast this;

        I’ve asked plenty of ex-members of those parties why they stopped believing in the possibility of radical economic change and if I get an answer, it’s along the one I gave. But more often, the answer is just embarrassed silence.

        With this;

        Large numbers of intellectuals in France and Italy, and also elsewhere, as well as much of the leadership of the 60s student movements, were convinced that were convinced that the USSR was a genuine incarnation of Left values..

        …to understand that you’re trying to sell the notion that those who have striven for radical economic change are folks who, in your words, “were convinced that the USSR was a genuine incarnation of Left values.”

        This is not the case.

        The notion that the USSR was a legitimate incarnation of “Left values” was set to rest with the advent of Stalinism, that is, the embarrassed silence you speak of happened in the 1930s.

        Because the tactic of associating progressive activists with the evil commies has been so successful thus far, the PTB will never stop using it.

        IMHO, that’s exactly what you’re engaged in this morning.

        1. Outis Philalithopoulos Post author

          Your claims about my intentions are false. Nor do the quotes from me that you cite back up your claims in any way.

          The statement that I made about certain intellectuals in France and Italy and (e.g.) many SDS leaders is a historical claim that can be verified or disputed. Is any hope of “striving for radical economic change” dependent upon never mentioning it? Is it helpful when “striving for radical economic change” to close oneself off from learning from the past?

          Let’s try something else. I’m going to respond by saying something that I think is far more plausible than what you are saying.

          * * * * *

          “Your attempt to force anyone who wants to strive towards a radically different economic system to tread very gently whenever saying anything critical of any society that has ever called itself communist is a tried and true tactic of the PTB. By blocking thoughtful self-reflection among people interested in living in a drastically different future, it cripples their intellectual resources when trying to imagine such a future. Simultaneously, it facilitates the PTB’s efforts to discredit such efforts by making statements like “they won’t even come to terms with how their efforts led to disaster in the past” appear reasonable.

          Because the tactic of forcing progressive activists into ideological rigidity has been so successful thus far, TPTB will never stop using it.

          IMHO, that’s exactly what you’re doing this morning.”

          Now, I don’t actually believe that. IMHO, through various life experiences, you have acquired the idea that open discussions of historical communism are an attempt to subvert attempts to envision another future, and you are currently engaging in pattern-matching.

          1. Watt4Bob

            IMHO, through various life experiences, you have acquired the idea that open discussions of historical communism are an attempt to subvert attempts to envision another future, and you are currently engaging in pattern-matching.

            I disagree.

            What I am currently engaged in, is explaining that there is no logical need for any person who wants to work towards a radically different economic system, to first take on the responsibility of addressing the historical failures of soviet communism.

            To my knowledge, the historical failures of communism are not seriously disputed, or ignored by anyone currently working for a better economic system in the USA.

            I’m not refusing to face embarrassing facts, I’m disputing the relevance of the whole topic to current political discourse.

            To insist that Bernie Sanders supporters, for instance, must, in order to be taken seriously, first engage in discussion that addresses the historical failures of communism is ridiculous.

            1. Outis Philalithopoulos Post author

              I agree with portions of this sentiment and disagree with others.

              I agree that people shouldn’t be held hostage to particular forms of historical inquiry. People shouldn’t be forced to “take responsibility” for a position on any topic they aren’t ready to.

              Bernie Sanders is not proposing a radically new economy. Reforms like the ones he’s proposing have actually been tried out in Western European countries. If I were claiming that no one should be allowed to support Bernie without first taking responsibility for historical communism, that would be silly – but I didn’t. Suggesting that I did comes dangerously close to further straw-manning of my position.

              There’s a difference between saying people should be obligated to talk about a certain topic and saying that they should be allowed to talk about it without being immediately blasted as an enemy agent.

              When I read an experience like that of Rossanda’s below, my reaction is not, “Ooh, those communists sure were evil, ha ha ha.” It’s that she seems like a person who was very intelligent, who genuinely wanted to change the world for the better, and still found herself fifty years later interrogating herself, wondering how much of her life work was misguided, and whether she bears responsibility for her role in providing some measure of support for a regime that is hard to excuse.

              My reaction is, “That could be me. I don’t want it to be me, but who’s to say that I’m any more insightful or moral than she was?” I don’t want to be in the position of having provided vocal support for a political program that makes the world worse, and if I were to do so, having done it for “good motives” would be cold comfort. I’m not saying that anyone else has to learn from her experience – there’s only so much time in the world, and there’s a lot of history that might provide valuable lessons, not just the 20th century. But personally, I’d like to learn from her experience, and not shy away from where it leads me.

              1. Watt4Bob

                I believe what I’ve been arguing is based in the American experience, which in this particular means being immersed in a politically naive population marinated in anti-communist propaganda.

                I’m not sure a citizen of any European country can appreciate the degree to which our people have been trained to believe that the impulse to join together in solidarity for any purpose, is evidence of a soft intellect or moral depravity.

                Even before the fall of the USSR, any discussion of a political nature approaching a topic that could be construed as being in favor of socialism in even the most limited context was apt to be met with a chorus of derisive abuse.

                I believe an invitation to discuss the reality of historical communism, in the USA at least, is most often actually a thinly veiled invitation to shut the hell up, and it has been so for close to one hundred years.

                This situation has become incredibly worse in the last couple decades, this is especially evident in the disquieting popularity of the ‘ideas’ championed in the writings of Ayn Rand.

                I hope you’ll excuse my misinterpreting your intent, and understand that I’ve never been honestly invited to consider historical communism, I’ve only been invited to consider keeping my socialist ideals to myself.

                1. Outis Philalithopoulos Post author

                  Thanks, watt4bob, I appreciate this.

                  I am familiar with some of the American dynamics you bring up. One of my hopes is that if critically thinking people can find spaces where they discuss these sorts of ideas without fear or favor, it will gradually make it possible to develop antidotes to the kind of discussion-choking maneuvers you mention.

        2. Mel

          There was a time in the 1970s when the popular comic Pilote wasn’t just for kids, despite running Astérix and Achille Talon. Then Jacques Lauzier ran some grueling character studies (well, at least one, among other similar stories) of French ex-Communist intellectuals facing the consequences of just such attitudes as Outis has described. Interesting to look up, if you read French, or can find a translation.

  8. Ulysses

    The author’s statement that “large numbers of intellectuals in France and Italy, and also elsewhere, as well as much of the leadership of the 60s student movements, were convinced that the USSR was a genuine incarnation of Left values.” is more than a little disingenuous.

    The many former sessantottini that I knew in Italy, SDS leaders, and other U.S. student radicals from the sixties were all very strong supporters of the Prague uprising against Soviet domination in 1968. This includes many who self-identified as Marxist!

    1. Ulysses

      And of course, the author’s statement appears even more of a smear when one remembers this historical reality:

      “In 1969, Enrico Berlinguer, PCI deputy national secretary and later secretary general, took part in the international conference of the Communist parties in Moscow, where his delegation disagreed with the “official” political line, and refused to support the final report. Unexpectedly to his hosts, his speech challenged the Communist leadership in Moscow. He refused to “excommunicate” the Chinese communists, and directly told Leonid Brezhnev that the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Warsaw Pact countries (which he called the “tragedy in Prague”) had made clear the considerable differences within the Communist movement on fundamental questions such as national sovereignty, socialist democracy, and the freedom of culture. At the time the PCI was the largest Communist Party in a capitalist state, garnering 34.4% of the vote in the 1976 general election.”

      1. Outis Philalithopoulos Post author

        I am much less monolithically critical of the PCI than you assume (see also my next post on this subject). It was much more independent of the Soviet Union than the French Communist party, and there was a lot of opposition to Prague.

        I think it’s probably true that at least for a while, the leadership of the PCI was more open to critical thinking about the historical role of the USSR than its broad membership was. Here is a string of excerpts from Rossanda’s autobiography:

        [On November 4, 1956, she woke up to tanks marching through the streets of Budapest.] This was the first time I said to myself – they hate us. Not the elites. The ordinary [Hungarian] people, the ones on our side, they hate us. […]
        The poor and oppressed are not always in the right. But communists who are hated [by them] are always in the wrong. And this was a massive, sedimentary hatred, you don’t get to this level [of hatred] without having suffered from felt oppression for a long time. In those days, all my hair turned white. Yes, it happens. […]
        Was it therefore impossible to knock down the capitalist system, even a broken-down autocratic mess [like Russia], and build a socialist one without paying an inhuman price? [She now rehearses possible exculpatory arguments:] No, those were different times and circumstances, you have to take into account the backward circumstances in which Lenin was operating, the civil war, efforts that went nowhere, certain errors that weren’t fixed, and so the skidding into authoritarianism. But even if you grant that at the beginning repression was necessary, why had it lasted so long? And even expanded? Was the dictatorship of the proletariat therefore a dictatorship like any other? No – it was not established on behalf of just a small number of people; yes – it treated human beings as tools. We debated means and ends, a debate that goes nowhere. Togliatti, writing in Nuovi Argomenti, and also Isaac Deutscher, had a different response: The repressive apparatus was an overgrowth, a massive fungus that had not infected the trunk – the revolution had been immature, things had been forced, the tree will be healed. But it had taken so long. And was it healthy even now?

        Sorry, I need to take a break, will provide more of the text here later.

        1. Ulysses

          “It was much more independent of the Soviet Union than the French Communist party,”

          Something which no one would have guessed from your original post, in which you lump together French and Italian intellectuals as “convinced that the USSR was a genuine incarnation of Left values.”

          You were free to write as long and accurate a post as you felt like writing. You chide me for “assuming” that you are monolithically critical of the PCI. Am I supposed to be a mind reader? No one reading your post would have any reason to doubt that the PCI was unwaveringly Stalinist. It was not.

          Now, in this backpedaling reply, you assert that the “broad membership” of the PCI was less open to critical thinking about the USSR than its leadership. On what evidence? I lived in Italy for several years in the eighties and early nineties. I met very few members of the PCI “leadership”, but many hundreds of its “broad membership.” Not a single one of these PCI voters was even a little bit supportive of the U.S.S.R.! I traveled from Genoa to Palermo, and all points in between.

          Now who are you asking me to believe? You, or my lying eyes?

          1. Ulysses

            Just in case anyone here is interested in the facts of the PCI demise, here is an important moment:

            “Per decidere sulla proposta di Occhetto fu indetto un Congresso straordinario del Partito, il XIX, che si tenne a Bologna nel marzo del 1990. Tre furono le mozioni che si contrapposero:
            la prima mozione, intitolata Dare vita alla fase costituente di una nuova formazione politica era quella di Occhetto, che proponeva la costruzione di una nuova formazione politica democratica, riformatrice ed aperta a componenti laiche e cattoliche, che superasse il centralismo democratico. Il 67% dei consensi ottenuti dalla mozione permise la rielezione di Occhetto alla carica di Segretario generale e la conferma della sua linea politica.
            la seconda mozione, intitolata Per un vero rinnovamento del PCI e della sinistra fu sottoscritta da Ingrao e, tra gli altri, da Angius, Castellina, Chiarante e Tortorella. Il PCI, secondo i sostenitori di questa mozione, doveva si rinnovarsi, nella politica e nella organizzazione, ma senza smarrire se stesso. Questa mozione uscì sconfitta ottenendo il 30% dei consensi.
            la terza mozione, intitolata Per una democrazia socialista in Europa fu presentata dal gruppo di Cossutta. Costruita su un impianto profondamente ortodosso ottenne solo il 3% dei consensi.
            Il XX Congresso, tenutosi a Rimini nel febbraio del 1991, fu l’ultimo del PCI.”


            Do you notice that 3% figure at the bottom? Those would be the people that O.P. characterizes as the “broad membership” unwilling to criticize the U.S.S.R! Under what bizarre meaning of “broad” does something opposed by 97% of a given group make any sense?

            1. Outis Philalithopoulos Post author

              What does the quote say?

              In 1990, the PCI voted to renounce “democratic centralism,” i.e. the party being organized internally along Leninist grounds.

              This shows that even a year after 1989, the PCI was still nominally in favor of Leninism.

              On the other hand, the major losing motion, with 30% of the vote, was that of Ingrao and others, was a vote for “the PCI to renew itself, politically and organizationally, while remaining faithful to itself.”

              In other words, a motion for the PCI to remain faithful to its postwar heritage lost by a crushing margin, 67-30.

              If the broad membership of the PCI felt like the USSR was basically alien to their own political aspirations, why would the USSR’s implosion have led to this sort of radical renunciation? Surely you don’t think it was merely a coincidence that this motion passed in 1990 as opposed to, say, 1975 or 1985?

              I’m open to other interpretations, but I don’t see how the quote supports your argument.

              1. Ulysses

                I apologize for anything that was misconstrued as invective. You appeared to claim that the broad membership of the PCI was staunchly Stalinist up until 1991. Having lived in Italy during the late 1980s myself, I knew this claim to be false.

                The reason the PCI collapsed after the fall of the U.S.S.R. (and not earlier) was best explained to me by a friend who was himself a Christian Democrat, with a Communist girlfriend. He argued that the triumphalism of western capitalists in the U.S. at the “fall of communism” after 1989 created an urgent need for “re-branding” for the people, like his girlfriend, who became the new Democratic Party of the Left.

                In other words, after the only major country in the world to have been at least nominally anti-capitalist collapsed, Italian communists rightly feared that their attempts– to distance themselves from the particular horrors of Stalinism– would be forgotten amidst the crowing by people like Fukuyama over “The End of History.”

                My main objection to what you wrote, in your original post, was that it seemed to imply that most Italian communists were like the 3% who, even in 1991, were proud to be known as Stalinist.

                There’s actually a pretty good discussion of this whole issue here, where, as your Rossanda quotations might suggest, we see that the Stalinist orientation of the PCI was considerably weakened after 1956.

                “E la religione politica del Pci? Quella d’élite? Stalinista, sì. Almeno fino al 1956, «anno indimenticabile» e nuovo inizio, costellato di sofferenze e ambiguità.”


                “Insomma la «doppiezza veritiera» di Togliatti stava in questo: immaginare il socialismo radicalmente diverso dentro due ipotesi impossibili (tali almeno fino a Gorbaciov). L’ipotesi di una cooperazione distensiva tra i blocchi. E quella di una riformabilità della casa madre sovietica. Ma è nello spazio immaginario di quella ipotesi strategica «impossibile» che il Pci – in definitiva – intimamente stalinista non fu. Fu semmai pedagogico, storicista, elitario e altresì di massa. Capace di aprire malgrado tutto l’Italia della guerra fredda al mondo. Alla cultura internazionale. All’etica dei diritti sociali e civili che inseriva i ceti subalterni nello stato.
                Strana giraffa il Pci. Esteriormente stalinista, interiormente no.”

                1. Outis Philalithopoulos Post author

                  The article you linked to is quite good, thanks for sending it.

                  Let’s see if I understand the theory you propose. It seems to suggest that the people who genuinely believed in communism felt like they had to go underground for a while until their adversaries had spent their fury, so that they could resurface later intact.

                  I’ve contemplated ideas along these lines. I think it’s noteworthy that your friend was a supporter of the DC – in fact, it’s the kind of theory that anticommunists often hint at, because it implies that their adversaries have “not changed” and instead have become like “sleeper cells,” normal on the outside but frightening inside.

                  But that doesn’t necessarily make it false. In fact, if a whole group of people had decided to shield each other by not talking about anything that might make their enemies suspicious, then that would explain some of the behavior that I described in one of my other responses.

                  Still, I have a hard time entirely making sense of it. Back before 1956, the PCI really was fairly Stalinist in its official allegiances. The “horrors of Stalinism” were much closer then, and yet the PCI did not distance itself from them at the time despite plenty of people who were willing to cast them in its teeth.

                  Why was Fukuyama so much more terrifying than anti-communists of the 50s?

