essays

Oct 1, 1977

The Decay of Radical Socialism

“Libertarians are the only revolutionaries whose victory…will usher in an age of free men and women living their own lives as they choose.”

The Socialist International had its last congress in Geneva a few months ago, and the old gray mare ain’t what she used to be. “A gathering of Socialists,” Flora Lewis of the New York Times observed, “is no longer a steamy session of ardent idealists and dreamers; it is also an occasion at which men who wield government power meet and talk about their problems.” The socialists are retreating from radicalism because they are dealing with the real everyday problems of running a state apparatus, and for this purpose the radical perspective is not suitable.

Throughout the ages of oppression by governments there has always persisted a determined radical opposition, those who consciously view themselves as diametrically opposed to the ruling class, and who are willing to risk all to weaken or crush tyranny wherever it rears its ugly head. Libertarians have historically often been at the forefront of such radical movements, though unfortunately they constitute a minority today. Socialism, especially in its prime, captured the imagination of radicals all over the world. But this is already changing as the aging socialist ideology becomes increasingly compromised, as its unworkable policies refract against reality, and as its ideological foundations are refuted.

In the contemporary American political spectrum the radical perspective, although too broad to be sharply defined, can be roughly illustrated by example.

THE RADICAL PERSPECTIVE

For the conservative, the Vietnam War was a victory for the enemy caused by our “timid” execution of the war. For the liberal, it was a tragic mistake by well-meaning rulers. For the radical, the Vietnam War was the result of French and American imperialism, or more specifically, it was mass murder, and its perpetrators were not erring statesmen, but simply criminals.

The conservative defends the existing property arrangements and laments the disruption to law and order caused by radical opposition. The liberal wants change within the system and writes letters appealing to the good conscience of the torturer. The radical buys a gun in case the Gestapo comes to his door next. The conservative appeals to law, the liberal to democracy, the radical to justice. The radical is distinguished both by his extreme opposition to existing injustice and by his vision of a better world. He is a revolutionary rather than a reformist.

And we live in a world where radical opposition is quite necessary and justified:

● In Paraguay, from November 1975 to May 1976, there were a thousand political arrests and the peasants are reported simply to “have no rights at all.” The fascist General Stroessner has seen to the slaughter of half the population of the Ache Indians since 1968. (Manchester Guardian Weekly, February 27, 1977)

● The thugs who direct the current Cambodian government are reported by those few who escape to employ “harsh methods which have decimated the Cambodian people and are bleeding a whole generation.” (Le Monde, April 17, 1977)

● In recent years several thousand people have tried to get from the east to the west side of a German city but have been kidnapped and about two hundred of them killed by the East German government. (Manchester Guardian Weekly, May 8, 1977)

● In Indonesia, there are an estimated “100,000 prisoners, most of whom have been held for 10 years without charge or trial.” (Amnesty International,Matchbox, Winter 77)

● The governments of the world are not content to oppress their “own” populations. They spend, in total, hundreds of billions of dollars a year on modern implements of mass-murder, threatening every living thing on the planet with nuclear destruction. And as if this were not enough, these bloodthirsty militarists are designing new kill machines such as the proposed Neutron Bomb which will kill people in a couple of nightmarish hours without destroying buildings or property. Efficient genocide.

But why should an American, among the least oppressed in the world today, be a radical? Aren’t these savage regimes far away and unrelated to our middle-class, comfortable existence? Not a chance. Not only does our tax money support the largest and most “advanced” military machine on Earth; many of the most barbaric of these regimes owe their survival to the largess of the United States Government. Le Monde recently reported that “Brazilian, Uruguayan, Argentine and Chilean experts who have shamefully institutionalized the torture of prisoners, including the torture of women and innocent persons, elevating it into a style of government, were trained and encouraged by CIA specialists.” For twenty-seven years, a U.S. military academy, the School of the Americas, has been training over 30,000 Latin-American soldiers including such courses as “interrogation techniques” and “urban and rural counter-insurgency concepts.” These U.S.-trained and equipped Latin American armies have been engaged “in a virtually ceaseless war of repression against their own peoples.” (Manchester Guardian Weekly, April 17,1977) A few years ago it was only radicals who were pointing to American complicity in such political crimes. Now it is common knowledge.

