When Will Capitalism Answer for its Crimes?

Ever since the fall of the Soviet Union, socialism has been tarnished with the image of an authoritarian “dictatorship,” in which civil liberties are brutally repressed. Stalin is frequently depicted as a paranoid, power-hungry megalomaniac who gleefully murdered 100 gazillion people. Lenin, Fidel Castro, Mao and other socialist revolutionaries are viewed as brutal “dictators” who sought power purely for power’s sake.

The Scourge of “Totalitarianism”

Liberals and bourgeois historians label socialism and communism as “totalitarian” — a meaningless academic buzz-word popularized by liberal intellectuals like Hannah Arendt and Karl Popper. Arendt, Popper and other anticommunist scholars lumped communism together with fascism in an attempt to equate the two as “two sides of the same coin,” or part of a so-called “horseshoe theory.”

(The fact that the Nazi Party’s full name is the National Socialist Party only further muddied the distinction between the two opposing ideologies in the mind of the average working-class person.)

Yet even a cursory understanding of socialism demonstrates that it is the complete inverse of fascism. Fascism is the most extreme version of right-wing authoritarianism. Its goal is to smash the left, destroy its organizations and political parties, and crush its movements.

Indeed, it is quite telling that both Arendt and Popper’s seminal works — The Origins of Totalitarianism and The Open Society and its Enemies, respectively — spend considerably more time denouncing communism and Marxism than they do fascism.

This view of socialism as “inherently authoritarian” even permeates the anticommunist left. The Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) — the largest socialist organization in the country — disavows “Stalinism” (whatever that is…) in favor of so-called “democratic socialism.” The DSA has its roots in anticommunist Cold War liberalism. DSA founder, Michael Harrington was an ardent “Cold Warrior” who opposed the Soviet Union.

This “socialism-equals-dictatorship” talking point is hammered into people’s minds as early as elementary school. Socialism, we are taught, might “look good on paper,” but it can “never work in practice.” This is perhaps why George Orwell’s works — Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm, in particular — remain a staple of public education English classes. The CIA even funded the animated film version of Animal Farm.

Soviet Fearmongering Devoid of Historical Context

To be clear, the track record of many communist countries is not impeccable. Countries like the Soviet Union and Cuba did, in fact, carry out various human rights abuses or curtail civil liberties. Stalin did, for instance, murder many of the so-called “Old Bolsheviks,” most notably Leon Trotsky. However, such actions were almost always in the name of protecting and defending the socialist revolutions.

The Bolshevik government faced numerous threats — both internal and external — to its authority shortly following the Russian Revolution of October 1917. Stalin, later, endured multiple assassination attempts. The counter-revolutionary dissidents had to be expelled or, as was often the case, imprisoned. In fact, most of the Russians targeted and imprisoned during the “Great Purges” of 1936 were guilty of treasonous activity or otherwise posed a threat to the Communist Party.

Furthermore, the USSR was invaded by 14 Western capitalist countries (including the United States) intent on sabotaging, undermining, and destabilizing the communist regime. This history is conveniently ignored by bourgeois historians who merely want to paint communists as power-hungry despots. This constant threat, coupled with the Soviet Union’s political and geographic isolation following the defeat of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) in Germany — led the Bolsheviks to adopt a “siege mentality.”

As Michael Parenti writes in his landmark book, Blackshirts and Reds:

For a people’s revolution to survive, it must seize state power and use it to (a) break the stranglehold exercised by the owning class over the society’s institutions and resources, and (b) withstand the reactionary counterattack that is sure to come. The internal and external dangers a revolution faces necessitate a centralized state power that is not particularly to anyone’s liking, not in Soviet Russia in 1917, nor in Sandinista Nicaragua in 1980.

Thus, the claim that socialism has “never worked,” is entirely disingenuous. The truth is that communism has never been allowed to develop and flourish unmolested by the West. The global bourgeoisie has had every interest in destroying socialism wherever it begins to show even modest signs of sprouting — lest it should spread throughout the globe.

Capitalism Democracy

The “socialism-equals-dictatorship” argument assumes that capitalism, in contrast, is “free” and “democratic.” Indeed, the United States prides itself as the “World’s Greatest Democracy,” and as a shinning beacon of “freedom” throughout the world. But really what we have is a form of bourgeois democracy — or, put more simply, democracy for the few.

Consider:

Are you truly “free” if you must sell your labor power for a wage because you are not wealthy enough to own the means of production? And, for that matter, how is the coercion of “work-or-starve” in any way an example of freedom? Are you truly free if you cannot afford to see a doctor if you are ill or to stay home from work? The U.S. stands out among the industrialized world as the only country with no mandatory federal paid sick-leave.

