Anticapitalism, the Hyperstate, and the Current Crisis
By Leslie Evans
The Dragons of Expectation: Reality and Delusion in the Course of History, Robert Conquest. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2005, 256 pp.
“The Return of an Illusion,” John Gray. The New Republic, June 23, 2011.
The global economic crisis that began in 2008 has revived many salvationist dogmas that we should have thought were well past their shelf life. Most notably in the United States this has been Christian theocracy, but also, to some extent at least, the Marxist notion that the problems of inequality and declining living standards can best be solved by scrapping the whole existing system and abolishing private property tout court. Where the former has secured a commanding influence among Tea Party activists, the latter has been seeking, with a good deal less success, to persuade the Occupy movement campers.
The encouraging Occupy movement arose under the brilliant slogan, “We Are the 99%.” Scanning a Google search for Occupy Wall Street signs shows the vast majority call for specific reforms: raise taxes on the rich, guarantee jobs and healthcare for all, rein in corporate power and profits, pass serious regulations for the financial sector, start a new WPA to repair America’s infrastructure and create jobs. Many are funny and most are home made. At the edges a few proclaim “Capitalism is a crime,” “Capitalism is a disease,” or simply “Anticapitalist.” No doubt these warm the cockles of my elderly Marxist friends’ hearts, but we should stop for a moment and ask just what those slogans actually call for.
Slogans of an activist movement are words of power. And like any magic, you should be careful what you wish for.
Before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, the disintegration immediately thereafter of the Communist regimes of Eastern Europe, and China’s turn to capitalism, there was broad agreement on the meanings of the terms capitalist and anticapitalist. The counterpoint was between an economy that was based primarily on private ownership of the means of production and regimes where the great majority of productive property was owned by the state.
“Anticapitalist” had a clear and well understood meaning: nationalize the means of production, usually with a subtext about this being done under workers’ control. With the global implosion of Communism – Cuba and the nightmare slave state in North Korea being the spars left floating after the ship sank, even Vietnam having followed China into the free market in 1986 – the Marxist screen on which was inscribed what comes next after capitalism went dark. Something vaguely better but unspecified is often all the antiglobalists and anticapitalists of today will venture.
By and large the demands of the Occupy movement could be satisfied by a European-style welfare state. These all have universal healthcare and better welfare and job protections than the rugged individualist and religious-sect-ridden United States.
Speaking about these options is complicated by the muddled meanings of the word “socialist.” For the right wing, most of Europe is “socialist.” Even the middle-of-the-road Obama is a socialist, when he isn’t a secret Kenyan Muslim conspirator. On the left “socialist” is the self-identification both of democratic socialists and Marxists, the first being advocates of extensive but limited state intervention to reduce inequality and provide certain minimal protections for all citizens, the second mean by it the first stage of communism, which begins with the destruction of the capitalist state and its institutions. To convolute further, some call themselves Marxists who have drifted away from such fraught imperatives as the dictatorship of the proletariat, while others who remain as hard core as ever nevertheless like to think of themselves as champions of some kind of proletarian democracy superior to what actually exists in what are called the Western democracies.
Sweden, though currently governed by a center-right bloc, is the prime example of European noncommunist socialism. For most of the twentieth century the dominant party was the Social Democrats, a socialist party. It remains the largest party in parliament. The country boasts the greatest equality in Europe, including gender equality, universal taxpayer-funded healthcare, strong trade unions, and mass participation in politics. At the same time Sweden is a constitutional monarchy, its industry is primarily privately owned, and by any reasonable economic definition it is a capitalist country.
By contrast, in no country where the economy was entirely statized – those, that is, that really were anticapitalist – has there been any kind of free press, elections, or any citizen organization, including trade unions, except those controlled by the one-party state. All had large numbers of political prisoners, and the great majority of these states murdered outright or deliberately starved to death hundreds of thousands or millions of their own citizens. All have been marked by extensive poverty, total censorship, and a ubiquitous secret police. Not a single one came to power through an election or ever afterward submitted to validation of its rule by allowing a vote on anything that mattered, leaving us to take their word that they represent the will of their people.
With the sole exception of Cuba – a paternalistic police state with a lackluster economy brightened by some notable social welfare measures, and which has begun, with Fidel’s retirement, to also dip its toe into the private enterprise stream – the Communist regimes were matched in savagery toward their own people only by the most zealous of the fascist states. Hitler Germany was worse, but fascist Italy was considerably less repressive than Stalinist Russia, China while Mao was alive, Pol Pot’s Cambodia, the Kim dynasty’s North Korean serfdom, or even the Soviet Union in its first years under Lenin. Since there have been no examples of a democratic nationalized-property state, opponents of capitalism who call for its outright abolition need to look more critically at the theory, propounded by Karl Marx, on why we should expect such a state to be liberating compared to the existing order.
The evils that face the United States today are real and serious. A vast increase in inequality; growth of corporate power; prolonged joblessness, at 9 percent with much higher rates for youths and ethnic minorities; a bitter political paralysis at both national and local levels; and the ominous turn of the Republican Party toward religious obscurantism, rejection of modern science, and a drive to dismantle the social safety net and the modern welfare state, which would return the United States to the immiseration of Charles Dickens’ England.
Clearly there are big battles to be fought here. It is essential to clarify the goals. Robert Conquest’s 2005 reflections on the lingering attraction of the Soviet model and John Gray’s more fundamental critique of the Marxist enterprise are helpful here. They are both brief, meant as smelling salts to wake up day dreamers with a sudden jolt, not to provide a definitive account.
I picked up Conquest’s book on the recommendation of Christopher Hitchens, in his most recent essay collection, Arguably. Conquest, a poet as well as historian, is best known for The Great Terror: Stalin’s Purge of the Thirties (1968), considered by many to be the definitive work on the subject. If we focus on our own domestic evils, violations such as waterboarding suspected Al Qaeda militants, government wiretapping, the extraordinary inflation of CEO salaries, and threats to Social Security and Medicare loom large. Placing absolute, unrestricted power in the hands of government, as the Russian abolition of capitalist decentralization did, gave the state the power to do evil on a wholly different scale.
Conquest in The Great Terror put the number murdered or deliberately starved to death by the Soviet regime at 20 million. In the debates over such numbers, even after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the opening of its secret archives, Conquest’s estimate proved to be far from the highest. Political scientist R. J. Rummel, the leading authority on democide, the intentional killing of citizens by their own government, put the number of those deliberately killed by the Soviet government in the Stalin era at 43 million. There were several categories Conquest left out, including most of those who died in the Gulag before 1936 or after 1939, the huge death rates among ethnic minorities such as the Crimean Tatars forcibly deported to Siberia, and the extensive executions in Eastern Europe as the Soviet army established its control at the end of World War II, including anti-Nazi fighters who did not happen to be Communists as well as many who were.
The dragons Conquest wants to slay are ideological, tendencies on the political left to magnify the evils of capitalism while finding rationalizations to discount the awful human cost of the statist experiments as irrelevant to their calls to try that road again. Every age, he suggests, and every people and culture within it, has its fanaticisms, fixed perceptions of reality that a later time can only look back on with horror. The Spanish Inquisition, the French Catholic massacres of the Huguenot Protestants, Spanish and English slavery in the Americas, defended by references to the Bible, all had their devoted followers who believed they were doing God’s work – and never changed their minds. Conquest treats the hopes placed in state totalitarianism as only the most recent of these terrifyingly false mass expectations. And as the most recent, this one still has a grip on the minds of living people, many of whom are as immune to evidence or argument as any deeply religious believer. As their predecessors did, the devotees convince themselves their sacrifices for the cause were service to humanity. I should know, as I was one myself for a good part of my life.
