by Ellen Isaacs
It is now said that over 50% of young Americans would prefer socialism, usually equated with democratic socialism. instead of capitalism, Also called democratic socialist are nations that provide more benefits to workers than the US or profess their desire to do so, from Scandinavia to South America. Even before several new young US politicians calling themselves democratic socialists were elected, even before Bernie Sanders ran for President, the most widely admired left of center American social critics also identified themselves this way.
But these same critics of capitalism are steadfastly anti-revolutionary. That is, they do not want to take power away from the capitalist class, but believe that capitalism can be reformed to provide for the needs of all and do away with evils like racism and sexism. Their refusal to consider radical change is based primarily on their anti-communism, their belief that the attempts to replace capitalism with a worker-run state – communism – failed because of inherent defects in human nature, such as individualism, materialism, and greed. While they probe deeply to expose the shortcomings of capitalism, they believe without question every horror story promoted by the bourgeoisie to prove that communism is irretrievably evil and fail to consider that fatal errors were made that need not be repeated.
We would like to examine the arguments of several of the most admired democratic socialist writers and activists and show why they cannot be looked to for leadership on how to bring about meaningful social change. Then we will discuss the reality of social democratic states and some of the fallacies of the widespread anti-communist paradigm.
Right on the cover, it says it: This Changes Everything. Capitalism Vs. the Climate. Klein’s book brilliantly lays out the evidence to support the most alarming conclusions: “climate change has become an existential crisis for the human species. ….We [are] almost certainly going to put our civilization in peril if we [keep] going about or daily lives as usual, doing exactly what we [are] already doing”(p 15). She then goes on to inform the reader for 466 pages of the many ways in which the drive for profits propels corporate and political leaders to continue down this destructive path.
Unfortunately, we will find that her plan is for capitalism, with a few modifications, to stick around anyway. “It would be reckless to claim that the only solution to this crisis is to revolutionize our economy and revamp our worldview from the bottom up”(p 25). Partly this conclusion reflects the fact that something must be done sooner than it is feasible to carry off a revolution, and she calls on us to “make incremental change for breathing room”(p26). But her ultimate aim is not much different. In her conclusion, she states: “If change is to take place it will only be because leadership bubbles up from below. Build fleeting pockets of liberated space.” What she is calling for is more and more “effervescent” movements of ordinary people, indigenous tribes, small farmers, students, and community co-ops that somehow “must be catalyst[s] to build the world that will keep us all safe”(p466). That’s it. That’s the plan.
Klein largely bases her faith in the ability to reform capitalism on her belief that the nature of capitalism fundamentally changed in the 1970s with the neoliberals’ rise in influence. She is sure that we can revert to a form of capitalism from an earlier era where “it’s…possible to require corporations to pay decent wages, to respect the right of workers to form unions, and for government to tax and redistribute wealth so the sharp inequalities that mark the corporatist state are reduced”(Shock Doctrine, p25). She then cites the New Deal as her prime example of reformed capitalism, while not considering that those measures were taken to save capitalism from mass rebellions and, when this purpose had been served and war intervened to save the economy, some were promptly dissolved. Others, like social security, many politicians are still trying to limit today.
Some may say that Klein is restraining herself from calling for the actual overthrow of capitalism in order to get published. If that were so, she might have not inserted her remarks on communism on page 44 of her climate book: “When powerful ideologies are challenged by hard evidence from the real world, they rarely die off completely…A few of the faithful always remain to tell one another that the problem wasn’t the ideology; it was the weakness of leaders who did not apply the rules with sufficient rigor. (Lord knows there is still a smattering of such grouplets on the neo-Stalinist far left.)” In the early pages of The Shock Doctrine, she is even more vitriolic, accusing communism of “wiping out entire peoples and cultures in order to fulfill a purified vision of the world….Forced famines, work camps and assassinations…stemmed from the ideology invoked, as opposed to its distortion by its adherents like Stalin, Mao, Ceausescu and Pol Pot” (p8).
