Monday, April 6, 2015

Socialism, The Great Engine of Modernity

Dialectical materialism theorizes that capitalism is merely the historical bridge that must be crossed to get from feudalism to socialism. The course of modern history has shown instead that socialism has been a key initial agent of modernization, preparing pre-mercantile, subsistence cultures for participation in the capitalist system. 

Contrary to Marxist theory, Communists reached power first, and almost always thereafter, in backward economies. For the same reasons identified by Marx in regard to capitalism, command-socialism was a “progressive” force, in that it moved millions, hundreds of millions really, from what the Communist Manifesto called “rural idiocy”, into a modern mode of life.


The only really “bourgeois” country that was succeeded by a Marxist regime was Czechoslovakia. But in 1948, the Czechs and Slovaks had just endured a decade of military occupation. They had formed an independent republic for less than two decades prior to 1938 (when the French and British essentially handed Czechoslovakia over to the Nazis). Until 1919, the Czech/Slovak lands had been part of the Austro-Hungarian empire for many centuries. Even then, the Czech-Slovaks most fulsomely embraced liberal freedoms when, during the famed “Prague spring” of 1968, Communist social controls were lifted temporarily. 

The leading powers of the Communist world, were established in countries that were plainly backward in material development, when compared to the Occident: starting with the Russian empire in 1917 (the last place, Marx maintained, where proletarian revolution would take place), then in China just over thirty years later. 

Yet the Bolsheviks were in the vanguard of a movement which liberated nearly half of humanity from the feudal yoke, introducing a form government that was, simply for its thoroughgoing administration of the populace, also wholly modern in conception and implementation. 

Economically, command-socialism suffered from similar dysfunctions in Asia, as occurred in eastern and central Europe: that is, chronic shortages of even staple goods, and disservice in regard to the provision of “free” amenities. Communist states suppressed the political and human rights of the populace, and they were also unable to provide even a better standard of life, or social security, than what existed in the advanced capitalist societies. 


Communist countries were so dismal at best, that they had to turn themselves into literal prison camps — the most flagrant example of which being the concrete wall(s) which separated East and West Berlin in Germany, as well as Germany itself, between the democratic and Communist halves. No surprise, Communism collapsed in eastern Europe directly after Hungary abolished most exit restrictions in 1989, and residents of other Communist states immediately flooded into the country looking to go west, fleeing the massive camps that held them for four decades and more. 

While Communist countries failed to build the “workers’ paradise”, nor yet even to forge an truly internationalist opposition to capitalism, they were successful in so far as they destroyed pre-modernity, thus preparing the way for capitalist society. The process by which societies have shifted from agricultural, feudalistic (broadly understood) cultures, to highly industrialized, cash-based civilizations, is controversial and poorly understood. 

It is conceived generally as a mere process of mechanization, wherein technological invention is merely put into operation as it comes into being. But far before mechanization can be realized, anterior developments must take place. In Britain, this involved the centralization of royal authority under such enlightened despots as Henry the Eighth, and what was in effect the self-abolition of feudalism by the nobility and lesser gentle classes, who during the seventeenth century began to enclose their holdings for cash crop purposes. 

This not only excluded millions of peasants from their traditional holdings, it vastly increased agricultural productivity, providing the surpluses to guard against famine, and to feed the landless proletariat that poured into the towns and villages that would, eventually, provide the workforce for the factory system

The feudal system was more tenacious in continental Europe, but the French Revolution, and the succeeding Napoleonic empire, imposed modern structures upon not only France, but much of the rest of the continent, as well (in spite of Napoleon’s partial reconciliation to the ancien regime). 

After 1815, the old regime attempted to stuff the genie back into the bottle, and did succeed in this for a time. But following the revolutions in 1848, royal states recognized that modern processes could proceed with their connivance. Some of the ancien powers — such as Imperial Prussia — effectively corralled modern methods and technology for their own aggrandizement. 

During France’s post-1848 relapse into royal imperialism — in the person of Buonaparte nephew Napoleon III — modernization also continued apace (to the degree that, following the final defeat of Bonapartism by Prussia in 1870, the country was also finally safe for liberal capitalism). 

The easterly Slavs — nations that were least touched by the earlier Revolutionary and Napoleonic imperialism — stubbornly maintained their backwardness. In the early eighteenth century, Czar Peter the Great had attempted to force his empire into modernity, to limited success. A century later, Russia was the only continental great-power to successfully resist Napoleonic invasion. 

