Editor’s note: Below is a letter David Horowitz wrote to his former mentor Ralph Miliband in the late 1980s. He included it as a chapter in The Politics of Bad Faith. Ron Radosh discusses this letter in his recent article in PJMedia, “How David Horowitz Revealed the Truth about Ralph Miliband’s Legacy: What it Should Teach the British Left.” Frontpage editors have therefore decided to publish the full text of the Open Letter below:
The self-deification of mankind, to which Marxism gave philosophical expression, has ended in the same way as all such attempts, whether individual or collective: it has revealed itself as the farcical aspect of human bondage.
— Leszek Kolakowski
It has been over a decade since this silence as durable as an iron curtain descended between us. In these circumstances, I have had to depend on others to learn how you regard me these days: How, at a recent social gathering, you referred to me as “one of the two tragedies of the New Left” (the other being a former Brecht scholar who now publishes guides to the nude beaches of America); how my apostasy has inflicted an emotional wound, as though in changing my political views and leaving the Left I had personally betrayed you.
I understand this. How could it be otherwise for people like us, for whom politics (despite our claim to be social realists) was less a matter of practical decisions than moral choices? We were partisans of a cause that confirmed our humanity, even as it denied humanity to those who opposed us. To leave such ranks was not a simple matter, like abandoning a misconception or admitting a mistake. It was more like accusing one’s comrades. Like condemning a life.
Our choice of politics was never a matter of partial commitments. To choose the Left was to define a way of being in the world. (For us, the personal was always political). It was choosing a future in which human beings would finally live as they were meant to live: no longer self-alienated and divided, but equal, harmonious and whole.
Grandiose as this project was, it was not something we had invented, but the inspiration for a movement that was coterminous with modernity itself. As you had taught me, the Left was launched at the time of the French Revolution by Gracchus Babeuf and the Conspiracy of the Equals. In Marx’s own words: “The revolutionary movement, which began in 1789,…and which temporarily succumbed in the Conspiracy of Babeuf, gave rise to the communist idea,…This idea,…constitutes the principle of the modern world.” With a terrible simplicity the Babouvists pledged themselves to “equality or death,” swiftly finding the latter — in a prophetic irony — on the Revolution’s own busy guillotine.
The victorious radicals had proclaimed a theology of Reason in which equality of condition was the natural and true order of creation. In their Genesis, the loss of equality was the ultimate source of mankind’s suffering and evil, just as the arrogant pride of the primal couple had provoked their Fall in the religious myths now discarded. The ownership of private property became a secular version of original sin. Through property, society re-imposed on every generation of human innocence the travails of inequality and injustice. Redemption from worldly suffering was possible only through the Revolution that would abolish property and open the gates to the socialist Eden — to Paradise regained.
The ideas embodied in this theology of liberation became the inspiration for the new political Left, and have remained so ever since. It was half a century later that Marx first articulated the idea of a historical redemption, in the way that became resonant for us:
Communism is the positive abolition of private property, of human self-alienation, and thus the real appropriation of human nature through and for man. It is therefore the return of man himself as a social, i.e., really human, being…
This was our revolutionary vision. By a historical coup we would create the conditions for a return to the state of true humanity whose realization had been blocked by the alienating hierarchies of private property. All the unjust institutions of class history that had distorted, divided, and oppressed mankind would be abolished and human innocence reborn. In the service of this cause, no burden seemed too onerous, no sacrifice too great. We were the Christopher Columbuses of the human future, the avatars of a new world struggling to emerge from the womb of the old. How could I divorce myself from a mission like this without betraying those whom I had left behind?
Without betraying you, my political mentor and closest comrade. We had met in London at the beginning of the Sixties and you quickly became my guide through the moral wilderness created by the disintegration of the Old Left. I was the scion of Communists, troubled by the crimes the “Khrushchev Report” had recently unveiled; you had distanced yourself from official Communism, becoming a charter member of the New Left in the spring of 1956. Even as the unmarked graves of Stalin’s victims were re-opened and their wounds bled afresh, the New Left raised its collective voice to proclaim the continuing truth of its humanitarian dream. Stalinism had died, not socialism. In the moral and political confusion of those years, it was you more than anyone else who helped to restore my radical faith.
To be sure I was a willing disciple. To abandon the historic project of the Left required a moral stoicism that I lacked. No matter how great the enormities perpetrated in the name of socialism, no matter how terrible the miseries inflicted, the prospect of a world without this idea, and its promise of justice, was unthinkable to me. To turn one’s back on socialism would not be like abandoning a misconception or admitting a mistake. It would be like turning one’s back on humanity. Like betraying myself.
And so I, too, refused to give up on this idea that inspired and ennobled us. I joined you and the pioneers of a New Left who had condemned Stalinism and its brutal past and pledged to keep the faith.
We did not ask ourselves then, however, a question that seemed unavoidable to me later: What was the meaning of this refusal to admit our defeat? For thirty years, with only a minority in dissent, the best, most vital and compassionate minds of the Left had hailed the flowering of the progressive state in Soviet Russia. They had made the defense of Soviet “achievements” the sine qua non of what it was to be socially conscious and morally correct. Now the Kremlin itself had acknowledged the monstrous “mistakes” of the progressive experiment, confirming the most damning accusations of its political adversaries. In the face of such epic criminality and collusion, what was the urgency of our renewed dedication to the goals that had proved so destructive in the first place? Why were the voices of our enemies not more worthy of a hearing in the hour that seemed to vindicate them so completely? Why were we so eager to hurry past the lessons they urged on us, in order to resume our combat again?
Our radical generation was hardly the first (and not the last) to repent in such careless haste. The cycle of guilt was integral, in fact, to the progress of the Left. It had begun with the radical birth in Eighteenth Century Paris — that dawn of human Fraternity and Reason, which also devolved into fratricidal terror and imperial ambition. How had the redemptive illusions that inspired the Left been so relentlessly renewed in radical generation after generation, despite the inexorable rebuke of human tragedy that attended each of its triumphs? How had the Left negotiated these rebirths?
In the interlude following Stalin’s death, when our generation was reviving its political commitments and creating the New Left, we did not stop to ask ourselves such questions. We were all too busy being born. But two decades later, when I had reached the end of my radical journey and had my second thoughts, I was able at last to see how our own modest histories provided the text of an answer.
* * *
Meanwhile, you have no such second thoughts. Even as I write, you and your comrades are engaged in yet another defiant resurrection — the birth of a new generation of the Left, as eager to believe in the fantasy of a new world as we were then. In this annus mirabilus of Communist collapse, when the socialist idea is being repudiated throughout the whole expanse of the Soviet empire by the very masses it claimed to liberate, you and your comrades are still finding ways to deny what has happened.
For you and the prophets of the next Left, the socialist idea is still capable of an immaculate birth from the bloody conception of the socialist state. You seek to evade these lessons of the revolutionary present by writing the phrase “actually existing socialism” across its pages, thus distinguishing the socialism of your faith from the socialism that has failed. The historic bankruptcy of the planned societies created by Marxist dictators, a human catastrophe extending across nearly three quarters of a century and encompassing hundreds of millions of ruined lives, will not be entered in the balance sheet of the Left. This would require of you and your comrades an accounting and an agonizing self-appraisal. You prefer, instead, to regard the bankruptcy as someone else’s.
There is nothing new in this shell game. It is the same operation we ourselves performed after 1956, when our slogan was: Stalinism is dead, long live socialism. Today you see the demonstrations for democracy bringing an end to Communist history and you are certain that this has no relevance to the ideas that inspired that history in the first place. Here is your most recent defense of the past:
Communist regimes, with the notable exception of Yugoslavia after 1948, never made any serious attempt, or indeed any attempt at all, to break the authoritarian mould by which they had been cast at their birth. Conservative ideologists have a simple explanation of this immobility: its roots are to be found in Marxism. In fact, Marxism has nothing to do with it.
“Actually existing Marxism” is dead, long live Marxism. This is the political formula of the Left — of your Left — today. Veterans of past ideological wars, like yourself, will be crucial in selling this hope to a new generation. The moral weight of this future will be on your shoulders. In reading your words, I could not help thinking how thirty years ago there was an individual who provided the same hope for you, and who since then has become the intellectual model for my own second thoughts. Perhaps you are tempted to bury this connection. For there were not two, but three New Left apostasies that touched you directly, and of these, the defection of Leszek Kolakowski was by far the most painful.
