[GegenStandpunkt Index]

Is Communism Really Dead?

Karl Held and Audrey Hill

The goods news

The relief is enormous. The most varied types of people almost everywhere in the world feel it. The specter mentioned in the Communist Manifesto of 1848 has given up the ghost. It’s been a long time since it appeared as a labor movement in capitalist societies, which was the way it originally made a nuisance of itself. Lately, all well-intentioned folks — from the humanists at the Pentagon to the environmentalists in the Green Party — have been familiar with communism as, of all things, a well-armed state with a couple of “satellites.” Its domestic life was a “system.” They could see from afar how “inhumane” everything turns out when you put the ideals of communism into practice as state interests. Not only that, in contrast to all the other systems in the world which function simply by having a structure, communism forever suffered from not functioning. Finally, just in time for the 2000th birthday of Jesus Christ, it’s going bust. Its architects and caretakers admit as much, and are giving up their system. They get their criticism of communism right from Capital & Democracy, Inc. So the world is back in order again. It has now been conclusively proven that there is no alternative to capitalism, which is above all criticism. Those in charge will see to the few violent changes that remain to be made in the East to insure against backsliding. The course of history itself dictates this development. The agenda calls for the landscape devastated by communism to be reforested with real money under the supervision of freedom’s might.

The bad news

The relief is unjustified. The news celebrates a success which involves no benefit whatsoever for many millions of people. Just because capitalism now “proves” to be the superior “way of managing an economy” doesn’t mean there is any better life waiting for them. For a successful 20th century state people only play the role of useful material, serving as victims of its triumphant advances on the economic, political and military fronts. The benefits of social peace, which is what “prevails” when there is no class struggle, also turn out to be rather peculiar. The business firms locate as they please, rationalize production and sack their employees, and stage the rounds of collective bargaining with the unions as a gigantic media show. Politicians call for sacrifices, remind everyone of foreign competition (whom the local businessmen combine with), and raise social security taxes so they can cut the benefits. They reel off federal budget figures, the unemployment rate and pollution statistics, announce the rate of inflation and the purchase of weapons. In short, the freedom of action of the side where money and might are assembled increases with each passing day. Those on the other side, where communism is conspicuous by its absence, discover in their smaller paychecks and deteriorating health the changing relation between wages and work effort. The popular reference to people starving overseas — how well off we are by comparison! — shows how badly this comparison is needed. Where poverty is not useful it takes on extreme forms, as anyone out of work can also see!

The decay in the power of the “East bloc” Communist Parties is equally bad news. When those people over there decide their previous system has failed and start reforming with a vengeance, one would at least like to be given a hint of what’s so great about it, amid all the shouts of triumph. The effects of perestroika on the situation of the ordinary Soviet citizen seem to be anything but good. The notoriously empty shelves are even more empty now. Nationalists of all sorts are enjoying their new-found freedom so much that they bash each other’s heads in. Under the first noncommunist government in Poland, this same freedom leaves hardly anyone with anything more to buy, so that quite a few Poles are to be found abroad, working illicitly in Germany in order to make the transition from low wages to small-scale international black-marketeering. The Hungarians, who have been saved by their freedom-oriented government from those nasty red stars on buildings and police caps, also appear to be a bit worse off —although they now have a stock exchange. What is so delightful about all this, and to whom?

