Saturday, March 9, 2013

On socialists' negative opinions of actually existing socialism

In this text I attempt to discuss some negative opinions (not criticisms and material analysis) directed towards former socialist nations. 

Many socialists take solace in the fact that they have negative opinions about the historical experience of socialist nations, specifically the Soviet Union and China. There are many reasons for this. By distancing oneself from these experiences one also distances themself from criticisms directed at these experiences, which lessens the burden of defending one's ideology. There is the appearance that one's outlook is more independent or even new, which is considered to be a testament to critical analysis that is supposedly lacking in those who adopt stances similar to those which were historically significant in the 20th century socialist bloc and within radical party organizations [1]. There is also the fact that, for those coming out of another ideological background, one does not have to overcome their previous negative stances towards these societies in order to become socialist in this manner [2]. My objective is not focusing on the tactical merits of expressing these opinions but the nature of these opinions themselves. 

One is hard pressed to find a marxist with negative opinions about the transition from feudalism to capitalism. Marx himself will serve to point out the advances of capitalist society in relation to the feudal society. Marxists see capitalist production, even in its transitional state of mercantile society, as the development of historical forces. Those familiar with the principles of materialism would not feel the need to denounce the imperfect conditions of transition from feudal society to capitalist society, to have negative views of that historical process, precisely because it is seen as such: a historical process. It would be strange for a marxist to denounce this historical transition, or to expect better results to arrive from that particular set of material conditions. 

So why is it that many socialists feel the need to denounce the Soviet Union and China? Are those historical experiences not seen as part of a historical process? Are the sources of negative opinions within these societies outside of the historical process then, something which happens without class struggle? I have found that the majority of opinions one can find being expressed in socialist spaces are wrong. Not because they are informed by fallacies or by lies. But because they take the form of cautionary tales and moral judgment, which cannot be accepted by anybody who has been familiarized with a historical materialist framework. They generally come accompanied by some form of counter-factual history that points to the possibility of a moralizing historical agent (usually reflected by an individual or theory, not a class) which could have, by means of chance or circumstance, altered the course of history for the better, more desirable version. 

This conception of history is no different than the oldest pre-materialist explanations for historical events. Much like we learn from ancient roman biographers that the periods of crisis in the Empire were to be blamed on the perversions of some Caesars, and prosperity to be credited to the virtues of others, these socialists warn us against certain personalities that hijack the historical process. We can fantasize then (and maybe include in the transitional programme) that a 20th century soviet Brutus could have saved the revolution and ensured the final victory of socialism in the USSR. This is wrong. 

There is also the problem of choosing a more desirable outcome over a less desirable one. One often comes from the assumption that both outcomes are materially available. Marxists do not generally support socialism because they see it as ideal, but because they see it as what is possible, otherwise they would simply abolish all capitalist relations of production and superstructure instantly. With the insights of historical materialism we learn that we are constrained by the historical process, the development of forces and relations of production and their accompanying superstructure, along with other insights such as the law of balanced development, which cannot be abolished at will. This is why Marx who we could probably conjecture was against the practice of banking in general, advocated in his Manifesto of the Communist Party for the creation of a state-run central banking system. He could not advocate something which was beyond the form of class struggle his society was experiencing. So when one favors a certain outcome, within the realm of marxist ideology, one is required to make the case for it within the parameters of historical materialism, because we are not merely collecting stances which we find preferable or moral regardless of material reality, this is what separates us from the utopians. 

So even for those who base these opinions on class struggle, we have to ask why we could have expected the outcome of actually existing socialism to have been different [3]. When one looks at the actual historical record, not just of the USSR and China, but of all the revolutions which took place in Europe, Asia, Africa and in Latin America, the transitional period between capitalism and socialism (itself transitional) looks like a series of successes and setbacks of working class struggle, big and small. There is no reason why we should expect, in the hypothetical future of world socialism, to look back to the 20th century and not see it as a transitional period, but rather, as a series of freak incidents in history. There also does not seem to be a convincing materialist reason for which we should believe that, armed with the perfect theory (which could possibly arise from imperfect social realities) the revolutions of the 21st century would be impervious to failure [3], or that this is itself an argument against revolution. It shouldn't be an outrageous suggestion that Marxists should look at failure as part of the historical process and that this nevertheless doesn't change our determination to keep struggling.  

[1] One has to wonder if this does not reveal a certain organisational problem when independent thinking becomes having a different opinion out of principle, rejecting the very concept of collective agreement and the socialist task of encouraging mass ideological development and mass politics, which become contradictory with this individualist conception of ideological genesis. 

[2] Countless times I have seen people make an effort to, instead of developing a methodology with which to develop their stances and studying in order to refine their critical thinking, just switch ideologies because they now perceive one ideology to fit their previous set of stances better than the other. It is not a real questioning of one's set of prejudices. This, I wager, is one of the reasons for the popularity of the universally awful Political Compass.  

[3] Note that I am not saying that the historical outcome is the only outcome possible, but rather that those who argue for different outcomes have to prove adequately why the differing outcome was possible.

[4] That is not to say that theory doesn't alter the chances of success. But theory is not to be seen as the prime factor in determining the way class struggle unfolds. When we talk about the rise of a bureaucratic class, we are talking about something deeper than technical mistakes, such as calculation mistakes or ineffective public policy - that is not to say that theory is limited to technical mistakes, rather, that these technical mistakes are those that can be more easily avoided with a proper theoretical understanding, as opposed to what might be understood as a historical force. 

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