* * *
A philosopher of exceptional brilliance and moral courage, Kolakowski had been the intellectual leader of our political generation. Even the titles of his writings –“Responsibility and History,” “Towards a Marxist Humanism”– read like stages of our radical rebirth. By 1968 those stages had come to an abrupt conclusion. When the Czechs’ attempt to provide Communism with a human face was crushed by Soviet tanks, Kolakowski abandoned the ranks of the Left. He did more. He fled — unapologetically — to the freedoms of the West, implicitly affirming by his actions that the Cold War did indeed mark a great divide in human affairs, and that the Left had chosen the wrong side.
Kolakowski’s apostasy was challenged by Edward Thompson, then the foremost English New Leftist, in a 100-page “Open Letter” which you published in The Socialist Register1973. Written in the form of a plea to Kolakowski to return to the radical fold, the Letter began by paying homage to the example he had set for us all seventeen years before, and which Thompson now claimed as a “debt of solidarity”:
What we dissident Communists [of ’56] did in Britain…was to refuse to enter the well-worn paths of apostasy. I can think of not one who took on the accepted role, in liberal capitalist society, of Public Confessor and Renegade. No-one ran to the press with his revelations about Communist “conspiracy” and no-one wrote elegant essays, in the organs published by the Congress for Cultural Freedom, complaining that God had failed….We refused to disavow “Communism” because Communism was a complex noun which included Leszek Kolakowski.
Here Thompson put his finger on a central reflex of the New Left revival: our refusal to break ranks with our comrades and join the camp of our Cold War opponents; in short, our ability to repudiate the catastrophic outcome of a generation of radical effort without abandoning the radical cause. Not even the crimes of Stalin could break the chain of our loyalties to the revolt against bourgeois society that had been launched at its inception by the Conspiracy of the Equals.
Because Communism was a “complex noun” which included Kolakowski, we were able to preserve our allegiances to an Idea that still included Communism, if only as a deformed precursor of the future to which we all aspired. Because Communism was a complex noun we refused to concede that Marxism or Socialism—integral elements of the Communist Idea—were themselves condemned by the Stalinist nightmare. Kolakowski provided the bridge across which New Leftists could march in a popular front with Communists to carry on a struggle that they had begun nobly, but soon distorted and then tragically perverted. Because Kolakowski was himself a complex noun, having spoken out for intellectual honesty and humanist values while he remained a Communist, we could do this without giving up our critical distance or self-respect.
Kolakowski, of course, was not alone. A generation of Kolakowskis had appeared after ’56 to incite and inspire us. When you and I met in London in 1963, it occurred to me that if someone as morally serious and intellectually dedicated as you could still devote himself to Marxism and the cause of the Left—despite Stalinism and all that it had engendered—it was possible for me to do so too.
* * *
There was one question that Thompson had failed to ask, however, which occurred to me only later: When had Communism not been a complex noun that included individuals like Kolakowski (and you)? Even in the most grotesque night of the Stalinist abyss, the Communist movement had included the complexity of intellects as subtle and independent as Trotsky and Lukacs, Varga and Gramsci, not to mention the fellow-traveling chorus of “progressive” intellectuals who defended Stalinism while proclaiming their humanism from the privileged sanctuaries of the democratic West. Didn’t this say something about the futility of such complexity, or its practical irrelevance?
In our minds, of course, the true complexity of the Communist noun went beyond individuals to encompass the nature of reality itself. It was the Hegelian complexity that the idea of the future introduced into the present, that ultimately made us so willing to discount the evils of Stalinist rule. This complexity was a creation of our Marxist perspective, which decreed a divorce between appearance and reality, between present reality and the future to come. Between class history ruled by impersonal forces and revolutionary history ruled by reason, and guided by the precepts of social justice. This vision of the future was the heart of our radical illusion. We had rejected the crude determinism of our Stalinist precursors, but our confidence in the outcome of the historical process allowed us to put our talents on the Communist side of the global conflict, even though “really existing Communism” was an offense to the spirit of the socialism we believed in. In his “Open Letter” Thompson explained the paradox by which we gave our allegiance to an intellectual abstraction and wound up acting as partisans of a reality we disdained:
…In general, our allegiance to Communism was political: it arose from inexorable choices in a partisan world in which neutrality seemed impossible….But our intellectual allegiance was to Marxism….Thus there is a sense in which, even before 1956, our solidarity was given not to Communist states in their existence, but in their potential—not for what they were but for what—given a diminution in the Cold War—they might become.
Our solidarity was given to Communist states in their potential. New Leftists like us refused to become anti-Communist cold warriors and offered “critical support” to repulsive Communist regimes because we believed they would change. It was the “humanist potential” of societies with socialist foundations, not their totalitarian realities, that claimed our allegiance. (By the same reasoning, we were unimpressed by the democratic realities of the capitalist West, because private property rendered them incapable of such liberation). We refused to join the attack on the Communist camp in Cold War battles, no matter how morally justified, because we did not want to aid those seeking to destroy the seeds of the future the Left had sown in Soviet Russia. We were determined to defend what Trotsky had called “the gains of October”– the socialist edicts of the Bolshevik Revolution that had abolished private property and paved the way for a better world. It was our recognition of the epoch-making character of these “gains” that defined our radical faith.
By 1973 Kolakowski had rejected this faith and the politics it inspired. Thompson’s “Open Letter” was a refusal to accept the rejection. It was an eloquent plea for the continuing vitality of the socialist future and for the Left’s enduring mission as the carrier of historical optimism, the idea that humanity could be master of its fate. It was, above all, a rebuke to the leader who had once inspired but now spurned the radicals of ’56. “I feel,” wrote Thompson, “when I turn over your pages a sense of injury and betrayal.”
Kolakowski no longer believed in Communism as a complex noun. He no longer had faith in what he called the “secular eschatology” of the Left, the political passion that sought to fuse “the essence of man with his existence,” to assure that the timeless longings of humanity would be “fulfilled in reality.” We no longer believed in the reality of the socialist Idea.
* * *
Kolakowski replied to Thompson in the 1974 edition of The Socialist Register, which I read in America. Struggling, then, with my own doubts, I was drawn to his arguments which seemed to promise an exit from the ideological cul de sac in which I had come to feel trapped. In these passages he exposed the web of double standards that stifled radical thought and transformed it into a self-confirming creed.
As you know, there is no hallmark of left-wing discourse so familiar as the double standard. How many times had we been challenged by our conservative opponents for the support (however “critical”) we gave to totalitarian states where values we claimed to champion — freedom and human rights — were absent, while we made ourselves enemies of the western democracies where (however flawed) they were defended. In the seventy years since the Bolshevik Revolution perhaps no other question had proved such an obstacle to our efforts to win adherents to the socialist cause.
In his reply, Kolakowski drew attention to three forms of the double standard that Thompson had employed and that were crucial to the arguments of the Left. The first was the invocation of moral standards in judging capitalist regimes on the one hand, while historical criteria were used to evaluate their socialist counterparts on the other. As a result, capitalist injustice was invariably condemned by the Left under an absolute standard, whereas socialist injustice was routinely accommodated in accord with the relative judgments of a historical perspective. Thus, repellent practices in the socialist bloc were placed in their “proper context” and thereby “understood” as the product of pre-existing social and political conditions — i.e., as attempts to cope with intractable legacies of a soon-to-be-discarded past.
Secondly, capitalist and socialist regimes were always assessed under different assumptions about their futures. Capitalist regimes were judged under the assumption that they could not meaningfully improve, while socialist regimes were judged on the opposite assumption that they would. Repressions by conservatives like Pinochet in Chile were never seen in the terms in which their apologists justified them — as necessary preludes to democratic restorations — but condemned instead as unmitigated evils. On the other hand, the far greater and more durable repressions of revolutionary regimes like the one in Cuba, were invariably minimized as precisely that — necessary (and temporary) stages along the path to a progressive future.
Finally, in left-wing arguments the negative aspects of existing socialism were always attributed to capitalist influences (survival of the elements of the old society, impact of anti-Communist “encirclement,” tyranny of the world market, etc.), while the reverse possibility was never considered. Thus Leftist histories ritualistically invoked Hitler to explain the rise of Stalinism (the necessity of a draconian industrialization to meet the Nazi threat) but never viewed Stalinism as a factor contributing to the rise of Hitler. Yet, beginning with the socialist assault on bourgeois democracy and the forced labor camps (which were a probable inspiration for Auschwitz) Stalinism was a far more palpable influence in shaping German politics in the Thirties than was Nazism in Soviet developments. The “Trotskyite conspiracy with the Mikado and Hitler”—the cabal which the infamous show trials claimed to expose—was a Stalinist myth; but the alliance that German Communists formed with the Nazi Party to attack the Social Democrats and destroy the Weimar Republic was an actual Stalinist plot. Without this alliance, the united parties of the Left would have formed an formidable barrier to the Nazis’ electoral triumph and Hitler might never have come to power.
