Cynicism From Above
Cynicism From Below
By Richard Swift
The Nature of the System
The battle for popular control of society and its institutions
has traditionally been identified with the Left of the political
spectrum. However, the current structures and practices of state
socialism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union have cast doubt
on the traditional identification. There Marxism, once a living
part of working class experience, has been ossified and manipulated
to justify whatever policy helps maintain and reproduce the existing
relations of domination. This has resulted in a myriad of clever
evasions by some on the Left. For others it has meant a very basic
crisis of definition. It has forced the latter to think in new ways
about political power and its relationship to economic power. No
longer can the abolition of private property in the means of production
be seen as a sufficient condition to guarantee working class sovereignty.
Direct and indirect forms of democracy need to be evolved for both
state and economy.
Similarly it is necessary to reconsider the categories and language
that Marxism has used in analyzing society and developing its politics.
The inversion of Marxist language and categories into an ideology
against popular control makes this a fundamental task. The critique
of Marxism-Leninism that is being made in a very practical
sense by the people living in state socialist societies provides
us with an excellent starting point.
The problem of how to define and effectively criticize existing
state socialism is a difficult, yet crucial, one for the left. Many
socialists are haunted by the fear of playing into the hands of
anti-communism and the forces of reaction. This tendency to always
glance over one's shoulder has resulted in a failure to appreciate
the importance of the democratic opposition in Eastern Europe and
the Soviet Union. Opposition is judged more on its political shortcomings
than on its courageous stand in the face of monolithic power. Little
account is taken of the political context in which the opposition
must struggle. There is a general failure to understand that the
priority of this struggle must be the creation of a space where
political life and the debate about the meaning and purposes of
socialism can begin again. The fundamental questions this opposition
is asking about Marxism cause a good deal of discomfort amongst
Marxists of various political stripes. Yet a clean break with the
Soviet precedent can only be achieved by supporting the democratic
opposition without ideological reservations. Only with practical
political support for the democratic opposition will there be a
chance of renewing the old vision of a socialism where democracy
is a principle and not just a tactic. The popular distrust (and
hostility) which already exists towards Marxism, in both East and
West, marks this as a critical problem.
An honest self-examination by Marxists must come to terms with
the fact that the directives of oppression in Eastern Europe and
the Soviet Union are drawn from the arsenal of socialist ideas and
values. It is useless to bemoan betrayal, revisionism and deformation.
Certain tenets of Marxism in general, and the Bolshevik tradition
in particular, have proved highly adaptable in administering what
Ferenc Feher has called the dictatorship over needs.
The state socialist tendency (traceable in part back to Marx) to
glorify the achievements of capitalist efficiency in production,
science, and technology are central here. These are held to be neutral
phenomena which may serve socialism as well as capitalism. The emphasis
in state socialist economy thus becomes a rather productivist concept
of growth with the capitalist inefficiencies removed. Work (wage
labour) is the ultimate official value. The capitalist methods (hierarchy)
and technology of production reproduce relations of domination but
in a different context.
With the capitalist autocracy in economic production retained and
a market system based on some degree of consumer choice removed,
there is little space for popular needs to merge in the process
of economic planning. Growth and the abolition of the private means
of production are seen as enough to guarantee socialism. Any considerations
of ecology and a self-managed division of labour tend to get lost
in the shuffle.
The decisive failure has been the inability (unwillingness) to
develop democratic forms in either the economy or political life.
This has led to a situation where needs are bureaucratically determined
and prioritized from the top down. The model is one of a hyper-rationalistic
society with no dysfunctions emerging either through messy conflict
or dissent. The result is a socialist version of the rather Germanic
myth of a perfectly ordered, conflict-free society. That the whole
thing is a myth, with conflict, dysfunctions and dissent simply
not officially recognized, does not seem to dampen technocratic
enthusiasm. Typical problems include imbalances in production between
consumer and capital goods, high defense spending, shortages, a
black market and low productivity. Although the economy in state
socialist societies has superceded the particular forms of capitalism
(the central role of the market, private appropriation of wealth,
labour as commodity) this has failed to achieve the more profound
vision of Marx, a rupture in the rule of capital over man. This
radical rupture would assume a collectively decided purpose behind
an economics defined by human need. Such a purpose is a precondition
for a society where money doesn't talk.