Well, does the Western citizen at least get anything out of it? After all it is really for him that the good news is propagated six hundred times a day! Was he being harassed by the old Communists who refused to reform? Did they spoil the fun of living in the better system? Impossible! But the way democratic politicians tell it, people do have reason to be relieved. For decades, every military conflict, and what’s more the danger of the really big war, was blamed on Communists. NATO had to keep procuring more tanks, planes and missiles — and that gets to the taxpayer. People who got by on this interpretation are still in the dark now that they hear about the Russians’ efforts to disarm, about the new thinkers’ self-criticism that the Soviet Union does in fact have too many weapons. After all, the announcement of military success in regard to the socialist system (now that it admits its own failing in this area too) applies all the more to Western actions. The Eastern insight that its efforts to keep up militarily have been a mistake pales against the “correctness” of Western relentlessness. The Western line is that “we” now need superior armaments more than ever because it is these efforts in the past that have led to the current Russian doubts. “We” don’t give up tried and true recipes, especially since a “relapse” on the other side is not ruled out. Just in case, “we” still have to arm to the teeth to guarantee “our” security interests once and for all. Anyone who wants to can find ample supporting material for this position in the daily press, where NATO’s acquisition of armed forces is mentioned week after week.

The truth

The good news is evidently not intended to be checked in any way by the people it is presented to. It neither deals with communism and its mistakes, nor bothers to specify the accomplishments of capitalism. As repeated a thousand times on television talk shows, in feature supplements and in political speeches, it is only the latest twist in the venerable tradition of anticommunism known as the comparison of the systems. This theoretically settles the question of which social order is the better of the two. Without worrying too much about the peculiarities of the two modes of production and the corresponding types of states, the system comparers use their conception of the Western system, which is nothing but flattery, to measure the Eastern one. Lo and behold, they end up discovering that socialism is inferior. For decades, this is the way political scientists and commentators have “justified” the unyielding Western policy toward the East, an East which everyone knows is unworkable and actually has no business existing. This whole performance serves to promote the sham that Western hostility to the Eastern bloc is based on a scrupulous consumer product test aimed at finding out which of all possible social orders is the best.

The good tidings that communism is over and done with provide a brand-new kind of evidence for this biased interpretation of world politics. The defendants have now begun accusing themselves of the violations of efficiency and human rights that we arrested them for. Up to now the West has kept demanding that the East admit its defeat under the pressure of this or that business deal and little war. These days, it can simply point to the other side’s declaration of bankruptcy. People who think communists capable of every crime and normally don’t believe a word they say, suddenly start quoting them when these new thinkers adopt Western doctrines. When Eastern politicians imitate “our” comparison of the systems and now actually praise Western productivity (after years of criticizing it as one big sign of decay), doesn’t it really mean those people are anything but communists? But who cares about that, when all that counts is the cheap thrill of the enemy confessing its failure to copy what is by “our” standards successful production and political rule! This proves once and for all that “we” are right, and the only thing left to do is make sure the reforms actually do boil down to a capitulation in “our” sense.

All the talk about communism being dead is therefore just a brazen way of saying that success makes capitalism right. The many fine things that are done throughout the world under the protection of Western weapons and by the use of Western money are all okay — since nobody else has come up with any “comparable” order. Conversely, those who fail in their competition with the Free World and its techniques of doing business and using force only demonstrate the pointlessness and impossibility of any alternative. Just as the end of the workers’ movement “proves” that workers need capital and nothing else, the Russians’ new humbleness and the desertion of their “satellite” nations to the other side show that the achievements of capitalism are unsurpassable. Anyone who asks about the price that the realm of freedom demands from all its walk-on characters forfeits his right to criticize. This is no refutation of communism — it’s the way those in tune with the times demonstrate that modern state interests are not only victorious but also infinitely sensible and moral.

A communist dogma and its current validity

The cheap triumph of people who point to the debilitated East bloc and enjoy its self-criticism is one thing. It is another matter that nobody disagrees.

Another word about those who dote on the diagnosis that communism is dead. They are delighted with current “developments” that they claim to be the logical consequence of what they have always “known.” They now know once and for all that the political economy of Eastern socialism which, in their view, always used to work much too well as a source of political strength for the other side, really doesn’t work at all. When Gorbachev says “market,” “investment” and “democracy,” they hear all those fine terms that are used over here to misrepresent every lousy Western practice as a necessity or a point of honor. They fancy themselves prophets who have fathomed the demands of history. They are the same ideologists who were utterly convinced that the East was incapable of reform. They are now sponging off popular uprisings which they always used to consider impossible what with all the repression, no democracy, etc. These analytical brains don’t hesitate to use the Western system as a standard which no one can escape with impunity. Whatever fails to meet the criteria of real money deserves to perish — this is their magnificent insight.

