A few months ago we changed the name of our blog from Thought Foundry Blog to Red Liberty, though we never really gave an explanation as to why. In my view such an explanation is long overdue.
When I started this project it was mainly just a source to write about my interests: Astronomy, Egyptology, Philosophy, Economics, various Social Issues, etc. I don’t recall how I came up with the name Thought Foundry Blog but after a time I understood it no longer reflected the nature of the website as it had taken a largely political turn. Why did it take such a political turn, you may ask. The answer is somewhat complicated.
I had seen the poverty ravished towns near where I live after taking a wrong turn on the interstate one day. Everywhere it seemed was poverty, homelessness, and social desolation. Yet only a few miles away was one of the richest cities in the country, while this other town seemed more a distant third-world concept than a reality. As a Christian this was a wake-up call for me, what kind of a society allegedly based on Christian ideals would allow such suffering amidst such material abundance? It was only later that I read Marx and other socialist thinkers.
When I first started reading economics, I eventually stumbled upon what I thought were the “fringe” writings of Karl Marx. Having been familiar with more “mainstream” economists and political thinkers, I consider my mindset at this time to be that of the typical American. “It works good on paper but not in reality”, I would say, not sure how the idea, an idea that seems to be everyone’s first response to the advocacy of Marxist ideals, even got there since I had never read a page of what the man himself had to say in my life. To my mind, the ideas of Marx were thus associated with totalitarianism and a failed Utopian social system, that is– until I read what he had to say rather than what other people said about him. Reading Marx was like a revelation to me, it articulated something already so self-evident that I had yet to put into words. Such is the experience for many people. It took a lot of reading and critical thinking before I called myself a Marxist. I was looking here at Marx himself rather than at Cold War history, which naturally was a second step in the mind of the typical American I, in so many ways, was.
Like most people who agree with so many of Marx’s ideas, I looked to historical movements that were based on Marx’s critiques of capitalism. This led naturally to the Russian Revolution and subsequent Cold War. I was so naive then, taken aback by the astounding progress many of these countries made, wholly ignorant of the other side of it. Cold hard statistics can paint a lovely picture, but that picture is almost always devoid of what things were like on the ground.
To see that Stalin had done in a decade what took the west 150 years, to see China’s life expectancy go from the mid-30’s, to see illiteracy rates go from 80% when Mao took power, to a life expectancy comparable to the west and the abolition of illiteracy when Mao died, all these things shocked me. Certainly the gains in regards to industrialization and improvements of people’s standards of living in the initial process of rapid modernization, positive liberties and the like, are under-emphasized in most history books, but I somehow overlooked the totalitarianism of it all, how its very undemocracy, its very unfreedom was a contradiction to its “official” claim of having been a really free, really democratic, socialist society, as Stalin called it. The initial enthusiasm of it all wore off when I mentioned that I considered myself a Christian in a Marxist-Leninist (a term coined by Stalin) online group. The people in that group seemed to be far more anti-religious than any self-proclaimed Marxist I have known since then, but it made me start to question my own nativity in my studying of this history. One of them, a dissident in the group, claimed one could be a religious Marxist-Leninist as long as they didn’t go to Church or try to spread their faith! What madness! It wasn’t long before I read more critical sources, most of which were mainstream, but among them the writings of Leon Trotsky.
I eventually saw after much reading that the initial ideas of socialist democracy, of a truly free, truly democratic society were not realized in Stalinist countries (as I began to call them). I had joined Socialist Alternative (an American Trotskyist organization) and began seriously studying Trotsky’s collected works (which I got for a steal on eBay) on my own initiative. For years I considered myself a Trotskyist. Even today I claim many ideas of this political philosophy are valid, but as I continued my research I grew even more critical of these social movements. I began to be more critical of the early Bolsheviks, always and especially in regards to their hostility towards religion. I began looking to other socialists such as Rosa Luxemburg and James Connolly, Eugene Debs and even the ex-Trotskyist, ex-Anarchist Murry Bookchin.
