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Authors: Terry Eagleton

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Even so, the gains of
Communism scarcely outweigh the losses. It may be that some kind of dictatorial
government was well-nigh inevitable in the atrocious conditions of the early
Soviet Union; but this did not have to mean Stalinism, or anything like it.
Taken overall, Maoism and Stalinism were botched, bloody experiments which made
the very idea of socialism stink in the nostrils of many of those elsewhere in
the world who had most to benefit from it. But what about capitalism? As I
write, unemployment in the West is already in the millions and is mounting
steadily higher, and capitalist economies have been prevented from imploding
only by the appropriation of trillions of dollars from their hard-pressed
citizens. The bankers and financiers who have brought the world financial
system to the brink of the abyss are no doubt queuing up for cosmetic surgery,
lest they are spotted and torn limb from limb by enraged citizens.

It is true that capitalism
works some of the time, in the sense that it has brought untold prosperity to
some sectors of the world. But it has done so, as did Stalin and Mao, at a
staggering human cost. This is not only a matter of genocide, famine,
imperialism and the slave trade. The system has also proved incapable of
breeding affluence without creating huge swathes of deprivation alongside it.
It is true that this may not matter much in the long run, since the capitalist
way of life is now threatening to destroy the planet altogether. One eminent
Western economist has described climate change as ''the greatest market failure
in history.''

Marx himself never
imagined that socialism could be achieved in impoverished conditions. Such a
project would require almost as bizarre a loop in time as inventing the
Internet in the Middle Ages. Nor did any Marxist thinker until Stalin imagine
that this was possible, including Lenin, Trotsky and the rest of the Bolshevik
leadership. You cannot reorganise wealth for the benefit of all if there is
precious little wealth to reorganise. You cannot abolish social classes in
conditions of scarcity, since conflicts over a material surplus too meagre to
meet everyone's needs will simply revive them again. As Marx comments in
German Ideology,
the result of a revolution in such conditions is that
"the old filthy business'' (or in less tasteful translation, ''the same
old crap'') will simply reappear. All you will get is socialised scarcity. If
you need to accumulate capital more or less from scratch, then the most
effective way of doing so, however brutal, is through the profit motive. Avid
self-interest is likely to pile up wealth with remarkable speed, though it is
likely to amass spectacular poverty at the same time.

Nor did Marxists ever
imagine that it was possible to achieve socialism in one country alone. The
movement was international or it was nothing. This was a hardheaded materialist
claim, not a piously idealist one. If a socialist nation failed to win
international support in a world where production was specialized and divided
among different nations, it would be unable to draw upon the global resources
needed to abolish scarcity. The productive wealth of a single country was
unlikely to be enough. The outlandish notion of socialism in one country was
invented by Stalin in the 1920s, partly as a cynical rationalisation of the
fact that other nations had been unable to come to the aid of the Soviet Union.
It has no warrant in Marx himself. Socialist revolutions must of course start
somewhere. But they cannot be completed within national boundaries. To judge
socialism by its results in one desperately isolated country would be like
drawing conclusions about the human race from a study of psychopaths in

Building up an economy
from very low levels is a back-breaking, dispiriting task. It is unlikely that
men and women will freely submit to the hardships it involves. So unless this
project is executed gradually, under democratic control and in accordance with socialist
values, an authoritarian state may step in and force its citizens to do what
they are reluctant to undertake voluntarily. The militarization of labour in
Bolshevik Russia is a case in point. The result, in a grisly irony, will be to
undermine the political superstructure of socialism (popular democracy, genuine
self-government) in the very attempt to build up its economic base. It would be
like being invited to a party only to discover that you had not only to bake
the cakes and brew the beer but to dig the foundations and lay the floorboards.
There wouldn't be much time to enjoy yourself.