                  I’ll respond to another point you bring up in a separate post when I get a chance.

                  1. Ulysses

                    “The “horrors of Stalinism” were much closer then, and yet the PCI did not distance itself from them at the time despite plenty of people who were willing to cast them in its teeth.”

                    This is a very important point. My only information on why this was the case comes from people who were already fairly old by the 1980s. They witnessed the partigiani acting as the strongest actual resistance to the fascists– and they were reluctant to give credence to anything said against anything communist.

                    Only long after Mussolini’s execution (yet still before the fall of Franco) were Italian communists open to seeing the events of 1956, 1968, etc. as revealing serious flaws in the Soviet system.

                    1. Outis Philalithopoulos Post author

                      This certainly played a role. Consider, for example, a movie like Roma Città Aperta (1945), where communists, together with Catholics, are placed at the foundation of the new Italian identity, unified through the anti-Nazi struggle.

          2. Outis Philalithopoulos Post author

            There is a lot of invective here, which I’m not interested in responding to.

            There is, however, also some substance, which I think is worth discussing.

            I don’t have any particular stake in whether or not the PCI base was less skeptical of the USSR than the leadership. I’m curious about the question. Here’s what evidence I have, pointing in various directions.

            Let’s start with the 50s. Rossanda herself didn’t seriously question the USSR until 1956. In the incident with Ortese she mentions (possibly later, maybe in the 60s), she was clearly worried that Ortese’s articles would lead PCI sympathizers to think negatively of the USSR. Since she herself didn’t find Ortese’s experiences implausible, that means that she wanted for the PCI base to think more positively of the USSR than she did. The fact that she isn’t sure, in retrospect, whether she would have censored Ortese if she had had the power to do so, means that she considered maintaining this positive attitude on the part of the base to be quite important.

            Moving a bit forward, according to Italian Wikipedia,

            The PCI remained faithful to the general political directives of the USSR up into the 70s and 80s, all the while developing over time an increasingly autonomous political line and full acceptance of democracy already starting at the end of Togliatti’s secretaryship.

            So it was complicated. I’ve read quite a few documents from student groups in 1968 on, and some did seem to me to leave the door open toward some sort of authoritarian political structure. I don’t remember what the Red Brigades’ official attitude on the USSR was, but their own political vision as per their comunicati, etc., was pretty reminiscent of Stalinism.

            I don’t doubt your personal experience in Italy. Here’s mine (living there at various times in the 90s and 00s). I was honestly interested in the PCI experience, and I didn’t take a particularly moralistic attitude toward it at all. I was hoping that Italians, given their history, would be more interested in thinking about the possibility of radically different economic systems than Americans were. I also hoped, given that I knew from having read Pasolini and others that the Italian Left had not been consistently some sort of caricature of communism, that there had been some room for criticism of the USSR, that they would not have overly identified with the fall of the Soviet Union and so would not have been unduly discouraged by its collapse.

            What I found was pretty disappointing. A lot of people acted like the PCI had never existed. I talked to people who I knew had been strong supporters of the PCI back in the day (according to their friends and family), and they assumed that I could not possibly be asking about their experience in good faith. They tended to assume I was making fun of them, and for all intents and purposes acted like they were embarrassed about their communist past.

            Nor could I find people interested in talking much about alternative economic systems. There were plenty of people eager to resist Berlusconi, but they were much more willing to make speeches on how he was historically unprecedented and violated all sorts of basic constitutional guarantees than to say much about radical alternatives. I would get frustrated and ask would-be left groups why they didn’t talk about fundamental questions, why the sorts of discussions that had happened when the PCI was around didn’t happen any more. I never got a straight answer besides, “Well, with the fall of the Berlin Wall, it all looked like an illusion.” I would point out why this wasn’t a sufficient argument. Shrug.

            I honestly do not know what the reason was for all of this avoidance behavior. As I said in my post, the only reason I can think of is that at least on some level, many PCI members still saw the USSR as a flagship of communism. That would explain why they were so morally discouraged afterwards. But I would have thought that a lot of PCI members should have been able to see through that trap. So maybe the explanation is wrong.

            But I don’t know another. I would be thrilled to hear one.

      2. Outis Philalithopoulos Post author

        Continuing from Rossanda:

        Nothing stayed the same. Not even for those who insisted on seeing the secret report [of Khrushchev] as a tissue of lies – for them, the USSR was in the hands of a clique of traitors, led by Khrushchev. Others fell back on the thesis that, sure, Stalin had been a tyrant but he had been great, because the revolution had been great and its internal and external enemies great as well. What was this supposed to mean, evil but great? That much should be forgiven to greatness? That pain and horror are inevitable [byproducts]? I couldn’t accept the esthetic of history. Then there were those like the French Communist Party who thought that, true or not, Khrushchev should have kept his mouth shut.

        And Hungary and Poland and Czechoslovakia? There the excuse of backwardness wasn’t applicable. The PCI stood fast within the trenches: yes, there had been mistakes, fault by communist governments, but the revolutions were themselves problematic, and [so] there was fault on their part, too. […] The PCI shifted about with a perpetual “It could have been worse” and “Let’s avoid pushing things to the brink.” […]

        Leaving [the PCI] would have meant turning one’s back not just on the USSR but on ourselves, and to resign ourselves to existing society. Or start over again, but very, very profoundly, abandoning this party, erase it, obliterate it – give the communists up as lost. But they weren’t all nothing but Stalinism. And in any case, what had the dissident groups from the 20s on managed to accomplish? At most to leave a witness. […]

        What the USSR had become gave me no peace, and I had difficulty finding a reasonable way to assess it. It had to be hard, even the tedious manual of the PCB didn’t deny it, far from it. But why so many enemies? With the sector of society hostile to the revolution, the struggle had been cruelly resolved during the civil war. But afterward? Why so many arrested and shot among their own people? The hatred that communism had accumulated terrified me. The model of power that had made it possible to succeed had turned out to be a mortal trap. But then in what sense was it a model? Political liberalism implies social slavery and social liberalism implies political slavery? […]

        It will soon be 50 years since that 1956 that forced me to look squarely at the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics – a name I had loved – and I still don’t find a full explanation. I refuse to give in to the oft-repeated idea that without the profit motive, there is no democracy. Our [democracy] is depressing. It is. But it doesn’t finish you off with two bullets to the brain in a cellar. […] If I talk about this, even with my closest friends, I lower my voice, I apologize, I become annoying. We in the PCI at least didn’t have bloody hands. Because we had not managed to take power? No, we were different. How different? And me, what was I like? I had not cracked down on anyone, I had always covered for people. At least I think so. You would have to ask those who worked with me, who had less power or rank than I did. I never humiliated anyone. Or did I? I had a lofty idea of what I did, therefore of myself, how to exclude that I had trampled others, without even noticing?

        I remember one minor episode. Anna Maria Ortese, a reserved woman, always dressed in black, her hair held tightly in a black fillet over her pretty face, spent her days in silence at the House of Culture because she didn’t have a real house of her own. In one of her first reports on the Soviet Union that a weekly magazine had asked her to write, she had spoken of immense poverty and loneliness, and it sounded like an unending accusation. It was Ortese, it was her empathy with the suffering of the wretched, but it exasperated me because I suspected it was true. I ripped into her: “Don’t you understand the toil, the isolation of that country? Why don’t you write also that everyone has a job, everyone can go to school, everyone has health care? And don’t you see that it’s under attack?” We saw each other every day, we had something of a relationship, she never asked anything of me – and I hurt her. The next day, she came to my house with a ridiculous bouquet of flowers and as I opened the door, I was unable to say a word. We hugged each other, crying. With tears in my eyes, I went to find some cognac to cheer her up, she was white as a sheet. We didn’t say hardly anything to one another, and we left there arm in arm. I haven’t forgotten that moment. If I had had the power to repress her articles, would I have done so? Maybe I would have. I don’t know. And what would I have done when faced with more serious choices?

        […] It does not comfort me that the Black Books have manipulated numbers, that with the archives open, the number of political trials comes out to less than five million, the number shot less than a million. “Only” five million?!

  9. Moneta

    One can’t look at these philosophies without accounting for the productive capacities of the land.

    Monarchs of the last couple of centuries were essentially trying to one-up each other and planning marriages according to needed and desired resources.

    One can imagine that the limits were not the same in France, England and Russia.

    French Monarchs were obviously in the best position resource speaking. France was one great piece of land. Russian monarchs probably had to squeeze its population way more than French royalty to maintain the same quality of life. It’s no surprise that the UK ended up colonizing. How could it compete on an overpopulated island?

    At the beginning of the early 1900s, Germany was hitting productive limits vs. the size of its population without the exploitative capacities of the UK or France propped up be their own colonies.

    Communism would be easier to implement in a closed economy…. hard to see this happening in countries that depend on imports or with colonies to exploit.

    Russia was in a good position to try it… enough resources to be autarkic and a population used to poor
    and harsh conditions where materialism would not be receding if trying it out.

    While I enjoy reading about economic and political philosophies, I find it annoying how most of the time these never account for the physical limitations that drive countries into specific directions.

    Most of humanity has always been blind to 3 things:
    – the planet’s physical limits
    – its own technological limitations in exploiting the planet’s bounty at each epoch
    – the problem of redistribution when a system hits a wall.

    And none of the philosophies seem to address all three.

    1. Susan the other

      agree. ‘ Spring cleaning’ is my favorite change metaphor. It’s more benign than ‘rat-killing’. But the point is always a practical one. We get rid of stuff that no longer works. That’s the first step. So why won’t vested interests and ideologues see the logic? Or more accurately, why are they so slow? If we do not change it is gonna go from farce to tragedy pretty fast this time.

    2. craazyman

      If I recall correctly your background you’re far too intelligent to believe that stuff!! C’mon now. Physical limits???? In Russia??? Russia is yyyuuuuge.

      Maybe this is an artifact of your MIT eduction in reductive materialism. :-)

      Newton and Leibniz were very very smart guys. Engineering is pretty cool! I would not argue with things like computers and TVs and Youtube. I couldn’t watch Adele and Bruce Springsteen on Youtube if it wasn’t for engineers. I’m just being honest. I won’t criticize engineers. But they are mostly boneheads. Hahahaha.

      I’m not sure reading all these political crackpots is useful either. There’s a point where things are obvious just by direct observation. I understand the impluse to expand one’s mind and it’s not at all obvious how to do that. The strangest thing of all though is that all this supposed erudition reduces itself to things that are completely obvious simply from solitary contemplation. Of course engineering is not that way at all.

  10. DJG

    First, I agree with Ulysses that lumping French and Italian intellectuals together with regard to acceptance of the Soviet Union as an emanation of leftist values is dubious. Look at the differences between the traditional French Communist Party, which was more or less Stalinist, and the Italian Communist Party, which was animated by Gramsci and Berlinguer, two highly skeptical Sardinians. And that’s for starters.

    I recommend reading Gramsci: I am currently reading his letters from prison. He had a very broad view of politics, events, and culture. As a newspaper editor, he also wrote tremendous numbers of articles, including theatrical criticism (and he was a pretty good theater critic), all worth reading.

    I note that Outis mentions Rossana Rossanda above, and I suspect that she has some skepticism about exercise of power, too.

    1. Outis Philalithopoulos Post author

      I agree with you that the French and Italian communist party experiences are extremely different. The purpose of this article was not to get too much into the details, but my subsequent post on this subject is all about the Italian situation, which is in my opinion fascinating.

      Your explanation of why the PCI was different from the PCF leaves me a little unconvinced. Gramsci probably played a role, more in terms of the pattern of wide-ranging critical thought seen in the Quaderni del carcere (which I agree are well worth reading) than in anything particularly groundbreaking he did as a leader before the fascists imprisoned him. Berlinguer was a very significant figure, but I think the fact of the the PCI being less hermetically closed than the PCF predates his leadership by a couple decades.

      On Rossanda’s skepticism about the exercise of power, yes, that’s right. I haven’t finished yet, but in the next part of the excerpt quoted in my reply to Ulysses she will express sentiments along those lines.

      1. Ulysses

        Thanks for the interesting passages from Rossanda. I do sincerely hope that you will find the time to also respond to the questions raised in my two comments currently under moderation.

        1. Outis Philalithopoulos Post author

          I will – I haven’t eaten anything all day, though, so thanks for being patient.

      2. DJG

        Outis: I eagerly await your next posting.

        Some cultural differences between Italy and France that may have affected how communism evolved:
        –France has strong centralizing tendencies. Until recently, Paris dominated thoroughly. Italy is indeed a federal republic, with strong decentralizing tendencies. As a friend from Piedmont said, Every village speaks its own form of the Piedmontese language. In France, the communist party seems to have wanted Stalinist centralization.
        –In France, the state created lay society (the secular state). In Italy, secular society, arguably, was created by the communists. (Although the Savoys (weirdly) and the Republic of Venice also created secular states, I suppose. But they did not dominate as thoroughly as the French Republic and its message of laicité does.)
        –Italian Catholicism is rather mystical and oddly unpuritanical. French Catholicism is much more rigid.
        –Because the arts in Italy tend to be somewhat more democratic, communist artists existed / exist. Pasolini. Nanni Moretti. It’s a long way from Jean-Paul Sartre to Nanni Moretti.

        1. Outis Philalithopoulos Post author

          These are all great points. Yes, it’s a long way from Sartre to Pasolini as well.

          On Italian versus French Catholicism, I hadn’t thought of this. But it also makes a great deal of sense in terms of the particular history of French Catholicism under the FR, with the clerical oath.

    2. Michael M

      I agree with this line of thought. What’s always bothered me by previous discussions of “communism” have been 1) the absence of the roots of communism, ( ie hunter gatherer societies, and the teachings of the Buddha and Christ), and 2) the cultural and tribal influences of each group attempting this quest.

      To the first point, it seems to me that various religious groups within the United States have attempted their version of communism with varying degrees of success, from 1800s farming communities to self proclaimed demagogues of the Jim Jones variety. I think the notion of the battle between humanistic traits of altruism vs narcissism are instrumental in understanding the roots of the success of each group.

      From my little understanding of China and Russia, both have historically had autocratic cultures for multiple reasons, so an autocratic form of top down society would be a natural progression from the then status quo.

      Regarding the “Horrors of Communism” I am reminded of the types of regimes that were overthrown in the cases of the China and Russia, and how the degree of external threat to the fledgling attempts may have influenced their courses. Interesting current examples include the continually externally besieged and totalitarian regime of North Korea, as opposed to the “Communist” regime of North Vietnam. I can only wonder what will result in the United States should our Lords and Masters decide to use all means necessary to quell a popular uprising, but then the current control of the media is proving quite successful.

      In any case from my perspective the more democratic and successful attempts at economic equality have been exemplified in smaller homogeneous tribal societies such various Nordic countries. My observation of history tells me that the larger the entity one tries to democratically control, the more likelihood of corruption by narcissistic players irrespective of the type of governmental system proposed.

  11. Mattman

    Q: Are the problems of historical communism explainable in terms of the opposition that communism experienced from reactionaries?

    No, but many of them ARE explained by the opposition–wars, bombings, sabotage, etc.–of international capitalism to almost every socialist experiment that has arisen, 1917-Venezuela. We’ll never know about what kind of success they would have experienced in a petri dish, but we do know that when you have to devote much of your economy to building arms to defend yourself–live on the defensive–that can distort your project, distort your vision, distort your economy, make you paranoid–hey–end up making you murderous and worse. And (no small thing) that improving the lot of the great mass of people can be very handy for capitalism once you have finished the heavy lifting.

    1. Outis Philalithopoulos Post author

      See Rossana Rossanda’s take on this argument below.

