Letters Exchange

From THE NATION, March 5, 1994

"PLAY IT AGAIN, KARL"

The editors invited readers to respond to Norman Rush's "What Was Socialism...And Why We Will All Miss It So Much" [Jan. 26]. A representative sampling of the replies ran in the March 5 issue and included the words below from Daniel Singer.

Paris

"The sleep of reason breeds monsters."   --Goya

Francis Fukuyama's message that history has come to an end and capitalism springs eternal no longer fools anybody. So here comes Norman Rush, admittedly with iron in the soul, to develop its logical sequel, namely, that socialism is dead and buried forever.

We did not need a Nation cover story to find out that everything is not for the best in the best of socialist worlds. I can produce a series of questions that, if they remain unanswered, will prevent socialism from staging a revival: Why did revolutions never happen in the advanced capitalist countries but always in the backward ones, with tragic consequences? Can the highly transformed working class in the Western world still be an agency of historical change? In the increasingly deregulated world can the nation-state still provide a platform or radical transformation? In any case, considering that all the important Western revolts in recent years--those of youth, of women, of the ecologists--have started outside its ranks, something is clearly wrong with the health of the socialist movement. Yet why the death certificate and why just now? Because of the collapse of the neo-Stalinist empire and the implicit identification of socialism with it, says Rush.

The terrible price we are paying for Stalinism cannot be measured only by the number of its victims or by the discredit it has brought to socialism as an idea. The balance sheet must also include the mental damage it did by reducing creative thought to a rigid gospel of rules, slogans and quotations. Rush asserts not only that socialism does not exist (with which most of us would agree) but that it cannot exist. The almost metaphysical gist of his argument is that "equality through mandated common ownership" is "the heart of socialism": that "socialism promised that inequality was, mechanically, eliminable" and that "large economic systems designed for the advertised purpose of securing material equality through bureaucratic command structures could not...hope to succeed."

But was it really from the start a problem of bureaucratic structures and mechanical elimination? Doesn't Rush know that the struggle for equality was park of a bigger project for the "associate producers" to gain mastery over their fate; that the attack on private property was to be combined with an offensive against the existing division of labor and the unwithering state; that at the heart of it all was the developing political consciousness of the people, who were to change themselves as they reshaped society; and that this struggle for real democracy, while a historical process, was supposed to start on the very first day of the revolution? We know what happened to that project in Russia. One of its results is that a decent member of "the chartered anti-totalitarian left," to borrow Rush's definition, has such an impoverished vision of what socialism is about.

Stalinist heritage can also be detected in the certitude of our gravedigger. When Rosa Luxemburg was accused of-treating democracy as a fetish, she replied, "We have never been idol worshipers of formal democracy. Nor have we been idol worshipers of socialism or Marxism." Socialists used to be potential heretics, not only scrutinizing the changing structure of society but also permanently questioning their own premises and assumptions. It was only later that they were turned into party-liners and true believers knowing that Russia was a workers' paradise. Those who yesterday branded us as "imperialist agents" because we dared to doubt the socialist nature of Russia, or China, now proclaim with the same conviction that socialism is, at best, a figment of our imagination. I am not saying that Rush is one of them, simply that his funeral oration proceeds from the same mentality.

I cannot with the same presumption forecast the triumph of socialism. I can merely argue that, while we must draw all the bitter lessons from the Marxist tragedy that began in 1917, the collapse of the neo-Stalinist empire does not prove that it is impossible to build a socialist society (nor does it prove the opposite). The other major example given, the crisis of Western European social democracy, points in the opposite direction, since it suggests that the reformist management of capitalist society has now become very difficult. Indeed, the striking contrast between our fantastic increase in productivity and the rise in unemployment has revived in Europe some of the ideas prophetically suggested by Marx.

Since our society, though greatly changed, remains fundamentally capitalist, the Marxist tools of analysis, provided they are neither frozen nor sanctified, are important instruments in our search for a different society. We also can see every day, looking at the world from Algeria to Bosnia to Tajikistan, that in the absence of rational, universal, progressive solutions, the forces of unreason gain ground and prepare for us a barbarian future. This in no way proves the inevitability of socialism, but it renders the search for a way out both imperative and urgent.

The classics of socialism did not feel they had to describe the future. We cannot afford such scientific restraint. After what we have been through, people will not join a collective movement on a long journey unless they are offered not a blueprint but a project. The future will be what we shall make it. No project will come alive unless it is carried out by a mass popular movement, but such a movement will get going only if it is inspired by a vision. If The Nation considers that one of its functions is to help in this search for an alternative, for a radically different society, it should devote its space to the presentation of problems and the debate about their solution rather than to the Stalinist blues, however worthy and well intentioned its composer.

Daniel Singer

Follow-up: April 11, 1994

THE ANTEPENULTIMATE WORD . . .

Paris

An important passage was cut from my response to Norman Rush's article on socialism [Exchange, "Play It Again, Karl," March 7]. The passage read: ''Norman Rush is no Fukuyama. He does not describe capitalism as eternal and he comes to the funeral of socialism, not with a smile but with a wistful look. Yet, from the point of view of the capitalist establishment it makes little difference. That establishment is not worried by sporadic rebellions or 'postmodern' antics. What it fears is that social discontent, the protest of women, the revolt of the ecologists should be joined together for long-term action by the vision of a radically different society. Its propagandists have to convince people that there is no alternative and there can be none.''

Daniel Singer