You say you want a revolution (updated)

by John Quiggin on June 19, 2011

As promised in my previous post, I’m setting up a separate thread for discussion of my premise that a socialist revolution is neither feasible nor desirable. My own thoughts, taken from an old post are over the fold.

UpdateI’ve updated to link to the earlier post remove an unjustifiably snarky reference to aristocratic sentiment and to include a para from the previous post, on situations where revolutions are likely to turn out well.

The idea that a single violent irruption, followed by a (supposedly temporary) revolutionary dictatorship, can break unending cycles of oppression, and achieve permanent change for the better is intuitively appealing and gains support daily from the failures of more modest attempts at reform, from the peaceful protest march to the Winter Palace in 1905 to the shoddy compromises of day-to-day democratic politics (and particularly in this context, social-democratic politics).

Yet the appeal of revolution is an illusion. Most attempts at revolution fail, leaving the participants and the oppressed worse off than before. Even where revolution is successful, attempts by the revolutionary party to hold on to power usually lead to reactionary dictatorship in short order. The French Revolution, the model on which Marxist analysis was based, lasted five years from the liberation of the Bastille to Thermidor, and ten years to the 18 Brumaire seizure of power by Napoleon. The Bolshevik revolution lasted four years until the adoption of the New Economic Policy and seven years before Stalin’s rise to power.

The successful revolutions have mostly been those where the ancien regime collapsed under its own weight, and where those who came to power did not try too hard to hold on to it when, inevitably, the wheel of public support turned against them

{ 232 comments }

1

shah8 06.19.11 at 10:06 pm

A toast to John Brown and his Decembrists!

2

Asteri 06.19.11 at 10:15 pm

Hmm, it seems that over the last 20 years or so its been the reactionary right that has developed a taste for revolution and now the job for the Left is to be counter revolutionary if they want to maintain free education, the welfare state and environmentalism.

3

Phil 06.19.11 at 10:15 pm

This is very poor.

followed by a (supposedly temporary) revolutionary dictatorship

attempts by the revolutionary party to hold on to power

You’re reading Lenin back into Marx (some would say Stalin back into Lenin). To believe in proletarian revolution is not to believe in the dictatorship of a revolutionary party over the proletariat.

The French Revolution, the model on which Marxist analysis was based, lasted five years from the liberation of the Bastille to Thermidor, and ten years to the 18 Brumaire seizure of power by Napoleon.

How tragic that Marx never lived to comment on the 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. Who can say how it would have affected his model of revolution?

Gains that are ground out in this way, with two steps forward and one step back, are not noble enough for an aristocratic sensibility: far better to fail gloriously.

This is a valid critique of people who denounce, criticise or abstain from campaigns for moderate reforms in the name of a belief in revolution. It’s not in any way a critique of the belief in revolution itself, because that belief is held by many people who are not abstentionist revolutionary maximalists.

4

John Quiggin 06.19.11 at 10:42 pm

Phil, it’s quite a while since I read the 18th Brumaire, and I may well have missed the point. Maybe you could spell out what you have in mind.

5

sg 06.19.11 at 11:07 pm

going entirely off the terribly-written summary, John Q, it seems the revolution failed on that occasion because of the lumpen proles and the peasants, who do not constitute a class but chose to back Napoleon, except for the ones who rose up against Napoleon, who don’t present a challenge to Marx’s convenient class divisions or an indication of a need for a deeper analysis of the movement of history than a class-based one. But fortunately, the working class saw all this coming and actually wanted Napoleon to take over so they could turn the state on itself (which isn’t a 10 year old’s excuse for failure at all). In future they will destroy the state in its new, hyper-concentrated form, and then everyone will say “wow! you guys are cool. Can you rule all of us in your benevolent wisdom?”

Napoleon’s victory was like in the old Godzilla cartoons, when the good guys force the monster to eat too much radiation/seawater/trees and then it gets bigger and bigger and then it explodes.

6

bobbyp 06.19.11 at 11:09 pm

Only 250 years or so into this Industrial Revolution thingie, and you write the effort off in a matter of three short paragraphs? It’s really too early to tell, John.

7

bianca steele 06.19.11 at 11:42 pm

I’ve been struggling for a while with the idea of historical materialism–and this is probably off-topic–I really don’t know–but this almost seems to imply that it is impossible for culture or beliefs to change even in the slightest, short of a revolution that replaces the previously dominant class with a new dominant class. And this would seem to permit the conflation of “belief in revolution” with “belief in the non-eternal nature of ‘traditional’ cultural beliefs” (which latter would seem to have been refuted, absent some kind of epicyclic kludging).

So when I hear “revolution is impossible,” it shades over into almost its opposite: you can’t change what people believe, you can only exchange one ruling class for a different one, and a Marxist ruling class would be preferable–therefore, you should give up everything that is effectively dependent on a belief in revolution, and instead work for reforms that will give more financial and political power to the class that would be the ruling class under Marxism. And then I suppose revolution or no revolution history will see that you were on the better side. Or something.

So it’s something like “Marx proved this: you can’t change anything and nobody ever has changed anything, and political activity is futile, but neither are you free to refrain from moral political activity: socialist party political action.”

8

Martin Bento 06.20.11 at 12:01 am

I see two problems here: the successes of moderate within-the-system reforms seem to come when there is a great deal of scary outside-the-system pressure. Specifically, the Cold War put pressure on Capitalism to tame its excesses, and, at least in the American context, most of the progress of the 20th century was made in the two periods most associated with unrest: the 30’s and the 60’s. The two great exceptions I see to this are granting women the vote, and the early civil rights period. But civil rights had elite support (e.g., James Conant) because Jim Crow was a great rhetorical weapon for the Soviets. Granting women the vote, well, I don’t know that much about the politics of that. Nonetheless, working within the system only seems to work when there is a credible threat of working outside of it in a seriously disruptive manner.

There is also the matter of how should revolutionary success be judged. The French Revolution “failed”. It led to a bloody mess, and, shortly thereafter, Napoleon. But was it not a necessary element of the modernization of Europe nonetheless? Did the parts of Europe not transformed by the Revolution and Napoleon ultimately turn out better? You could call that 20/20 hindsight, but so is invoking the great terror and Napoleon. Regardless of whether it works out better in the short term, and perhaps whether it works out better at all, it seems sometimes necessary that regimes fall, and the most defensible way is for them to fall to their own people. Not to discount what a dangerous crap shoot any revolution is, but I don’t see how they can be ruled out categorically.

9

Ken S 06.20.11 at 12:38 am

” the achievements of the Left have been impressive, starting with universal suffrage and secret ballots, going on the creation of the welfare state, continuing with progress towards equality without regard to race, gender and sexuality, preserving the environment from the disastrous impact of industrialism and so on.”

Unfortunately it seems like very little of this actually impresses those who are suffering the most economically (aside from the welfare state policies depending on how self-reliant a worker likes to feel). In fact all of these accomplishments are cited by the Right as destroying jobs and harming traditional economic arrangements, and they are fairly persuasive at convincing the desperate and unsophisticated that rolling back these policies is the best way forward.

I’m sure other countries might be faring better than us in terms of equality, but looking at the USA’s unemployment data by decile brings the idea of any sort of solidarity into question. Anyone in this country with a job and income above the 30-40th percentile usually has very little to complain about or agitate for, and as a whole this group has unemployment rates well below 10% and near the top deciles its closer to 5%. Those without jobs have to face the shame and fear of poverty. Last year the unemployment numbers for the bottom three deciles were 30%, 20%, and 15% and since then we had a jobless recovery.

It seems to me like none of the policies you propose would benefit the top 60% very much but probably could make a difference in the lives of the bottom 40% insofar that these policies would create jobs that pay a living wage. After pondering the data the top 1% does not look like such a serious problem anymore (as technology progresses all that extra cash in the financial sector will look more and more like play money) and I believe only a massive guilt trip on the middle class will actually improve the immediate situation here.

10

matthias 06.20.11 at 12:46 am

I’ve been struggling for a while with the idea of historical materialism—and this is probably off-topic—I really don’t know—but this almost seems to imply that it is impossible for culture or beliefs to change even in the slightest, short of a revolution that replaces the previously dominant class with a new dominant class.

Not even the most orthodox possible* materialist would believe something like this, because there’s no such thing as capitalism simpliciter under such a scheme, but every social formation is riven by internal contradictions and the capitalist ones feature the “constant revolutionizing of the means of production” and blah blah blah. So a theoretical absolute historical materialist who believed all aspects of a society were epiphenomena of the class struggle could still point to the relative power of haute vs petit bourgeois, financial vs industrial vs commercial capital (and different sectors within those,) household vs market labor, uneven regional development and imperialism, various strata among the working class, the decline or health of pre-capitalist elites, the power of the state to secure monopolies, changing technology, and so on ad nauseam as reasons for changes within capitalism. And of course actually existing historical materialists (who don’t believe that everything is just the epiphenomena of economics and class struggle, merely that economics and class struggle are super duper important) actually do point to these things as important, materialist causes of change within history.

Of course, there certainly is the trend to that there are a number of features which we can associate with capitalism simpliciter despite not being part of its definition – which is just common sense, I should think.

*I was about to write “most orthodox,” but you don’t really see ideas taken to their most absolute possible conclusion on the left like you do on the right (where the idea that social theorizing should be done a priori is explicitly defended and even used as a tribal marker.) So while the above statement should be taken as applying, of course, to those who are as materialist as they come, take it further, as applying to those who are as historical materialist as anyone could possibly be.

11

Myles 06.20.11 at 12:59 am

At a deeper level, the appeal of revolution has a substantial residue of aristocratic sentiment…Yet most of this progress has been achieved in a thoroughly bourgeois fashion, through long agitation, boring committee reports and so on. Gains that are ground out in this way, with two steps forward and one step back, are not noble enough for an aristocratic sensibility: far better to fail gloriously.

Word.

12

Sandwichman 06.20.11 at 1:04 am

Some thirty-five years ago I had in dream. In the dream, I was in a rather fancy restaurant and for some reason was inspired to hop up on the table and start singing The Internationale. Somewhat to my surprise (but not entirely as this was a dream) the other patrons joined in and started singing along in a triumphant rendition.

Last night, I was at a banquet for the conference of the Pacific Northwest Labour History Association. After the dinner, there was a performance by the local Solidarity Notes choir. The climax of the performance was the singing of The Internationale, first in French, but then in English with the now standing academics, labour union officials and New Democratic Party politicians joining in full voice with raised, clenched fists.

Just to prove that sometimes even dreams come true. More or less.

13

Chris Bertram 06.20.11 at 2:26 am

Phil: you are confusing two different events. The original 18b was Napoleon. Bonaparte’s seizure of power. Marx’s work is about.the later coup (1853?) by his nephew.

14

Tony Lynch 06.20.11 at 2:32 am

Surely if we are to have a general view on whether Revolutions generally are “worth it” (and however we might want to measure this), then we need to have some idea as to whether Revolutions foregone are generally “worth it” or not?

I see now way of making this tractable.

15

Tony Lynch 06.20.11 at 2:33 am

Surely if we are to have a general view on whether Revolutions generally are “worth it” (and however we might want to measure this), then we need to have some idea as to whether Revolutions foregone are generally “worth it” or not?

I see no way of making this tractable.

16

Sandwichman 06.20.11 at 2:38 am

Chris,

Phil was being sarcastic.

17

rickstesherpa 06.20.11 at 3:06 am

One could argue that the occasions that have seen the most progress for the Liberal New Deal/Social Democratic perspective have been counter-revolutions to rightest actions, such as Lincoln and the Civil War, or periods where the rentier class fears revolution enough to decide they need to retreat back and share a little (early New Deal and WWII and post war years when fear of Communism led to the creation of Welfare states in Western Europe, Japan, Korea, and Taiwan). Certainly so called “revolutions” have not been particularly good for the people who underwent them. An even episodes like 1848 and 1968 appear to rather empty of immediate result compared to the great Reform Act of 1832 and the subsequent electoral reforms that Democratize the Aristocratic Monarchy of Great Britain. The American Revolution may have been the exception, but perhaps as Chou En-lai might say, it is still to soon to tell.

18

William Timberman 06.20.11 at 3:09 am

Tony Lynch @ 15

One way — possibly the only way — is to wait and see if the revolution foregone leads us up a blind alley. Needless to say, rarely is any one of us as an individual around long enough to find out. John Q, like many other social democrats, appears not to think that we’re up a blind alley now. If so, it’s an assessment which most social democrats and neoliberals share. Not only that, but each according to his own lights is far more sanguine about that assessment than are most people who take Marx seriously.

As someone said in the Marx without revolution thread, if you just discount the ravages of financial capitalism in the last twenty years or so, the income inequality stats don’t look so bad. Well, yeah, sure…but if by that is meant that all we have to do is pull one of our technocratic levers, and presto, we’re back where we were, permit me to doubt it.

One of the best things about Marx, et al., is that they saw that such discontinuities, irrationalities, etc., have a logic of their own, even when we don’t perceive it. You can’t just pull levers, ’cause the levers exist in pure form only inside your own closed intellectual system, you own class consciousness, if you will. I hate to cite a sci-fi reference in discussions of such weighty matters, but this thread reminds me of 2001. If you remember, everything in that technocratic New Jerusalem was securely, even beautifully tied down — all capital was under management, so to speak — until the black obelisk showed up. When it did, the managers went on managing right up to and beyond the point where it made any sense at all. That was a fantasy, of course…nothing at all like what’s going on in the real world at the moment. And yet….

19

Neil 06.20.11 at 3:10 am

Bianca, the history of Western Marxism – the Marxism that developed independently from the party line of the Eastern Bloc – could be written as the history of increasingly sophisticated attempts (beginning with Englels himself) to theorize what came to be called the relative autonomy of the ideological superstructure from the economic base. Everyone agrees that the constraints on the superstructure are loose and distal.

20

Ed 06.20.11 at 3:15 am

I was going to contribute on the other thread, but my comment would have wound up being too long and meandering. And I think that is because I don’t quite grasp what is being discussed.

First, why did history start in 1789? If we are talking about historical examples, why none from before the industrial revolution? Surely there were classes then?

Second, what exactly is meant by revolution anyway? This sounds nitpicking, but do the leaders have to change? Does the class the leaders are drawn from and/ or the means of selecting them have to change? How much do government policies have to change? Does there have to be violence? How much do the actual proletariat have to be involved?

I have a sort of Hollywoodish image of demonstrations and barricades, but I’m sure there has be something more we are discussing than that.

21

Lemuel Pitkin 06.20.11 at 3:22 am

1. The outcomes of revolutionary movements are not limited to the countries where those movements took power. Many early leaders of the US civil rights movement had passed through the CP. North Korea sucks, but without it, South Kirea might look like the Philippines. Both European social democracy and US support for decolonization owed a great deal to the need to compete with the moral and material alternative represented by the Soviet Union. You may not accept this view – you may think the success of liberal arguments in the legislature never owed anything to the mob (potential or actual) outside. But you have to at least consider it when you’re drawing up the balance sheet of revolutionary movements.

2. What’s the alternative. It’s not for nothing Rosa Luxemburg said “socialism or barbarism.” She wasn’t even wrong. You and I might want the world to go on basically as it is, only getting gradually better. Doesn’t mean we can get what we want. If radical change is coming – big if, I know, but I think you’ll agree history tells us the probability is non-zero – maybe it’s a good thing if some people are trying to make it radically better rather than radically worse.

3. Probably if you want to have a conversation, it’s better to leave out references to the “aristocratic sensibilities” of your opponents, no? I know I’ve typed some sentences speculating about the personality defects that led you to hold some opinion I disagreed with. But I’ve always (I hope; or almost always) had the sense to delete them before hitting post.

22

Dong Haotian 06.20.11 at 3:52 am

At a deeper level, the appeal of revolution has a substantial residue of aristocratic sentiment. In the course of the last 200 years, and even allowing for the defeats of the past 20 years or so, the achievements of the Left have been impressive, starting with universal suffrage and secret ballots, going on the creation of the welfare state, continuing with progress towards equality without regard to race, gender and sexuality, preserving the environment from the disastrous impact of industrialism and so on. Yet most of this progress has been achieved in a thoroughly bourgeois fashion, through long agitation, boring committee reports and so on. Gains that are ground out in this way, with two steps forward and one step back, are not noble enough for an aristocratic sensibility: far better to fail gloriously.

as a communist of third worldist sensibilities I find this bit rather distasteful. maybe for some people the system has been reformed, changed into something more humane. from my standpoint, however, most of what you see as progress appears to involve little more than extending various existing privileges to larger and larger sections of the population to bring their interests into line with the imperialist project and the massive value flow stream associated with it as greater and greater expenditures of “guard labor” from the core countries were required to maintain the growing forms of extraction from the periphery

now that the labor requirements of imperialism have changed and your masters no longer need so many of you, your stock is falling and your social assets are being sold off to private investors; meanwhile in many countries your vaunted civil liberties are being aggressively rolled back and attacked. political parties in the bourgeois governments calling themselves “Socialist” have in many places been at the fore of pushing neoliberalism and austerity on Europe. in my eyes this shows what an obvious farce it all was, and how easy it is for the capitalists to take back the bribes they offered the early labor aristocracy. only in a handful of countries has the first world working class managed so much as ongoing street demonstrations against the rollback of their benefits. the resistance so far has been scattered and helpless. how can you imagine that these forces, the withered organs of the workers’ movement which now flail uselessly against the might of finance capital, had actually managed to hold capitalism in check and make its own demands, rather than having simply been paid off and placated? but maybe this actually reveals some deeper truth about how awesome reformism is?

I also highly doubt that glory (especially in death) is an inherently aristocratic desire or taste. sometimes men and women genuinely prefer death on their feet over some compromise which is unacceptable to their conscience. there are things besides being raised into nobility which might inculcate this view

practical arguments appeal to me greatly, and I do think that obviously any plan focusing exclusively on planning and producing a single one-time event is going to be absurdly insufficient to address the total multitude of problems which socialists are interested in solving. this sort of snide, moralizing insinuation, however, is quite pointlessly offensive. besides, it’s not even like there’s a meaningful binary between a revolutionary “revolutionary movement” and a non-revolutionary ” revolutionary movement.” what do we call the process in Venezuela? participation in bourgeois government, and a reformist approach, but also a distinct breaking point with the past and a timeline defined by concrete struggle events, and changes in the structure and functions of the state introduced in bursts. no revolutionary group plans exclusively for the revolution; it is correct not to be naive about what a single day’s events can change, but I don’t see any real reason to imagine that revolutionary politics have not learned greatly from failures of the past

23

William Timberman 06.20.11 at 4:35 am

Dong Haotian @ 21

Well said. In the West, we keep asking ourselves Is it safe? That’s the wrong question, unless we believe ourselves to be safe now. Who outside the West has reason to believe any such thing? That, perhaps is the right question.