“Whatever feuds or attitudes exist in the democracies,” Conquest writes, “they count for very little compared with the vast and essential conflict between ‘Western’ society and the worldwide fanaticisms facing it.”
As political battles within the democracies become polarized there is a tendency for the partisans to look favorably on the totalitarian state or movement that appears to share some of their aspirations. We see “a preference for the more appealing totalitarians over opponents within their own culture, with whom they actually have far less real substantive disagreements. If the trouble is largely from a left, it is partly because of a certain reluctance to admit that Communism was not only physically lethal and mentally repressive but also a total failure.”
Conquest rejects all versions of socialism that place the whole of economic life in the hands of the state. This, of course, is what is generally meant by the term anticapitalist. Who, Conquests asks, “is to run the economy after you have eliminated the capitalists? ”
“The answer,” he writes, “was that it would be done by ‘society.’ But who would represent ‘society’? A simple enough point, but one that has proved refractory.” Referenda have been tried since the days of Napoleon and had little effect. So it can’t be society as a whole directly. It will be representatives of some sort and a professional governmental cadre. In fact, no state that went so far as nationalizing the great majority of productive property has ever relinquished power back to the people it supposedly represents, or submitted to any election to validate its claim to rule – except in the throes of collapse when the nationalized property was being reprivatized as well.
Marx in his Capital both predicted and advocated that “Centralization of the means of production and socialization of labour at last reach a point where they become incompatible with their capitalist integument. This integument is burst asunder. The knell of capitalist private property sounds. The expropriators are expropriated.” So it was in those countries where militant armed movements or the Soviet army carried this process out. But the resulting maw swallowed not only the capitalist expropriators but the proletariat, the peasantry, and all the intermediate classes as well. The state and the small cliques that came to control it were revealed as the greatest expropriators of all.
Conquest summarizes laconically, “Highly centralized and doctrinaire regimes have time and again proved deeply destructive.” He was eighty-eight when he set out to battle old dragons. Hitchens calls the book “marvelous” and credits Conquest, rightly I think, with “invincible common sense and courage in the fight against totalitarian thinking.” The book is also a bit the musings of a very old man irritated that what should have been long-settled issues return to plague him. He is beyond the point in his career where he needs to footnote every quotation or even name most of his targets. He does, however, take the occasion to weave in some of the most recent discoveries on his topic.
Stalin famously said to Churchill at Tehran, “When one man dies it is a tragedy, when thousands die it’s statistics.” Perhaps the camera has to zoom in from the numbingly large numbers to focus on a recognizable scene. Stalin, Conquest reports, personally signed orders for forty-four thousand executions. Only fairly high ranking party and army functionaries rated such personal attention.
Death warrants for the nomenclatura were the least of it. For the Soviet masses there were kill quotas, like burger goals in a MacDonald’s franchise or a cop giving parking tickets. “We now have a set of decrees, starting in July 1937, ordering specific execution and imprisonment targets . . . in each province and republic. The largest single category was ‘anti-Soviet elements.’ This included former kulaks, former officials of the tsarist state and army, former members of non-Bolshevik parties [including the Marxist parties!], religious activists, ‘speculators’ . . . a significant proportion of the population.” The anonymous victims were selected at random by their match to some sociological criteria. Bureaucrats who failed to find enough of this or that category were themselves shot, on suspicion of being soft on enemies of the state. A fictional account that captures the stifling air of this necrotic system better than any mere recital of facts is Victor Serge’s The Case of Comrade Tulayev. Serge spent three years in a Stalinist prison before being expelled from the Soviet Union in 1936.
As in the rest of the Mordor economy, overfulfilling your quota was met with approval, even when it was a quota of corpses. A recently discovered document from the head of the Novosibirsk NKVD, the secret police, authorizes his agents to double their death quotas at will. Now, for any Republicans listening, that was a real death panel.
In 1935 the death penalty was extended to apply to twelve-year-olds.
Deaths from starvation and other such “indirect” causes were a politicized weapon. Infant mortality in 1943, admittedly a war year, was .47 percent for ordinary Russian mothers; it was 41.7 percent for the children of mothers in the camps.
There is a record that 170 “blind, legless, and otherwise disabled men” in Moscow were arrested and shot for begging. The justification was that they would be useless in a labor camp.
The regime lied about everything – about the standard of living in the West, about its own economic output, about the mass killings, and about individual state assassinations. Avram Slutsky, Stalin’s chief of foreign intelligence, was given a hero’s funeral when he reportedly died of a heart attack in February 1938. We now know that deputy people’s commissar Zakovsky pinioned him while Alekhin, head of the poisoning department (yes, there was such a unit!) ran in and gave Slutsky a fatal injection. Zakovsky was in turn executed that August.
“Torture was massively employed throughout the Stalin period, as with the victims of the secret 1952 Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee trial.”
A whole army of interrogators and clerks were employed throughout these years to concoct “page after page of ever more complicated falsehood” about what happened to the millions of victims and why. This reached every aspect of life. The whole of the social sciences were destroyed. Conquest concludes that the German Nazis were more brutal, but Stalin’s Russia was by far a more thoroughgoing totalitarianism, where private thought reservations about the government were almost impossible to retain and a slip of the tongue could result in execution, which could come at the whim of any local bureaucrat.
In May 1937 Stalin had Mikhail Tukhachevsky, commander in chief of the Soviet Army, arrested along with seven other generals. They made outlandish confessions of being agents of Trotsky and Hitler, and were executed the following month. A special crime was put on the books, being a wife of an enemy of the people. Many were shot, including Tukhachevsky’s widow. Many other such widows were sent to the labor camps, from which few returned. The Soviet command structure was still decimated when Hitler attacked the USSR in June 1941. Stalin had other senior commanders killed during the war.
Afterward as well. In January 1947 two generals, Gordov and Rybalchenko, were caught by a secret police bug saying to each other that the population was “beggared” and there should be “genuine democracy.” They were arrested and shot.
“Dead bodies were a common product of the Stalinist system. But minds did not do well either. They had to endure a continuous barrage of untruth. It can be argued that the Soviet Union’s main negative characteristic – with plenty to choose from – was falsification. One finds it right from the start. But in the 1930s, after the disastrous failure of collectivization, the disjunction was complete. Henceforth, two different Soviet Unions existed – the official one, a flourishing and happy country (beset, though, by traitors), and the real one, overrun by poverty, squalor, and terror, and with a crushed population.”
Conquest cites a moment of black comedy in 1964 as the regime was beginning to “rehabilitate” some of its many victims. A local party committee had to publish a group photo that included Faizulla Khodzhayev, an Uzbek Communist leader who had been shot in 1938. Not certain whether or not he was soon to be posthumously pardoned, they left him in the picture but airbrushed a big black beard over his face.
The details here are new but the general picture of the Soviet regime has been known since the 1920s. Conquest’s reason for writing his book was to counter the remnants of sympathy for the idea of drastic state centralism as the cure for capitalist injustice. This has survived the collapse of Communism, though even among the small choir who still call themselves Marxists many, unlike their Leninist progenitors, have become vague about just what “postcapitalist” society is to be.
“Over the past half century,” Conquest writes, “Western minds that were diverted by the socialist idea largely abandoned it as a serious program. . . . Socialism has thus largely petered out. . . . But the cluster of social and other ideas that accompanied socialism persists. And the idea of using state power to impose them has, of course, flourished and more than flourished both as a mental habit and as a political reality. Its adherents are now no longer socialists but . . . remain implacably hostile to ‘capitalism’ without seriously advancing any real alternative.”
The old Marxists had a clear goal: crush the capitalist class and its supporters and establish a state monopoly of the means of production under firm communist control. The generally monstrous experience with that experiment, and the evaporation of Communism, depriving such advocates of even a “deformed” example of what they advocate, leaves that section of the left that still champions anticapitalism with no generally accepted agreement on what the slogan entails. Conquest calls this “negative utopianism,” adding, “it is a bit much to go on finding sub-Marxism and such still thumping away.”