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An East German border guard stands on duty at a hole in the Berlin Wall . (UPI) 4/16/62

SOCIALISM AND RADICALISM

The socialist movement has prospered mainly on the basis of its self-proclaimed radicalism. It has held its vision of a peaceful and prosperous society before the people. Marx advocated revolution to bring down the exploiting ruling class. Lenin proclaimed firm opposition to imperialism everywhere and urged the abolition of the bourgeois state and its replacement by something he believed to be entirely different, the workers’ state. The socialists have appealed to the oppressed all over the world, particularly in the Third World, and have often correctly identified their oppression as a manifestation of the American imperial State. To the extent that radical socialists have brought to the world’s attention this wholesale slaughter and imprisonment of innocent human beings and exposed the machinations of the CIA in this regard, to that extent all civilized human beings owe a deep debt of gratitude to radical socialism.

However, in addition to being in extreme opposition to the bourgeois state, radical socialists have always claimed to be offering a completely new and better economic system. As an alternative to the “anarchy” of capitalist production with its allegedly inherent business cycles, radical socialists have argued that the production of society be “rationally” coordinated from a Central Planning board. As an alternative to production for “selfish” profits, radical socialists have proposed production for “social” purposes, as “democratically” determined by the proletariat. As an alternative to the “cut-throat competition” of accumulating capitalists, radical socialists have promised a social system of uncompetitive worker solidarity. As an alternative to the free market where rent, interest, and profit are “appropriated” by the capitalists a new economic scheme is proposed whereby workers receive this “surplus value” in the form of higher wages and more “social services” from the workers’ state. And, ultimately, radical socialists have claimed, their society will achieve “full communism” accompanied by the “withering away” of the workers’ state.

“In communist society,” Lenin wrote, “… people will gradually become accustomed to observing the elementary rules of social intercourse … without force, without coercion, without subordination, without the special apparatus for coercion called the state.” (The State and Revolution)

This is the abolition of statism in the abstract the end of the “need for violence against people in general, for the subordination of one man to another, and of one section of the population to another.”

The last phrase was written by Lenin just a few months before he actually attained power in Russia and set about to achieve his dream. The fact that neither Lenin nor any other socialist leader who has ever gotten to power has achieved any of the fundamental proposals of the preceding paragraphs is not to be attributed to their hypocrisy, but rather to the incompatibility of their goals.

To advocate the abolition of private ownership of the means of production is to advocate the institution of “public” ownership of the means of production, that is, to leave more choices concerning the use of resources in the hands of the State and less in the hands of those individuals who actually employ the resources. With the central planners as the sole owners of the means of production there can be no cost-cutting competition, no market, no accurate prices to reflect the actual relative scarcities of goods, and thus there is extremely inefficient production. Radical socialists have neglected the problems of socialist control of production. Marx had very little at all to say about socialist economics while Lenin supposed that all the bureaucratic functions would be so easy that workers themselves could perform them in their spare time. By this simplification he failed to clearly anticipate the rise of the bureaucratic class in Russia, and due to his unflagging faith in the proletariat class he refused to see that a workers’ state can be as oppressive as a bourgeois one.

CENTRAL PLANNING

Centralized planning means imposing the decisions of the central planning committee upon the choices of everyone else in the society. This imposition cannot occur without coercion: either the planners must offer incentives to the citizens to act according to the plan, in which case the money to bribe them must come out of general tax revenues (which are coercively collected), or the planners must directly force actions to conform to the plan. In either case planning requires what Lenin called “the subordination of one man to another.” In both cases, the people who are in the best position to make intelligent choices are being told by others, necessarily less informed of the particular details, what to do.