A Pulitzer Prize winning author and former New York Times war correspondent, Hedges is now a touted blogger, writer and speaker to be found at nearly every large left-leaning gathering. He is not shy about decrying the fascist direction of the present day corporate state. “Corporations will continue to strip us of our remaining rights, carry out the deadly assault on the ecosystem, impoverish workers, make a mockery of our democracy and cannibalize what is left of the country. The system of corporate power is incapable of reform. It must be destroyed. “ However, he is determined that this destruction will be nonviolent and “corporate power …will be overthrown only from the streets in sustained acts of civil disobedience” (http://www.opednews.com/articles/2/Revolution-Is-in-the-Air-by-Chris-Hedges-Capitol_Corporate_Democracy_Protest-Civil-Disobedience-160416-425.html).
If this method seems unlikely to produce an overthrow, that may not really be the intent, for Hedges usually espouses a much more limited goal. In fact, later in the same article, he says: “It is not our job to take power,” a phrase that he often repeats. “It is our job to keep power constantly off balance and fearful of overstepping its reach to pillage on behalf of the elites… By joining boycotts, demonstrations, strikes, hunger fasts and popular movements, by carrying out acts of civil disobedience, we ignite our souls, we create another narrative, another way of being, and we expose the dead hand of authority. The elites are in trouble. They have lost credibility. Neoliberalism and globalization have been unmasked as tools of corporate exploitation.”
So that’s it, let’s unmask them. Then what? In another article he says, as he often does that “the ideas that buttress the old ruling elite no longer hold sway, but we haven’t articulated something to take its place…We on the left are very disorganized, unfocused and weak” (Salon, 6/4/15). Although he states that much of left organizing has been attacked and destroyed in the name of anti-communism, he completely buys into it himself. He is suspicious of any grouping that is organized enough to actually take power. At the Left Forum in 2016, he said: ”A central committee, like Lenin’s Bolsheviks, because it is ruthless, secretive and highly disciplined, is capable of carrying out a counter-revolution to take control of and crush the democratic aspirations of the workers. But such organizations are not the primary engine of revolution.” Thus he falsely implies that somehow the Bolsheviks took power without having masses of workers and soldiers with them, deserting the trenches and overturning the bourgeois-democratic Kerensky government. Moreover, he somehow wants to avoid the necessity of a disciplined and clandestine organization if one actually aims to overthrow the state.
But of course, Hedges doesn’t want this at all. Just outrage. In fact he is most concerned with one’s own moral purity. Of course, one must be a good person –honest, empathetic and courageous – to be a good organizer, but for Hedges, “you rebel not only for what you can achieve, but for who you become.”
Another member of the morally motivated movement who would have us rebel more for the sake of our individual souls than for the changes we can make is Dr. West. As he said in a public conversation with Hedges on 10/15/2015, rebelling is about individual courage and integrity. There is a moral imperative to revolt.
West declares himself to be a social democrat and to support worker control in all areas. However, as with social democracy in general, which we will discuss more later, what is missing is the question of power. Like his social democratic contemporaries, West is convinced that the communist idea has been spent. “In a time in which Communist regimes have been rightfully discredited and yet alternatives to neoliberal capitalist societies are unwisely dismissed, I defend the fundamental claim of Marxist theory: there must be countervailing forces that defend people’s needs against the brutality of profit driven capitalism” (Cornel West, The Cornel West Reader). Echoing distress over the same injustices as other voices discussed herein, he also has a similar remedy: ”Our last hope is to generate a democratic awakening among our fellow citizens. This means raising our voices, very loud and strong, bearing witness, individually and collectively. In many instances we will be stepping out on nothing, and just hoping to land on something.” (https://www.thenation.com/article/cornel-west-v-barack-obama/ ). The main tactic is to be civil disobedience and even conditionally supporting liberal candidates like Sanders.
This author has an international audience as she writes about her country of India where inequality and misery dwarf conditions in the West. In a population of 1.2 billion, 100 own wealth equal to one fourth of the GDP, and 80% live on under $50/day. In her famous account of living in the central forest with Maoist guerillas and local people fighting displacement by mining and banking mega-corporations, Walking With the Comrades, she becomes sympathetic with their military tactics.