I read about anarchism from anarchists, and not from Marxists trying to prove that it was wrong. I read the accounts of other early 20th century socialists and gradually I came to realize that not only was Stalinism an authoritarian distortion of Leninism, but Leninism was an authoritarian outgrowth of Marxism. But even in this revelation comes naturally a kind of profound naivety when one merely dismisses an entire social movement as “not socialist”. What really shook me were the writings of the German Marxist revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg on the Russian Revolution, and her early polemics with Lenin’s “dangerous” ideas on Jacobinism and the party (something Trotsky initially was against also). For me Trotsky was a prophet in predicting the collapse of the Soviet Union, but Rosa Luxemburg even more so.
Having been familiar with a wide range of leftist activists and intellectuals, I was shocked at the fact that so many of them were Marxists towards everything but the historical attempts at realizing their own ideas. They ruthlessly criticized all that existed, that is, everything but “actually existing socialism”, and the history of the countries that collapsed with the end of the Cold War. For them this was the ultimate taboo, some of them even regarded criticism of the North Korean personality cult as a form of racism! Engels once said that “an ounce of action is worth a ton of theory”, and here we found “Marxists” that were more concerned with 150 year old political theory than the results of its application to real societies. They read history to be sure, but the historical accounts they read were whitewashed accounts of history by people like Grover Furr who make it their life-long mission to exonerate figures like Stalin and the social systems they constructed. This historical revisionism in my mind, came to be one of the biggest menaces to the political left in modern history. It was our modern predicament, our inability to transcend, and brutally criticize the history of the Cold War. Needless to say I was completely disillusioned with totalitarian attempts to build socialism.
I found reason in the ideas of Hegelian Marxist Slavoj Zizek, who argued that if anything liberal or “bourgeois” accounts of Cold War history are not critical enough. I saw his analysis of Stalinism as something profound, he argued that only Marxists could really expose how terrible and tragic the 20th century socialist experiment really was. Only the dead can truly bury their dead, so to speak.
But in this analysis almost inevitably comes the conclusion that if it wasn’t a genuine democracy where working people held all political power, then it could not really be a socialist society. The claim “not real communism” and “not real socialism” seems to anger a lot of “typical Americans” who don’t really understand what those words actually mean according to their adherents. Of course, no society claimed itself to have achieved communism (a stateless, classless, perhaps moneyless society), socialism however was claimed. But can it really be so simple? In his book Trouble in Paradise, Slavoj Zizek recalls an interesting conversation:
“The mistake to be avoided is the one best exemplified by the story (apocryphal, maybe) about the Left-Keynesian economist John Galbraith. Before a trip to the USSR in the late 1950’s, he wrote to his anti-Communist friend Sidney Hook: ‘Don’t worry, I will not be seduced by the Soviets and return home claiming they have socialism!’ Hook answered him promptly: ‘But that’s not what worries me– that you will return claiming the USSR is NOT socialist!’ What worried Hook was the naive defense of the purity of the concept: if things go wrong with building a socialist society, this does not invalidate the idea itself, it just means we didn’t implement it properly. Do we not detect the same naivety in today’s free market fundamentalists? When, during a recent TV debate in France, Guy Sorman claimed that democracy and capitalism necessarily go together, I couldn’t resist asking him the obvious question: ‘But what about China today?’ He snapped back: ‘In China there is no capitalism!’ For the fanatically pro-capitalist Sorman, if a country is non-democratic, it simply means it is not truly capitalist but practices capitalism’s disfigured version, in exactly the same way that, for a democratic Communist, Stalinism was simply not an authentic form of Communism. The underlying mistake is not difficult to identify. It is the same as the well-known joke: ‘My fiance is never late for an appointment, because the moment she is late she is no longer my fiance!’ This is how today’s free-market apologist explains the crisis of 2008: it was not the failure of the free market that caused the crisis but excessive state regulation, i.e. the fact that our market economy clutches to the welfare state. When we stick to such a purity of market capitalism, dismissing its failures as accidental mishaps, we end up in a naive progressivism that ignores the mad dance of opposites.”