In the sphere of politics the situation is even more dismal. The
ambiguous legacy of the dictatorship of the proletariat
especially when combined with older forms of autocracy (Czarism,
oriental despotism and the byzantine traditions of Imperial Austria)
has proved tragic for the Left. Not only has state socialism failed
to extend those democratic freedom won in the bourgeois era, it
has failed to even maintain them. A statement by the left opposition
Praxis group in Yugoslavia indicates the importance of these freedoms
and criticizes the apocryphal dismissal of them as singly bourgeois
"The basic civil rights and liberties are the great achievements
of the past democratic revolutions. They are necessary though
not sufficient conditions of a free life in any society.
A critique of these rights which rejects or disparages them as merely
formal abstract or bourgeois is not only
devoid of historical sense, but, in the context of societies which
have not only not overcome this bourgeois level but
have not even approached it, also expresses an aggressive obscurantism.
Again the more profound elements of the Marxism critique have been
buried under the usual scientistic cant about the necessity of iron
discipline and the leading role of the party. The party-state
dominates all social groups and the institutions of civil society,
destroying their autonomy and capacity for self-government. The
ideological rationales from apologists are as ingenious as they
are torturous. The populations are held to be immature and in need
of the firm guiding hand of the party at the helm. The ubiquitous
influence of the Central Intelligence Agency and enemies from
abroad are seen to be everywhere capable of destabilizing
state socialism even after three decades of its existence. These
old tired arguments pretend that the crisis in socialism does not
exist. Criticism destroys the unity of world progressive forces
and plays into the hands of anti-communism. According to this schema,
world politics is reduced to a morality play with easily identifiable
good guys and bad guys. Those who are on the receiving end of this
type of logic cannot be blamed for becoming cynical about official
Marxism and its scientific pretensions. A perpetual state of emergency
is used to put off forever a process which Marx hoped would result
in the abolition of political power as such. Relations of subalternity,
new alienation come to dominate in all aspects of society-production,
the press, the army, trade unions, the party - commandism is the
order of the day.
The decisive issue of the nature and direction of state socialism
divides much of Western Left opinion. This is not the place to evaluate
the many worthwhile contributions dealing with this problem. It
is important, however, to locate the misleading and superficial
tendencies in the analysis associated with different critical schools.
While interpretations vary widely there is a general unwillingness
to go to the root of the matter.
Domination in all its most important aspects has destroyed any
progressive impulse in state socialism. But domination varys greatly
in both means and ends. To define it principally in the ways in
which it is similar to capitalism misses the point. Yet there is
a constant effort to observe the new realities in terms of the old.
Whether one evaluates state socialism positively or negatively,
the crucial questions asked have to do with the role of the market,
whether a new class with a relationship to private property is emerging,
or if this or that reform is moving in the direction of capitalism
or socialism. The ecomony is the major preoccupation. There is an
almost universal insistence that state socialism is a transitional
form of society in movement either forward toward socialism
or backwards towards capitalism, This use of the word transition
is rather tautological and far from the original Marxian idea of
a self-destroying transitional state. The predominance of analytical
catagories developed under the conditions of capitalism blocks the
possibility of investigating state socialism as a new form of domination
with a stability and dynamic of its own is consistantly missed.
Repressive tolerance is a luxury state
socialist bureaucracies cannot afford.
One analytical tendency assumes that the old categories applicable
to capitalism are directly transferable to the analysis of the new
type of social formation. A return to capitalism (Maoism) or a form
of state capitalism (unorthodox Trotskyism) is the direction in
which these analyses lead us. What is ignored is the specificity
of capitalism and the centrality of the plan under state socialism
and its role in overriding popular needs and their articulation.
Emphasis is placed instead on the economic rights and privileges
of the bureaucracy, ignoring the fact that the roots of domination
in state socialism lie not in the economy but at the centre of the
political system. The analysis of this tendency in its calculations
never really comes to terms with the socialist demogogy of the legitimating
ideology in state Socialist societies.