The same double standard underlies the Left’s failure to understand the Cold War that followed the allied victory. Leftist Cold War histories refuse to concede that the anti-Communist policies of the Western powers were a reasonable response to the threat they faced; instead, the threat itself is viewed as a fantasy of anti-Communist paranoia. Soviet militarism and imperialism, including the occupation of Eastern Europe, are dismissed as merely reactive — defensive responses to Western containment. But when the same Western actions produce the opposite result — Soviet withdrawal from Eastern Europe and, with that, an end to the Cold War — they are alleged to have had no influence at all. In sum, positive developments in the Soviet bloc come from within; negative developments are the consequences of counter-revolutionary encirclement.
The double standards that inform the arguments of the Left are really expressions of the Left’s false consciousness, the reflexes by which the Left defends an identity rooted in its belief in the redemptive power of the socialist idea. Of course the revolution cannot be judged by the same standards as the counter-revolution: the first is a project to create a truly human future, the latter only an attempt to preserve an anti-human past. This is why, no matter how destructive its consequences or how absolutely it fails, the revolution deserves our allegiance; why anti-Communism is always a far greater evil than the Communism it opposes. Because revolutionary evil is only a birth pang of the future, whereas the evil of counter-revolution lies in its desire to strangle the birth.
It was this birth in which Kolakowski had finally ceased to believe. The imagined future in whose name all actually existing revolutions had been relieved of their failures and absolved of their sins, he had concluded, was nothing more than a mistaken idea.
When Kolakowski’s reply to Thompson was printed in The Socialist Register 1974, you prefaced its appearance with an editorial note describing it as a “tragic document.” At the time, I was in the middle of my own political journey and this judgment was like the first stone in the wall that had begun to separate us. For I already had begun to realize just how much I agreed with everything Kolakowski had written.
It is clear to me now, in retrospect, that this moment marked the end of my intellectual life in the Left. It occurred during what for me had been a period of unexpected and tragic events. In Vietnam, America had not stayed the course of its imperial mission, as we had said it would, but under pressure from our radical movement had quit the field of battle. Our theory had assured us the capitalist state was controlled by the corporate interests of a ruling class, but events had shown that the American government was responsive to the desires of its ordinary citizens. Closer to home, a friend of mine named Betty Van Patter had been murdered by a vanguard of the Left, while the powers of the state that we had condemned as repressive had been so impotent in reality as to be unable even to indict those responsible. These events — for reasons I need not review here — confronted me with questions that I could not answer, and in the process opened an area of my mind to thoughts that I would previously have found unthinkable.
The shock of these recognitions dissolved the certainties that previously blocked my political sight. For the first time in my political life, I became inquisitive about what our opponents saw when they saw us. I began to wonder what if. What if we had been wrong in this or that instance, and if so, what if they had been right? I asked these questions as a kind of experiment at first, but then with systematic determination until they all seemed to be pushing towards a single concern: What if socialism were not possible after all?
* * *
While I was engaged with these doubts, Kolakowski published Main Currents of Marxism a comprehensive history of Marxist thought, the world view we all had spent a lifetime inhabiting. For three volumes and fifteen hundred pages Kolakowski analyzed the entire corpus of this intellectual tradition. Then, having paid critical homage to an argument which had dominated so much of humanity’s fate over the last hundred years (and his own as well), he added a final epilogue which began with these words: “Marxism has been the greatest fantasy of our century.” This struck me as the most personally courageous judgment a man with Kolakowski’s history could make.
By the time I read your review of Kolakowski’s book, my own doubts had taken me to the perimeter of Kolakowski’s position. Consequently, I approached what you had written, in a mood of apprehension, even foreboding. For I already knew that this would be our final encounter on my way out of the community of the Left, the last intellectual challenge I would have to meet.
It was appropriate that the final terrain of battle should be Marxism. Thompson had it right, our allegiance was to Marxism. Not to this particular thesis or that doctrinal principle, but to the paradigm itself: politics as civil war; history as a drama of social redemption. If we remained in the ranks of the Marxist Left, it was not because we failed to recognize the harsh facts that Marxists had created, but because we did not want to betray the vision that we shared with the creators.
And so the question that would irrevocably come to divide us was not whether Marxists had committed this revolutionary crime, or whether that revolutionary solution had veered off course; but whether the Marxist Idea itself could be held accountable for the revolutions that had been perpetrated in its name. In the end, it was ideas that made us what we were, that had given us the power of perennial rebirth. Movements rose and fell, but the ideas that generated them were immortal. And malleable as well. How easy it had proved in 1956 to discover humanitarian sentiments in Marx’s writings and thus distance ourselves from Stalin’s crimes; how simple to append the qualifier “democratic” to “socialist,” and thus escape responsibility for the bloody tyrannies that socialists had created.
It was on this very point that Kolakowski had thrown down his gauntlet, declaring that Marx’s ideas could not be rescued from the human ruins they had created, that “the primordial intention” of Marx’s dream was itself “not innocent.” History had shown, and analysis confirmed, that there was no reason to expect that socialism could ever become real “except in the cruel form of despotism.” The idea of socialism could not be freed from the taint incurred by its actual practice and thus revitalized, as Thompson and the New Left proposed, because it was the idea that had created the despotism in the first place. Marxism, as Kolakowski had announced at the outset of his book, was a vision that “began in Promethean humanism and culminated in the monstrous tyranny of Stalinism.”
You understood the gravity of the challenge. The claim that the Promethean project of the Left led directly to the socialist debacle depended on making two historical connections — between Marxism and Leninism, and between Leninism and Stalinism — thus establishing the continuity of the radical fate. You were contemptuous in your response:
To speak of Stalinism as following naturally and ineluctably from Leninism is unwarranted. However, to speak of Stalinism as ‘one possible interpretation of Marx’s doctrine’ is not only unwarranted but false.
A decade has passed since you wrote this. In the East it is the era of glasnost; the silence of the past is broken, the lies exposed. The Soviets themselves now acknowledge the genesis of Stalinism in Lenin. Yet, even if you were still tempted to resist this connection, it would not detain us. For it is the causal link between Marxism and Stalinism that is the real issue, encompassing both.
Stalinism is not a possible interpretation of Marx. What could you have been thinking to have written this, to have blotted out so much of the world we know? Forget the Soviet planners and managers who architected the Stalinist empire and found a rationale in Marx’s texts for all their actions and social constructions, including the Party dictatorship and the political police, the collectivization and the terror, the show trials and the gulag. These, after all, were practical men, accustomed to bending doctrine in the service of real world agendas. Consider, instead, the movement intellectuals — the complex nouns who managed to be Marxists and Stalinists through all the practical nightmares of the socialist epoch: Althusser and Brecht, Lukacs and Gramsci, Bloch and Benjamin, Hobsbawm and Edward Thompson too. Subtle Hegelians and social progressives, they were all promoters of the Stalinist cancer, devoting their formidable intellects and supple talents to its metastasizing terror. Were they illiterate to consider themselves Marxists and Stalinists? Or do you think they were merely corrupt? And what of the tens of thousands of Party intellectuals all over the world who were not so complex, among them Nobel-prize-winning scientists and renowned cultural artists who saw no particular difficulty in assimilating Stalin’s gulag to Marx’s utopia, socialist humanism to the totalitarian state? In obliterating the reality of these intellectual servants of socialist tyranny, you manifest a contempt for them as thinking human beings far greater than that exhibited in the scorn of their most dedicated anti-Communist critics.
Stalinism is not just a possible interpretation of Marxism. In the annals of revolutionary movements it is without question the prevailing one. Of all the interpretations of Marx’s doctrine since the Communist Manifesto, it is overwhelmingly the one adhered to by the most progressives for the longest time. Maoism, Castroism, Vietnamese Communism, the ideologies of the actually existing Marxist states — these Stalinisms are the Marxisms that shaped the history of the epoch just past. This is the truth that leftist intellectuals like you are determined to avoid: the record of the real lives of real human beings, whose task is not just to interpret texts but to move masses and govern them. When Marxism has been put into practice by real historical actors, it has invariably taken a Stalinist form, producing the worst tyrannies and oppressions that mankind has ever known. Is there a reason for this? Given the weight of this history, you should ask rather: How could there not be?
* * *
What persuaded us to believe that socialism, having begun everywhere so badly, should possess the power to reform itself into something better? To be something other than it has been? To pass through the inferno of its Stalinist tragedies to become the paradiso of our imaginations?
For we did believe in such a transformation. We were confident that the socialized foundations of Soviet society would eventually assert themselves, producing a self-reform of the Soviet tyranny. This was our New Left version of the faith we inherited. This refusal to accept history’s verdict made socialism a reality still. In the Sixties, when the booming capitalist societies of the West made radical prospects seem impossibly remote, we had a saying among us that the first socialist revolution was going to take place in the Soviet Union.
