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What was socialism ... and why we will all miss it so much.

Given its stupendous implications, the assisted suicide of actually existing socialism from 1989 to 1991 has called forth an oddly deficient intellectual reaction from intelligent onlookers and professional commentators in the West. Many of the larger if subtler aftereffects are going unremarked.

Mainstream comment has been predictably self-congratulatory and has focused narrowly on questions like which late-stage influence (the stratagems of the Polish Pope, the communications revolution, the Star Wars budgets) did the trick, or which Sovietologists have the best claim to be counted among those least amazed by the abruptness and scale of debacle.

On the left--and I do mean the chartered antitotalitarian left--a persistent impulse has been to show that the socialist project, deformed and betrayed though it was in the Russian model and its clones, is still somehow salvageable. This sentiment, doggedly appended to declarations of relief that the cold war is over, yield two main contentions. The first is that greater and timelier infusions of democracy might have saved Russian socialism. The second, a cloudier thing, is that because the continuing structural imperfections of capitalism are so alarming, a socialist option just has to be viable.

But it really is over for socialism. I don't take any pleasure in it, but for a long time, my attitude toward socialism has been something like Houdini's toward spiritualism. He wanted the afterlife to be real, and the wanted mediums to be what they said they were. But the more he probed and tested, the more disenchanted he became and the more keenly he felt the impulsion to publich his unhappiness. I feel close to him.

The truth is that whatever it has achieved practical expression, socialism is finished. While our attention has been fixed on the spectacular demolition derbies taking place in Russia, China, Cuba and Eastern Europe, in the background another long-running sequence of socialist defeats is winding up. To remain afloat, nominally socialist and social democratic parties in Europe and elsewhere jettison what used to be the basic objectives of socialism and offer programs ever more finely attuned to the imperatives of mature capitalism. Most now support thre reprivatization of industries nationalized in more heroic times at their own urging. (No sooner had Mikhail Gorbachev announced his intention to remake the Soviet union along Swedish lines than that particular demi-socialist model went, in effect, bankrupt.) Membership in trade unions, those flagship institutions of the former socialist political culture, is collapsing. Guerrilla socialism in Latin America is aggressively de-Marxifying itself. As for the enclave microsocialisms like the kibbutzim in Israel, the ejido collectives in Mexico, the Yogoslav self-managed industrial sector--whose existence provided a fallback hope for left idealists that a redeemed form of nonstate socialism might someday arise--all are in serious, probably terminal, difficulty.

But what was socialism? It's necessary to be clear about this because popular conceptions of socialism are becoming so approximate, based as they so commonly are on nostalgic afterimages of failed socialist societies or on outright caricatures produced by the victors. For the young, especially, socialism is rapidly receding into the category of anciently powerful social concept now needing a lot of contextualizing, like the phlogiston theory, the divine right of kings, the vaginal orgasm.

What socialism was supposed to be was not at all clear to the creators of actually existing socialism when the moment came to enact it in Russia. There are no blueprints for a working socialist society in Marx or Engels. Engels was especially offhand, writing in one connection that the Shaker village presented a good idea of what a future socialist society would resemble--minus the religion, of course. When it came to realizing socialism, it was all improvisation. In retrospect, probably the single most influential anticipation of actual socialism was to be found in Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward, in which the state was conceived as a corporation from which each citizen-member would receive an equal share of annual production.

At the core of the socialist project, of course, is the demand for material equality. Equality is the primary commodity socialist economies are supposed to produce. Collective ownership of the sources of wealth would, obviously, confer on everybody the right to an equal share of the total social product (or a share as equal as the temporary limitations of an economy only part of the way toward ultimate abundance would permit). This was the pure notion at the center of socialism, and its purity would remain unstained in the minds of believers despite the awkward fact that so many opportunists, thugs and incompetents won out in that struggles to become top dogs in the societies constructed around it, and despite the emerging realization that deferred equality began to look suspiciously like the permanent norm in those societies.

The strength of socialism as an ideology lay in its claim to dissolve inequality through a simple change in social format. What ensured was the great contest between socialism, with its sovereign game (Equality First), and capitalism, whose own soveriegn game was a little different: the point being to protect and extended an economic game in which some unknown proportion of the cleverest, fastest and luckiest in each generation will have a crack at getting filthy rich. This is a game that has self-evident appeal for the elite, and also for the much larger class of potential second- and third-prize winners, although it carries grievous penalties for the losers in the game, whose numbers go up during the bad times the system is fated to undergo. In any case, socialism began the contest with certain ancillary advantages. It was widely seen as representing the next upward stage in social evolution and as the apotheosis of applied science. It was also argued that socialist nations, unlike imperialistic capitalistic ones, would have no reason to make war on one another. For all those reasons, socialism captured the allegiance of many among the thoughtful and the downtrodden.

