Historic Socialism Revisited
October 1917 saw the most significant event in the 20th century and perhaps all of world history (this, of course, is yet to be determined). Prior to that critical month, socialism had been a theoretical discussion – a proposed economic and social model that would bring the working classes to power in a shared ownership construct of the means of production. Certainly, there had been socialist movements throughout Europe and even in the United States; western nation states had enacted labor reforms, most notably in England that perhaps thwarted violent upheavals and permanent class conflict. Europe did experience a series of revolutions in 1848, most of them failed and many with a socialist over tone.
But it was not until the ‘soviets’ in Petrograd overthrew the Russian provisional government, in place since the Tsar abdicated in February 2017, that an actual socialist government came to power. My knowledge of this time period will eventually be much more thorough – I have 2 very large accounts sitting on my very pretty book case so what follows is what I know to date. But I know enough to recognize the revolution’s significance and enough to claim that the Russian Revolution of 1917 has directly led to our current domestic political chaos. Because it was the Russian Revolution – and communism’s initial and continued success – that scared American conservatives into creating a movement so opposed to socialist reforms that and socialist influence that it led to the takeover of a major political party in the United States. It is the reaction to the Russian Revolution that created Senator Brownback of Kansas’s failed experiment in libertarian economic theory and Donald Trump’s surprise victory last fall.
This post has been ruminating in my brain for a couple of months now but it has always competed with what I considered more urgent issues. In fact, I had intended to vent about Trump’s current war on the media before socialism but then I read the article below. Frightened by the appeal of Bernie Sanders’ ‘democratic socialism,’ conservatives meeting at this week’s CPAC conference have decided to move against a resurgence of socialist thought by targeting millennials and the youth and of course, lying to them about the meaning of socialist ideology. As soon as I read the part about “aunts and uncles” having a responsibility to indoctrinate their family youth with notions of unfettered capitalism, I decided that it was time for this post. Not only will I NOT sing the praises of unfettered capitalism, but I will very purposefully speak to its abuses and alternatives.
I warn you: I use the word “unfettered” a lot. It’s a good word.
But first – a history lesson. You see, the October Revolution was a surprise. In no way would Marx have predicted a communist/socialist revolution in Russia. Marx wrote during a time of rising industrial capitalism and witnessed the abuses of the labor class by the bourgeoisie – the ownership class. In short: he predicted that socialism was a natural outcome of these abuses – that the proletariat (working classes) would rise up against the owners of production and assume control themselves, sharing in its surpluses (profit) and in its social benefits. In fact, socialism for Marx was just a temporary stop on the road to communism. Socialism would provide for public and common ownership of production (we would call this ‘nationalization’ today). The government would be staffed by the proletariat and the economy would be managed for the public good. Communism would naturally evolve from socialism whereby the government would melt away leaving the true owners the proletariat. Government management of the economy and public goods would no longer be needed as everything would be collectivized and owned by the community and for the benefit of the community.
Marx assumed that socialism would rise from the industrialized west; in his mind, Britain was a perfect candidate. It had undergone an intense and abusive industrialized revolution. Working conditions were abysmal and owners were cruel. Laborers were housed in horrible conditions, paid minimally and abused regularly. Marx believed that it would be in the industrialized west that socialist revolution would emerge.
Russia in 1917 bore no resemblance to Britain or any other industrialized, capitalist society. It was still very feudal in that the social hierarchy was divided between the aristocracy (led by the Tsar) and the peasant class. Life of the peasant was also abysmal – absolute poverty, lack of education and agrarian, but Russia had little if any industrialization. There was little opportunity for organization because there was no working class. In terms of Marxism, Russia would have to first go through industrialization, experience industrialized capitalism with its abuses of the working class to create an organized proletariat capable of overthrowing the middle classes.
But there was a great deal of Marxist rhetoric that could be used by the early Bolsheviks (Lenin, Trotsky) to garner support from the peasants and what little of the working classes that existed. Talk of equality, income redistribution and common land ownership resonated with impoverished and starving peasants, tired of destitution and war. The Great War (WWI) had created an environment ripe for revolution: poverty, starvation, and military losses led to revolts against the Tsar and the existing social order.
Soviets (organized groups of peasants, workers, and lower classes) existed throughout Russia, particularly in the large urban areas and it was these soviets that emerged in October 1917 to take control of the government from the abdicating provisional government.
What followed was violence, economic upheaval, and civil war. It was during these years that Marxist socialism turned into the totalitarian force that we associate with communism and socialism today. Lenin and Trotsky faded from view (Trotsky may have been assassinated by Stalin) and Stalin became “General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.” Stalin then began a period of rapid industrialization that would place the USSR as a preeminent power in Europe and Asia – one that would lead the fight against the Nazi Regime for three years before a second front was opened with the help of America.