It should not be surprising that the extent of a society’s economic advance has been roughly inversely proportional to the extent of this usurpation of decisions by bureaucrats.

While still members of the opposition, socialists are commendable in their radicalism, but when in power their performance as statists is as oppressive as that of any fascist. The Soviet Gulag has become the very symbol of the police state in the modem world. The Khmer Rouge has turned Cambodia into “a huge laboratory for a revolutionary experiment unprecedented for its excesses.” (Le Monde, April 17, 1977) When it grasps the reins of power, the radical socialist revolution becomes transformed into a grotesque struggle for the control of the State. It is no longer a question of ending oppression but rather of who does it, the bourgeoisie or the proletariat.

But since the rhetorical appeal of socialism has always been radical, since the propaganda has emphasized the vision of a peaceful and harmonious society, the socialist movement consists largely of well-meaning, humane people who simply cannot stomach the oppressive excesses of totalitarian communism. Faced with an ideology turned sour, socialists have been retreating in droves to practical compromises, to new “third” solutions, to what amounts to reformist welfare liberalism.

THE RETREAT FROM PLANNING

The idea of total centralization of all economic decision making has been abandoned by most socialists today. It was discarded in practice by Lenin himself after the dismal failure of War Communism.

“We reckoned,” he confessed,”—or perhaps it would be truer to say that we presumed without reckoning adequately—on being able to organize the state production and the state distribution of products on Communist lines in a small-peasant country directly by an order of the proletarian state. Experience has proved that we were wrong.” (Lenin, “Fourth Anniversary of October Revolution,” Selected Works II)

Central planning has been rejected in theory by the retreat of socialists (from the arguments of Ludwig von Mises and F. A. Hayek on economic calculation) to “market socialism,” a phrase which alone would have driven Marx or Lenin into a rage. Far from being a radically different kind of economy from state capitalism, as has been and still is the rhetorical appeal of socialism, modern “socialist” economies are merely a heavily bureaucratized version of the same old thing: statism imposed over and interfering with the market. Directors of Soviet enterprises are paid far better than regular workers, profit incentives in one form or another are common in “socialist” economies, the central plan is not (and could not possibly be) the expression of the workers’ desires, interest is paid on loans, rent is paid for the use of capital goods. “The USSR operates banks in Western Europe, the Mideast, and Asia … It owns and manages more than a score of companies in the capitalist world to peddle raw materials, or to sell and service its manufactured products.” (New York Post,February 1, 1977) Socialists have been drifting from a radical but impossible utopianism to a washed-out, bureaucratic, welfare-state reformism. In short, socialism is selling out.

The program of the French Communist Party “excludes as objectives the nationalization of all individual and commercial enterprises, and the expropriation and collectivization of family farms… This would be to sacrifice a portion of the economic potential to the caricature of a dogma. More generally, the Party believes that is is not good for the State to retain all power and play the role either of guardian angel or of policeman.” (Foreign Affairs,January 1977) But while the French left has retreated to advocating some nationalization, even this is, in Flora Lewis’ words, “an approach that most other European Socialists now consider outdated, believing that government’s power to guide and control industry is much more important than the old shibboleth of ‘national ownership of the means of production.’ ”

Note that this “caricature of a dogma,” this “outdated shibboleth” is the very characteristic of socialist economics which used to be considered, by socialists as well as by capitalists, the distinguishing characteristic of socialism! Flora Lewis comments on the recent International: “Property is no longer their bugaboo … Profits are no longer a dirty word … ‘International solidarity’ no longer means attacking the United States and supporting the most radical Third World demands of the ‘neo-imperialists,’ ” and in fact, many of the socialist leaders themselves “run industrial states usually lumped among the ‘neo-imperialists.’ ”

Flora Lewis observes that the “traditional rhetoric” of socialists is still employed in the published propaganda but “they do not carry this kind of language into their working summits.” Times have changed from the days of the First Socialist Internationals when the radical ideology was considered a principled guide to policy. Now we are treated to such obfuscations as Egon Bahr’s (head of West Germany’s Socialist Party) rhetorical question: “Besides, who can really define Socialism, any more than you can really define Communism or Capitalism?”

