Quote of the day: Soviet Train

What would USSR look like if it was a train?

Quoth Thehellezell

Russia is like a malfunctioning train, and Stalin tried to make it move by putting a gun to the engineer’s head. It moved fast for a while, but then sputtered. Khrushchev noticed something was wrong, attempted to alert the other passengers, but was booted off of the train for being a nuisance. The train slowed to a crawl, then stopped. A man named Brezhnev stood up and addressed the passengers: “Pay no mind to the outside scenery! The train will arrive to our destination soon!”

Brilliant metaphor but the rest of the comment is really worth reading. The whole thread is pretty good as well, diving into the familiar argument of “Communism failed because USSR failed.”

Communism in the garbage bin of history

Has Communism been discredited so much that it’s not worth even considering anymore. Listening to online pundits, one might think so. But I wish to explain why this is greatly exagerrated.

Marching for Communism in Iran
Image by Petteri Sulonen via Flickr

As the Iran situation becomes worse ((Personally I refrain from saying much about it as it seems there is a lot of propaganda from both sides, for an external observer like me to decide either way. Furthermore, neither of the two warring parties are on the side of the people of Iran)) and more and more people start speaking about it online, it seems that many take it as an opportunity to take a swipe at communism while they’re at it.

I’ve started monitoring twitter for mentions of political currents I am interested in and among the usual ignorant bashing, the following phrase, in various similar forms, seems to be posted often:

Theocracy is destined for the garbage bin of history along with Communism and Fascism.

This seems to be repeated by Liberals, Conservatives, Rothbardian minarchists and a generally a lot of people standing on the “right” side of the political spectrum. Putting aside the idiocy of putting Communism and Fascism side to side, there’s the implicit assumption that Communist has indeed been delegated to the “dust bin of history”.

But how much truth is contained in such a statement? While it’s undeniable that Communism has been severely slandered by those who would rather that you don’t know much about it; has it been discredited like fascism, to the point where ideological basis is rejected by most people outright? As much as it would seem so in the US political scene, the answer fortunately is no.

In times of a capitalist boom, there’s always a lot of pundits who will eagerly proclaim the obsolescence of Communism, the end of class struggle and “The end of History”. That lasts only as much as the next bust, recession and depression when the socialist spirit once more rises up to haunt the ruling class. It is at this point where the same pundits will try to stem the tide by reminding us that they already proclaimed Communism obsolete so why are we bringing it up all over again?

But in fact, Communism itself has not been discredited. The core idea of Communism: a stateless, classless society can’t be, as instinctively it sounds positive for most people. Instead what has been discredited are the hijacked results of socialist revolutions of the early 20th century, results which for the delight of the western propagandists were self-described as “Communist” or “Socialist”.

These ideas, that a totalitarian regime can somehow act for the best of the working class, have deservedly been discredited by history itself, which is incidentally proved Anarchist predictions correct. But, and this is the important point, since Communism is not about totalitarianism, this does not affect it.

Now some US Americans might claim that due to popular use, Communism has been accepted to mean the USSR, PRC example and as such, the phrasing is right. But then of course one could easily point out that the USA has completely fucked up the political definitions they use to the extent that, like their measurement system, they are the only ones who accept it.

For most of the world, Communism is far from discredited and even the Stalinist currents in many countries are still going strong. Certainly, many people might think that Communism can’t work in practice, but that’s not the same as rejecting the system altogether. Indeed most of the time it simply takes a libertarian perspective on it to show that what’s practically impossible is only the authoritarian currents.

But if one can say this about Communism, how about Fascism? Doesn’t it mean that Fascism as well can be considered valid? The main difference between them is that Fascism has been rejected by most people altogether, from the ideological components (racism, xenophobia, anti-labour, cronyism etc) to the specific practical implementations of it. It’s been rejected because its whole base is rotten to the core. And while there will always be people rotten enough to embrace it, it’s unlikely to gain popular support. (although of course, I can always be proven wrong)

But this is not the case with Communism, which still has pure goals and people have simply been prevented from progressing towards them; not as a systematic fault but because of the particular (flawed) paths that people took towards the goal. But there’s still other ways to attempt, other paths to take and fortunately there’s quite a lot of people willing to listen.