At the same time, Zizek calls himself a Marxist. He said to protestors at Occupy Wall Street, “If by communism it is meant the social systems that collapsed in 1989, then we are not communists”. Zizek also holds that “Stalinism is not to be rejected because it was immoral or murderous (he does argue that this is a reason for it to be rejected -Red Liberty), but because it failed on its own terms, because it betrayed its own premises.” The idea of socialism went from one applicable only to the most technologically advanced capitalist countries first, to the most backward first (Russia). The idea then went from “we have to support socialist revolution abroad at all costs as socialism cannot exist in one country alone” to “we can and must construct socialism in one country”. It went from a first world Eurocentric movement, to a third world movement. When this failed miserably (as one might expect), it failed on its own terms. Fundamental to its legitimacy was the claim that “in X country, here the workers have real power, here there are the same Civil Liberties as in the west but to an even greater extent! We have provided the means to realize the liberties you proclaim ‘formally’, and we have expanded them with the positive liberties socialism promises. We have real socialist democracy, popular democracy, genuinely free elections, etc.” In this sense we can say it betrayed its own premises, because the whole thing was a mad contradiction.
To say “ah this is not really socialism” may have credence if we judge what “socialism” is by standards that country gives us, i.e. you say you have a genuinely popular socialist democracy that depends on “wild, lively debates at the local level, the free thrashing out of opinions”, but we know this is not the case in actuality, and so on. If you do not judge such a country by its own standards there is a tendency to avoid its vehement social contradictions by siding with one of many factionalist tendencies which dismiss other tendencies at worst as “revisionist” or “anti-Marxist” without exploring the issue any further. You can also use the dictionary definition of socialism as “social ownership and democratic control of the means of production” to argue that without really democratic control, it doesn’t qualify as socialism. But to dismiss the entire thing as “not really socialist” can a mistake in many ways. What do I mean by this?
I say I am a socialist, a Libertarian Marxist, I mean that in the sense of James Connolly and Rosa Luxemburg. That is a very different thing from being a socialist in the sense of Lenin and Trotsky, or Stalin and Mao, or Khrushchev and Brezhnev, or Dubcek and Gorbachev, or Goldman and Kropotkin, or Tito and Bukharin, etc. The Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha spent his entire life’s rule denouncing the “anti-Marxist stand” of Soviet “Khrushchevite revisionism”, “Yugoslav revisionism”, and later the “anti-Marxist stand” of “Mao Tse-Tung Thought”. By 1985 little Stalinist Albania declared itself the “only socialist country in the world” (remember the Berlin wall didn’t fall until 1989). At the same time, in 1978, Soviet propaganda was pumping out anti-Maoist literature from its official “Novosti Press Agency Publishing House” such as Maoism: Slogans and Practice which aimed to show how “fundamentally Maoism is at variance with the principles of scientific communism and proletarian internationalism.” Maoist China, of course, said precisely the same thing about the Soviet Union. Trotskyists called for political revolution in all the “degenerated and deformed workers states” in order to realize real workers democracy and the civil liberties formally proclaimed under such regimes, also claiming they weren’t genuinely socialist either. I will touch on Luxemburg’s view later on, as it is very interesting. But one can clearly see here the trend for socialists to say “we have real socialism” or “we are the real Marxists” and “those guys aren’t”.