Now, before anyone gets their panties in a twist and starts calling me a pinko-commie, Stalin lover…chill. Stalin was a paranoid brutal dictator who consolidated power and then went after his enemies, both perceived and actual, in order to remain unopposed. But I do think it’s important to understand how that happened. First – Stalin was crazy. And paranoid. So let’s just start with that assumption. He emerged from a civil war, assassination plots and other destructive intrigues to lead an expansive land mass of peasants based on an economic model that required industrialization. Additionally, remember that the land mass east of Russian borders had invaded Russia during the Napoleonic Wars and the Great War; countries with economic models diametrically opposed to socialism. In the early 1920s, the Russian economy was weak and vulnerable and that made the Soviets – and Stalin – weak and vulnerable to opposition and overthrow.
So Stalin and the Soviets embarked on a series of 5-year plans to industrialize the Soviet economy and make it a military and economic power. The means to execute on these plans were brutal. We have all heard stories of agricultural collectives, forced removal of peasants from their farms and the brutality of the Gulag. Millions of Russians were purged (read ‘killed’) during these forced migrations and obviously, Stalin generated a great deal of resistance. That opposition merely fueled his already paranoid personality and tightened his grip on power. It should be no surprise that he ruled as a dictator – and a brutal one at that.
But here’s the thing – the thing that no one really wants to admit. It. Worked. Again – chill and think about it. The Nazi’s invaded Russia in June 1941, violating the Nazi Soviet Non-Aggression Pact signed just a few years before. From 1941 – June 1944, Russia fought the Nazi’s almost single-handedly. Sure – the Brits and Americans were fighting in North Africa, but those efforts did not force Germany to move resources from the Eastern Front. Russia lost millions – MILLIONS of her citizens; between the military and the scorched earth policy that burned every living thing in their retreat, and yet they stopped Hitler from taking Moscow. Starting in 1943, the Soviet Red Army began to push back Hitler’s war machine, retaking land that the Nazi’s had occupied for two years.
So now let’s stop and think about what had happened in the west during the years between 1917 – 1943. Do you remember? I hope so. Capitalism had failed. And it had failed miserably. In October 1929, the New York Stock Exchange experienced a shock like it had never seen before in its history. At some point, I’ll post an explanation of that stock market crash and the depression that followed. It is fascinating and frighteningly parallel to what happened in 2008 (and frankly, what WILL happen if the Trump Administration and GOP do what they promise). Fortunes were lost overnight and what followed was over a decade of economic turmoil defined by poverty, hunger, dust and destitution. FDR’s New Deal offered hope and perhaps staved off a socialist revolution in the United States – but it was bad. Very bad. And capitalists knew it. They also knew that the only thing saving capitalism was World War II and the demand that it generated.
When the war ended, capitalists (who I define as opponents of the New Deal and advocates of the laissez-faire capitalism that had failed so visibly in the late 20s) saw a wildly successful and powerful Soviet Union, a totalitarian dictatorship for sure – but an economic and military powerhouse based on an economic and political model diametrically opposed to their own.
About a month ago, I posted a lengthy piece on the differences between conservatives and liberals and in it, I talked about the modern conservative movement being a reaction against the Bolshevik revolution of 1917. So I will not repeat myself here except to say – the modern conservative movement sought to roll back the New Deal reforms of the 1930s and the government engagement and involvement in the economy post WW2. In doing so, conservatives constructed an incorrect narrative about how we won WW2 and the communist menace of the Soviet Union. They fostered a movement that viewed the radicalism of the 60s (the Civil Rights movement, anti-Vietnam protests and later – the feminist movements) as evidence of a communist plot to gain ground in the United States government and society. No, these movements could not be a result of capitalist abuses of power – of course not. They had to be communist agitators’ hell bent on the destruction of democratic society.
Gaining ground through the 60s and 70s, conservatives won the hard fought battle of deregulation starting in the 70s and continuing through the George W Bush Administration. The period of de-regulation spanned both parties, culminating frankly in the repeal of Glass-Steagall under Clinton. Once that happened, along with Bush 43’s reluctance to enforce existing financial regulations, the 2008 – 2009 crash and recession was inevitable. It was this recession – and its impact on middle America and more specifically, the stereotypical Trump voter, that fueled Trump and Sanders’ populist rise and gave way for the former’s surprise victory.
The Trump Administration, staffed with billionaires and Wall Street executives have promised a roll back of Obama era regulations. This includes Dodd-Frank and other Consumer Protection Laws that were passed as a result of the Great Recession. I have much to say about this period – but suffice it to say – Bernie Sanders was dead on. Unfettered capitalism failed AGAIN – and it was time that we enacted socialist reforms beyond what had been done under President Obama. I agree with him. I also assert that Trump and GOP policies economic policies – those that will allow for unchecked capitalist activity – will end up decimating an already fractured middle and lower middle class and further push the poor into the ghetto. The only ones that will not suffer the next crash are those well positioned to survive it: the rich and powerful.
