Sunday, October 2, 2011

Twenty Years After the Fall

In 1991 Robin Blackburn published the anthology After the Fall: The Failure of Communism and the Future of Socialism (London: Verso, 1991), offering a round-up of responses to the demise of the Soviet/Communist camp and the end of the Cold War from a wide array of prominent leftist thinkers, touching on everything from the role of the peace movement in bringing the Cold War to an end, to the condition of women in the Soviet Union.

Nonetheless, it might fairly be said that the question dominating the book is the one implicit in the subtitle--"the Failure of Communism, and the Future of Socialism." In acknowledging the failings of twentieth century Communist parties in and out of power the authors are unanimous in recognizing the Soviet-style combination of a one-party state with a command economy as a deeply flawed approach, time and again resulting in repressive, stagnant, bureaucratic regimes that never approached Western levels of economic and technological development--with the gap widening after the onset of the "information age." Many of them also agree with the conventional wisdom that the Soviet Union not just failed to cope with computerization and the newer communications technology, but that this was a challenge it was intrinsically incapable of meeting or even surviving, and that the impetus for the overthrow of the system came principally from below.1

However, this should not be confused with a simplistic vindication of the pieties of orthodox economics, let alone of conservative triumphalism more generally. While highly critical of the Soviet system and its imitators, these writers do not equate the Cold War with a meaningful test of "capitalism against socialism," or take the failings of Soviet-style socialism as some proof of the intrinsic irrelevance, futility or evil of the socialist project, or the Marxist critique of capitalism. Nor do they slight the role of Communism in such progress as the twentieth century did see. In "Reflections on the Crisis of Communist Regimes," Ralph Miliband discusses the unpromising circumstances of the establishment of Communist governments, which virtually without exception took place in underdeveloped countries without a substantial history of democracy or even independence, often at a point in which they were badly traumatized by civil and foreign war, and forced to contend with the hostility of the non-Communist world from this position of weakness through their history (Russia, China, Vietnam). Fred Halliday observes in "The Ends of Cold War" that, despite those problems, many Communist states still made significant advances over their earlier material condition, industrializing and modernizing their countries, and elevating the living standards of their populations.

Other contributors to the volume make the case that, in various ways, socialism played a crucial role to progress outside the "Second World." In "Goodbye to All That," Eric Hobsbawm points out the fact that the capitalist states incorporated a great deal of socialism into their systems in the form of Keynesian planning, welfare states and often national ownership of the "commanding heights" of the global economy (especially in their period of greatest success, from the 1940s to the early 1970s), without which they would be far less successful, and far less attractive places to live--while the handful of developing nations which succeeded in catching up to the industrialized world also followed strongly statist courses in doing so (contrary to the mythology propounded by neoliberal "Bad Samaritans," and of course, neoliberal disasters the world over, from Pinochet's Chile to contemporary Iraq). And in "Radical as Reality," Alexander Cockburn celebrates the role of Communism in such progress as the West has achieved in the areas of civil rights and social justice, and globally in the fights against colonialism and apartheid, while the Soviet Union, through its role as competitor and counterweight, made possible for the newly independent nations of the Third World a measure of autonomy they would not otherwise have enjoyed.

Moreover, the authors argue for the continued relevance of socialism given its capacity to address problems with which capitalism is ill-equipped to cope, like the protection of the environment, social inequality and the human values for which the market cares nothing, as Eric Hobsbawm notes in the volume's closing essay, "Up From the Ashes." There is, too, a sense that many of socialism's potentials have never been tapped. Robin Blackburn's excellent long essay "Fin de Seicle: Socialism After the Crash" offers a reminder that the command economy's weaknesses were recognized by prominent Marxists all along, from Karl Kautsky to Leon Trotsky to Che Geuvara, and that many of them wrestled with the problem of developing a "socialized market" combining market mechanisms with economic democratization and social imperatives--an idea Diane Elson and Andre Gorz explore in "The Economics of a Socialized Market," and "The New Agenda," respectively. Giovanni Arrighi's "Marxist Century, American Century" even offers an argument for why the twentieth century did not bear out Marx's predictions--and why the twenty-first century might prove closer to it.2 Edward Thompson's rejoinder to Fred Halliday's "The Ends of Cold War" even envisaged Eastern Europe pioneering a third way between its Stalinist past and the neoliberalism proffered by the West.

In short, the Soviet Union was finished, and with it the one party state-command economy approach to socialism, but according to all these authors, socialism (and Marxism) as such did not die with it. Still, the neoliberal wave continues two decades later. Certainly no advanced industrial country has accepted programs quite as radical as those routinely imposed on developing states, but even there privatization and deregulation (often of reckless kinds) have been the order of the day, organized labor has been weakened (in cases, virtually crippled), wages have been held down (or eroded), welfare states and public services scaled back (albeit, due to a chipping away by conservative reformers rather than shock therapy in these states) and tax systems become more regressive. If anything, the economic crisis that began (or perhaps, simply deepened) in 2008 seems to have perversely accelerated the trend, the political right making most of the gains in its aftermath, despite its policies' precipitating the crisis in the first place. And of course, what goes for the world's economic challenges goes, too, for the ecological ones, as the astonishingly tepid response to the energy-climate crisis makes all too clear.

All this seems unsurprising today, but it did not seem inevitable to the writers represented in this collection. The end of the confrontation between the superpowers also raised a genuine prospect of a peace dividend, and alleviated one of the weapons the right used against liberals and leftists: the claim that they were the agents or dupes of a hostile foreign power intent on world domination. This coincided with a questioning of the Anglo-American version of capitalism that was not be seen again until the 2008 crisis. That the left so thoroughly failed to capitalize on these opportunities, so completely failed to prevent a triumphalist right from defining the popular understanding of the Soviet collapse and the politics of the two decades that followed, has to be regarded by its sympathizers as a profound disappointment.

1. For an alternative view of the role of the IT revolution in the Soviet collapse, see my blog post, "Reconsidering the IT Revolution's Place in History." For an alternative view of the dismantling of the Soviet system more broadly, see David Kotz and Fred Weir, Revolution From Above: The Demise of the Soviet System (New York: Routledge, 1997).
2. Arrighi's key contention is that Marxism envisioned a proletariat which simultaneously grew more immiserated and more powerful. The twentieth century, however, saw a divergence between the most immiserated proletarians (in the peripheral areas of the global economy, where Communist movements did succeed in establishing themselves) and the most powerful (in the industrial core countries), which saw their lot improve and their goals moderate. In particular, following the collapse of world capitalism in the Depression and World War II, American capitalism was capable of expanding, and accommodating working class aspirations, through the development of the multinational corporation as a new operating model. When Europe and Japan recovered to the point that they were able to follow suit, they quickly crowded the market, resulting in a preoccupation with cost-cutting and speculation rather than dynamic expansion (as low post-1973 growth rates show), while the gains of the working class in the advanced industrial countries began to erode (implying an eventual reconvergence with the proletariat of the developing nations)--trends more in line with Marxist analysis.

Two New Reviews: Emmanuel Todd's The Final Fall and After the Empire

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