Those schools of socialist thought which do recognize the primacy
of the political tend to do so in a superficial manner. The systems
basically healthy direction must overcome some unhealthy blockages
which are of a political and hence derivative nature. Bureaucracy
(orthodox Trotskyism) or bureaucratic attitudes (mainstream Eurocommunism)
are seen as predominately political distortions of a more or less
socialist economic structure. A new ruling class cannot consolidate
itself without the traditional bourgeois relationship to private
property. The crucial point that both these analyses overlook is
the fusion of political and economic forms of domination in state
socialism. This leads to underestimating the deeply entrenched political
and economic interests of the bureaucracy and to an overly optimistic
prognosis about its overthrow. The root of the failure lies in the
inability to critically analyze the theory and practice of Bolshevik
democratic centralism with its tendencies towards hyper-rationalistic
planning, social engineering, and politics based on management and
administration rather than working class power. A careful reconsideration
of these assumptions is too threatening. It is easier to see the
problem as one of bad rather than good leadership, cynical bureaucrats
rather than dedicated revolutionaries instead of questioning
the fundamental divisions between conception and execution and ruler
Western Marxism has paid far too little attention to what the opposition
in state socialist societies have to say about their own circumstances.
The main current amongst democratic oppositionists is to look at
their societies as unique social formations with a logic of their
own which cannot be defined principally in terms of its relationship
to capitalism. Absolute control of the political arena is essential
for the state socialist ruling class to legitimate both its economic
and political policies. In this context the struggle for democratic
freedom has a different meaning than it does under liberal capitalism.
There formal political democracy (although absolutely essential
for working class struggles) may serve to mask the main relations
of domination which lie in the monopoly power that transnational
corporations exercise over the economy. The ideological struggle
is much more concentrated under state socialism where there is no
separation of public (political) and private (economic) spheres.
The battle for autonomy and for decision making space by both the
intelligensia and the working class has a significant and threatening
impact on bureaucratic perogatives and power. Repressive tolerance
is a luxury state socialist bureaucracies cannot afford. It is
in this sense that it is important for the Western Left to appreciate
the limited program (rights to independent trade unions, freedom
of religion and national cultural rights, freedom of the press,
opinion, and association) of the democratic opposition in Soviet-type
societies. The issues cannot be defined in relation to a capitalism
creeping in through the back door but as the political dynamics
of a new social formation.
Conservative critics of state socialism have been no more successful
than the Left in penetrating the ideological veils that surround
state socialism. Too often their perspectives are clouded by a desire
to discredit socialism and the peculiarities tend to get lost in
the dust of domestic political battle. The convergence school which
stresses the continuity of statist and technocratic tendencies under
both capitalism and state socialism does so only at the cost of
ignoring the specificity of each system. While it is true that there
is no decisive contradiction between international capitalism and
state socialism (although there is plenty of vigourous competition,
particularly in the area of international power politics), the rulers
of each system depend heavily on a perceived contradiction to legitimate
their power. Real differences underpin this political offensive
on each of their parts. Here two different ideas of democracy, albeit
a rather prescribed democracy, are the crucial issue. The Soviet
system grants limited economic rights (a guaranteed living at a
certain level and the right to work) while liberal capitalism grants
limited political rights (formal universal franchise, freedom of
assembly, press and opinion). In both systems these rights are constantly
in danger of being eroded and can only be effectively defended by
working class struggle. Yet the rulers and ideological priests of
each system trumpet the meager freedom that they each allow as compared
to the sham freedom of their competitors. In this sense they perform
services of mutual reinforcement.
The totalitarian school analyses state socialism with the main
emphasis on the terrorist control of the state over every aspect
of social life and individual decision. In contrast to liberal society
where the state is constitutionally restrained and the rights to
property provide a bulwark against state encroachment the
state under socialism is seen as having almost totally unimpeded
control of society. This view runs up against the realities of periods
of resistance and of liberalization which dot the history of state
If the totalitarian theorists are right, we should be facing a
period of ever increasing state control. Yet in many state socialist
countries there has been a definite extension of the political indifference
area. A greater latitude in cultural and personal matters marks
the present era in comparison to the ideological inquisitions of
the Stalin period. Physical liquidation as the normal course for
dealing with opposition has been curtailed. In countries such as
Hungary and Poland there have been both economic liberalizations
and a greater toleration in intellectual life. The system has proved
neither immune to internal conflicts nor totally insensitive to
pressure from the grassroots. The spectre of revolt, particularly
spontaneous workers revolt, is one the bureaucracies must all live
with. Political process, albiet the exclusive preserve of an
elite, still goes on and as the case of Czechoslovakia proves, can
spill over its banks and infect public sentiment.