The lineage of these ideas could be traced back to our original complex noun, Trotsky: the legend of the revolution who had defied Stalin’s tyranny in the name of the revolution. While the Father of the Peoples slaughtered millions in the 1930s, Trotsky waited in his Mexican exile for Russia’s proletariat to rise up and restore the revolution to its rightful path. But as the waves of the Opposition disappeared into the gulag, and this prospect became impossibly remote, even Trotsky began to waver in his faith. By the eve of the Second World War, Trotsky’s despair had grown to such insupportable dimensions, that he made a final wager with himself. The conflict the world had just entered would be a test for the socialist faith. If the great war did not lead to a new revolution, socialists would be compelled, finally, to concede their defeat — to admit that “the present USSR was the precursor of a new and universal system of exploitation,” and that the socialist program had “petered out as a Utopia.” Trotsky did not survive to see the Cold War and the unraveling of his Marxist dreams. In 1940, his dilemma was resolved when one of Stalin’s agents gained entrance to the fortress of his exile in Mexico, and buried an ice pick in his head.
But the fantasy survived. In 1953 Stalin died and a new Left generation convinced itself that the long awaited metamorphosis was at last taking place. With Stalin’s death came the Khrushchev thaw, the famous speech lifting the veil on the bloody past, and a relaxation of the Stalinist terror. To those on the Left who had refused to give up, these were signs that the totalitarian caterpillar, having lodged itself in the cocoon of a backward empire, was about to become the socialist butterfly of which they had dreamed.
We had our own complex noun to explain the transformation. Our mutual friend, Isaac Deutscher, had emerged from the pre-war battles over Trotskyism to become the foremost interpreter of the Russian Revolution to our radical generation. What made Deutscher’s analysis so crucial to the self-understanding behind our revival was that he recognized the fact that Stalinism, in all its repugnance, was Marxist reality and had to be accepted as such. You, too, accepted this then, though it has become convenient for you to deny it now, just as you embraced the Leninist version of Marx’s doctrine as the only socialist outlook that had actually produced a revolution. There were social democrat Marxists, of course, who opposed Lenin and Stalin from the beginning. But you dismissed them as sentimentalists –“socialists of the hearth” you called them — reformers who were content to tinker with capitalism and lacked the fortitude to make a revolution.
Deutscher began with the reality that was given to us: the fact of Stalinism, as it had taken root in the Empire of the Czars. But instead of despairing like his mentor Trotsky, Deutscher began to explain why Stalinism, in spite of itself, was being transformed into socialism. In Trotsky’s own theories Deutscher had found an answer to Trotsky’s pessimism. While Trotsky worried that there would be no revolution from below, Deutscher explained to us why it was coming from above.
Stalinism, Deutscher wrote, was “an amalgamation of Marxism with the semi-barbarous and quite barbarous traditions and the primitive magic of an essentially pre-industrial…society.” In short, Stalinism was the fulfillment of Lenin’s famous prescription: with barbarism we will drive barbarism out of Russia:
Under Stalinism…Russia rose to the position of the world’s second industrial power. By fostering Russia’s industrialization and modernization Stalinism had with its own hands uprooted itself and prepared its ‘withering away.’
The backwardness of Russian society had provided the Bolsheviks not only with a revolutionary opportunity, but also an historical advantage. They could avail themselves of modern technologies and social theories. Instead of relying on the anarchic impulses of capitalist investment, they could employ the superior methods of socialist planning. The result of these inputs would be a modern economy more efficient and productive than those of their capitalist competitors.
According to Deutscher, in mid-century the socialist bloc, which had hitherto provided such grief for radicals like us, was poised for a great leap forward:
With public ownership of the means of production firmly established, with the consolidation and expansion of planned economy, and — last but not least — with the traditions of a socialist revolution alive in the minds of its people, the Soviet Union breaks with Stalinism in order to resume its advance towards equality and socialist democracy.
The ultimate basis of this transformation was the superior efficiency of socialist planning:
…superior efficiency necessarily translates itself, albeit with a delay, into higher standards of living. These should lead to the softening of social tensions, the weakening of antagonisms between bureaucracy and workers, and workers and peasants, to the further lessening of terror, and to the further growth of civil liberties.
Deutscher wrote these words in 1957, a year in which the Soviets celebrated the fortieth anniversary of the revolution by launching the first space satellite into orbit. The feat dramatized the progress that had been achieved in a single generation and heralded the end of the Soviets’ technological “apprenticeship” to the West. The message of Sputnik to the faithful all over the world, Deutscher predicted, was “that things may be very different for them in the second half of the century from what they were in the first.” For forty years, their cause had been “discredited…by the poverty, backwardness, and oppressiveness of the first workers’ state.” But that epoch was now coming to an end. With the industrial leap heralded by Sputnik, they might look forward to a time when the appeal of Communism would be “as much enhanced by Soviet wealth and technological progress as the attraction of bourgeois democracy has in our days been enhanced by the fact that it has behind it the vast resources of the United States.”
This was the vision of the socialist future that the Soviet leadership itself promoted. In 1961, Khrushchev boasted that the socialist economy would “bury” its capitalist competitors and that by 1980 the Soviet Union would overtake the United States in economic output and enter the stage of “full communism,” a society of true abundance whose principle of distribution would be “from each according to his ability to each according to his needs.”
As New Leftists, we took Khrushchev’s boast with a grain of salt. The Soviet Union was still a long way from its Marxist goals. Moreover, as Deutscher had warned, any future Soviet progress might be “complicated, blurred, or periodically halted by the inertia of Stalinism, by war panics, and, more basically, by the circumstance that the Soviet Union still remains in a position of overall economic inferiority vis-à-vis its American antipode.” Actual socialism was still a myth that Stalinism had created. But it had a redeeming dimension: the myth had helped “to reconcile the Soviet masses to the miseries of the Stalin era” and Stalinist ideology had helped “to discipline morally both the masses and the ruling group for the almost inhuman efforts which assured the Soviet Union’s spectacular rise from backwardness and poverty to industrial power and greatness.”
To us, Deutscher’s sober assessment was even more intoxicating than the Khrushchev myth. Its mix of optimism and “realism” became the foundation of our political revival. The turn Marxism had taken in 1917, creating a socialist economy within a totalitarian state, had posed a seemingly insoluble riddle. How could socialist progress be reconciled with such a stark retreat into social darkness? What did this portend for Marx’s insight that the mode of production determined the architecture of social relations? Building on Trotsky’s prior analysis, Deutscher pointed to what seemed to be the only way out of the dilemma that would preserve our radical faith.
And no doubt that is why, thirty years later, even as the tremors of glasnost and perestroika were unhinging the empire that Communists had built, you returned to Deutscher’s prophecy as a revolutionary premise. “Much that is happening in the Soviet Union [you wrote in The Socialist Register 1988] constitutes a remarkable vindication of [Deutscher’s] confidence that powerful forces for progressive change would eventually break through seemingly impenetrable barriers.”
* * *
Nothing could more clearly reveal how blind your faith has made you. To describe the collapse of the Soviet Empire as a vindication of Deutscher’s prophecies (and thus the Marxist tradition that underpins them) is to turn history on its head. We are indeed witnessing a form of “revolution from above” in the Soviet Union, but it is a revolution that refutes Deutscher and Marx. The events of the past years are not a triumph for socialism. The rejection of planned economy by the leaders of actually existing socialist society, the pathetic search for the elements of a rule of law (following the relentless crusades against “bourgeois rights”), the humiliating admission that the military superpower is in all other respects a third world nation, the incapacity of the socialist mode of production to enter the technological future and the unseemly begging for the advanced technology that it has stolen for decades from the capitalist West — all this adds up to a declaration of socialism’s utter bankruptcy and historic defeat. This bankruptcy is not only moral and political, as before, but now economic as well.
It is precisely this economic bankruptcy that Deutscher did not foresee, and that forecloses any possibility of a socialist revival. For all of these post-Khrushchev decades, that revival has been premised on the belief in the superiority of socialist economics. This is the meaning of the claim, so often repeated in Leftist quarters, that the “economic rights” and “substantive freedoms” of socialist states took precedence over the political rights and merely procedural freedoms guaranteed by the capitalist West. Faith in the socialist future had come to rest on the assumption that abundance would eventually flow from the cornucopia of socialist planning and that economic abundance would then lead to political deliverance — the Deutscherian thesis.
In our New Left fantasies the political nightmare of the socialist past was to be redeemed by the deus ex machina of socialist plenty. The present economic bankruptcy of the Soviet bloc puts this faith finally to rest and brings to an end the socialist era in human history.
