Tibor R. Machan
Anyone with but a little knowledge of Marxism, at least Karl’s version of
it, knows that the old communist wasn’t altogether hostile to capitalism.
He regarded it as a necessary and indeed beneficial phase of the history
of humanity. For Marx this history unfolded comparably to how an
individual human being’s history unfolds, with an infancy (tribalism),
childhood (feudalism), adolescence (capitalism), young adulthood
(socialism) and maturity (communism). But in the last analysis capitalism
is undesirable, just as adolescence is, though with elements to it that
are needed for the species to grow up properly.
One reason most American Leftists are confused is that they fail to see
how the goal they all share, the planned economy–despite denying it a
lot–requires this capitalist phase. Without it a society cannot advance
because under capitalism the means of production develop powerfully so as
to be taken over by the government under socialism. For a Marxist
socialist to destroy capitalism amounts to killing the goose that lays the
One of the flaws of Stalin’s version of "communism" was that, well, it
wasn’t any kind of communism at all. It was in fact a form of fascism,
something the late Susan Sontag very perceptively observed (to the
consternation of many of her Leftist friends). Sure, Stalin, just as
Lenin, invoked a kind of Marxist vocabulary in his rather inept
ruminations about political economy. But the actual regime he headed up
was a fascist dictatorship.
A very illuminating glimpse of this can be gained from Orlando Figes’s The
Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia (2007). The review essay of
this book, by Joseph Frank in The New York Review of Books (February 26,
2009) is itself a fascinating read. No one can get through the book, or
even the review, without affirming the fundamental viciousness of Stalin’s
regime, both a moral and political viciousness, that makes sense of why
there remain Russians who are nostalgic for it.
What jumped out at me in the review essay is not the central feature of
it, or even of the book, but a remark Frank makes about capitalism, one
that’s rare among Leftists. He observes that "Collaborations with Western
left-wing parties during the Popular Front period had already opened the
way for books and films to offer a much more alluring image of life in the
capitalist West," much more, that is, than that which was presented to
Russians by Soviet propaganda. This has produced an attitude favorable to
liberalization, albeit not much came of it back then.
It is remarkable how when one considers capitalism in contrast to the
Stalinist era–just as if one considers it in contrast to, say, (Cuba’s)
Castro’s or (Venezuela’s) Chavez’s version of so called socialism (which
is, as noted earlier, just a type of fascism)–even authors writing for a
Leftist publication such as The New York Review of Books acknowledge that
capitalism is superior. Of course, the capitalism they are talking about
is actually a kind of welfare state "liberalism." But the essentials of
capitalism, its system of private property rights, freedom of expression,
democracy and so on, clearly compare favorably to the dictatorial regime
that any large scale socialist system requires.
It would be useful if Leftists kept this in mind and instead of insisting
on pushing Western welfare states further toward a planned, statist
political economy they got on board with all those who want to develop the
capitalist system to achieve its best version.
Of course, the concept "capitalism" is used to mean different systems by
different people but the basic element of it, one that is acknowledged
implicitly in both Figes’s book and Frank’s review, is its individualist
social philosophy. Whatever the details of capitalism, about which there
is a good deal of controversy–for example, there are so called
left-libertarians who reject its embrace of the business corporation
because it involves, they argue (dubiously, in my view), a form of
statism–it should be evident by now, both from history and from theory,
that the system is far more humane, far more productive, and far more just
that all those put in opposition to it.
It is gratifying to read that some who would ordinarily be expected to
oppose it actually acknowledge its merits.