Spartacist Canada No. 164
Critical Notes on the "Death of Communism" and the Ideological Conditions of the Post-Soviet World
By Joseph Seymour
We reprint from Workers Vanguard No. 949 (1 January) a 14 March 2009 document by Spartacist League Central Committee member Joseph Seymour. The document, slightly edited for publication, was a contribution to discussions and debates preceding the 13th National Conference of the Spartacist League, U.S. section of the International Communist League (Fourth Internationalist). For a report on the conference, see “‘Dog Days of the Post-Soviet Period’” (WV No. 948, 4 December 2009).
At our International Executive Committee plenum in early 2008, there was a discussion of and, I believe, inchoate differences over the content of the term “death of communism,” which is key to understanding the political-ideological conditions of the post-Soviet world. At the time I argued:
“An important question in the discussion of the work in South Africa and Mexico...is whether and in what sense these countries and other countries—China’s been mentioned, Greece—are an exception to what we call the ‘retrogression of consciousness’ and the ‘death of communism’ ideology. But the concept of an exception implies a norm. So what’s the norm? The overwhelming majority of our tendency is located in the advanced capitalist-imperialist countries of West Europe and North America.... It’s here that we every day, pervasively, encounter the ‘death of communism’ ideology. And I think that this has conditioned a certain skewed and deformed understanding of the radically changed ideological and political contours and divisions throughout the world.
“Almost every time we use the term ‘death of communism’ we link it to bourgeois triumphalism. We’re not talking about the triumphalism of the bourgeoisie of India or Egypt or Brazil. We’re talking about the triumphalism of the Western imperialist, centrally American, bourgeoisie. But a disbelief in the possibility of a future international communist society—and that’s the crux of the ‘death of communism’—in Third World countries is not and cannot be identified with American imperialist triumphalism and domination. What you have rather is the rise of fairly significant, with a broad base of support, political-ideological movements which claim to be opposed to American imperialist triumphalism. The obvious example is, of course, nationalist populism in Latin America exemplified by Hugo Chávez. But you also have the same phenomenon in a very right-wing way which is the rise of anti-Western Islamic fundamentalism in the Near East. Osama bin Laden, Hugo Chávez, Tony Blair, Bill Clinton all represent the ‘death of communism’ in different ways in different national contexts.”
The crux of the “death of communism” is just that: a disbelief in the historical possibility of a global communist civilization in the Marxist sense. This is a basic common ground shared by diverse political tendencies with often strongly antagonistic attitudes toward Western imperialism, parliamentary democracy, a capitalist market economy and other divisive issues (e.g., environmental degradation) separating left and right in the conventional usage of these terms.
To make sure we all understand the terms of discourse, I’ll briefly restate the main features of a fully communist society on a global scale. Economic scarcity has been overcome, thereby leading to the elimination of wage labor (“from each according to his ability; to each according to his needs”). Alienated labor has been replaced by creative, scientific and cultural work (Marx once pointed to composing music as an example of the latter). The state has withered away so that, in Engels’ words, the governing of men has been replaced by the administration of things. Racial, national and ethnic affiliation has disappeared through widespread interethnic procreation and global mobility (“the international soviet shall be the human race”). The family has been replaced by collective institutions for housework and the nurturing and socialization of children.
The overwhelming majority of self-considered leftists over the age of, say, 40 or 50 regard a future society described above as utopian. The overwhelming majority of younger leftists, represented, for example, in the “social forum” milieus, are effectively ignorant of and indifferent to the Marxist concept of a global communist civilization. Their concerns are defensive and minimalist—supporting the democratic rights of oppressed peoples (e.g., the Palestinians), halting the dismantling of the “welfare state” in West Europe, preventing the further degradation of the environment (global warming).