Repugnance for inequality is a determining characteristic of modern oppositional intellectuality. None of the great liberal revolutions of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries substantially undid inequality--not the destruction of monarchy, not the uprooting of the privileges of the church, not the establishment of ever more representative forms of government. The vexation of inequity continued. Some further step had to be taken. And since socialism promised that inequality was, mechanically, eliminable, that step seemed to be socialism. Now the Enlightenment agenda could be completed. When, at length, a kind of socialism came into being and then developed into the nightmare authoritarian form called communism, many intellectual partisans had to defect. But even as the conscientious defectors denounced communism, they typically restated their firm belief in the underlying value of socialism.

The above is hardly an original precis of this particular stretch of our intellectual history, but it does serve to clarify a crucial continuity in the intellectual life of our time. A tenacious, confused attachement to the ingenious predicate at the heart of socialism--equality through mandated common ownership--is subtly shaping the broad left's response to the present debacle.

It is impossible hee to enter the disputation about what was the exact mix of factors (intrinsic versus extrinsic) that produced the debacle. In any event, neither the left-hand path of revolution nor the right-hand path of elections led ultimately to a model of socialism that was competitive with capitalism, for many reasons. Historically bad timing, war, the inventiveness and energy and productivity of the capitalist alternative, military and diplomatic pressure and dirty tricks--all contributed to the outcome. And, clearly, the prospects for socialists trying to win elections were damaged everywhere as actually existing socialism evolved so grotesquely. But, at bottom, the fact is that large economic system designed for the advertised purpose of securing material equality through bureaucratic command structures could not, in a real-world ecology dominated by robust, expansionist capitalism, hope to succeed. Capitalism and socialism both have their contradictions, and it may turn out that socialism's contradictions just happened to be fatal first.

But socialism's contradictions are genuine and severe, and they have manifested themselves whether socialism constituted itself as an empire, a nation, an enclave system, a firm or an intentional community--from Comecon to Brook Farm. Even in socialisms imagined--via thought experiment--as freestanding autarkies, these contracdictions can be detected. Over time, two inevitable tendencies develop within socialism: one toward dissolution through recalcitrant, re-emergent possessive individualism; the other toward costly, coercive suppression of such impulses. There is a vast and agnostic shcolarly literature on the feasibility of socialism, and one mordant classic, Janos Kornai's The Socialist System.

The socialist experiment is over and the capitalist experiment roars to its own conclusion. For the first time in 150 years, artists, writers, poets and other unacknowledged legislators, along with the policy classes, endure the acceleration of history as tenants of a system to which no serious alternative exists. This is a poignant moment for the progressive bulk of the contemporary intellectual community. The traditional religious critique of inequality was long ago undermined for an increasingly secularized intelligentsia because it derived from untrue, if picturesque, notions about the constitution of humanking (siblinghood under God the Father), but also because of the inadequacy of the standard religious remedy for inequality--charity. Socialism provided a plausible, and blessedly secular, vessel for the passion for social justice. at the same time, it offered community, meaning and even the premium of surrogate immortality--a premium due every member in good standing of the grand, inevitable movement toward a redemptive futurity. Despite what it had become, the Soviet model functioned subliminally for many as a depository for the mummy wheat of true socialism. And, maddeningly, inequality persisted and worsened.

Certain questions of morale arise, post-debacle. There are cultural aftereffects. Here's a sampling of some of the more arresting ones:

[Section] Public political discourse, such as it is. The left exits the but the center moves right as the right goes bananas. In this country the right apparently needed the left so badly for purposes of self-definition that it has, in its craving for polarity, fabricated a faux left out of bemused, hapless, centrist liberalism. The "L" word, "femmunism," taxation-as-expropriation--it's all over right-wing talk radio and on the lips of recent right-wing Presidents. The poor are redefined as a "special interest." The center, disorganized by the strange accusations it's receiving, and lacking any prospect of defensive coalition with noticeable left entities, moves to appease its persecutors. Left policy proposals shrink in number and scope, and even when supported by the broadest array of forces the left can muster (as in the anti-NAFTA, single-payer, anti-GATT campaigns), fare badly. With the left contributing so feebly, the pool of policy options contracts. Policy makers feel the pinch.