24

Dave 06.20.11 at 4:39 am

If we can’t have revolution, I hope at least there can be violence. That would be something.

25

Sebastian H 06.20.11 at 4:41 am

“North Korea sucks, but without it, South Kirea might look like the Philippines.”

Or Japan. Horrors.

26

ejh 06.20.11 at 6:12 am

What has “want” got to do with anything? If revolutions happened because people wanted them, they’d probably never happen. They happen because people find themselves doing things they never expected to do, for lack of a perceived alternative.

27

John Quiggin 06.20.11 at 6:55 am

LP, apologies for the snark you mention in point 3. But I’m with Sebastian – if both Koreas were like the Phillipines, the sum total of human misery would be massively reduced.

28

Henri Vieuxtemps 06.20.11 at 7:10 am

Didn’t the Philippines have a revolution in the 1980s?

29

Phil 06.20.11 at 7:25 am

Sandwichman – Chris is right, I had confused the two Brumaires (it was late, I was tired). Fortunately that doesn’t weaken my point, which is that Marx (unlike Hegel) seems not to have regarded Napoleon’s usurpation of the French Revolution as the last word in anything. Most Marxists don’t regard the ascent of Stalin as invalidating the October Revolution, let alone revolution in general – although it might well point to problems in the revolutionary process, and ways to do it better another time.

30

Hidari 06.20.11 at 7:27 am

Well this is all very interesting but I don’t see what it has to do with Marxism. As should be well known, I thought, Marx was perfectly happy with the idea of a peaceful, democratic revolution (“… we do not deny that there are countries like England and America… where labour may attain its goal by peaceful means.” Marx, 18 September 1872). (emphasis added). His point was far more simple: you should obviously and self-evidently prioritise peaceful democratic methods of achieving power. But don’t be surprised when the ruling class doesn’t give up its own power peacefully (in other words, ‘revolutions’ are actually counter-revolutions, defending democracy against the anti-democratic thought and actions of the ruling class). As someone pointed out above, one of the most vulgar of anti-Marxist mistakes is to ‘read back’ Leninism onto Marxism. Whatever one thinks about Lenin he was a very different kind of thinker from Marx, with a very different view of what ‘revolutions’ meant and mean.

In any case, and as again has been pointed out ad nauseum by Marxists, Marx did not say that even a revolution had to be ‘violent’. This is particularly true if one looks at the most concrete example of what Marx and Engels meant by a revolution: the Paris Commune. The revolution itself was not violent (although the resulting attempt to suppress it of course was extraordinarily violent).

Or again look at Egypt. There was a lot of violence in the Egyptian revolution, literally all of it, without exception, coming from the dictatorship, and towards its own people.

You are really loading the scales, incidentally, by adding the word ‘socialist’ the the word ‘revolution’. Since there are currently no socialist states in any sense that Marx or Engels would have recognised as being socialist, then obviously one can infer that socialist revolutions don’t work. However, ipso facto, one can also infer that the democratic movement to socialism don’t work either. If one was to broaden the ‘meaning’ of revolution to include bourgeoise revolutions then the argument would fall apart because there have been a huge number of successful revolutions, including, of course, the ’89 revolutions in Eastern Europe, and the current revolutions in the Middle East (well, some of them at least, so far).

The French revolution (which was not a socialist revolution so I don’t see why it’s being mentioned in any case) was not, of course, a failure in the long run. Is France now a totalitarian state? Are there still guillotines working in Paris?

However I will accept one point: clearly the violence involved in the ‘American Revolution’ was a mistake, and one that goes a long way to explaining why the US is now a failed, rogue state. That was one revolution that would have been a lot better if the British had successfully suppressed it.

That was the sort of ‘failed revolution’ you meant, yes?

31

Martin Bento 06.20.11 at 7:46 am

I would say people in Tunisia wanted a revolution, wouldn’t you? Egypt too? It was circumstances that made them seem possible at that moment, though the people mostly created those circumstances themselves, but without intense desire from the populace it was not going to happen.

32

CharlieMcMenamin 06.20.11 at 9:00 am

Sorry JQ, this analysis is so old fashioned it creaks. Where did you get the idea that ‘a single violent irruption ( not that a revolution need be violent of course) is in some sense counterposed to ‘long agitation, boring committee reports and so on.’

I think the idea is always that some kind of fundamental transformation, some massive break in the previous logic of ‘how things work’ is required in order for the ‘long agitation, boring committee reports and so on’ to achieve a lasting purchase.

Now, the game may not be worth the candle in many specific historic cases, as you suggest – failure is certainly not unknown. In any event, even at the purely theoretical level, how to carry out such a transformation in a way that (a) maintains democratic norms ; and (b) protects those who carry out the transformation from the violent reaction of those overthrown is by no means obvious.

So there are real questions here, but they are really not best discussed as if we were still engaged in a 1920s debate between platform speakers representing the 2nd and 3rd Internationals.

33

Craig Willy 06.20.11 at 9:44 am

For how effing long has it been obvious that “Socialism” in the sense of a fundamentally/quantitatively different society cannot be achieved through political revolution?

Since Raymond Aron’s “The Opium of the Intellectuals” (1955)? Since the failure of Leninism (obvious since Stalin)? Since the split in the German Social Democratic Party between Communists and Reformers (1917)? Have not the limits of politics, and in particular any Utopian and Messianic ideal, been obvious since the French Revolution?

This is very tired. I am progressive but the Revolutionaries, in the West, have always been living in a fantasy world and doubles so since the affluent society was created in the 1960s. They can luxuriate in their own irrelevance (to quote Barney Frank) if they like but there’s no reason for reasonable people to discuss them except as a political curiosity.

34

The Tragically Flip 06.20.11 at 11:38 am

I think Americans are wrong to call their war for independence a “revolution.”. It wasn’t. It was a war of secession to throw out a foreign occupier. Americans already thought of themselves as apart from British subjects even as Paul Revere rode around warning that “the British” were coming. Wasn’t Revere British at that point? That they already had a nationalist identity apart from Britain is key.

Question: if the south had been permitted to secede in the 1860s, would we call that the “second American revolution”? I think not.

35

J. Otto Pohl 06.20.11 at 11:46 am

I think you are wrong on your dates. The Bolshevik Revolution was in Oct/Nov 1917 depending on which calender you are using. NEP really lasts up until 1928 with the launching of collectivization and the first five year plan. That is eleven years, not seven. In 1924 there was still a collective leadership in the USSR even if Stalin was actively attempting to move to a one man dictatorship.

I am also curious why you would call NEP the Thermidor of the Bolshevik Revolution. The years 1918-1921 were pretty awful and the Cheka was a major reason for this misery. In contrast NEP was by Russian and Soviet standards a great improvement. For much of the population of the USSR this was either a golden or a silver age. It was the first time that the peasantry, the majority of the population, had some degree of real autonomy. Collectivization particularly after the OGPU began the mass deportation of millions of peasants to special settlement villages in 1930 ended this autonomy.

NEP was also accompained by korenizatsiia which led to a flowering of non-Russian cultures and the general advancement of many non-Russian nations in the USSR. Stalin greatly curtailed the progress of korenizatsiia and completely eliminated any national rights for diaspora nationalities such as Koreans and Germans as well as a number of smaller native nationalities such as Chechens and Crimean Tatars. But, the NEP period was a silver age for the Volga Germans and Crimean Tatars who regained a number of the rights they had possessed in the 18th century.

The problem is that the Bolsheviks led a proletarian revolution and established a dictatorship of the proleteriat in a country where there was not much of a proletariat. Aside from a minority of Russians in urban areas, most of the population consisted of Russian and Ukrainian peasants, various nomadic peoples, and others that did not fit into the model of a Russian working class. In order to create a proletarian state they had to create a proletariat by destroying or subordinating these other classes and ethnic groups. Hence the violence of collectivization and the forced transfer of wealth from the countryside to the cities that resulted in the 1932-1933 famine. Had the goal of the revolution actually been economic and national liberation of the part of the population oppressed under the Tsars, then something very much like NEP and korenizatsiia would have marked a great success. But, Lenin and the Bolsheviks including obviously Stalin were never really interested in something so bourgeois as human freedom. They were dogmatic in their desire to create an industrialized, urbanized, socialist state in record time despite the great human cost this entailed.

36

Phil 06.20.11 at 12:02 pm

Once more with added civility:

1. To believe in revolution does not entail believing in Jacobin or Leninist revolution, still less to maintain that the actual Jacobins and Leninists didn’t get anything wrong. Most believers in revolution will happily agree with critiques of real-world Leninism.

2. To believe in revolution does not entail being opposed to reform. Many believers in revolution will happily agree with critiques of abstentionist maximalism. (Others will maintain that A critique seeking to go beyond the spectacle must know how to wait., and fair play to them. But the fact that abstentionist maximalism is a thing doesn’t license you to conflate it with belief in revolution tout court. )

3. The suggestion that Mr Karl Marx would have been a bit less cocky about his plans for a so-called revolution if he’d known how badly things turned out in France harbours a logical flaw, and should be used with caution.

37

Nick L 06.20.11 at 12:17 pm

I think it is worth making the point that, although most vanguardist movements have ended in tyranny, mass popular mobilisation has been central to most egalitarian achievements in the modern era. This includes the inadvertent mobilisations of the working populace in the West as a result of the two world wars, the national mobilisations which resulted in decolonisation (after which international inequality seems to have stablised after rising for around 140 years), campaigns for electoral reform in C19th Britain, US civil rights etc. etc. Mobilisation seems necessary for building state institutions which are in some way responsive to the needs of the mass of the population.

Even revolutions which seriously failed in most respects, such as that of Maoism in China and Ujamaa Socialism in Tanzania, actually promoted rapid improvements in basic human development indications (this doesn’t justify the massive rights violations or self-induced famines). Sen points out that India has trailed China in terms of these basic indicators because, although Maoist China was brutally oppressive, it was at least a presence in the lives of its people and so could provide basic services (when it wasn’t promoting revolutionary fantasies). On the other side of the spectrum, the conservative regimes in East Asia have been pretty successful at promoting human development and paving the way for welfare capitalism/social democracy – again because these regimes were built by mass-mobilising political parties which actually had a presence in the lives of the population. This is the opposite of the exclusionary oligarchies found e.g. in Latin America until recently.

Technocratic tinkering is not the route to social democracy, the mass of the population need to organise to demand their rights and demand a state that can effectively respond to their needs. This isn’t quite reform and it isn’t quite revolution, but it is pretty much the only thing which has ever worked.

38

Louis Proyect 06.20.11 at 12:30 pm

And even after decades in which the upper 1 per cent has steadily gained ground, they remain far from omnipotent. Despite continuous attack, the basic structures of the welfare state remain intact, and there have even been some important extensions[2].

Apologies for not having read Quiggin’s item more carefully. I was under the impression that he was arguing on behalf of socialism, even if on a Irving Howe basis. Upon further reflection, and especially in light of his spin on Bush and Obama’s health care “reforms”, he much more of a mainstream liberal. I only wish that these Timberites would not write about Karl Marx or David Harvey. It is like giving a loaded .38 to a child. Of course, Jerry Cohen is much more their thing–a water pistol to be sure.

39

dbk 06.20.11 at 1:23 pm

Question: what would be the defined purpose of a (socialist, or any other form of popular) revolution in 2011? To return to the status quo ante, only more so? To continue to adhere to the general precepts of (late stage) capitalism with a more even distribution of capitalism’s benefits? A more even distribution than before when, exactly? Are globalized capital(ism) and the 19th century nation state and its accompanying national sovereignty perhaps incompatible at some basic level? My sketchy understanding of popular uprisings suggests that the participants (at least their instigators) normally had/have some other form of social/political organization in mind. What form might this take, I wonder … supra-nationality in concert with a different production paradigm, e.g. “sustainability”?

40

bert 06.20.11 at 1:26 pm

Louis, you ain’t gonna make it with anyone anyhow.

41

The Tragically Flip 06.20.11 at 1:29 pm

Reply to myself, in order to clarify a thought:

Question: if the south had been permitted to secede in the 1860s, would we call that the “second American revolution”? I think not.

Should read: “If the North had given up and made peace with the South, allowing it to continue as an independent nation-state, wiould we call that…”

42

The Tragically Flip 06.20.11 at 1:40 pm

I think there is something large to be said for the theory which holds that the mere existence of “Communism” as practiced (however imperfectly) by the Soviet/Eastern bloc through to 1991 was a significant incentive to the Masters of the Universe in the West to ameliorate their demands of the bottom 99%.

It became an ideologically unipolar world in a sense, where without another pole pulling away from neoliberalism directly, everything shifted towards that and continues to.

Maybe we don’t need a revolution per se, just a compelling counter-system to neoliberal capitalism to rally around. I don’t think Marxism is that system, and while I still think social democracy (ie highly managed capitalism) works better than the alternatives yet tried, it does suffer from being too close to neoliberalism and too easily confused by the masses (and hell even the people who pay a lot of attention can be fooled*). Elites can run for office on social democratic ideals, and enact neoliberal policy that is dressed up to look social. At least if there was another “ism” that wasn’t anything like capitalism, the people we put in power would find it much more difficult to fool us with their policy choices.

(* – I will submit the ongoing debate about the real effects of the ACA among smart, well intentioned people of the left as a good example of this – it’s not hard to find people who think single payer would have been ideal, but the ACA is still better than the status quo – and others that write the whole thing off as a big giveaway to Big Insurance)

43

Alex 06.20.11 at 2:01 pm

I’d like to thank JOP for his really excellent comment.

44

bert 06.20.11 at 2:04 pm

#42: Bismarck’s reforms followed this logic, to an extent.
At the time, he was also keen to win the allegiance of important groups to a particular level of government (in his case, the nation-state). Over the last decade or two, you’d often hear arguments along those lines from advocates of EU-level social policy. Seems to me that regulators and legislators keen to win legitimacy for themselves (whether sincere or self-interested) can present a promising opening for advocates of specific reforms.
From what I gather, people in Massachusetts quite like Romneycare. Of course, if you ask Romney about Romneycare today, you’ll see a robotically smooth example of Quiggin’s ‘one step back’.

45

ajay 06.20.11 at 2:23 pm

Question: if the south had been permitted to secede in the 1860s, would we call that the “second American revolution”? I think not.

No; but I think you could maybe argue that the aftereffects of defeat for the South over the next century were substantial enough to count as a revolution. Abolition of slavery, civil rights and so on. The question is: is there a time limit on how long a revolution can take? Because we’ve got about a century or more there.

I think Americans are wrong to call their war for independence a “revolution.”. It wasn’t. It was a war of secession to throw out a foreign occupier.

But it was also a fairly radical change in the method of government. If the Indian Rebellion had succeeded in killing every Briton and British loyalist in the country, I think it would have been enough of a change in the system of government to count as a revolution, even though it was also a war of secession.

46

ajay 06.20.11 at 2:31 pm

I think there is something large to be said for the theory which holds that the mere existence of “Communism” as practiced (however imperfectly) by the Soviet/Eastern bloc through to 1991 was a significant incentive to the Masters of the Universe in the West to ameliorate their demands of the bottom 99%.

Old age pensions, national insurance, free school meals, the Factory Acts, unemployment benefits, free medical care, workers’ compensation payments, legal protection for striking unions, minimum wages, free education, etc all predate Soviet Communism by a few years.
There’s definitely a case for the slightly more general form of this argument, i.e. that they were brought in as a conscious attempt to stave off general socialist-inspired unrest, which is I think what bert is getting at in 44. But saying that all the good stuff that happened for ordinary Western people’s legal and economic rights in the 20th century is because of the USSR is a) anachronistic and b) denies agency to the ordinary people themselves.

47

ejh 06.20.11 at 2:38 pm

Minimum wages? Free medical care?

48

J. Otto Pohl 06.20.11 at 2:45 pm

Barrington Moore in his classic 1966 book,_ Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Lord and Peasant in the Modern World _ argues that the American Civil War was a social revolution more important than the War of Independence. According to Moore in order to become a democratic industrialized society you have to eliminate the peasant class and replace them with commercialized agriculture. The US had no peasants, but slaves in the South played a similar social-economic role in retarding the development of a society that was both democratic and industrialized. According to Moore the Civil War allowed free White settlers in the West growing grain and raising livestock to became a more important part of the US economy than bonded labor in the South growing cotton. It was this alliance between western farmers and northern industrialists that allowed industrialization to take a democratic route in the US after the Civil War in Moore’s view.

49

ajay 06.20.11 at 3:01 pm

Minimum wages? Free medical care?

That would be the Coal Mines (Minimum Wage) Act of 1912 and Part 1 of the National Insurance Act of 1911, respectively.

50

Cranky Observer 06.20.11 at 3:02 pm

> Old age pensions, national insurance, free school meals, the Factory
> Acts, unemployment benefits, free medical care, workers’
> compensation payments, legal protection for striking unions,
> minimum wages, free education, etc all predate Soviet
> Communism by a few years.

In the United States perhaps; most of your list were ideas adopted or developed by Bismark’s brain trust. For many reasons, but forestalling the development of communard movements certainly among them.

Cranky

51

ajay 06.20.11 at 3:03 pm

in order to become a democratic industrialized society you have to eliminate the peasant class and replace them with commercialized agriculture. The US had no peasants

I thought there were a fair number of poor landless tenant farmers? Sharecroppers and the like?

52

dsquared 06.20.11 at 3:11 pm

all predate Soviet Communism by a few years … but in many cases only by a few years, and I don’t think it’s repulsively ridiculous history to say that the passage of them was significantly motivated by fear of socialist revolution.

53

ajay 06.20.11 at 3:14 pm

52, 50: There’s definitely a case for the slightly more general form of this argument, i.e. that they were brought in as a conscious attempt to stave off general socialist-inspired unrest, which is I think what bert is getting at in 44.

54

mpowell 06.20.11 at 3:21 pm

@42: Is it your position that the ACA is not an improvement on the status quo? Does this involve some prediction of the path of future legislation and executive action to alter it’s impact?

In general though, I agree with your observation that one of the difficult parts of democratically managed capitalism is that it’s hard to know what is called for so it’s easy to be fooled by self-serving elites. We can’t even get macroeconomic policy agreed upon by liberal elites.