“If you’re an adivasi [tribal Indian] living in a forest village and 800 CRP [Central Reserve Police] come and surround your village and start burning it, what are you supposed to do? Are you supposed to go on hunger strike? Can the hungry go on a hunger strike? Non-violence is a piece of theatre. You need an audience. What can you do when you have no audience? People have the right to resist annihilation”
Of course, Roy too, is determined that even violent resistance must not have communism as its goal. “The first step toward re-imagining a world gone terribly wrong would be to stop the annihilation of those who have a different imagination – an imagination that is outside of capitalism as well as communism…I’m not a Maoist ideologue, because the communist movements in history have been just as destructive as capitalism” (http://www.adbusters.org/article/arundhati-roy/). She believes in the tales of horror as told by Stalin’s enemies , “millions of ordinary people, almost half of the 75,000 Red Army officers jailed or shot”, and ”the huge price paid for China’s Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution” (Walking p 209). So not only does she wish for a vaguely imagined better world with a return to the unspoiled values of primitive peoples, but she doesn’t deal at all with the situation of the vast ranks of the urban and village poor who would need to be the main backbone of any movement capable of actually overthrowing the state.
What is the Alternative?
There are several major questions that must be answered. First and foremost is what are we fighting for? If the purpose of analyzing the world is to change it, as Marx stated, then there is little to be said for the idea of seeking one’s own moral vindication by standing up for the good. The poor and hungry majority of the people of the world care not that someone somewhere is good, even many someones. They need a good system that will prioritize the quality of life for ordinary people.
Democratic socialists (a supposedly more left term than social democrats) would have us believe that capitalism can be re-ordered peacefully to become good. It’s as if one could take the need to make profits and be competitive out of capitalism. But this is not a moral question, it is a basic economic dictum. A capitalist enterprise exists only for the purpose of making money, not for the sake of what it produces as such but only the ability to sell that product. If sequined earmuffs sell, so be it. For if the producer does not sell at a profit, he or she will not attract investments or financing and will fail.
Moreover, this basic property of capitalism does not come and go with neoliberalism or neoconservatism or with good times or bad. It is certainly true that the whole system is more stable if workers are better remunerated and have better services like housing and schools. Happy workers are more loyal to capitalism and the state, and when profits are high, conditions may be better for workers.
To be sure, many tremendous gains have also been made through workers’ struggles, such as the shorter workday, health insurance, pension plans or maternity leave. However, no such gains are fixed or permanent. As soon as they are won, the move is on to take them back. This may take the form of price increases or inflation or demanding give-backs at the next round of contract negotiations. Under neoliberalism, what is different is only use of regulations and government subsidies to limit the redistribution of wealth from the top.
When and if discontent from below becomes too great, the system may have to bend a little. The partial success of the Fight for $15 campaign is a move in that direction, although $15/hour is probably about half of a minimum livable wage. There is also a need to keep wages just high enough so that workers can buy goods, another impetus for a little give in the system. Meanwhile, racism and patriotism are built to diminish struggle by dividing workers and fool them about whom their real enemies are.
The other major delusion of the reformers of capitalism is that the state is separate from the interests of capitalists and can choose to redistribute the wealth. As Marx pointed out so many years ago and Chomsky still attests, the state is the instrument of capitalist rule, providing the armed force necessary to break strikes, conquer new markets, put down rebellions and intimidate the poor, especially those of color, in a day-to-day way. Large upheavals, like the 1960s urban rebellions, have been counteracted with broad strategies besides outright force, ranging from promoting black politicians to create illusions of change, to flooding communities with drugs followed by mass incarceration as a means to oppress the black population.
The Actual Experience of Social Democracy
Given the axiomatic rules of capitalism, it makes no sense to posit that capitalism can be changed so that profits become secondary to workers’ needs and desires. Proponents of this idea usually point to Scandinavian and South American countries to prove their point. In Sweden, Social Democrats were in power from 1932-76 and again since 1982, but 90% of corporations are privately owned. The economy experienced downturns in the 1990s due to bank deregulation and a housing bubble, and again in 2008, along with everyone else. The result was the usual also – a cut in benefits for the working class. In 2013, unemployment was 9% and 29% among 15-25 year olds. Sweden has the fastest growth in class differences within the OECD countries. In Norway, the most generous of all the Nordic countries, the fall in world oil prices, has devastated the economy, causing layoffs and unemployment and a rise in indebtedness, bankruptcies, and strikes. There is no escape from capitalist crises in a capitalist economy.