I’ll recast my argument by referencing Lenin’s The State and Revolution. When this work was published in 1918 and in subsequent decades, the basic difference between revolutionary Marxists and other left tendencies concerned the subject matter discussed in Chapter I (“Class Society and the State”). In it Lenin summarily states:
“The theory of Marx and Engels of the inevitability of a violent revolution refers to the bourgeois state. The latter cannot be superceded by the proletarian state (the dictatorship of the proletariat) through the process of ‘withering away,’ but, as a general rule, only through a violent revolution.” [emphasis in original]
In the post-Soviet period, the most fundamental difference between ourselves and other left tendencies concerns the subject matter discussed in Chapter V (“The Economic Basis of the Withering Away of the State”), which is summarily explained in the following passage:
“The economic basis for the complete withering away of the state is such a high stage of development of communism at which the antithesis between mental and physical labour disappears, at which there consequently disappears one of the principal sources of modern social inequality—a source, moreover, which cannot on any account be removed immediately by the mere conversion of the means of production into public property, by the mere expropriation of the capitalists.
“This expropriation will make it possible for the productive forces to develop to a tremendous extent. And when we see how incredibly capitalism is already retarding this development, when we see how much progress could be achieved on the basis of the level of technique already attained, we are entitled to say with the fullest confidence that the expropriation of the capitalists will inevitably result in an enormous development of the productive forces of human society.” [emphasis in original]
The post-Soviet generation of leftist activists cannot readily understand the ideas expounded above because they don’t think about them.
American Imperialist Triumphalism Is Not the Problem
While clarity on the question of the “death of communism” will not resolve our problems, continued unclarity will continue to aggravate our problems. The failure to recognize the most fundamental difference between ourselves and the rest of the left—that we do not share the same ultimate goal—has been an important underlying factor in recurrent political problems in the party.
While he was still Workers Vanguard editor, Jan Norden [currently of the centrist Internationalist Group] consciously and consistently regarded the “death of communism” as primarily an expression of American imperialist ideological triumphalism. Hence his belief that the 1994 Zapatista-led uprising of impoverished Indian peasants in southern Mexico was a powerful counterblow weakening, at least in Latin America, the ideological effect of the fall of the Soviet Union. Since Norden’s defection from our organization in 1996, there has been a tendency in our party to lump together under the heading of “the regression of consciousness” (a term I coined in the fight with Norden) a disbelief in a future communist society, Western imperialist triumphalism and traditional social-democratic reformism. Some comrades have argued that our basic difference with the rest of the left is over the reformability of the capitalist state, as if we were still back in the days of Lenin versus Kautsky in the immediate aftermath of the October Revolution.
A standard formulation in both our public literature and internal discourse is that the effect of the “death of communism” is “uneven” internationally. The term “uneven” implies that the effect can be quantitatively measured on a linear scale: quite high in the U.S. and France, much lower in Mexico and South Africa. As a one-time student and then teacher of academic economics, I think of a bar graph measuring and comparing, for example, per capita national output in different countries. But the differential effect internationally of the “death of communism” cannot be understood in that way. We are confronted with different forms not different levels of post-Soviet ideology.
Consider Russia in this respect. In explicating the concept of the “death of communism,” we frequently use the formulation that the former Soviet Union is viewed at best as a “failed experiment.” That is generally true in West Europe and North America. It is less true in much of the Third World. And it is not at all true in Russia. Quite the opposite. The politically dominant section of the new Russian capitalist class, represented by Vladimir Putin, views the former Soviet Union as the most successful experiment ever, so to speak, of Russian-centered state-building. In 2005, Putin declared that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century” (quoted in Edward Lucas, The New Cold War: Putin’s Russia and the Threat to the West ). I assume a similar attitude toward the former USSR is widespread throughout Russian society at large.
