Nov 13, 2010
Lately, when in conversation my conservatively inclined contemporaries begin to criticize the liberals, I’ll say, “Hey, I’m a communist. I hate the liberals just as much as you do.” They generally, laugh, presuming me to be joking. One guy even said, “Well, then you must be happy there’s a Marxist in the White House.” [On that note, I’m not sure I understand the equation of Obama’s policies with socialism. “If he’s a socialist,” a friend of mine said, “then why is there so much unemployment?”]
For the record, I am not now, nor have I ever been, a member of the communist party. I am also well aware of the crimes committed by communist parties around the world (and if you really want to head down a rabbit hole, just try to follow some of the disputes that arise when it comes to figuring the actual number of communism’s victims – this post and the accompanying comments are a good example). Furthermore, I categorically reject apologies for or defenses of genocidal atrocities, of whatever magnitude, in the name of unrealized or, even worse, unrealizable ideals.
That being said, when I invoke communism, or even it’s blood-soaked spectre, I do so in order to recover what was lost with the fall, not so much of communism per se (given the fact that the most successful communist regime thus far, China, is currently drinking the West’s milkshake), but of the Soviet bloc.
First of all, I think we lost a vision of human progress. This was quite literally Frances Fukuyama’s “End of History” thesis, wherewith he claimed that the decline of “command economy + authoritarianism” signaled the final triumph of “free market + democracy.” Progress at the level of social structure was over; we’d reached the summit. Of course, as time has shown, and as Fukuyama himself surmised, you can have “free market + authoritarianism” (Singapore and China being the prime examples), so history may not be over altogether. However, a vision of the future filled with peace, prosperity, and universal brotherhood, a future imbued with the ethos of “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need,” is.
Along with the idea of progress, the vast majority of humans lost a path to hope. Communism, with its black-and-white, class warfare perspective was divisive, undeniably. The thing is that the dividing line it drew was between a minority of humanity— the 20% who receive 3/4 of the world’s income — and the majority or 80% who live on $10 a day or less (half of those, 40% of the global population, accounting for a mere 5% of global income – these figures come from here and here). When communism collapsed, in the case of the East Bloc, or contracted to it’s nascent nationalism, as in the case of China, and the “Workers of the World Unite” part essentially evaporated, the Have-Nots lost a framework in which they had some hope of, if not replacing the Have’s, at least deposing them.
In the Muslim world at least, radical Islam appears to have filled this void, but only to the extent that it focuses its righteous anger on the non-Muslim Haves (though, in its ultra-radical forms, I suppose, it even sets its sights on Muslim tyrants such as those ruling Saudi Arabia). Nevertheless, the loss of communism means that we no longer have a perspective within which to appreciate the complex struggles ongoing in the Middle East. For example, it means that we view the Arab-Israeli conflict in terms of religious and ethnic differences, rather than, in many respects, a battle between rich and poor unfolding against a neo-colonial backdrop. (On a related front, it’s interesting that the fragile hope for peace in the Middle East hinges on negotiations not between Israel and Hamas, but between Israel and the quasi-socialist Palestinian Authority.)
Another way of putting this is to say that we lost the foundation for a global perspective on labor and other struggles. Capital, various national concentrations aside, has globalized itself. The idea of a global resistance to capitalism, let alone a global coordination of struggles for worker’s rights, seems laughable by contrast (this despite Negri and Hardt’s theoretical hopes). The working class of one country (and I include here so-called “knowledge workers”) gets played off against the working class of another, and one national group’s loss is another’s gain. The response is not increased solidarity but mounting hostility towards the legal export of skilled labor and the illegal traffic in unskilled laborers.
Finally, and here American liberals should take special note, we lost a violent counter-weight that actually made the Right more conciliatory. While Cold Warriors like Ronald Reagan eventually led the Republican Party away from this, the case can be made that, in the immediate post-war years, the Communist threat actually encouraged even staunch anti-communists like Nixon to provide some level of social programming aimed at expanding the middle class into the upper echelons of the working class in order to win them away from the allure of communism (or socialism, anyway).
Indeed, I believe that the immanent collapse of the Soviet Union actually emboldened Reagan and his “supply-side” (“enrich the wealthy and the poor will prosper”) economic approach, an approach which still enjoys much vocal support in current debates over tax-cuts for the wealthy, reform of inheritance taxes, and, more broadly, tax and regulatory policies that directly benefit the owners of companies, not their workers. (The irony of these “pro business” policies being that businesses, like capital itself, show no allegiance to a particular country.)
Of course, if we look at the history of South and Central America (not to mention the history of McCarthyism here and elsewhere), the “threat” of communism often frequently justified incredibly murderous campaigns against workers, peasants, and communist sympathizers more generally. Nevertheless, the gradual disappearance of the juntas shows that this form of government, fueled by anti-communism, was not itself sustainable.
No doubt this post will push a slew of buttons and I’m prepared to weather the storm of those who will accuse me of sanctifying everything from the holomodor to the killing fields. As I clearly stated above, however, this is far from the case. All I am trying to say is that there was a time in which the idea of another way, an outside, an alternative to market capitalism and its accompanying inexorable concentrations of wealth, held some sway. The disappearance of that idea has brought with it the claustrophobic recession of the human prospect.
Thus, it is not communism’s ghost, but a pervading sense of futurelessness that haunts the Earth today.
Image Source: Hop-Frog.