Such currents are broadly recognizable on the American and European left, though Conquest is less than specific about who his targets may be, spending a few pages on an obscure CNN book on the Cold War, on Simone de Beauvoir’s lamentable embrace of the violent and cultish Maoist Cultural Revolution, and the ever floggable pro-Moscow historian Eric Hobsbawm.
Starting Again from the Enlightenment
With John Gray we encounter an intellect of a different order. Where Conquest largely limits his presentation to the past evils of hyper-statism, Gray rises immediately above the anecdotal. He confronts the rejuvenated hopes of the Marxist left that the global economic crisis offers a chance to emerge from their long sojourn in the wilderness:
“An intellectual revival of Marxism is one of the predictable consequences of the financial crisis. In the twenty years before the storm broke, the Marxisant intelligentsia was more marginal in politics and culture than it had ever been. This was not because Marxism had been falsified – an event that occurred a century or more before, when it became clear that no advanced industrial society was developing as Marx had predicted. Rather Marxist intellectuals had become unfashionable – an experience far more galling than the refutation of their theories.”
You might suppose at this point that Gray is going to refute the Marxist catastrophists by promising a rapid economic recovery and a return to market stability, saving capitalist democracy. You would be wrong. John Gray, emeritus professor at the London School of Economics, is, if anything, at least as pessimistic about the future of capitalism as the Marxists, but sees the forces in motion as utterly different from those Marx expected and predicted.
Gray’s philosophic roots lie not in the social engineering ambitions of Marxism and a section of liberalism inspired by the Enlightenment, but in the dissenting historical interpretation by that great Jewish-English liberal theorist Isaiah Berlin, whose world view Gray defended in his book Berlin (1995).
Berlin called his distinctive viewpoint “value pluralism,” by which he signified that no human society could reach agreement on a single standard of right. This was a radical departure from the outlook of the European Enlightenment, which believed that reason would discover truth, that truth, like Newton’s laws of motion, had only one solution to each equation, and that as ignorance was swept away by education, people would come to a common view of the social good.
When that did not happen, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries a political current arose that sought to cut through the obvious failure to find agreement on how to achieve human improvement. The solution they hit on was to abolish electoral democracy by force, establish a statist dictatorship, and impose by violence their particular view of the social good
These movements arose on both the left and the right, sharing a common disdain for the corrupt and sluggish democratic institutions. The left called itself communist, the right fascist. Both outlawed all political parties but their own, dispensed with elections, crushed trade unions, executed real and suspected critics, imposed censorship and thought control, and nationalized industry or placed it under constrictive state tutelage. They silenced or did away with those they could not persuade – or who fit their profile of the inassimilable. One side chose the Jews and Slavs, the other the better off peasants and the well-to-do. Both agreed on destroying the intellectuals – and the Marxists. On the fascist side that meant all Marxists; on the Bolshevik side, all Marxists who were not members of Lenin’s party, and quite a few of those who were.
If you think about it for a moment, does anyone really believe that the only obstacle to abolishing capitalism in the United States is the economic and military power of the 1%? If that were really so, the change could be accomplished under the existing electoral system, or at least that system could reveal that the 99% want something radically different. Yet the system to date has been unable to produce a majority vote for even the far more limited demands of the Occupy movement: for a more progressive tax system, for greater government regulation of corporations and banks, for strengthening and extending pensions and healthcare.
Why does Obama not just impose these things now? Obviously because a large percentage of the population, not just the wealthy 1%, vote Republican, and the Republicans in state and national legislatures oppose the reform agenda. And behind the Republicans are the very numerous adherents of authoritarian Christian fundamentalist sects. The United States, after all, was largely founded by dissenting religious fanatics fleeing the power of the more moderate state churches of England and Germany. It was an unusual conjunction that placed at the head of the American Revolution that amazing group of rationalists and deists who wrote the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Out in the hinterland were people who looked on with uncomprehending distrust, whose intellectual horizons were firmly girdled by holy writ. Uniquely among the developed countries today, 40% of Americans deny outright that humans are descended from other animals; 20% more say they are not sure.
Notably, the Republican base includes a majority of the industrial workers who are supposed to be the bedrock of the Marxist revolutionary class. Narrow majorities may shift here, allowing significant changes, but overwhelming agreement on total restructuring of the existing society comes up against the impenetrable obstacle of the plural and irreconcilable values Berlin insisted must be accommodated if democracy is to survive.
In the heyday of popular illusions in the magic of ruthless statism the advocates of radical social change were quite clear sighted about the impossibility of ending these differences of view by persuasion or by electoral means. Both left and right, communist and fascist movements, based their politics on the violent crushing not only of capitalism but first of all of electoral democracy, the independent press, and the existing intellectual class. Then they moved to create their centralist states where only a single viewpoint was permitted, solving by brute force the problem of the large swaths of the population that did not agree with them.
The original Marxist project for the abolition of capitalism rested on the expectation of increasing proletarianization and an emergent shared agreement on this course of action. That is, the Enlightenment perspective on the triumph of human reason wedded to theories of onward and upward progress powered by class struggle.
It is not so much the failure to appear on schedule of the economic crises Marx predicted as the failure to materialize of the anticapitalist social forces required to do anything about it. Isaiah Berlin is perhaps the most important theorist in grasping why that happened.
In a series of essays beginning in 1955, collected in his Against the Current: Essays in the History of Ideas, Berlin carried out a then-shocking reevaluation of the Enlightenment, which was still hailed in liberal tradition as the movement in defense of reason against religious dogmatism and superstition, and the wellspring of a host of movements for human betterment, including Marxism itself.
Berlin said that the Enlightenment also had a dark side. That lay precisely in the social engineering dreams that were its hallmark, and its notion of a single universal human society superseding existing nations and cultures. Berlin popularized the term Counter Enlightenment for the thinkers that culminated in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in German Romanticism. On its face, seeing something positive here seemed unpromising. Figures such a J. A. Haaman championed intuition against rationalism, mysterious vitalism against biological science, and the idea of society as an organic whole, which regarded any organized attempt to impose universal improvement as destructive of irreplaceable human values. Though neither Berlin nor John Gray had much use for Hegel, this was a case where it could really be said that truth lay in a dialectical synthesis of two opposite schools of thought.
The extreme left wing of the Enlightenment imagined an entire world united along rationalist lines, in a universalist super government that was to expose religion as a vapid dream, leave national differences in the past, and erase ethnic and racial distinctions. For Marx, this meant the dissolution of national identities into universal humankind.
The thinkers of the Counter Enlightenment objected that what makes all real human communities function is their sense of place, of lineage, of a shared history, and traditions, customs, and culture, including religion, language, and ethnic or national identity. Strip people of these identifiers and they become atomized cogs in an impersonal machine, a change that most people will fiercely resist. Even a false propaganda hint of this prospect has the Tea Party in a frenzy, and they are tapping roots that run much deeper than their own ersatz movement.
John Gray, following Isaiah Berlin’s lead, sees the collapse of Soviet and East European Communism and the hollowing out of its Chinese variant as due, not to economic backwardness or some technical unpreparedness for socialism, but to the artificiality of these presumed universals. In his New Republic article he writes:
“Like most nineteenth-century thinkers, Marx expected religion to fade away with the increase of prosperity and the advance of scientific knowledge. Instead religion is at the heart of politics and war, just as it has always been. Marx never doubted that the globalization of capital would occur in tandem with the decline of nationalism. In fact globalization has triggered a nationalist backlash in many parts of the world.”