      I actually take Venezuela’s experience as supporting the point that there was historical contingency involved and therefore Stalinism was not simply historically necessary. Venezuela was geopolitically weaker than Russia and Chavez faced substantial opposition from very well-organized forces and foreign-supported forces. And still, it’s completely clear that whatever else you think of Chavez and his legacy, he did not institute the sort of repression that some people claim is inseparable with communism. He came very close to losing power in 2002 (if I remember correctly, the US had even already started to recognize the coup directors as legitimate), but he held on.

  12. edr

    “From the standpoint of living standards the Soviet Union … were improvements over Imperial Russia.”

    This is a point I can agree with in reference to Russia. Communism served as a way to quickly sever the serf system that had partially survived in Russia into the 20th century.

    However, the central planning aspect of communism is its great problem. It centralizes absolute power in a small group; the guy who said “absolute power corrupts absolutely” seems to have been absolutely correct. In Cuba, if you decided you wanted to sell sandwiches to your friends to make a little extra, that was prohibited and you would be been arrested and jailed – heard they’re starting to allow some of that recently. I’ve heard the Russian system wasn’t quite as extreme in those economic cases, don’t know, although it was worse in its repressive excesses. Even the Pharaohs of Egypt didn’t try to stop the bread makers and fisherman from making some extra income so their families could have socks – only Marx managed to develop a worse system. Also, communism didn’t work anywhere; the experiment failed everywhere.

    There is no difference between everybody working for the government and everybody working for Walmart/Amazon. .. the same dynamic is at work. Limiting government power and reach, and limiting Corporate power and reach is the only antidote to repression.

    1. skk

      There is no difference between everybody working for the government and everybody working for Walmart/Amazon. .. the same dynamic is at work.

      Well said.

    2. Moneta

      It all depends on how you define failure. We can easily say that capitalism is failing millions in the US and billions on this planet.

      Life is a cycle and maybe no system can last over the long term.

    3. A

      Except that you have a “voice” in the government (democracy); no such thing working for Walmart/Amazon.

  13. kj1313

    Thanks for this as someone who started out as a Dem Socialist but now am becoming more open to further left positions. I agree with some of the basic philosophies of the hard left even “tankies” but I hate when they gloss over atrocities committed.

  14. Scylla

    The way I see it, there is plenty of criticism of Stalin from the left. I think the idea that leftists refuse to criticize Stalin is a bit of a trope. However, I think it is correct to point to the lack of good information on Stalinist USSR. It is hard to logically critique something when you are drowning in propaganda and disinformation. All that being said, if the left has one flaw regarding Marxist theory and communism, it is that they often fail to apply Marxist theory TO communism (this is less of a problem among anarchists, of course).
    One of the big (maybe biggest) takeaways of Marx is that class war is eternal, and that class war exists in all systems, including communism. I have been reading Marx in fits and starts for 20 years, and although I have never read any specific statement on class war in communist type societies, I have no doubt that Marx would agree. Lenin/Stalin were simply the leaders of the elite class in the Soviet Union, and like other members of the elite class, they worked to increase or cement their power at the expense of the lower classes. Class war is eternal and universal.

    As far as the fall of the Soviet Union, my view is that there were many complex drivers, however the biggest one was the fundamental difference between the Soviet and American Empires. The Soviet core (Russia, basically) exploited its own resources and subsidized it’s subordinate nations (such as Eastern Europe and Cuba), which weakened the Soviet Empire over time economically. The US Empire (I include western Europe as part of the core here) did the opposite, exploiting the resources of the subordinate nations on it’s periphery (think Africa and South America), subsidizing and enriching itself. Of course this isn’t absolute, since the US had some anomalies such as the Marshal Plan, and the Soviets did have some populations they exploited such as those in the “stan” republics, but I think it explains a lot.

  15. AC

    Just a few quick points on some of the issues raised by the article.

    All economies are planned, just depends on WHO they are designed to benefit. In the US, the DOD and associated entities are the clearest example of government directing economic resources to certain ends. Those ends happen to be the lining the pockets of well connected grifters, but its still a “planned economy”.

    The thing that always struck me about people who believe(d) in Communism is that it’s just another form of religion. The idea of History as having end its working towards is Christian or Jewish millenarianism recast in terms of political economy. The historical determinism of Marxism is totally laughable in the face of the randomness and capriciousness of human existence.

    Stalinism and Maoism replaced one set of elites with another, neither of which cared one bit about the impact their grand schemes had on the people they ruled. But at the same time the millions they murdered says more about the dangers of unquestioned top down control in any system rather than the faults of one -ism over another.

    1. Moneta

      The capitalist system has killed millions. It’s just harder to pin the mass murder on one person. The dirty jobs just get passed on along the global trade chain.

      One could easily argue that many countries have been forced into bad implementations of communism because of the stronghold of existing capitalist empires on resources.

      If the capitalist developed countries had been less exploitative, perhaps a gentler form of communism could have emerged.

      It all starts with the distribution of resources.

  16. skk


    I find the stuff Marx did in the “understand the world” dept – specifically the “labour theory of value” immensely valuable and is, like Newton’s work, outside of history. The equation for profit i.e. s/(s+v) all functions of time, and that it tends to zero as time tends to infinity is for the ages. And since profit is the prime motive for production in capitalism, then …

    His stuff on (the point is) “to change the world” ? – i.e. class struggle – is definitely best understood as history, as in history of ideologies, best to be understood as something coming from a man of his times – one can distill stuff from it to apply it to our own time but only like, say, Julius Caesar’s use of chance – “the die is cast” come “Lights, Camera, Action” time.

    Why did that part or not so much the “labour theory of value” part catch the imagination of the rebellious of my gen of the 60s, 70s ? That too reflects that we were partly creatures of our times.

    Great to see you explore this stuff. Thanks.

  17. PKMKII

    If there’s going to be an honest critique of “historical communism,” then first we need to be honest in identifying what it is we’re talking about, which in this case is really Marxist-Leninism (Stalinism just being the same but with more gulag). There’s two ways of looking at M-L’s record, which is, what was it’s real world impact, pro and con? And, did it achieve what it set out to do? On the former, there’s many well-worn arguments trotted out: rapid industrialization, extreme poverty prevention, but also the atrocities, limited civil rights, etc.The typical leftist apologia seems to hinge on pointing out the blood on the hands of capitalism, which is both valid and not. Yes, it’s important to criticize the right on its tendency to either outright deny the death caused by capitalism or to ideological explain it away as the fault of something else, and to make people aware that death by capitalism usually comes in more subtle forms, but that doesn’t magically make what Stalin, Mao, etc. did okay.

    However, more important on the practical level is that the trend for the M-L has been in the long haul to shift towards market economies. The USSR was making motions towards this right before the sudden liberalization of their economy. China has shifted from state capitalism to state-managed capitalism, Vietnam has allowed for more market-based co-ops and small business, Cuba has set up limited markets. So M-L works for the rapid expansion period, but once that singular drive and goal gives way, the central planning needs to acquiesce to market economies.

    What really should give the left the cause to abandon M-L to the historical dustbin, is on the second question. M-L gets us war communism and state capitalism, but it has failed in all cases to transition to the final stage of true communism. Give a small group of politicos absolute control over the economy while still collecting that capitalist cut off the top, of course they’re not going to hand that over to the workers. It doesn’t achieve its goal of workers controlling the means of production, so if the left wants that, then they need to follow the lead of the Kurds and look elsewhere.

    1. Oregoncharles

      Having learned some Russian history, I think the Bolsheviks were much more Russian than they were Marxist, despite all their rhetoric.

      And I think the same of the Chinese Communists: far more Chinese than Communist, as is now very clear.

      The tell, in both cases, is that they insisted on precisely the boundaries of the empire they overthrew – plus some, in the Chinese case.

  18. barefoot charley

    A thoughtful friend in the 70s called Marx “a historian of the future.” He created a vision, a ramp, a consolidation of dreams and efforts that converged possibilities toward realities. Like most Enlightenment/Romantic religious movements, this vision was cast as science, not faith (as, to be fair, was the book of Genesis). His aim was for something more than sociology or political science, and I think he should be both defended and criticized on those broader grounds. The ultimate question isn’t whether he was right or wrong, but whether and how he moved human possibilities forward.

  19. makedoanmend

    Leaving aside the rich and varied strands of socialism that have occurred and been acted upon (cooperatives, syndicalism, democratic socialism, or even the thoughts of Veblen) that don’t involve Marx or communism, I have more than a quibble with the entire methodology employed.

    It is acknowledged that the history and uniqueness of communism, let alone socialism, are not easily compressed into small tales to be stored and later related to explain very complex historical processes.

    So a neat Alexandrian solution is found to cut through the numerous Gordian knots of distinct historical events and the specific people who acted upon circumstance and reacted to historical circumstance.

    We are provided with “the sword” of our supposed common knowledge of human nature to explore and answer the various strands of socialist thought and action. Hell, we can ask simple questions and come up with a monosyllabic answer.


    1. Do we really know that much about “human nature” and especially about how human nature reacts during specific historical events of which we most of us do not have experience?

    2. Is human nature always the same throughout history? How much do material circumstances of any given historical period “colour” our perception of human nature? Or is our view of human nature dictated by our material circumstances, including the political and social spheres which often cloud our view given an ongoing process of unique historical circumstances?

    3. Can an approach which relies solely upon insights of human nature explain complex phenomena just because humans where involved in the phenomena? Does the conjecture of human nature provide a omniscient viewpoint?

    I would suggest that socialism, like capitalism, isn’t quite so easy to pigeon hole via an all encompassing theory of human nature.

    I really don’t have any quibbles with the article itself or of the conclusions drawn by the author. As I am not a communist , I really don’t have fish to fry. Since I am nothing more more than a student of politics, I can both appreciate and critique Marx in equal measure.

    I don’t see socialism as an alternative to capitalism but as a manner in which I wish to strive for in my life. It’s just that capitalism, especially as it is currently practised, has been planned and is being planned in such a manner that seems to ensure that the individuals and groups of individuals are being limited in the scope of their responses to life’s circumstances.

    Just because capitalism doesn’t mostly involve central planning, as in the Soviet Unions, doesn’t mean the economy/society isn’t being planned with consequences that have impacts centrally upon all our lives.

    And I suspect the plans aren’t being planned in my interests or in the interests of most of humanity, and certainly not in the interest of many creatures and flora of which we share this plant.

    Unlike Marx, I can’t buy the dialectic of historical determinism, nor am I willing to be curtailed by an other imperative determinisms – such as human nature must follow upon predetermined train tracks leading in one inexorable direction.

    And as always with NC, thanks for bringing these subjects into a public domain. Upon such stuff might common grounds be found.

    1. PKMKII

      There’s also the issue of whether or not “Human Nature” should be considered a singular or a plural. It’s neat and convenient to think of humans as all sharing one set of underlying “code,” with the differences merely being ornamentation thrown on by circumstance, but there’s been a change of thinking in psychology that we really have multiple natures within the species (e.g., we are not a monolithically monogamous nor a polygamous species, but rather contain both monogamous and polygamous individual). So some people’s nature is in line with capitalism, others within socialism, others with fascism, etc. Which would explain why some Russians adapted easily to neoliberal capitalism and others descended into alcoholism.

      1. makedoanmend


        I hadn’t even considered this idea at all. And as a general explanation of the nature of “human nature”, it’s well worth exploring. Might explain much about our species.

        Ta again

      2. Alejandro

        I may be mis-reading but this seems like pseudo-science with a taxonomy obsession…with slovenly implied spillovers into id-politics as pigeonhole fetish…no need to engage, just label and tuck away. ” [N]eat and convenient” for the pigeonholer, but much less so for the pigeonho[led], who consequently AND inconsequentially can be easily ignored, and eventually extinguished with alcohol {either-or} opioids.

        1. makedoanmend

          With all do respect, I think you are misreading. The overall theme, if you like, is that there should not be a fetish for a particular mode or methodology for exploring ideas, nor that an idea or its subsequent action(s) can be viewed in isolation to reveal why people acted upon the idea.

          I explicitly stated I didn’t think that using a human behaviour model (while a valuable and necessary tool of investigation) could currently reliably explain complex historical events because simple single models or such type of queries end up being too deterministic; or they do not have the nuance to capture very dynamic events and behaviours. In fact, I question very strongly how a human behaviour model might be used given that we do not really understand how such a model works at such evaluative levels nor how human behaviour itself may change over time. (Note, I do not have to think that human nature is becoming better, just that it can change in individual and groups over time.)

          PKMKII, further, points out that the dynamics of human behaviour are probably even more complicated than I understand or expressed in my original comment. Given the new explorations taking place in such topics as epigenetics and horizontal gene transfer in evolutionary theory, such insights might prove a fertile ground in allowing us to further examine human behavioural phenomena.

          I hope this clarifies my original post and my comment afterwards.

          The entire conversation surrounding how we can know our world and how bound (or how deterministic) we are by physical/material is very interesting one. It does stir our emotions.

          [skippy’ish hmmm…to emote or not to emote, that is the question. whether it is in our stars or nowhere but everywhere. not a fraction nor the whole but more than the whole but fleeting. how biological.]

          1. Alejandro

            Thanks for the feedback, but I was responding to PKMKII, specifically to this–>” Which would explain why some Russians adapted easily to neoliberal capitalism and others descended into alcoholism.”

            “Maps are not the territory”, and their relative usefulness depends on current and accurate information. In the context of navigating the underlying class dynamics, I reject any pseudo-science that purports to bestow scientific legitimacy to what can be discerned as class dogma.

            1. makedoanmend

              Fair enough. Not sure I really understand fully, but that’s my lookout. Cheers

      3. Oregoncharles

        Human genetic diversity is remarkably narrow, especially outside of Africa. New species.

        HOWEVER: the essence of human nature is adaptability. It’s one reason we’re born so undeveloped: much of our brain development happens under the influence of our culture.

        At the same time, many people (not all) can move from one culture to another and eventually settle in – not easily, but successfully.

        Our nature is not so much multiple as fluid and responsive to our setting.

        There’s an interesting story in “The Mountain People” by Colin Turnbull. The Ik were hunter-gatherers who had been driven from their territory when it was made into a national park (evil and idiotic on so many levels). Trying to live under constrained conditions and learn agriculture, they were phenomenally nasty to each other (it’s an extremely sad book). But Turnbull accompanied them on a hunting trip; suddenly, they were the gentle, gracious, happy people he expected from his work with the pygmies – the “Forest People.” When they came back…well, as I said, it’s a very sad book.

        There’s your dual nature – but really, it’s just fluid and, above all, adaptable, to a point which the Ik had passed.

        1. makedoanmend

          A very interesting comment which gives much food for thought. Thanks.

          Isn’t it interesting that we think humans, especially humans who have somewhat harmoniously evolved as part of an particular ecosystem, are thought to be alien to that system and need to be excluded. Whilst agriculture, by is very operative nature, seeks to exclude the majority of fauna and flora, the human were integral to the “national park”. They added to the ecosystem whereas their enforced farming activities necessarily excluded or negated factors of the ecosystem. (Not bad mouthing farming, btw, just stating it operative features.)

          Many of us certainly think we’re alien to the “natural” world – and that type of thinking cuts across all political, social and cultural divides imo.

          I suppose it is the nexus between seemingly simple physical dynamics that can have profound complex results versus the immediate adaptability abilities of some humans to changing material circumstances that we may need explore more fully. (Imo, science is only one method of exploring such complex interactive phenomena.)

          again Ta

  20. Tony Wikrent

    Michael Hudson has pointed out that Marxism and the classical economics of Smith/Malthus/Ricardo are but two of three schools of political economy which developed in the 18th through 19th centuries. There was a third school which congealed as first USA Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton explicitly rejected Smith and went about the task of building a new republic. It became called the American System or American School after a speech by Henry Clay in February 1832.

    Leave ideology aside and ask a plainly pragmatic and utilitarian question: which of the three schools of political economy–British, Marxist, or American–was most successful in creating a functioning national economy with a large degree of general prosperity and political freedom?