Perhaps it is only Dubcek and Gorbachev who really attempted to reconcile the “mad dance of opposites” in these “socialist societies”. It is an irony that today they are so vehemently hated on the political left. You can address these contradictions and address this “mad dance of opposites” this by either admitting openly “this is a totalitarian one-party state” (something Tito initially did in early years that really infuriated Stalin and confronted his idea of “People’s Democracy”), or you can attempt to reconcile the contradiction by making the “workers democracy” (and perhaps socialism by extension of you share this view) along with the formally proclaimed constitutional rights to freedom of press, speech, assembly, and so forth, something that actually exists. The Prague Spring and the Gorbachev era aimed at precisely this. People on the ground abandoned their “public opinions” in favor of the party and their “private opinions” that were often for socialism, but against what the society had become. They quite openly said what they meant, and press censorship was entirely abolished. The issues with traditional Eastern Bloc economics were openly criticized and alternatives were put forth, most of which were against a return to capitalism (something that didn’t happen again until it was too late). It truly was a “spring” of sorts. The open abolition of the (never before admitted to) press censorship, secret police, rigged elections, etc. was an attempt to say “we fucked up, now we the people are fixing it”. Glasnost basically said “we’re opening all the old archives and state secrets, to show you exactly how we fucked up so you, the free people, can figure out how to fix it.” In Czechoslovakia this led to the invasion of Warsaw member nations for the “restoration of socialism (Brezhnev’s interpretation of it anyways)”. In the Soviet Union this led to the August Coup by party hard-liners, a coup that led to the disillusion of the whole country (so don’t blame Gorbachev). In this sense, Gorbachev and Dubcek are similar to Lenin and Trotsky in that they never hid from public view what was really going on, but rather they confronted it head on. In revolutionary Russia, Red terror was openly called what it was in Trotsky’s Terrorism and Communism: A Reply to Karl Kautsky. They did not claim to have a democracy of any sort, it was a period of revolution and there was no freedom on either side. Such a thing under Stalin where “genuinely free elections” and “really free” socialism was officially proclaimed, was unthinkable, even during that period of Soviet history known as the “Great Terror”. In this sense perhaps, maybe Dubcek and Gorbachev really were Bolsheviks in the classical sense of the word. Maybe, I say, they were onto something.
As for Rosa Luxemburg, her criticism of the Bolsheviks was rooted in her Marxist ideals. Her main fear was, in spite of supporting the revolution, that the openly anti-socialist measures taken by the early Bolsheviks to support revolution abroad would continue on into a post-revolutionary period. The idea that they would be crystallized into a concrete political theory and proclaimed fundamental precepts of socialism was unthinkable at that time! Her pamphlet The Russian Revolution is startling. In it she said:
“On the other hand, it is a well-known and indisputable fact that without a free and untrammeled press, without the unlimited right of association and assemblage, the rule of the broad masses of the people is entirely unthinkable”
This was, at the time of writing, a fact shared by virtually every socialist in the world. Sadly today this seems to be somehow “controversial” among some socialist circles today, a sign of how far we have fallen. She continues:
“Freedom only for the supporters of the government, only for the members of one party – however numerous they may be – is no freedom at all. Freedom is always and exclusively freedom for the one who thinks differently. Not because of any fanatical concept of “justice” but because all that is instructive, wholesome and purifying in political freedom depends on this essential characteristic, and its effectiveness vanishes when “freedom” becomes a special privilege.”
Once again we find a startling contradiction between this view, one shared by nearly all of the early socialists of the 20th century, and even by Lenin himself before the revolution, and between the views of Stalin and later “Marxist-Leninists”. She continues:
The tacit assumption underlying the Lenin-Trotsky theory of dictatorship is this: that the socialist transformation is something for which a ready-made formula lies completed in the pocket of the revolutionary party, which needs only to be carried out energetically in practice. This is, unfortunately – or perhaps fortunately – not the case. Far from being a sum of ready-made prescriptions which have only to be applied, the practical realization of socialism as an economic, social and juridical system is something which lies completely hidden in the mists of the future. What we possess in our program is nothing but a few main signposts which indicate the general direction in which to look for the necessary measures, and the indications are mainly negative in character at that. Thus we know more or less what we must eliminate at the outset in order to free the road for a socialist economy. But when it comes to the nature of the thousand concrete, practical measures, large and small, necessary to introduce socialist principles into economy, law and all social relationships, there is no key in any socialist party program or textbook. That is not a shortcoming but rather the very thing that makes scientific socialism superior to the utopian varieties.