Ideally, socialism
requires a skilled, educated, politically sophisticated populace, thriving
civic institutions, a well-evolved technology, enlightened liberal traditions
and the habit of democracy. None of this is likely to be on hand if you cannot
even afford to mend the dismally few highways you have, or have no insurance
policy against sickness or starvation beyond a pig in the back shed. Nations
with a history of colonial rule are especially likely to be bereft of the
benefits I have just listed, since colonial powers have not been remarkable for
their zeal to implant civil liberties or democratic institutions among their

As Marx insists, socialism
also requires a shortening of the working day—partly to provide men and women
with the leisure for personal fulfillment, partly to create time for the
business of political and economic self-government. You cannot do this if
people have no shoes; and to distribute shoes among millions of citizens is
likely to require a centralised bureaucratic state. If your nation is under
invasion from an array of hostile capitalist powers, as Russia was in the wake
of the Bolshevik revolution, an autocratic state will seem all the more
inevitable. Britain during the Second World War was far from an autocracy; but
it was by no means a free country, and one would not have expected it to be.

To go socialist, then, you
need to be reasonably well-heeled, in both the literal and metaphorical senses
of the term. No Marxist from Marx and Engels to Lenin and Trotsky ever dreamt
of anything else. Or if you are not well-heeled yourself, then a sympathetic
neighbour reasonably flush in material resources needs to spring to your aid. In
the case of the Bolsheviks, this would have meant such neighbours (Germany in
particular) having their own revolutions, too. If the working classes of these
countries could overthrow their own capitalist masters and lay hands on their
productive powers, they could use those resources to save the first workers'
state in history from sinking without trace. This was not as improbable a
proposal as it might sound. Europe at the time was aflame with revolutionary
hopes, as councils of workers' and soldiers' deputies (or soviets) sprang up in
cities such as Berlin, Warsaw, Vienna, Munich and Riga. Once these
insurrections were defeated, Lenin and Trotsky knew that their own revolution
was in dire straits.

It is not that the
building of socialism cannot be begun in deprived conditions. It is rather that
without material resources it will tend to twist into the monstrous caricature
of socialism known as Stalinism. The Bolshevik revolution soon found itself
besieged by imperial Western armies, as well as threatened by
counterrevolution, urban famine and a bloody civil war. It was marooned in an
ocean of largely hostile peasants reluctant to hand over their hard-earned
surplus at gunpoint to the starving towns. With a narrow capitalist base,
disastrously low levels of material production, scant traces of civil
institutions, a decimated, exhausted working class, peasant revolts and a
swollen bureaucracy to rival the Tsar's, the revolution was in deep trouble
almost from the outset. In the end, the Bolsheviks were to march their
starving, despondent, war-weary people into modernity at the point of a gun.
Many of the most politically militant workers had perished in the
Western-backed civil war, leaving the Bolshevik party with a dwindling social
base. It was not long before the party usurped the workers' soviets and banned
an independent press and justice system. It suppressed political dissent and
oppositional parties, manipulated elections and militarized labour. This
ruthlessly antisocialist programme came about against a background of civil
war, widespread starvation and foreign invasion. Russia's economy lay in ruins,
and its social fabric had disintegrated. In a tragic irony that was to mark the
twentieth century as a whole, socialism proved least possible where it was most

The historian Isaac
Deutscher depicts the situation with his usual matchless eloquence. The
situation in Russia at the time ''meant that the first and so far the only
attempt to build socialism would have to be undertaken in the worst possible
conditions, without the advantages of an intensive international division of
labour, without the fertilizing influence of old and complex cultural
traditions, in an environment of such staggering material and cultural poverty,
primitiveness, and crudity as would tend to mar or warp the very striving for
It takes an unusually bold-faced critic of

Marxism to claim that none
of this is relevant since Marxism is an authoritarian creed in any case. If it
took over the Home Counties tomorrow, so the case goes, there would be labour
camps in Dorking before the week was out.