In South and Central America, some attempts at social democratic reform, as in Chile or Guatemala, which were threatening to the US capitalist class and not supported by armed popular movements, were simply militarily wiped out. In others, like El Salvador or Nicaragua, there was more prolonged armed struggle, but ultimately the victorious reform governments were defeated by their own weak ideology and proved tolerable capitalist neighbors. In Venezuela it was a somewhat different story. Venezuela had economic strength due to its vast oil resources, and this wealth enabled Chavez to distribute many benefits to the population, However, the economy remained a market one and relied on a single product, oil. The US was primarily angered because Chavez developed closer ties with China and Cuba, as opposed to the US. There was no mass communist movement involving power or decision making in the hands of the workers, nor any development of other sectors, such as agriculture. As a result, when oil prices tumbled, the economy went into free fall. Masses of poor people are now facing severe food shortages and crossing the border into Colombia searching for food.
Other so-called socialist regimes in Brazil, Bolivia and Ecuador have similarly retained capitalist economies, even though they have tried to be somewhat more generous to the poor. But nowhere has there been a mass-based party that was actually running society or had armed power. So one by one, all these regimes have failed to deliver lasting reforms and have been defeated by coups, lost elections or fiat, often orchestrated by the US.
What Must Be Done, Better This time
Ultimately, the only way to do away with the evils of capitalism is to do away with capitalism. That means replacing the rule of the capitalist class with the rule of the working class. And there is no way that the capitalists will allow that to happen peacefully. They have the power of large armies and police forces and massive weaponry, including nuclear bombs, that they can use to try and maintain power, and use them they will. One thing that world history has taught is that the ruling classes will use their power with no regard for the loss of life or suffering they cause, none more so than the US. From the two nuclear weapons dropped on Japan, to the millions killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, to the tolerance of mass poverty and food insufficiency at home, no one has less regard for human life or more power to destroy it than the US ruling class. As it continues to lose its position of unchallenged economic and military supremacy in the world, it will become an ever more dangerous menace (see The Decline of US Imperialism on this blog).
There can also be no doubt that to overthrow such a powerful force as the modern capitalist state, a large and well-organized movement is necessary. There will need to be organizing within the military to win soldiers and sailors to turn the guns around; there will need to be job actions within industry to shut down production. In addition, communities will need to rise up against the police and students against reactionary schools. The majority of the populace will have to be won to see that politicians and other so-called leaders, like most union heads and prelates, cannot be relied upon. Workers must be won to overcoming all divisions by race, gender, ethnicity or religion to unite on the basis of class. Most important, workers and students must know what kind of society they are fighting for, an egalitarian one run by themselves, that has maximizing their quality of life as its highest goal. Only then will it be possible to have a chance at getting rid of capitalism. Such a society has only one name – communism.
No such revolution can occur unless the capitalist social fabric has deteriorated to a great extent and crises like war and/or climate disaster are imminent or present, but even then it will not occur unless there is a strategy in place to carry it out and a large group of organizers whose experience and leadership are respected. Nonetheless, two revolutions have occurred in the last century, in the Soviet Union and China. There is no denying that they both have devolved back to capitalism, the greatest obstacle to overcome in winning workers to communism today. However, the question is whether they made identifiable mistakes which can be remedied, or whether the failure is inherent in communism itself.
The authors discussed above have all come to the conclusion that the latter is correct. It is astonishing that they draw their conclusions from statements of capitalist media, academia and politicians without the same critical eye with which they dissect capitalism itself. All tales of mass murder, starvation, coercion, and monstrous leaders are taken at face value. Stalin and Mao were just as bad as Hitler, and it was communism that made them that way or brought them to the top. It is true you have to do some digging to find a more balanced narrative, but it is there for those who will seek it out.