The element of truth in Bahr’s question is that in the 1970s there is very little difference in the economic forms of so-called capitalist, socialist and communist countries. They are all forms of bureaucratic state-capitalism: some are merely more bureaucratic than others.

SOCIALISM AS CONSERVATIVE

This hardly comprises radical opposition. Peter Clecak in his new book Crooked Paths advocates a more conservative socialism and, as reviewer Todd Gitlin noted, “Clecak sees that patient, modest socialism, shorn of its Communist hope and alibi, tends to blur into liberalism.” (The Nation, March 12,1977) John Lawrence of the Los Angeles Times points out the extent to which the left has become more moderate in Europe, under the “pressure to restrain the growth of the costly social benefit systems.” (New York Post, March 24, 1977) Socialism is being swallowed up by establishment liberalism, and it is being driven there by the failure of virtually every attempt to establish socialism as a distinct social system.

Hero after socialist hero has gone the route from courageous revolutionary to repressive ruler of a crippled economy: Lenin, Fidel, Mao, Tito. Allende’s bold experiment in Chile, attempting to manipulate prices by law, resulted in over 500 percent inflation in 1973, destroyed real earnings at a frightening pace, and created the chronic shortages that are so characteristic of socialist economies. The ones which are the least embarassing economic failures, such as Yugoslavia, are the ones which have abandoned most of the theoretical baggage of socialism. The most productive sectors of socialist countries are notoriously the least socialized. Private farming in the Soviet Union has always shamed the collectives.

Twenty-seven percent of the total value of Soviet farm output comes from private plots that occupy less than one percent of the nation’s agricultural lands. (A Yemelyanov, Problems of Economics, March, 1975) Black-market products abound to alleviate the endemic shortages of official production. Enterprises flourish by pirating labor and materials from other enterprises for money. Socialist countries subsist to the degree that socialist policy is avoided, compromised, ignored or revised. Socialism itself doesn’t work.

But if most socialists are now state-capitalist and reformist, then the radical socialist rhetoric is, well, just rhetoric. Gone is the dramatic appeal for radical change. Gone is the principled opposition to imperialism and its attendant oppression in the Third World. In many countries already, the socialists are only distinguishable from the corporate liberals by the fact that the former want more power for the union wing of the bureaucracy and the latter want more power for the big-business contingent.

The moderate Italian Communist Party is being supported by some business interests who believe it is the only party that can control the unions. It is all just a matter of petty power-grabbing. Socialists are quarreling over who gets to touch which end of the cattle prod, but they have stopped working for a world where no man is treated like another’s cattle. They have lost their radicalism.

Marxist-Leninists have made a point of distinguishing themselves from these “reformists” whose mission it has been just to modify the State within a system of state capitalism. Marx condemned those revolutions which “perfected this machine instead of smashing it” and which “regarded the possession of this huge state edifice as the principal spoils of the victor.” (The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte)

Yet while hurling such a radical and uncompromising barrage of deserved venom at the “bourgeois” State for its inhuman prisons, its wars, its parasitism, in short, for its oppressiveness, Marx turns around and advocates as “the first step in the revolution,” avowedly to stop such oppression, that we “raise the proletariat to the position of the ruling class” and “centralize all instruments of production in the hands of the state i.e. of the proletariat organized as the ruling class.” (Communist Manifesto). Is this not the mere grabbing of the “huge state edifice” as spoils for the victorious working class revolutionaries?

Lenin illustrates in one sentence this combination of radical rhetoric with apologia for power-politics-as-usual, when he urges the revolution “to crush, smash to atoms, wipe off the face of the earth the bourgeois, even the republican-bourgeois, state machine, the standing army, the police and the bureaucracy and to substitute [sic] for them a more democratic state machine, but a state machine nevertheless …” (“The State and Revolution” from Lenin: Selected Works) While they employ their most severe scorn against the reformists’ mere modifications of the State, the Marxist-Leninists’ own proposal is tosubstitute one ruling class for another.