This is the reality you have not begun to face.
* * *
It is important to understand this reality, which signals the close of an historical era. But this can be accomplished only if we do not deny the history we have lived. You can begin this retrieval of memory by recalling your critique of Kolakowski ten years ago, which set down the terms of your defense of the cause to which we were all so dedicated.
Your complaint against Kolakowski, you remember, was that in demolishing the edifice of Marxist theory he had slighted the motives of those who embraced it and thus failed to explain its ultimate appeal. Kolakowski had portrayed Marxism as the secular version of a religious quest that went back to the beginning of human history: how to reconcile contingent human existence to an essence from which it was estranged — how to return humanity to its true self. For Kolakowski, Marxism was the messianic faith of a post-religious world. Naturally, such an explanation would be insulting to you. You rejected it as “superficial,” inadequate (you said) to explain Marxism’s attraction to “so many gifted people.” In your view, Marxism’s appeal was not to those hungry for religious answers, but to people who responded to the call “to oppose great evils and to create conditions for a different kind of world, from which such evils would be banished.” The call to fight these evils was the crucial factor in enlisting people in the cause of the Left, and you named them: “exploitation, poverty and crisis, war and the threat of war, imperialism and fascism, the crimes of the ruling classes.”
Let us pass for a moment over the most dramatic of these evils — exploitation, crisis, war, imperialism, fascism, and the crimes of “ruling classes,” including the vast privileges of the nomenklatura – from which you will agree Marxist societies themselves have not been free since their creation. Let us consider, rather, the simple poverty of ordinary people, whose redress was the most fundamental premise of the revolutionary plan. Let us look at what has been revealed by glasnost about the quality of the ordinary lives of ordinary people after 70 years of socialist effort — not forgetting that 40 million human beings (the figure is from current Soviet sources) were exterminated to make possible this revolutionary achievement.
Official statistics released during glasnost indicate that after 70 years of socialist development 40% of the Soviet population and 79% of its older citizens live in poverty. (Of course, judged by the standards of “exploitative” capitalist systems, the entire Soviet people live in a state of poverty.)
Thus, the Soviet Union’s per capita income is estimated by Soviet economists as about one-seventh that of the United States, somewhere on a par with Communist China.
In the Soviet Union in 1989 there was rationing of meat and sugar, in peacetime; the rations revealed that the average intake of red meat for a Soviet citizen was half of what it had been for a subject of the Czar in 1913. At the same time, a vast supermarket of fruits, vegetables and household goods, available to the most humble inhabitant of a capitalist economy, was permanently out of stock and thus out of reach for the people of the socialist state. Indeed, one of the principal demands of a Siberian miners’ strike in 1989 was for an item as mundane and basic to a sense of personal well-being as a bar of soap. In a land of expansive virgin forests, there was a toilet paper shortage. In an industrial country with one of the harshest and coldest climates in the world, two-thirds of the households had no hot water, and a third had no running water at all. Not only was the construction of housing notoriously shabby, but space was so scarce, according to the government paper, Izvestia, that a typical working class family of four was forced to live for 8 years in a single 8×8 foot room, before marginally better accommodation became available. The housing shortage was so acute that at all times 17% of Soviet families had to be physically separated for want of adequate space.
After 50 years of socialist industrialization, the Soviet Union’s per-capita output of non-military goods and services placed it somewhere between 50th and 60th among the nations of the world. More manufactured goods were exported annually by Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Korea or Switzerland, while blacks in apartheid South Africa owned more cars per capita than did citizens of the socialist state. The only area of consumption in which the Soviets excelled was the ingestion of hard liquor. In this they led the world by a wide margin, consuming 17.4 liters of pure alcohol or 43.5 liters of vodka per person per year, which was five times what their forebears had consumed in the days of the Czar. At the same time, the average welfare mother in the United States received more income in a month, than the average Soviet worker could earn in a year.
Nor was the general deprivation confined to households and individual consumption. The “public sector” was equally desolate. In the name of progress, the Soviets devastated the environment to a degree unknown in other industrial states. More than 70% of the Soviet atmosphere was polluted with five times the permissible limit of toxic chemicals, and thousands of square miles of the Soviet land mass was poisoned by radiation. Thirty percent of all Soviet foods contained hazardous pesticides and six million acres of productive farmland were lost to erosion. More than 130 nuclear explosions had been detonated in European Russia for geophysical investigations to create underground pressure in oil and gas fields, or just to move earth for building dams. The Aral Sea, the world’s largest inland body of water, was dried up as the result of a misguided plan to irrigate a desert. Soviet industry operated under no controls and the accidental spillage of oil into the country’s eco-systems took place at the rate of nearly a million barrels a day.
Even in traditional areas of socialist concern, the results were catastrophic. Soviet spending on health was the lowest of any developed nation and basic health conditions were on a level with those in the poorest of third world countries. A third of the hospitals had no running water, the training of medical personnel was poor, equipment was primitive and medical supplies scarce. (US expenditures on medical technology alone were twice as much as the entire Soviet health budget.) The bribery of doctors and nurses to get decent medical attention and even amenities like blankets in Soviet hospitals was not only common, but routine. So backward was Soviet medical care, 30 years after the launching of Sputnik, that 40% of the Soviet Union’s pharmacological drugs had to be imported, and much of these were lost to spoilage due to primitive and inadequate storage facilities. Bad as these conditions were generally, in the ethnic republics they were even worse. In Turkmenia, fully two-thirds of the hospitals had no indoor plumbing. In Uzbekistan, 50% of the villages were reported to have no running water and 93% no sewers. In socialist Tadjikistan, according to a report in Izvestia, only 25-30% of the schoolchildren were found to be healthy. As a result of bad living conditions and inadequate medical care, life expectancy for males throughout the Soviet Union was 12 years less than for males in Japan and 9 years less than in the United States — and less for Soviet males themselves than it had been in 1939.
Educational conditions were no less extreme. “For the country as a whole,” according to one Soviet report, “21 percent of pupils are trained at school buildings without central heating, 30 percent without water piping and 40 percent lacking sewerage.” In other words, despite sub-zero temperatures, the socialist state was able to provide schools with only outhouse facilities for nearly half its children. Even at this impoverished level, only 9 years of secondary schooling were provided on average, compared to 12 years in the United States, while only 15 percent of Soviet youth were able to attend institutions of higher learning compared to 34 percent in the U.S.
Education, housing and health were the areas traditionally emphasized by socialist politics because they affect the welfare of a people and the foundations of its future. In Deutscher’s schema, Soviet schools (“the world’s most extensive and modern education system,” as he described it) were the keys to its progressive prospect. But, as glasnost revealed, Soviet spending on education had declined in the years since Sputnik (while US spending tripled). By the 1980s it was evident that education was no more exempt from the generalized poverty of socialist society than other non-military fields of enterprise. Seduced by Soviet advances in nuclear arms and military showpieces like Sputnik, Deutscher labored under the illusion of generations of the Left. He too believed that the goal of revolutionary power was something else than power itself.
For years the Left had decried the collusion between corporate and military interests in the capitalist West. But all that time the entire socialist economy was little more than one giant military industrial complex. Military investment absorbed 25% of the Soviet gross product (compared to only 6% in the United States) and military technology provided the only product competitive for export. Outside the military sector, as glasnost revealed, the vaunted Soviet industrial achievement was little more than a socialist mirage — imitative, archaic, inefficient, and one-sided. It was presided over by a sclerotic nomenklatura of state planners, which was incapable of adjusting to dynamic technological change. In the Thirties, the political architects of the Soviet economy had over-built a heavy industrial base, and then as if programmed by some invisible bureaucratic hand, had rebuilt it again and again.
Straitjacketed by its central plan, the socialist world was unable to enter the “second industrial revolution” that began to unfold in countries outside the Soviet bloc after 1945. By the beginning of the 1980s the Japanese already had 13 times the number of large computers per capita as the Soviets and nearly 60 times the number of industrial robots (the U.S. had three times the computer power of the Japanese themselves). “We were among the last to understand that in the age of information sciences the most valuable asset is knowledge, springing from human imagination and creativity,” complained Soviet President Gorbachev in 1989. “We will be paying for our mistake for many years to come.” While capitalist nations (including recent “third world” economies like South Korea) were soaring into the technological future, Russia and its satellites, caught in the contradictions of an archaic mode of production, were stagnating into a decade of zero growth, becoming economic anachronisms or what one analyst described as “a gigantic Soviet socialist rust belt.” In the 1980s the Soviet Union had become a military super-power, but this achievement bankrupted its already impoverished society in the process.