As for the system that has failed by “our standards,” no one of course has a shred of interest in knowing anything about it. It would only blur the cherished picture of the “rigid planned economy” to actually take a look at the socialist combination of “planning and market” at close range. You would have to notice that there’s hardly any communism involved in using the masses to produce national wealth as if it were their own. You might even end up seeing that the Eastern alternative to capitalism consists merely in trying to make it better. People much prefer to apply the method of accusing people over there of not doing things the way “we” do and therefore not achieving a proper gross national product. This way you can at least make some interesting suggestions to the nations that have already been made dependent on “our help” by Eastern trade. After all, they now ask for vigorous interference themselves, being just as disinterested in communism as “we” are. When politicians in Moscow and Warsaw, Budapest and East Berlin praise capitalistic efficiency, it is very clear what they mean. People who recommend higher food prices and a pool of unemployed as a means of getting a national economy going know nothing about capitalism, but they do insist on pointing out that capitalistic efficiency is incompatible with sympathy for the masses. It makes sense that the people coming up with such gems in the discussion about the need to return to capitalism don’t have to fear being considered cynical advocates of the sacrifices capitalism demands. When system comparers theorize about the superiority of the Western way of ruling and running an economy they are not forming judgments about capitalism and socialism, but endorsing the practical takeover of the one by the other. They urge that the economy and politics of the East be completely done over to fit those Western needs which were already on their way to being met through the economic and political extortion (known politely as “terms”) of Eastern trade. The people on the other side who have taken up this “offer” are not communists but rather nationalists. And they are going begging these days, not “communism”!

The point is the imperialistic nature of the “communism is dead” campaign. This is already betrayed by those silly know-it-alls who, whenever they hear of any problem anyone has in the East, can only think “Well, of course, a market economy and democracy are long overdue!” It’s just a small step from the monotonously stupid litany “We’ve always known what they need over there” to the finding that the managers of the successful system are responsible for them and will definitely let them have what they’re lacking. The heirs of Eastern “mismanagement” are expected to change the way they run their countries in such a way that the superior system can be introduced there. “We” demand and advocate reforms, consider them “imperative” (without specifying which ones or why), and approve or disapprove of them by the strict standards of “our” interests. We christen all this, “readiness to help,” to give it a name, and lay our conditions for these noble acts on the table. Anyone who hesitates to comply, who has reservations about this institutionalized intervention and fears a loss of political sovereignty, is throwing a wrench in the works and won’t admit that communism has failed. As we said, discerning analysts don’t dwell too long on the fine points of communism’s demise. They’ve made the diagnosis, and now it’s up to the ladies and gentlemen in charge to take action. The mouthpieces of recent history have no problem confessing they are only reciting and amplifying on the “ideas of the rulers”! They actually consider it a virtue of this simpleminded discovery of theirs that they are speaking in favor of a most real, calculated political program which has long since been making successful strides forward.

It doesn’t take much for the “ideas of the rulers” to become the “ruling ideas.” All you need is widespread agreement with the principle that success is what makes you right in this world. Your plans and projects are then what is known as “reality,” and everyone must adhere to it. Or, in more simple terms, everyone must see that interests which are valid deserve to be cooperated with. Even — and especially — those who criticize gain credibility when they are “realistic” and keep to the standards which make the world go round. This is the only way to have the “possibility of having an influence.”

These simple but admittedly somewhat abstract rules have always been easy to learn for the majority of citizens who have anything to say about politics beyond casting their vote on election day. Only a small minority calling themselves “leftists” have had to strain themselves a bit. But they have mastered this task brilliantly and made their contribution to the “communism is dead” song-and-dance. There’s no question that they are all for “reforms” in the East, because they regard them as an opportunity just as the Western governments do.