Nowhere is the limited effectiveness of state socialist 'totalitarianism'
so obvious as in the realm of consciousness. Despite an elaborate
network of institutions engaged in the work of censorship, news
management, and the production of official viewpoints through culture
and ritual the monster of consciousness remains at large.
The quality of state socialist propaganda is often quite laughable.
In comparison with its Western competitors, who provide a view of
a way of life based an a seductive (if ultimately impoverishing)
consumer culture, state socialist propaganda is overtly political
and very clumsy. While the journalists of Time and Newsweek
present an American mythology to the world, their Eastern counterparts
write and broadcast not for the public, but for the censor. It is
upon him that their continued livelihood depends. One of the censor's
basic principles, a basic principle of all forms of absolutism,
is that there is no news but good news.* The credibility gap engendered
has not only discredited the regimes in question, but the Marxism
which they use to justify themselves.
* This principle has been modified somewhat in the case of Polish
and Hungarian liberalizations. Here criticism may be allowed in
individual cases although they must never be generalized into a
critique of policy or society.
The Monster of Consciousness
The visitor to Eastern Europe in particular is struck by the degree
of western influence especially in the cultural universe of everyday
life. Western cultural styles are increasingly tolerated as the
old Stalinist puritanism collapses. Coca Cola, blue jeans, western
music, Hollywood film stars, melt into what appears as a mindless
glorification of corporate consumer culture. Window shopping threatens
to outstrip football as the most popular spectator sport. Things
Western carry such status that a quick profit may be turned by selling
a Levi-Strauss label to adorn a Polish made shirt. Even May Day
was celebrated in Budapest with a punk rock concert in 1978. The
old cultural conservatism of Eastern European and Soviet Marxism
is no match for the latest fads and fashions from the West. This
superficial evidence of a failure in the battle for hearts and minds
mirrors a deeper malaise that infects all levels of state socialist
societ. The situation was eloquently described by the Polish socialist
Wlodzimierz Brus when he gave the Isaac Deutscher Memorial Lecture
The gift of liberty is like a horse handsome, strong
and high spirited. In some it arouses the wish to ride; in many
others on the contrary it increases the desire to walk. -
Massimo d'Azamlio 1848
Deprivation of freedom, even in its present day forms which
are 'soft' compared with the Stalinist period, destroys the roots
of human creativity and initiative, and stifles the ability to make
intelligent choices. In consequence a deep contradiction persists
between 'mine' and 'theirs', the latter meaning what is supposed
to be common ownership. The official ideology, by contrast, incessantly
preaches the theme of social integration, based upon what is allegedly
'all power to the people' and on mass participation in economic
decision-making. The ideology cannot, of course, be abandoned
it is, after all, the regime's source of legitimation but
since it is in striking contrast with observable reality it naturally
contributes to a breakdown in social morality and it leads to cynicism
and frustration. Too often the natural outlet for these deep social
contradictions finds its expression in pursuing strictly egotistic
interests, in developing an admiration for bourgeois patterns of
success in general and of consumerism in particular and these are
met, in practice but obviously not in words, with far greater approval
by the Party leadership than activities which are closer to the
socialist ideal but carry a threat to the regime. From the side
of the political elite there is undoubtedly an element of rationality
in this encouragement of bourgeois individualism in its several
The backwardness of the masses is a self-fulfilling prophecy for
the bureaucracy. An atomized and depoliticized population is much
easier to control than a militant and class-conscious one. If aspirations
and desires can be channelled into the world of private achievement
then the political power and policies of the elite are safe, at
least in the short-term, the limited possibilities for private material
improvement tend to intensify the conflicts between groups in society
as well as those between the individual and society. The social
decomposition caused by consumerism without consumption (at least
in anything approaching the levels achieved by industrial capitalism),
has effects on the level of individual psychology; in Hungary, the
country which has gone furthest down the road to what Brus terms
'enlightened socialist absolutism' these effects are particularly
striking. In 1977, 20,000 people tried to kill themselves and 4,500
succeeded, giving Hungary the highest suicide rate in the world.
