Thursday, September 01, 2005

Socialism, Real and Fake

Socialism, Real and Fake
-Noam Chomsky

One can debate the meaning of the term "socialism," but if it means anything, it means control of production by the workers themselves, not owners and managers who rule them and control all decisions, whether in capitalist enterprises or an absolutist state.

To refer to the Soviet Union as socialist is an interesting case of doctrinal doublespeak. The Bolshevik coup of October 1917 placed state power in the hands of Lenin and Trotsky, who moved quickly to dismantle the incipient socialist institutions that had grown up during the popular revolution of the preceding months -- the factory councils, the Soviets, in fact any organ of popular control -- and to convert the workforce into what they called a "labor army" under the command of the leader. In any meaningful sense of the term "socialism," the Bolsheviks moved at once to destroy its existing elements. No socialist deviation has been permitted since.

These developments came as no surprise to leading Marxist intellectuals, who had criticized Lenin's doctrines for years (as had Trotsky) because they would centralize authority in the hands of the vanguard Party and its leaders. In fact, decades earlier, the anarchist thinker Bakunin had predicted that the emerging intellectual class would follow one of two paths:
- either they would try to exploit popular struggles to take state power themselves, becoming a brutal and oppressive Red bureaucracy;
- or they would become the managers and ideologists of the state capitalist societies, if popular revolution failed.

It was a perceptive insight, on both counts.

The world's two major propaganda systems did not agree on much, but they did agree on using the term socialism to refer to the immediate destruction of every element of socialism by the Bolsheviks. That's not too surprising. The Bolsheviks called their system socialist so as to exploit the moral prestige of socialism.

The West adopted the same usage for the opposite reason: to defame the feared libertarian ideals by associating them with the Bolshevik dungeon, to undermine the popular belief that there really might be progress towards a more just society with democratic control over its basic institutions and concern for human needs and rights.

If socialism is the tyranny of Lenin and Stalin, then sane people will say: not for me. And if that's the only alternative to corporate state capitalism, then many will submit to its authoritarian structures as the only reasonable choice.

With the collapse of the Soviet system, there's an opportunity to revive the lively and vigorous libertarian socialist thought that was not able to withstand the doctrinal and repressive assaults of the major systems of power. How large a hope that is, we cannot know. But at least one roadblock has been removed. In that sense, the disappearance of the Soviet Union is a small victory for socialism, much as the defeat of the fascist powers was.

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