Some Russian intellectuals maintained the cause of Enlightenment, but most Slavic nations were entrapped somewhat by their use of Cyrillic script. As during the Middle Ages with Latin, the Cyrillic alphabet was held as a near monopoly by the Orthodox Church of Russia and its branches. The rational ideology which had permeated the Latin script since the scientific and cultural Enlightenment, was far less prevalent in Slavic texts.  

Naturally, then, the most radical of the Enlightened (Karl Marx and the other theoretical socialists), would find a ready audience among Russian and other Slavic intellectuals. Marxism, as a universalist, abstract, deductive system, wasn’t defective in the manner of Whigism and more moderate sorts of Enlightened philosophy, for its lack of parochialism and particularity to Western Europe. 

Lenin, Trotsky and many other Slavic (and essentially bourgeois) intellectuals looked to Marxism as method of imposing ultra-modernism on their own backward countries. Marxist radicals and revolutionaries consisted of the lion’s part of the intellectual class in the east, and far east. But these were nevertheless minuscule in number compared to a vast population of rural, often illiterate peasants. In pre-Bolshevik Russia, as in pre-Mao China, the proletariat were scarcely more numerous than the intellectuals. 

Only when the post-Napoleonic balance-of-power system culminated in the stalemate of Great War, did the revolutionists have their chance. As the only party organized and ruthless enough to take control after World War had laid waste to the ancien regime once and for good (at least until fascism, a socialist heresy, came along), the Bolsheviks quickly established modern institutions in their backward realm: a “national” army, comprehensive and compulsory public schooling, a uniform system of penal law, alongside the general bureaucratization of society. 

The most ambitious and successful project undertaken by the Russian Communists, was agricultural collectivization and intensive development of industrial capital. This is the pattern of industrialization and modernization followed in turn, by the countries of eastern Europe. 

East-Asian Communist regimes did not attempt the rapid industrialization as pursued by their comrades to the west. Instead, Asian command-socialism — nicknamed Maoism after the chairman of the Chinese Communist party — directed its efforts toward the total collectivization of agricultural production (infamously, too, in Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge movement sought to bring about agrarian communism by forcibly emptying the country’s towns and cities). 

In either case, the effect was the similar to the enclosure movement in Britain in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries: breaking the spell of tightly-knit rural, hierarchical communities, creating a largely deracinated population ready for integration into a larger “imagined community” (which wasn’t the international proletarian movement, but that essentially modern polity, the nation-state). 

Communist states were during the Cold War contrasted with liberal-democracies, for not being governed “according to the rule of law.” This is where rulers must act only with respect to written statute, and those accused by the state of breaking the law, are accorded due process (essentially to mean, in turn, to not face punishment without being convicted). This is hardly a modern concept. There was, of course, the intricate system of Roman law in ancient times, and the succeeding Canon law of the Roman church. Islamic law, too, has developed an impressive jurisprudence down the centuries. Law codes are, indeed, for rulers the literal legitimization of their superiority, going back at least to the tablets of Hammurabi in Mesopotamia. 

By establishing a particular regime as an instrument of social and public order, law permits that regime to retaliate, coercively and violently, against those who transgress. Reading the Gulag Archipelago and numerous other works dealing with the Soviet slave-labour camp system, it is remarkable the efforts that authorities went to, in their persecution of millions of people for political crimes, to give their actions a patina of legal respectability. 

There was no due process in the Soviet Union and its satellite states, at least not with respect to political crimes. But authorities — namely, the secret police — were determined to give the prosecution of so many people a formal legitimacy, so as in turn to legitimate the rule of Stalin and the other Communist autocrats. Certainly, the NKVD and other secret-police agencies in the Communist world, acted outside of the law, as draconian as the Soviet penal code actually was. At least several hundred thousand people, and probably several millions, were during Stalin’s reign, simply picked up, interrogated and then murdered by gunshot or other means, without even the formal, dubious processes of jurisprudence taking place to sanctify the act. 

As well, millions more who were convicted under the terms of Soviet law, were essentially worked, beaten or starved to death in the gulag corrective-labour system. Not even the Stalinists could argue that any of this was legally justified. However, every polity has had to cope with the excesses typically undertaken by law-enforcement agencies. This is true of liberal democracies, even — especially — the United States of America, the “land of the free” where the rule of law is supposed to be supreme, but where the police forces and the prison system generally have been notorious for their brutality and lethality. 