    The clear answer is the American School. The major proponents of the American School were Henry C. Carey (who advised Abraham Lincoln, so get transcontinental railroads and telegraph and the USDA at the same time the Union is fighting the Confederacy), Friedrich List (who leads the unification of Germany), and E. Peshine Smith (whose ideas guide the industrialization of Japan). Why do we never hear of these economists and their American School of political economy?

    In December 1993, James Fallows rattled the economics profession with an article in The Atlantic, How the World Works:

    The more I had heard about List in the preceding five years, from economists in Seoul and Osaka and Tokyo, the more I had wondered why I had virtually never heard of him while studying economics in England and the United States.

    Fallows goes on to describe the historical importance, not of British opium-trade apologist Adam Smith, but of the American School, in guiding the early industrial development of Tokugawa Japan, late imperial China, czarist Russia, Germany, South Korea, and other countries.

    In a nutshell, the American School is the only body of economic thought which has actually resulted in national industrial development along with a large degree of general prosperity and political freedom. A partial exception is Marx, but, as Lawrence Goodwyn, the late historian of the American agrarian revolt and populist movement of the late 1800s, pointed out, no system of Marxism has been implemented without the coercive power of a red army behind it.

    Here is a quote from the Dominican priest who served as chaplain to the French Resistance during World War Two:

    What Carey could not forgive in the English school of political economy, which after all must historically be called the capitalist school, and what he particularly could not forgive in Ricardo and Malthus, whom Marx so profoundly respected, was that they assigned to civilization the role of pursuing not happiness but wealth and power; that they debased man by directing him toward an aim that was beneath him, since power and physical satisfaction are also the aim of the beast; that they forgot to take man and man’s nature into consideration when they established their so-called laws which reduced him to the level of the beast.

    The link above includes two excerpts from Carey himself that I think very concisely condemns the market fundamentalism of modern economic neoliberalism and conservatism:

    Such is the course of modern political economy, which not only does not “feel the breath of the spirit” but even ignores the existence of the spirit itself, and is therefore found defining what it is pleased to call the natural rate of wages, as being “that price which is necessary to enable the laborers, one with another, to subsist and perpetuate their race without either increase or diminution” (Ricardo)—that is to say, such price as will enable some to grow rich and increase their race, while others perish of hunger, thirst, and exposure. Such are the teachings of a system that has fairly earned the title of the “dismal science.”


    Such being the tendency of all its teachings, it is no matter of surprise that modern English political economy sees in man only an animal that will procreate, that must be fed, and that can be made to work [Carey’s emphasis]—an instrument to be used by trade; that it repudiates all the distinctive qualities of man, and limits itself to the consideration of those he holds in common with the beast of burden or of prey; that it denies that the Creator meant that every man should find a place at His table, or that there exists any reason why a poor laborer, able and willing to work, should have any more right to be fed than the cotton-spinner has to find a market for his cloth; or that it assures its students that “labor is a commodity.”

    Why do we never hear of Carey and the American School? Why does it appear the only left alternative to laissez faire capitalism is Marx? The answer is: Carey and the American School have been written out of economic history, Here are the results of of some time spent in the stacks of the library at the University of North Carolina looking through the indexes of introductory economics textbooks. These are the number of pages on which there citations (for example, a citation in the index of pp. 145-147, is counted as three pages, not one) of Henry Carey, Alexander Hamilton, Friedrich List, Thorstein Veblen (American School); Milton Friedman, David Ricardo, Adam Smith (British school), and Karl Marx.

    Joan Robinson and John Eatwell, An Introduction to Modern Economics (McGraw Hill, 1973)
    Carey 0
    Hamilton 0
    Veblen 3
    List 1
    Friedman 1
    Ricardo 18
    Smith 20
    Marx 28

    Lloyd C. Atkinson, Economics: The Science of Choice (Richard D. Irwin, 1982)
    Carey 0
    Hamilton 0
    Veblen 0
    List 0
    Friedman 4
    Ricardo 0
    Smith 3
    Marx 0

    Allen W. Smith, Understanding Economics (Random House, 1986)
    Carey 0
    Hamilton 0
    Veblen 0
    List 0
    Friedman 1
    Ricardo 0
    Smith 4
    Marx 3

    Roger N. Waud, Economics, 3rd Edition (Harper and Row, 1986)
    Carey 0
    Hamilton 0
    Veblen 0
    List 0
    Friedman 9
    Ricardo 6
    Smith 5
    Marx 7

    Bradley R. Schiller, The Economy Today, 4th Edition (Random House, 1989)
    Carey 0
    Hamilton 0
    Veblen 0
    List 0
    Friedman 6
    Ricardo 3
    Smith 3
    Marx 6

    William J. Baumol and Alan S. Blinder, Economics: Principles and Policy, 5th Edition (Harcourt Brace Jovanovitch, 1991)
    Carey 0
    Hamilton 0
    Veblen 0
    List 0
    Friedman 5
    Ricardo 5
    Smith 13
    Marx 7

    Paul A. Samuelson and William D. Nordhaus, Economics (McGraw Hill, 1995)
    Carey 0
    Hamilton 4
    Veblen 0
    List 0
    Friedman 5
    Ricardo 2
    Smith 8
    Marx 2 (plus 2 on “Marxism”)

    Robert J. Barro, Macroeconomics (MIT Press, 1997)
    Carey 0
    Hamilton 0
    List 0
    Veblen 0
    Friedman 9
    Ricardo 0
    Smith 0
    Marx 0

    Julian L. Simon, Economics Against the Grain, Volume 2 (Edward Elgar, 1998)
    Carey 0
    Hamilton 1
    Veblen 0
    List 0
    Friedman 5
    Ricardo 3
    Smith 11
    Marx 1

    Frank Stilwell, Political Economy: The Contest of Economic Ideas (Oxford University Press, 2006)
    Carey 0
    Hamilton 0
    Veblen 11
    List 1
    Friedman 9
    Ricardo 12
    Smith 16
    Marx 19

    N. Gregory Mankiw, Principles of Economics, Instructor’s Edition, Sixth Edition (Southwestern, 2012)
    Carey 0
    Hamilton 0
    Veblen 0
    List 0
    Friedman 9
    Ricardo 1
    Smith 9
    Marx 0

    1. PKMKII

      In a nutshell, the American School is the only body of economic thought which has actually resulted in national industrial development along with a large degree of general prosperity and political freedom.

      If we’re talking about the economics of America as set up in the late 18th and 19th centuries, wouldn’t we be talking about economics that include and assume the existence of slavery, and later Jim Crow laws? That doesn’t strike me as being politically free.

      1. Tony Wikrent

        You raise a very important question; important, because it forces us to deal with the fact that human history is quite messy. When a nation of 50 million people acts, does it act in accord with the wishes and intent of all 50 people? Of course not. Look at the American Civil War, and the men who fought on the Union side. Where they all of like mind in willing to risk their limbs and lives in way because they all shared a desire and intent to destroy slavery? No. Most actually fought to preserve the Union, though there were many who fought motivated by abolitionism. Many more served because of social pressure in their towns or locales, or simply because the accompanied family members or neighborhood fronts into the army.

        It is easy to be confused by American history, because at the same time that the American System was being built and practiced, the British system was competing with it for control of the domestic economy and polity. To the extent that people today mistakenly believe that the American economy was founded on the ideas of Adam Smith (it most emphatically was not: Hamilton explicitly rejected the ideas of Smith) the British system is winning. Michael Hudson has written at least two excellent overviews of this fight within the USA between the American and British systems:

        Hudson, America’s Protectionist Takeoff 1815-1914: The Neglected American School of Political Economy, ISLET, 2010, which I quote extensively in HAWB 1791 – Alexander Hamilton rejected Adam Smith. Also by Hudson: Simon Patten on Public Infrastructure and Economic Rent Capture. Another very useful book which examines the contest between the American and British schools is James L. Huston, Securing the Fruits of Labor: The American Concept of Wealth Distribution, 1765-1900, Louisiana State University Press, 1998.

        A similar contest rages in USA today (and around most of the world, for that matter). There are proponents of conservatism, mostly classical British laissez faire economics. There are proponents of libertarianism, the even more extreme Austrian school of economics (and there is a recent book out, which I have not acquired yet, Nancy MacLean’s new book, Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America, on James Buchanan and “public choice theory). There are proponents of neoliberalism (it is interesting to peruse this, Everyone Hates Neoliberals, So We Talked to Some, and note the astonishing lack of historical knowledge, and the complete absence of any notion of republicanism or Enlightenment political ideals). There are proponents of Marxism. Most readers of NC will probably agree that conservatism and neoliberalism are practically indistinguishable in the realm of economic policies, and have been the dominant school in our lifetimes. Conservatives and libertarians argue vehemently that the dominant school has been liberalism and Keynesianism, which they disparage as “statism.” There are proponents of other economic schools as well, probably some I do not know, and perhaps even some that don’t even have names yet. Out of this stew of contending interests and beliefs, how do you pick out one coherent set of ideas and attribute to it the policy direction of USA for the past half century?

        In answer to your question: The simplified version of USA economic history at the period you point to is that the British system was dominant in the slave South, and fought for free trade in opposition to the American System’s protective tariffs, which dominated the North.

      2. Tony Wikrent

        Just so happens that this morning I am reading Bennett’s History of the Steam Navy of the United States, in preparation for writing a small book on Admiral Benjamin Franklin Isherwood, who placed steam engineering on a scientific footing. Isherwood certainly did not create the science of thermodyanamics, but he succeeded in imposing it on steam engineering in the mid-1800s, making marine steam power far more efficient and safe. Isherwood also oversaw the building of the steam vessels for the Union Navy during the Civil War (from around 60 steamers to over 600), designing a steam powerplant which became standard. After the war, Isherwood designed a mechanical engineering curriculum for the Naval Academy, which was copied by universities around the world.

        But, to the point regarding conflicting schools of political economy. Introducing the first chapter on the Navy and steam in the Civil War, Bennett quotes Benson John Lossing’s A History of the Civil War 1861-65 and the Causes That Led Up to the Great Conflict, (New York: The War Memorial Association, 1912, on the cause of the Civil War:

        There is a general agreement, however, that the terrible war was clearly the fruit of a conspiracy against the nationality of the republic, and an attempt, in defiance of the laws of divine equity, to establish an empire upon a basis of injustice and a denial of the dearest rights of man It was the rebellion of an oligarchy against the people, with whom the sovereign power is rightfully lodged.

        Bennett wrote that he actually found the excerpt from Lossing in History of the United States Marine Corps, by Richard S. Collum, (Philadelphia, L.R. Hamersly & Co., 1890).

        I point to this because I think the meme first written by Lossing, and echoed by at least two subsequent authors, shows that public knowledge and awareness of the issue of republicanism was much different at the time than it is now. To repeat: The simplified version of USA economic history in the 19th century is that the British system was dominant in the slave South, and fought for free trade in opposition to the American System’s protective tariffs, which dominated the North. And, of course, another part of the conflicting political economies was slave labor versus free labor.

        And yes, I have seen the counterargument that workers in the North toiled under system of “slave wages.” Two observations:1) “slave wages” were simply not as debasing and dehumanizing as outright slavery; for example workers were not subject to mutilations and murder including lynchings the way slaves were; 2) I have yet to so a proponent of the argument of “slave wages” admit that the idea was first used by the slave holders and their allies in their attempts to justify and excuse slavery.

    2. Katsue

      If William Hogeland’s analysis in The Whiskey Rebellion is correct, one of Alexander Hamilton’s major policy innovations was a deliberate exercise in rigging the economy in favour of the 1% of his day.

      In his reading, Hamilton pushed for the Federal Government to assume the debts of the States in order to guarantee that bondholding speculators got paid, and to allow for the creation of a Federal tax system. The tax in question, the whiskey excise, was deliberately set up in order to drive small producers out of business and to bring the whiskey market under the control of large producers in the cities. The whole thing was a massive transfer of wealth from western farmers to Wall Street.

      1. Tony Wikrent

        I disagree with Hogeland completely and vehemently. He appears to have made no attempt whatsoever to understand republicanism and its place in the Enlightenment, and his understanding of political economy and matters of national and international finance are laughably facile.

        Hogeland also completely ignores the crucial contribution Hamilton made in developing the constitutional theory of implied powers. As Supreme Court Justices John Marshall and Joseph Story noted, the opposing theory of enumerated powers — which conservatives and libertarians are promoting today — would cripple the national government.

        What Hamilton actually accomplished financially, was to free the infant United States from a complete dependence on borrowing from European oligarchs, by creating a domestic system open to the much smaller fortunes of American bankers and merchants. It boggles my mind that anyone can not see or ignores this obvious historical fact.

        I cannot account for the malice Hogeland and others on the left, such as Matt Stoller, bear toward Hamilton; though it is obvious to me why certain concentrations of economic wealth revile Hamilton: they have become increasingly powerful as the USA abandoned Hamiltonian political economy (such as a protective tariff) and deindustrialized and financialized. Destroy Hamitonian political economy, and the USA is destroyed from within by increasingly concentrated economic power. The left is shooting itself in the head by failing to understand Hamilton.

      2. Tony Wikrent

        In regards to the Whiskey Tax: I think it cannot be truly understood without the historical context of the idea of that time of a sumptuary tax. Classical republican ideology has always held that luxury was the vanguard of rot and corruption in a state. In fact, during the Constitutional Convention, it was argued that one reason a new, stronger national government was needed was so that sumptuary taxes could be imposed over the opposition of individual states.

        The general view, discernible in contemporaneous literature, was that the responsibility of government should involve enough surveillance over the enterprise system to ensure the social usefulness of all economic activity. It is quite proper, said Bordley, for individuals to “choose for themselves” how they will apply their labor and their intelligence in production. But it does not follow from this that “legislators and men of influence” are freed from all responsibility for giving direction to the course of national economic development. They must, for instance, discountenance the production of unnecessary commodities of luxury when common sense indicates the need for food and other essentials. Lawmakers can fulfill their functions properly only when they “become benefactors to the publick”; in new countries they must safeguard agriculture and commerce, encourage immigration, and promote manufactures. Admittedly, liberty “is one of the most important blessings which men possess,” but the idea that liberty is synonymous with complete freedom from restraint “is a most unwise, mistaken apprehension.” True liberty demands a system of legislation that will lead all members of society “to unite their exertions” for the public welfare. It should therefore be the policy of government to aid and foster certain activities or kinds of business that strengthen a nation, even as it should be the duty of government to repress “those fashions, habits, and practices, which tend to weaken, impoverish, and corrupt the people.” –Johnson, E.A.J., The Foundations of American Economic Freedom: Government and Enterprise in the Age of Washington (University of Minnesota Press, 1973), J194-195

    3. Oregoncharles

      Aside from Hamilton, Veblen is the only member of the American School I’ve heard of – and I took economics in college and have followed it ever since. Amazing.

    4. edr

      HI Tony, Thank you so much for this link, excellent !!! : :

      “[Friedrich] List argued, a society’s well-being and its overall wealth are determined not by what the society can buy but by what it can make.”

      “In strategic terms nations ended up being dependent or independent according to their ability to make things for themselves. Why were Latin Americans, Africans, and Asians subservient to England and France in the nineteenth century? Because they could not make the machines and weapons Europeans could.”

      In the 1500s Spain became the richest nation in Europe because it had accumulated the gold wealth of the America’s. By the next century it had become among the poorest nations of Europe. Spain had so much gold it could afford to simply buy anything it wanted, until the gold ran out, while the Germans developed craft industries to supply Spain with products and became wealthy and powerful….. the Arab nations are in this situation today, so resource rich that they haven’t focused on developing industry, so that when oil runs they’ll be impoverished.