Nothing illustrated this bankruptcy with more poignancy than the opening of a McDonald’s fast-food outlet in Moscow about the time the East Germans were pulling down the Berlin Wall. In fact, the semiotics of the two were inseparable. During the last decades of the Cold War, the Wall had come to symbolize the borders of the socialist world, the Iron Curtain that held its populations captive against the irrepressible fact of the superiority of the capitalist societies in the West. When the Wall was breached, the terror was over, and with it the only authority ever really commanded by the socialist world.
The appearance of the Moscow McDonald’s revealed the prosaic truth that lay behind the creation of the Wall and the bloody epoch that it had come to symbolize. Its Soviet customers gathered in lines whose length exceeded those waiting outside Lenin’s tomb, the altar of the revolution itself. Here, the capitalist genius for catering to the ordinary desires of ordinary people was spectacularly displayed, along with socialism’s relentless unconcern for the needs of common humanity. McDonald’s executives even found it necessary to purchase and manage their own special farm in Russia, because Soviet potatoes — the very staple of the people’s diet — were too poor in quality and unreliable in supply. On the other hand, the wages of the Soviet customers were so depressed that a hamburger and fries was equivalent in rubles to half a day’s pay. And yet this most ordinary of pleasures — the bottom of the food chain in the capitalist West — was still such a luxury for Soviet consumers that to them it was worth a four hour wait and a four hour wage.
Of all the symbols of the epoch-making year, this was perhaps the most resonant for leftists of our generation. Impervious to the way the unobstructed market democratizes wealth, the New Left had focused its social scorn precisely on those plebeian achievements of consumer capitalism, that brought services and goods efficiently and cheaply to ordinary people. Perhaps the main theoretical contribution of our generation of New Left Marxists was an elaborate literature of cultural criticism made up of sneering commentaries on the “commodity fetishism” of bourgeois cultures and the “one-dimensional” humanity that commerce produced. The function of such critiques was to make its authors superior to the ordinary liberations of societies governed by the principles of consumer sovereignty and market economy. For New Leftists, the leviathans of post-industrial alienation and oppression were precisely these “consumption-oriented” industries, like McDonald’s, that offered inexpensive services and goods to the working masses — some, like the “Sizzler” restaurants, in the form of “all you can eat” menus that embraced a variety of meats, vegetables, fruits and pastries virtually unknown in the Soviet bloc.
These mundane symbols of consumer capitalism revealed the real secret of the era that was now ending, the reason why the Iron Curtain and its Berlin Walls were necessary, why the Cold War itself was an inevitable by-product of socialist rule: In 1989, for two hour’s labor at the minimum wage, an American worker could obtain, at a corner “Sizzler,” a feast more opulent, more nutritionally rich and gastronomically diverse than anything available to almost all the citizens of the socialist world (including the elite) at almost any price.
* * *
In the counter-revolutionary year 1989, on the anniversary of the Revolution, a group of protesters raised a banner in Red Square that summed up an epoch: Seventy Years On The Road To Nowhere. They had lived the socialist future and it didn’t work.
This epic of human futility reached a climax the same year, when the socialist state formally decided to return the land it had taken from its peasants half a century before. The collectivization of agriculture in the Thirties had been the very first pillar of the socialist Plan and one of the bloodiest episodes of the revolutionary era. Armies were dispatched to the countryside to confiscate the property of its recalcitrant owners, conduct mass deportations to the Siberian gulag, liquidate the “kulaks” and herd the survivors into the collective farms of the Marxist future.
In this “final” class struggle, no method was considered too ruthless to midwife the new world from the old. “We are opposed by everything that has outlived the time set for it by history” wrote Maxim Gorky in the midst of battle: “This gives us the right to consider ourselves again in a state of civil war. The conclusion naturally follows that if the enemy does not surrender, he must be destroyed.” The destruction of the class enemy — the most numerous and productive element of Soviet society at the time — was accomplished by massacres, by slow deaths in concentration camps and by deliberately induced genocidal famine. In the end, over 10 million people were killed, more than had died on all sides in World War I.
But the new serfdom the Soviet rulers imposed in the name of liberation only destroyed the peasants’ freedom and incentive, and thus laid the foundations of the final impasse. Before collectivization, Russia had been the “breadbasket of Europe,” supplying 40% of the world’s wheat exports in the bumper years 1909 and 1910. But socialism ended Russia’s agrarian plenty and created permanent deficits — not merely the human deficit of those who perished because of Stalinist brutalities during the collectivization, but a deficit in grain that would never be brought to harvest because of the brutality inherent in the socialist idea. Half a century after the socialist future had been brought to the countryside, the Soviet Union had become a net importer of grain, unable to produce enough food to feed its own population.
These deficits eventually forced the state to allow a portion of the crop to be sold on the suppressed private market. Soon, 25% of Soviet grain was being produced on the 3% of the arable land reserved for private production. Thus necessity had compelled the Soviet rulers to create a dramatic advertisement for the system they despised. They had rejected the productive efficiencies of the capitalist system as exploitative and oppressive. Yet, the socialist redistribution of wealth had produced neither equity nor justice, but scarcity and waste. At the end of the 1980s, amidst growing general crisis, Soviet youth were using bread as makeshift footballs because its price had been made so low (to satisfy the demands of social equity) that it was now less than the cost of the grain to produce it. This was a microcosm of socialist economy. Irrational prices, bureaucratic chaos, and generalized public cynicism (the actually existing socialist ethos in all Marxist states) had created an environment in which 40% of the food crop was lost to spoilage before ever reaching the consumer. And so, half a century after 10 million people had been killed to “socialize the countryside,” those who had expropriated the land were giving it back.
The road to nowhere had become a detour. (Soviet joke: What is socialism? The longest road from capitalism to capitalism.) Now the Soviet rulers themselves had begun to say that it had all been a horrible “mistake.” Socialism did not work. Not even for them.
Of all the scenarios of the Communist gotterdammerung, this denouement had been predicted by no one. Ruling classes invariably held fast to the levers of their power. They did not confess their own bankruptcy and then proceed to dismantle the social systems that sustained their rule, as this one had. The reason for the anomaly was this: the creators and rulers of the Soviet Union had indeed made a mistake. The system did not work, not even in terms of sustaining the power of its ruling class.
The close of the Soviet drama was unpredicted because the very nature of the Soviet Union was without precedent. It was not an organic development, but an artificial creation — the first society in history to be dreamed up by intellectuals and constructed according to plan. The crisis of Soviet society was not so much a traditional crisis of legitimacy and rule, as it was the crisis of an idea – a monstrously wrong idea that had been imposed on society by an intellectual elite; an idea so passionately believed and yet so profoundly mistaken, that it had caused more human misery and suffering than any single force in history before.
This suffering could not be justified by the arguments of the Left that the revolutionary changes were “at least an improvement on what existed before.” Contrary to the progressive myth that radicals invented to justify their failures, Czarist Russia was not a merely pitiful, semi-barbaric state, when the socialists seized power. By 1917, Russia was already the 4th industrial power in the world. Its rail networks had tripled since 1890, and its industrial output had increased by three-quarters since the century began. Over half of all Russian children between eight and eleven years of age were enrolled in schools, while 68% of all military conscripts had been tested literate. A cultural renaissance was underway in dance, painting, literature and music, the names Blok, Kandinsky, Mayakovsky, Pasternak, Diaghelev, Stravinsky were already figures of world renown. In 1905 a constitutional monarchy with an elected parliament had been created, in which freedom of the press, assembly and association were guaranteed, if not always observed. By 1917, legislation to create a welfare state, including the right to strike and provisions for workers’ insurance was already in force and — before it was dissolved by Lenin’s Bolsheviks — Russia’s first truly democratic democratic parliament had been convened.
The Marxist Revolution destroyed all this, tearing the Russian people out of history’s womb and robbing whole generations of their minimal birthright, the opportunity to struggle for a decent life. Yet even as this political abortion was being completed and the nation was plunging into its deepest abyss, the very logic of revolution forced its leaders to expand their Lie: to insist that the very nightmare they had created was indeed the kingdom of freedom and justice the revolution had promised.
It is in this bottomless chasm between reality and promise that our own argument is finally joined. You seek to separate the terror-filled actualities of the Soviet experience from the magnificent harmonies of the socialist dream. But it is the dream itself that begets the reality, and requires the terror. This is the revolutionary paradox you want to ignore.
