I’ve been fascinated with the Soviet Union for most of my adult life. It started with my reading of Zizek, but eventually took on a life of its own. Contrary to the stereotypes of the USSR as a grey and static country, it is a really sui generis social experiment that lurched through a lot of very significant changes — especially at the very end. The occasion for this post is that I just finished reading Vladislav M. Zubok’s Collapse: The Fall of the Soviet Union, which is a detailed and engaging account of the USSR’s last days. I learned a huge amount from reading this book, but as a more theoretically-oriented reader, I was a little frustrated by its “just the facts ma’am” mode. Hence I’m going to let off some steam by reflecting — very much in the mode of an enthusiastic amateur, not an expert — on the biggest can of worms of late 20th-century history: whether the USSR had to fall.
In Neoliberalism’s Demons, available wherever fine books are sold, I argue that the right-wing reaction is not a necessary outcome of neoliberalism — in particular, that it does not represent either a reactivation of “leftover” social elements (such as the nation or race, both of which are integral to neoliberalism) or a response to “legitimate grievances” (the long-discredited “economic anxiety” argument for explaining why people support Trump). It is a legible outgrowth of neoliberalism, indeed a parody of it, but not some kind of inner necessity or destiny. Trump in particular was a terrible fluke that was only possible due to our baroque constitutional apparatus, not an expression of the Deep Truth of America or, especially, the will of the people (who voted overwhelmingly against him).
In Q&A sessions, though, people have asked me why, even if we concede that Trump was in some sense a fluke, there nonetheless seems to be a global trend of right-wing reaction. I regret not coming up with this on the spot, but further reflection indicates that the reason the right-wing has been able to seize the moment of neoliberal decline is that there is no longer a live left option. They are winning more or less by default. And the reason there is no live left option is that the Soviet Union collapsed, thereby discrediting the extreme left for a generation. Whether this is fair or not — and whether the Soviet Union was even representative of a plausible range of outcomes for an extreme left agenda — it is indeed the case. There are still Communist countries out there, but they appear to be either impoverished outliers (like Cuba or North Korea), or else appear to all the world as having embraced capitalism (China mainly, but also Vietnam). There is no self-assertive, international leftist movement with the power base of an actual country and military behind it.
The giveaway is that the homeland of the right-wing reaction is first of all Russia itself (Putin) and that the worst offenders in Europe were most often in the Warsaw Pact (Hungary, Poland). Huh, I wonder why these countries, after being failed by the neoliberal order, would embrace the extreme right and not the extreme left? If you remember that the Soviet Union once existed, the answer is obvious. But no one remembers the Soviet Union existed.
(I think you can even fit India and Turkey into this narrative, though I admit I don’t know as much about the details of their internal politics. I won’t embarrass myself by opining beyond the limits of my expertise.)
If this is the case, then I would suggest that the only hope for actually beating back the right-wing reaction is either for the extreme left to take over a major country (best of all, of course, would be the AOC Revolutionary Junta here in America, while we’re dreaming) — or else we can cross our fingers that China is still pursuing the goal of socialism but playing the “long game” of developing the means of production and that it eventually starts asserting itself more directly internationally. (The Belt and Road project could point in that direction, but again, I just don’t know enough to be sure.) I am pretty certain, though, that David Harvey is wrong and China is not helpfully characterized as “neoliberal,” meaning that there is at least one major economy in the world where a noticeably different economic model is an actuality — though China is doing all they can to obscure that, perhaps in part because they saw what happens when an assertive Communist power bloc antagonizes the West. (And of course Western coverage of China wants to claim they’re straightforwardly capitalist, because that fits in the “there is no alternative” narrative.)
Either way, though, the collapse of the Soviet project was a world-historical catastrophe that may have literally doomed human civilization. So yeah. As they say, “it’ll be interesting to see how that plays out.”
I recently read William Clare Roberts’ book Marx’s Inferno. I was attracted by the notion that Marx structured his work according to Dante’s poem, but that connection proved to be a framing device for Roberts’ attempt to recontextualize Capital within the socialist debates of his own time. The upshot of this rereading of Capital, vol. 1 (which Roberts treats as a self-contained unit that represents Marx’s mature views on every topic it addresses — a move that I know many will find questionable) is that several classical features of Marxism are undermined. First, there is no intrinsic necessity for the progress from capitalism to communism, no teleology. Capitalism is a hell, not a purgatory — we need to escape it, not go through it as some kind of necessary penance. Second, he completely rejects the idea that Marx thinks capitalism is cool because it lays the foundation for a post-scarcity society. Instead, Marx sees in the capitalist mode of production (especially factory production) a novel social form that makes possible a new form of collective agency and control.