55

J. Otto Pohl 06.20.11 at 3:28 pm

Allright there was no peasant class beholden to a landlord class that still had political power after the US Civil War. Moore’s point is that an alliance of Cotton and Iron in the US similar to the Prussian alliance of Iron and Rye does not develop because the Union victory ensures the agrarian dominance of homestead farmers in the West. This agriculture is definitely commericialized and not grown by a peasant class subordinated to a landlord class.

56

Nick L 06.20.11 at 3:34 pm

I agree with ajay #53. Fear of socialist revolution is now acknowledged even by many mainstream political scientists as a major impetus for historical instances of democratisation and redistribution. The answer to the old question ‘If the condition of the workers was so poor in the C19th and early C20th, why weren’t there more revolutions?’ turns out to have two parts. 1) Collective action is difficult 2) When the w/class started to get organised and overcome collective action problems, elites responded either by pre-empting their demands (co-option), allowing the w/class to be incorporated more fully into the political system (social democratisation), or by responding hysterically with repression (reaction and fascism). The latter didn’t work out too well for the 3rd Reich or Tsarist Russia in the end, of course.

Regarding the Soviet Union’s influence on forcing Western elites to accept more egalitarian policies than would otherwise have been the case, the spectre of communism in the then Third World certainly influenced US policies towards development. For example, the US attempted to encourage land reform and state building in East Asia to remove the grievances that could have generated an opportunity for the growth of communist movements. It also gave large quantities of aid to its regional allies and did not insist that they fully liberalise their markets or trade policies. Scholars of the region, such as Amsden, argue that this would not have occurred outside of the Cold War context.

57

Norwegian Guy 06.20.11 at 3:37 pm

The Bolshevik revolution was in 1917. The eight-hour day was legislated in many countries in 1918 or 1919. There might have been a connection.

And I have sometimes seen the the American Civil War being endorsed as the Second American Revolution by both neo-confederates and people sympathetic to the Union. They obviously disagree on which of the sides were revolutionary, and which were counterrevolutionary.

58

ajay 06.20.11 at 3:45 pm

the spectre of communism in the then Third World certainly influenced US policies towards development. For example, the US attempted to encourage land reform and state building in East Asia to remove the grievances that could have generated an opportunity for the growth of communist movements.

Very true. Blowtorch Bob Komer and his Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support plans, for example. It even had the word “revolutionary” in the name; Komer was very well aware that he was trying to overturn the structure of rural Vietnamese society.

59

daniel waweru 06.20.11 at 3:48 pm

@ajay,

that they were brought in as a conscious attempt to stave off general socialist-inspired unrest, which is I think what bert is getting at in 44.

I think this works particularly well for the civil rights movement. (cf. Mary Dudziak’s Cold War Civil Rights.)

60

CharlieMcMenamin 06.20.11 at 3:52 pm

There’s definitely a case for the slightly more general form of this argument, i.e. that they were brought in as a conscious attempt to stave off general socialist-inspired unrest</i.

Indeed, it is quite hard to understand the Marshall Plan without this perspective, even if there were other motives behind it as well.

61

Substance McGravitas 06.20.11 at 4:04 pm

The USSR established a university in the 60s that picked at the struggles for education that minorities in America had to deal with.

62

R.Mutt 06.20.11 at 4:05 pm

Norwegian guy: The Bolshevik revolution was in 1917. The eight-hour day was legislated in many countries in 1918 or 1919. There might have been a connection.

Being a Dutch guy myself such connections seem very clear to me: democracy first came to the Netherlands in november 1848, following the various attempted revolutions all over Europe earlier that year, which terribly frightened the poor king. Proportional representation was introduced in 1917, women’s suffrage in 1919…

63

Sebastian 06.20.11 at 4:11 pm

The American civil war (North/South) is an interesting problem case for this discussion. It involved the south attempting a revolution against the forces of incremental progressive change which were playing out on the federal level but IN favor of the status quo of the South on the social issues in question. It seems to raise questions for most iterations of the Marxist theory from very odd angles.

64

ajay 06.20.11 at 4:29 pm

The Bolshevik revolution was in 1917. The eight-hour day was legislated in many countries in 1918 or 1919. There might have been a connection

The eight-hour day had been a labour reformer’s demand for a century by then – it became law in the US in 1916, and in NZ considerably earlier. I think it’s dubious to argue that the Masters of the Universe saw the red flag in Moscow and thought “we’ll be next unless we reduce working hours”. This is kind of what I was getting at with the point about denying agency to the people who were campaigning for all these changes in the West, by reducing it to a two-actor play: the MotU and the CPSU, with the actual population of the West as a backdrop.

65

noaman 06.20.11 at 4:40 pm

Nick L @ 37

By no means has inequality on a global level stabilized. Global inequality is greater now than it was, say, sixty years ago.

Couldn’t agree more with Dong Haotian @ 22.

And, hey, if revolutionary marxists are capable of recognizing that ideas can develop over, say 150 years, perhaps social democrats can accord that revolutionary theory has also developed since, say, 1917 or even 1949. Else we should equally hold John Quiggin’s current social democratic/left-liberal ideology responsible for the death of Rosa Luxemburg. Unbeknownst to itself, it is in fact, as Dong Haotian pointed out, responsible for a lot more than that.

66

noaman 06.20.11 at 4:42 pm

I should’ve said unbeknownst to (that is, unacknowledged by) its Eurocentric organic intellectuals.

67

R.Mutt 06.20.11 at 4:45 pm

Ajay, I don’t think you have to deny agency to Western populations to argue that the October revolution influenced outcomes in other countries then Russia. Think Morocco right now. The King has offered constitutional reform in response to a series of demonstrations. But would he have made the same offers without Ben Ali’s arrest warrant and Mubarak’s trial?

68

bob mcmanus 06.20.11 at 4:52 pm

64: That it wasn’t a 2-actor play is exactly the point, nobody was worried about Lenin himself in Chicago. But it also wasn’t the case that the MOTU suddenly became aware of socialism and radical worker movements in 1917, as you say there had been a century in social disorder, possible social disorder, and pressure from the radical left. 1848, 1871, Haymarket etc, Colorado Labor Wars, May Day Riots 1894, Couer d’Alene decades of labor violence…with the International always in the background.

Really, what the post-WWI revolutions only showed was exactly how far it could go if labor and social democratics were not accommodated;the threat of social disorder and violence was always always there, and had been for a century.

69

Rob K 06.20.11 at 4:54 pm

1) So there obviously doesn’t need to be a direct connection with the Bolshevik revolution in order for us to say that various reformist demands were able to be pushed through because of the fears of revolution if they weren’t allowed to.

2) It’s worth pointing out that the language of revolution ‘failing’ can equally be applied to various reforms. Thus, whilst we certain do still have some of the reforms initially passed in the left, we are also living in a period of rollback of a number of the more far-reaching ones. Is it a coincidence that much of the beginning of this rollback coincided with the disillusionment with and eventual defeat of the revolutionary left?

3) It’s difficult to know who is the target of the general claims made about ‘aristocracy’ here. Anyone who had done the slightest bit of inquiry about the Marxist tradition would know that there has always been a strong strain in it that utterly rejected the notion that you could rigidly counterpose reform and revolution. The argument was always that the struggle for reforms would – at the least – be necessary to constitute a movement that could fight for revolution. Indeed, possibly the most famous Marxist take on reform and revolution (Rosa Luxemburg’s) precisely argues that:

At first view the title of this work may be found surprising. Can the Social-Democracy be against reforms? Can we contrapose the social revolution, the transformation of the existing order, our final goal, to social reforms? Certainly not. The daily struggle for reforms, for the amelioration of the condition of the workers within the framework of the existing social order, and for democratic institutions, offers to the Social-Democracy an indissoluble tie. The struggle for reforms is its means; the social revolution, its aim.

Equally, since this seems to be an attack on phantom Leninists, one might point out that Lenin’s fiercest polemics were addressed against those on his left who refused to engage in reformist parliaments etc., Left Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder being an obvious example. (In fact, the irony is that some of the most consistent reformist parties in Europe are either official Communist parties or directly descended therefrom). Another irony is that revolutionaries are being counterposed to those who write boring committee reports, anyone who has had much to do with the revolutionary left know this is impossible.

4) Revolution has almost never in the Marxist tradition been concieved of as just an ‘iruption’ but as (quite a long process of) construction.

70

bob mcmanus 06.20.11 at 5:06 pm

The other thing that is being missed in this discussion that I think is important comes from the right. Yes, for examples Bismarck, Meiji, and the US were pressured from the left, but there was also a program of Fordism from the right, of developing and supporting a placid semi-educated healthy labor force that could be productive in industrial democracies. Pullman’s and Ford’s villages.

And that was the success and failure of social democrats, that they helped create the Fordist social welfare states that provided a modicum of social welfare and security but completely erased any sense of class consciousness, historical memory, and politico-economic agency. Social democrats helped the MOTU win, perhaps once and for all, and now the workers are so domesticated that the rich can now roll back the wlfare state without fear.

71

dictateursanguinaire 06.20.11 at 5:08 pm

@Craig Willy

One thought for you – remember that “revolution” or nonpolitical mass actions actually do exist in the world, and are not just a fantasy of Western intellectuals. Whether they are desirable or good or effective, they do exist and so commenting on them and talking about them does not seem to be irrelevant. Are you saying that you prefer the US populace’s reaction to the recession and political maneuvering by elites to, say, the Greek action (because it is beyond politics and thus “irrelevant”, somehow)? Your comment sounds like you were only considering the “First World” and, even then, only very specific parts of the first world. Hell, Vancouver in friendly-white-Canada tipped over cars in response to a hockey game the other day. You don’t have to like it but please don’t front like violence and mass action are just masturbatory fantasies that David Harvey came up with or something like that.

72

ajay 06.20.11 at 5:15 pm

there obviously doesn’t need to be a direct connection with the Bolshevik revolution in order for us to say that various reformist demands were able to be pushed through because of the fears of revolution if they weren’t allowed to.

Yes, exactly.

Is it a coincidence that much of the beginning of this rollback coincided with the disillusionment with and eventual defeat of the revolutionary left?

Did it though? Depends when you date “the disillusionment with and eventual defeat of the revolutionary left”. Some might say that was the 1950s – XXth Party Congress and Hungary. Some could say it was the 1980s – fall of the Wall – or the 1990s. You could even say it was the 1930s and/or 1940s (abolition of the Comintern, the Great Terror, purges of Trotskyists etc).
If you’re talking about the welfare state rollbacks of the 1980s in the UK and US – and these weren’t really matched elsewhere in the West – then these started at the time when the USSR was at its height and no one was expecting it to crumble at all.

73

Henri Vieuxtemps 06.20.11 at 5:17 pm

Really, what the post-WWI revolutions only showed was exactly how far it could go if labor and social democratics were not accommodated

No, they demonstrated that a different socio-economic system was possible, with collective ownership of the means of production. That makes a big difference; instituting a minimum wage or 40-hour week doesn’t seem like a big deal anymore.

74

dictateursanguinaire 06.20.11 at 5:21 pm

also, I normally don’t much agree with Ajay but I think he’s very much right on this. Most reformers in the US didn’t argue for Soviet-style reforms and the prospect of the Soviets taking over America was, fears of some aside, not likely. It was probably more motivated by the much more real threat of people like Eugene Debs (a socialist getting 6% of the popular vote, even after having been arrested for sedition? methinks that may have scared certain elites in gov’t a lot more than a Lenin pamphlet that maybe .01% of that number read in this country) or the rising unions or any other number of more pressing issues. And even if it’s true that the numerous downsides of life in the USSR weren’t widely publicized until later, most Americans assumed that it sucked, anyways.

75

soullite 06.20.11 at 5:24 pm

Yes, nothing like some upper-class twit on a site like this, stocked full of intellectual children of the elite, to tell people like me, the son of a sailor who makes all of 20k a year, that we’re ‘aristocrats’.

Get a clue and step out of your ivory tower. You don’t know what the real world looks like, and while I care little if a revolution occurs from the left or the right, I know that something has to change and that all possible avenues of change inherent to this system have been clogged to the point of worthlessness.

76

Louis Proyect 06.20.11 at 5:27 pm

J. Otto Pohl: “The problem is that the Bolsheviks led a proletarian revolution and established a dictatorship of the proleteriat in a country where there was not much of a proletariat. “

Actually, the Bolsheviks simply made a revolution along the lines that Marx recommended in his letters to Zasulich, Danielson et al. All this is described in Shanin’s “The Late Marx”. The idea was that peasant communes could have been a springboard to revolution all across Europe. The failure of such revolutions can be traced to the lack of a “subjective factor”, namely a revolutionary party. The Comintern fostered a model that was ironically at odds with the Bolshevik party that Lenin built, a dubious contribution of Zinoviev. In terms of Quiggin’s overall analysis, revolutions are not something that Marxists “organize”. There will be revolutionary uprisings whether or not Marxists exist. Capitalism is responsible for these uprisings, not Marxists. When such uprisings fail, the inevitable result is terrible repression and a journey into darkness. To imagine that capitalism can continue to work for the majority of humanity is an illusion that almost requires no debunking. One imagines that the material conditions of tenured academic life is a breeding ground for them.

77

ajay 06.20.11 at 5:35 pm

By no means has inequality on a global level stabilized. Global inequality is greater now than it was, say, sixty years ago.

Really? It’s been falling since about 1970 – I can’t easily find figures for what it did before then.
http://www.voxeu.org/index.php?q=node/4508

78

bob mcmanus 06.20.11 at 5:35 pm

I want to repeat that a lot of what social democrats take credit for came from the right, that toward the beginning of the 20th, especially in the later developing societies, it was well understood by enlightened industrialists and capitalists that the ten-yr-old you had working on the factory floor was not going to be a productive technician twenty years from now when the machinery had become even more complicated.

There were many implications to universal education. A stable homelife with a wage high enough that mothers could stay home, medical and retirement benefits, most of this is necessary to maximize productivity in ways East Asia is starting to discover.

The social democrats always served capital rather than workers.

79

The Tragically Flip 06.20.11 at 5:36 pm

@mpowell #54:

@42: Is it your position that the ACA is not an improvement on the status quo? Does this involve some prediction of the path of future legislation and executive action to alter it’s impact?

No, I only intended to highlight that you can (easily) find thoughtful people on the left who are convinced the ACA will be an objective failure when all is said and done, for a variety of reasons (both policy and politics), and infer that it was either designed to fail, or was designed to do something other than improve the status quo, such as enrich big pharma, big insurance, etc.

The main point there being, many issues are sufficiently complex that it’s often difficult to discern genuine “best we could do” progress from neoliberal ratfuckery in the moment, and often it only becomes clear which occurred years later. I understand some at the time were bitter about Social Security in 1935 because they wanted the Townsend plan, but still SS has clearly since become a good program that helps a lot of people who need it (it certainly has the right enemies these days).

80

Lemuel Pitkin 06.20.11 at 5:48 pm

I was expecting this to be an awful thread but in fact it’s one of the best I’ve seen on CT in a while. Hidari @30, J. Otto Pohl @35, The Tragically Flip @42, Nick L @56 and Rob K @69 are particularly good.

I’m glad to see general agreement that the accomplishments of social democracy owe a great deal to the existence of a radical alternative. It’s an enduring mystery why liberals are so compelled to denounce and denigrate their own best allies. (And yes, the same thing also happens the other way round — but I think that radicals are generally more willing to acknowledge the strategic value of reformers.)

81

ajay 06.20.11 at 5:53 pm

I’m glad to see general agreement that the accomplishments of social democracy owe a great deal to the existence of a radical alternative.

But I think the distinction that needs to be drawn is that the valuable radical alternative here is socialist revolution in general, not – or at least not in a lot of cases – the actually existing USSR. I’m really not convinced that “they can do it in the USSR, so we can do it here too” was much of a driver behind the achievements of social democracy.

82

Dragon-King Wangchuck 06.20.11 at 6:28 pm

Okay, I’ll be teh troll in teh ointment*. I’m going to have to say that the existence of the USSR and teh Cold War and all that 50s Red Scare stuff did moar to entrench teh ruling class than is made up for by “OMG we gotta give ’em some labour reforms or we’ll be up to our ears in Bolsheviks”.

83

CharlieMcMenamin 06.20.11 at 6:29 pm

I’m really not convinced that “they can do it in the USSR, so we can do it here too” was much of a driver behind the achievements of social democracy

No, not since 1956 at the very latest.

But ,” if we can have two ways of organising an economy and society in the world, then why can’t we have three?” was always pretty widespread I’d say. Not, of course, in the SWP ‘neither Washington nor Moscow’ way – more as a standing reminder that whatever the MoTU told you needed to happen it didn’t mean you had to believe it was the only way.

84

novakant 06.20.11 at 7:00 pm

Most attempts at revolution fail, leaving the participants and the oppressed worse off than before. Even where revolution is successful, attempts by the revolutionary party to hold on to power usually lead to reactionary dictatorship in short order.

There were several successful revolutions in 1989 in Eastern Europe that changed the type of government forever for the better and left people better off (at least according to most people affected).

85

Louis Proyect 06.20.11 at 7:10 pm

Novakant: “There were several successful revolutions in 1989 in Eastern Europe that changed the type of government forever for the better and left people better off (at least according to most people affected).”

I was obviously talking about socialist revolutions. If after 1989 Eastern Europe had to face the kind of invasion, embargo, subversion and meddling that Cuba has faced for the past 50 years, I am not sure if people would have been in such great shape.

86

Martin Bento 06.20.11 at 7:16 pm

He quoted the OP, so what makes you think he was responding to you?

87

bobbyp 06.20.11 at 8:06 pm

Rob K.: “Another irony is that revolutionaries are being counterposed to those who write boring committee reports, anyone who has had much to do with the revolutionary left know this is impossible….”

I daresay JQ has little, if any, working familiarity with turgid marxist exegesis, nor has he ever attended a meeting of say, the Progressive Labor Party….talk about boring.

All in all, a very interesting discussion…….for a bunch of aristocrats.

88

Roger Albin 06.20.11 at 8:10 pm

“the creation of the welfare state, continuing with progress towards equality without regard to race, gender and sexuality, preserving the environment from the disastrous impact of industrialism and so on. Yet most of this progress has been achieved in a thoroughly bourgeois fashion, through long agitation, boring committee reports and so on. “

Sic et non. A lot of this followed WWII, which had the effect of destroying or discrediting the a large chunk of the rightist political spectrum while legitimizing interventionist government policies. There was certainly a lot of long agitation and boring committee reports before WWII, but how much would have been realized without the war?