Isaac Deutscher had actually appreciated this revolutionary equation, but without ever comprehending its terrible finality. The second volume of his biography of Trotsky opens with a chapter he called “The Power and The Dream.” In it, he described how the Bolsheviks confronted the situation they had created: “When victory was theirs at last, they found that revolutionary Russia had overreached herself and was hurled down to the bottom of a horrible pit.” Seeing that the revolution had only increased their misery, the Russian people began asking: “Is this…the realm of freedom? Is this where the great leap has taken us?” The leaders of the Revolution could not answer. “[While] they at first sought merely to conceal the chasm between dream and reality [they] soon insisted that the realm of freedom had already been reached — and that it lay there at the bottom of the pit. ‘If people refused to believe, they had to be made to believe by force.’”
So long as the revolutionaries continued to rule, they could not admit that they had made a mistake. Though they had cast an entire nation into a living hell, they had to maintain the liberating truth of the socialist idea. And because the idea was no longer believable, they had to make the people believe by force. It was the socialist idea that created the terror.
Because of the nature of its political mission, this terror was immeasurably greater than the repression it replaced. Whereas the Czarist police had several hundred agents at its height; the Bolshevik Cheka began its career with several hundred thousand. Whereas the Czarist secret police had operated within the framework of a rule of law, the Cheka (and its successors) did not. The Czarist police repressed extra-legal opponents of the political regime. To create the socialist future, the Cheka targeted whole social categories — regardless of individual behavior or attitude — for liquidation.
The results were predictable. “Up until 1905,” wrote Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, in his monumental record of the Soviet gulag, “the death penalty was an exceptional measure in Russia.” From 1876 to 1904, 486 people were executed or seventeen people a year for the whole country (a figure which included the executions of non-political criminals). During the years of the 1905 revolution and its suppression, “the number of executions rocketed upward, astounding Russian imaginations, calling forth tears from Tolstoy and…many others; from 1905 through 1908 about 2,200 persons were executed—forty-five a month. This, as Tagantsev said, was an epidemic of executions. It came to an abrupt end.”
But then came the Bolshevik seizure of power: “In a period of sixteen months (June 1918 to October 1919) more than sixteen thousand persons were shot, which is to say more than one thousand a month.” These executions, carried out by the Cheka without trial and by revolutionary tribunals without due process, were executions of people exclusively accused of political crimes. And this was only a drop in the sea of executions to come. The true figures will never be known, but in the two years 1937 and 1938, according to the executioners themselves, half a million ‘political prisoners’ were shot, or 20,000 a month.
To measure these deaths on an historical scale, Solzhenitsyn also compared them to the horrors of the Spanish Inquisition, which during the 80 year peak of its existence, condemned an average of 10 heretics a month. The difference was this: The Inquisition only forced unbelievers to believe in a world unseen; Socialism demanded that they believe in the very Lie that the revolution had condemned them to live.
* * *
The author of our century’s tragedy is not Stalin, nor even Lenin. Its author is the political Left that we belonged to, that was launched at the time of Gracchus Babeuf and the Conspiracy of the Equals, and that has continued its assault on bourgeois order ever since. The reign of socialist terror is the responsibility of all those who have promoted the Socialist idea, which required so much blood to implement, and then did not work in the end.
But if socialism was a mistake, it was never merely innocent in the sense that its consequences could not have been foreseen. From the very beginning, before the first drop of blood had ever been spilled, the critics of socialism had warned that it would end in tyranny and that economically it would not work. In 1844, Marx’s collaborator Arnold Ruge warned that Marx’s dream would result in “a police and slave state.” And in 1872, Marx’s arch rival in the First International, the anarchist Bakunin, described with penetrating acumen the political life of the future that Marx had in mind:
This government will not content itself with administering and governing the masses politically, as all governments do today. It will also administer the masses economically, concentrating in the hands of the State the production and division of wealth, the cultivation of land,…All that will demand…the reign of scientific intelligence, the most aristocratic, despotic, arrogant, and elitist of all regimes. There will be a new class, a new hierarchy…the world will be divided into a minority ruling in the name of knowledge, and an immense ignorant majority. And then, woe unto the mass of ignorant ones!
If a leading voice in Marx’s own International could see with such clarity the oppressive implications of his revolutionary idea, there was no excuse for the generations of Marxists who promoted the idea even after it had been put into practice and the blood began to flow. But the idea was so seductive that even Marxists who opposed Soviet Communism, continued to support it, saying this was not the actual socialism that Marx had in mind, even though Bakunin had seen that it was.
So powerful was the socialist idea that even those on the Left who took their inspiration from Bakunin rather than Marx and later opposed the Communists, could not bring themselves to defend the democratic societies of the capitalist West that the Marxists had put under siege. Like Bakunin, they were sworn enemies of capitalism, the only industrial system that was democratic and that worked. Yet their remedy for its deficiencies — abolishing private property and the economic market — would have meant generalized poverty and revolutionary terror as surely as the statist fantasies of Marx. By promoting the socialist idea of the future and by participating in the war against the capitalist present, these non-Marxist soldiers of the political Left became partners in the very tragedy they feared.
Of all Marx’s critics, it was only the partisans of bourgeois order who understood the mistake that socialists had made and thus appreciated the only practical, and therefore real, social bases of human freedom: Private property and economic markets. In 1922, as the Bolsheviks completed the consolidation of their political power, the Austrian economist Ludwig Von Mises published his classic indictment of the socialist idea and its destructive consequences. Von Mises already knew that socialism could not work and that no amount of bloodshed and repression could prevent its eventual collapse. “The problem of economic calculation,” he wrote, “is the fundamental problem of socialism” and cannot be solved by socialist means. “Everything brought forward in favor of Socialism during the last hundred years,…all the blood which has been spilt by the supporters of socialism, cannot make socialism workable.” Advocates of socialism might continue “to paint the evils of Capitalism in lurid colors” and to contrast them with an enticing picture of socialist blessings, “but all this cannot alter the fate of the socialist idea.” Von Mises’ thesis was elaborated and extended by the former socialist Friederich Von Hayek, who argued that the information conveyed through the price system was so complex and was changing so dynamically, that no planning authority, even with the aid of the most powerful computers conceivable, could ever succeed in replacing the market.
Across the vast empire of societies that have put the socialist idea to the test, its fate is now obvious to all. Von Mises, Hayek, Polanyi, and the other prophets of capitalist economy are now revered throughout the Soviet bloc, even as the names of Marx, Lenin and Trotsky are despised. Their works — once circulated only in samizdat – were among the first of glasnost to be unbanned. Yet, in the socialist and Marxist press in the West, in articles like yours and in the efforts of your comrades to analyze the “meaning” of the Communist crisis, the arguments of the capitalist critics of socialism, who long ago demonstrated its impossibility and who have now been proven correct, are nowhere considered. As if they had never been made.
For socialists, like you, to confront these arguments would be to confront the lesson of the history that has passed: The socialist idea has been in its consequences, one of the worst and most destructive fantasies to ever have taken hold of the minds of men.
And it is the idea that Marx conceived. For 200 years, the Promethean project of the Left has been just this: To abolish property and overthrow the market, and thereby to establish the reign of reason and justice embodied in a social plan. “In Marxist utopianism, communism is the society in which things are thrown from the saddle and cease to ride mankind. Men struggle free from their own machinery and subdue it to human needs and definitions.” That is Edward Thompson’s summary of Marx’s famous text in the first volume of Capital:
The life-process of society, which is based on the process of material production, does not strip off its mystical veil until it is treated as production by freely associated men, and is consciously regulated by them in accordance with a settled plan.
The “fetishism of commodities” embodied in the market is, in Marx’s vision, the economic basis of the alienation at the heart of man’s estate: “a definite social relation between men, that assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things.” The aim of socialist liberation is humanity’s re-appropriation of its own activity and its own product — the reappropriation of man by man — that can only be achieved when private property and the market are replaced by a social plan.
The slogan Marx inscribed on the banners of the Communist future, “from each according to his ability to each according to his need,” is but an expropriated version of Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand under which the pursuit of individual interest leads to the fulfillment of the interests of all. But in the socialist future there is no market to rule over individual human passions and channel self-interest into social satisfaction, just as there is no rule of law to protect individual rights from the passions that rule the state. There is only the unmediated power of the socialist vanguard exercised from the sanctuary of its bureaucratic throne.
All the theorizing about socialist liberation comes down to this: The inhabitants of the new society will be freed from the constraints of markets and the guidelines of tradition and bourgeois notions of a rule of law. They will be masters in their own house and makers of their own fate. But this liberation is, finally, a Faustian bargain. Because it will not work. Moreover, the effort to make it work will create a landscape of human suffering greater than any previously imagined.
* * *
Towards the end of his life, our friend Isaac Deutscher had a premonition of the disaster that has now overtaken the socialist Left. In the conclusion to the final volume of his Trotsky trilogy, The Prophet Outcast, he speculated on the fate that would befall his revolutionary hero if the socialist project itself should fail:
If the view were to be taken that all that the Bolsheviks aimed at — socialism — was no more than a fata morgana, that the revolution merely substituted one kind of exploitation and oppression for another, and could not do otherwise, then Trotsky would appear as the high priest of a god that was bound to fail, as Utopia’s servant mortally entangled in his dreams and illusions.