      1. edr


        so rich that there aren’t any INCENTIVES to invest time and effort in creating the necessary industries.

    5. Sue

      Your data does not mean a thing. Data, to be meaningful as to the reality one is trying to show, must be preceded by a true knowledgable understanding of such reality. I conducted with two other colleagues a study about 15 years ago. This study was never published as we ran out of funds and we could not complete it. Nevertheless, the evidence from most colleges was overwhelming. Marx was not read. Marx was not fairly taught. This is the way it works, in case you are not aware. That a textbook includes chapters on Marxism and socialism does not imply that they are given attention too. In a large percentage of cases, if they are included in the syllabus by the teacher or department-I am saying teacher because in some colleges the professor ends up in practice applying his own particular syllabus-they are relegated to the end of the semester, with the tacit rule, “we will get too it, if we have time”. It goes without saying that very rarely “we end up having time for it”. Also, our team collected recordings from actual college economics and sociology classes. I vividly remember a professor who used for his Sociology 101 class James Henslin’s textbook. Henslin suggested the students to learn three sociological views, functionalism, (interaction) symbolism and marxism. The first day of class the professor put it very clearly in his own words how Marx’s dismissal was in order: “We are not going to use the Marxist approach. Marx was a workers’ liberator who had never worked in a plant”. It was not uncommon, in practice, to obliterate Marx, despite textbooks, syllabus or otherwise. Direct readings for the economics 100s and 200s classes systematically excluded Marx works, with Smith’s The Wealth of Nations as #1 reading.

      1. Outis Philalithopoulos Post author

        Your reply involves some interesting information, but it is unnecessarily vehement and it in fact misreads pretty seriously what Tony Wikrent said.

        Wikrent claims that the American School of economics is not taught in universities, and so that if you are looking for an alternative to laissez-faire, you tend to assume the only one is Marxism. All of his data is aimed, not at showing that Marxism is taught, but that Carey and the American School are not.

        From my experience as well, economics professors don’t teach Marx. But that doesn’t invalidate Wikrent’s point. Even if students never hear about Marx from their economics professor, they will still have heard of Marx as a radical economist because his existence as such is generally known in mainstream culture. Whereas, Wikrent is saying, they will not have heard of Carey and the American School in other venues, so if they don’t hear about them in economics departments, it will be like they never existed.

        1. Sue

          True. But I could mention several important political economy schools which are ignore across the board. This is what happens when orthodoxy pervades institutions. Now, specific to the comment, when one lays data out and makes it a reflection of practice, the least one and others can do is to point out that it is only a valid partial representation of that practice (here just valid for Wikrent’s particular aims) and that the full data does not reflect the entire practice -and indeed provides an illusion of it.

          1. Outis Philalithopoulos Post author

            Yes, but please try to apply more interpretive charity. You could have made the same point by just saying, “One thing I’d like to add,” and it wouldn’t have come off as a personal attack.

  21. justanotherprogressive

    Are we again looking for “the theory of everything”? You know, that one “ism” or theory or form of government that will explain everything and make everything right?

    Bad news. It doesn’t exist.

    No “ism” or form of government will solve and explain everything. No “ism” or form of government is completely wrong and no “ism” or form of government is completely right and never has been.

    I’m a student of history and I love reading how ideas got started and how civilizations fail – and I’ve found the two are very related…….

    For those who wish to call the collapse of Russia a failure of communism, I ask when was the theory of communism practiced in Russia? Certainly what Lenin and Stalin created had nothing in common with the “commune” systems (from whence Communism gets its name) the peasants put in place to protect themselves.

    And Capitalism? Even Adam Smith (of whom I am no great fan) understood that Capitalism (he didn’t call it that but he did lay the basis for that system) understood that all members of the system had to have the same knowledge and act morally to be able to work best in their self interest. Does what Adam Smith proposed even resemble the Capitalism we have today?

    I’ll ignore Marx since it is such a touchy subject today, but I will ask: When were the theories of Marx ever really put into practice within the boundaries Marx set up? Do Marxists actually understand what those boundaries are?

    And Democracy? Shall we again excoriate Athens for their failures in attempting to practice the theory?

    Even something as reviled as feudalism had its roots in something good. Certainly, at the time, the peasants preferred it to being the victims of the Vikings and every other attacker that came along. But those who gained power from it couldn’t give it up, even when it was no longer useful for protection….

    The problem isn’t the “isms” or even the forms of government- each “ism” and type of government has its value in a particular setting – but that does not mean it applies to every setting. “Isms” , like all theories, have boundaries within which they work – and “isms”, like theories, will fail when applied to areas outside those specific boundaries. For a quick example, Democracy works when you have an educated and involved populace who understands that in order for their form of government to survive, power must never be completely centralized – it fails when the people do not understand or recognize that boundary.

    It would be much better for us all if humans if they had the ability to recognize the boundaries of their “ism” and the ability to switch to a different theory when the times demanded – but they don’t. Sadly I see throughout history that there have always be those people who rise to power during an “ism” and can’t let go of it, even when it doesn’t work (when the “ism” or theory is used outside its specific boundaries), because of their fear of losing control. And then the societal destruction begins ……but that isn’t the fault of the “ism” – or the form of government……

    Perhaps instead of just deriding those theories that aren’t currently popular, we really should be asking ourselves: What are the boundaries of each “ism” and when will that “ism” work and when will it not, and how do we learn to switch between them as necessity dictates?

    1. justanotherprogressive

      Err….my last sentence should have read: “What are the boundaries of each “ism” and when will that “ism” work and when will it not, and how do we learn to switch peacefully between them as necessity dictates?”

  22. hemeantwell

    While I respect the author for raising this topic, he seems to fall into “assessment of the Soviet Experiment” mode in a careless way. I realize I tend to repetition about this, but it is terribly misleading — perhaps “disorienting” would be a better term — to discuss theses questions without any reference to the tremendous impact external pressures — call it “intersystemic conflict,” “international conflict,” whatever — had on the course of the Soviet Union’s development. While it could be argued that capitalist economies also faced external pressures, that would miss the question of how such pressures impact on a society in the process of formation. We’re talking about questions of constrained path dependence of a fundamental order that the experimentalist mode of thinking misses. Etc, etc.

    Then, as far as the “collapse of the Soviet Union” goes, there’s no mention about the choice by significant sections of the Soviet elite to engage in looting instead of developing a transitional program that would protect viable sections of the Soviet economy under market socialism. What from the standpoint of the Times editorial board looks like a necessary start-over was in fact a sloppily-carried decision, or merely an unintended outcome, of a section of the elite seizing an opportunity to enrich themselves.

    While it is essential to try to determine the viability of alternative economic systems in comparison what we’ve got now, doing so without taking into account the tremendously destructive opposition a transition would face is, in a way, to blithely continue on in a “Soviet Experiment” mentality. It’s obvious that people can enjoyably engage in cooperative behavior, but if they can do so under a barrage is another matter. The one thing that we can be certain of is that if capitalist elites aren’t thoroughly demoralized they will do whatever they can to ‘prove’ TINA.

    1. Outis Philalithopoulos Post author

      I was a little confused by this comment. I’m not opposed to looking at the impact of external pressures, but I am opposed to treating them as monocausal.

      Your preferred pattern of historical explanation shifts during the course of your comment. When discussing the USSR in the process of formation, you concentrate on bringing out external pressures and therefore considering the choices of the leadership as highly constrained. When discussing the collapse of the Soviet Union, you instead stress the choices of the leadership elite to “seize an opportunity to enrich themselves.”

      I’m not even sure why you would assume that your thesis about the elite choosing to engage in looting is opposed to anything that I’m saying.

      I agree with you on is that it is possible to think both about what a self-sustaining better society might look like, and also the extent to which it’s hard to get there within the constraints of current power structures. They are not the same question, and I think both are worth pondering.

    2. likbez


      Very good points:

      “Then, as far as the “collapse of the Soviet Union” goes, there’s no mention about the choice by significant sections of the Soviet elite to engage in looting instead of developing a transitional program that would protect viable sections of the Soviet economy under market socialism.

      What from the standpoint of the Times editorial board looks like a necessary start-over was in fact a sloppily-carried decision, or merely an unintended outcome, of a section of the elite seizing an opportunity to enrich themselves. “

      West had spent several billion dollars in cash to bribe significant portions of the Soviet elite (Soros, via his foundation, was especially active). And large part of the elite war already poisoned by neoliberalism and wanted to become rich. So while pre-conditions for the collapse of the USSR were internal (communist ideology was actually discredited in early 70th; economic stagnation started around the4 same time, Communist Party leadership completely degraded and became a joke in 80th ), external pressures and subversive activity played the role of catalyst that make the process irreversible.

      The fact that neoliberalism was rising at the time means that this was the worst possible time for the USSR to implement drastic economic reforms and sure mediocre politicians like Gorbachev quickly lost control of the process. With some important help of the West.

      The subsequent economic rape of Russia was incredibly brutal and most probably well coordinated by the famous three letter agencies: CIA (via USAID and “Harvard mafia”) ) and MI6 and their German and French counterparts. See

      Brain drain, especially to the USA and Israel was simply incredible. Which, while good for professionals leaving (although tales of Russian Ph.D swiping malls are not uncommon, especially in Israel ) , who can earn much better money abroad, is actually another form of neocolonialism for the countries affected:

      1. Oregoncharles

        It was a tragically missed opportunity to try genuine socialism. Instead of essentially selling the state enterprises to the Mafia, they could have been GIVEN, probably broken up, to the workers in them. It would have been instant worker-owned, market regulated – what? We don’t have a familiar name for it, but it might be what Marx meant by “socialism.”

        Ironically, the Bolsheviks first set up such co-operatives, called soviets, but soon seized them in favor of state ownership. End of the socialist experiment. It’s quite possible they were far more Russian than Marxist.

        1. Moneta

          The US economy hit a wall in the 70s. Instead of readjusting internally, it used its reserve currency and global exploitation to gain an extra few decades of consumerism. If exploitation is acceptable, then we could say that capitalism wins. However, capitalism will work until there is nothing left to exploit.

          In the meantime, the USSR was set up in a way where it could not follow…

          IMO, left leaning theoretical communism would have trouble surviving when in competition with a system based on short-termism such as capitalism. This competition against short-termism would force the communist country to turn into a form of fascism just to stop the opportunists which happen to have the skills from defecting.

  23. schultzzz

    Although I only understood 33% of this, I’m thankful for how the author points out the common forms of cherry-picking BS that both sides use when talking about communism.

    If your only knowledge of communism came from the online left, you’d believe that it’s never once been tried before!

    They talk about it like some religious Rapture that will someday come and fix all the problems, not like a system that already has a proven track record. And it drives me nuts.

    I mean, be a commie if you want to, but at least don’t be a weasel about it.

    Either say, “All those countries were awful dictatorships and that wasn’t real communism anyway,” (in which case it’s on you to explain why YOUR post-revolutionary society will turn out different!) or say, “Those countries were pretty rad actually, and I own the actions of the leaders,” and take the pushback that will result from THAT.

    But whatever you do, please, don’t just duck the issue by saying, “Well capitalism is bad too, so whatever LOL”

    p.s. thanks for explaining the Motte and Bailey argument – wish I’d known about it in college!

  24. Roland

    I enjoyed this post, Outis, even though I’m going to be a bit critical of it. I am pleased to just to be able to talk about this stuff from time to time.

    In Asimov’s original Foundation stories, Hari Seldon devised an actual plan for the future history of an empire.

    But historical dialectical materialism is not a plan. It is a theory which one may use to develop hypotheses.

    Does Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection determine which species happen to survive? Would evolution by natural selection fail to happen, if nobody ever wrote about it?

    So why would Marx’s theory of class struggle alter the course of history?

    If one reads the Communist Manifesto, one finds that the work is almost entirely devoted to the bourgeoisie and to the history of capitalism.

    The bourgeoisie, after centuries of struggle against the nobility, the clergy, and the petty bourgeoisie, at length became the dominant class in society. Obviously the bourgeoisie didn’t need Marx to help them do that!

    Marx hypothesizes that for as long as the bourgeois class is what it is, and does what it does, a class struggle will result in which proletarians will assume power.

    Marx points out that the vast majority of the job of obliterating private property is actually being performed by the bourgeois class themselves. Marx points out that most of the job of reducing differences between nations is actually done by the bourgoisie. Marx points that it’s the bourgeoisie who dissolve traditional family institutions.

    But that’s observation and extrapolation, not a plan. For a revolutionary programme of the proletariat, Marx only offers a short list of points to consider.

    Little of the Manifesto is devoted to the subject of the proletariat. That’s not surprising, since proletarian history had scarcely begun.

    For the sake of argument, ask yourself how much could one write about bourgeois history, or bourgeois political prospects, in the 12th century? At that time the Occidental bourgeoisie was in its political infancy. Few would imagine that these harried, oppressed, vulgar little burghers would eventually become the dominant class in society. I mean, the whole notion would seem “not even wrong.”

    It was difficult for Marx, and it is still difficult for us, to contemplate what a society would look like, or what life would feel like, if the proletariat were the politically and culturally dominant class. One only gets tantalizing glimpses, half-fanciful, such as Orwell’s first impression of Barcelona.

    To extend my 12th century bourgeois analogy, it would be like trying to envision Planet Bourgeois, based on a day trip to 12th century Venice.

    Marx does offer brief critiques of those socialist programmes which do not focus on the proletarian class.

    For our present purposes, the most interesting of them is Marx’s anticipation of the welfare state, which he refers to as “bourgeois socialism.”

    For decades after WWII, many in the developed nations thought that the welfare states had solved the worst problems of capitalism. I used to be one of them. But it took Marx just a single page of the Communist Manifesto to raise, evaluate, and dismiss the idea.

    1. Ulysses

      “But historical dialectical materialism is not a plan. It is a theory which one may use to develop hypotheses.
      Does Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection determine which species happen to survive? Would evolution by natural selection fail to happen, if nobody ever wrote about it?”

      Well said! This is very close to the sort of defense that most MMT theorists deploy– when critics decry the possible negative consequences of “adopting” their theory. “We are not proposing, merely describing” is the refrain. I myself have never been a Marxist, yet I find the historical analysis of some Marxist scholars quite perceptive. In my former life as a medievalist I often relied heavily on excellent work, authored by conservative Catholics, without ever feeling the urge to become one myself!

      1. Oregoncharles

        “We are not proposing, merely describing”
        Actually, based on what I’ve seen about it here on NC, that is a misleading half-truth. It’s true that the theory itself is descriptive, and I think true on its face, though I might quibble with some emphases.

        OTOH, the theory is Keynesian: in most examples, at least that we see, it comes with policy prescriptions – in particular, deficit spending to stimulate the economy (environmentally a losing proposition) and serve human needs.

        What makes the theory interesting and new is that fiat currency, in the modern sense, hasn’t existed very long. I remember when Nixon (a Republican!) took us off the gold standard – in the 70s, wasn’t it. That was when the shackles came off. So people are still figuring out what it all means.

        I suspect that the biggest objection to the theory is that it would delegitimize, especially, taxation, which depends on largely voluntary compliance. Would people go along with it if they really thought it didn’t “pay for the government,” but instead served to regulate the amount of money in circulation, plus some useful social engineering?

        I don’t think so.

    2. Outis Philalithopoulos Post author

      Thanks, Roland. Actually, I think your summary is pretty good, and it provides an opportunity to clarify some things.

      The Hari Seldon analogy is based on an idea of Marx that was often found in communist political cultures. It’s true that they didn’t imagine that Marx had seen the precise path of the future with the kind of mathematical precision that Seldon was supposed to have done.