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Arguments from Ignorants

If there is one thing that annoys me when seeing arguments against Communism is persistent ignorance. We’re not talking about simple ignorance where someone is not aware of a fact, but the kind of stubborn insintense on false ideas even when one has explicitly been told that they have it wrong. At this point we’re not simply talking about someone who has it wrong but about someone who is unwilling to learn.

Witness now this obtuse argument from BadTux who tries to explain why Communism is doomed to failure with arguments even a cursory look at an introductory text to Marxism should have put to rest.

He flies right off the bat by separating the political aspect of Communism from the economic, not obviously undertanding that this is impossible. Communism is not simply an economic system but a complete one, ecompassing social, political and economic aspects. You cannot disconnect the economic aspect of Communism from the social simply because it requires a specific type of society to work.

Communism is about having a classless, stateless society. It’s that simple. If you have a state or separation of classes, whether in the form of government bureaucrats or simple capitalists, you cannot claim to be in Communism. In any sense. It’s that simple. So by taking the economic aspect of the Soviet Union and calling it “Economic Communism”, you are using a flawed system as an example.

Next, we have the argument of how people would not join communes by themselves and they would have to be forced. Something which is of course totally away from any historical reality. If BadTux had bothered to actually read the History of the Russian Revolution he would have seen how “few” people were willing to to form soviets. The reality was that people were joining Soviets by the thousands, both the proletariat in the cities and the peasants in the armies. They were very much the majority and did not have to use any force.

He at least tries later to improve the validity of his article by talking about “modern communism” not realizing that there is nothing “modern” about it but rather that the original idea was about industrial societies. The idea for Communism was that it always required an industrialized society before it could take hold. This was the original idea from the time of Marx. The lack of a big proletariat in Russia and China was a large, if not the largest reason why the revolutions failed. A feudal peasant population is incompatible with Communism.

Then we’re treated to the impossibility of handling the modern production under communism simply by bringing up all the elements required for a product. But that’s just it. There’s no explanation of why this makes it impossible other than the inability of the author to think about it.

And with these arguments we are then told “So this, then, explains why communism as an economic system has failed every time it has been tried” and then goes on to bring the Soviet Union as an example. So he has failed to grasp what Communism even is, and then brought up State Capitalist society as proof. Incredible!

We then continue with the “other aspect” of Communism which is the political which apparently has been shown to fail…in a capitalistic society. What BadTux does not realize is that Communism does not work on an per-nation basis. Communism has to be achieved internationally so as to not have the need for standing armies or a state apparatus.  Even Lenin recognised the need for International movements for Communism and this is what he was counting on. He knew that if that did not happen, the Russian Revolution was in a really tight spot.

It is no worth looking at individual communes in a Capitalist society as they are not the point or an example of socialism. Their struggle to survive in a Capitalist society is what creates contradictions among the people within. This “problem of power” that BadTux keeps referring to does not exist in a society where people can easily leave a syndic they do not like and immediately join another or form their own.

And indeed. there is no better example for this than the Free Software movement. Therein you have groups of people clustered around any specific application and you have a benevolent dictator at the top. This “leader” or group of leaders that BadTux claims would always cause problems and dissolving the group. However not only does this work our, but it works admirably. When the leaders are indeed benevolent, the group prospers and keeps them in their place due to their abilities. If the leaders misbehave enough however, the dissatisfied people simply fork the project and start a new group. What “problem of power”?