Conditional socialism: “Only if…”

Russia’s perestroika and the “return” of the East European states have been reason enough for leftists in the West to abandon their most sacred principles. It’s not that they’ve found a flaw in their previous ideas. Rather, they embrace the barbaric bourgeois principle that failure proves an idea wrong, in this case socialism. Their “reaction” to the demise of Eastern socialism has nothing to do with a real understanding of the change that has taken place there, nor with its influence on the notorious “relations of power between progressive and reactionary forces” in the world. Their “reaction” is instead a mendacious performance which they themselves honestly believe in, namely that the “events” in the East bloc have taught them something. With the proof they manufacture from the capitulation of Honecker and his ilk, they fall in easily with the official anticommunism. The troubles, failure and reforms of the socialist societies in the East are, for them, nothing but material for the well-known epitaph “communism is dead” that they dress up as a theory. Turning this epitaph around, they passionately proclaim, “Capitalism lives!”

One is almost tempted to ask these leftists if they would also be in favor of Eastern socialism if it were just as successful as “freedom and democracy.” But this is a superfluous question since opportunism is never based on a reasonable judgment, but is a method. It is the method by which people who liked the word “revolution” twenty years ago, who in their ridiculous Marxist-Leninist phase worshipped the proletariat, have always been avidly learning from experience.

Those who jumped on the alternative Green bandwagon abandoned their flirtation with communism only because they noticed that capitalism and its inhabitants simply don’t play the role of a condition for their success. Because that is what these people were looking for, they hit upon their “environment and peace” nonsense. After all, capitalism always lends a willing ear to anyone seeking to “improve” living conditions within it, to cooperate politically with it. It has never occurred to them that the capitalistic use of nature, and democratic militarism only prove the necessity of getting rid of this system. After all, they never based their communist ambitions on necessities, but rather on the approval of a few thousand moralists who in those days made leftist drivel fashionable with its alleged prospects of success.

Those who jumped on the alternative science and journalism bandwagon have remained true to the method which they previously practiced as leftists. They always considered bourgeois society to be — not what it is — but a mass of conditions for something else. They saw conditions for its own abolition, and produced (with their “intention of being practical”) reams of nonsense about workers’ consciousness, currency crises and the distended welfare state which were all evidence that late capitalism was in its final throes. They had to keep checking capitalism’s ability to “solve” its “problems” to see whether it was already reaching its expiration date. The problems it causes the working class and the allergy-ridden victims of the environment were not that important any more. Now, the national debt, peace, forests, the education system, “employment” and energy were fashioned into scholarly warnings of impending catastrophes. A concern for conservation was the order of the day for the intellectual elite, who considered their methodologically “correct” nonsense to be the up-to-date criticism of capitalism.

Leftists have always been so critical that they want to be in harmony with real or imagined tendencies. Today they can harvest the fruits of their conditional brand of socialism. When Gorbachev and Honecker are proof that communism is dead, and the demand for convertibility of East bloc funny money to get some goods back on the shelves shows how impossible it is to plan an economy, then opportunism is no longer just an attitude. It has attained the status of an “empirically” confirmed theory. When thinkers keen on being alternative return to the original formula of conditional socialism and make it out to be the quintessential Marxism; when they pose as yesterday’s Marxist believers who have wised up, and declare that Marx’ alleged prophesy of the fall of capitalism has been refuted — then they’ve hit bottom. Brezhnev & Co. almost start looking good by comparison!

