Hod carriers move bricks up for the construction of the Tea Neck High School, in New Jersey (PWA). Image credit: National Archives and Records Administration
In late 1989, when the avowedly Marxist regimes of Eastern and Central Europe began their collapse, the event was often celebrated in the West as the victory of good over evil. A year later, when the quarterly Granta published a special issue on the theme of “What Happened?,” I finally found what remains to me as the most profound words ever spoken, not only about the events of the late eighties and early nineties, but more importantly, about socialism.
The great Franco-American polymath and public intellectual George Steiner, unlike most analysts of the time, viewed the sudden collapse of socialism with ambivalence. He put it this way:
The variant on Judaic-messianic idealism, on the prophetic vision of a kingdom of justice on earth, which we call Marxism, brought intolerable bestiality, suffering and practical failure to hundreds of millions of men and women. The lifting of that yoke is cause for utter gratitude and relief. But the source of the hideous misprision is not ignoble (as was that of Nazi racism): it lies in a terrible overestimate of man’s capacities for altruism, for purity, for intellectual-philosophic sustenance. The theatres in East Berlin performed the classics when heavy metal and American musicals were wanted. The bookstores displayed Lessing and Goethe and Tolstoy, but Archer and Collins were dreamed of. The present collapse of Marxist-Leninist despotisms marks the vengeful termination of a compliment to man—probably illusory—but positive none the less.
In the decades since, what Steiner regarded as a “hideous misprision” has haunted my political life, and colored my view of radical events and movements.
Could it be that all radical movements fail, not just because of the false consciousness of the oppressed, or the failings of leftist leaders, but rather because socialists simply misjudge what humanity is capable of? Can human beings maintain the moral fervor required to change society over a lengthy period?
In his brilliant novel about the French Revolution, Les dieux ont soif, Anatole France recounts the career of the revolutionary painter Évariste Gamelin. A faithful and committed Jacobin, Évariste’s primary concern is the strengthening of the republic and the revolution. But five years into the revolutionary process, meetings at the Jacobin Club are increasingly poorly attended, and Gamelin realizes that the mass of Parisians wants bread above all—not an earnest effort to embody in their purest form such ideals as liberty, equality, and fraternity.
In his memoirs and in his novel Conquered City, Victor Serge, the most clear-sighted of twentieth century revolutionaries, shows that the most profound ideals of the uprising of the Soviets in 1917 were moribund by 1920. Stalin didn’t betray Marx’s dream of communism; he buried the corpse of a revolution long since dead.
Perhaps Steiner was right: At some point ordinary people want to get on with their lives. Socialism simply requires too much of mortals.
That’s a deeply disquieting thought, of course. For if Marx’s vision of a society beyond class conflict simply isn’t feasible for mere mortals that might mean that capitalism is all that’s left standing, whatever avowed contemporary socialists may say or do.
As the economist Branko Milanovic argues in his recent book Capitalism, Alone, it’s time for the global Left to acknowledge “the establishment of capitalism as not only the dominant, but the sole socio-economic system in the world.” Though dominant for centuries, capitalism formerly coexisted with other economic forms, once alongside forms of feudalism, later among forms of socialism. This is no longer the case; with the demise of the Marxist regimes, the sway of capitalism is now universal.
Milanovic continues, “The uncontested dominion of the capitalist mode of production has its counterpart in the similarly uncontested ideological view that money-making is not only respectable, but is the most important objective in people’s lives, an incentive understood by people from all parts of the world and all classes. . .We live in a world where everybody follows the same rules and understands the same language of profit-making.”
Of course, most of the global Left sharply disagrees with the picture painted by Milanovic. In the pages of Jacobin magazine the average working person is living in a hell little different from that described in the pages of Marx, full of voracious capitalist vultures, venal and corrupt politicians, and the common run of mortals on the brink of ruin. Socialism remains our only hope for lasting change.
But as Steiner noted in 1989, the material benefits of capitalism were envied by those living under socialism, and as a walk down any street in America makes clear, people are quite content with the goods capitalism provides. Why would they want to trade these goods in for the chimera of socialism? What concrete material benefits will it provide that capitalism doesn’t?
What if it is the Left’s failure to understand the benefits of capitalism, as well as its failure to recognize the limits of altruism as a motive force, that is the source of the Left’s weakness?
These are the kinds of questions that the longtime British leftist Don Milligan probes in his latest book, The Embrace of Capital. Milligan writes with anger, the anger of someone who still calls himself a communist and who was once a member of Britain’s’ Young Communist League and, when he came of age, of the Communist Party of Great Britain. A union militant and gay activist, he knows from personal experience how inspiring Marx’s ideals can be—and how frustrating the quest to realize these ideals in practice can be.
The notion of “exploitation,” capitalism’s cardinal sin according to Marx, is more or less dismissed in The Embrace of Capital. As Milligan writes: “Of course, it remains axiomatic for all anti-capitalists that it is the works or the multitude who produce the wealth, and the capitalists who appropriate it, but none of the anti-capitalist accounts appear to be able to show beyond the level of generalities who is exploited and by whom.”