This is why such arguments from ignorants are so annoying. You end up having to refute arguments which have nothing to do with Communism at all. This is not productive at all to the Communist who does not learn anything new but rather has to waste time pointing out strawmen left and right. Argue why the Labour Theory of Value is wrong. Argue how exploitation of the worker does not exist. Argue, in short, for things that Marxism actually explains and proposes, not whatever half-truths you gathered from school and popular news sources.

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Was the USSR Communist?

Overwhelmingly, most people’s understanding of what Communism is, comes from an extremely propagandistic presentation of the Soviet Union, generally by US right-wing sources. This would give you the idea that communism is supposed to be very authoritarian, rigidly collectivistic and anti-democratic.

Overwhelmingly, most people’s understanding of what Communism is, comes from an extremely propagandistic presentation of the Soviet Union, generally by US right-wing sources. This would give you the idea that communism is supposed to be very authoritarian, rigidly collectivistic and anti-democratic.

This misconception is unfortunately so wide-spread that it’s not infrequent to be called a mass murderer wannabe for simply bringing it up and even though it is trivial to find out what Communism really is and how it works, this exasperatingly wrong view of it nevertheless persists in even otherwise brilliant minds.

So let me say this first: Whatever view you may have of the USSR (and there are quite a few supporters of Stalinism out there), it was not Communism.

Now, before you hasten to leave me a comment about Scotsmen and the like, it is important to know that the original thoughts of Marx and Engels were indeed the absolute opposite of Stalinism, Maoism etc. The fact that one can create a system and label it “Communism” does not make it so, anymore than North Korea is a “Democracy” or a “Republic”. Perhaps one can label it “Socialism” but this term is by itself ambiguous and does not necessarily equate to Marxism.

That is not to say that Russia did not really attempt Communism. It did, and it managed to achieve socialism for a very short while immediately after the revolution. But this newly-fledged socialism was defeated in the most humilating way. Not only did the counter-revolution won over the communists but it kept the name and the symbols to the overjoy of the capitalist of the rest of the world. Russian communism ceased to exist as soon as Stalin came to power.

But if USSR was not Communism what was it? Well, by the way it actually worked, the most fitting description for it is State Capitalism. Simply, the state took on the role of the ultimate Capitalist and set about exploiting the workers. Some of the practices it had, like the suppression of individuality, the strict hierarchical spread of power and the like, are identical to the ones within a common Capitalist corporation anyway. Others, like it’s inability to work efficiently or its large bureaucracy are problems that any sufficiently large corporation has as well. There hasn’t been a corporation of the sheer size of the Soviet Union of course so a direct comparison is impossible, but looking at the dinosauric movements of some of the biggest ones certainly points to that direction.

Another common opinion on this Communism = USSR misunderstanding is the claim that Communism has proven to be a failure. This attempts to show that the path Russia took in the early 20th century is the only possible result any attempt for Communism can achieve and thus it is not worth struggling towards it. But this is not simply wrong, it is intellectually dishonest. This assumes that the very unique situation Russia had to struggle is the common situation any communist revolution will have to face which is simply absurd.

Not only was the situation unique but their attempt was doomed from the start. The reason for this is that Communism requires Capitalism to exist before it can take over. It needs the hugely increased level of production achieved with it and the exploitation of the workers is what creates the revolutionary force. Russia attempted to jump directly from Feudalism (with a small growing capitalist class) to Communism while skipping the phase in between and ended up dislocating itself ((This is not the only reason by far, but it is outside the scope of this article to go into much depth with this. If you’re interested more on the subject, read this very important book)). This is also the case with China as well. An agrarian society simply cannot support Communism, especially not when opposed from the rest of the world.

To extrapolate from these example to anything that may happen during our age is simply disingenuous. Not only do we have the production required to not suffer the same fate but we have many tools in our disposal that the Revolutionaries of last century couldn’t even dream of. The instant, international information exchange we can achieve now can easily be the most important.

It is simply practically impossible at this point for any attempt at communism to take even a similar path to the one of USSR and if it is achieved, it will look nothing like it.

Further Reading