      However, I think the analogy still captures some noteworthy elements of how Marx was perceived. If a key feature of Marxism is the idea that people do not understand the history they are building, then Marx’s role is to bring understanding into a world where it had been lacking. Whereas the same scientific principles regulating the class struggle are supposed to have operated both before and after Marx, before humanity was in the dark, but now it can choose to see. Similarly, Seldon’s psychohistory is supposed to have operated as a sort of natural principle both before and after his lifetime, but once Seldon has revealed it, it becomes possible for an appropriate elite not only to understand what is happening (the First Foundation, to some extent) but also to midwife the process of bringing a new society into existence (the Second Foundation).

      All of this touches on a point I made in the article. Once you describe the role of Marx as it was often imagined within historical communist culture, it doesn’t sound very Marxist. Nevertheless, people did often imagine him that way. Systems of beliefs as actually held by people can often be more complex and contradictory than their theoreticians would claim.

  25. Kenneth Heathly Simpson

    Greetings All and thank you,

    It was a long read to get to this point in the discussion. I would like to point out that all economies are planned. The question is: what class is doing the planning? If the workers are not doing the planning, then the first step toward socialism, a workers’ state, does not exist or it is degenerating rapidly. A workers’ state must by it very nature be democratic when it is in formation. If history kills the worker’s state, then some other class based on private property, share holding capitalism or a singular private property based on the state itself replaces the workers’ rule. You cannot get to socialism with our first having a workers state and you cannot get to communism without first attaining socialism. This is basic Marxism. If you do not understand this you will end up talking endlessly but get no where with in a truly Marxist frame work.

  26. hush/hush

    A little outside the box but I would recommend: The English and their History, by Robert Tombs. Why? Because in Marx’s own time England was the most industrialized and trade unionized country in the world and Marx spent a lot of time there proselytizing to limited effect. Tombs makes a wide ranging and sensitive study of Marx’s intersection with British liberalism. It’s a fascinating read!

  27. etnograf

    Outis, thanks for raising all of these issues for public discussion. There is no question that a solid historical consideration of the communist experience in the 20th century is critical to how we think about Marxism and many other leftist ideas and it a decidedly fraught terrain where greater nuance is desperately needed.

    I am surprised that you don’t mention more recent historical scholarship on the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc countries, however. In your brief note on what you are currently reading it seems that nearly all of the works are more than a half-century old. While such dustier tomes are often invaluable, none of them benefited from the archival access, oral histories, and other sources that have become much more widely available in the last 25 years. There was certainly a lot of dogmatic work that came out in the years after communism fell–something like Fukuyama’s The End of History comes to mind as a quintessential example of that–but there were also many serious scholars who did not necessarily have a strong ax to grind for or against communism, historical or otherwise.

    For example, I find the historian Stephen Kotkin’s work to be quite nuanced without taking a strong ideological stance. Originally a scholar of Stalinism who wrote on the construction of a major steel plant in the Urals (Magnetic Mountain, 1995), he went on to also write books on the collapse of the Soviet Union (Armageddon Averted) and the Eastern European bloc (Uncivil Society). He has a new biography of Stalin coming out in phases, though I haven’t read it yet. All of these works emphasize what was in fact the close integration in many ways of the capitalist and communist worlds. In the 1930s it was the crisis of capitalism that largely helped to preserve the appeal of communism even as it was largely American firms that were being contracted to build socialist factories and import equipment. In the later postwar years the price of oil was critical to understanding some of the early successes and later extreme difficulties of the Soviet and Eastern bloc economy. The collapse of the Eastern bloc had much to do with the comparison that socialism itself encouraged people to make with capitalism by an increasing focus on consumer goods that the communist system was woefully unable to produce.

    All of this is by way of saying that the good historical work out there does not try to see the communism of the 20th century as some kind of pure or corrupted manifestation of any ideological system but, like every other kind of political upheaval, a complicated venture that was inseparable from its many contexts–chief among them its place in a world global economic system and its self-definition vis-a-vis the actually existing capitalism of its time. Susan Buck-Morss makes some of these points in her book Dreamworld and Catastrophe on the similarities between the U.S. and USSR.

    In any case, I hope my brief thoughts might help move the discussion of the minefield of historical communism more firmly onto the terrain of actual history.

    1. Outis Philalithopoulos Post author

      Thanks, etnograf. Furet’s book is from 1995, and the interview with Castoriadis is from that time, but as you say, some of the other books I’m interested in are from the 50s or earlier. I enjoy reading books written in the heat of events, and so from far in the past, since you often get plunged into a worldview that is curiously alien from the present. But often modern historical scholarship is incredibly helpful, and I greatly appreciate your suggestions.

      However, one thing that I hope was clear from the post is that I think that while looking into some problems requires wide and careful reading, there are some fundamental questions that it isn’t wrong for people to discuss even if they aren’t experts on current scholarship.

    2. kukuzel

      I second the thanks to Outis and also want to thank you, etnograf, for such a well-put comment and the book reference.

  28. Sue

    It is evident this writer has not even been close to live and understand many failed European attempts by real grassroots leftists to significantly shape socioeconomic dynamics. A excerpt:
    “Large numbers of intellectuals in France and Italy…were convinced that the USSR was a genuine incarnation of Left values…(this implies nothing good about the historical left”
    From the very 60s and 70s a good number of activists and intellectuals in several European countries did not call the USSR communist, socialist or Marxist. There was a very clear term for the USSR regime: Sovietism.
    Also what most people do not realize is that Marx was extremely generous to capitalism from many important angles. If you want me to illustrate, let me know.
    Also the author would need to clarify his reference to Latin America, just in case he has forgot what took place there in the 70s and 80s.

    1. Outis Philalithopoulos Post author

      When I mentioned Latin America, I was referring specifically to the coup against Arbenz in Guatemala (1954) and the coup against Allende in Chile (1973). I brought them up as genuine cases where attempts to carry out left-oriented reforms were thwarted by external pressures and interventions.

      The fact that Marx had good things to say about capitalism and saw a key role for it in the way history moves forward is not disputed by anyone serious.

      You do not understand the quote you are criticizing. If I say that large numbers of intellectuals in France and Italy saw the USSR as part of the Left, you don’t achieve anything for your argument by claiming that there were “a good number” of “activists and intellectuals” who referred to the USSR’s regime as “Sovietism.” The two statements aren’t inconsistent in any way.

      Please try to read more carefully in the future.

      1. Sue

        “When I mentioned Latin America, I was referring specifically to the coup against Arbenz in Guatemala (1973) and the coup against Allende in Chile (1973). I brought them up as genuine cases where attempts to carry out left-oriented reforms were thwarted by external pressures and interventions”

        Yes, Kissinger knows one thing or two about it. I think that makes your, “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”, much comprehensive. I appreciate it

      2. Adams

        CIA overthrow of Arbenz was 1954. Typo carried forward by Sue in her comment. Significantly inspired and supported by the Dulles brothers in defense of US hegemony of bananas, of all things. United Fruit.
        I was in Guatemala in 1976 just after the earthquake. Stayed in a what was left of a nice hotel, with no running water. It was bad in Guatemala City. While driving out I picked up a young hitch hiker who said members of his family were fleeing the city because of increased political pressure on families identified as leftists. The police crackdown justified as “maintaining order and halting looting” was being used for other purposes, of course. The political reverberations of the Arbenz overthrow of ’54 were still felt 20 years later. Shock doctrine. Aftershocks.

        1. Outis Philalithopoulos Post author

          Good grief, thanks for catching that typo. I have fixed it in my original comment so it won’t mislead anyone reading the thread.

          Also noteworthy is the role of Edward Bernays (Freud’s nephew) in building up US public support for the coup on behalf of his client (United Fruit).

          1. Adams

            YUP, similarly, see Mark Penn’s former firm, Bursan-Marstellar’s “stellar” work on behalf of the Pinochet regime in Chile after the CIA supported overthrow of Allende. Bernays was a real sweetheart, wasn’t he? All one big happy family.

  29. Oregoncharles

    “as well as much of the leadership of the 60s student movements, were convinced that the USSR was a genuine incarnation of Left values.”

    Why do you think it was called the “New Left”? I was there, and that’s not what I remember. For one thing, most of us were very anti-authoritarian. Communism was seen archaic.

    No, I wasn’t a “student leader,” nor was I close enough to any of the famous ones to know what they thought. But I was immersed in the zeitgeist, and that wasn’t it. For one thing, the Hungarian and Tibetan uprisings were formative for a lot of us.

    How old are you, Outis? Suddenly it matters.

    1. Outis Philalithopoulos Post author

      Not old enough! But see my comments addressing this point elsewhere (do a search on this page on SDS). I can also provide more references if you’re interested.

      People have different experiences. I know some people who did live through that time and who were pretty radical then. According to them, as they gradually over time grudgingly accepted that the USSR/China/Cuba etc. were not everything they had imagined, their own politics became less and less radical, more “liberal” or even “neoliberal.” This is a kind of trajectory that I think is not logically necessary, but important to understand.

      1. Oregoncharles

        I wasn’t directly involved with SDS – just read about it.

        I became a Green – arguably the tail of the New Left. I gather the German party has moved in a more neoliberal direction, but the US and British parties have moved the opposite way.

        I attended a college whose unofficial motto was “Atheism, Communism, and Free Love.” Epate les bourgeoisie, IOW. I don’t remember much interest in actual communism, but I could be just projecting. Free love, now, that was another matter. But that was 50 years ago.

      2. Ulysses

        So this is how one SDS leader at Stanford, Martin Bresnick, recalled his visit to Prague in 1970:

        “Standing near the Charles Bridge we saw a worker whitewashing over a name that had been painted on the pedestrian side of the bridge. It was the name of Jan Palach, the young student who had burned himself to death the year before protesting the Soviet invasion. Whenever I passed by I saw that someone had again painted Palach’s name on the bridge during the night and each day another worker was sent to whitewash over it.
        In the evening we went to concerts at the Smetana Hall in the immense Municipal building. It is difficult to describe what music meant to the Czechs then. The audience listened to everything with the most focused attention imaginable and musicians played with a passion I had never experienced. In Prague, in 1970, all music seemed to be a testament of freedom, filled with unspoken messages of defiance and resistance. When a work ended, the audience broke into wild applause, wept, cheered, then eagerly spoke to each other in Czech, guessing the Soviet soldiers scattered in the crowd could not understand them.”

        Have to say it’s hard to see much Soviet apologetics going on there!!

        1. Outis Philalithopoulos Post author

          Here is an excerpt from an email that a reader sent me, about an incident that happened two years before the one you describe (with the brackets to protect his privacy):

          In the summer of 1968 the SDS national office in Chicago sponsored a trip to Cuba (Met in Houston Texas (Todd Gitlin was then the President of SDS) flew to Mexico City and then flew to Havana/ ended up returning via Russian Freighter to Saint Johns Canada and then drove across Canadian border back into U.S) [I and a friend] jointly decided to take advantage of this opportunity to see up-close the Cuban revolution and also meet fellow SDSers Two years earlier I had helped set-up an SDS chapter on my campus and had engaged in a series of demonstrations, and organizing activities both on and off campus, primarily around anti-war protests of one type of another. I would call my two previous years of organizing on my campus quite successful and I was personally excited about meeting other members of SDS chapters from across the country from different local campus or local community organizations, in order to swap organizing experiences and gain and exchange political insights. A significant number of SDS members who were on that trip to Cuba in the summer of 1968 had just been involved in the takeover of buildings at Columbia University (April of 1968). That Columbia grouping would later make up a significant portion of the Weatherman faction that eventually took over and destroyed SDS.

          A foreshadowing of that groupings increasingly rigid ideological politics took place during on our trip in Cuba. Shortly after arriving in Havana in mid-August of 1968 the Russians invaded Czechoslovakia and our SDS group got into a political debate about what our collective stance was toward the Russian invasion. About 6 of us condemned the invasion, while the vast majority of the approximately 45 SDSers (including most of the Columbia University faction supported the Russian invasion). The next morning when our entire group was supposed to leave Havana to begin our trip throughout Cuba–the six of us were told by a member of our SDS group that we were to stay in Havana because we were considered politically unreliable by the majority of our “comrades.”

          Our Cuban guides didn’t appear to know what to do with us but after meeting with the Cubans and explaining our political infighting they allowed us to rejoin the trip. Needless to say most of the other SDS members were not happy to see us when we returned to the trip but there was nothing they could do about it. The supreme irony about that incident was that one of the most ideologically militant SDS members on that trip turned out to be an undercover FBI agent who later gave testimony to Congressional committee about what had taken place during that trip to Cuba.

          1. Donald

            I have zero first hand knowledge, but my impression is that the NewLeft romanticized Castro and Ho Chi Minh and possibly Mao, but saw the Soviet Union as a failure. No links offhand– it’s just the impression I long have had. There were exceptions– the historian who wrote some famous books o American slavery ( I am blanking on his name and his books) was an admirer of the Soviet Union. This is all very fuzzy, but I think it is correct and fits in with what others have said about New Left attitudes towards the Russian suppression of the Czech revolt.

            1. Outis Philalithopoulos Post author

              Very funny example of synchronicity here – see my comment that posted one minute after yours.

              There were also Italians who preferred China to the USSR, for example Lotta continua and Autonomia operaia.

    2. Ulysses

      “Why do you think it was called the “New Left”? I was there, and that’s not what I remember.”

      Well said! This huge discrepancy between the broad generalization that “much of the leadership of the 60s student movements” were Soviet apologists, and the actual lived experience of those of us born before 1965 is jarring, to say the least.

      I remember well the years 1968 to 1975. My parents were strong anti-war activists and academics, who hosted numerous student radicals at many social gatherings. I have no memory of any Soviet apologists, yet recall distinctly many condemnations of 1956, 1968, and both sides in the Cold War.

      1. Outis Philalithopoulos Post author

        What are your recollections about attitudes toward Mao? As I recall from David Barber’s book A Hard Rain Fell: SDS and Why It Failed, the Black Panthers were certainly Maoists and there were also others who preferred China to the USSR.

        1. Ulysses

          I think the most common attitude towards Mao may have been best expressed by the following lyric of a famous Beatles song:

          “But if you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao, you ain’t going to make it with anyone anyhow.”

          Seriously, though, the overall zeitgeist was so overwhelmingly anti-authoritarian that leaders of huge, centralized states, like Mao or Brezhnev, were automatically suspect. Che and Fidel were cooler, to be sure.

          Very few student radicals were dedicated Maoists, although most did feel that killing people in Southeast Asia, simply because they were Maoists, was uncool.

          1. Outis Philalithopoulos Post author

            Killing people in?

            Maybe you pressed “send” too quickly?

            One sentiment that another commenter expressed that I think sounds right is that in the US in particular, there were a lot of cases where people waved communism, or particular communist leaders, as banners – but were not particularly inculcated in the ideology.

            1. flora

              Years ’68 – ’75 earlier referenced in this thread makes me think “killing people in Southeast Asia” refers to the Vietnam War. That’s how I read it, anyway.

              1. Outis Philalithopoulos Post author

                His comment originally had the end clipped off, so it just said “killing in.” Hence my puzzlement at the time.

        2. Oregoncharles

          Yes, there was a lot of romanticism about Mao and communist China, partly because it was then at odds with the Soviets.

          I wasn’t at all romantic about it, partly because of Tibet, which I see Ulysses also mentions. I thought that was very naive – but I was anti-communist, more anti-authoritarian than anything else.

      2. Carolyn Clark

        I was involved in the student movements of the 60’s and 70’s. Like many others, I subscribed to neo-Marxism. That school of thought was hugely influential within the New Left. The Frankfort School was seminal to neo-Marxism and its theorists were highly critical of Soviet-style communism. My generation was anti-totalitarian for the most part–another reason we drifted toward neo-Marxism I suppose. The New Left of the 60’s and 70’s was not monolithic and there was ideological diversity. It constituted a clear break from the more traditional USSR-supporting “Old Left” politics of previous generations, in the US at least. And SDS, although influential, did not speak for many of us on the New Left–as I recall it was only one of the larger of a number of diverse groups on the left at a time of enormous political ferment and activity in America and around the world.