We can state with certainty that what “leftists” give as evidence for the death of communism doesn’t come from a misunderstanding of Marx’ explanation of the “tendency of the falling rate of profit.” Even if the relevant passages of vol. 3 of “Capital” were untrue, a law of the capitalistic mode of production can never imply a law of its collapse, since this is a matter of people’s free will. Such leftists have the appalling notion that communism might possibly be justified, but only under certain circumstances. Only if, as they say, capitalism were to pass its expiration date; only if it had a built-in stopping mechanism; only if there were such a thing as a reliable historical necessity for the transition to communism — then you could sit back and watch the beast succumb to its disease! According to this notion, which, like all nonsense, can cite a rich tradition, communists are not the kind of folks who go around inciting class struggle against capital and the violent power that protects it. Rather, they are experts on history who, instead of swimming “against the stream,” advocate the course of things that is inevitable anyhow.

Well, that’s not what communists do. Communists consider it counterrevolutionary when such rubbish is used as the official state ideology in the East bloc (“We are only executing the necessary course of history.” “After capitalism, which ‘passes away,’ ‘comes’ socialism.”). They therefore notice that the “communism is dead” campaign is actually a reply to the stupid position of being in favor of communism as long as it’s supposed to be coming about all by itself. But the campaign is unfortunately even more than that. After all, it refutes this one brand of opportunism by advocating another, “realistic” brand!

For unlike communism, capitalism does not fail — it flourishes like crazy. It’s pretty damn stable, proves itself day for day, and even arouses admiration in its former enemies. It works! And since successful functioning is the only thing that counts for all decent people, including sociologists, the U.S. President, the head of the Russian Communist Party and all East Germans bound for the West, this is the universal refutation of any doubts that (indecent) people may have about capitalism and its stupendousness. Because it works, it doesn’t have to be abolished — it should be followed!

The necessity of communism

does not spring from the misfunctioning of capitalism, but from what’s going on while and so long as capitalism functions. It’s the necessities of this system that communists want to get rid of, not its “drawbacks” or its “oversights.” To the popular question of how they would solve the notorious “problems” that, strangely enough, always plague the rulers and the ruled alike, they reply, “We wouldn’t.” It is a matter of not creating these “problems” in the first place. Then no one would have to agonize about the tremendous difficulty or even impossibility of “overcoming” them.

Communists therefore also reject that sweet justification of their historical mission which goes like this. So many beautiful things appear in capitalism that don’t work out properly in it and can only be perfected under socialism. We’re talking about such favorite items as freedom and equality, humanism, real free love, emancipation of the workers, of women, of homosexuals, etc. Communists consider such philosophical insights into history to be nothing but a stupid idealistic version of the disarming question, “And how would you solve the problems of the welfare budget, divorce settlements, environmental pollution, the size of the army and economic growth?” Really! As if communism were just the continuation of capitalism by other means!

The necessity of communism has a slightly different origin. It arises from an inspection of those same disagreeable’ circumstances which everyone else is always lamenting about. However, communists refuse to regard every case of a damaged interest — be it in matters of money, health or peace — as a “problem” to be solved (if it is at all solvable) by precisely those people who are responsible for the “problem” existing in the first place. We are referring to those dear fellow citizens who dispose over money and political power. When the many aggravations, lousy practices and sacrifices of bourgeois life turn out to be necessities of the “system,” then the “system” has to go. In this conclusion lies the whole necessity of communism.

1. The “communism is dead” campaign dominating public opinion everywhere is “only” a matter of national consciousness. But when entire nations unanimously decide that capitalism is fine simply because it works, it’s no joke. If this is what’s supposed to be so great about capitalism, then it is no longer fitting or even permissible to consider how it works, what it accomplishes, what it’s successful at. This crass praise of capitalism is a textbook case of a totalitarian ideology. No true or false arguments are put forward about capitalism, its benefits and drawbacks, about interests that it serves and interests that come up short. The finding that “our” system is all right is expressly meant to be accepted as a fact without any mention of its usefulness for anyone. After all, the usefulness of the thing is that it downright exists, so that the fine democratic right of criticism has now gone out of style once and for all. No one bothers to refute it, for criticism simply has no place in a “successful” system.