In the past few years, the Putin regime and the Russian elite more generally have sought to restore Stalin’s historical reputation as the premier leader of a Russian-dominated world power in the 20th century. The Russian ambassador to NATO displays a picture of Stalin in his office. A popular TV show, “The Name of Russia,” ranks Stalin as one of the country’s five greatest historical figures (Economist, 27 November 2008). In 2007, an officially sponsored educational guide, A Modern History of Russia, 1945-2006: A Teachers’ Manual, compared Stalin favorably with Peter the Great: “Stalin followed Peter the Great’s logic: demand the impossible...to get the maximum possible.” It continues:
“He [Stalin] is considered one of the most successful leaders of the USSR. The country’s territory reached the boundaries of the former Russian Empire (and in some areas even surpassed it). A victory in one of the greatest wars was won; industrialisation of the economy and cultural revolution took place successfully, resulting not only in mass education but also in the best educational system in the world. The USSR became one [of] the leading countries in science; unemployment was practically defeated.”
—quoted in Lucas, The New Cold War
Hardly the description of a “failed experiment.”
In a way it is more difficult for us to address the form taken by the “death of communism” in present-day Russia than in West Europe and North America. In the latter countries, the former Soviet Union is still primarily identified with “socialism,” not “Russian imperialism.” Stalin is viewed and generally vilified as a disciple of Marx and Engels. In Russia, Stalin is viewed and frequently extolled as the successor of Peter the Great and Catherine the Great. For many Russians, communism has not died because it never lived in the first place.
Even before the severity of the current world economic downturn became evident last fall, “free market” triumphalism had ceased to be an important current in the climate of bourgeois opinion even in the U.S. Today, prominent and respected spokesmen for American finance capital such as former Federal Reserve head Paul Volcker foresee a deep and prolonged global downturn. Comparisons with the Great Depression of the 1930s are becoming commonplace. The Tory mayor of London commented that reading the London Financial Times these days is like spending time with a millennial suicide cult. Nonetheless, no current of bourgeois opinion is now concerned with the prospect of imminent socialist revolutions anywhere or the revival of mass communist parties claiming the Marxist-Leninist tradition.
Of Ends and Means: A Historical Journey
In Chapter V of The State and Revolution in the section on “The Higher Phase of Communist Society,” Lenin wrote:
“From the bourgeois point of view, it is easy to declare that such a social order is ‘sheer utopia’ and to sneer at the socialists for promising everyone the right to receive from society, without any control over the labour of the individual citizen, any quantity of truffles, cars, pianos, etc. Even to this day, most bourgeois ‘savants’ confine themselves to sneering in this way, thereby betraying both their ignorance and their selfish defence of capitalism.”
By the term “bourgeois savants,” Lenin meant those intellectuals who avowedly supported and justified the capitalist economic system. He did not include in this category the ideological spokesmen for the Socialist (Second) International, such as Karl Kautsky, who considered himself an orthodox Marxist.
Whether by 1917-18 the right-wing leaders of the mass social-democratic parties (e.g., Friedrich Ebert in Germany, Albert Thomas in France, Emile Vandervelde in Belgium) subjectively still believed in a future socialist society is another question. In all likelihood they did not. But neither did they publicly repudiate the traditional goal of the socialist movement as a utopian project.
At the beginning of the German Revolution, in November 1918, the centrist Independent Social Democratic Party presented a series of conditions (demands) for a coalition government with the Social Democratic Party (SPD) on the basis of the then existing workers and soldiers councils. The first of these was: “Germany should be a socialist republic.” To this the SPD leadership responded: “This demand is the goal of our own policy. However, the people must decide on this through the constituent assembly” (quoted in John Riddell, ed., The German Revolution and the Debate on Soviet Power: Documents, 1918-1919: Preparing the Founding Congress ). In attacking the Bolshevik Revolution and the nascent Communist International, the social-democratic leaders primarily condemned the dictatorship of the proletariat as a violation of democracy, which they identified with a parliamentary-type government elected by universal and equal suffrage.