The worst penitentiaries of America in times past (and according to some, those in existence today) were only slightly less awful than the conditions found in the gulag. American prisons, especially those located in the southeast, even had their own system of slave-labour, with prisoners made to work long hours under hot sun, harvesting crops, making repairs to roads, and so on. The chain-gang is not, in itself, equivalent to the gulag. It is only to illustrate the inherent difficulties of enforcing law, without resort to gratuitous violence, even where justice and equality are supposed to be paramount. 

In the Soviet Union and other Communist countries, the principle of law as an instrument of justice, was part of state doctrine, even though the actual practice of law fell far short of the ideal (and the means of enforcing the law — the secret police and the penal system — dispensed with “natural” rights of justice altogether). It was a progressive force, in the Eastern bloc, just as the law has been throughout the history of civilization. 

Having established that right is found in written, explicit form, rather than in the exercise of brute force, law provides the ground for a greater democracy in the actually writing of the law. 

There was an even more important force for modernization than the law in Communist states: the Communist party itself. Totalitarian regimes are often called “police” states, and also “one-party” states. The ruling party has, though, a paradoxical status in a totalitarian country. The state is the domineering force in society; nevertheless, the state is in totalitarian countries subservient to the single ruling-party. The Communist party (theoretically at least) was not a state agency, but an expression of the collective will of the proletariat and the masses. 


But as the single-party is responsible for the actual management of society, the installation of Communism in the Soviet Union and eastern bloc (and to a lesser extent, in east Asia as well) introduced something akin to bourgeois culture to tens of millions of former peasants and proletarians who took advantage of the universal schooling offered by the state, to raise themselves by their own bootstraps. 

It helped, too, that in most Communist countries, the management class of the old regime had either fled or been liquidated. The party needed functionaries to govern the new Soviet man, and thus so many of those from the meaner classes saw Communism not as a disaster (disastrous though it was to the masses), but as a means of bettering themselves. 

When the one-party definitively ensconces itself in power, there is the inevitable swelling of membership ranks, as the bright and ambitious look to the new order to provide them with authority and status. A constant theme of Communist-party internal propaganda and self-criticism, was directed toward the evil of “careerism” and “bureaucracy” (as though bureaucracy was somehow alien to the Soviet system). It was condemnation of the reality that most party members were in it for their own good, rather than for the revolution and the masses. 

It isn’t, however, as though ambition is an opponent of accomplishment, where pride is insufficient to the task. Soviet Communism was functional insofar as it relied upon the self-interest of each member of the party apparatus, to receive greater authority and responsibility through sagacious hard work. With promotion came greater privilege (if not of pay, since Soviet money was worthless in any case). 

This included better housing, use of non-shoddy recreational and leisure facilities, access to superior (i.e., foreign) consumer goods, good-tasting food, and the right to go abroad (or even to move around within the country itself). This must have been especially important, given the poverty and dreariness of life for non-party members under Communism. Of course, many of the “new class” (especially in the peripheral regions) enriched themselves through old-fashioned graft and legalized theft. 

But given the longevity of the Soviet Union, and the fact that Communist countries in eastern Europe built or maintained complex industrial economies (as inefficient as was their operation), many party members must have behaved in a way that, without doing too much violence to the word, was “bourgeois” in character. 

The “new class” was distinct from its equivalent in Western countries, of course. Yet, many plainly middle-class occupations in the West, as much today as during the Cold War, have no or only ancillary involvement in the mercenary behaviour that is traditionally associated with the word “bourgeois.” 

This includes not only civil servants (white collar or not) employed by the enormous state economies of all Western countries (including the United States), but also functionaries in the private sector, with no direct responsibility for buying and selling. The vast majority of those who do so, in turn, are not “owners” of the firms that employ, except when they are entrepreneurs and small-businesspeople, almost always relative pygmies compared to behemoths that are owned by distant investors and pension-plans. 

These white-collar people are, nevertheless and to a greater and lesser degree (depending largely on the factor of private-ownership), “bourgeois” in their social and work philosophy — competitive self-betterment through hard work and a job-smartly-done. This is widely derided as the “rat-race”, even by those participant in it. 