The socialist system of society should only be, and can only be, an historical product, born out of the school of its own experiences, born in the course of its realization, as a result of the developments of living history, which – just like organic nature of which, in the last analysis, it forms a part – has the fine habit of always producing along with any real social need the means to its satisfaction, along with the task simultaneously the solution. However, if such is the case, then it is clear that socialism by its very nature cannot be decreed or introduced by ukase. It has as its prerequisite a number of measures of force – against property, etc. The negative, the tearing down, can be decreed; the building up, the positive, cannot. New Territory. A thousand problems. Only experience is capable of correcting and opening new ways. Only unobstructed, effervescing life falls into a thousand new forms and improvisations, brings to light creative new force, itself corrects all mistaken attempts. The public life of countries with limited freedom is so poverty-stricken, so miserable, so rigid, so unfruitful, precisely because, through the exclusion of democracy, it cuts off the living sources of all spiritual riches and progress. (Proof: the year 1905 and the months from February to October 1917.) There it was political in character; the same thing applies to economic and social life also. The whole mass of the people must take part in it. Otherwise, socialism will be decreed from behind a few official desks by a dozen intellectuals.
Public control is indispensably necessary. Otherwise the exchange of experiences remains only with the closed circle of the officials of the new regime. Corruption becomes inevitable. (Lenin’s words, Bulletin No.29) Socialism in life demands a complete spiritual transformation in the masses degraded by centuries of bourgeois rule. Social instincts in place of egotistical ones, mass initiative in place of inertia, idealism which conquers all suffering, etc., etc. No one knows this better, describes it more penetratingly; repeats it more stubbornly than Lenin. But he is completely mistaken in the means he employs. Decree, dictatorial force of the factory overseer, draconian penalties, rule by terror – all these things are but palliatives. The only way to a rebirth is the school of public life itself, the most unlimited, the broadest democracy and public opinion. It is rule by terror which demoralizes.”
Interestingly enough, her criticism of terrorism was initially shared by Trotsky, who in 1903, according to Trotsky’s wife and Victor Serge in their book The Life and Death of Leon Trotsky, was vehemently opposed to the idea of “proletarian Jacobinism”. In it, Trotsky is recounted as having:
…showed the incompatibility of Jacobinism with socialism, and contended that any ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ along such lines would soon degenerate into a ‘dictatorship over the proletariat’. Lenin’s authoritarianism appalled him. ‘But that’s dictatorship you’re advocating,’ he said to him one day. ‘There is no other way,’ Lenin replied. (Serge, Sedova, 14).
This idea that “socialism cannot be decreed from above” was likewise shared by many early socialists, a stark contrast to North Korea today where everything good that happens is thanks to the wisdom of “the leader”. The real prophetic crux of Luxemburg’s work is in the next section, where she says:
When all this is eliminated, what really remains? In place of the representative bodies created by general, popular elections, Lenin and Trotsky have laid down the soviets as the only true representation of political life in the land as a whole, life in the soviets must also become more and more crippled. Without general elections, without unrestricted freedom of press and assembly, without a free struggle of opinion, life dies out in every public institution, becomes a mere semblance of life, in which only the bureaucracy remains as the active element. Public life gradually falls asleep, a few dozen party leaders of inexhaustible energy and boundless experience direct and rule. Among them, in reality only a dozen outstanding heads do the leading and an elite of the working class is invited from time to time to meetings where they are to applaud the speeches of the leaders, and to approve proposed resolutions unanimously – at bottom, then, a clique affair – a dictatorship, to be sure, not the dictatorship of the proletariat but only the dictatorship of a handful of politicians, that is a dictatorship in the bourgeois sense, in the sense of the rule of the Jacobins (the postponement of the Soviet Congress from three-month periods to six-month periods!) Yes, we can go even further: such conditions must inevitably cause a brutalization of public life: attempted assassinations, shooting of hostages, etc. (Lenin’s speech on discipline and corruption.)
For the above section, perhaps nothing better describes the 20th century socialist experiment, and nothing better denounces it as “not the dictatorship of the proletariat” than the words of Rosa Luxemburg herself. It is a grand irony that Rosa’s face was ironically plastered on East German currency and statues where this, her most penetrating work, was censored. If you look at footage of old East German Party congresses, everyone claps and approves resolutions by Honecker unanimously, with pictures of Rosa Luxemburg on the walls, completely ignorant to the irony of such a thing. But such is history. Thus to say “I really don’t think these countries had the dictatorship of the proletariat they claimed to have, or a socialist society by extension” from a Luxemburgist perspective, when that is your premise as to what socialism is, is completely valid. The danger here lies in the nativity of saying “they were anti-Marxists”. The leaders of these Stalinist regimes were communists. Much to people’s surprise, they really were true believers behind closed doors. They were Marxists, though I argue, revisionists of Marxism, and having said that, I also say that even the so-called “purity” of the Marxist concept ought to be challenged.