Here it is useful to look at Lenin’s Moscow, a memoir written in the late 1940s-early 1950s by Trotsky’s colleague and friend Alfred Rosmer. Rosmer had been an anarchist and then a leading revolutionary syndicalist intellectual in France before adhering to the newly formed Communist International. In this memoir, Rosmer recounts the initial reaction to Lenin’s The State and Revolution among both “orthodox” social democrats like Kautsky and Jean Longuet (Marx’s grandson) and among anarchists:
“It was an extraordinary book and it had a strange destiny. Lenin, a Marxist and a social democrat, was treated as an outcast by the theoreticians of the socialist parties which claimed to be Marxist. ‘It isn’t Marxism,’ they shrieked, ‘it’s a mixture of anarchism and Blanquism.’ One of them even found a witty turn of phrase and called it ‘Blanquism with sauce tartare.’ On the other hand, for revolutionaries situated outside the mainstream of orthodox Marxism, for the syndicalists and anarchists, this Blanquism, sauce and all, was a pleasant revelation. They had never heard such language from the Marxists they knew.”
Louis-Auguste Blanqui (1805-1881) was the last major representative of the Jacobin communist tradition that originated with Babeuf’s Conspiracy of Equals in the latter days of the French Revolution. The Babouvist conception of communism (developed in a pre-industrial society) was one of distribution and consumption rather than production and the overcoming of economic scarcity. However, in labeling Lenin a “Blanquist,” Kautsky, Longuet, et al. were not referring to that aspect of the Jacobin communist outlook. By Lenin’s “Blanquism” they meant the insurrectionary overthrow of the capitalist state organized and led by a revolutionary vanguard party.
As Rosmer pointed out, The State and Revolution was well-received by many anarchists and syndicalists, some of whom thought that Lenin was moving from Marxism toward their own political camp. However, more doctrinally knowledgeable anarchists understood that while Lenin agreed with them on the need for the insurrectionary overthrow of the bourgeois state, he still maintained, indeed emphasized, the Marxist program of the dictatorship of the proletariat as a transition to a fully communist society. In this regard, Rosmer cites an imprisoned German anarchist, Erich Mühsam, writing in 1919:
“The theoretical and practical theses of Lenin on the accomplishment of the revolution and the communist tasks of the proletariat have provided a new basis for our action.... There are no more insurmountable obstacles to a unification of the whole revolutionary proletariat. It is true that the communist anarchists have had to yield on the most important point of disagreement between the two great tendencies of socialism. They have had to abandon Bakunin’s negative attitude to the dictatorship of the proletariat and accept Marx’s opinion on this point.”
For Mühsam, the “disagreement” between Bakunin and Marx over the dictatorship of the proletariat concerned the means to achieve a shared ultimate goal: a classless, egalitarian and stateless society.
We all know that in a political polemic the ideas and positions that are not argued against are in their own way as important as those that are argued against. One does not argue against positions that one’s opponent does not hold and especially where there is a common ground. For example, in polemicizing against black liberals and leftist radicals in the U.S. we do not refute the false notion expounded by some right-wing racists that blacks are “inferior” to whites. In 1918-20, Lenin and Trotsky each wrote a book-length polemic against Kautsky. Nowhere in either The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky or Terrorism and Communism do they argue against the position that a communist society in the Marxist sense is utopian since Kautsky did not hold such a position.
Let’s fast forward to the late 1930s, when the international Communist movement had become completely Stalinized. Specifically, let’s consider the young Maxime Rodinson, a French Jewish intellectual who later became a prominent left-wing scholar writing on the Near East and Islamic society. In a 1981 essay, “Self-Criticism,” he recalled the mindset that caused him to join the French Communist Party in 1937 (he left in 1958):
“Adherence to Communism entailed, and still entails, commitment to a struggle that is supposed to enable humanity to accomplish an essential and eminently beneficial leap: to put an end to a system that permanently produces poverty and crime, that subjugates and condemns millions of people throughout the world to an atrocious life, or even to death. The intent is to create a liberated humanity in which all can blossom to the full extent of their best potential, in which the collective of free beings will control the administration of things and will lay down the minimum of rules indispensable for harmonizing relations among human beings.”