89

noaman 06.20.11 at 8:12 pm

ajay @ 77

I guess my bourgeois economist of choice uses different databases and methodologies — chiefly, he looks at consumption rather than just income: http://www-wds.worldbank.org/servlet/WDSContentServer/WDSP/IB/2009/09/22/000158349_20090922160230/Rendered/PDF/WPS5061.pdf

This is also a conundrum in the Indian economists’ debate: In many parts of India (I forgot if it is overall, too) even though income is increasing, consumption of food is decreasing. The relevant research and debate is available in EPW, Social Scientist, etc.

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Matt McIrvin 06.20.11 at 8:16 pm

I’m glad to see general agreement that the accomplishments of social democracy owe a great deal to the existence of a radical alternative. It’s an enduring mystery why liberals are so compelled to denounce and denigrate their own best allies.

I think that in the US, it’s two things:

1. Cold War Red-baiting and its persistent aftereffects (as dsquared likes to say).

2. The party structure. For constitutional reasons, our politics are dominated by two great big ideologically loose parties (the Republicans lately have developed real party discipline, but the Democrats never will). Anyway, that affects how people see the range of viewpoints that need to be taken into consideration. Liberals who put great value on responding to alternate perspectives will go out of their way to listen to “the other side”, but left factions that are forced either into powerless subsets of the Democratic Party or into minor third parties don’t even count as a side.

It personally took me a long time to think about this last point in a reasonable way. I’m a liberal, not a leftist really, but I assume I’m not right about everything. However, if I think my opinions are generally close to correct (which I must, or they wouldn’t be my opinions), I’d expect a priori to err toward the right as often as toward the left. So it makes no sense to only listen to people to my own right when I’m being all open-minded. But if you see the available menu of attitudes as Democratic or Republican, and especially if you do the ridiculous media thing of equating reasonableness with centrism, this gets obscured.

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Pär Isaksson 06.20.11 at 8:58 pm

But ,” if we can have two ways of organising an economy and society in the world, then why can’t we have three?” was always pretty widespread I’d say. Not, of course, in the SWP ‘neither Washington nor Moscow’ way – more as a standing reminder that whatever the MoTU told you needed to happen it didn’t mean you had to believe it was the only way.

I can’t seem to find any quotes, but if I remember correctly, the idea that the bipolarity made what was then called the Third Way possible was quite common among Swedish Social Democratic politicians – i.e they didn’t fear a socialist revolution, but thought that the presence of two different economic systems would more freedom to pursue a left wing market economy than would a unipolar world.

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Norwegian Guy 06.20.11 at 9:02 pm

“the MotU and the CPSU, with the actual population of the West as a backdrop.”

Around 1917, a nontrivial share of the population of the West saw itself as part of the same class that they – mistakenly – thought had seized the power in Russia. And in the minds of much of the MotU too, there wasn’t much difference between the Western labour movement and the CPSU. Now, this was partly out of ignorance, but the partition between Communists and Social Democrats wasn’t always waterproof, at least not immediately.

“If you’re talking about the welfare state rollbacks of the 1980s in the UK and US – and these weren’t really matched elsewhere in the West – then these started at the time when the USSR was at its height and no one was expecting it to crumble at all.”

Oh there have been welfare state rollbacks, privatizations, and increasing inequality, in other countries as well, though not to the same extent. But lots of countries had right-wing governments in the 80s; West Germany, Canada, Denmark, Norway, etc. Even in France, Mitterrand took his neoliberal turn from 1983 on.

And the USSR might have been at its height at that time, but by 1980 Soviet Communism had lost its attraction to the western working class. But there would have been an amount of inertia to such processes.

“Most reformers in the US didn’t argue for Soviet-style reforms and the prospect of the Soviets taking over America was, fears of some aside, not likely.”

Perhaps not in America, but in Europe there were parties with mass support that argued for more or less Soviet-style reforms. Sometimes even revolution.

But I really don’t think revolution is the solution. And if there is to be a revolution, the 1918 revolutions in Austria and Germany are better models than Russia, 1917. They were relatively successful in the short run, and if you ignore the unpleasantness in the 1930s and 1940s, they have worked out decently in the long run as well.

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Pär Isaksson 06.20.11 at 9:10 pm

“but thought that the presence of two different economic systems would more freedom to pursue a left wing market economy than would a unipolar world.”
s/b
“but thought that the presence of two different economic systems would leave more freedom to pursue left wing market economic policies than would a unipolar world.”

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Glen Tomkins 06.20.11 at 9:17 pm

It’s not as if it were in our hands

I don’t think that we have historical examples of revolutions carried out by the downtrodden in successful societies. Even if the downtrodden arguably could do a better deal if they got rid of the parasites, they aren’t likely to have enough faith in that proposition of greener grass in some notional better society as long as things are still liveable in this society. The downtrodden are more likely to assume that their own success relative to people in other societies is dependent on allowing the elite parasites to get away with even outrageous abuses, as long as things are going tolerably well for society as a whole under their direction.

The French Revolution was carried out by the elite of the ancien regime, when the grandees who sat on the Parlement de Paris refused to register the laws implementing Necker’s tax reform. To people who felt that complete freedom from taxation was their due, even the very modest level of taxation of the wealth accumulators proposed by Necker was simply intolerable. Politicla revolution, overturning the Bourbon monarchy and forcing the return of the Estates General was preferable. They were supremely confident that they could manage the revolution, that the lesser folk summoned to the Estares would be even more easily controlled than the king. Only people who cannot really imagine that things will not go their way in any turn of events would be willing to risk a complete overthrow in the usual way of doing business.

This is what we’re seeing today. The coddled elites of the most successful society in the history of the planet, unused to having to put up with any obstacles or live within any limitations, simply do not find the amazingly good deal they have arranged for themselves to be good enough. They have to pay some taxes. Intolerable! Lesser folk are accorded a social safety net, and thereby some of their meager accumulable wealth is shared out directly among their pitiful selves, rather than the wealthy having their go at diverting their just share by diddling in the middle somewhere. Intolerable!

If it takes revolution to end this intolerable state of affairs, then revolution they will have. Perhaps the means to that revolution will be the same sort of totally unnecessary, self-inflicted, national bankruptcy that caused the calling of the Estates General, and they will have their creatures in the House persist in their refusal to raise the debt ceiling. Perhaps they will allow that crisis to abate without forcing the issue, and perhaps we shall then see gradual change in the climate of opinion that will pull us back from the brink. But at this point, we are near that brink, and that is entirely the doing of the wealth accumulation elite and their political creatures. All the current impetus to constitutional hardball and brinksmanship, to outright revolution, comes from their side.

If we are to have revolution, it must come from their side, from the privileged. Amazingly enough, they seem intent on doing just that, fomenting revolution.

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Walt 06.20.11 at 9:33 pm

Glen, well-said. I’ve been reading this thread for a while, trying to articulate my view, and it’s basically what you just said.

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shah8 06.20.11 at 9:56 pm

/me is with Glen Tomkins.

I don’t think these fools who think they’re so hot to prevent 1993 really understand that they don’t have choices about certain facts of life. When the coup happens, it’s almost certainly to be Peronist to some extent, eventually.

Obama ignored Congress on Libya because he isn’t about to get any sort of rational response. This is true across the policy spectrum where executive administrations have to do things Congress should be doing, and they are just not equipped to do that. The economy, for example, needs fiscal stimulus, new investment regimes, and crackdowns on discrimination (equal pay, good home/car loan terms, etc, etc, you wouldn’t *believe* how much economic activity is forgone because of assholes). The Fed isn’t capable of doing what is needed. They only do monetary stuff. Congress impairs the IRS and the new Consumer Credit Beauro, the EPA, all of which would have forced more money in the economy for various reasons.

Revolutions happen because they must happen, not because anyone really wants them. Congress and the Supreme Court cannot be this irrational and dysfunctional without dire consequences.

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bob mcmanus 06.20.11 at 10:08 pm

94,95: I could have had the first comment on this thread, and it was going to be in its entirety:

“Revolution doesn’t care what you want, John”

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PHB 06.20.11 at 10:47 pm

I don’t see how the Marxism is relevant to anything. People used to believe some really weird stuff in days gone by. Remember the Aztecs? Why would Marx be any better guide to the economic or political organization of modern society?

Marx died before the internal combustion engine, air travel, speed, mechanized warfare and radio. Why expect it to be relevant today?

Arguably, Marx himself and his body of work is the main reason that industrialized societies did not see revolutions in the Victorian age. contrary to his express predictions, Victorian society did adapt to share the wealth of industrialization. And one of the reasons that happened was that enough eminent Victorians were scared stiff of a French style uprising to make concessions to the rising working class.

Back in the 1970s, liberal democracies were quite rare, outside the former British Empire, remarkably so. More than two thirds of Europe was under some form of dictatorship along with practically all of Africa, South America and Asia.

Today it is tyrannies that are the exception. Liberal democracies are still a minority but most of the rest are some form of authoritarian kleptocracy. The North Koreas, Saudi Arabias, Irans etc are now exceptional rather than the norm. If we exclude the countries currently in some form of revolution (Lybia, Syria), the opportunities for further overthrow of tyrannies are diminished by limited supply.

Even in a country like Zimbabwe, it is probably a better strategy for the opposition to wait for Mugabwe to die (from natural causes or otherwise) or to engineer a military putsch rather than take up arms.

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StevenAttewell 06.20.11 at 11:40 pm

The Fear of Revolution thesis seems a bit unfalsifiable for me – how exactly do we measure when it’s in effect and when not, and how does one avoid erasing the agency of social democrats? I don’t think that latter has actually be answered; people have said, well of course they have agency, but not offered a guideline for separating the two effects.

I’m personally suspicious because the reform to repression ratio isn’t that great if you take Bismarck out as an outlier. What concessions to working class demands were made in the U.S post 1919? Or between 1929-1933 on the Federal level? Or between 1876-1900?

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Paul in NC 06.21.11 at 12:43 am

No revolution? Oh well, I was so looking forward to it.

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PHB 06.21.11 at 1:29 am

@Stephen 99

Well since I don’t claim to have a scientific theory of history, the question of falsifiability is irrelevant to my argument. I don’t think you can make a falsifiable thesis about any historical cause/effect argument. Not unless you can run history multiple times.

And that was of course Popper’s point and also by design. His theory of science is not really designed to provide a theory of what science is, on the contrary it is a theory of what science is not and for Popper that meant Marxism, Freudian psychology and the rantings of the Fascists. As later critics pointed out, actual scientific practice does not meet his criteria either.

That did not really matter to scientists because the question of whether physics or chemistry is science does not need to be asked. Popper’s criteria were a useful rhetorical argument against the pseudo-sciences he intended to isolate. But ultimately the question of what is science comes down to whether you are willing to accept a better theory if one is available. In the case of Marxists, Catholic theologians and Freudians the answer was that the eventuality could not possibly occur because they already had the best possible answer. Hence its not science.

The relevance to this argument being that one of Marx’s claims was that there could be a ‘scientific’ approach to history and that is one of the claims that Popper was intending to foreclose.

As to whether fear of revolution had an effect, like most interesting historical questions it is undecidable. There is not enough data to be sure. But there are really two parts to that question in any case. The first being whether fear of revolution motivated some of the social changes, the second being whether that fear was due to Marx.

The first is rather easy to dispose of: the upper social orders of Great Britain were petrified of revolution both at home and abroad and the risk of a new wave of terrors and ‘Bonapartism’. The debates on the corn laws and the great reform bill are full of references to revolution as the alternative to reform.

The second is trickier, not least because the fear of revolution predates Marx. But flawed though Marx and Freud were, there was not exactly a wealth of alternative theories. If you were a middle class entrepreneur trying to understand the economic system in which you lived there were few alternatives that even tried to save the appearances.

I find it rather hard to believe that Marx had no effect on the then emerging capitalist system when he gave it the name.

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Lee A. Arnold 06.21.11 at 3:51 am

The revolution will begin as the diminution of market theory and the relegation of markets to a smaller part of control/switching theory and policy, as I remember Dsquared once characterized them. This is basically because the world is too complicated to be adjudicated by prices, because the welfare state is not about to be ended, and because nonmarketable institutions can provide value and utility by reducing risk, uncertainty, and negative externalities. It has already begun, and there will be no reprieve from this historical eclipse of market fundamentalism for anything other than capital and consumer goods. One reason is because the ruling class really isn’t that smart.

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Lee A. Arnold 06.21.11 at 3:56 am

Start by drawing a correct picture. Here is capitalism:
http://www.youtube.com/user/leearnold#p/c/CAE3CA6D964BFC8E/18/-MH7cKZ_kWc

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StevenAttewell 06.21.11 at 4:00 am

Ok…so if falsifiability doesn’t matter, couldn’t I equally argue that the social welfare state was caused by mind control rays from outer space? At some point we have to figure out some way to assess these claims and that involves some way of assessing whether a factor wasn’t operating.

“The first is rather easy to dispose of: the upper social orders of Great Britain were petrified of revolution both at home and abroad and the risk of a new wave of terrors and ‘Bonapartism’. The debates on the corn laws and the great reform bill are full of references to revolution as the alternative to reform.”

This I don’t find satisfying either. In the 18th and 19th centuries, fear of revolution led to the Gagging Acts, the Combination Acts, the suspension of habeus corpus, Peterloo, the Tolpuddle Martyrs, etc. Without the presence of reformist political organization and agitation, I don’t think autocratic fears of the lower orders –> reform.

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Marshall 06.21.11 at 5:47 am

George Orwell sez, in 1984:

…The aim of the High is to remain where they are. The aim of the Middle is to change places with the High. The aim of the Low, when they have an aim – for it is an abiding characteristic of the Low that they are too much crushed by drudgery to be more than intermittently conscious of anything outside their daily lives – is to abolish all distinctions and create a society in which all men shall be equal … Of the three groups, only the Low are never even temporarily successful in achieving their aims … no advance in wealth, no softening of manners, no reform or revolution has ever brought human equality a millimeter nearer. From the point of view of the Low, no historic change has ever meant much more than a change in the name of their masters.

The passage is associated with the theme, “Ignorance is Strength”, one of the Three Conundrums of 1984. The Low are low precisely because they are unable to focus on factors of management, unable to affect change. Not just unable to affect, but even unable to desire significant change; the only Low person visible seems perfectly satisfied with her unending little round hanging out diapers.

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Lemuel Pitkin 06.21.11 at 5:50 am

Without the presence of reformist political organization and agitation, I don’t think autocratic fears of the lower orders—> reform

Well of course. I don’t think anyone has suggested otherwise.

107

LFC 06.21.11 at 5:52 am

@48
According to Moore in order to become a democratic industrialized society you have to eliminate the peasant class and replace them with commercialized agriculture.

This is probably too schematic a summary. Moore does write that the destruction (his word) of the English peasantry via enclosures “helped ultimately to establish democracy on a firmer footing” (though this “must not blind us to the fact that it was massive violence exercised by the upper classes against the lower” – p.29). As you note, he also says, w/r/t the U.S., that “the link between Northern industry and the free farmers [in the West] ruled out for the time being the classic reactionary solution to the problems of growing industrialism” (p.131). I think Moore does not say, however, that in all cases and under all conditions the peasantry has to be eliminated in order to get a democratic (i.e., in this context, non-fascist/non-Communist) outcome; the peasantry was not violently eliminated in France nor, more obviously, in India, both of which Moore addresses (chaps. 2 and 6) and both of which eventually ended up as capitalist democracies, albeit of different kinds. (I think it’s fair to say that India is more capitalist now than when Moore wrote.)

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LFC 06.21.11 at 6:17 am

Re the OP:
A true political or, even more, social revolution in a highly ‘developed’ country today would be both more difficult and less likely than, say, the French Revolution b/c, among other things, modern state apparatuses are much more deeply entrenched in and connected to their societies than were the monarchies of ancien regime France or tsarist Russia. (I think I’m just parroting Skocpol at the end of States and Social Revolutions but not going to bother looking it up now.)

109

Henri Vieuxtemps 06.21.11 at 7:10 am

modern state apparatuses are much more deeply entrenched in and connected to their societies than were the monarchies

What about all those eastern European countries a while ago? Hard for an apparatus to be entrenched deeper than in East Germany. No, I think it’s just a matter of critical mass of anger and disillusionment, in combination with decay and impotence of the elite.

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Phil 06.21.11 at 8:14 am

The revisions are welcome. But I’m struck by the fact that nobody’s challenged this:

Most attempts at revolution fail, leaving the participants and the oppressed worse off than before.

Really? There’s plenty to be said against Stalin’s rule (and Lenin’s), but the idea that it was actually worse than Tsarism is a new one on me. It was certainly worse for the Crimean Tartars, for several years it was worse for Ukraine, and you could argue that it was worse for political dissidents, if only because the Cheka had a better bureaucracy than the Okhrana. Beyond that, it seems to me that most people exchanged greater interference in everyday life for a much higher standard of living, materially and otherwise (my wife’s grandmother was the first woman in her family ever to be taught to read). Civil liberties, legal protections and rights to political participation were more or less non-existent, so no change there.

111

Hidari 06.21.11 at 8:28 am

‘Marx died before the internal combustion engine, air travel, speed, mechanized warfare and radio. Why expect it to be relevant today?’

Marx died after the invention of all those things (even ‘speed’), with the exception of radio and Engels arguably lived to see the invention of radio.

However there is one point here that is important.

‘Back in the 1970s, liberal democracies were quite rare, outside the former British Empire, remarkably so. More than two thirds of Europe was under some form of dictatorship along with practically all of Africa, South America and Asia.

Today it is tyrannies that are the exception.’

This is an incredibly important point. As Terrell Carver, author of the unfortunately titled ‘The Postmodern Marx’ (one of the best books on Marx which I’ve used in previous CT discussions) points out, sometimes you have to pinch yourself and remind yourself of the things that are staring you in the face.

When Marx formulated his theory of revolution, he was faced with a grand total of ‘no’ liberal democracies as we understand the term. In other words, he took it for granted that violent force would be necessary because he was right to do so…..the key revolutions in Marx’s mature thinking were not the French Revolution but the failed revolutions of 1848. As we see nowadays in Libya and Syria, when one starts a revolution, no matter how peacefully, a totalitarian/authoritarian state will inevitably resort to violence. So you have to be prepared for that.

That’s not to say that democracies don’t use violence against their own people as well: obviously they do. But they tend to be a bit more circumspect about it. That’s why Marx raised the idea of a peaceful revolution in Britain and America (and Holland), i.e. stable, emerging democracies. Had Marx lived, he might have gone far further down the ‘reformist’ road (as far as means, not of ends) than many of his alleged followers would probably feel comfortable with (that’s in bourgeoise democracies: he would undoubtedly have seen the necessity of violence in, for example some of the situations in the Middle East).