I say they were revisionists but by this I mean at the same time that I don’t want Orthodox Marxism, even the Orthodox Marxism of Rosa Luxemburg, to be revived in its entirety. I want revisionism, yes! But I want good revisionism, I want things that are outdated or inaccurate to be revised, not good things distorted or abandoned to justify Stalinist atrocities. The solution comes only from addressing openly, ruthlessly, and without fear, the mistakes of the past. That means having a brutally honest historical analysis, not embracing a more favorable historical revisionism that justifies my own views. That means sweeping away what needs to be swept away, no sanctimonious reverence for Marx, Engels, Lenin, or Luxemburg whatsoever. For me, the Marxist views of Rosa Luxemburg, views that see the principled defense of human rights and the belief that unlimited individual civil and political liberty is an indispensable prerequisite and fundamental part of socialism, need to be revived. The resurrection of Luxemburg herself is necessary in modern times only to show to the “typical American” who is wholly ignorant of what Marxism even is, who when hearing “Libertarian Marxism” proclaims that “You can put any two things together that doesn’t mean they make sense”, that Luxemburg herself, an Orthodox Marxist in her time or a Libertarian one in ours, held such views. We need to see more of this attitude, a ruthless criticism not only of Stalinism but of Leninism and Trotskyism, even of Marxism, all the -isms (not in the post-modernist of the word either).
Of course, in saying I am a socialist in the sense of James Connolly puts forward a modernized vision of a radically Libertarian socialist republic or federation, different though quite similar to Luxemburg’s. It is however, radically different from what most Americans think of when they hear “socialist republic”. Many a “typical American” would be shocked to see that Connolly advocated the abolition of the same conditions of capitalism that “typical Americans” accredit to socialism:
“In short, social democracy, as its name implies, is the application to industry, or to the social life of the nation, of the fundamental principles of democracy. Such application will necessarily have to begin in the workshop, and proceed logically and consecutively upward through all the grades of industrial organization until it reaches the culminating point of national executive power and direction. In other words, social democracy must proceed from the bottom upward, whereas capitalist political society is organized from above downward…
It will be seen that this conception of Socialism destroys at one blow all the fears of a bureaucratic State, ruling and ordering the lives of every individual from above, and thus gives assurance that the social order of the future will be an extension of the freedom of the individual, and not the suppression of it. In short, it blends the fullest democratic control with the most absolute expert supervision, something unthinkable of any society built upon the political State…
Under Socialism, States, territories, or provinces will exist only as geographical expressions, and have no existence as sources of governmental power, though they may be seats of administrative bodies.”
I have also not been hesitant to emphasize the correctness of many views espoused by Murray Bookchin in his polemics against Marxism. This blog is part of an attempt to get us out of our current predicament, to do what is necessary if we want to build a society that is truly liberating, that expands individual liberty instead of squandering it, that brings about a fuller, more complete democracy rather than its abolition. If that’s not our goal, then we have to ask what Bookchin did in his day: “What the hell are we trying to make a revolution for?” If we aren’t for the real democratization of society, if we aren’t for growing the tree of liberty, what the hell are we trying to make a revolution for? It is impossible to speak of an abolition of oppression and exploitation without talking about real individual freedom at the same time. If we don’t take socialism back to its roots in this sense, and perhaps only in this sense, then all is lost, our current predicament lasts forever.
The name change to Red Liberty is a change to reflect the present nature of the blog. Socialism if it is to advocated, ought to aspire to transcend the historical limitations of the past. It ought to reconcile itself with its own mistakes through ruthless criticism of its own social movements and ascribe once again the word of Liberty upon its banner, as was almost universally the case in the early 20th century. In this sense, and perhaps only in this sense, we find ghosts from the past that need not be exorcised, but called forth.