[Section] Artists & models. The improtance that a plausible socialist model had for the premier vanguard artists and writers of the modern tradition can hardly be overstated. Rimbaud writes a constitution for a proposed socialist state; Virginia Woolf takes the minutes for her local branch of the Labor Party; Robert Bly writes in Z Magazine in 1992, "I remain a leftist." In an unconscious valedictory to this continuing, if dilute, affiliation, Allan Gurganus asks an audience, "Can anybody here name one major novelist who's a registered Republican?"

In strong and subtle ways, the belief in the attainability of a morally correct alternative society served to authorize avantgarde art as a calling. The avant-garde art product would contribute to the consciousness that could be expected to demand socialism. For the artist, this vision compensated for the risk of poverty that vanguard art entailed, and gave energy to the explicit social criticism contained in so much of modern art.

Things have been changing in the realm of the arts for some time, and some of these changes are interpretable as lagged effects of the decline of the socialist ethos. Post-debacle, one might anticipate an intensification of tendencies like these: more and more implicit religious advocacy in serious fiction, more pastiche, more decor for decor's sake in the graphic arts, heightened careerism ("Bohemia is for losers"), the pursuit of "liberation" through aesthetic explorations of sociopathy and brutality.

[Section] Moral infrastructure. Men and women who believed in socialism were responsible for creating much of the moral infrastructure of modern capitalist society. Their legacy is everywhere: trade unions, credit unions, the eight-hour day, child-labor laws, the right to conscientious objection, civil rights legislation, the varieties of social insurance, legal and accessible birth control. Major pieces of this moral infrastructure are under attack. Who will be troubled to protect and replace them? Which forces?

"Socialism is the name of my desire," Tolstoy wrote. And that was right. Because the condtions under which broadscale socialism might conceivable be achieved are so specialized and unlikely to eventuate, socialism is not a serious proposition. It's the name of a wish, not a destination. To assert that your're a socialist is like wearing a badge that says "I Care." Wearing this badge is harmless enough--unless that becomes a substitute for hard thought about how the reform impulse must now express itself and about what it can achieve in an environment in the deepening grip of a triumphalist, absolutist capitalism.

Contriving an effective post-socialist critique of contemporary capitalism will be uphill work. The political and religious right, stigmatizing anything that it sees as endangering its version of the status quo, is sealing off large areas of discussion. The xenophobes of the ultraright,with their murderous, numbskull, irrelevant propositions, are ready to come into the parlor, as they're doing in recession-struck Europe today, and not only there. Schadenfreude--or denial--will limit the willingness of many socialist thinkers to participate. But that such a critique is imperative--in the context of an expanding capitalism with a built-in drive to evade civil controls--is beyond dispute.

A new practical and ethical critique of actually existing capitalism will arrive piecemeal. It will necessarily be ad hoc, crisis-oriented, pragmatic, pluralistic in its sources. It will lack an overarching ideal. It will not amount to a repainted liberalism--a doctrine in the process of surrendering the last vestige of its oppositional character. It will be ungainly and will involve some competing, unlovely propositions. My unstartling prediction is that the new critique will be shaped predominantly by deepening fear over the environmental destructiveness of rampant capitalism, and by a spreading determination to resist it. The critique will be a collation put together by people moved to thought and action by the wide variety of shocks late capitalism can be counted on to deliver as it organizes the whole world to its liking. On the left, it used to be a terrible thing to be called a reformist, so the waning of socialism as a reference belief may have an advantage or two. Socialism wasn't exactly helpful when it came to discussions of population control, and socialist analysts devoted an inordinate amount of time to proving to the faithful, at each trough in the business cycle, that capitalism was about to self-destruct. Nevertheless, the builders of the new critique will suffer from the absence of any foundational conceit as neat and glittering as the one that socialism provided. (Persistent strife between the main factions in the green movement to date suggests how difficult reaching useful consensus in these matters will be.) For those intending to confront the contradictions of capitalism unhandicapped, there will be a novel requisite: Forget socialism, now. It's going to be very post-modern in the terrain where socialists used to browse.
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Author:Rush, Norman
Publication:The Nation
Date:Jan 24, 1994
Words:2565
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