But Deutscher did not have the strength to see the true dimensions of the catastrophe that socialism had in store. Instead, his realism only served to reveal the depths of self-delusion and self-justifying romanticism that provide sustenance for the Left. Even if such a failure were to take place, he argued, the revolutionary hero, “would [still] attract the respect and sympathy due to the great utopians and visionaries…
Even if it were true that it is man’s fate to stagger in pain and blood from defeat to defeat and to throw off one yoke only to bend his neck beneath another—even then man’s longings for a different destiny would still, like pillars of fire, relieve the darkness and gloom of the endless desert through which he has been wandering with no promised land beyond.
This is the true self-vision of the Left: An army of saints on the march against injustice, lacking itself the capacity for evil. The Left sees its revolutions as pillars of fire that light up humanity’s deserts, but burn no civilizations as they pass. It lacks the ability to make the most basic moral accounting, the awareness that the Marxes, Trotskys, and Lenins immeasurably increased the suffering of humanity, and destroyed even those blooms existing civilizations had managed to put forth.
Without socialism, the peoples of the Russian Empire, might have moved into the forefront of the modern industrial world (as the Japanese have) without the incalculable human cost. Instead, even the most productive of the Soviet satellites, East Germany, once the Prussian powerhouse of European industrialism, is now condemned to a blighted economic standard below that of Italy, South Korea or Spain.
Consider the history of our century. On whose heads does the responsibility lie for all the blood that was shed to make socialism possible? If the socialist idea is a chimera and the revolutionary path a road to nowhere, can the revolutions themselves be noble or innocent even in intention? Can they be justified by the lesser but known evils they sought to redress? In every revolutionary battle in this century, the Left has been a vanguard without a viable future to offer, whose only purpose was to destroy whatever civilization actually existed.
Consider: If no one had believed Marx’s idea, there would have been no Bolshevik Revolution and Russia might have evolved into a modern democracy and industrial state; Hitler would not have come to power; there would have been no cold war. It is hard not to conclude that most of the bloodshed of the 20th Century might not have taken place. For seventy years the revolutionary Left put its weight on one side in the international civil war that Lenin had launched, and against the side that promoted human freedom and industrial progress. And it did so in the name of an idea that could not work.
The communist idea is not the principle of the modern world, as Marx supposed, but its anti-principle, the reactionary rejection of political individualism and the market economies of the liberal West. Wherever the revolutionary Left has triumphed, its triumph has meant economic backwardness and social poverty, cultural deprivation and the loss of political freedom for all those unfortunate peoples under its yoke.
This is the real legacy of the Left of which you and I were a part. We called ourselves progressives, and others did as well; but we were the true reactionaries of the modern world whose first era has now drawn to a close.
The iron curtain that divided the prisoners of socialism from the free men and women of the West has now been torn down. The iron curtain that divides us remains. It is the utopian dream that is so destructive and that you refuse to give up. Your ex-comrade,
 Ralph Miliband, an English Marxist, author of Parliamentary Socialism and other works, who was my mentor during the years I was in England 1963-1967
The Holy Family
Marx, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts.
 “The Crisis of Communist Regimes,” New Left Review September-October 1989. As New Left professor Michael Burawoy actually wrote in a special issue of Socialist Review: “Marxism is dead, long live Marxism!” Now What? Responses to Socialism’s Crisis of Meaning, Volume 20 No. 2 April-June 1990.
 In commenting on the “sharpness of tone” in your review of Kolakowski’s trilogy on Marxism you explained: “I think this is in part attributable to a strong personal sense of disappointment at Kolakowski’s political evolution. I have known Kolakowski since the fraught days of 1956 and have always thought him to be a man of outstanding integrity and courage, with a brilliant and original mind. His turning away from Marxism and, as I see it, from socialism has been a great boon to the reactionary forces of which he was once the dedicated enemy, and a great loss to the socialist cause, of which he was once the intrepid champion. I felt that loss very keenly…” Ralph Miliband, Class Power & State Power, Political Essays. London 1983 pp. 226-7
 Kolakowski, “The Priest and the Jester” (1959) in Towards a Marxist Humanism.
 Leszek Kolakowski, Main Currents of Marxism, 3 vols. Oxford University Press Oxford 1978
 “Kolakowski’s Anti-Marx,” Political Studies, vol. XXIX, no. 1 (1981). Kolakowski’s reply, “Miliband’s Anti-Kolakowski,” is printed in the same issue. A revised version of Miliband’s review is printed in Ralph Miliband, Class Power and State Power, op. cit.
 “At the core of Marxist politics, there is the notion of conflict [as]…civil war conducted by other means. [Social conflict] is not a matter of ‘problems’ to be ‘solved’ but of a state of domination and subjection to be ended by a total transformation of the conditions which give rise to it.” Ralph Miliband, Marxism and Politics, Oxford 1977, p. 17
 Cited in Thompson, Poverty of Theory, p. 345 For Kolakowski’s analysis of the impossibility of non-totalitarian Marxist socialism, see “The Myth of Human Self-Identity” in Stuart Hampshire ed. The Socialist Idea, NY 1973 For Thompson’s scholastic response to this argument, see Thompson op. cit.
 L. Trotsky, In Defence of Marxism. Cited in Isaac Deutscher, The Prophet Outcast, Oxford 1963 p. 468
 Isaac Deutscher, “The Meaning of De-Stalinization,” Ironies of History, Oxford 1966 p.21 Cf. Deutscher, The Prophet Outcast, Oxford 1963 p. 521: “Through the forcible modernization of the structure of society Stalinism had worked towards its own undoing and had prepared the ground for the return of classical Marxism.” Lenin cited in Kolakowski, op. cit. Vol. II, p. 486
Ironies of History, op. cit. p.58
 Deutscher, Ironies of History, op cit. “Four Decades of the Revolution,” p. 58
 Ibid. p. 58
 “The Irony of History in Stalinism” (1958) in Ironies of History, Oxford 1966.
Socialist Register 1988 “Problems of Socialist Renewal: East and West”.
 “Kolakowski’s Anti-Marx,” op. cit.
 Zbigniew Brzezinski, The Grand Failure, NY 1989 p. 237 For facts about Soviet society cited below cf. also “Social and Economic Rights in the Soviet Bloc,” special issue of Survey, August 1987. Richard Pipes, “Gorbachev’s Russia: Breakdown or Crackdown?” Commentary, March 1990 Walter Laqueur, The Long Road to Freedom, Russia and Glasnost, NY 1989. Wall Street Journal, June 28, 1989.
 Robert Heilbroner, “After Communism,” The New Yorker, September 10, 1990
 “No other great industrial civilization so systematically ands so long poisoned its air, land, water and people. None so loudly proclaiming its efforts to improve public health and protect nature so degraded both. And no advanced society faced such a bleak political and economic reckoning with so few resources to invest toward recovery.” Murray Feshbach and Alfred Friendly Jr., Ecocide in the USSR. NY Basic Books
 The USSR in Figures for 1987 p. 254
 Figures from Brzezinski, op. cit. p. 36 and George Gilder, “The American 80’s” in Commentary September 1990 Gorbachev cited by Gilder
 Z (Martin Malia), “To the Stalin Mausoleum,” Daedalus, Winter 1990
 Robert Conquest, The Harvest of Sorrow, NY 1986; Nekrich and Heller Utopia in Power, NY 1986
 John Gray, “Totalitarianism, Reform and Civil Society,” in Totalitarianism at the Crossroads, op. cit.
 Nekrich and Heller, op. cit., pp. 15-17
 Isaac Deutscher, The Prophet Unarmed, Trotsky 1921-1929, NY 1965 pp. 1-2 The internal quote refers to a passage from Machiavelli that Deutscher had used as an epigraph to The Prophet Armed, “…the nature of the people is variable, and whilst it is easy to persuade them, it is difficult to fix them in that persuasion. And thus it is necessary to take such measures that, when they believe no longer, it may be possible to make them believe by force.”
Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, Vol. I. pp. 433 et seq.
 Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, Op. cit., p. 435n.
 Sam Dolgoff Ed. Bakunin On Anarchy, NY 1971 p. 319 emphasis in original
 Ludwig von Mises, Socialism, Indianapolis, 1969
 John Gray, op. cit.; Friederich Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty; Law, Legislation and Liberty and other works.
 Karl Marx, Capital, Moscow 1961 p. 80
 Ibid., p. 72