        1. Sue

          I like your comment and this is very important . I am very familiar with the German intellectual discussions around the interwar and postwar periods- works by Adorno, Benjamin, Brecht, Lukacs,Pollock, Ernst Bloch. Some of them can definitely be ascribed to the early Frankfurt School. Also in its posterior stages , and with the newcomers, The FS was, as you put it, “highly critical of Soviet-style communism”. This sentiment perdured to the 60s, 70s and mid 80s in the very streets of many large European cities,therefore having gone beyond the domain of mere bookish concerns.

  30. joe

    i’m 48, and i grew up in rural east texas.
    pre-internet, there was simply a great vacuum in marxist materials.(I looked). Late 80’s one could find a lot of post-punk nihilism in the head shops and vintage record stores in houston, but nobody talked about marx…or, really, even economics and politics.
    Now, 35 years later, and out in the rural hill country of texas, I find that nobody wants to talk about such things….aside from those who replace discourse with simple declaratory sentences.
    The Taboo larded onto all things marx is still in the process of falling away.
    Reckon this should be remembered and accounted for in all such discussions.

  31. Gil

    Marx and Engels were democrats first and then attached a theory of capitalism and socialism to their democratic beliefs. They were right that the new industrial proletariat would become the main social force in the fight for democratic rights against the autocratic and aristocratic regimes of Europe, but their theory of capitalism and socialism was mistaken. Lenin was also a democrat for thirty years and fought for a democratic republic before the catastrophe of WWI and the Russian Revolution. Luxemburg’s critique of Lenin’s and Trotsky’s authoritarianism identifies the tragic ideological turning point in the history of Marxism. To find what is still useful in Marxism, go back to its democratic values, not its theory of history or theory of socialist revolution and economic planning. For Marx and Engels’ role in the democratic struggle in Europe, August Nimtz’s recent work is clear and straightforward. For Lenin’s early democratic strategic thinking, Neil Harding’s Lenin’s Political Thought, Vol 1, is essential. Finally, Barrington Moore’s The Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy provides a better framework for understanding modern history than Marxism. The central conflict in Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries was not between capitalism and socialism but between democracy and an authoritarianism rooted in agricultural elites dependent on unfree labor. The Old Regime in Europe was finally destroyed by the Allied armies in WWII. However, the struggle for democracy is not over and Moore’s title is not quite accurate. Moore’s title should have been The Social Origins of Dictatorship and Constitutional Liberalism because the United States is not a representative democracy based on one person one vote, the monstrosity of the Senate being the main expression of this undemocratic structure. The primary political goal in the United States is to establish democracy, and the history of Marxism is useful in understanding the ideological and strategic aspects of that goal because for over seventy years that was also the primary political goal of Marxism

      1. Gil

        Moore was certainly influenced by Marx’s theory of economic classes, but his analysis was neither socialist nor anticapitalist. There’s a big difference between Marxian and Marxist.

  32. Oregoncharles

    I wish I had time to respond fully to this, because I think I helped trigger it in a prior discussion and because I have, let’s say, extensive priors.

    Let me briefly state what I failed to make clear before: I think that society evolves in much the same way that organisms do – that is, variation followed by “natural” selection. The big difference results from the mode of transmission: genetics, in the case of biology, which evolves fairly slowly; and culture, in the case of societies, which can evolve very quickly. Culture is learned, so acquired traits are retained, unlike genetics (biologists have now discovered epigenetics, a big exception to that rule), and furthermore are transmitted independent of reproduction.

    Evolution, like life itself, is a feedback-controlled system that can appear to have a “mind of its own.” It’s in that sense that I think most social change is “unconscious,” even though it depends on the conscious decisions of many participants. Note that markets, when they operate, have the same characteristic. And because it’s a characteristic of life itself, they can’t be eliminated, as the communist countries discovered.

    On the other hand, I’m very materialist, in Marx’s sense (if I understand it): livelihood and survival are the ultimate determinants of social evolution – within bounds set by the initial state (because that’s how evolution works).

    For me, all that goes back to a thesis I was working on in college. Unfortunately, I broke down and dropped out, not because of the thesis, so it wasn’t finished, and I don’t know what anthropologists presently think. Social evolution is the reason Dawkins invented the term “meme”: the unit of cultural transmission.

    That’s what I meant when I wrote that Darwin – evolution – had superseded the dialectic.

    I’ll try to come back and respond to some of the economics questions (yeah, I know, everybody’s holding their breath), but I right now I need to go to work.

  33. lambert strether

    TiSA sounds a lot like a planned economy to me.

    A question of who’s doing the planning, I suppose.

    1. Oregoncharles

      It doesn’t make a huge difference whether the monopoly belongs to the government (communism) or is technically private, but supported by the government (fascism). Monopoly is monopoly. The more centralized power is, the less it will serve the people.

      I was greatly influenced by a book called “Oriental Despotism,” by (pause to look up his name).Karl Wittfogel. It was about the great, ancient irrigation-based civilizations, like Egypt. He argued that because the irrigation system, which was essential to livelihood, concentrated power so much, it made for religious autocracies – god-kings. As a student, I applied the concept to Burma’s fall into autocracy after the end of colonial rule.

      Yes, I think he developed the idea as a stick to beat the Communists with; I also think he was right. You just can’t concentrate so much power without getting something pretty nasty.

      I think about it sometimes because the Willamette Valley would be like that if the technology was more primitive. There is little or no rain during the growing season, so most crops require irrigation, all from the Willamette River system. Without electric pumps, there would have to be a vast gravity-fed system of canals, like Egypt of Mesopotamia – or the Ganges, or Burma. Electricity and being part of a larger entity save us.

      So, two key themes: Concentration of power, and environmental determinism. The outcome is not determined by individual decisions, but by larger forces. Another recommendation: the anthropologist Marvin Harris, the ultimate materialist, except anthropology calls it functionalism. His most famous article was on India’s sacred cows – at the time, much more functional than the imperialists assumed. Maybe not any more.

  34. possum holler

    Robert Asprey’s War In the Shadows, the Guerilla in History, Vol II might be good survey reading for your project. He has a thesis of historical Leninism and Maosim as method applied in partisan struggles that might prove enlightning; especially on the Eastern Front of WWII and in Yugoslav history (Vol I is a long tactical and strategic evaluation of the conflict and police action in Vietnam that set the question Vol II tried to answer, and won’t help you with your questions).

    Carl Schmitt’s Theory of the Partisan is a very accessible and serious theoretical look at internationalist communism, particularly during WWII. This work of Schmitt’s later deeply influenced Laclau and Mouffe’s work on building left populism in Latin America and Europe.

    For a little lighter, but still useful, reading, Gary Brecher’s The War Nerd collects his irreverent, proto-dirtbag left columns from the Russian alternative rag The Exile. Some of his work on Chechen history under Stalinism, Nepali Maoist guerillas, and Albanian bunkers might be instructive.

    I’m left, but often the left has a poor understanding of itself. Asprey was a US career army officer who was deeply concerned about the Vietnam police action, Schmitt an influential Weimar and Nazi German conservative jurist and legal scholar, “Dolan” a satirist and former rhetoric professor expat from the US in ’90s Russia.

  35. duck1

    Historical minefield, for sure. This is anecdotal about 60’s 70’s US new left, but I think generally accurate. One core group was the red diaper babies, children of CPUSA or sympathizers. Inheriting aspects of parents experience, frequently in the leadership of the left CIO unions. Ahead of everyone else in terms of understanding Marxism due to anti-communist era. Splits in this group vis a vis Kruschev outing Stalin.
    SDS split along Progressive Labor and anti-imperialist lines. PL evolved out of Teamsters labor struggles in Minneapolis and had Trotskyist bent. The imperialism thesis derived from the Lenin work.
    By the mid 70’s you had a terrorist bent and what was generally conceived as a new party building movement (CP) that was Maoist oriented. The big dog in the Bay Area was the Revolutionary Union who established proletarian cred by getting the still widely available industrial jobs in the area. Then there were a bunch of sects with various core beliefs.
    This is leaving aside the black struggles of the period. Naturally the polntless nature of the party building got to most people, though some still soldier on. Obviously no such group has anywhere near the influence that CPUSA had.

  36. Old Commie

    An interesting approach to the history with a lot to argue about: One point where I disagree is the following assertion:
    2: Large numbers of intellectuals in France and Italy, and also elsewhere, as well as much of the leadership of the 60s student movements, were convinced that the USSR was a genuine incarnation 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.
    From the mid sixties to the end of the decade, I knew virtually all of this leadership in this country. I cannot think of anyone that had this attitude towards the USSR. Of course there were various Maoist influences, but these didn’t support anything about the USSR. Since I was a public member of the CPUSA leadership for the first part of the period, I’m confident that I would have known of any such positions.
    At a later point, post CPUSA, I had direct relationships with leading elements of the European New Left – primarily the Italian sections. With the possible exception of a few intellectuals influenced by Althussar none held this position about the USSR.
    I expect your “next post” will provide a more accurate historical context for your argument.

    1. Outis Philalithopoulos Post author

      See the email from another commenter (google Gitlin on this page) for an experience that indicates that your statement might be slightly too definitive.

      But actually, my next post doesn’t rest on this point in any fundamental way. It is about understanding the attitudes of ordinary people who supported communism in Italy throughout the postwar period.

      Nor does my argument here rest on the point. I could change “USSR” to “USSR and China” in the passage you cite, and it would cover more and not change my argument. For what I’m saying here to be meaningful, it suffices that there were large numbers of intellectuals, and large numbers of ordinary people, who supported regimes that they later felt uncomfortable about having supported.

      My subsequent post is mainly on the PCI. There, it was natural to think of the USSR (even though in the Italian New Left was more into Che or Mao) because, quoting an article that Ulysses linked to:

      And yet the political space for Togliatti’s political line […] was blocked. Blocked by what? By belonging to a certain side, a sense of belonging that didn’t go away even when faced by the test of the dramatic events in Hungary. A sense of belonging that, even though reformed, didn’t go away with Berlinguer, before the tanks of Prague. And not with the separation of 1982, that fundamentally spoke still of an inaugural Bolshevik state that was the source of legitimation for a [purified] “propulsive push.”

      It is this “sense of belonging” that interests me, in its full gamut.

      To “autocritique” a bit, it’s possible that I wrote the phrase here too hastily, thinking ahead to the more specific topic of my next post. I’d be willing to consider alternative formulations that cover the history more thoroughly, if you have suggestions that you think might express the idea well.

      Anyway, thanks for providing this detailed information about your own experience.

    2. Yves Smith

      I have only a narrow window on this, but I have to disagree with your statement. At Harvard in 1976-1977, I had room mates who were Communists. One was a third generation Communist. It was a point of pride in her family that her grandmother was the first person to invoke the Fifth Amendment through the entirety of her testimony before Joe McCarthy. But she had become a Maolist while the rest of the family was Stalinist, so you didn’t discuss the USSR at family gatherings. She and my other Communist room mate (niece of the Greek prime minister, so her involvement with Communism was a scandal in her family) were both deeply involved in the South African divesture movement.

      Now it may be if you had a larger sample the results would be different, but having lived in that era, what I saw in the US is consistent with Outis’ take having read some literature from back then.

      The short version is even though we regarded each other with mutual amusement (I wasn’t political then) they were proponents of Communism and thought the USSR incarnation was a valid representation. I would assume they would have acknowledged some but not many flaws. And from what I can tell, their views were pretty typical of the other members of the political organizations in which they were involved and the Marxist profs (there were a few then, I took a very good labor history course from one of them).

      1. skk

        they were proponents of Communism and thought the USSR incarnation was a valid representation.

        Good Lord ! well remembered – of the USA.

        In the UK – in that context – the Trotskyites – I can still rattle off the names – YS, IS, WRP, SWP, RCP – had their view that the USSR was a “degenerate workers state”. Then there was the Maoists – CPB-ML, RCP, CWM, CPGB-ML – who thought Stalin was a bastard but Lenin was alright.
        And of course the straight down the line – venerable, veteran, with a storied history stretching back decades, a member of the Communist International, the CPGB who thought the USSR was a total proper communist state.

        In India similar ructions took place – CPI —> CPI(M) —> CPI(ML). interestingly the has in the last few weeks run an article or two on recollections from the Naxalbari times.

        I read a book “Black Bolshevik” – Autobiography of an African-American Communist – by Harry Haywood – around that time. While others were rooting was “Roots” – which is fine too, THIS was profoundly influential for me. Since the author of the post is looking for reading material then that one is worth reading. I’m sure the pdfs are available online –

    3. Sue

      Leftist marches in large European cities simultaneously decried Sovietism and American capitalism. I do not need any book, article or tv documentary to tell me differently because I was in them.

  37. skk

    this sure generated a lot of interest ! that’s a good thing. One thing the author asked for was additional reading material. Well not quite reading .. but the lecture series by David Harvey on “Reading Marx’s Capital” is extremely worth watching and listening to. there’s around 30 1 hr lectures there on

    “An open course consisting of a close reading of the text of Volume I+2+3 of Marx’s Capital in 30 odd video lectures by Professor David Harvey ”

    Enjoy. I wish that had been around when I worked thru it in the 70s, mostly on my own – because all the erstwhile communists around me knew and were only interested in the other Marx, the “class-struggle” Marx

  38. Old commie

    Your probably right that I stated my point too definitively. It was probably a mistake to comment on the text before reading the comment chain. I agree with some of the points that you make in the comments – and specifically that the attitude of the “leadership of the student movement” towards the USSR is a matter that should be subject to factual argument. That said, I knew and worked with many of this leadership and differing attitudes towards Soviet society and history and Soviet ‘Marxism’ were always an issue in the relationship because for the most part I was functioning as a public member of the CPUSA National Committee. As I said earlier, l know of no one in the successive SDS leading groups, from the original Port Huron crew through Booth/Kissinger, Calvert/Davidson, Coleman/Klonsky, Jones/Dohrn/Ayers, that advanced the position that you claim many held – at least at the time under consideration. This includes the Weather leadership cadre despite your statement to the contrary.

    You maintain that some ‘midlevel’ SDS people were attacked for criticizing the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and put a lot of weight on a pro-Russian position on Czechoslovakia within an SDS delegation to Cuba. I’m not familiar with the specific incidents, but doubt that you’ve taken account of some context that would be particularly relevant for any participants in a Cuban junket. Cuba supported the Soviet intervention in a very specific and critical way. In my orthodox CP circles the Cuban position was interpreted as opposition and friends of mine who publicly supported it were formally disciplined (as were those of us who publicly opposed the intervention). The Cuban ‘conditional support’ position rested on a critique of the Dubcek “Prague Spring” for its reluctance to provide material support to liberation movements in Africa and Latin America and, more specifically, to Vietnam. Such arguments obviously applied with almost equal force against the USSR. The Cuban position also criticized the cult of recently assassinated Bobby Kennedy that was prevalent in the Czech Spring. So I’d like to hear more the specifics about this discussion, since I think it likely that such points – more than identification with the USSR – would have factored into any such discussion in Cuba.

    Mark Rudd, Jeff Jones, Bob Gottleib, and David Gilbert were leading figures in the Columbia strike and, for the most part, important figures in the emergence of the Weather faction. You seem to be linking this group to the pro-USSR position – on Czechoslovakia and more generally. I had some relationship with these folks, before and after my tenure in the CP. I never heard these pro-USSR arguments from any of them although I heard a lot of stuff that I thought was nonsense.

    Finally, just prior to leaving the CPUSA, I worked on Charlene Mitchell’s 1968 presidential campaign and set up a meeting for her to speak on Czechoslovakia at the fall SDS (“Boulder and bolder”) NC. Charlene supported the Cuban position. The meeting was fairly well attended and received, but provided no indication of any faction of SDS that supported the USSR position, much less of any tendency to harass people that didn’t.