Despite significant divergences in policy due in part to levels
of popular resistance and in part to different cultural and political
traditions, certain common features stand out throughout the different
state socialisms. The strict control of informatics is one of these.
Another is the purely formalistic use of Marxism in analysis and
its public presentation in monotonomously predictable and highly
stilted language. This type of Marxism Leninism becomes so elastic
that seemingly any policy can be included as a socialist one. Miklas
Haraszti reports in his study of the sociology of work in a Hungarian
factory that the piece work system is defended as being the ideal
form of socialist wages, the embodiment of the principle 'from each
according to his capacity, to each according to his work.' This
alteration of the old communist ideal ' from each according to his
ability to each according to his need' is the work of a Hungarian
expert in 'management science'. The labour 'exchange' program which
brings workers from all over Eastern Europe to the labour starved
factories of East Germany is universally acclaimed as an example
of the highest achievement in socialist internationalism. In fact
the system differs little from the oppressive guest worker system
which operates in Western Europe. Barrack conditions and cultural
alienation are the defining characteristics. In a similar but more
sinister vein, political rhetoric is used to justify the suppression
of dissenting views. In the German Democratic Republic left opposition
theorist Rudolf Bahro is arrested as an imperialist spy. In Czechoslovakia
the human rights Charter 77 is officially portrayed as a 'cynical
and cold blooded act calculated to cause chaos in a peaceful country'.
Record work achievements are seen to be a consequence of working
class 'disgust ...at the endeavour of the renegades who concocted
the squib "Charter 77"'. All this comes from a booklet
entitled In the Name of Socialism compiled by the Czechs
from official sources to influence foreign public opinion.
The crude justifications for almost any policy of economic rationality
or political repression in Marxian terms tends to undermine the
very socialism in whose name it claims to speak. Its contrast with
peoples' everyday experience creates an enormous credibility gap
and an ideological vacuum. To prevent this vacuum from being filled
by an effective political critique from below the party state must
resort to further bureaucratic fiats. If concessions are granted
it is almost always in the area of the economy but seldom in the
expansion of political and cultural rights. The underlying principle
which must never be questioned is the party's unchallenged right
to decide and control what is written, said, and, where possible,
A former Polish censor, Tomasz Strzyzewski, who recently defected
to Sweden has revealed the scope and extent of censorship in his
country. Although the word 'censorship' has been eliminated by the
office of Censorship, the activity is still pervasive. The Central
Office of Control of the Press, Publications and Theatre is a major
institution almost a ministry with its president, vice-president,
its departments and services. All books, plays and the entire press
is checked preventively that is before they appear in public.
Such matters as foreign affairs, economic relations with the West,
the democratic opposition and the measures taken to curb it are
very strictly controlled or in the latter case, barely mentioned
at all. There are blacklists of major intellectuals and writers
whose names and the titles of whose work are strictly proscribed.
The system operates through 'interventians' by the Central Office
but most frequently through the self-censorship of press and media
According to Strzyzewski this form of news and culture management
represents more than simply lack of confidence in the citizen. More
than lack of confidence... it is the government's contempt of the
citizen that this is all about. It is possible that at a certain
time, the government may lack confidence in a fraction of the population;
but it is not possible to be afraid of everyone all the time. No,
it is a question of contempt, since the aim of censorship is not
to convince, but to manipulate everybody all the time. Cynicism,
that's the operative word.
If this is true in Poland, with Hungary, one of the most liberal
countries in Eastern Europe, it is acutely the case in Czechoslovakia,
the German Democratic Republic or the Soviet Union itself. The cynicism
of the rulers gives rise to a cynicism of the ruled. This shows
most clearly in things like sabotage, alcoholism, absenteeism, low
labour productivity, a refusal of available forms of participation
and a generalized sense of disdain about the institutions of administration
and those who control them. A cynicism from below is in an important
sense a healthy development. State socialism and its managers have
shown long ago that their socialism is merely rhetorical. They have
made a laughing stock of any idea of a society cemented by moral
incentives or socialist community. Attempts at socialist renewal
such as those in Poland in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968, or the
various left opposition tendencies have been vigoursously discouraged.
Replacing the self-blame of consumerism ('you are what you possess')
with the structural and more political blame of cynicism from below
is a healthy social symptom. It is a necessary if not sufficient
condition for change. It is a negation of the negation.