Marx in his theory of communism did take one step beyond the other social engineering movements of the liberal Enlightenment, an extremely negative borrowing from the Enlightenment’s critics. He grafted the Romantics’ idea of organic unity, their idea of extending the values of real communities to embrace the whole of emergent nation states, onto his plan for the communist future.
“A fantasy of German Romanticism that enchanted not only Marx but also movements of the radical right,” Gray writes, “the dream of organic social unity, has always been repressive in practice. And this is not because the ideal has been wrongly interpreted. Hostility to minorities is the very logic of organicist ideology. Marx located his ideal society in the future; but like that of the German nationalists who looked backward to an imaginary folk culture, his communist dream-world could be entered only by shedding particular identities (including that of Jews, who would be emancipated by ceasing to be Jews and becoming specks of universal humanity). In a society of the kind of which Marx – along with Herder and his disciples – dreamed, anyone who resists being absorbed into the social organism will be stigmatized as deluded or diseased.”
Outside of his study of capitalism, where Marx was in his element, his and Engels’ projections for the future were speculative and deductive. In describing their theories about the future as scientific socialism they sought to claim the authority of modern science. In fact the revolutionary duo were totally wrong about two of most important discoveries of their time: Malthus’s theory of population and Darwin’s theory of evolution. In both cases their political prejudices and deductive method misled them.
Malthus’s basic observation was that population grows geometrically while food supplies expand only arithmetically, a fact observable in animal and even bacterial as well as human populations, for the same reasons. The consequences of this fact today confront the planet with the threat of mass starvation. Marx vehemently denied Malthus’s verifiable observation on the grounds that it let capitalist society off the hook. But one didn’t have to look very far into the future to see the outcome of human reproductive rates. England had a population of 14,866,000 in 1841 when its first census was taken. By 1861 this had grown to 18,776,000, a 26% increase. On the same principal as compound interest, a few centuries of unchecked growth like this would produce a mass of human bodies that covered every square inch of dry land on the earth.
Marxists frequently cite the few vague words of praise Marx and Engels uttered affirming an unspecified similarity between their historical materialism and Darwin’s theory of evolution to show that Marx and Engels were on the cutting edge of the science of their day. Between themselves, however, they rejected natural selection, Darwin’s essential discovery, which today is the foundation of biological science. Their reason was that Darwin explicitly said the idea of natural selection had been suggested to him by reading Malthus. Marx and Engels praised Darwin for his Origin of Species as a widely understood public symbol for the idea of “evolution,” but had their own and very different theory of evolution which was more supportive of their theories of social evolution than Darwin’s work.
Marx wrote sniffily to Engels: “It is remarkable how Darwin rediscovers, among the beasts and plants, the society of England with its division of labour, competition, opening up of new markets, ‘inventions’ and Malthusian ‘struggle for existence’.” (June 18, 1862). Engels, writing to P. L. Lavrov, astonishingly proclaims: “Of the Darwinian theory I accept the theory of evolution but only take Darwin’s method of proof (struggle for life, natural selection) as the first, provisional, and incomplete expression of a newly-discovered fact. . . . If, therefore, a so-called natural scientist permits himself to subsume the whole manifold wealth of historical development under the one-sided and meagre phrase, ‘struggle for existence,’ a phrase which even in the sphere of nature can only be taken with a grain of salt, such a proceeding is its own condemnation.” (November 12, 1875).
Marx praised, as far superior to Darwin, a book by the long-forgotten Pierre Tremaux (not important enough to even warrant a Wikipedia entry) which theorized that evolution’s motor was the geological, not biological, evolution of the earth’s crust, species being inextricably linked to specific soil types that appeared in sequence as the physical earth “evolved.” Tremaux’s crank theory appealed to Marx because it propounded a steady progression of ever higher stages, analogous to Marx’s historical materialism for human society.
Darwin’s natural selection in contrast did not contain a theory of progress. It stated only that individual organisms with some biological or behavioral advantage left behind more progeny in the competition for survival, leading to adaptation to their environments and eventually speciation. Darwin’s natural selection makes no predictions of future stages. It does not suppose that natural selection is in particular geared to higher complexity- only a tiny segment of life forms, such as the giant reptiles and the later mammals, are exceptionally complex – much less a drive toward intelligence or the appearance of humanity. From the standpoint of natural selection the HIV virus could be regarded as a more successful adaptation to its environment than homo sapiens.
“Evolution” leaving out Darwin’s natural selection became a term often commandeered by religious and political progressives in the nineteenth and early twentieth century to depict humans as the apex of the evolutionary tree and to concoct schemas to prove that humanity was continuing to evolve toward still greater perfection in the near future. In that usage it was not science but a bogus justification for the self-congratulatory Victorian belief in progress.
I write this not to pillory Marx. What he did was to choose the view that corresponded to his predilections rather than the one that was scientifically valid. Between the two he made an inspired – and mistaken – guess. Unhappily the guess he made reinforced his confidence that he had discovered the key to predicting future stages of social evolution, as Tremaux had done for the biological past. Had he understood Darwin’s natural selection he would also have understood much of the argument against trying to predict society’s future. Marx here, and in his expectation of a collectivist utopian future, was operating within the parameters of nineteenth century thought and its mental habits. His inheritors are the ones principally at fault for taking his theoretical constructs for reality.
John Gray, in his 2007 Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia, challenged conventional assumptions about human progress. Gray acknowledges obvious technical, scientific, and even administrative progress in human history. But he denies any concomitant moral improvement. Our biological inheritance, which has not changed in significant ways since Cro Magnon times, includes savagery as well as sociability. For Gray, greater technical and scientific progress has improved human health, but it has also put more destructive weapons in the hands of fanatical and authoritarian movements and regimes.
This sobering and rather pessimistic view does not lead Gray to see no distinction among existing human societies. Echoing Robert Conquest, he writes:
“The notion that the excesses of contemporary capitalism are on par with the crimes of Stalinism and Maoism is crazy. Contemporary Western capitalism has many faults, some of them conceivably fatal; but it cannot be placed in the same category with systems that perpetrated the mass murder of their own citizens, and which were responsible for the worst ecological catastrophes in modern times, possibly in all history.”
The Anti-Stalinist Marxists
Gray’s New Republic piece is a scathing review of Why Marx Was Right by British literary critic Terry Eagleton, and Eric Hobsbawm’s How to Change the World: Tales of Marx and Marxism, both published this year and both professing a certain nostalgia for Stalin’s Russia.
Gray rejects the common view that the evils of the Soviet system were mainly attributable to economic backwardness, Russia’s authoritarian traditions, and the early civil war.
“The repression that defined Soviet life from the beginning to the end flowed principally from the communist idea itself, which requires that any group that defines itself differently from the rest of society must eventually be destroyed. Interestingly, Eagleton does not deny this. Like many others, he writes as if repression became severe only under Stalin, which is nonsense.”
This last is a particularly sore point for the Trotskyists, with whom I had a long association. They have been among the most bitter critics of Stalin, his regime, and the later Communist states influenced at the outset by the Moscow pattern. At the same time they reject the modern capitalist welfare state in even its most humane guise, disparaging “bourgeois democracy” as a sham. Their attitude toward the now defunct Communist regimes was, nevertheless, ambiguous. Trotsky was among the first to reveal and denounce the crimes of Stalin, yet he continued to regard the Soviet Union as more progressive than the United States because of its retention of the purportedly advanced property relations from the days of the October Revolution.
Trotsky and his followers occupied an ultimately untenable ground on the outskirts of the far larger Communist movement. Trotsky was an attractive personality, a polymath who had served the Bolshevik regime as diplomat and founder of the Red Army, leading it to victory in the civil war. A gifted historian and orator, he was finally a martyr to Stalin’s assassin. In the early years of the revolution he was in its most authoritarian wing, championing the militarization of labor, defending the crushing of the Kronstadt sailors’ rebellion, and raising no objection to the mass killings by the Cheka.