But its motivator, in capitalist countries, was that which obtained for the Communist New Class, that is to do better than who came before (as a point of family or community pride) and to avoid the desperate want characteristic of the lot of those not responsible for administrating. In any case, the consonance between apparatchiks and middle- and upper-manager business managers, was witnessed as the most successful businessmen of the post-Communist order, were previously high-ranking members of their respective Communist parties. 

Without adhering to any Hegelian dialectic as the motor of history, it is evident that the introduction of Communism was “necessary” in many parts of the world for modernization to take place as rapidly as it did — and thereby in these lands, transform a feudal- or semi-feudal order toward capitalism. 

The ethic associated with the bourgeois order, is by no means something “natural” to the human being. Instead, the nations known for their mercantile wit — be they Scots, Dutch, Ashkenazim, Armenian or Arab — are originally found among the outcast and outland, those who must turn to trade, initially because they have no other means of life. This is the means by which the community, or at least many members thereof, grows prosperous (and even wealthy). 

But it is telling that, the successful members of mercantile ethnicities, have almost invariably used their prosperity to ensure that their own heirs don’t have to be involved in selling at all. Thus, in early-modern times, the most successful of the financial and industrial bourgeoisie, successfully merged with the aristocracy. Later on, European Jews who had acquired great wealth through trade, were largely blocked from becoming blue-bloods, by virtue of the anti-Semitism. But their offspring largely forsook business for the professions. 

Even in the highly-commercialized societies of the anglophone world, the term “salesman” (like the word “business”) has not insignificant negative connotations in everyday speech, just as the profession and practice of “sales” itself (up to an including commercial advertising), is deemed unworthy as a vocation for those from “respectable” backgrounds. 

No surprise, then, that sales and salesmanship (another word with a poor connotation) have been the path to prosperity for those of working-class and poorer backgrounds in capitalist societies. 

The capitalist ethic is not, in short, intuitive. It requires a particular sort of training, which was perhaps initiated by king Frederick of Naples, all the way back in the thirteenth century. Historian Jacob Burckhardt describes how Frederick imposed regimented administration over his subjects, quite different from the decentralization characteristic of feudal society (The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, 1868; Mentor Books / New American Library, 1960 paperback, p. 42):

Frederick's measures (especially after the year 1231) aimed at the complete destruction of the feudal State, at the transformation of the people into a multitude destitute of will and of means of resistance, but profitable in the utmost degree to the treasury. He centralized, in a manner hitherto unknown in the West, the whole judicial and political administration. No office was henceforth to be filled by popular election, under penalty of the devastation of the offending district and the enslavement of its inhabitants; Taxes, based an a comprehensive assessment and in accordance with Mohammedan practice, were collected by those cruel and vexatious methods without which, it is true, it is impassible ta obtain any money from Orientals. Here, in short, we find, not a people, but simply a disciplined multitude of subjects, who were forbidden, far example, to marry uot of the country without special permission, and under no circumstances were allowed ta study abroad. The University of Naples was the first we know of to restrict the freedom of study, whereas the East, in these respects at least, left its youth unfettered. But it was after genuine Mahammedan fashion that Frederick traded on his own account in all parts of the Mediterranean, reserving ta himself the monopoly of many commodities and restricting the commence of his subjects...

It was a formula pursued later on by absolutist monarchs such as Henry the Eighth of Britain, Louis XIV of France, and Frederick the Great of Prussia. Proving that the power comes from control of the means of destruction, not of production, the royal states of late medieval and early-modern times took advantage of the new firearms technology (in the form of the canon) to consolidate power in the hands of the monarch. It was a form of government that, if insufficient in practice, was certainly totalitarian in intent. 

Without exception, the royal states sought to obtrusively, and often violently, insinuate themselves onto the private lives of their subjects, demanding adherence to one confession or the other, under pain of death or other harsh punishment. It wasn’t enough, for either Henry VIII or Louis XIV, to have people adhere publicly to either Anglicanism or the Roman church. They had to believe in private, too, and primitive versions of modern secret police were dispatched to ensure that no one was betraying the state religion behind closed doors. Moreover, the absolutist monarchs demanded obedience first and foremost not to kin, region, or lord, but to themselves. The absolutists even sought to control trade — granting royal charters for monopolies in most of the major economic sectors. Otherwise, they imposed if not onerous, then significant taxes on trade that they didn’t directly control, which were collected in turn with greater efficiency than ever before. 