One of the most ingenious forms that cynicism from below attains
is that of the joke. A lively political humour has developed under
state socialism which explodes the pretensions and constituting
myths of the planning elite. Where the space is missing for an organizational
resistance, irony becomes a most important weapon for creating an
autonomous psychic space. Laughter is the widespread and entirely
understandable response to party-state authoritarianism. The bitterness
of the humour gives it a sharp political edge. It clearly marks
the failure of bureaucracy (hopefully inevitable) in regimenting
Political jokes touch practically every aspect of life under state
socialise. The tension between ideal and reality provides a fertile
ground. The legitimating ideology of official Marxism-Leninism is
turned on itself in a manner which reveals the hollowness of its
claims. In some the privileges of an elite supposedly committed
to equality are revealed.
Breshnev's mother comes to visit him in Moscow. He picks her
up in a chauffer driven Rolls.
M. "Son, where did you get the car?"
B. "It comes with the job Ma."
She notices his fine new suit.
M. "San, where did you get the good cloths?"
B. "They come with the job Ma"
They arrive at Breshnev's penthouse apartment. 'It comes with the
job Ma'. Fine furniture - 'comes with the job'. The mother thinks
for a moment - 'I'm glad to see you are doing so well son, but what
will happen to you if the Communists come back?'
Other jokes poke fun at the scientific nature of the 'correct line'
ideology of administration.
Q. What is it when you have too much food in the country and
no food in the city?
A. A Bukharinite right deviation.
Q. What is it when you have all the food in the city and none in
A. A Trotskyite left deviation.
Q. What is it when you don't have any food anywhere?
A. The correct application of the party line.
Similarly the pompous boasts of socialist efficiency come under
Socialism comes to the Sahara. They have their first five year
plan. Nothing happens. They have their second five year plan. Same
thing. Then during their third five year plan they begin to run
out of sand.
What's twelve yards long and eats potatoes?
- A line-up in a Polish meat store.
The institutions which possess a monopoly of top down political
power are held up to ridicule.
At school the teachers are taking up a collection for the party
in Ethiopia. Everyone is supposed to bring in five kopeks the next
day. Everyone dutifully brings theirs except for young Franz. Franz
'My father says that Ethiopia is a long way away, we don't get much
news of it, how do we even know they have a party there.'
A week later another collection is taken up this time for the trade
union in Ethiopia. Everyone brings their five kopeks except Franz.
Again Franz explains.
'My father says that Ethiopia is a long way away, we don't hear
much about it, how do we even know they have a trade union there.'
A week later another collection is taken, this time for the starving
millions in Ethopia. Everyone brings their five kopeks except for
Franz who brings fifteen kopeks. He explains:
'My father says if they have starving millions in Ethopia they must
have a trade union and a party.'
Or the predictability and boredom of official pronouncements are
Comrade Breshnev is addressing the Party Congress when a security
agent passes him a note saying that a spy has infiltrated the congress.
There was a brief pause while the security agents assured Breshnev
that if he continued his speech they would keep a close watch and
nab the culprit. Breshnev continued and soon out of the coner of
his eye caught sight of a short dark man being led away by two hefty
KGB agents. Breshnev was much impressed by the efficiency of the
KGB being able to pick a spy out of the thousands in attendance
at the Party Congress. He was curious as to how they had been able
to do it so quickly, and queried the KGB agent in charge after finishing
his speech. The agent proudly replied that it was simple. They had
followed the teachings of comrade Lenin who had taught that 'the
enemy never sleeps.'
The supposed final advent of communism and the almost forgotten
'withering away of the state' are other tempting targets for popular
honour. With the utopian dimension of communism buried so deeply
by the banal productivist realities of existing state socialism,
this is a particular popular theme for wry reflection. No where
else is the gap between theory and practice quite so obvious.
Breshnev decides that now that more than six decades of socialist
transition have passed since the Russian revolution it is time to
estimate how far the socialist world is away from the final goal
of communism. This is an important theoretical and political issue
so that it is necessary to set up a special study commission of
leading party ideologues. The commission holds six months of intense
investigation before reporting to the Party Congress that they are
one hundred kilometres from Communism.
Breshnev is frankly puzzled. What can this answer possibly mean?