—Cult, Ghetto, and State: The Persistence of the Jewish Question (1983)
As an intellectual, Rodinson could articulate the liberating goals of Marxism better than the many millions of young workers who joined the Communist parties in France and Italy, India and Vietnam and elsewhere during the Stalin era. Nonetheless, many of these workers—not all, to be sure—were also motivated by a future vision of all-sided social liberation. They did not view the Communist parties only as political agencies to defend and further their economic and other social (e.g., national) interests within the existing capitalist-imperialist system.
In general, politically advanced workers and leftist intellectuals who supported the mass social-democratic parties did not share the Marxist conception of a genuinely communist society. But they, too, aspired to a radically different and better society than their own. In 1961, the left social-democratic British intellectual Ralph Miliband published a book highly critical of the Labour Party titled Parliamentary Socialism: A Study of the Politics of Labour. The book came out in the immediate aftermath of a failed attempt by the party’s right-wing leaders to scrap Clause IV of Labour’s 1918 constitution. Clause IV was generally seen as Labour’s maximal program: “To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible, upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange.” In describing the battle over Clause IV in 1959-60, Miliband wrote: “In the face of the violent resistance [by the party’s working-class base] this encountered, the proposal had to be dropped.” By the 1980s no one would still have used the term “parliamentary socialism” to encapsulate the program or even official doctrine of the British Labour Party. And in 1995, Clause IV was dropped from the party’s formal program at a special conference despite opposition from some of the big unions.
In the early to mid 1960s, there was a leftward radicalization among student-youth and some older intellectuals in the U.S. One institutionalized expression of this was the annual Socialist Scholars Conference in New York City. In 1966, the organizers of the conference invited Marxist historian Isaac Deutscher to give a presentation on “socialist man.” At the time, the cultural and psychological character of a truly socialist society, how people would think and act, was a matter of intense interest among young leftist intellectuals not only in the U.S. but throughout the world. For example, in the early 1960s Che Guevara was writing about eliminating alienated labor in “socialist” Cuba. For a retrospective analysis of Guevara’s thoughts on this question, see “‘Radical Egalitarian’ Stalinism: A Post Mortem,” in Spartacist No. 25 (Summer 1978). In his presentation on “socialist man,” Deutscher addressed a number of issues that the post-Soviet generation of leftist activists do not think about at all.
Huntington Versus Fukuyama Revisited
My thinking about the “death of communism” and the ideological conditions of the post-Soviet world was initially mainly developed in the course of informal discussions with Norden between 1991 and his departure from our organization in 1996. As previously noted, Norden identified the “death of communism” primarily as an expression of American imperialist triumphalism. Thus he often linked the term to George Bush’s formula of a “new world order” proclaimed at the time of the 1991 Gulf War against Iraq. Norden believed that the recognition by the main body of our tendency’s leadership that the character of the post-Soviet period was marked by a historic retrogression in the political consciousness of the working class internationally was a capitulation to the pressures of American imperialist triumphalism.
Norden’s approach to this question was influenced by the views of a right-wing (then neo-conservative) American intellectual, Francis Fukuyama, who declared that the collapse of the Soviet bloc signaled the “end of history.” An oversimplified version of Fukuyama’s “end of history” thesis became widely known among what can be called the educated American public, the kind of people who subscribed to the New York Review of Books and occasionally read Foreign Affairs. I don’t know if Norden actually read Fukuyama. I did and I also read those right-of-center American bourgeois ideologues, notably Samuel P. Huntington and Zbigniew Brzezinski, who strongly disagreed with Fukuyama’s rosy vision of the post-Soviet world. I’m reviewing this debate because it’s useful in understanding the relationship of the “death of communism” to the various currents of post-Soviet bourgeois ideology especially in (but not limited to) the Western capitalist countries.
Fukuyama took the term and concept of the “end of history” from German philosopher Georg Hegel. Hegel used that expression to describe the world-historic consequences of the 1806 battle of Jena in which the army of Napoleonic France defeated the Kingdom of Prussia. In the aftermath the French occupied and governed western and southern Germany. Hegel was one of a small number of prominent German intellectuals who supported and collaborated with the Napoleonic regime that he considered to be historically progressive.