So Amy, what does this have to do with anything real? Well,…it has to do with this article and some of the statements made at CPAC. Because once again, conservatives have the wrong definition of socialism. Our reality of socialism is Communist Russia and we see that as a failed experiment. But before it failed, it succeeded and we really should look at what was successful.
Conservatives view socialism and socialist reforms with absolute disgust referring to Socialist Europe and their ‘failed socialist policies.’ I debate these perceptions. Because in my trips abroad, I do not see failure. I see modern economies with healthier and more educated workforces. I see laborers with proper work life balances, not glued to the consumerism of America. I see workforces that are taxed, sometimes at 50% with humming economies, lower unemployment and guaranteed retirement income and health care. I see employees protected from capitalist owners and while some of those protections make it more difficult for employers to manage performance, the gross national output is strong. I see a lack of a homeless population and quality public housing. I see democratic institutions, individualism, and a free press. I do not see totalitarianism and dictatorship.
Are there problems? Yes. We’ve seen Brexit and the rise of ultra-right wing movements. But interestingly, these movements are not pushing back on socialist economic and social policy. They are pushing back on European consolidation and immigration. That is telling.
The truth is – socialist policies can work and they can lead to a more equitable society both in civil and economic rights. Socialist policies and government regulation can play an equalizing force between the classes which WILL ward off social and racial unrest. Unfettered capitalism is a disaster – we have seen it so many times before and yet, the conservative movement and modern GOP refuse to consider alternatives.
Just look at Kansas. Another failed libertarian and unfettered capitalism experiment – and yet, the GOP wants to do the same thing at the federal level. How does that make sense? How does it make sense to reverse what little the Obama Administration did to curb capitalism and Wall Street abuses after the Great Recession? Treasury Secretary Steve Munchin is the epitome of the laissez-faire, unregulated capitalist greed that has led to booms and crashes – throughout our history, each one a little worse than the last. Government intervention in 2009 and 2010 saved the global economy from an epic disaster – one that originated in these great United States. And it is the policy of the GOP and the Trump Administration to create an environment primed to repeat.
The other quote note in the article that just grinds at me is the panel: “FREE-stuff vs. FREE-dom: Millennials’ love affair with Bernie Sanders.” It grinds because it screams of condescension, arrogance and downright ignorance and assumes that the listener has no understanding of history or economics. Read a book or perhaps go abroad. To assume that socialist policies are all about “free stuff” is so far beyond wrong that it defies explanation. Democratic socialist policies – those championed by Bernie Sanders – are appealing to young people and old alike because they are based on humanitarian impulses. They are based on Christian principles found in the Beatitudes. It’s the idea that in the richest country in the world, poverty, hunger, and homelessness should not exist. And yes, to ensure that these blights on humanity do not exist, we must redistribute wealth in the form of progressive taxation and government regulation.
Socialism does not lead to totalitarianism, dictatorship and a loss of human rights. DICTATORS – human beings – create the conditions that allow for all of these negative forces and it is human beings that can stop it. So please – before you start teaching your kids about capitalist heroes and socialist failures – learn the truth. Do I believe that we have the best markets in the world? I’m not sure. Do I believe we have the most unstable markets in the world? Yes. Do I believe we have the greatest income inequality and disparity in the industrialized world? Yes. Do I believe we can do better? I hope so.
So no – I’m not a communist because I do not believe that Marxist view of humanity is viable. But I do believe that it is in the public interest to check humanity’s negative impulses. I also believe – and know – that libertarian economic policy & trickle-down economics – are a joke and a repeated failure. Taxation does not curb job growth and a small marginal increase in the top tax rate is survivable. No one needs 5 billion dollars to live a good life. They can live with 4 billion and donate the rest to the common good.
I will leave you with this: the modern conservative movement is based on absolutes. Any government encroachment or intervention into what could be done by the private sector is bad. Medicare and Social Security should be privatized and not guaranteed by the government. Wall Street and capitalist excesses are checked by competition. The free market is the solution to all social problems.
None of these absolutes are smart government policy. Voters have to realize what their votes for Republican legislatures and representatives mean. There is no moderate wing of the GOP. No one in the GOP believes that government should regulate markets. The slightly liberal economic policies enacted by Obama resulted in the conservative reaction we saw in 2010. I HOPE millennials are not stupid and I hope they fail to drink the conservative kool-aid emanating from think tanks and CPAC. Because at this point, it’s up to the millennials to save America from the grip of corporate and capitalist greed. Let’s just hope they do it in time.
Amy, from the archive