    1. Outis Philalithopoulos Post author

      Thanks, old commie, this is great detailed information. I particularly appreciate the nuance about the Cuban position vis-à-vis Dubcek.

      I will note that in your comment, you attribute to me what was actually said to me in an email by another person who experienced those events, and which I identified as such. Unfortunately, while I would also like to know more about the specifics of the incident in question, I didn’t live through it, so I can’t tell you anything more.

      What I have done is to change the text to “believed that various Leninist regimes were genuine incarnations of Left values.” This alternate wording seems both closer to my general aims (which do not involve any desire to focus particularly on the Soviet Union), and a better summary of the actual history.

  39. John

    I would rather live in Cuba than in Haiti, and the country’s economic performance is all the more impressive considering the economic warfare wrought upon it by the US.

    48% of Russians regret the breakup of the Soviet Union, and the second largest political party in Russia after Putin’s is the Communist Party (article from The Nation circa 2012). And this isn’t a political party claiming to bring about a new socialist society but rather one that promises to bring back the communism of the Brezhnev era.

    Russia was a backwards country at the beginning of World War I and saw its industry annihilated by the war. The peace treaty ceded its industrial heartlands, and then it was ripped apart by the civil war of the 1920’s. But this didn’t compare to World War II, which wiped out an entire generation of Russians.

    Yet within 12 years of the war’s end, they were the first to put an object into space, and four years later they were the first to put a human into orbit. They Americans, who had been unscathed by the war, were blessed with nearly unlimited natural resources and had the most powerful economy and military in in history, saw their attempt blow up on the launchpad.

    At this time in America, people actually thought socialism might win out. The Soviets certainly thought so. In the first two decades after World War II, their economy was probably the fastest growing in history. They were so confident that their system was superior that they assumed they could beat the American capitalists in every way, including providing the general populace with consumer goods. This promise, made during the “Kitchen Debates” and throughout the 60’s and 70’s, when the government officially embraced consumerism, was a horrible miscalculation that eventually contributed greatly to the public’s discontent with the regime.

    After the processes of industrialization and urbanization had completely, there was nowhere for the economy to go, and the low growth combined with the ossification of bureacratic structures and the entrenchment of the World War II generation in power meant a lack of job opportunities. All of this contributed to the malaise that killed productivity and increased alcoholism, creating a self-feedback loop. Yeltsin and his cronies calculated that if the USSR transitioned to a capitalist economy, they stood to make a lot of money, so they met in secret and agreed to its dissolution. The public wanted reform, but they didn’t want full-blown capitalism, certainly not of the variety Russia saw in the 90’s.

    Especially considering the fact that Marx was arguably the greatest thinker of the modern era and his contributions were not at all limited to the ‘isms’ that people fought for in his name, I think a much better topic for a post would have been “common Cold War misconceptions about Russia and Marxism.”

    This is supposed to be a heterodox economics blog but it’s always from thr Keynesian perspective and never from the Marxist. Considering Keynes’s thoughts on the Labour Party, for one, I think more perspectives are needed in informing discussion on how to approach questions of social justice. Marxian economists predicted the crisis just as well as the Keynesians. Let’s listen.

    1. Outis Philalithopoulos Post author

      The post you wish had been written would have been one more salvo in the war between Cold War-style anti-communist propaganda, on the one hand, and support for actually existing communist regimes, or deference to Marx, on the other.

      The point of the post as written is that we don’t have to choose. The future doesn’t have to be imprisoned within those two alternatives.

  40. blub

    It seems to me you equate Marx’ historical writings, Marxism/Historical Materialism as a school (or rather as schools) of thought, Leninism as an Ideology, Stalinism as a particular regime in the USSR, and the issue of planned vs market economies all together, in order to find the one Root for Evil in the History of the USSR. Sorry, but things are complicated.
    I also think that many of the “questions” aim at a kind of purity, which will never be achieved, e.g. “Is there a problem with Marx’ thought?” – Of course, as someone writing over a lifetime, his thinking changed a lot, and therefore contains necessarily inconsistencies. No single Author is infallible, and no one has found the world formula yet. That some people think they have is a dangerous thing, especially when/if they come to power. Unfortunately, people who think they are always right often win power struggles, because they don’t question themselves, and are more ruthless against “sceptics”, because they percieve them as inferior.
    This however does not mean, that Marx’ ideas are “wrong”, rather they inspired a lot of powerful thinking, beyond the evils of Stalin – look for instance at the History of Western European Social Democrats…

    But anyway, one book that is extremely insightful into the idea of historical communism is Francis Spufford: Red Plenty. athough its a novel, its a very well researched one, based on historical facts. Half the book basically is historical annotations to an extremely well written and insightful (hi)story about the development of linear programming in the USSR and the philosophy of a planned economy (post-Stalin however).

    1. Outis Philalithopoulos Post author

      I have read another book by Spufford and liked it. “Red Plenty” has been recommended to me before and I am looking forward to reading it.

      Your broad statements, however, rest on an astonishing misreading of the post. You take a post whose main point is that we should not consider the things you list as a bloc, to be accepted or rejected together – and construe it to mean the opposite.

      The post complains about how it is difficult to discuss Marx without people (either supporters or opponents) assuming you are a partisan for him. You take that as saying that we should reject everything Marx said.

      The post says that Stalinism was not a good regime, but that central planning might or might not work and might or might not be desirable in various circumstances. You interpret that as conflating Stalinism and central planning.

      The post says that we shouldn’t exclude the possibility that some of the problems within Leninist regimes were not entirely independent of certain aspects of Marx’s thought. You take that as assuming that if one thing was wrong in Marx’s thought, then his ideas were wrong in bloc.

      I think the term “straw man” could be used for this sort of thing. But “straw man” usually implies some sort of relationship to the author’s ideas through distortion or exaggeration. This is more like a photographic negative.

    2. OH

      That is true, I agree with Marx on economics and I still would not trust a revolutionary movement which was based on Marxism. A modern revolutionary movement should consider the works of other economists as well. It is too rigid to just base off of one man. Ironically some would consider me not a communist because of that.
      If capitalists wish to disgrace themselves by insisting I am not one of them, that’s fine.
      By all means capitalists if you feel that because I support taxing and regulating the tar out of the billionaires, that therefore you feel you are not good enough to consider me part of your group, cool.
      I recommend a 200% tax on all income over a million a year. For example, if you make $1,000,001 then your tax would be $2.
      Simple, non-dogmatic, and still conveys the appropriate contempt for billionaires. Let the billionaires make the argument that in order to be capitalist you have to have 100% policies which only focus 100% on helping billionaires, it will do more to turn people against capitalism than anything I can tell people.

  41. jo6pac

    WOW I learned so much my head hurts and I will need to read this again. Thanks Outis Philalithopoulos and commenters.

    I was around sds at san jose state I would go to protest but I’m not a joiner type person to many rules and rulers. I just lived near there while working my blue collar union job.

    1. Lambert Strether

      Yes. I think Outis deserves a round of applause for broaching a difficult subject and as a moderator. The NC commentariat did very well too (with a few rare exceptions).

  42. JTFaraday

    Well, look. There’s a lot of mystification here. The British industrial revolution was pretty jackbooted and centrally enabled by the government, if not exactly “centrally planned.” Dump all that 19th c German philosophistical yaya about how history is supposed to progress and think like a modern comparative historian instead. What’s the difference between the British industrial revolution and the Russian industrial revolution?

    That’s how I would approach it. Context is everything.

  43. edr

    Thank you Otis, wonderful discussion and moderation on your part.

    Thinking about the comments about housing and safety in communist USSR.

    It’s the money creation (printing) the banks are doing that is creating the housing bubbles(inflation) and crashes and the super expensive housing prices. Without the printing, housing prices would stabilize at a much lower more affordable level. The old constraints where the monthly mortgage had to be below a certain percent of monthly income would also accomplish this (law rather than beaurocracy) and the inflationary bubble would be created in a different area of the economy (maybe stocks where fewer people are affected).

  44. edr

    And forcing the banks to keep higher reserves, which means banks are restricted in the amounts of money they can create/leverage, limiting how much Inflation/bubbles they can cause in any area; Dodd-Frank has some law about that in its 1000s of pages.

  45. Foppe

    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.

    Briefly put, I think this is mostly a demographic issue that should be understood using, OT1H, Thomas Frank’s argument about the rise of the professional class and the metastasis of the bureaucratic mindset that accompanies a business as well as PPE education, coupled with Graeber’s observations about its appeal (-> The Utopia of Rules), and OTOH (and this also impacts other issues, such as ‘leftist’ support for stalinism, etc.), the fact that a lot of ‘left-leaning people’ lack a robust understanding of the principles that lead to egalitarianism, and just self-identified as ‘progressive’ for social status reasons, even as they were being educated to become the first generation in which the bureaucratic mindset pervaded everything (and if anything offends the sensibilities of bureaucrats, it’s wholesale questioning of the rules of the game in ways not covered by procedure, by the uncredentialed). So I don’t think that what you say in the second quoted para follows from the events mentioned in para one.

    (if this is too oblique, I can try to do better. Trying to put this into words in a way that makes sense to those who do not inhabit my head is a challenge, as usual.)

    I don’t really have any reading recs concerning historical communism, as I’ve never really found it all that interesting to look into. Prefer thinking about self-organization, democratization, and how/why it thus far never amounted to much yet. In that vein, I found Graeber’s little essay bundle Revolutions in Reverse quite stimulating, because it helped me see possibilities.

    1. Adams

      Interesting thoughts, although I ran out of breath before I finished your first sentence. An occasional period is helpful to those of us who have trouble walking and chewing gum at the same time. I greatly enjoy Graeber also, but think he fits better in a discussion of, say, Veblen than Marx. I would be interested in why you believe that PPE education promotes the “metastasis of the bureaucratic mindset….” Perhaps Graeber deals with this question, and I have missed it?

      1. Foppe

        Sorry about that, hadn’t had much coffee yet, so no shortness of breath. :)
        As for why PPE is part of the problem: mostly because the PP part primarily serves to encourage the thought that the people cannot be trusted (and that most everything is about proper procedures — see Rawls, utilitarianism, the analytical tradition generally), while ignoring the question what kind of politics the authors they read espoused, while the E teaches fiscal conservatism, and basically none of the reading is about questions such as non-institutional political power (whether money or grassroots organizing) and how that interfaces with politics, which leads students to see it as ‘theoretically untidy/non-ideal, but not something that we have to front and center in the analysis’. Hence incrementalism, careerism, moral relativism, and general unawareness of the reality of politics, and a tendency towards technocracy.

        On topic of Graeber: I think reading him is a very useful antidote to all of the magical thinking that passes for / is confused with Marxism, which is generally far too abstract and top-down (and too little focused, or focused in the wrong way, on making Marxian insights relevant to people’s everyday lives). Graeber to my knowledge hasn’t discussed the connection between the bureaucratic mindset and the democratization of the professional class mindset via the rise of the professional class, though I haven’t been keeping up with him recently.

    2. Outis Philalithopoulos Post author

      I think I might understand your idea. Let’s see if I can paraphrase it.

      (You think that:) A lot of people who were socially in the “left-leaning” area had in any case a fairly thin commitment to egalitarianism. That meant that they were willing, in certain cases, to talk about alternatives to the current economic system, or call themselves socialist, etc., when that had a certain conformism or fashionability in its favor. But with the rise of the professional class and accompanying attitudes about the natural superiority/right to rule of the credentialed, there was now an alternative, and one that they would tend to find attractive. This sort of shift might explain the phenomena mentioned in the first quoted paragraph.

      (I think that:) What you describe sounds like something that could have plausibly contributed. It would dovetail with a change in attitudes often attributed to communist elites, to the effect that their commitment to the system became increasingly limited to belief in rule by experts, with other aspects of official doctrine considered as mainly for public consumption.

      You may be assuming (and certainly some other readers of this thread assumed) that I somehow want the second quoted paragraph to follow from the first. I don’t – or I don’t care either way – but no alternative explanations, including both ones I’ve thought of myself, and ones that other commenters have proposed, fully explain the sequence of events.

      Elsewhere in the thread, Ulysses provided the vote totals for the 1990 congress of the PCI. 67% of the membership voted, for the first time, to renounce “democratic centralism,” i.e. internal organization of the PCI on Leninist grounds. 30% voted for organizational renewal of the party, but for remaining faithful to the heritage of the PCI.

      The vote of the 67% was, at least on its face, a vote against rule by bureaucracy; it was simultaneously presented (compare the main minority proposal) as a renunciation of the PCI’s postwar heritage. One could maybe try to argue that many in the 67% were voting not against bureaucracy, but against the current bureaucracy, which they saw as blocking their own chances for meritocratic advancement. But on the face of it, the vote pattern doesn’t support your thesis.

      Moreover, the timing is not compatible with a continuous, “demographic” development – it seems more like a rupture, and to claim that the fact that this happened in 1990 had nothing to do with 1989 strains credulity. One could argue that the legitimacy of the PCI had been mined from within by secular processes of the sort that you describe, and so a push (as provided by the events of 1989) was all that was necessary to send things crashing down. But I still don’t see a way out of the conclusion that 1989 was seen as relevant by the PCI to the question of its own aims and identity.

      1. Foppe

        Fair enough re the connection between those paras.

        As for the PCI / your exchange with Ulysses, and secondarily the French Communist Party: I’m insufficiently familiar with them (and the Italians culturally) to even begin to guess what happened there. Concerning the (somewhat more milquetoast) anarchist, pacifist and communist parties in NL, I have been talking to former members to try to find out how so much of the membership of those parties either disappeared from the (national) political landscape, or changed their party affil to a party that was already being taken over by meritocrats (labor), or to the affluent/un-educated Green Party (and NGO world). Nobody I’ve spoken to really has a definitive explanation, but my general sense is that lack of education was the main issue, leading to a tipping point at/around 1990 (at which point most of the former parliamentary labor parties had also become much less outspoken against ‘market mechanisms’, people (neoliberals) were working on the EU and Euro, etc.), after which the platforming of alternatives became much less of a thing than it had been, very quickly. (Also, life became more expensive, decently paying work started becoming harder to find, etc.)

        As for ‘votes against rule by bureaucracy’: I agree and disagree, the latter for the reason pointed out by Graeber: we lack a left critique of bureaucracy, and we are (in part because of that) mostly unable to talk about how corporate bureaucracies now rule the world. Among other things, this made it hard(er) to criticize the USSR, etc. And because that awareness is still missing, it’s also much harder than it should be to make people see the pattern formed by all the individual neoliberal dots, even as / precisely because the modern world is all supposedly about procedural justice.

        (I quite agree that it’s significant that a lot changed quickly in/around 1990, though I would point out that a lot of the groundwork had already been done. I do not agree that demographic changes don’t fit with tipping points, especially to the extent that radical groups depend on the availability of young, zealous folks with lots of spare time and energy, who don’t have children yet, to get things done, and for groups to feel vibrant. Their relative disappearance will doubtless have been keenly felt.)

  46. Adams

    Incredible comment thread. Thanks to OP for the post and for staying with the comments. NK rules.

  47. OH

    Stay down on Earth is almost always a good idea.
    Theory is vague, practice is specific, for example say billionaires instead of capitalists, say “until workers take over control of production” rather than “until capitalism is destroyed”.
    Rather than wade into historical non black and white arguments, just point out contradictions.
    Left wingers are blamed for Pol Pot? “But the Vietcong overthrew and Reagan supported Pol Pot at the UN”
    Left wingers are blamed for Hitler? “Henry Ford”
    Left wingers are blamed for Stalin? “Winston Churchill”
    Any taxes or regulations on billionaires at all is equated with Communism? “I concede that, capitalist”

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