Hegel’s concept of the “end of history” had both a negative and a positive component. The negative component was that the dominant ideology of late feudal Europe—monarchical absolutism sanctioned and supported by the Christian churches—had lost its former power to shape the future course of history. The positive component was that the liberal principles of the French Revolution as understood by Hegel (and represented for him by Napoleon) had become all-conquering in the realm of ideas and over time a new sociopolitical order would be established throughout Europe in conformity with the new zeitgeist (spirit of the age).
Likewise, Fukuyama’s version of the “end of history” had negative and positive components. The negative component was, of course, the “death of communism”:
“While communist power persists in the world, it has ceased to reflect a dynamic and appealing idea. Those who call themselves communists now find themselves fighting continuous rearguard actions to preserve something of their former position and power. Communists now find themselves in the unenviable position of defending an old and reactionary social order whose time has long since passed, like the monarchists who managed to survive into the twentieth century.”
—The End of History and the Last Man (1992)
Fukuyama here expressed a common coin among all currents of post-Soviet bourgeois ideology.
It was the positive conclusions he drew from the collapse of the Soviet bloc that was the crux of his “end of history” thesis. He maintained that the sociocultural values and corresponding economic and political institutions of the Western capitalist world would eventually prevail on a global scale:
“It is against this background that the remarkable worldwide character of the current liberal revolution takes on special significance. For it constitutes further evidence that there is a fundamental process at work that dictates a common evolutionary pattern for all human societies—in short, something like a Universal History of mankind in the direction of liberal democracy....
“And if we are now at a point where we cannot imagine a world substantially different from our own, in which there is no apparent or obvious way in which the future will represent a fundamental improvement over our current order, then we must also take into consideration the possibility that History itself might be at an end.” [emphasis in original]
Fukuyama’s notion of a universally triumphant “liberal revolution” came under heavy fire from some prominent intellectual spokesmen for American imperialism. His main antagonist was Samuel P. Huntington who counterposed his own “clash of civilizations” thesis to Fukuyama’s “end of history.” Referring specifically to Fukuyama, he commented condescendingly: “The moment of euphoria at the end of the Cold War generated an illusion of harmony, which was soon revealed to be exactly that” (The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order ). To be sure, Huntington agreed with Fukuyama that there would never again be powerful states or an international political movement having mass support that claimed to represent a universal alternative such as communism to Western-type capitalism and “democracy.” But he maintained that much of the world—in particular Russia, the Islamic East and China—would be dominated by anti-Western governments and political movements based on national and religio-cultural values and traditions:
“In this new world the most pervasive, important, and dangerous conflicts will not be between social classes, rich and poor, or other economically defined groups, but between peoples belonging to different cultural entities....
“The West is and will remain for years to come the most powerful civilization. Yet its power relative to that of other civilizations is declining. As the West attempts to assert its values and to protect its interests, non-Western societies confront a choice. Some attempt to emulate the West and to join or to ‘bandwagon’ with the West. Other Confucian and Islamic societies attempt to expand their own economic and military power to resist and to ‘balance’ against the West. A central axis of post-Cold War world politics is thus the interaction of Western power and culture with the power and culture of non-Western civilizations.”
The Huntington/Fukuyama debate underscores the need for us to differentiate between belief in the “death of communism,” which is pervasive and still current, and the limited and short-lived American imperialist triumphalism in the immediate aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union.
Brief Concluding Thoughts
A very important question confronting us can be formulated in this way: is it possible that a spontaneous upheaval, involving a substantial section of the working class, against a right-wing government can lead to a prerevolutionary and even a revolutionary situation (i.e., organs of dual power) even though the mass of workers and other toilers involved do not aspire to socialism? I think the answer is yes. While we have not experienced such a development, we should not rule it out. For now, our primary task is to propagate a Marxist worldview with the expectation of recruiting relatively small numbers of leftist intellectuals and advanced workers. To paraphrase John Maynard Keynes: when the facts change, so will our perspectives.