From this perspective, it seems that the blind alley of 20th Century Communism was its effort to create a post-scarcity society by using planning mechanisms that would supposedly deliver higher rates of growth than unplanned capitalist development. In the case of the USSR, that led them down a path of developing “heavy industry” almost as an end in itself and demanding endless sacrifice — ranging from political freedoms and everyday creature comforts — on behalf of the future generations who would enjoy “the material conditions of full communism.” Every political decision was justified by reference to the magical post-scarcity future that would answer every political question automatically. This utopia of pure economics is similar to the promise of neoliberalism, which attempts to deactive all political participation and decision-making by imposing economic standards and constraints. The supposedly automatic mechanism of the market makes decisions for us, removing any possibility of principled dispute or conflict.
As you will see in my forthcoming book Neoliberalism’s Demons, I am a huge critic of “Arendt’s axiom” on the absolute qualitative distinction between the political and the economic, which I view as a fatal flaw in Wendy Brown’s Undoing the Demos. So I don’t want to say here that we need to favor the political over the economic or resist the eclipse of the political by the economic or anything like that. The two realms really are inseparable, and I shouldn’t have to belabor that point. What I want to suggest here is that the idea that economics can replace or solve politics is a fantasy generated by capitalism itself — a strategy for legitimating its power structures as something other than power structures, its forms of oppression as something other than oppression.
If Marx really did believe that a sufficient level of economic development would automatically solve all serious political problems, then he would be the ultimate capitalist ideologue — and the 20th Century Communists who believed that was his teaching wound up becoming fodder for capitalist ideology, because the primary ideological lesson we are taught to take away from the experience of the USSR and pre-Deng China is that any alternative to capitalism is (in one of those grand ideological self-contradictions) simultaneously terrifying, boring, and impossible. One wishes — even taking into account the impossible situation in which they found themselves — that they had spent more time developing the machinery of collective decision-making and a little less laboriously reinventing the machinery of churning stuff out for the sake of churning stuff out. If there are any lessons to be drawn from that experience, it is not that planning, done right, with computers this time, can finally bring us the post-scarcity paradise, but in the very gesture of planning itself — collective planning not as a way of churning out more stuff, but as a way of taking collective responsibility for ourselves and the conditions of our life together.
To assume that the United Kingdom would leave the European Union in order to escape from neoliberalism is as naive and misleading as assuming that North Korea has historically kept its distance from the USSR and China as a way of escaping Communism. In both cases, we are dealing with a power that maintains an antagonistic and ambiguous relationship to its natural allies as a way of intensifying and purifying the ideological and disciplinary structure that unites them.
North Korea wanted the purest Communism, the truest instance of “socialism in one country.” The Juche ideology of “self-reliance” or “self-assertion” was of course delusional — as a small, out-of-the-way country, North Korea was always heavily reliant on trade and subsidies — but it has remained improbably powerful even up to this day. The comprehensive ideological apparatus and isolationism of North Korea has thus allowed its spectacularly unproductive economic system to endure far beyond the “classical” Communism of which it presents itself as the purest form.
Especially if Brexit succeeds, I could see a similar future for the United Kingdom as the North Korea of neoliberalism: British society organized as a vast, and startlingly unproductive, work-camp, governed by empty nationalistic slogans and rote pageantry. Even if and when neoliberalism is superceded, the UK would continue down its own unique path of self-punishment, scapegoating foreign interference until the last Secretary of State for Business, Innovation, and Skills works the last handicapped cancer patient to death.
This article on the Russian Revolution by Lars T. Lih makes for interesting reading. He argues that leftist and liberal critics of the Soviet Union alike have over-emphasized doctrinal or ideological disputes, which were in fact meant to provide post-hoc rationalizations for decisions that had been made on other grounds. The key decision was whether some kind of accomodation must be made with the “bourgeois” educated class or whether the working class and its party would need to “go it alone.” Mensheviks favored the former, while the Bolsheviks obviously preferred the latter.
