The Question of Socialist History for the New Left

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Image result for red The emergence of a new generation of socialist-leaning thinkers is one of the defining elements of contemporary American politics. While the right coagulates so-called anarcho-capitalists, fascists, and old school American conservatives under one party banner, the Democratic Party continues its age-old struggle to either sublimate or eliminate the socialist trends that reached national audiences in the continually popular Bernie Sanders campaign. The movement of the american left to the center undoubtedly plays a part in the labeling of FDR liberals as socialists—and many of the growing “democratic socialist” parties pursue a socialist project in an embryonic fashion—but it would be a mistake for leftists to ignore the real change occurring in American politics. For the first time since the 1960s, millions of people are fighting against an explicitly named and reckoned capitalist system.

A denotative quality of resurgent democratic socialism is a departure from the perceived failures of 20th century socialism and even from some of the central arguments of Marxist analysis like ownership of the means of production (1). It is a risky ideological gambit, particularly in the United States, to appropriate the language and vernacular of socialism while ignoring historical attacks of 20th century socialism, and in many cases, actively enforcing various myths and overstatements. It’s a rhetoric strikingly similar to that employed in capitalist and fascists narratives—that one can support the free market without reckoning the crimes of imperialism, or advocate for right wing racial politics without dealing with the legacy of Nazi Germany. It is not a compelling rhetoric. History is the great crucible of political ideology, and no system, critical or political, should be used as the basis for any contemporary movement if history has proven it a failure. The history of 20th century socialism (across the world, including the US) is not an esoteric concern for the academy, but a critical matter regarding the tenability of a socialist movement in America. Socialists of all kinds cannot continue to run from the history of Socialism, to adjust terms and vernacular to obfuscate the real connections between left anti-capitalist movements from Petrograd to Havana to Chicago.

To be clear, the task of socialists is not chiefly one of historical study. It is organizing working class people around their concerns to empower their communities to redress the injustices of the capitalist system. It is essential in an era of growing frustration with political dishonesty that socialist movements pursue this goal through an honest rendering of their history and future, and an open acknowledgement of the historical realities of the Soviet Union, Cuba, and American socialist movements. For that overarching goal to be achieved, socialists must prove with rigorous academic study that socialism, as Michael Parenti said, “has worked for hundreds of millions of people.”

The history of the Soviet Union from 1926-1953 weighs most heavily on modern socialist movements, given the undeniable failures of collectivization. I’ve written previously on the contradictory though hegemonically successful Soviet industrial revolution (2), but have not addressed the so-called purges. Addressing the deeply exaggerated and commonly cited death total in the Soviet Union from 1926-1953 is a task fraught with peril for both socialists and anti-communists. Socialists are attacked for being “tankies,” (3) while non-partisan revisionist academics are attacked for covering up crimes of historic proportions. The archives  speak for themselves. Robert Conquest, famous cold-warrior, exaggerated GULAG populations in the early 1950s by almost a factor of 6 (12,000,000 to the only 2,000,000 that were actually there) (4), and his total estimated number of deaths (20 million) is by even a generous rendering 5 times higher than what the archive suggests. Getty, Rittersporn, and Zemskov further found that political prisoners where a small percentage of the total GULAG population, contrary to popular histories that emerged in the 1990s, and that GULAG labor accounted for only 2% of the Soviet labor force in 1937 at the height of the terror.

These statistical realities put socialists in a vexing position politically. To deny the outrageous claims of magnitude made by partisan historians is seen as squabbling over the extremity of suffering in the period, to gradate horrors. Yet socialism is vanquished so commonly by arguments of magnitude. It’s an argument with no apparent victory, which is perhaps why so many members of the new socialist movement reject to address it completely and render it is a merely academic concern that is counterproductive. This is an error—anyone who has spent even a small amount of time as a dedicated Marxist doing political or academic work knows that these numbers, occasionally in the hundreds of millions, are the first objection and query levied against us. It’s a rhetoric of evasion to claim that Lenin, Stalin, Khrushchev, Honecker, Mao, Deng, and others pursued something so different than what the new socialists advocate as to be irrelevant to the conversation. It is further a mercenary and cruel intellectual step to render the deaths of millions as insignificant to modern socialist movements, if true. If tens of millions (or even hundreds of millions) of people died directly because of Communist rule, we shouldn’t be Communists. If this is untrue, it is essential to our political viability that we address these claims with academic, fact-based responses. It is not a waste of time but rather the defense of the accomplishments of our ideology as an implementable system rather than a mere opposition position to despotic capitalist practices. If the aims of democratic socialists are ever to be established, socialists must reckon their history, openly acknowledge the faults, and be committed to defending its achievements. History cannot be vanquished from the minds of the people—to hope it can be by equating all authoritarian regimes as antithetical to Communism robs us of the critical task of evaluating and changing socialism to work in America, and underestimates the intellectual rigor and predisposition of the working people in America to socialist ideas.

In short, socialists should not be ashamed of their history, should honestly look at it, and actively seek to contradict the myths spread about 20th century socialism. This does not render our movement as a historical one, but rather as one with historical viability—one of the mainstay arguments of the capitalist system from its embryonic stage in the early modern treatises on the bourgeois nature of Roman democracy. The socialist movement cannot progress past FDR liberalism (5) if it continues to evade its history. We must, as Lenin suggested time and again, listen to the working class. One of their major concerns with socialism is the threat of tyranny and bloodshed, and it is essential that socialists acknowledge openly the faults of the Soviet Union, China, etc., while rejecting the lies of partisan historians and underlining the incredible achievements. 700,000 people were executed in the Soviet Union from 1926-1953 in a national environment of paranoia fostered by a fascist menace and an international siege. This was tragic and wrong. Socialists must reckon the reasons just as capitalists must deal with the incredible crimes in India, Africa, and in urban environments across the world today. While acknowledging this, we must reject the myths that dominate the discourse of our ideology, and highlight the elimination of the literacy gap between men and women, the training of more women scientists in the 1970s than the US today, the elimination of homelessness and unemployment, and the defeat of fascism by a multi-ethnic national alliance of men and women. We can correct our history if we own it, and our history implores us to develop a platform for the empowerment of working class people and not only an oppositional platform. Capitalists ignore their history of violence and underplay its magnitude, repeating the crimes of the 19th century over and over again in countries across the globe. The crimes of socialist states pale in comparison, but we cannot make the same mistake.

Further Reading at Waiting for Putney:

On Marxist Literary Criticism, Its Problems, and Its Value

A Beginner’s Guide to Soviet Industrialization

Reappropriating the Bourgeois Revolutions

 Works Cited:

(1) http://www.dsausa.org/what_is_democratic_socialism(2) https://waitingforputney.wordpress.com/2013/10/28/a-beginners-guide-to-soviet-industrialization/ (3) That is, totalitarian socialists with a fetish for Soviet militarism. http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/staggers/2016/08/what-exactly-are-trots-and-tankies. (4) All of this information is coming from Getty, Rittersporn, and Zemskov’s 1993 study: https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B-5SqOpOf_oWWEU1RnJFbFpIS2c/view (5) This is not to say we shouldn’t be a part of the fight for 15 and national healthcare.

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