Trotsky won credit in exile in publicizing the crimes of the Stalin government, often when the liberal press didn’t want to hear such things. But while he now advocated socialist democracy, this bore little resemblance to democratic institutions as they actually evolved in European and American history. He had helped to create the one-party state, with Lenin used the Soviets to consolidate Bolshevik power and then stripped them of any authority, helped to destroy the trade unions, and endorsed the arrest and imprisonment of the members and leaders of all the other political parties, including the widely popular far leftist ones.
As he envisioned it for the future, socialist democracy was plainly conditional on accepting all the essential positions of the predominant party that was to smash the capitalist state. In Trotsky’s program the monopoly of productive property was to remain the centerpiece, and the new government was to be unicameral, rejecting any separation of powers or independent judiciary. The government was to centrally control the press as well as industry and the land. Other parties were to be tolerated only insofar as they accepted these conditions. He did not promise the right of free speech but only of speech that agreed with all the essential features of the communist state. We have been there before. Archimedes said if he had a long enough fulcrum and a place to stand he could move the world. Trotsky’s projected revolutionary government left dissenters no fulcrum and no place to stand.
Trotsky never reconsidered or regretted the bloody repression of the years when he and Lenin headed the government. He promoted a cult of Lenin that bore little resemblance to the dictator’s real place in history. He condemned the murders of the Old Bolsheviks by Stalin, but not the imprisonment and many executions of the Social Revolutionaries and the Mensheviks, much less the members of the liberal parties, by his own government. And he clung to the view that the brutal Communist states should be defended against the Western democracies as well as against the fascist states.
George Orwell, who remained a socialist and had a limited sympathy for Trotsky, nevertheless wrote, in 1939:
“Trotsky, in exile, denounces the Russian dictatorship, but he is probably as much responsible for it as any man now living, and there is no certainty that as a dictator he would be preferable to Stalin, though undoubtedly he has a much more interesting mind. The essential act is the rejection of democracy – that is, of the underlying values of democracy; once you have decided upon that, Stalin – or at any rate something like Stalin – is already on the way.”
Though the Trotskyists long supposed that if Stalinism could be somehow eliminated they would then fill the revolutionary vacuum, the unhappy reality was that they were too inextricably tied in history, outlook, and goals to the discredited Soviet Union. When it foundered, interest in the Lenin era and its Trotskyist champions faded as well. For the few who remain, the cult of Lenin and the October Revolution as heroic models stands in fatal opposition to their self-image as champions of socialist democracy.
Lenin and the Early Soviet Union
What truth is there to the view that Lenin was the great emancipator whose work was undone by Stalin the betrayer? Conquest and Gray devote most of their fire to Marxite currents that were sympathetic to the Soviet system in its Stalin and post-Stalin years. But they have little patience for myth making on Lenin’s account.
Conquest writes, “The Bolshevik Revolution brought an atavistic ideocracy, with a narrowly sectarian mind-set, and a total, and indeed self-admitted, amorality of action. And its long-term effects have been overwhelmingly negative. Its real nature was understood by many even at the time. But its myth, especially among the ideas-and-ideals thirsty of the West, still vaguely survived.”
Conquest first dismisses the legend that the October Revolution, unlike the mass outpouring in February 1917, was sought by any significant force in Russian society. “Lenin had great difficulty in getting a majority even of his own Central Committee to support the seizure of power, and reports from its own agents in the city districts spoke in most cases of a lack of enthusiasm for the coming revolution.”
On November 11, 1917, four days after the Bolshevik coup, a meeting of the Central Committee (with Lenin and Trotsky absent), voted unanimously to form a coalition government with the other left parties. On November 18, Kamenev, Rykov, and three other members of the Central Committee resigned, warning that the failure to set up a coalition government would result in “a purely Bolshevik government by means of political terror.” The Bolsheviks never thereafter permitted the people to vote on their regime. In the Constituent Assembly elections in late November the Bolsheviks won only 175 seats out of 703. All the other parties were of the left except for the moderate liberals, the Constitutional Democrats (Cadets), who won only 17 seats. The Bolsheviks forcibly dispersed the only elected legislature in Russian history, thirteen hours after it convened its first session.
In reports to the Bolsheviks at the time, long hidden from the public, factory after factory in St. Petersburg, after the Bolshevik seizure of power, voted solidly for the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries. There were many strikes in 1918, which the Bolsheviks crushed mercilessly.
“One reads, to this day, in books published by reputable university presses, such things as ‘the Bolshevik Party was a product of idealistic, egalitarian, and socially progressive strands in the Russian intelligentsia and working class.’ Something missing here, you may think – for example fanatical hostility to and finally total suppression of other groups with the same ostensible aims.”
The killings without trial and far from the front in wartime began not under Stalin but under Lenin and Trotsky. “There are now many documents available in which Lenin insists on mass shootings and hangings. And Bertrand Russell, who met him when he was in power, reports that ‘his guffaw at the thought of those massacred made my blood run cold.’”
Conquest gives only a few examples to make his point. For those who would like to look further into repression in the early Soviet years there are many books. I could suggest as places to begin Dmitri Volkogonov’s Lenin: A New Biography (1994) and Alexander N. Yakovlev’s A Century of Violence in Soviet Russia (2002), both based on access to the long-sequestered archives of the Soviet state and its secret police.
The first Soviet secret police organization, the Cheka (All-Russian Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counter-Revolution and Sabotage), was formed in December 1917, hardly a month into the new power. Volkogonov writes, “The Cheka quickly became virtually the chief element of the state, arousing fear not only among the mass of the population, but also among the Bolsheviks themselves.” The secret police had unlimited powers of arrest and execution. “Tens of thousands of people were shot without trial in the cellars of the Cheka.”
Volkogonov recounts that Revolutionary Tribunals “disposed of thousands of people, often merely for belonging to the ‘exploiting’ class.” There was no appeal and those sentenced were shot within twenty-four hours. The Cheka did the same thing on a vaster scale, including executing Communist Party members suspected of dissenting from its methods. Trials were rare, and when held, Yakovlev reports, the Politburo decided the sentences in advance.
The Cheka was given special authorization to secretly arrest and even execute persons they were certain would be acquitted in any public trial because there was no evidence against them.
In March 1921 a group of Chekists on the Turkestan front dared to write to the Bolshevik Party Central Committee protesting the executions of Chekists by their own organization. “[Chekists] are being shot for various crimes, and none of the Communists working in these proletarian punitive organs has any guarantee that he won’t be shot tomorrow under some heading or other.”
Only Lenin personally had any influence with this ruthless and secretive agency, and he gave it his unstinting support against protests and critics from within his own party.
The Bolsheviks established a system of concentration camps largely to hold various kinds of hostages and to silence the other left parties. Volkogonov writes:
“As early as 1918 the Bolsheviks began organizing concentration camps, and those who were spared the bullet began filling them. On 20 April 1921 the Politburo under Lenin’s chairmanship approved the building of a camp for ten to twenty thousand people in the region of Ukhta in the far north.” Another camp was built in Kholmogory, also in Siberia. In a short time there were 84 of the camps. This system did not begin with Stalin.
“The first deportations to the camps took place during the civil war. An especially large number of women and children were ‘resettled’ from the Don and the Kuban following the savage reprisals against the Cossacks. Thousands of them died, either in camp or on the way there.”