After all, when few workers in advanced commercial societies work in the kinds of industrial factories Marx and later socialists studied, when service industries dominate these modern societies, what can the creation of surplus-value mean? What surplus-value does a nurse or any of the 23,000,000 people working in health care produce? Or the 19,770,000 state and local government employees? Or the 6,709,000 employed in public schools?
Marx’s concept of exploitation applies only to the mills, factories, and mines that employ a total of 1,608,000 Americans, far fewer than the 2,300,000 “associates” working at Wal-Mart. And yet, reading groups dedicated to Capital—of which Milligan speaks —proliferate, as if the participants, when they leave the day’s discussion will encounter hod carriers, transporting bricks to masons on their backs, bent beneath their load.
It’s true that self-proclaimed socialists like Bernie Sanders and the scribes at Jacobin recognize these changes in the workforce, referring to “the middle-class” rather than the proletariat as the group suffering under capitalism. But if we look at the policy proposals of Sanders or the notorious members of “The Squad,” what we find is not the good society as Marx imagined it, but a return to the tax rates when Eisenhower assumed office, a restoration of union rights as they existed under Truman, plus a reassertion of the spirit of social solidarity that once flourished in America under FDR.
Not one of these policies requires the abolition of capitalism, as Marx’s concept of socialism required. And that is just as well, since most Americans who work take for granted a commercial society, where few deny their employer’s right to make a buck. That some of any increased earnings should be passed on to the workers is a natural desire, but that in no way puts the economic order in question.
The numbers tell the tale: in 2021 a total of 80,703 workers engaged in sixteen strikes involving enterprises with 1,000 employees or more (the only strikes for which the Bureau of Labor Statistics compiles statistics). Left-wing triumphalists may trumpet this uptick in strike activity, but even if the 2021 figure is about four times the number of strikers of those in 2020 (an anomalous year due to COVID-19), the number of workers involved is still negligible. If every strike participant were to attend the Rose Bowl there would still be 10,000 seats left vacant.
As Milligan ruefully acknowledges, the left has forever grasped at straws like this, seeing burgeoning mass movements in what are in reality ephemeral events. This is part and parcel of the contemporary left’s inability to see reality as it is, not as it would like it to be. Milligan exaggerates only slightly in claiming that the working-class has never been a revolutionary class or has led revolutions.
There was virtually no industrial working-class in France to participate in the insurrections of 1789 and 1792. Small artisans, generally self-employed, constituted the bulk of the left of the French Revolution, as they did again during the supposed first instance of working-class rule, the Paris Commune of 1871. Workers in Petrograd and Moscow played a leading role in the Russian Revolution of 1917, but the great majority of Russians were peasants, not workers—and in the event, “working-class rule” was quickly replaced by one-party rule.
It’s true that “equality” and “social justice,” rather than the transfer of all power to the workers of the world, is the demand most frequently made by the global Left today. Milligan has little patience with such rhetoric. Inequality, he writes, “appears to be baked-in to the human condition.” It was Jesus who said that “For ye have the poor always with you”—and Milligan agrees: “So far as we can tell there has never been equality anywhere at any time.”
Consider an example that Milligan doesn’t mention, Israel’s Kibbutz movement, which sometimes approached its avowed goal of true equality. But it did at a tremendous cost. In order to approximate that ideal, strict control of the life of the individual members was required. Voting on whether or not a member can go to university might be possible on a small farm; in an entire society, it would constitute a form of totalitarianism few would accept.
In any case, the idealistic fervor behind the great kibbutz experiment began to wane after the Six Day War in 1967, as shown in Yoav Brill’s fascinating documentary Apples and Oranges. A new subordinate class appeared on the kibbutz, the volunteer, who for no pay as a rule performed the least desirable tasks. By the 1970s paid labor had made its appearance, even on the most left-wing kibbutzim: the reality of capitalism had burst the utopian socialist bubble.
Milligan’s conclusion is bleak: “Most of the poorer people in society,” he writes, “the working class and the lower middle class, broadly share a similar outlook with the wealthy. They do not think that in our wicked fallen world, equality is ever possible. They know that if they could afford it, if their lottery numbers came up, or they found the crock of gold at the end of the rainbow, they’d make damn sure that they and their kids got the best of everything.”
Yet still, the dream of a society of perfect liberty, equality, and fraternity persists. When I speak to socialist and communist friends of the failures of the past, of the unlikelihood of a mass shift to socialism, they retort that it’s impossible to know the future.
True. But it’s possible and necessary to know the past and the present, which determine the course of the future. Capitalism’s many evils are undeniable; that they are unique to capitalism is far from proven.
We all live in the shade of the twisted branches of human society. Socialism has been a vital movement, but never a successful one. It has failed not just because those who attempted to implement it were flawed, but because humanity is.
Like George Steiner, I have concluded that any attempt to realize Marx’s vision of an ideal society is inevitably doomed to failure, however noble the efforts. Its ideals are the best humanity has ever developed, but they are beyond the grasp or even the reach of humanity, the bulk of which doesn’t seem that interested in them in any case.
In the sixties, I used to quote Che Guevara saying “I can’t help it if reality is revolutionary.”
Decades later, I can’t help it if it’s not.
Mitchell Abidor is a Brooklyn-based writer and translator.