He decides, enough of these ideologues, let's ship the problem out
to the Academy of Sciences to look at. Another six months and the
answer comes back the same, one hundred kilometres. Breshnev is
both confused and annoyed. The best brains in the country have only
been able to come up with incongruous answers. He decides to give
the problem to the Rand Corporation to see if a capitalist think
tank can handle it with more efficiency.
He waits a year until Rand submits their final report. The answer
is again the same one hundred kilometres. Breshnev is beside
himself. How can this be one hundred kilometres from communism?
He calls together all those involved in the study and demands to
know what methods they used to reach this conclusion.
The head scientist pauses for a moment and then begins to explain:
Scientist: "Well, Mr. Chairman, we feed various kinds of
data into our computer bank material on production, consumption,
gross national product, trade figures and indices for measuring
Breshnev: "Yes ...yes...very good."
Scientist: "And then we feed in a quote from comrade Lenin
which was that 'Each five year plan is a step towards Communism.'"
Cynicism itself (particularity the cynicism from above) is caricatured
The foreign sales administration finally promotes Comrade K
to a job which will allow him to take promotion trips abroad. On
his first trip he goes to Copenhagen and sends back a telegram saying.
'I choose freedom'. This causes great consternation in the administration
and promotes worries of new restrictions to be imposed by the central
On Monday morning the party secretary sees Comrade K in the
hall coming to work as usual. The surprised secretary stops him
and incredulously asks him what he is doing there. K replies that
he is going to work.
"But what about your telegram saying that you choose freedom?"
the secretary demands.
K grins at him: "Faith, Mr. Secretary, faith."
In a similar vein the ritualistic ceremonies to celebrate the fraternal
relations between the peoples of Eastern Europe and those of the
Soviet Union are satirized:
The week November 7 - 14 is declared 'the week of undying friendship'
between the peoples of Czechoslovakia and those of the Soviet Union.
Appropriate official ceremonies are planned. Posters announcing
'the week of undying friendship' are put up. A Czech citizen paints
under one of these, 'O.K., one week but not a day longer.'
The real tragedy in the bankruptcy of state socialism is caught
in the distinction between capitalism and socialism that is widely
'Capitalism is the exploitation of man by man and socialism
is the complete opposite.'
These examples provide a flavour of the very practical critique
of Marxism-Leninism which has developed in the popular culture of
Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. They should provide a hint
to us that the conception of socialism represented by the Bolshevik
tradition is a spent force. It is useless to hold to the position
that 'Yes there are criticisms but still it is better than capitalism.'
The mistake here is mixing up different with better (or if this
naked ethical imperative is bothersome, 'historically progressive'.)
Reform of this tradition will not do, a fundamental rethinking is
necessary. This is a precondition to replacing a political culture
of restraint with one of imagination.
We are left with the problem of what is needed to supercede cynicism
from below. This poses the necessity of a new vision of socialism
to replace the old. Cyncism tends to fill the vacuum left by a failure
of vision. This is as much a problem in the West as it is under
state socialism. In either case it is necessary to restore popular
control to the centre of the socialist project.
1. The term 'state socialism' is used here to indicate the countries
of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. While the institutional
pattern described is to a large extent applicable to Third World
socialism there are significant divergent features as well
forms of direct democracy, levels of participation, etc. The problems
of, and possibilities for, Third World socialism differ radically
and some options closed long ago for Soviet type socialism remain
open in the Third World. This is not to discount a certain similarity
of triumphalist style and strong internal and external pressures
to adopt the Soviet model.
2. Those leftists who choose to support only the explicitly Marxist
currents in the opposition will increasingly face a serious dilemma
as even the Marxist currents have been forced to find a new political
vocabulary to express their dissent. The discredited categories
of Marxism-Leninism prove inadequate.
3. Feher, Ferenc; 'The Dictatorship over Needs', Telos #35,
P.31 - 42. Feher is a participant in the Budapest School of Marxism
which emphasizes the role of human needs in defining the socialist
project. (See Agnes Heller's Marx's Theory of Needs, Allsion
and Busby.) Feher and other members of the Budapest school have
been forced into the Hungarian diaspora as a consequence of their
opposition to a system which determines needs from the top down.
4. Hyper-rationalism has led to an increasing anti-rationalism
on the part of certain sectors of the opposition. This is most true
of the relatively isolated opposition in the Soviet Union itself.