What’s striking to me about Lih’s argument is that he claims that both the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks were empirically right about the situation on the ground — that really was the key decision. They were having the right argument. Continue reading “Tragedy and Revolution”
What if we viewed the Soviet Union as the single most important political actor of the 20th century? While reviled, it staved off some of the worst possible outcomes — above all the victory of the Nazis. One could also argue, perhaps more counterintuitively and controversially, that their development of nuclear weapons prevented all-out nuclear war by subjecting the US (which showed itself to be willing and even eager to use nuclear weapons when it was the sole nuclear power) to the logic of “mutual assured destruction.” (Of course, both achievements are reversed in popular mythology: now Western schoolchildren learn that the US defeated Hitler all but singlehandedly and that the Soviets were constantly itching to carry out a nuclear first strike.)
The rise of the Soviet Union also had the indirect effect of enabling the postwar settlement that gave workers an unprecedented (and long-mourned) seat at the table. Between this and the boom in investment, the postwar era serves as a kind of Golden Age for most Western nations — an era of broadly shared prosperity that in the US even appeared capacious enough to start accommodating the demands of women and blacks. Meanwhile in the decolonizing world, the existence of two centers of global power allowed newly-formed countries some room to maneuver, rather than allowing the US to simply take on the mantle of the former colonizers unchallenged. In neither part of the world are we looking at a paradise, but surely everyone was better off — or at least on a better trajectory — than they would be under the neoliberal settlement.
Paradoxically, however, if the existence of the Soviet Union made the Western capitalist classes more willing to accommodating workers’ demands, the unattractive example of the Soviet model — which was exaggerated for ideological reasons but still fell far short of its promises — deprived the rebellions of the 60s and 70s of their logical endpoint. Even though there were movements that had some vision for overthrowing the capitalist ruling classes once and for all and organizing economic life differently, there was never a real popular mandate for such a change. Indeed, the concessions that Western powers made in order to counter the communist threat often served to legitimate capitalism as such, even though such measures were a significant (and as we now know, sadly short-lived) aberration.
From the perspective of Nixon’s “silent majority,” then, the rebellions appeared to be narcissitic and self-indulgently romantic at best, dangerously naive and nihilistic at worst. The crackdown that began in the 70s thus enjoyed popular support even as it destroyed the basis for the widely shared prosperity that legitimized the power structures that were carrying it out. I don’t want to claim that the Soviet Union had any serious capacity to assist in fighting this crackdown — certainly their foreign policy had long been to maintain the status quo indefinitely — nor that it would have necessarily turned out better if they had. But by monopolizing the space for an international anti-capitalist movement without actually maintaining the ambitions that went with it, it effectively deprived the Western leftist movements (which its very existence had done so much to enable, albeit mostly indirectly) of any ground to stand on.
Overall, if we think, as good Marxists must, in messianic/apocalyptic terms, then the Soviet Union was not the messiah of the left, but the katechon — successfully heading off one “man of lawlessness” (Hitler) and holding another (the US) at bay for over a generation. And now that it has been removed, the man of lawlessness enjoys free rein in the form of a rapacious and unrestrained capitalism and in a Western bloc that feels empowered to go to war largely on a whim.
I was reading something today that referred to Fukayama’s thesis that the fall of the Soviet Union marked “the end of history.” As we all know, the theory is that the battle between communism and liberal democratic capitalism was the last major ideological dispute, and once that was settled, history is in principle over even if “things continue to happen.”
I’ve read about this a million times, but this time I asked myself: “What about China, though?” Do only white Communists (the Russians) count? Do we only care about an ideological dispute if it results in a political divide in the subcontinent of Europe? Do we just need a quorum of European countries to hold elections, and suddenly that’s the solution for all time, the only possible answer?
To me, this is the more powerful objection to the trope, beyond the obvious fact that things keep happening: this is some racist, Eurocentric bullshit.
I am, as usual, late to the accelerationist party (unlike Dan Barber and Josh Ramey, to whom I am clearly indebted here). Reading the Accelerationist Manifesto properly for the first time recently, I was struck by something. ‘Even Lenin’, we are told, supported the idea that socialism depends upon the technological transformations made possible by capitalism.
‘Even Lenin’ makes it sound as if the great Bolshevik were an unlikely ally. Accelerationism is, after all, positioned as breaking with the Luddite shibboleths of the established left. And yet one of the things which stands out from the manifesto is its seeming commitment to the greatest of all far left shibboleths: vanguardism
Social movements – no doubt Occupy is in the crosshairs here – are dismissed for their fetishisation of democracy-as-process, horizontal organisation, communal immediacy and localism. Instead, we are told that ‘Secrecy, verticality, and exclusion all have their place as well in effective political action (though not, of course, an exclusive one)’. A left intellectual infrastructure is called for, and the means for this will be a left version of the neoliberal Mont Pelerin Society, ‘tasked with creating a new ideology, economic and social models, and a vision of the good to replace and surpass the emaciated ideals that rule our world today.’