112

Hidari 06.21.11 at 8:38 am

‘Most attempts at revolution fail, leaving the participants and the oppressed worse off than before.’

Sorry I just noticed this because it was highlighted. If one appends the word ‘socialist’ in front of the word ‘revolution’ it is arguably true (although even then only arguably as some commentators have pointed out). But written like that it’s self-evidently and obviously false. There are many harsh things one could say about the various regimes in power now in Eastern Europe. But one would have to have a remarkably small amount of knowledge of what life was like Eastern Europe in the 1980s and 1970s to actually argue that people there were better off before the revolutions.

Even with the appended paragraph it’s still not true.

‘The successful revolutions have mostly been those where the ancien regime collapsed under its own weight.’

Is this really what happened in, say, East Germany? Poland? Romania?

113

Z 06.21.11 at 9:00 am

I think that part of the revolution/reform alternative is partly incorrect because of the historically crucial third leg of the stool: catastrophe. Estates general were convened because of a debt crisis, the horrific Napoleonic war were a major impetus for revolutionary change in many places in Europe (and elsewhere), the first world war destructed the rentier economy of western Europe and fundamentally changed the balance of power between capital and labour, ditto for the second world war.

The historical lesson seems to be: the ruling elite can slowly and gradually increase its power, to the point that it reaches supremacy; and then a catastrophic change (whose origin might be completely contingent) turns the tables. I am not claiming that this is inevitable, in some deterministic sense, but rather that this what happened until now.

Let me second R.Mutt by saying that for French citizens, the historic link between the realistic prospect of a socialist/communist revolution and the advances of the welfare state (generally under right-wing or at best centrist tutelage) is extremely clear (we certainly expect high-school students to know it, for instance). Thanks for this post and the ensuing thread, John.

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Z 06.21.11 at 9:13 am

Most attempts at revolution fail, leaving the participants and the oppressed worse off than before.

Yep, that seems very wrong, except if you take into account that revolutions are usually extremely bloddy business. Then you enter a calculation of suffering that is not easy (assuming it has a meaning in the first place). So, for instance, the French revolution left at least 90% in a far better state than under the monarchy (in pretty much any conceivable term) but is also massacred 100 000 vendéens (at least). Likewise, I think that it is relatively uncontroversial that a majority of the Soviet population had a far better life in 1929 than in 1909, but millions had died too.

All in all, depending on your calculation (or even on whether you think such calculations are morally legitimate, Omelas and all that), you might get very different valid evaluations. That said, this raises the question has whether one should write such a sentence without even a comment in the first place. Would you like to clarify what you meant, John?

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ajay 06.21.11 at 10:00 am

I think that it is relatively uncontroversial that a majority of the Soviet population had a far better life in 1929 than in 1909, but millions had died too.

And it’s made even more difficult by the fact that a majority of (frex) the British population had a far better life in 1929 than in 1909, without having had a revolution.

What catastrophe, incidentally, preceded the 1989 revolutions in eastern Europe?

116

ejh 06.21.11 at 10:14 am

There’s plenty to be said against Stalin’s rule (and Lenin’s), but the idea that it was actually worse than Tsarism is a new one on me.

I’m not sure that Tsarism, brutal though it was, has anything to set alongside the purges. Nothing on anything like that scale. Does it?

117

reason 06.21.11 at 10:16 am

“Most attempts at revolution fail…”

I can’t see how this can invalidated by referring to revolutions that succeeded.

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ejh 06.21.11 at 10:16 am

And it’s made even more difficult by the fact that a majority of (frex) the British population had a far better life in 1929 than in 1909, without having had a revolution.

a. Far better?
b. These were years in which revolution was considered a distinct possibility, weren’t they?

119

JAH 06.21.11 at 10:34 am

“There were two ‘Reigns of Terror’, if we could but remember and consider it; the one wrought murder in hot passions, the other in heartless cold blood; the one lasted mere months, the other had lasted a thousand years; the one inflicted death upon a thousand persons, the other upon a hundred million; but our shudders are all for the “horrors of the… momentary Terror, so to speak; whereas, what is the horror of swift death by the axe compared with lifelong death from hunger, cold, insult, cruelty and heartbreak?

A city cemetery could contain the coffins filled by that brief terror that we have all been so diligently taught to shiver at and mourn over; but all France could hardly contain the coffins filled by that older and real Terror – that unspeakable bitter and awful Terror which none of us has been taught to see in its vastness or pity as it deserves.”

Mark Twain, “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court”

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ajay 06.21.11 at 11:10 am

116: yes, I think “far better” is about right. Look at the life expectancy and infant mortality numbers. And then you’ve got all the Lloyd George et seq. social-welfare stuff that was only just coming in in 1909 but was established and universal in 1929.

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Z 06.21.11 at 12:03 pm

And it’s made even more difficult by the fact that a majority of (frex) the British population had a far better life in 1929 than in 1909, without having had a revolution.

Ajay, what I was trying to say is that enormous social change can happen in the wake of catastrophic change which are not of revolutionary nature (so that incidentally, I am under the impression that I am closer to your position than to the “Revolutions are the source of many good things” one). I don’t know about Britain, but in France, the first world war completely transformed the nature of the economic system, making it order of magnitudes more distributive.

What catastrophe, incidentally, preceded the 1989 revolutions in eastern Europe?

Being very ignorant of the history of eastern Europe, I went straight to Wikipedia’s article Polish People’s Republic Late years. The entire article is about the catastrophic state of the Republic, and if it is to be believed, there was a huge debt crisis, falling standards of living, catastrophic fall in investment, growing unemployment etc. All in all, a good example probably.

That said, the cas of eastern Europe is slightly idiosyncratic, as the regimes in place were propped up by a foreign power, so that one should also look at catastrophic situations in the USSR at the time to understand what happened in, say, East Germany, and I dare say you will find no shortage there (the period of stagnation, the Afghan war…).

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anon 06.21.11 at 12:11 pm

ejh seems to have missed the joke, “aside from that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?”

Between the horrible destruction of the 1914-1918 war and the economic mobilization that was created by it, who was better off when and where is complicated. And how many of those who were better off in 1929 were so a few years later. If capitalism didn’t order up those meddlesome wars in the 20th century, it certainly enjoyed the collateral benefits.

123

ejh 06.21.11 at 12:16 pm

Wot?

124

Phil 06.21.11 at 12:24 pm

I’m not sure that Tsarism, brutal though it was, has anything to set alongside the purges.

True enough – or the Ukrainian famine, which I mentioned. But there were an awful lot of people in the USSR, and you don’t have to be a CP hack to think that the welfare of the majority should be aggregated as well as the sufferings of the many poor buggers who suffered.

125

Louis Proyect 06.21.11 at 1:09 pm

Adam Ulam makes the point that the forced collectivization of Soviet agriculture was a kind of “primitive accumulation” that capitalist nations in Europe went through in an earlier period. The Irish famine, slavery, genocide of the American Indian, child labor, etc. make Stalin look like a piker by comparison. Of course, Stalin’s methods have little to do with socialism but it strikes me as the rankest hypocrisy to go on and on about the horrors of forced collectivization, etc.

126

Cian 06.21.11 at 1:21 pm

Is this really what happened in, say, East Germany? Poland? Romania?

Save Romania, no. Foreign occupier left – puppet regiemes collapsed.

127

belle le triste 06.21.11 at 1:27 pm

If the Bolshevik Revolution wasn’t able to design a route past the extreme violence of the primitive accumulation stage, then the evils of primitive accumulation elsewhere can’t really be used as a justification of the Bolshevik Revolution…

128

Hidari 06.21.11 at 1:33 pm

‘Foreign occupier left – puppet regiemes collapsed. ‘

I think you’ll find that the timescale is very much back to front in that précis of events. Add Albania to the list to make my point clearer.

129

Guido Nius 06.21.11 at 2:09 pm

but it strikes me as the rankest hypocrisy to go on and on about the horrors of forced collectivization

Put me down for hypocrisy.

Of course, Stalin’s methods have little to do with socialism

Put that down as an emblematical example of the correct self-critical and objective way to read history.

130

William Timberman 06.21.11 at 2:28 pm

belle le triste @ 124

Too true. Which is where, it seems to me, that we get the idea that the successive historical phases of economic development require the eradication of previous cultures, and, if necessary, the adherents of those cultures who can’t be enticed — or forced — to abandon them. Stalin was in a helluva hurry compared to the English lords, so we were able to watch a classic example of the general principle go to completion in real time. (I’ll show you a Wirtschaftswunder, folks!)

Nor is U.S. history exempt from the general trend. We can find no end of comments like this in our older books: Those damned redskins would rather sit in a circle and starve than learn to use a plow.

And now that we’ve all learned to use plows, and been rewarded for it by being allowed to possess flat-screen television sets, and vacation in Ibiza and Amalfi and Phuket, our betters are simply beside themselves trying to figure out why we some of us are still trying to talk back to them.

We must be cultural elitists.

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novakant 06.21.11 at 2:30 pm

I think you’ll find that the timescale is very much back to front in that précis of events.

Well, yes and no – it was complex, e.g. GDR: during the 40th anniversary celebrations Gorbachev famously warned Honecker that he needed to reform or be punished by history and the demonstrators were asking Gorbachev to come to their aid. Had the USSR not lost, or rather given up, its grip on its satellites and cut off economical support, then things might well have gotten very bloody and the regime might have held out a while longer. On the other hand, Russian troop withdrawal was only agrred upon with the Reunification Treaty of 1990 and completed in 1994.

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shah8 06.21.11 at 2:38 pm

The Tsarist regime certainly killed many people. Plenty of pogroms against minorities, especially jewish people. The regime also exposed the people to the unmitigated forces of capitalism, in the sense of international grain markets. While deaths from famine aren’t more than what happened later, the shock of them was a key driver to revolution. Russia was functionally a colony of the West, in terms of rim/hub dynamics.

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J. Otto Pohl 06.21.11 at 3:11 pm

While the standard of living in the USSR increased dramatically for most people I fail to see how this morally justifies the crimes of Stalin. First the exceptions to increased prosperity are in the tens of millions and these people were pauperized, often to the point of death. These include the deported peoples totally stripped of all their property, those starved to death in Ukraine, the colonized Baltic states, and other people unfortunate enough to serve as the source of “primitive accumulated capital” mentioned by Louis Proyect.

But, I do not think the relevant point of comparison should be Tsarism. Phil mentioned the Crimean Tatars. For decades Crimean Tatar activists painted the contrast of their miserable exile in Uzbekistan under Stalin not to Tsarist rule, but to the 1920s. I would argue that the USSR of collectivization (1928-1931), famine (1932-1933), terror (1937-1938), GULag (1930-1953), and wholesale racist ethnic cleansing against people like the Crimean Tatars was a lot worse place overall than the USSR of NEP and korenizatsiia. The fact that most Soviet citizens, particularly Russians, had a massive increase in personal material wealth does not change my opinion.

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Sebastian 06.21.11 at 3:21 pm

“Really? There’s plenty to be said against Stalin’s rule (and Lenin’s), but the idea that it was actually worse than Tsarism is a new one on me. It was certainly worse for the Crimean Tartars, for several years it was worse for Ukraine, and you could argue that it was worse for political dissidents, if only because the Cheka had a better bureaucracy than the Okhrana. Beyond that, it seems to me that most people exchanged greater interference in everyday life for a much higher standard of living, materially and otherwise (my wife’s grandmother was the first woman in her family ever to be taught to read). “

Zoink!?!? The idea that the Soviet path to Russian modernization was the necessary one is just Soviet propaganda. The idea that anyone really bought it anymore is a new one to me. Russian modernization in agriculture, politics, mechanization, and education was well under way before the revolution. Your wife’s grandmother would very likely have been the first woman in her family ever to be taught to read under a tsarist continuation. All sorts of countries went through modernization at about the same time as Russia plus or minus 50 years. While all of the modernizations were painful, almost none of them were as bloody as in Russia and China–the big socialist revolutions. The idea hundreds of millions of people very literally had to be sacrificed in order to get to ‘modern’ is ridiculous. The proper measure is not “were some *surviving* people better off two generations later”. The proper measure is “could they have gotten there without going through two of the most bloody revolutions in the entire history of the world”. The answer to THAT question is clearly, yes.

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William 06.21.11 at 3:33 pm

So, Otto, I’ve been curious: Is it more than a glib comparison to suggest that Bukharin prefigured Deng? Would a Soviet Union under Bukharinite policies have fared better?

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belle le triste 06.21.11 at 3:39 pm

Major cause of Bolshevik revolution: the Great War
Political grouping in no way responsible for the Great War: Bolsheviks
Deathcount of the Great War: dwarfs deathcount of the Soviet Terror (insofar as the latter is considered independent of the former)

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novakant 06.21.11 at 3:52 pm

Re Russia: Greta Garbo sums it up quite nicely in Ninotchka.

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Phil 06.21.11 at 4:08 pm

I fail to see how this morally justifies the crimes of Stalin

The idea that the Soviet path to Russian modernization was the necessary one is just Soviet propaganda.

Steady, lads. I didn’t make either of the assertions you challenge. I objected to the assertion that the Russian Revolution left the people of the former Russian empire worse off than before, unquote. If you think that was the case, have at it.

Just in passing –

Your wife’s grandmother would very likely have been the first woman in her family ever to be taught to read under a tsarist continuation. All sorts of countries went through modernization at about the same time as Russia plus or minus 50 years.

So it might not have been my grandmother-in-law in the 1930s, it might have been my wife’s second cousins in the 1980s. That’s a seriously long view you’re taking there. The fact that the Bolsheviks had a literacy programme which they got cracking on pretty much as soon as their power wasn’t being challenged any more, whereas the Romanovs ruled over an illiterate populace for 300 years, seems like a significant difference to me.

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StevenAttewell 06.21.11 at 4:24 pm

Lemuel Pitkin at 104 – no one in this thread has suggested a way to measure the relative presence or absence of “aristocratic fears” as a mechanism either, which is what’s frustrating me. There have been a lot of assertions made – Civil Rights, the “Great Compression,” European social democracy writ large, decolonization/development, the eight hour day, and reformism in general.

In my eyes, some of these claims have merit – U.S support for decolonization (at least post-45) and development. Others, less so. I’m looking for some way to weigh the merits of these claims because as it stands it looks to me like you can claim Aristocratic Fears at all times and in all places.

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Sebastian 06.21.11 at 4:37 pm

“So it might not have been my grandmother-in-law in the 1930s, it might have been my wife’s second cousins in the 1980s. “

That isn’t what I was suggesting. I was stating that A) Russia was already going through modernization, which it was;

B) lots of other countries went through modernization in the hundred years bracketing the Russian and Chinese revolutions, and almost all of them managed to do so with significantly less violence.

so

C) the idea that the violent revolutions had anything significant to do with the modernizations, much less that they were even remotely necessary for the modernizations seems tenuous at very best.

Now I focus on the modernizations, because you mention the literacy and such and because it seems to me the only possible dimension by which you can state things like “There’s plenty to be said against Stalin’s rule (and Lenin’s), but the idea that it was actually worse than Tsarism is a new one on me. ” Maybe you have some other dimension of rule that you are thinking of where Stalin or Lenin weren’t worse, but if you take away the modernization (which could have been done without the enormous bloodshed) I don’t see where you think they did better. It must be some really limited area.

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Sebastian 06.21.11 at 4:38 pm

And also, isn’t the enormous bloodshed a pretty big factor in the better rule/worse rule analysis?

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Henri Vieuxtemps 06.21.11 at 4:46 pm

The fact that the Bolsheviks had a literacy programme which they got cracking on pretty much as soon as their power wasn’t being challenged any more, whereas the Romanovs ruled over an illiterate populace for 300 years, seems like a significant difference to me.

Their electrification programme was pretty impressive too.

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Roger Albin 06.21.11 at 4:50 pm

J. Otto Pohl at 130. The biggest ethnic cleansing of Crimean Tatars did not occur under Stalin but under the Tsars following the Crimean War. Prior to the Crimean War, the Crimean peninsula was primarily populated by the Tatars. By the end of the 19th century, the Crimea was predominantly Russian. There is a solid brief discussion of this and related phenomena in Figes’ recent book on the Crimean War. None of this exculpates Stalin or the CPSU in general for their considerable crimes.

Sebastian at 131. The Stalinist path to industrialization was certainly not the only way forward but it was in many respects a very successful one. Your plus/minus 50 years is a big difference. For a really interesting discussion of this topic, read Robert Allan’s Farm to Factory.

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Sebastian 06.21.11 at 5:02 pm

Again my plus or minus 50 years isn’t about the timing of Russian modernization. Russian modernization was already starting, that is one of the reasons the Bolsheviks were able to come to power at all. My plus or minus 50 years is comparing other countries which successfully modernized in the hundred years bracketing the two large communist revolutions. Nearly all modernized very successfully with orders of magnitude less bloodshed. You’re positing a Russia that wasn’t modernizing. That is ahistorical. Russia may not have modernized in EXACTLY the same tempo on a year by year basis, but the idea that two or three more full generations would have passed is fairly ridiculous. Ten years more? Maybe. Twenty? I doubt it. Sixty, which is what you seem to be talking about? Almost certainly not.

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Jim D 06.21.11 at 5:13 pm

I agree with what Phil has to say about revolution. I’d also like to add one other observation. From 1917 till 1991/2 ‘liberal’ & ‘conservative’ economic thought has been locked in a kind of deep freeze. Both sides have been arguing about economic systems that are based on worlds that no longer exists. ‘Liberals’ are stuck in the mid 19th century and ‘conservatives’ in the mid 18th century. The worlds & world views that spawned the Capitalist & Socialist economic theories don’t exist is the early 21st century so the theories become less and less viable.

All I ask here is that you think about what I’ve said.

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ajay 06.21.11 at 5:15 pm

I objected to the assertion that the Russian Revolution left the people of the former Russian empire worse off than before, unquote. If you think that was the case, have at it.

Russia was in a pretty grim state immediately after 1917 – the Civil War. No Revolution – no Civil War, no millions of dead soldiers and starved civilians and typhus cases.

Of course, eventually it got richer and people got better off; but that tends to happen anyway. We’re really into counterfactual territory, but it’s worth noticing that pre-war tsarist Russia was industrialising and urbanising very fast and that tends to lead to rapid economic growth. People who say “well maybe my cousins would have been illiterate Russian peasants in 1980 under the Tsars” may overlook this.