Solzhenitsyn, despite the realism of much of his work, is the most
obvious example here. Hyper-rationalism can also been seen in the
Soviet choice of the psychiatric apparatus as a means of repression
against dissent. If the system is close to scientific perfection,
those who oppose it must be mentally unstable as they could have
no possible rational grounds on which to stand. 'Story of a Workers'
Group', Labour Focus on Eastern Europe, Vol. 2, No. 1, P.
2. This is perhaps the logical conclusion of 'current line' politics.
5. The phrase had a limited application and radically different
meaning for Marx. Dictatorship in the twentieth century has transformed
the meaning of the word. As Fernando Claudin points out: 'Marx and
Engels in their theory of socialist revolution equated democracy
with socialism and preached the struggle for democracy as the principal
axis of the struggle by the proletariat to achieve its own class
rule.' Claudin, Fernando; Eurocommunism and Socialism, New
Left Books, p. 95. London, 1978. The phrase 'dictatorship of the
proletariat is an unfortunate and dangerous baggage for the Left.
6. Belgrade Praxis Group, 'The Meaning of the Struggle for Civil
and Human Rights', Telos #35, P. 186 - 191.
7. The phrase comes from Rudolf Bahro's excellent work on state
socialism and indicates the dependent social relations cemented
by state police methods which permeate over level society. Bahro's
book, The Alternative is a Marxist expose of the contemporary
circumstances of the German Democratic Republic. Since his arrest
in late 1977 he has disappeared completely from sight. The official
press claim he is guilty of espionage.
8. The term is used here reluctantly to take into account both
the system's self-consciousness as socialist and its departure from
the original definition of socialism as the self-government of associated
producers. Other fruitful investigations of the phenomena described
it variously as bureaucratic collectivism (Carlo, Antonio, 'The
Socio-Economic nature of the U.S.S.R.', Telos #21) or drawn
parallels with oriental despotism (Bahro). While it is tempting
to follow Fernando Claudin (op. cit.) in dismissing Soviet-type
societies as not socialist because socialism is impossible without
democracy, this is somewhat unsatisfactory. It provides a useful
evasion for socialists in that it fails to take into account the
elements that make up and legitmate the new social formation and
are in fact drawn from the socialist tradition.
9. A young German writer who used to write for East German Cabaret
but now lives in the West recently commented in a Der Spiegel
interview: 'In the East political cabaret is supposed to change
society, but it is not allowed to say anything; in the West it is
allowed to say whatever it pleases, so long as it cannot change
anything at all.' Meszaros, Istvan, 'Political Power and Dissent
in Post-Revolutionary Societies', New Left Review #108.
10. Jimmy Carter recently showed the limits of his human rights
campaign at the time of the trials of the Helsinki monitoring group
in Moscow. According to Carter, "We have expressed our displeasure
in a very moderate way.... I have not embarked on a vendetta against
the Soviet Union. We cannot interfere in their internal affairs."
Montreal Gazette, 21 July 1978. Increasing east-west economic
co-operation including the extension of western credit (with its
accompanying pressures) should be seen as part of an overall attempt
to co-ordinate Western stabilization policies with Eastern growth
11. Examples of working class revolt have occurred most recently
in Poland and amongst Rumanian miners.
12. In a system of closed but relatively stable politics there
is often great speculation on the differences over policy existing
at the higher levels of the party apparatus. It is very difficult
to evalute what real differences do exist. The Prague Spring proves
that change can come from within the party apparatus. However, it
is a common tactic of powerholders in state socialist societies
to strike a fashionably liberal pose (in private) and point to the
possibility of greater evils in justifying their policies. This
is quite easy to do in countries where the Stalinist past still
casts along shade. Geography and the real possibility of Russian
intervention provide useful rationales in Eastern Europe. An atrophied
sense of possibility is a definite asset for a group of men whose
vision cannot extend beyond keeping things together and themselves
in power until they die.
13. The title of a surrealist tract.
14. Window shopping is also the only effective way to deal with
periodic shortages in a wide range of goods.
15. Brus, Wlodzimierz, 'The Polish October: Twenty Years After,
The Socialist Register 1977. Merlin Press.
Published in The
Red Menace Number 5, Summer 1980.
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