The net effect of this agglomeration of power by royal states, as Spanish historian Antonio Maravall described it, was: 

...a society of spreading anonymity. The bonds of neighborhood, kinship, and friendship don't disappear, but they grow pale and are frequently lacking between those living nearby in the same locality ... To a great extent, relations exhibit the character of a contract: in terms of houses (rent), workday (salary), clothes (buying and selling), and so forth; and to a considerable degree displacement of population occurs (it suffices to think about the growth of cities and rural exodus, which means that a considerable part of the population does not live and die in their place of birth). In such a way there appear social connections that are not interindividual, are not between people known to one another. This alters the modes of behavior: a mass of people who know themselves to be unknown to one another behaves in a different way than a group of individuals who know they can be easily identified. Hence socially this already a mass society, and at its core it produces that depersonalization that turns humankind into a totality of manual laborers within a mechanical and anonymous system of production.

The “capitalist” system — an economy based on the cash nexus — is the most effective (though far from perfect) way of organizing such a rootless, anonymous society, based on highly engineered technology. But if it is human nature, almost, to aver from mercenary endeavour, why does a system based on just such thing, excel over another emphasizing more appropriately the conformist and communitarian nature of the human primate? 

It is precisely the fact of “alienation” referred to in Karl Marx’s writing, though his own account of this phenomenon was incomplete. Rationality and engineering were the means by which productive forces were unleashed, making luxuries into staples, and inventing countless goods and services that didn’t exist in the past. The cost of this was the organization of labour with maximal efficiency as to the result, but which demanded very little in the way of pleasure or involvement in the task at hand. This is true not only of factory work, but also office, shop, warehouse, construction, and most other forms of modern work. 

Even the “good” jobs, the high-paying professions and the like, require activities that no one would do voluntarily — which part of the reason why pay is so high in these sectors. 

There are some forms of work that are so participatory and pleasurable in themselves, that people would carry out, even without adequate or any compensation. These include athletics, the arts and engineering. Not coincidentally, Communist countries during the Cold war excelled at these areas, usually besting the West. 

An irony of the existential pleasures inherent in engineering, is that the that it results in work techniques and processes that are without pleasure for non-engineers. Unfortunately for the Soviet Union and other Communist states, administrators of industry couldn’t provide the necessary incentives — that is, a decent wage, in cash that actually had value — available to the capitalist West, to sufficiently motivate the proletariat at factory jobs and other tedious work. 

Instead, in the U.S.S.R. and the Eastern bloc, the brighter and more ambitious among the proletariat sought to leave behind the field and factory to get into management, that is into the Communist party and the preferred white-collar roles, where work was not only easier, it was also far better rewarded (and where little or no contribution to material productivity is found). 

It should be said that the existence of wage-labour isn’t, in itself, enough to encourage all manual-labour and service-sector workers to passion for their work; that much is self-evident. But even so, the possibility at better pay for less menial tasks, is manifest enough to affect working people in capitalist countries so that laziness and indifference to the job is not endemic to the system, as it was in Communist economies. 

Critics of capitalist economics argue that the ethnic of “getting ahead through hard work” is an illusion, and that how when one does in the “dog-eat-dog” world is down to plain luck. Certainly, chance does explain the difference between those who acquire great fortunes (the synonym is telling), and those who merely do well. But it is too much to assert that the populations that have (often for ascetic-religious reasons) a strong commitment to hard work are also witnessed to be wealthier than the median, merely because of “good luck.” 

Nor yet, that those who suffer relative poverty in capitalist countries are as such because fortune didn’t smile on them, unrelated to any lifestyle habits common to this strata (which tend to be in opposition to the abstemious cultural traits of the more successful groups). 

This is the nub of the success of the cash- or price-economy, as compared to command-socialism: not that capitalist firms are superior at engineering or invention, for this advantage belonged largely to Communist economies, or to the state-sector in capitalist countries. 

It was the ability to merchandise what was invented or subsidized by state funding, making it affordable to the masses. This relied, in turn, on the ability of the cash system to serve, as much as to build, engineering and industrial capacity; it was, and is, this service which is induced by the paid wage, which Communist economics simply couldn’t compete with. 

But Communism was an effective stepping-stone between feudalism and capitalism precisely because of its compulsory nature. Socialists and reactionaries alike, depict supply-and-demand conditions as some kind of irresistible force, sweeping all before it, especially the feudal and rural lifestyle. In fact, the project of modernization requires coercion, of a lesser or more severe type.

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