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belle le triste 06.21.11 at 5:19 pm

Sebastian, what you’re doing is playing with end-points, chronological and geographical, in order to define the violence and brutality of other paths of modernisation to be outside, and thus not comparable. You can’t pretend the First World War out of existence, as some kind of ignorable externality in the modern history of Europe; nor can you just magic away the degree to which the pain of very significant pain and terror of industrialisation in the metropole was ameliorated by exporting famine and such to the colonies. The Bolshevik experiment was an attempt to end-run a long and extremely horrible historical process; and it failed.

The question where Russia would have been if the First World War had happened exactly as it happened, except the October Revolution somehow not, is probably unanswerable — historical counterfactuals are all stupid, as E. P. Thompson said (er, I think). Certainly this very blithe “oh it would have been lovely just like everywhere else if you squint through your fingers and ignore all THAT AWFUL STUFF OVER THERE” is not terribly convincing.

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belle le triste 06.21.11 at 5:25 pm

“No Revolution – no Civil War”: ajay, this won’t really fly. The Bolsheviks were able to seize power because (a) the Tsarist state had collapsed, and (b) Kerensky’s Feb Revolution was paralysed in the face of the threat of a Tsarist restoration–and also because it didn’t dare withdraw from the war, which was a primary cause of the mutiny that became October. Civil war had already broken out, in fact if not in name.

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Phil 06.21.11 at 5:40 pm

People who say “well maybe my cousins would have been illiterate Russian peasants in 1980 under the Tsars” may overlook this.

For clarity, I wasn’t seriously asserting that view – just pointing out that there’s a big difference between “it would have happened anyway” and “it would have happened anyway, give or take 50 years”.

As for the Civil War, it seems to me that there’s something not quite right about blaming the Bolsheviks for the effects of the international effort to suppress the Bolsheviks.

But I’ve checked the OP and I was tilting at the wrong target all along – JQ counted the Russian Revolution among those that didn’t fail. So, er, never mind. I’d still be interested to know how he, or anyone else, would stand it up:

“Most attempts at revolution fail, leaving the participants and the oppressed worse off than before.”

Did 1905 leave everyone involved worse off than if it had never happened? 1919… OK, maybe, but then we really are getting into questions of agency (they should have known not to provoke the Freikorps/not to rely on the Social Democrats…). Which attempts at revolution fail, leaving the participants and the oppressed worse off than before?

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julian f 06.21.11 at 5:48 pm

Isn’t anyone going to challenge the assertion that the number killed in the Great War “dwarfs” the number killed by Stalin?

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belle le triste 06.21.11 at 6:03 pm

I believe the low end of the WW1 count — ie if you exclude deaths that were clearly consequential but fall outside the narrow remit of “war death” — is c.15 million; which obviously doesn’t “dwarf” the high-end Stalin count (20-30 million, once you include death-by-famine). But the high end of the WW1 count is 65 million and rising, especially once you include the post-war flu outbreak of 1919.

(I’m no expert in either of these areas, so anyone who wants to school me and CT is welcome: my objection is to the pretence that WW1 was happening somewhere else and far away, and not a major contributory factor to the brutalisation that followed.)

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roac 06.21.11 at 6:06 pm

julian f: That would seem to depend critically on whether you score the influenza pandemic up against the war. (John M. Barry’s book concludes that there was (probably) a clear causal link — a mutated virus that arose in rural Kansas spread worldwide because of US mobilization.)

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Walt 06.21.11 at 6:08 pm

I’d like to say that this was a great thread. Now of course it’s a retread of the stale argument. If you were put in charge of 30s Soviet Union, would you have killed as many people as Stalin? Probably not! Can we ever determine how the course of history would have gone if you had been in charge instead of Stalin? Probably not! But before we got sucked into the three-hundred thousandth iteration of this particular argument, it was a terrific discussion.

I sort-of suspect that the Soviets opened a space for social democracy because they killed so many people. People respect killing. People don’t remember much history, but they remember Genghis Kahn and Attila the Hun and Hitler. When Americans list their greatest Presidents, having been involved in armed conflict is a net plus. The general public never held it against George Bush that he lied us into pointless armed conflict, only that he ran it so poorly. Nobody’s impressed by Sweden’s infant mortality rate or low Gini coefficient, while everybody was impressed by the Red Army.

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Lemuel Pitkin 06.21.11 at 6:54 pm

StevenAttewell@139-

It seems self-evidently obvious to me, and to lots of other people, that most concrete histories of progressive reforms show that they importantly depended on the existence of a radical alternative. I find that almost any time I read a book on the history of some progressive movement — and I’ve read a lot of them — this theme comes clearly through.

But you are right: it would be good to see the argument made more systematically. To be honest, this is a real source of frustration to me. Maybe there’s a good book or article that lays out in a comprehensive way the ways that reformers and radicals have been mutually dependent, but I haven’t seen it. If someone else has, please share!

One other thing: Fear of upheaval is just one channel. The other is that even incremental reforms often require years and years of immensely hard work, frequent setbacks and enormous sacrifice. It’s a lot easier for people to commit themselves to that if they believe that today’s small change is a step toward much bigger change in the future. (And maybe it’s true!) I know this, or think I do, from first hand experience. But it’s a hard thing to prove. I look at all the pragmatic reform movements whose best leaders and activists were drawn from some strand of revolutionary politics, and say, See, pragmatic politics needs the radical vision to give it life and energy. Whereas you could look at the same phenomenon and say, See, revolutionary politics must be a dead end, since so many people involved in it end up shifting toward more incremental goals. I don’t know what kind of evidence could resolve this question, to be honest.

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Lemuel Pitkin 06.21.11 at 6:58 pm

That would seem to depend critically on whether you score the influenza pandemic up against the war. (John M. Barry’s book concludes that there was (probably) a clear causal link—a mutated virus that arose in rural Kansas spread worldwide because of US mobilization.)

On this OT but fascinating question, Paul Ewald also argues for a causal connection, but a different one: He argues that conditions in the trenches and especially field hospitals of the Western Front, by allowing even incapacitated flu victims to come into contact with many new hosts, eliminated the normal negative feedback that limits flu virulence and allowed the evolution of the pandemic strain.

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Henri Vieuxtemps 06.21.11 at 7:01 pm

Stalinism is not an interesting topic, wrt socioeconomic evolution/experimentation. One individual having total control over 170 million people for 20-25 years, it was clearly pathological.

On the other hand, J. Otto Pohl’s claim that the NEP was a highly successful experiment, that certainly could use some debating.

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novakant 06.21.11 at 7:44 pm

my objection is to the pretence that WW1 was happening somewhere else and far away, and not a major contributory factor to the brutalisation that followed

Yes, WWI was extremely brutal – I still don’t see how you can deduce the historical inevitability of Stalin’s paranoid and genocidal slaughter from that fact. Historical counterfactuals may be stupid, but post hoc ergo propter hoc is equally stupid.

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ejh 06.21.11 at 7:44 pm

I think so. I know far less about that period than I might.

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J. Otto Pohl 06.21.11 at 7:58 pm

Most of the positive policies of the Bolsheviks regarding literacy programs, building cultural institutions for non-Russians, and spreading medical care to remote areas for instance started long before Stalin consolidated one man rule. The 1920s represented to peasants and non-Russian nationalities a golden or silver age depending upon how the group in question has constructed its historical narrative. While they were far from perfect they were free from the mass terror of the Stalin era of 1930-1953 yet still managed to teach a lot of people to read. I am not sure if Bukharin had been at the helm instead of Stalin he would have successfully maintained NEP to create a modern state comparable in living standards to the USSR under Brezhnev by the 1960s or not. Certainly some scholars such as S. Cohen have argued for this case. But, I think progress would have continued and the bloodshed would have been a lot less. G. Hosking has claimed that had NEP continued that the USSR would probably have looked a lot like the actually existing socialist systems in Poland after Golmulka and even more so Yugoslavia after Tito introduced his own version of NEP. Both of these countries had considerably higher standards of living by the 1960s than the USSR.

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belle le triste 06.21.11 at 8:05 pm

That’s not my argument, though, novakant: ” The Bolshevik experiment was an attempt to end-run a long and extremely horrible historical process; and it failed,” is what I said further up. WW1 was an element in this process in that it fed into the beginning of the civil war, indistinguishably for many (there are war monuments in villages all over the UK which say 1914-19 because that regment went straight from Western Front to Archangel, or wherever); but it’s not a prior cause at all; in some ways it’s as much symptom as cause. I’m arguing that there really wasn’t a “nice” route to modernisation–turns out you don’t get to sidestep it–so I don’t see the various hideous megadeaths as somehow counterbalancing each other, indications of a “better” versus a “worse” way to the future, on one side or the other; they’re much more intertwined than that. Part of the cause was identical on both sides, a historical process no one knew how to escape; part of it is a cumulative barbarism arising out of this process, with WW1 as a particularly destabilising causative step, or catastrophe.

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Matt 06.21.11 at 8:09 pm

On NEP, Alec Nove’s _An Economic History of the USSR, 1917-1991_ is very good. (It’s quite a good book in general. Many people would profit from reading more of Nove than they seem to.) It’s worth noting, though, that opposition to NEP was extremely high in the Communist Party, since it largely consisted in introducing market measures to make up for the disastrous policies that had been put in place before it, and that (along with very harsh circumstances, admittedly) had reduced living standards all over the Soviet Union to pre-WW I levels, often by quite a lot. Also, those actively doing the work in NEP (the NEP-men) were mostly murdered or imprisoned by the state when the program was ended.

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Martin Bento 06.21.11 at 8:11 pm

What would be the difference between counting the Flu dead against WW1’s ledger and counting AIDS against the modern system of easy international travel? While the latter is true in a sense, I don’t see anyone outraged that jet flights and borders open to tourists are responsible for the deaths of millions. Consequences that are neither deliberate, foreseeable, nor necessary don’t really belong in the same class as willful slaughter nor mass death as the result of indifference.

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John Quiggin 06.21.11 at 8:18 pm

I’ve posted quite a few times on the Great War as the starting point for all the disasters of the 20th century, including Stalinism and Nazism.

Coming back to the point of the thread, I agree with a lot of posters that the threat of revolution (or a revolutionary defence of democracy against a possible countercoup) certainly helped to weaken the resistance to social democratic reforms. On the other hand, as I say in the previous post, once the revolutionary threat turned into actually existing Stalinism, it was a big net negative for the left.

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Richard J 06.21.11 at 8:23 pm

there are war monuments in villages all over the UK which say 1914-19 because that regment went straight from Western Front to Archangel, or wherever

To be needlessly pedantic, that’s not down to the Russian intervention, AIUI, but that although fighting stopped in November 1918, the formal process of orderly liquidating the war finished in 1919.

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Natilo Paennim 06.21.11 at 8:24 pm

160 comments and nobody’s mentioned that Bakunin correctly predicted the inherent problems with a Marxian conception of revolution 150 years ago? Bakunin himself was wrong about a couple of things, but he nailed that one on the head.

In my dotage, I’ve moderated some of my anti-Communist views. Yes, the death toll of 20th century Marxist-Leninist revolutionary governments is frankly incredible. And yes, even beyond the mass murder, torture, political imprisonment and general immiseration, there’s a lot that big-C Communists have to answer for. But at the same time, we have to resist the temptation to fall into an Applebaumian blanket denunciation of everything under the red star.

We would be living in a much more fascistic world if it were not for the brave Communist fighters who have opposed fascism at every turn, even as they were often being betrayed by their own leadership/governments.

As far as revolution in general goes, clearly, in light of the experience of the last 220 years, there are a number of things to consider when attempting to foment one. Are you going to disarm the proletariat after you take power? Probably a bad move. Are you going to concentrate on locking down the gains in your country rather than attempting to share your success internationally? That also rarely ends well. What about the secret police? Do you basically turn them over en masse to one of your most trusted activists, the better to prevent counter-revolutionary forces from succeeding at their revanche? Might want to think twice there as well.

It’s easy to get discouraged, but ultimately there will be a day when the state and capital come to an end. Whether we go on living, as humans or something like them, afterwards, is up to us.

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belle le triste 06.21.11 at 8:34 pm

Not really convinced that no one could have foreseen that disease and war go hand-in-hand: this would have been pretty much the opposite of news to any of the armies involved.

Richard J: haha, OK that serves me right for dredging an anecdote up out of my memory that was put there many years ago by Christopher Hitchens.

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Henri Vieuxtemps 06.21.11 at 8:34 pm

‘Nepman’ is just a small business owner. Nationalized industries, privately owned small businesses, co-ops, and farms. Yes, like Tito’s Yugoslavia. It could work, given a chance. Although I got the impression the government sector grew heavily bureaucratic already after a couple of years.

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Martin Bento 06.21.11 at 8:52 pm

Belle, the reasonable standard would be did the heads of Europe who decided to go to war know that a likely consequence was a global pandemic that killed millions, not any increase in disease at all. Keep in mind the poor state of epidemiology at the time.

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Natilo Paennim 06.21.11 at 8:59 pm

165, 167: Just started re-reading Late Victorian Holocausts again. While epidemiology may indeed have been in a poor state, I’m not sure that the causal link was so poorly understood as all that. Quite the contrary, there might even have been more acknowledgement of the danger of thrusting millions into hunger and filth, minus the convenient modern tendency to lay all blame for disease at the foot of the microbe.

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Martin Bento 06.21.11 at 8:59 pm

Excuse me, can I go meta here for a second? What determines when threads here close? I thought it was 10 days, but then some closed in 5. So I expected 1 to close in 5 and it lasted a day or so longer. Doesn’t seem to be time since last comment, nor have anything to do with when posts scroll off the front page. Is it some combination? I tried getting this answered by emailing a Timberite privately, but it didn’t work.

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Martin Bento 06.21.11 at 9:03 pm

Natilo, what made the Flu pandemic so deadly is that it spread far beyond the trenches or even the countries where the trenches were locatted. This is what I am skeptical the war leaders could have expected. Perhaps I am wrong, but I don’t think the fact that they may have reasonably expected a lot of disease in the vicinity of the battleground itself shows that.

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belle le triste 06.21.11 at 9:06 pm

I have a feeling I’m dragging the discussion in an even more arid direction than the last one, but isn’t basing judgment on what’s occurred to heads of state as a likely consequence (and to would-be revolutionaries, come to that) just a fancy way of saying “who could possibly have known”? Globalisation is great! Because I am being well-paid not to imagine a downside!

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StevenAttewell 06.21.11 at 9:16 pm

Lemuel Pitkin:
I’m always suspicious of the self-evidently obvious, in part because it obviates the need for evidence. I agree that some systematization is necessary: how important was the dependence of reformers on revolutionaries? To what extent did revolutionary politics help or hinder reformism? Measuring these things is important, not least because it prevents the terms of the argument from slipping.

For example, is the argument about whether the revolutionary threat terrified elites into giving way to reform, or that radical visions gave reformers the spirit to endure the “strong and slow boring of hard boards”?

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Phil 06.21.11 at 10:00 pm

once the revolutionary threat turned into actually existing Stalinism, it was a big net negative for the left

I’m not convinced that it was, if only because I remember 1991 (you may do too). And what I remember is not only a ridiculous amount of triumphalist grave-dancing on the Right, but a fair amount of genuine dismay and confusion on the Left – even those parts of the Left (such as the one I inhabit) which had been denouncing actually-existing Stalinism for as long as they could remember. Maybe it wasn’t a very good alternative, but it was an alternative; maybe it wasn’t any kind of socialism that we could possibly support, but it was a place where people talked about socialism in positive terms. By 1989, never mind 1991, this was something of a mirage – the entire system had been undermined from within by the complete disillusionment of a generation of cadres, and (more corrosive) the spread of a positive belief in capitalism. But until the signage came down, it did give the world the sense of an alternative to capitalism, in a way that nowhere now does, and that did count for something. Psychologically these things run quite deep.

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Shelley 06.21.11 at 10:46 pm

Yes. Gloria Steinem once said: “We don’t attack the problem; we surround the problem.” Revolution won’t stick unless all the surrounding has been done ahead of time.

That said, I’m increasingly finding shoddy compromises with the Republicans more disheartening than a no-holds-barred battle that we lose in the end.

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sg 06.21.11 at 11:14 pm

If we’re going to blame WW1 for flu, surely we need to thank WW2 for antibiotics? Seems a bit far-fetched to me.

On the other hand, the issue of whether or not the revolution was bad for the people of Russia seems like a perfect opportunity to a cost-effectiveness analysis using Quality Adjusted Life Years. Get to it, Sebastian.

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subdoxastic 06.22.11 at 1:37 am

Hidari @ 30.

Reading The Greater Journey by McCullough right now, in which he details some of what happened on March 17th 1871, and in the weeks after. On the 18th he has soldiers and citizens capturing two generals sent form the government to take back cannon appropriated by the National Guard on the March 17th. Said generals were then given the courtesy of show trial before being put up against a wall and executed. One wonders whether one should take seriously the claims that the bodies were then urinated upon by women, if for no other reason than that one of the victims had been picked up off the street, from the audience, and wasn’t even in his uniform (p. 307).

On March 21st he has a clash between protesters “Friends of Order” and the National Guard resulting in the death of 12 protesters and at least one soldier. Next, installation at the Hotel de Ville, followed by a communiqué that “the deliberations of all representative bodies would no longer be public… the appointment of certain citizens who would henceforth receive any ‘denunciations’…” (p.309).

McCullough has the commune committing violent acts and doing the suppressing. What other accounts should I be looking to?

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Bruce Wilder 06.22.11 at 2:03 am

Like Glen Tomkins @94, I’m not sure it is fair to blame the revolutionaries for the revolution.

Society, the political economy and its institutional order are systems of social cooperation founded on a deep division of labor, sunk-cost investments and some centralized control by hierarchies of authority. Organized social cooperation is the basis of power, and power is the basis for resolving conflict and deciding the distribution of benefits.

Haggling over the social contract never ends. If “the revolution” aims at a social order without conflict, or without an elite, or peopled by super-humans, it is, indeed, quixotic. (Although, maybe voluntary human extinction is not such a bad idea, even if it turns out to be a little less voluntary for some, than others.)

It is the functioning of a social order that delivers the material benefits of social cooperation; the collapse or overthrow of the old order will, inevitably, involve considerable cost, and expose . . . disorder. It does not follow that preserving a highly dysfunctional order is a superior choice, even if one expresses a pious intention to “reform” the old order.

The near-collapse of the dysfunctional, global financial system of the Anglo-American Empire in 2008, and subsequent herculean efforts to preserve it against all economic good sense, constitute a potential “revolutionary moment”, which surely must be familiar to all, here. I presume that the post’s topicality relates to a widely shared ambivalence over the on-going struggle to re-order the American and global economy, on a basis far less beneficial to the mass of what used to be, when they had work, the American working class (and the ordinary Greek, Portuguese, Spanish, etc.). These struggles do not end with revolution or reform; they just go on.