For what it is worth, I think the manifesto is right on the money in identifying the crucial factor of the hegemony of neoliberalism and the evident failure of the left to respond. It is also surely correct to argue against a fetishisation of traditional forms of protest, or an aversion to technological change. Why, though, is it apparently prepared to endorse a tactic which has been such self-perpetuating disaster for large parts of the radical left?
Let me give an example close to (my) home. The Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in the UK is a Trotsykite organization of a few thousand members, but it has frequently had a higher profile and impact in left politics and movements than its size would suggest. Over the last few years it has been in turmoil, because of the way it handled allegations of rape and sexual harassment leveled at a senior party member.
This is not the place to go into detail about that case, which is well documented elsewhere. Suffice to say that, for many of us, it exposed the utter failure of a certain kind of politics, in which the ‘ideology’ and ‘vision’ came from the centre, from a Central Committee elected on a slate system which was hugely difficult to budge. As a corollary, the party was woefully ill equipped to take on the lessons of feminism and social movements other than through attempts to co-opt and re-educate them through front organisations.
At this point, it is important to acknowledge that the Manifesto endorses a pluralism of organisations and methods, and a spirit of experimentalism on the left. In an interview, Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek have cited networks such as Plan C alongside feminist initiatives around basic income as essentially working along the right lines. So I am not trying to crudely tarnish accelerationism with the misogyny and bullying found in various far left sects.
However, I become concerned when it is implied that a central hub can be constructed to filter and connect these ideas and practices, since that is just what Central Committees imagine themselves to be doing (even if what is envisaged is much smarter and better funded than a small far left party). And I am especially disturbed by the rather easy characterisation of social movements as obsessed with ‘internal direct-democratic process and affective self-valorisation’ as opposed to which ‘Real democracy must be defined by its goal — collective self-mastery’. How can we simply leave ‘democracy-as-process’ behind, if chauvinistic sectarianism and authoritarian centralism are to be avoided? (as a footnote: during the SWP crisis, branch meetings were addressed by members of the Central Committee, and representatives of an opposition faction. The Committee member was allowed 30 minutes contribution, the opposition was allowed 5-8 minutes. The justification was that the Committee member was the one who could set the debate in its ‘proper political context’. ‘Democratic centralism’ in action – and this is only one of the most benign examples).
Process matters: if the process of revolution is one of instrumentalising democracy and our desires, then it kills the very thing it longs for. Accelerationism’s recognition of the need for experiment augurs well here, but it should lead to a further realisation: particular shared experiences of non-capitalist space and community matter. They may be local and ephemeral, but it does not follow that they are tied to ‘localism’ or that they are ‘merely’ ephemeral when set alongside ideas of reason. In fact, I’d argue these experiences are indispensable to rationality as a form of embodied discernment.
There is no politics without affect. The manifesto itself sees the need for ‘affectively invigorating’ visions of a transhumanist future. But the notion of constructing affects is fraught with danger, not least the production of future legions of self-intoxicated militants and dictatorial organisers, whose principal affect to date has been one of joyless immersion in sacrifice. Please spare us from the heroic vanguard, speeding ahead to save us from the future they have already grasped.
Recently, I started a White House Petition to “abolish the capitalist mode of production.” My intention was mostly sarcastic, as I did not expect the petition to reach even the threshold to get an official response, much less to be acted upon. The petition prompted a glorified open thread on an Atlantic blog (which mysteriously did not mention my name) as well as many responses on Twitter, all of which subsequently prompted a rant from me about the profound ignorance that prevails around Communism in its Actual Existing forms — including, I argued, the People’s Republic of China, which has been continually controlled by the Communist Party since the time of Mao and is currently carrying out a variation of the economic policies pursued by one of Mao’s close associates, which is itself broadly similar to the New Economic Plan proposed by Lenin but abandoned by Stalin.
The argument that China is not a Communist country seems to be based on the fact that China is pursuing market-based policies in some respects — or, more ignorantly and simplistically, the fact that inequality exists in China. Continue reading “Is China a Communist country?”