The camps were initially for hostages, first of families of army officers, then of peasants to compel their families to deliver up their grain, and then for the members of the other left and Marxist parties. The camp regimes were not as deadly as later under Stalin, and the numbers incarcerated were far fewer, but their use to imprison tens of thousands for even small deviations from the views of the government, for mere suspicious “class origins,” or to force obedience from family members where no crime had been committed were marks of an inhumanity not anticipated in the works of Marx or in Lenin’s soporifically rosy State and Revolution. To have quoted Marx’s prediction that after the socialist revolution all officials would be subject both to election and recall and that everyone would participate in carrying out the functions of supervision so there would be no bureaucrats was enough to earn a bullet from the Cheka.
The left parties, which had far larger followings than the Bolsheviks at the time of the October Revolution, were driven out of the Soviets by violence, then falsely accused of aiding the counterrevolution, and finally their members exiled, arrested, or executed. In March 1922 in a speech to the 11th Congress of the Communist Party, Lenin instructed the courts (no independent judiciary here!): “For public evidence of Menshevism our revolutionary courts must order executions, or else they are not our courts.”
The Mensheviks and the Social Revolutionaries were incessantly accused in the Bolshevik press and in show trials of being in league with the White Guards and foreign imperialists. Yakovlev reports that the secret archives show these slanders were lies. The same tactic was used to justify the crushing of the Kronstadt sailors’ uprising in March 1921, where “the government published an announcement headlined ‘A New White Guard Conspiracy!’ It declared that everything that had happened in Kronstadt ‘was undoubtedly prepared by French counterintelligence’ and that the ‘spies have been apprehended.’” The sailors in fact raised only the demands that the Bolsheviks themselves had championed in 1917: for all power to the Soviets, for all socialist parties to have the right to participate, for freedom of the press. These were all now denounced as counterrevolutionary.
A formal investigation of the uprising headed by Ya. Agranov in April immediately afterward concluded that it was impossible to show any links between the Kronstadt uprising and White Guards or foreign governments. More than 2,000 of the sailors were executed; Agranov’s report was kept secret. Fifteen years later, Stalin staged the first of the infamous Moscow Trials of the Old Bolsheviks. The only supplement to Lenin’s playbook was having the victims confess to the false charges.
There is also the myth that the secret police, repressive as they may have been, directed their imprisonments and liquidations against capitalist saboteurs, ultra rightists, military conspirators, and the like. In January 1922 six of the ten subdivisions of the secret police, recently renamed the OGPU, were assigned to infiltrate and repress the socialist and anarchist parties and their suspected sympathizers.
The government made widespread use of hostages, including executing them either in reprisals for acts of resistance or when their family members refused to do what the government demanded of them. In September 1918 the Petrograd secret police shot 500 hostages. The government routinely used children as hostages in large numbers, from the families of army officers, to compel them to serve in the new Red Army, and from peasant families to make them surrender their grain. In 1919 the families, including the children, of an entire army unit, the Eighty-sixth Infantry Regiment, that had gone over to the Whites were shot. Yakovlev adds, “In May 1920 the newspapers told of the execution in Elizavetgrad of the elderly mother and four daughters, ages three to seven, of an officer who had refused to serve the proletarian regime. Arkhangelsk, where the Cheka shot children of twelve to sixteen, was known in 1920 as the ‘city of the dead.’ . . . The fall of 1918 saw the creation of concentration camps whose prisoners at first were largely hostages, including women with infants, taken as relatives of the [peasant] ‘rebels.’ The minutes of the meeting of 27 June 1921 of the commission on the maintenance of child hostages in concentration camps in Tambov province notes a sizable influx of minors, including infants . . . and it speaks of the inadequacy of these camps for long-term support of children and the resultant intestinal and respiratory diseases.”
Lenin personally issued numerous orders for ever broader categories of shootings. In August 1918 he wrote to the party secretary in Saratov, telling him “shoot conspirators and waverers without asking anyone or any idiotic red tape.” In December he ordered Shlyapnikov to “catch and shoot the Astrakhan speculators and bribe-takers” Volkogonov summarizes:
“During the civil war Lenin told his commanders to shoot miscreants for a widening range of offences: for taking part in a conspiracy, resisting arrest, concealing arms, disobedience, backwardness, carelessness and false reports.” Conscious of his reputation as a humanitarian liberator Lenin kept these orders out of all public documents and his speeches. They were recorded in telegrams and written notes marked confidential, filed away in the secret archives of the state, not revealed until after 1989.
Volkogonov records that in early 1922 during a Soviet campaign to seize the valuables of the Russian Orthodox churches, “between fourteen and twenty thousand clergy and active laymen were shot.” For many there were refinements. Yakovlev recounts that Metropolitan Vladimir of Kiev was castrated before being shot. Metropolitan Veniamin of St. Petersburg was frozen alive into a block of ice. One was tied to the wheels of a paddle boat and mangled, another buried alive. Archbishop Vasily was crucified; others were given Communion with molten lead.
Lenin on December 25, 1919, on the eve of the Nikola, the celebration of the relics of St. Nicolai, issued an order: “[T]o put up with ‘Nikola’ would be stupid – the entire Cheka must be put on the alert to see to it that those who do not show up for work because of ‘Nikola’ are shot.”
Annoyed that prostitutes were encouraging disorder among Red Army troops, Lenin on August 9, 1918, sent out a telegram ordering, “impose mass terror immediately, shoot and deport hundreds of prostitutes who have been getting soldiers, former officers, and so on drunk. Not a minute’s delay.”
The Bolsheviks from the outset made enemies of the vast Russian peasantry. Coming to power while promising All Power to the Soviets and Land to the Tiller, the Bolshevik government then nationalized the land. Even in Lenin’s public writings and speeches he insisted that the peasantry, the overwhelming majority of the Russian people, should have no voice in Soviet government policy. But within the distrusted peasantry Lenin decided to exterminate the so-called kulaks, the better off peasants. This layer mostly came into existence only in 1906, when the Stolypin reforms broke up the big landed estates. Kulaks were defined as any farm larger than eight acres per male family member. Between 13 and 16 percent of the farmers met this standard, something around 2 million people.
In August 1918 Lenin called for “Merciless war against these kulaks! Death to them!” The idea that these people were rich was mostly a communist mirage. When Stalin seized their valuables during his forced collectivization a few years later at the beginning of the 1930s the average kulak family had goods worth less than $200.
Armed grain requisitions, nominally of “surplus” grain, began to leave the peasants starving, and for kulak families the government began to issue orders to leave them with no food at all. On the 10th of August 1918 Lenin sent out a telegram to one district leader ordering: “1. Hang (by all means hang, so people will see) no fewer than 100 known kulaks, fat cats, bloodsuckers. 2. Publish their names. 3. Take all their grain. 4. Select hostages in accordance with yesterday’s telegram. Do it so that for hundreds of miles around people will see and tremble.”
In a similar vein he ordered the Executive Committee in Livny: “Essential . . . to confiscate all the grain and property of the rebellious kulaks . . . take hostages from among the rich and hold them until every last bit of grain is removed from their districts.” That is, the district was condemned to die of starvation. He added that in the nearby fight against White Guard Yudenich, reinforcements should be rounded up for the Red Army: “can we not mobilize some 20,000 more Petersburg workers, plus 10,000 or so bourgeois, place some machine guns behind them, shoot several hundred and bring some real mass pressure against Yudenich.”
In Tambov province the peasants were eating nothing but grass, bark and nettles. “Chief Commissar Sergei Kamenev in October 1920 speaks of crowds of hungry peasants in adjacent Voronezh and Saratov provinces pleading with the local authorities to give them at least some of the grain taken at the collection centers. Often, Kamenev writes, ‘these crowds were mowed down by machine guns.’”
In the midst of the dire famine caused by the government grain seizures, which had enveloped thirty-six million people, the Politburo on December 7, 1922, voted to export almost a million tons of grain. The Russian philosopher and one-time Marxist Nicolai Berdyaev commented, “There is something other-worldly in the Bolsheviks, something alien. That is what makes them terrifying.”