Marx himself, as we shall
see, was a critic of rigid dogma, military terror, political suppression and
arbitrary state power. He believed that political representatives should be
accountable to their electors, and castigated the German Social Democrats of
his day for their statist politics. He insisted on free speech and civil
liberties, was horrified by the forced creation of an urban proletariat (in his
case in England rather than Russia), and held that common ownership in the
countryside should be a voluntary rather than coercive process. Yet as one who
recognized that socialism cannot thrive in poverty-stricken conditions, he
would have understood perfectly how the Russian revolution came to be lost.

In fact, there is a
paradoxical sense in which Stalinism, rather than discrediting Marx's work,
bears witness to its validity. If you want a compelling account of how
Stalinism comes about, you have to go to Marxism. Mere moral denunciations of
the beast are simply not good enough. We need to know in what material
conditions it arises, how it functions and how it might fail, and this
knowledge has been best provided by certain mainstream currents of Marxism.
Such Marxists, many of them followers of Leon Trotsky or of one or another
''libertarian'' brand of socialism, differ from

Western liberals in one
vital respect: their criticisms of the so-called communist societies have been
far more deep-seated. They have not contented themselves with wistful pleas for
more democracy or civil rights. Instead, they have called for the overthrow of
the entire repressive system, and called for this precisely as socialists.
Moreover, they have been issuing such calls almost since the day that Stalin
took power. At the same time, they have warned that if the communist system
were to collapse, it might well be into the arms of a predatory capitalism
waiting hungrily to pick among the ruins. Leon Trotsky foresaw precisely such
an end to the Soviet Union, and was proved right some twenty years ago.

Imagine a slightly crazed
capitalist outfit that tried to turn a premodern tribe into a set of ruthlessly
acquisitive, technologically sophisticated entrepreneurs speaking the jargon of
public relations and free market economics, all in a surreally short period of
time. Does the fact that the experiment would almost certainly prove less than
dramatically successful constitute a fair condemnation of capitalism? Surely
not. To think so would be as absurd as claiming that the Girl Guides should be
disbanded because they cannot solve certain tricky problems in quantum physics.
Marxists do not believe that the mighty liberal lineage from Thomas Jefferson
to John Stuart Mill is annulled by the existence of secret CIA-run prisons for
torturing Muslims, even though such prisons are part of the politics of today's
liberal societies. Yet the critics of Marxism are rarely willing to concede
that show trials and mass terror are no refutation of it.

There is, however, another
sense in which socialism is thought by some to be unworkable. Even if you were
to build it under affluent conditions, how could you possibly run a complex
modern economy without markets? The answer for a growing number of Marxists is
that you do not need to. Markets in their view would remain an integral part of
a socialist economy. So-called market socialism envisages a future in which the
means of production would be socially owned, but where self-governing
cooperatives would compete with one another in the marketplace.
this way, some of the virtues of the market could be retained, while some of
its vices could be shed. At the level of individual enterprises, cooperation
would ensure increased efficiency, since the evidence suggests that it is almost
always as efficient as capitalist enterprise and often much more so. At the
level of the economy as a whole, competition ensures that the informational,
allocation and incentive problems associated with the traditional Stalinist
model of central planning do not arise.

Some Marxists claim that
Marx himself was a market socialist, at least in the sense that he believed
that the market would linger on during the transitional period following a
socialist revolution. He also considered that markets had been emancipatory as
well as exploitative, helping to free men and women from their previous
dependence on lords and masters. Markets strip the aura of mystery from social
relations, laying bare their bleak reality. So keen was Marx on this point that
the philosopher Hannah Arendt once described the opening pages of the
Communist Manifesto
as "the greatest praise of capitalism you ever
Market socialists also point out that markets are by no
means specific to capitalism. Even Trotsky, so some of his disciples may be
surprised to hear, supported the market, though only in the period of
transition to socialism and in combination with economic planning. It was
needed, he thought, as a check on the adequacy and rationality of planning,
since "economic accounting is unthinkable without market relations."
Along with the Soviet Left Opposition, he was a strong critic of the so-called
command economy.

BOOK: Why Marx Was Right
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