The radical perspective can only be consistently maintained by those who refuse to take over the state apparatus of coercion. One cannot remain the steadfast enemy of the Gestapo if one intends simply to replace its personnel. Only the complete abolition of institutionalized crime is consistent with radicalism.

RADICAL LIBERTARIANISM

Libertarians do not have nor do we require a recipe for how to run a government “our way.” Instead we offer a coherent explanation of how people can live together without initiating coercion, without subordinating one man’s will to another, without any government violation of rights whatever. Libertarians are the only revolutionaries whose victory will not merely replace the state institutions with another gang but will usher in an age of free men and women living their own lives as they choose. Libertarians will not join the statist quibbles over how to spend the taxes, over who to draft for which war.

People do not need to be ordered what or how to produce. In fact, they produce more of what they want when they are left on their own. Without the various interventionist policies of state capitalism the market would be still more productive, but in any case few are left who deny that markets out-perform complete central planning. There need be no central plan, but rather there can be the many plans of the market participants engaged in voluntary cooperation whenever, however, and with whomever they please.

If radicalism is opposition to oppression, libertarianism is principled radicalism. We who oppose the subordination of one man to another reject the pseudo radicalism of state socialists, for whom such subordination is a “necessary evil.” The economic system we recommend is more radically different from modern state capitalism than is any existing socialist regime. We reject oppression in principle, whether by Commissar or elected President, whether by a state planning board or the Pentagon, whether by union officials or corporate lawyers. And we reject it now, not after some vague transition period to full communism.

Just as the ideological foundation of socialism, largely constructed a hundred years ago, shaped the radical movements of the subsequent years, so the radical movements of the future will reflect the ideological battle that is being fought today, a battle in which the state socialists are clearly retreating and the libertarians are as clearly gaining ground.

The development of libertarian ideas has proceeded considerably since the age of classical liberalism. Such twentieth century writers as Albert Jay Nock, John T. Flynn, Ayn Rand, Milton Friedman, F.A. Hayek and Ludwig von Mises have all, despite inconsistencies, contributed greatly to the refinement of the libertarian perspective. But libertarianism has seen its most comprehensive, and radical, development with the relatively recent Rothbardian integration of Austrian economics, natural rights ethics, individualist political philosophy and historical revisionism into a powerful, coherent ideological system of thought.

It was a costly diversion of radical ideology for it to conceptualize the enemy as the bourgeois state specifically, instead of statism as such, and to propose a transient workers’ state or “dictatorship of the proletariat” which, it was naively hoped, would not draw power to itself at the expense of its people, would not entrench itself as deeply as the bourgeois class had at the helm of its state.

But the diversion has matured, has borne its various workers’ states into the real world, and we have seen them in the flesh.

We are not pleased with what we see. The observer with a radical perspective cannot but recoil from the grotesque track record of socialist states so far, and this grim performance has started to take its toll in the ranks of the radical movement. The old paradigm is crumbling, the socialist revolution has failed, and the stage is set for a new radicalism which does not intend merely to replace one gang of rulers with another, but rather sees a realistic alternative to ruling per se. It is, after all, not the fact that it is the bourgeois class that oppresses us which impels us to be radical and resist them; it is the oppression itself,regardless of who does it, that offends us. It is that which must be “wiped off the face of the earth.” It is “the subordination of one man to another,” in shortslavery, which we seek to “smash to atoms.”

For as the great radical Lysander Spooner explained, “All restraints upon men’s natural liberty, not necessary for the simple maintenance of justice, are of the nature of slavery, and differ from each other only in degree.” (No Treason)

The revolution is dead. Long live the revolution!

Don Lavoie is a graduate student in economics at New York University. He was on the platform committee of the 1977 Libertarian Party Convention.