In August 1920 the peasants in Tambov and Voronezh provinces finally rebelled. Red Army records document that in June 1921 General Tukhachevsky, later Soviet commander-in-chief, faced with peasants who had sought refuge in a wooded area, ordered poison gas “be made to spread through the forest killing anyone hiding there.” A Politburo decree of June 11, 1921, on the Tambov situation provided that anyone who refused to give their name was “to be shot on the spot without trial,” and “Any family which harboured a bandit [!] is subject to arrest and deportation from the province, their property to be confiscated and the eldest worker in the family to be shot without trial.”
In the late twenties the Romanian author and Soviet sympathizer Panait Istrati traveled around the Soviet Union with Soviet diplomat Christian Rakovsky and revolutionary novelist Victor Serge. Some functionary sought to justify the visible negatives by citing Lenin’s favorite exculpatory proverb about having to break eggs to make omelets. “All right, I can see the broken eggs,” Istrati replied. “Where’s this omelet of yours?”
It is easy to feel self-righteous and blameless when campaigning against the evils of capitalism far from the countries that have done away with it. The great majority of the European and American followers of the Communist parties, pro-Stalin though they were, saw themselves this way. Ultimate aims are not on the table. The battles are for needed reforms, where the Marxists, using the term loosely, share common aims with broader sections of the population that have no desire for a communist future.
Most of the Trotskyists I have known see themselves in the same light: heroic opponents of America’s foreign wars, champions of civil rights, of feminism, and gay liberation, warriors against the power and influence of the very rich, enemies of the “twin capitalist parties.” But there always lurks “the program,” the “solution” to the whole bag of injustices, toward which every partial struggle is supposed to lead, and for which the model is the Russian October Revolution. By and large these militants have not cared to look the real Lenin in the face and confront what it is they advocate. A few have and decided to quietly withhold their approval. Unhappily, at least a few of my Trotskyist comrades have looked, and seeing, shrug their shoulders and say this is the way of great revolutions. And so they wander off into the totalitarian swamp and political irrelevancy.
This is not the place to pursue this further. You get the idea. Both Volkogonov (1928-1995) and Yakovlev (1923-2005) were lifelong Russian Communists. Volkogonov, a colonel general in the Soviet army, was an orthodox Communist in the Brezhnev years. He became a military historian, and was slowly disillusioned. For some years he held the view that the Soviet degeneration dated from Stalin, but his research in the archives finally convinced him that all the essential elements of the totalitarian state began with Lenin. He was fired by Gorbachev for his critical views, but supported perestroika and became Boris Yeltsin’s military advisor.
Yakovlev first became disillusioned while attending Khrushchev’s famous de-Stalinization speech in 1956. He was the first to reveal, in 1989, the secret agreements between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. He was a key advisor to Gorbachev and a principal architect of perestroika. In his last years he chaired Russia’s Presidential Commission for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Political Repression, where he had access for the first time to the secret files of the KGB and other state agencies of repression, on which he based his book.
I have limited this brief excursion to Russians, for their intimacy with the subject. Also worth reading are Jean-Francois Revel’s Last Exit to Utopia: The Survival of Socialism in a Post-Soviet Era, and Francois Furet’s The Passing of an Illusion: The Idea of Communism in the Twentieth Century. And for the very bold Marxist ready to rethink their world view there is A. James Gregor’s The Faces of Janus: Marxism and Fascism in the Twentieth Century.
Decentralized property ownership, that is, capitalism, despite its known evils has proven able to give more leverage to people seeking some level of freedom and well being than systems of total state control. The Marxist project rested on the premise that the people would be able to retain control of the state after the state won control over the means of production. Why this would fail should have been evident from the premises of Marxism itself. The capitalists’ disproportionate power over society is because they own the means of production, the most elementary truism of the Marxist canon. In capitalist societies, despite relatively free elections and the right to form organizations and raise funds to influence government, the power of the property owners remains predominant. What, then, happens when the government, which is composed of career functionaries, owns not only the means of production but also all means of communication and controls all channels by which funds can be raised and all forms of political organization? The mere “class origins” of these functionaries should, by Marx’s own understanding, not long outweigh their actual social situation as masters of “capital.” If legal electoral forms do not counteract the advantages capital has in the decentralized West, why should anyone have imagined that mere electoral forms – which were never even permitted anyway – could hold the masters of the state to account when they hold many more of the levers of power than the capitalists ever did?
The Current Crisis Is Not an Ordinary Recession
The whole reason for this exercise is to try to discourage, as people cast around for some way to dig out of the now long-lasting economic slump, the revival of self-defeating proposals that have already produced almost unimaginable human misery. So what is it we are up against in this latest disaster?
John Gray is far more sympathetic to Marx’s critique of capitalism than to Marx’s theorizing about a communist replacement. “Marx,” he writes, “was closer to reality than generations of mainstream economists. His insights are particularly relevant at a time when the economics profession devotes itself to the mathematical modeling of delusional harmonies.”
He disparages “fundamentalist believers in the market [who] imagine that a deregulated economy would lead to a kind of universal bourgeoisification – a society in which nearly everyone could aspire to a solidly middle-class life. The reality is that for a majority of people in the United States, Britain, and parts of Europe, middle-class life is rapidly ceasing to be a viable option. With their houses and pensions depleted in value and the job market increasingly fragmented and insecure, many who thought they were middle-class are finding themselves in something like the position of Marx’s propertyless proletarians.”
What has been emergent from this process has not been mass socialist movements and nations. For Gray, “free market’s successors are much more likely to be other versions of capitalism – the state capitalism of China, the social-market capitalism that has made Germany the most successful advanced economy, and other varieties of capitalism that are yet to develop.”
I remember when first reading Gray’s Black Mass when it came out in 2007, thinking that his prediction then that the coming century would be marked principally by resource wars was something I hadn’t heard or thought of before. Four years later it seems all too prescient.
Our industrial civilization was made possible by the discovery of finite deposits of fossilized energy. Unlike most mineral resources, which are abundant in the earth’s crust and date from the formation of the planet, coal, oil, and natural gas are the compressed remains of plant and animal matter, created in comparatively more recent geological epochs, and preserved only in a limited number of particularly favorable locations where conditions were uniquely right.
No one in the nineteenth century considered the amount of these materials to be of cardinal importance. Most economists today still do not, assuming without evidence that any rising prices due to scarcity will spark more intense exploration for new deposits and technological innovation to conserve energy and seek new energy sources.
Perhaps this blindness to the ecological foundation of our civilization stems from our religious inheritance, which sees humanity as the God-given master of the earth. But time appears to have run out. World crude oil output has not increased by any significant amount since 2005 – demand has. Every major oil producer is in rapid decline save Saudi Arabia, which still claims it has a small reserve that could be thrown into the world market to slow price rises.
The current world financial crisis, which erupted in 2008, is not a classic Smithian or Marxian crisis of over production. It is not a consequence of the falling rate of profit. This one is unprecedented, a crisis of insufficient natural resources to meet the growing demand of a geometrically expanding world population at prices that do not induce recession.
The mainstream press and the left have repeated endlessly that the economic meltdown was precipitated by greedy marketing of subprime mortgages and their collateralization into worthless mutual funds. That explanation provides an easily understood and conventional villain. If it were the whole story the crash should be fairly short-lived and readily overcome, as were all the previous crashes of the capitalist business cycle except the Great Depression.
A growing number of recent studies are pointing to a more sinister and irremediable cause. James Hamilton in a paper for the Brookings Institute presents results from a computer modeling that indicate the sharp run-up in oil price that began in 2000 and topped out in 2008 was a larger cause of the recession than the more famous housing bubble.