2. But there is one success of the system that you’re allowed to mention these days: its wealth, that some people identify with the bananas East bloc citizens can now buy. However, there is no good reason to give the system credit for the sheer existence — or even masses — of wealth in it. After all, the assets accumulating on company balance sheets, in banks and state budgets are not intended to satisfy people’s needs, but to enlist more services from them, services of the kind that brought about the assets in the first place. When capitalist wealth is based on useful poverty, it should not be praised, but combated.

3. This useful poverty exists in the form of wage labor. It is dependent in every way on the needs and cycles of business. The employers are the ones who calculate when and how much people work and whether they work at all, how much they earn and whether they earn anything at all. In exchange, people are marvelously free to budget their wages, their leisure time and their health. Consolation can be found in the wealth that other people are accumulating, in the knowledge that there are others who are even worse off, and in the words of those in charge, that it is a “real necessity” to serve their interests.

4. Capitalism has set up a special “welfare” department to be officially responsible for administering the useful and useless poverty that is evidently recognized to be a permanent feature of the “best system.” The money used for this purpose comes from people’s wages, is collected by compulsion, and handed out sparingly. The wealth that exists in abundance is intended for a different purpose, namely to be increased.

5. When people are forced to sell their labor power to others in order to get hold of money, this does not mean they can benefit from the wealth they produce. Their share of it is limited to what they need to remain useful for the services demanded of them. Nonetheless, there are other benefits. The kind of success that counts in the only true system requires supervision by the state. With its monopoly on force the state regulates the functioning of the system on a strictly legal basis, so that everyone in his walk of life does what he’s allowed to and refrains from doing what he’s not allowed to. In elections, citizens get to check off the names of the people and political parties who are to enforce the “necessities” of growth and welfare, money and poverty, by passing up-to-date laws. This is a really great benefit — the state’s actions cannot be challenged because they came about in the democratic way. The fact that those in charge were empowered by the people justifies all their “unpopular” decisions. People are actually free to exchange views on them. Another benefit.

6. The finances and power of the state depend on capital’s success. So do working people. Capital’s success depends on how much it attains by buying and selling and by investing in other countries as well. So every wage worker depends on his nation carrying international weight. He provides money and himself as a soldier to make and keep his nation’s currency and troops powerful. The competition between nations with its ups and downs is therefore his business as well.

7. Especially when it comes to the East bloc. There, a few madmen made an attempt to improve the capitalistic system and have money produced for the state in a different, much more philanthropic way. This hindered Western nations and their capital in its activities abroad. To save capitalism from having to put up with this unaccustomed annoyance forever, its citizens take part in undermining this other system and stand by for the life-threatening phase, the final burial of dead communism. They are informed by their governments about the procurement of the necessary arms and funds.

8. People are not only allowed, but supposed to form an opinion about all these necessities. Science and religion are cultivated and distributed among the people in the proper doses for both the elite and the masses. A highly respected opinion about the unpleasant side of the functioning system is that there are certainly a lot of “problems” but they are in the best hands. The pleasant side is that everything is necessary and has a purpose. People can take to heart capital’s need for growth and the nation’s need for power, including its definition of who’s an enemy. After all, it’s no secret whose success everyone depends upon. “At least our children will have a better life.”

9. This is the prevailing attitude even if a lot of people are currently all excited about the “environmental problem” and are developing an “ecological awareness.” The necessities of capitalistic business have devoured a fair bit of nature, making it less and less suitable as a means of subsistence, so that people start feeling sorry for trees and rare animal species instead of comprehending the fundamental laws of the functioning system.

10. This is the system that is so alive and has outdone dead communism. The good fortune of being allowed to take part in it is a value in itself. It is known as freedom, will tolerate no criticism and demands a great deal of support. The administrators and advocates of the system say that all these disagreeable things are necessities. But communists know they are “only” the necessities of capital and its state power. And if working people withhold their services to deprive the whole system of its foundation, that will be the end of it. Then people can start planning and need no longer obey “necessities” that other people set up.