How does the exorbitant cost of a college education — leaving graduates saddled with a staggering, and historically unprecedented amount of debt — make society free? Additionally, the U.S. Supreme Court — a wholly undemocratic body of unelected, unaccountable bourgeois elites — is literally on the verge of overturning Roe v. Wade, thus stripping working-class women of any autonomy over their own bodies. This is in the world’s supposed bastion of “freedom,” and “democracy.”

And this is to say nothing of the fact that the U.S. has the world’s largest prison population. How can a country meet the most basic definition of a “democracy” when 2 million of its citizens are locked up in jail or prison? And most of them are in prison for nonviolent offenses. Black Americans make up the majority of the prison population. Indeed, the police routinely target, harass, beat, and murder (often with impunity) black, trans, homeless, and disabled citizens. Ask any of them what they think of American “democracy.”

But you want to talk about authoritarianism…? Consider that every member of the revolutionary Black Panther Party is currently dead or in prison. Fred Hampton…? Assassinated in his own home. Malcolm X? Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.? Both were killed by the state.

Likewise, the United States has had the bloodiest, most violent labor battles in the history of the industrialized world. Striking workers have been beaten, shot at, and killed all for having the audacity to demand some semblance of basic human dignity at their jobs.

For decades the FBI has infiltrated, spied-on, and otherwise sabotaged left-wing organizations. The Socialist Workers Party, the Communist Party, the American Indian Movement, and the aforementioned Black Panther Party were all targeted by the FBI’s covert COINTELPRO operation. The next time somebody asks you why the left is “so weak” in this country, remind them of this history. The left, at nearly every turn, has been violently crushed by the ruling class — along with its “useful idiot” foot soldiers in the form of the KKK, the anticommunist American Legion, the Proud Boys, and other white supremacist groups.

In fact, whenever the ruling class faces any sort of public pressure for even the most mild of democratic reforms, it responds with violence. Just look at how local police departments promptly deployed to crush the 2020 Black Lives Matter uprisings in the wake of the police murder of George Floyd. It is during these times of profound social upheaval that the capitalist state rips off its mask and reveals its true authoritarian nature.

Capitalism is Already a Dictatorship

All of which is to say that we already live under a dictatorship: the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. The goal of socialism is to overthrow capitalism and establish the dictatorship of the proletariat. The dictatorship of the proletariat represents the intermediate stage between capitalism and communism “whereby the post-revolutionary state seizes the means of production,” and advances a plan to nationalize them.

As Lenin explained in his classic Marxist work, The State and Revolution:

The state is a special organization of force: it is an organization of violence for the suppression of some class. What class must the proletariat suppress? Naturally, only the exploiting class, i.e., the bourgeoisie. The working people need the state only to suppress the resistance of the exploiters, and only the proletariat can direct this suppression, can carry it out. For the proletariat is the only class that is consistently revolutionary, the only class that can unite all the working and exploited people in the struggle against the bourgeoisie, in completely removing it.

Lenin goes on:

… The theory of class struggle … leads as a matter of course to the recognition of the political rule of the proletariat, of its dictatorship, i.e., of undivided power directly backed by the armed force of the people….

The proletariat needs state power, a centralized organization of force, an organization of violence, both to crush the resistance of the exploiters and to lead the enormous mass of the population — the peasants, the petit-bourgeoisie, and semi-proletarians — in the work of organizing a socialist economy. [Emphasis in original.]

Give the People What They Want!

Finally, if socialism is so “authoritarian” and “dictatorial,” it is curious, then, that so many working-class people of former communist countries wish for its return. In fact, numerous polls in the 31 years since the dissolution of the Soviet Union have found that citizens of former Eastern Bloc countries like Hungary, Lithuania, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Russia, and even Ukraine (!) overwhelmingly report that life was better under communism. In Russia, a staggering 77 percent of voters supported preserving the Soviet Union — compared to a mere 22 percent opposed — in the March 17, 1991 referendum vote.

Anticommunists frequently counter, “Why don’t you talk to someone who lived under communism?” They did. The results seem pretty clear.

“… Not Under Conditions of Their Own Choosing.”

All of this is to say that the examples of “actually existing socialist” countries — the Soviet Union, Cuba, Venezuela, Vietnam, etc. — have been experiments. They were not perfect. They were not communist utopias. They were overseen by highly intelligent, yet nonetheless flawed human beings who often did the best they could under the conditions history presented them with. As Marx famously observed, “Men make their own history, but they do not do so under conditions of their own choosing.”

We should strive to study and learn from those countries’ unfortunate excesses, yet also acknowledge and celebrate their impressive successes. In the meantime, let us finally jettison this false, bourgeois propaganda of socialism always leading to dictatorship to the dustbin of history where it belongs.

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Adam Marletta

Adam Marletta

Writer, socialist, and coffee-fiend. I have written for the West End News, Socialist Worker, a bunch of decidedly less interesting publications.