“Reform” is just a name we give to offering a revision to the social contract, which offers benefits to the existing elites. “Revolution” is a continuation of reform by other means, without the offer of continuing benefits to at least some of the previous elite.

It does seem to be that we should blame the reactionaries of the old order for failing to reform, before we blame the revolutionaries for desperate measures in desperate times. Maybe, sometimes, it is like Life of Brian and the revolutionaries are numbskulls railing against roads, law and world peace.

In general, though, I would think that “reform” proposals are ordinarily a “good deal” for those with power. At some extreme, though, in the progressive entropy of the old order, it is not always possible to both offer benefits to the whole of the old elite, and reform the old order in the direction of something that functions adequately in material terms.

Thus, I would argue revolution may be just a continuation of the work of reform by other means.

In our own time, the best argument for “revolution” is the essentially binary choice presented in our recent Global Financial Crisis. The economic order represented by the global financial system of Anglo-American Empire is dysfunctional in the objective, material sense of being something of a negative-sum game (cooperation that reduces net material benefits, aka parasitism). We could preserve the banks or the social-welfare-state. The banks chose politicians, who would choose to preserve the banks.

If there’s space for “reform” here, it is exemplified by Obama’s ACA — a deal that buys benefits for a segment of the marginally middle-class, at the expense of additional benefits for predatory financial and corporate entities, without addressing the increasing functional inadequacy of the medical services economy. Giving such large benefits to the corporations and the elite of corporate executives and financial managers, is coming at the expense of the actual performance of the medical services economy.

Revolution looks good, when the space for reform runs out: when the functional output or yield of social cooperation has been sufficiently compromised, and there’s no more dividend to divide, given the claims of the elite.

If it is possible to save the American economy and social welfare system without destroying a large part of the American and global financial system, I’ve missed it. And, vice-versa; if there’s a way to save American banking at its present size and scope, without sacrificing Social Security and the nation’s fiscal integrity, it is lost in the fog. Maybe, that choice is hiding behind Door Number 3. But, I’m willing to venture that revolutions are a good alternative, in the face of such dilemmas.

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Bruce Wilder 06.22.11 at 2:24 am

There may be a tendency for revolutions to be preceded by an extended period of dysfunction and stand-off, in which the existing order is not very productive, and so politics is marked by conflict without no real result or resolution. When rational deliberation and earnest fair-mindedness can make no headway in politics, that process may all just begin to seem repulsive. (Sort of like contemporary cable news)

Alongside the aristocratic wish for glory, there might be marching in revolutionary ranks a simple, authoritarian wish to see pointless, protracted, irrational political conflict end. One of the promises of Marxist revolution is a resolution and end of the conflicts, which ensue from the processes of capitalist economic development. And, fascist reaction makes promises along these lines, as well.

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peter ramus 06.22.11 at 2:37 am

So after we dip our fingers in the holy water of Marx and make the double sign of 18 Brumaire on head, shoulders and chest, and passing through the gallery where the signs of the revolutions crossed off our list of revolutions we’d ever want are displayed, we enter the nave and from there the confessional where the question is posed once more. You say you want a revolution?

I understand there’s going to be a mass mobilization against bad times in Britain on June 30. Some unions are going out on strike that day from what I understand, and I guess the idea is to mobilize all the people disgusted with the way things are going over there to get together in public and represent. From this distance it appears there’s good cause.

Would I like to see this event metastasize into a Tarhir Square moment for Britain? Oh, for their sake, sure. I don’t know if the Brits themselves have any stomach for the sort of resolute massive democratic action embodied in the Egyptian case, even if June 30 presents a perfect opportunity. But it’s there to be had. The people, united, can often be insistent.

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Lemuel Pitkin 06.22.11 at 3:30 am

how important was the dependence of reformers on revolutionaries? To what extent did revolutionary politics help or hinder reformism? Measuring these things is important

I agree, absolutely. On my list of books I wish some smart person would write, this one ranks very high.

is the argument about whether the revolutionary threat terrified elites into giving way to reform, or that radical visions gave reformers the spirit to endure the “strong and slow boring of hard boards”?

Well, both. They are logically independent, but it’s my opinion that, historically, revolutionary movements have supported practical reformers in both ways. Perhaps in a month or so, when I’ve gotten my books out of storage, I’ll try to assemble some examples.

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Lemuel Pitkin 06.22.11 at 3:40 am

Right, Bruce Wilder makes a good point (as usual). Revolutions happen when constitutional politics breaks down in the face of acute conflict within the elite, or else when a popular movement comes to power constitutionally and attempts to carry out a program that is too threatening to the elite. Either way, when it comes to violent conflicts, the counterrevolution almost always precedes the revolution.

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bobbyp 06.22.11 at 3:42 am

John Q. I feel your analysis is somewhat ahistorical. Recall please the western intervention in the Russian civil war and the subsequent isolation of the regime. Think the help we gave to the Generalissimo. Perhaps we should turn this on its head….Socialism has reacted violently to violence imposed by the Western powers….Cold War which see. Who can say Socialism with a human face could well have emerged in the absence of such violent counterrevolution, eh?

Just a reminder that things do indeed go both ways, sir.

Cordially,

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Martin Bento 06.22.11 at 5:50 am

Belle, my original comparison was to AIDS. If you want to take a “No one should say nobody could have known” standard, take it there too, and see how it looks. In 1915, we did not understand how disease was spread, but in the 1970’s we pretty much did. It was known that there were serious disease dangers when previously-isolated populations came into contact. Yet, huge amounts of international aid went into developing infrastructure to end rural African isolation: roads, airports, etc. I think it silly to say that people in 1915 should have known, but those in 1970 should not. And it is not just the conditions in the trenches. What made the Flu pandemic so deadly is that it spread so far beyond the trenches or even the countries where the trenches were located. I think the knowledge to realize that this was possible and how was much more developed in 1970 than 1915.

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Myles 06.22.11 at 5:55 am

I think even beyond the intrinsic qualities of revolution, there exists the question of the spillover effects of such a rupture. Simply put, money begets money, progress begets progress, peace begets peace, and war begets war. In the immediate aftermath of armed revolutions, societies are generally poorer and nastier. Sometimes, they stay that way.

The real Chinese communist revolution, for example, happened not in 1949, which was merely a traditional armed conquest, but around 1954-1955, when the actual collectivization took place and the old economic actors started being liquidated. What followed was immediate economic disaster, and for the next twenty years or so China went from chaos begotten by chaos.

There’s also the inevitable fact that revolutions feed on themselves. The French revolution, which was originally wholly praiseworthy, went from storming the Bastilles to the mass guillotines of the Reign of Terror and then to the war in the Vendée, which is arguably a genocide. Very rarely acknowledged by revolutionary enthusiasts, for example, is that in the Vendée even today there exists deep resentment against French republicanism. Curiously, this part of history seems rather forgotten. Thus even if the revolutions were originally good, the follow-on revolutions begotten by the original rupture would necessarily become progressively more violent and appalling. War begets war; revolution begets revolution, even when you don’t want any more of them.

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Peter T 06.22.11 at 7:30 am

Two unrelated points:

One is that the balance between elites and masses is not a two-sided affair, but many-sided. The elites may give for fear of revolution, but also because they need mass support in other areas. International war was a major driver of change in Europe (Kiderlen, German Foreign Minister in 1909: “ All great victories are the work of the people and the people must be paid for it. After the victory of 1870 we had to pay with universal suffrage. Another victory will bring us a parliamentary regime.”). In Britain, a lot of social policy was made more urgent by the unpleasant realisation that a large part of the workforce was either too sick or too starved to fight in an era of mass warfare. The need for social solidarity against environmental threats can also play the same role – see the Netherlands or Venice.

The key is that, absent some very active countervailing force(s), elites tend to take more and more of the cake. Committees don’t have a good record as active countervailing forces.

Second point is that, at the lowest level, revolutions seem to be driven as much as anything by a community-wide moral revulsion – “anything but this”. The “leaders” run around offering various alternative visions, and one or other wins out. But they don’t make the revolution, they surf it. The revulsion is sparked by elites violating some very basic, often inarticulate, felt sense of what some particular society is all about. And people, when they reach this point, are not paying attention to programs, but they will die rather than compromise on the point (“wir sind das volk”, or the thousands of Tehranis who, the day after the Shah’s troops killed 400+ people in Jaleh Square, went and sat down there again).

So revolutions are not made by intellectuals, they are made by elites forgetting who bakes the bread. The intellectuals pick up afterwards.

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Guido Nius 06.22.11 at 9:38 am

Somehow reading ‘Myles’ and ‘updated’ joined together on one line strikes me as hilarious.

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ejh 06.22.11 at 11:11 am

Maybe, sometimes, it is like Life of Brian and the revolutionaries are numbskulls railing against roads, law and world peace.

As I recall, in the celebrated scene, the revolutionaries actually speak in favour of these things.

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ejh 06.22.11 at 11:13 am

Except for Reg, at the very end

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novakant 06.22.11 at 12:02 pm

I’m arguing that there really wasn’t a “nice” route to modernisation—turns out you don’t get to sidestep it

We’ll just have to disagree then. I simply cannot accept it as a given that modernization required the killing of millions. Modernization would have run its course anyway, without WWI, Stalin or Hitler.

Maybe it wasn’t a very good alternative, but it was an alternative

No, it wasn’t, the system was unsustainable and the people were sick of it.

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belle le triste 06.22.11 at 12:13 pm

Modernisation “running its course” elsewhere included hideous famines in the colonies and quasi-colonies (Ireland; India; China; Africa) and wars, culminating in WW1: it didn’t occur anywhere without killing millions somewhere.

As to whether this was all a given, well, no: I don’t want to accept it either. I’d like to believe there was a way through with no bloodcount anywhere. I’d like to believe that continued modernisation today isn’t causing misery, bloodshed, plague and war. But it is.

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sg 06.22.11 at 12:52 pm

How about Japan, Belle. Their modernization process was fairly peaceful, wasn’t it?

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Phil 06.22.11 at 12:54 pm

the system was unsustainable and the people were sick of it.

I basically agree (and I haven’t said anything to the contrary, which again makes me wonder about some of the buttons I seem to be pressing). Having said that, I do wonder if everyone who wanted to get rid of Communist rule in their countries wanted to get rid of everything that was lost as a result. I happened to meet a Polish socialist in about 1990; maternity leave was in the news at the time, with the government trying to cut the statutory funding and the unions arguing that our provision was already the lowest in the EU. “Yes,” she said, “our government’s attacking maternity leave too – at the moment it’s three years, but they’re cutting it to two.” I’m sure that wasn’t the last time they cut it, either.

Anyway, the point I was making was a completely different one, which was that the loss of Communism as a reference-point didn’t do the Western Left any good, despite the fact that most of the Western Left was more or less anti-Communist. That’s the sense in which it was an alternative – a whole range of countries where capitalism was officially a dirty word and something other than capitalism was, apparently, working.

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belle le triste 06.22.11 at 1:04 pm

Not so much prior to 1945, sg: and if you decide that modernisation is simply everything after 1945, and nothing before it, you still surely have to demonstrate how this modernisation would have arrived without what led to it.

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bert 06.22.11 at 2:53 pm

#177:
The idea that there’s a revolutionary mood in Britain today is daft.
People are rejecting loyalty and choosing voice.
The exit option, by contrast:

So why would Syrians risk so much for freedoms that are so uncertain of being realised? My colleague and I discussed this in mid-April, when I asked why he would want to travel to protests in Daraa, despite the violence. His answer was simple, yet poignant: there was no option but to protest. Syrians, he believed, could not expect meaningful changes from Mr Assad, and should not expect the USA, Europe or any other country to make the changes for them. If Syrians wanted change, they would have to bring it about themselves. His rationale resonated with me, and continues to resonate with a growing number of Syrians. With a battered economy and with the state’s violence towards its people escalating, Mr Assad’s support in his upper- and middle-class base is eroding. As the revolution continues, more and more people are realising the regime’s narrative they once supported is not what they want for their future.

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novakant 06.22.11 at 3:49 pm

Modernisation “running its course” elsewhere included hideous famines in the colonies and quasi-colonies (Ireland; India; China; Africa) and wars, culminating in WW1: it didn’t occur anywhere without killing millions somewhere.

I am still not convinced by the causal chain you are suggesting and the verbs you are using to describe it (“include”, “culminate”, “occur”) make it seem as if you are not so clear about the causality yourself, nor what you actually mean by modernization. There certainly was a lot of mass murder going on from late colonialism to the end of WW2 and beyond – but to explain all this with and blame it on “modernization” seems way too broad and vague to me, sorry.

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shah8 06.22.11 at 3:54 pm

I don’t think you sound persuadable, novakant.

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Myles 06.22.11 at 6:11 pm

That’s the sense in which it was an alternative – a whole range of countries where capitalism was officially a dirty word and something other than capitalism was, apparently, working.

Possibly true, but it also laid the foundation for the kind of shadow state/politics we see in Italy and Greece, which arose out of the (legitimate) need to prevent the installation of precisely this kind of capitalism-is-a-dirty-word equilibrium in the liberal-capitalistic West.

You can’t possibly say that the USSR (and even Stalin) was a legitimate reference (of terror, perhaps) for the Left in the West without at the same time admitting as well that the semi-legal anti-Communist infrastructure (up to and including Gladio) that was built in Italy and Greece were legitimate responses to precisely that threat. Both were dirty and tainted in some sense (although perhaps not to the same degree).

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matthias 06.22.11 at 6:17 pm

Yeah, Barrington Moore covers Meiji pretty well.

I’d also add that primitive accumulation doesn’t necessarily have to benefit the portion of the metropole under the jurisdiction of the same state as that overseeing the accumulation itself; the relationship between the New World, Spain, and Holland is the most obvious example (although of course Spain and Holland had historic links that led to crucial commercial ones.) It’s certainly notable that the successful late industrializers of East Asia all did so in a politically conservative but state-managed way that were able to get capital flows going in the right direction with becolonied trading partners.

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Hidari 06.22.11 at 6:33 pm

The problem with the way this discussion has gone on is that, like so many Eurocentric debates, it assumes that the only two revolutions in world history were the French and the Russian: two revolutions that really didn’t have that much in common.

If, instead of those two revolutions one started with a historical perspective (perhaps looking at Spartacus and then going on to look at the Peasant’s Revolt) and then, in the modern era, looked at Haitian revolution, the career of Simón Bolívar , the revolutions of ’89, and current events in Nepal and the Middle East, very different conclusions might be drawn. And many other, different examples could be chosen.

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Lemuel Pitkin 06.22.11 at 7:18 pm

The problem with the way this discussion has gone on is that, like so many Eurocentric debates, it assumes that the only two revolutions in world history were the French and the Russian

Who is assuming that? Looking back at the thread, I see a whole range of revolutionary movements mentioned.

If, instead of those two revolutions one started with a historical perspective (perhaps looking at Spartacus and then going on to look at the Peasant’s Revolt) and then, in the modern era, looked at Haitian revolution, the career of Simón Bolívar , the revolutions of ‘89, and current events in Nepal and the Middle East, very different conclusions might be drawn.

OK. Like what?

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novakant 06.22.11 at 7:34 pm

Having said that, I do wonder if everyone who wanted to get rid of Communist rule in their countries wanted to get rid of everything that was lost as a result.

No, but it’s not like maternity leave and things like that only existed behind the iron curtain. Personally, I’ve always hated socialism (by which I mean real socialism) and neo-liberalism in equal measure.

That’s the sense in which it was an alternative – a whole range of countries where capitalism was officially a dirty word and something other than capitalism was, apparently, working.

I share your frustration that capitalism is now more or less unquestioned, that there is little critical discourse about it in the mainstream. Yet I don’t think the existence of socialist countries was really a good argument for the left – considering how rotten the whole system was.

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Mr_ Punch 06.22.11 at 8:44 pm

The trouble with Marxism isn’t that the class part didn’t work out – Lenin rethought and fixed that a century ago. The real problem is that the economics don’t work. We have learned that the market isn’t nearly as inefficient as it looks; and the presumption of the superior economic efficiency of socialism was absolutely essential to Marxism’s appeal. What brought down Marxism as a living political force had virtually nothing to do with Ronald Reagan, and a great deal to do with the economic performance of West vs East Germany, South vs North Korea, Taiwan vs mainland China, even South vs North Vietnam. Marxism turned out to be falsifiable after all, but by experiment rather than logic. A materialist philosophy damn well better be able to deliver the goods.

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Phil 06.22.11 at 9:41 pm

You can’t possibly say that the USSR (and even Stalin) was a legitimate reference (of terror, perhaps) for the Left in the West

I didn’t.

I don’t think the existence of socialist countries was really a good argument for the left

Didn’t say that either. Just that there’s a huge difference between living in a world where the only apparent alternative to capitalism is horrible (“what do you want, Communism?”) and living in a world which doesn’t seem to offer any alternative to capitalism (“what do you want, four-sided triangles?”). All things considered, I’d rather be hated as a Commie than dismissed as a deluded crank.

Myles’s point about Gladio etc is fair enough, except that anti-Communism both predated Communism and outlived it. “They turned themselves into Labour in Britain and Social Democrats in Germany, but here they always were Communists and they still are. And that’s why I’m in politics.” – Silvio Berlusconi, 26/2/2011. (There is still one party with Communist in the name, but they’re currently running at 1.5% in the polls; I don’t think he was talking about them.)

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sg 06.22.11 at 11:01 pm

belle, Japan had industrialized by 1917 (they defeated Russia in a war in 1905). They followed the German path to social insurance in the 1880s. Sure they modernized more in the 30s to support a war economy, but I think it could be argued fairly comfortably that they didn’t need the war economy to do this – they’d already done it, and could have happily continued along the pre-Taisho path if they weren’t in the middle of a military takeover. But the military takeover was about reversing the political gains of Meiji, not about conquest for its own sake.

And as modernizations go, the Meiji era seems pretty good – no famines, expansion of workers rights and social insurance, and rapid improvements in education and public health. Sure there was a civil war but by international standards it was pretty pissy, wasn’t it? A bunch of aristos getting their arses kicked right back to the arctic circle, then giving up without a real stoush. It’s hardly Russia in 1917. And they had no colonies to export the losses to either.

I side with ajay on this, and with someone else upthread who pointed out that the existence of communism was as useful for the forces of reaction in their main millenial struggle – against the unions – as it was as a threat for the unions to extract social gains.