From early on there were historians and journalists who told a balanced story of the Russian revolution. From John Reed to William Duranty, from J. Arch Getty to Yuri Zhukov, and John Scott to Ludo Martens. Recently, Grover Furr has published several extremely well documented books, Blood Lies and Khrushev Lied, and Stalin, Waiting for..the Truth, including all his original source materials, which contradict the widely accepted untruths about Stalin from Khruschev and anti-communist authors Timothy Snyder and Stephen Kotkin . Many other articles and sources for a balanced view of Stalin and Soviet history can be found at https://msuweb.montclair.edu/~furrg/politics.html#STALIN. Journalist Jeff Coplon published an article in the Village Voice on 1/12/88 that documents the purposeful fraud in the films, books and textbooks describing the so-called Ukraine famine of 1932-3. Most of these resources and the sources they quote have been available for many years, but they have been suppressed or ignored in the attempt to paint communism with a black brush. The lies and distortions have been swallowed whole, even by the liberal pundits.
The Chinese experience has been similarly slandered, especially the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. Instead of being portrayed as efforts to correct the bureaucracy and elitism that had infected the Chinese Communist Party, the Cultural Revolution is vilified as senseless mass slaughters carried out by workers rendered mindless by red propaganda. As an antidote, one might read the inspiring tales of the early struggle and victory such as Red Star Over China by Edgar Snow, The Great Road by Agnes Smedley or Fanshen by William Hinton. A contemporary, Dongping Han, has written his own account of the huge benefits of the Cultural Revolution in his rural village, The Untold Story of the Cultural Revolution.
In addition, the negative propaganda surrounding these two valiant attempts at revolution hides all the achievements that were made. The Soviet Union managed to industrialize with amazing speed and inspire its people and communist resistance movements around the world to defeat the Nazi onslaught. Despite the failure to implement communist principles in many areas of life and work, there were aspects of workplace democratization that were implemented (see Cement, by Gladkov). Much greater availability of education, health care and housing was had than ever before. In China, massive gains in literacy, life expectancy and health, and education were made, elevating ignorant peasants to political leaders and creative producers within a generation.
If we try and analyze why these momentous revolutions did not sustain communist societies, we may consider several factors. In the USSR, they believed that the vast peasantry could not be won to communist ideas, as opposed to the industrialized work force, and so many concessions were made to private property and individualism. In the belief that a rapid increase in the standard of living must be the immediate goal – bread, peace and land – many forms of capitalist differentials in wages and privileges were maintained. Nationalism, a bit anyway, was tolerated. Communism would be something that would come later.
In China, it was believed that peasants could make revolution, but here too the evolution to communism was viewed as a two- stage process. While it was not obvious from the outset, concessions to bourgeois ideology had drastic, lasting effects. So for one thing, we must make communist relations and production primary and make sure that as many millions of people as possible are won to these ideas from the outset. We will then, no doubt, make new mistakes, but hopefully not fatal ones.
In sum, it must be concluded that there is no way to end capitalist exploitation and imperialist war except by ending capitalism. This will, of necessity, involve a protracted and violent struggle against a vicious, powerful and determined enemy. There is no doubt that revolutionary conditions do not exist today, but how we organize and think in the present will determine our ability to act definitively in the future. The methods of our current organizing will also be influenced by our long-term goals. First, we must rely on rank and file organizing, not on choosing among politicians, union officers or prelates. Second, we must build ties among workers and students throughout the world on the basis of class, while fighting all attempts to divide us by ethnicity, color, gender, or religion. Third, we must never shrink from militant confrontation when we are in a position to win, and we must interject revolutionary ideas into every struggle. If people do not understand that the gains of reform struggles, even if won, will always be temporary, they will become disheartened. These fights must be seen as opportunities for education, gaining experience as leaders, and winning more hearts and minds. Even if struggle is not occurring at any given time, we must be engaging our friends and neighbors, fellow students and workers in study and debate, as well as building strong personal ties, and try to win them to make a commitment to the long-term movement. Then, just maybe, we may have our chance to get rid of capitalism and build communism, better this time.