zaterdag 23 maart 2013

The Socialist Phenomenon

This book is inspired by the conviction that the cataclysms which humanity has experienced in the twentieth century are only the beginning of a much more profound crisis -- of a radical shift in the course of history. To characterize the scope of this crisis, I had thought of comparing it to the end of ancient civilization or to the transition from the Middle Ages to the modern period. But later I became acquainted with a bolder and, it seems to me, more penetrating approach. For example, F. Heichelheim in his fascinating An Ancient Economic History expresses the supposition that the present period of coming to an end...

"It is quite possible that the economic state controls of the last decades, produced by immanent trends of our Late Capitalist Age of the twentieth century, mean the end and conclusion of the long development in the direction of economic individualism, and the beginnings of a novel organization of labor which is closer to the Ancient Oriental models of five thousand years ago than to the ideals for which the foundations were laid at the beginning of the Iron Age."
It is hardly necessary to demonstrate that one of the basic forces influencing the developing crisis of mankind is socialism. It both promotes this crisis, as a force destroying the "old world," and undertakes to show a way out. Therefore the attempt to comprehend socialism -- its origins, its driving forces, the goal toward which it leads -- is dictated quite simply by the instinct for self-preservation. We fear the possibility of finding ourselves at the crossroads with blinders on, at a time when choosing which road to take may determine the whole of mankind's future.

But it is precisely such attempts to understand which seem to curtail all discussion. The fact that the adherents of socialism themselves have expressed so many contradictory views ought to put us on guard. In addition, notions about the nature of socialism are as a rule strikingly vague, and yet they do not elicit doubt and are perceived as truth needing no verification. This is especially apparent in attempts to make critical evaluations of socialism.

Pointing out the tragic facts that so frequently have accompanied the socialist experiments of the twentieth century usually evokes the objection that an idea cannot be judged by the unsuccessful attempts at its implementation. The task of rebuilding society is so immeasurably complicated, it is said, that in the initial stages errors are inevitable; they are, however, due to the shortcomings of certain individuals or the heritage of the past; in no sense do they follow from the fine principles enunciated by the founders of the doctrine.

The fact that even in the earliest declarations of socialist doctrine there are schemes which in their cruelty far exceed any real system is dismissed as insignificant. It is argued that the determining factor is real life and hardly the constructions of theoreticians or the fantasy of utopian thinkers. Life, it is said, has its own laws. It will temper and smooth out the extremes of the fanatics and create a social structure which, even if it does not quite correspond to their original plans, will be at least viable, and in any case closer to perfection than that which now exists....

It is natural to suppose that socialism, too, contains a fundamental tendency which makes possible its phenomenal influence on life. But it is unlikely to be identified by studying, for example, the Western socialist parties, in which basic socialist tendencies are hopelessly entangled with practical politics. It is necessary, first, to study this phenomenon over a sufficiently long time span in order to ascertain its basic characteristics and, second, to examine its most striking and consistent manifestations.

In pursuing this method we shall be astonished to find that socialism (at least at first sight) turns out to be a glaring contradiction. Proceeding from a critique of a given society, accusing it of injustice, inequality and lack of freedom, socialism proclaims -- in the systems where it is expressed with the greatest consistency -- a far greater injustice, inequality and slavery! Noble Utopias... usually evoke nothing more than a reproach for their "utopian" nature, for their ideals that are too high for mankind at present. But it is enough merely to open these books to be astonished by the scene: disobedient citizens turned into slaves; informers; work and life in paramilitary detachments and under close supervision; passes that are needed even for a simple stroll, and especially the details of general leveling, depicted as they are with great relish (identical clothing, identical houses, even identical cities). ...

The revolutionaries who drew up the "Conspiracy of Equals" understood equality in such a way that they alone formed the government, while others were to obey implicitly -- and those who did not were to be exiled to certain islands for forced labor. In the most popular work of Marxism, the Communist Manifesto, one of the first measures of the new socialist system to be proposed is the introduction of compulsory labor. And it is predicted that this will lead to a society in which "the free development of each will be the condition of the free development of all"!

Attempts to establish the happy society of the future by means of executions may perhaps be explained by the discrepancy between vision and reality, by the distortion that the idea undergoes in being put into practice. But how to understand a teaching which in its ideal version includes both an appeal to freedom and a program for the establishment of slavery?

Or how to reconcile the impassioned condemnation of the old order and quite justified indignation at the suffering of the poor and the oppressed with the fact that the same teachings envisage no less suffering for these oppressed masses as the lot of whole generations prior to the triumph of social justice? Thus Marx foresees fifteen, perhaps even fifty years of civil war for the proletariat, and Mao Tse-tung is ready to accept the loss of half of humanity in a nuclear war for the sake of establishing a socialist structure in the world. A call for sacrifices on this scale might sound convincing on the lips of a religious leader appealing to a truth beyond this world. But not from convinced atheists.

It would seem that socialism lacks that feature which, in mathematics, for example, is considered the minimal condition for the existence of a concept: a definition free of contradictions. Perhaps socialism is only a means of propaganda, a set of several contradictory conceptions, each of which appeals to a given group? The entire history of socialism speaks against such a view. The monumental influence it has had on mankind proves that socialism is in essence an internally consistent view of the world. One needs only to uncover the true logic of socialism and to find that vantage point from which it can be seen as a phenomenon without contradiction. ...

If, for example, Marx repeatedly expresses the thought that man exists only as a representative of the interests of a definite class and has no existence as an individual, of course we are not obliged to believe that the essence of man was revealed to Marx. But why not accept that he is describing a view of the world inherent in certain people, himself in particular, who regard man not as a personality having an independent significance in the world but merely as a tool of forces outside his control?

...Furthermore, since socialism is capable of inspiring mass movements, it follows that many are subject to the influence of such a world view, perhaps even all people are to a greater or lesser degree. If socialism is viewed as the ultimate truth about man, then it unquestionably disintegrates into contradictory elements. But if we consider it to be a manifestation of only one of the tendencies in man and mankind, then it appears possible to remove the contradictions and to understand socialism as a basically cohesive and consistent phenomenon....

This book would never have been written were it not for the assistance rendered me by numerous people. At the moment, it is not possible for me to name them all and to express to each my debt of gratitude. But I can thank two of them here: A. I. Solzhenitsyn, under whose influence I undertook to write this book, and V. M. Borisov, whose criticism was invaluable.

by Igor Shafarevich
Originally published in Russian in France in 1975, by YMCA Press