Furthermore, I think domestic fear of uprising had more to do with domestic troubles – corn law riots in the UK in the 1800s, for example, or restlessness during the great depression – than it had with what was going on in the USSR. Revolutionary socialism just gave the bosses an excuse to expand their secret police, which they could then use to attack their real foes – the unions.

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Lemuel Pitkin 06.23.11 at 1:12 am

Revolutionary socialism just gave the bosses an excuse to expand their secret police, which they could then use to attack their real foes – the unions.

They needed an excuse?

This is the old line you always hear from anti-communists — the bosses will play fair, as long as we don’t do anything to make them mad.

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Peter T 06.23.11 at 5:45 am

If Meiji, Taiwan and South Korea show that mass violence is not an inevitable part of modernisation, the question remains “what was modernisation for?” In the Meiji case, and in South Korea and Taiwan too, the answer is that the alternative for the elites involved was national defeat. In Japan’s case, the further answer was: “so that later we can imitate all the other great countries and have an empire”.

Can anyone think of a modernisation that was peaceful both in itself and that did not involve the prospect of imminent international war?

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Myles 06.23.11 at 6:35 am

Just that there’s a huge difference between living in a world where the only apparent alternative to capitalism is horrible (“what do you want, Communism?”) and living in a world which doesn’t seem to offer any alternative to capitalism (“what do you want, four-sided triangles?”).

Well, I think what you are saying is that the quite apparent horrible-ness of the Communist alternative served as a strong incentive for capitalists to make capitalism work for everyone so they don’t turn Communist. Which is fair enough, although again it worked for socialism rather than liberalism (which aren’t the same thing). Liberalism suffered a huge setback in the 20th century and didn’t really recover until the H.W. Bush/Clinton era; socialism (of a kind) on the other hand prospered. I’m a liberal, not a socialist.

“They turned themselves into Labour in Britain and Social Democrats in Germany, but here they always were Communists and they still are. And that’s why I’m in politics.” – Silvio Berlusconi, 26/2/2011. (There is still one party with Communist in the name, but they’re currently running at 1.5% in the polls; I don’t think he was talking about them.)

Berlusconi (whom I like for his irreverence) isn’t close to being the same thing as Gladio or CIA-funded elections or whatever. It’s just not close to being the same thing. His anti-Communist is superficial and theatrical; the anti-Communist of the post-war era was for real.

Even in a more serious case, say the first Red Scare in the U.S. or the anti-Soviet feeling in interwar Britain and Europe, the anti-Communism there was clearly distinguishable from the post-war model where the normal, democratic deep state (including the intelligence and security infrastructure) was wholly and unwaveringly invested in the struggle, because up to until Stalin’s troops reached the Elbe the Soviet Union did not prove an existential threat to Western liberal capitalism. Edgar Hoover might have been a monomaniacal anti-Communist (and much else), but Edgar Hoover wasn’t comparable to the OSS/CIA.

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Phil 06.23.11 at 7:32 am

Too much there to respond to, but I will say that the biggest mistake you can make about Berlusconi is to treat anything about him as ‘superficial’.

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Random lurker 06.23.11 at 8:46 am

Some more or less unrelated observations:
1: Up in the comments some people were discussing whether the american civil war could be seen as a form of revolution. Marx wrote various articles about the USA civil war, it this that I read he saw the civil war as a “defence” of the north from a “counterrevolution” of the south. In some sense, I think that “Marxist revolutions” should always represent a sort of counter-counterrevolution against elites that try to enforce a “superstructure” that is already too old for the the “base”.
2: @ sg 205: I relate japanese modernization process to italian modernization process. I believe that both processes actually “externalized” problems through imperialism – Mussolini was obviously imperialist, but the unification of Italy could be seen as imperialism from the industrialized north to the rural south. In the same sense, I believe the Meiji restoration could be seen as a sort of internal imperialism. Imperialism isn’t in itself ultra-violent, however is the expression of strong umbalances and, when it hits a wall, it becomes ultra violent (like Japan and Italy during WW2).
3 @Myles 208: As an italian I couldn’t agree more with Phil(209), but an important point is that Berlusconi isn’t “irreverent”, he really means whathever he says, so when he says that he is saving the world from communisn, you can be sure that he really believes that (wich implies that he is crazy or a moron, most likely both). Do not underestimate the importance of craziness in politics.

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sg 06.23.11 at 9:11 am

Lemuel, I don’t think the bosses needed an excuse. But international socialism surely made their job easier, especially after they lost the really big struggles (the 40 hour week, etc.)

random lurker, I think Meiji was the opposite of internal imperialism. I think maybe the isolationist period in Japan was internal imperialism; Meiji overthrew the power of the shogunate and enabled a flourishing of (relatively!) civil society. I see Japan’s descent into madness in world war 2 as the final desperate attempt by the military to revoke Meiji and restore their authority over the emperor, i.e. to return to a state of “internal imperialism.” In this model, Japan’s modernization isn’t so much about imitating the great powers (as Peter T suggests) as it is about strengthening Japanese society against a return to agrarian feudalism, through rapidly engaging with modernity.

(Though I think Japan was also aiming to imitate the western powers in many ways).

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belle le triste 06.23.11 at 9:52 am

Sorry, sg, I did misunderstand your question — I assumed you must be talking about the post-war post-imperialist phase, when you were talking about the pre-imperialist phase. In which case, I think I’d argue that (just as the Bolshevik experiment entirely failed to dodge the worst of modernisation: quite the opposite), the Meiji period’s bid, conscious or otherwise, to sidestep the process as it happened elsewhere failed: in the sense that in effect it both deferred the costs (to the period from c.1930-45), and transferred them (to Korea, China, South-East Asia etc, via its various imperialist incursions).

This is really all I’ve been objecting to, from the outset: the boxing off of the concept of modernisation in such a way that it appears relatively cost-free if you only look at one part of the picture: and take no account of costs already incurred getting to modernisation (which is what I take “primitive accumulation” to mean, very loosely speaking); or costs deferred, as rather seems to be the case with Japan (the military period being the social bill, as it were, for the Meiji period); or costs exported, which is what happened with all the various 19th and 20th century imperialisms — and is understandably, for many, the very definition of imperialism.

novakant is basically correct that my way of looking at it makes it very much harder to draw lines between modernisation, what came before and what came after — since I’m after all basically saying “if you draw the line there you don’t see the whole picture” — and also demands a far denser causal map than is easily summarised in blog comments threads, hence the fact that I’ve been using quite vague connective words and handwaving quite a bit.

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Phil 06.23.11 at 9:57 am

when he says that he is saving the world from communisn, you can be sure that he really believes that

And that
(a) he will act on that basis
(b) he will gather support on that basis

Both of which he’s done quite successfully, for quite a long time. To the extent that Berlusconi’s party is anything but his personal following, it’s the party of people who sincerely hate the Left and want to exclude them from power permanently. (The post-Fascist duri e puri are a lot closer to Berlusconi than they are to their old leader Fini – in the longer term I wouldn’t rule out a merger with la Destra.)

RL – what’s your sense of B’s chances of survival, post-referendum (and post-Pontida, for what that’s worth)? I wrote his political obituary last week; I hope I wasn’t too premature.

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Walt 06.23.11 at 10:33 am

Since the welfare state is unraveling faster than I ever could have imagined post-1989, I think the position that international socialism made their job easier is hard to defend. International socialism has completely disappeared as a political force in the world. Have labor unions marched from victory to victory?

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Random lurker 06.23.11 at 11:04 am

@ Phil (213): I don’t know, it seems to me that under Berlusconi there are both some “real believers”, his base, and a lot of opportunists (his cadres). I think that, when B. falls, all the opportunists will run away as fast as they can, so that his fall might be more sudden than expected. Anyway, this woudn’t necessariusly mean a drift to the left in italian politics; Fini, for example, is not more leftish now than he was 10 years ago, he is just seen as leftish because he is against B., and B.’s self description is “anti left”.

@sg(211): I use the term “imperialism” in the marxist sense, where capital has no way of growth in a limited geografical area and has to “grow” on the outside, and the state helps capital by securing a capitalist legal framework outside his border, or in case of “internal imperialism”, in areas where the “rule of (liberal) law” is not yet estabilished.
Imperialism in this sense is not necessariously evil: it might lead to growth and a better society. However the “social forces” that put imperialism in place are the same both for good and bad imperialism, and the result depends only on exogenous factors (who are the victims of imperialism). In my opinion there is no difference between the “social forces” during the Meiji era and the later expansionism, just the results were very different because of the different conditions.

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Peter T 06.23.11 at 12:45 pm

Just to clarify – my thesis is that industrial modernisation is a process that threatens elites. They have mostly not favoured it unless they have had good reasons to – like the alternative of invasion and dispossession. Japan was well aware in the 1850s of the fate of much of the rest of Asia, and set out to avoid it by modernising itself. Taiwan and South Korea were in competition with mainland China and North Korea respectively. England had to worry about France and, later, Germany. And Germany about Russia (and vice versa).

The German, Austro-Hungarian, Tsarist Russian and Japanese paths all involved attempts to combine the dominance of pre-industrial elites with the military strength of industrialisation. Politicians in all of these consciously thought of (short, victorious) war as a possible means of preserving the pre-industrial social structure – although most were also aware this was a gamble. The main cause of World War I was that the German, Austrian and Russian elites chose war in a flight forwards from the (as they saw it) intolerable alternative of parliamentarism and social democracy.

And, to be clear, it was not “socialism” they feared and found intolerable, or communist revolution, but liberal democracy. Berlusconi’s view of the broad left as “communists” (and his evident distaste for parliamentarism) has deep antecedents.

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Myles 06.23.11 at 4:32 pm

when he says that he is saving the world from communisn, you can be sure that he really believes that

And that
(a) he will act on that basis
(b) he will gather support on that basis

That’s delusional. There’s no vast Communist conspiracy threatening Europe right now. Surely he can’t get as far as he has in politics and power while drinking that kind of Kool-Aid. Unless “communism” in Italian means “social democracy” or whatever, that’s utterly bizarre.

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Phil 06.23.11 at 5:24 pm

Perhaps what you’re missing is that Italian Communism was never very radical in the first place – their typical approach to the Christian Democrats was to say that they really ought to share power, essentially because keeping it all to themselves was selfish. So if you’re an Italian anti-Communist, that’s who you hate – those bastards who want to… er… make people pay their taxes… and interfere with free enterprise, by stopping businessmen making dodgy deals, and making them pay their taxes… and anyway, Stalin!

Italian political culture, as RL will hopefully confirm, is weird, a word which here means “tainted by years of official and unofficial propaganda”. When Dario Franceschini – a former Christian Democrat – was elected leader of the Partito Democratico, Berlusconi dismissed him as a “Catholic Communist”. Everyone on the Left said “What?“, everyone on the Right said “you tell ’em, Silvio!” and the caravan moved on.

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ejh 06.23.11 at 5:56 pm

I don’t know that that’s particularly Italian though: once you get into anticommunism of any kind, that sort of thing just keeps on happening. It has to, since part of what anticommunism does is to conflate all sorts of things that it doesn’t like.

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Phil 06.23.11 at 6:05 pm

True. And the old will-you-condemn two-step – demand that Bob denounces his radical friend Bill, wait till he does it and then denounce Bob for being too radical – never seems to wear out. (Which is ironic, really, because the Italian Communist Party itself did lots of it at one time.)

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Myles 06.23.11 at 9:46 pm

When Dario Franceschini – a former Christian Democrat – was elected leader of the Partito Democratico, Berlusconi dismissed him as a “Catholic Communist”.

That’s actually not entirely impossible, given things like liberation theology. That’s presumably not what he’s talking about, though. Still, the thought of Italian Catholic Communists is immensely amusing; it’s like the Eric Blair descriptions of people who have crosses on the walls and copies of Daily Worker on the table.

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Phil 06.23.11 at 10:10 pm

There was such a thing as a Catholic Communist, it’s true – generally rather austere types who were too religious to join the Party but too serious about politics to be Christian Democrats. The idea that Franceschini was such a person – as distinct from a well-meaning mildly leftish Catholic with Blairite tendencies – would make a cat laugh.

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Random lurker 06.24.11 at 10:07 am

RE: weirdness of italian politics
In Italy, for a long period a self defined “communist party” (PCI – Partito Comunista Italiano) has been an important player in the parliament (28% of popular vote at his height, I believe). Ideologically, it was a “Marx based” class war party, pratically it was a normalized social-democratic party.
On the other side, the italian socialist party (PSI) more or less lost his identity when people began to think to the PCI as a “non revolutionary” party, and in the end it became a sort of “pro business” party which was leftish on “cultural issues” like divorce or abortion (at the time, perlusconi was a registered “socialist” with close ties to socialist boss Craxi).
So in italian “communist” might mean more or less what english speakers mean by “socialist”, and this is, I think, the way Berlusconi uses the word.
It seems to me that, in italian politics pre 1991, most parties excluded the PCI defined themselves as “anticommunists”, thus having a sort of “negative identity”. When USSR fell and the PCI changed name embracing explicitly social democracy, all other mayor parties had a sort of “identity loss” and crumbled under well documented corruption accusations.
At that point, a lot of right leaning italians feared that the “communists” could actually seize power in Italy (meaning: they could be regularly elected and become a normal ruling party). To understand this feeling, remember that the Cristian Democrats, the biggest “anticommunist” party, actually were the governing party in Italy from ’44 to ’92 without interruption, so the idea that “the left” could actually govern was quite shocking to them.
Then Berlusconi entered politics on the slogan that “someone had to stop the commies” and was voted by all the right leaning italians that really feared a leftish government.
Since the fall of fascism, explicitly “right leaning” parties were fully discredited in Italy, but after the political changes of the ’90ties, those parties (mostly “Lega Nord” and “Alleanza Nazionale”) also began to gain a lot of votes, and formed an alliance with B.; this right leaning group the claims that Italy was ruled by a “center left” group from the end of WW2, and thus blame every problem of Italy on the “lefties”, that they conflate whith “communists”, although the communist party at the time was always at the opposition.
Thus B. can say that there is an estabilishment, in Italy, that is full of “communists” who hate him because he represents freedom and capitalism whereas they represent only “terror and death” (his words), and that, for example, the various charges brought on him are just invented by “communist judges” (“toghe rosse”, red gowns). Many of his supporters actually believe this (because, in my opinion, they “want to believe”, they are simply very partisan) and B., in time, began to believe his own propaganda IMHO. Thus he really would try to start some anticommunist witch-hunt, but he wasn’t able to do it because italian constitution, which was written after the fall of fascism, really strives to great lengths to prevent a “power grab” of the executive power, and because he is in power thanks to a coalition of right leaning parties, any of which has his distictive platform that often clash against platoforms of Berlusconi or other allies.

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Random lurker 06.24.11 at 10:22 am

RE: “Catholic Communist” in Italy
In fact, “cattocomunisti” were rather common in Italy, since 90% italians are registered as catholics, and at some point the communist party got 28% popular vote.
When I was a catholic, I saw no contradiction in being a catholic and a communist, I saw the two things as completely separate.

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Phil 06.24.11 at 3:33 pm

this right leaning group the claims that Italy was ruled by a “center left” group from the end of WW2

It’s worth pausing over this. I’d been studying contemporary Italy for several years before I heard this claim, and even then it took me some time to get used to the idea that people really believed it. (They do, though.)

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Phil 06.24.11 at 3:35 pm

Re cattocomunisti, fair point – I was thinking more of people like Berlinguer and Tatò, who genuinely thought that framing Communist principle in Christian terms and vice versa would be a vote-winner.

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Sebastian H 06.25.11 at 8:15 am

“All things considered, I’d rather be hated as a Commie than dismissed as a deluded crank.”

Is that you’d rather be hated as a Commie while living with in the
West or would you be ok with being actually in Stalinist Russia for the purpose of illustrating potential alternatives to capitalism?

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Phil 06.25.11 at 10:11 am

Hey ho. If you’re interested in following the discussion, my point was in answer to John’s claim that “actually existing Stalinism … was a big net negative for the left” (in the West). If you’re interested in denouncing people for being soft on Communism, knock yourself out.

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Sebastian H 06.25.11 at 5:31 pm

But the reason why acutally exisiting Stalinism was a big net negative is because so few actual people would actually prefer to live under the actually existing outcomes of the threatened Communist revolutions. I’m not sure I understand how your point is an effective answer to John’s claim.

You *seem* to be saying, though I may be misunderstanding, that having an alternative to capitalism even so bad as Stalinism or Maoism was better than having no alternative (I’m not going to look it up but I think you said four legged triangle). The problem is it isn’t really an alternative to capitalism if you yourself, much less people you want to convince, would definitely prefer to live under Thatcher or Reagan rather than Stalin or Mao (or even Brezhnev). So the positive portion for your argument doesn’t seem to outweigh the negative contribution of Stalin and Mao which is why John suggests that the alleged positive benefits of a threat of revolution turned into a big net negative when people started seeing the actual results.

I’m sorry I didn’t flesh it out more concretely. But that is my thought on why the fact you wouldn’t want to live in Stalinist Russia was pertinent.

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Phil 06.26.11 at 7:08 pm

You seem to be saying, though I may be misunderstanding, that having an alternative to capitalism even so bad as Stalinism or Maoism was better than having no alternative (I’m not going to look it up but I think you said four legged triangle).

It doesn’t take much looking up. Quote from upthread:

Just that there’s a huge difference between living in a world where the only apparent alternative to capitalism is horrible (“what do you want, Communism?”) and living in a world which doesn’t seem to offer any alternative to capitalism (“what do you want, four-sided triangles?”).

The problem is it isn’t really an alternative to capitalism if you yourself, much less people you want to convince, would definitely prefer to live under Thatcher or Reagan rather than Stalin or Mao (or even Brezhnev)

An alternative can be real without being desirable. More to the point, you’re thinking in terms of end states rather than continuing systems which embody particular possible futures. Lots of people believed for a long time that something good, in terms of socialist democracy, might eventually come out of 1917 – not necessarily in Russia itself, quite possibly by way of a rebellion against actually existing socialism, but nevertheless a position that wouldn’t have been reached if Bolshevism had never happened. Equally, the idea that the long-term prospects for democratic socialism were even worse in the UK and US than in the USSR wasn’t all that unusual.

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Henri Vieuxtemps 06.26.11 at 8:17 pm

This reminds me… I watched the film Letter to Brezhnev recently. If its depiction of the general conditions in Liverpool under Thatcher is accurate, it’s really not much different from the USSR under Brezhnev.

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ejh 06.26.11 at 8:32 pm

Well, apart from the freedoms.

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