Historically, high oil prices have been the trigger for American recessions, and they are headed to exceptionally high levels now. Chris Nelder and Gregor MacDonald in the October 4, 2011, Harvard Business Review Blog write:
“The connection between oil shocks and recessions has been understood for decades. We have ample historical evidence that when petroleum expenditures reach 5% of GDP, recession typically follows. Annual energy expenditures rose from 6.2% of U.S. GDP in 2002 to a painful 9.8% in 2008, which was immediately followed by an economic crash. And now oil is sending energy expenditures back above 9% of GDP, just as we see fresh indications that the recession persists. This is not a coincidence.”
The explosion of debt after the turn of the millennium was itself not due solely to bankers arbitrary voraciousness, guilty as they were. Oil for the first time in a century reached $10 a barrel in 1980, triggering a recession that year and another in 1981, which drove prices down. It spiked in 1990 to over $30 a barrel, launching an eight month recession that, with conservation efforts, lowered prices for a decade. But a sharp upward spiral hit in 2000 that threatened to wipe out the prosperity of the mid and late 1990s. Banks and consumers responded by prolonging the good times on a wave of debt – maxed-out credit cards, steadily inflating home prices, home equity loans to supplement income, liar loans to buy houses people couldn’t afford.
In 2008 international competition, especially from China and India, for a piece of the stagnant global oil supply drove the price through the roof, briefly hitting $147 a barrel, in the process blowing out the foundation of the debt pyramid. Significantly, even with Europe and the United States deep in recession, sharply reducing the use of gas and oil in all their forms, the price never got below about $55 a barrel, a level it had reached for the first time in history only in 2005, the year world crude oil peaked and hit the plateau it has been stuck on ever since.
In mid-November 2011 the U.S. domestic price was briefly back above $100 while European Brent oil, a more realistic measure of world oil cost, was at $112. (The U.S. price, West Texas Intermediate, is set in Cushing, Oklahoma. Inadequate storage facilities there have produced a local glut, holding down the nominal U.S. price. The Brent price is what is paid on the American Gulf Coast and in California, as well as the rest of the world, and is the more accurate figure.)
Oil doesn’t need to run out to deal a body blow to the world economy. There is still a great deal of oil, but what remains is lower quality, harder to extract, far more expensive than the crude of an earlier day, and can’t be extracted fast enough to increase total supplies. As price goes up the costs of everything dependent on oil, above all transportation, increase, with food prices moving in lock-step.
There is no longer enough crude oil to meet current world demand, the still-flatlined total being maintained by additions of expensive and low grade processed liquids. Nelder and MacDonald write:
“Conventional crude ended its 150-year-long growth trajectory in 2004 and flattened out around 74 million barrels per day. Crude supply did not budge when oil prices tripled from 2004 to 2008, but global demand remained firm, shrugging off a recessionary dip in 2009. All the growth in supply since then was not crude but unconventional liquids, including natural gas liquids, biofuels, refinery gains, synthetic oil from tar sands, and other marginal resources. These liquids are by no means equivalent to crude.”
Demand in Europe and the United States is relatively flat, but is growing rapidly in China and India as those countries seek first-world living standards. Global population reached the seven billion mark this year, as arable land continued its decline, from erosion, over cropping, and exhaustion of underground aquifers. Global warming, still in its earliest stages, has magnified floods and droughts.
Global food prices are closely tied to the price of oil, because of the costs of transport and fertilizer, though they have their own independent drivers, all of which are working against us.
The New York Times summarizes: “The rapid growth in farm output that defined the late 20th century has slowed to the point that it is failing to keep up with the demand for food, driven by population increases and rising affluence in once-poor countries. Consumption of the four staples that supply most human calories — wheat, rice, corn and soybeans — has outstripped production for much of the past decade, drawing once-large stockpiles down to worrisome levels. The imbalance between supply and demand has resulted in two huge spikes in international grain prices since 2007, with some grains more than doubling in cost. (June 4, 2011)
Both capitalism and Communism were founded on a need for perpetual economic growth. For both societies there is a need to provide food, lodging, and employment for an ever expanding population, not to mention expectations of higher living standards, and in the capitalist case there is the additional need to sell products.
The politics of growth as the engine of employment and prosperity is no longer viable. Increasing costs, rising demand, and impending declines in supplies of key energy sources and industrial raw materials promise not just recessions but a decline in the standard of living of world civilizations as a whole, or worse. While the political establishment largely avoids talking about this unpleasant subject, militaries around the world have been alarmed for some time. Their own reports consider seriously the possibility not merely of decline but of collapse of society as we know it. Many show thorough familiarity with the facts of peak oil. One that I thought was particularly interesting, and which has since disappeared from the Internet, was an article by Major Cameron Leckie in the July 2010 issue of the Australian Defense Force Journal urging a drastic simplification of his country’s weapons systems on the premise that a sharp decline in civilization could make parts for their current high tech arsenal unobtainable. He ominously titled his contribution “Lasers or Longbows.”
All the variants of our social systems arose and based their collective livelihoods and expectations on cheap energy and abundant food rolling on into the future. None have contingency plans for steady and unstoppable decline, much less for Gotterdammerung. The first whiff of sulphur even in the wealthy nations has had people casting around for who to blame and rummaging through the inventory of discarded belief systems for something that can save them. The first signs of this in the U.S. date from the oil shock of 1973, and the American defeat in Vietnam two years later. Before that Republicans and Democrats alike held a comfortable trust in the federal government. Afterward, trust in government eroded sharply, the left from the years of opposing the war, the right from the sense of inescapable decline when the Arabs turned off the spigot and the U.S. proved unable to win a long war against the guerrillas of a small Asian nation. The right shifted its Norman Rockwell embrace of Washington to a fascination with the impending Rapture that would let them escape this place. Bible literalist Evangelical Christian sects, hitherto confined to the backwoods, went mainstream, and then succeeded in capturing one of the two major political parties.
The deepening sense of national decline, economic threat, and, for many whites, the vision of an America with a black and brown majority underwrites the bitter partisanship that marks American politics. The risk is the revival of extremist schemas that were tried and failed the first time around.
The Tea Party looks to God. While waiting to be Raptured they remain busy trying to shut out the unwanted immigrants; radically weaken government except where they can use it to pass religious-based legislation to control women’s reproductive lives and restrict gay rights, while amputating much of the rest, creating still more unemployed; roll back taxes used to help the unemployed, the sick, or the elderly;; and free corrupt financial institutions and polluting industries from regulation. Their guts tell them these projects will restore prosperity and American power, and to reject all unpleasant facts that cast doubt, particularly those that come from scientists, academics, and the “lamestream” media. The leadership of the Republican Party professes to find this witches brew convincing.
Liberals and the left are fighting to roll back the extraordinary increases in income and wealth the financial elite pocketed in the last two decades, to protect the frayed social safety net, and to defend jobs, wage levels, and pensions in face of ever more severe federal, state, and local cutbacks. The tax fight can possibly be won, and most serious economists believe that the deficit can ride for a while, that it is more important to provide more stimulus.
What we know about overpopulation, resource depletion, and global warming tell us that sooner or later we will arrive at a second stage of these battles. Ultimately, governments that can’t pay their bills end up like Greece, even the United States. If the future is as it appears, that day is not a possibility but an inevitability, only the date being unknown. That means at some point it will be impossible to sustain our present standard of living, not because America is capitalist but because the historically brief window of plentiful cheap energy and a population small enough to feed itself without that subsidy is over and no change of social system is going to bring it back. Then the job becomes saving what can be saved and finding ways to live where not only growth, but perhaps even gasoline and electricity are no longer options, an age where the U.S. Marines will be armed with longbows.