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by Bennett Muraskin
To read Sam Friedman’s recent “Why I’m (Still) a Marxist” in Jewish Currents, click here. To read Lawrence Bush’s “Why I’m Not (Still) a Marxist,” click here. To read about Jewish Currents’ communist history, click here.
IS THERE any precedent in world history for a successful socialist economy? Every place that it was tried, it failed. The Soviet Union and its East European satellites are the prime examples, but not the best. Comparisons between once or currently divided nations tell the story with greater clarity. The standard of living in old East Germany was always much lower than that of the West Germany, not to mention its more repressive character. The two Koreas today could not provide a starker example of the failure of the state socialist economic model compared to a state capitalist one. The latest socialist experiment in Venezuela has turned into a disaster. China’s conversion from a state socialist to a state capitalist economy has lifted millions out of poverty. Vietnam has taken the same path.
No doubt socialism would fare better in an advanced economy, but when socialist or labor parties have come to power in places like England, France, or Sweden they have not sought to abolish capitalism, for the good reason that the citizens of these nations never supported such a drastic step. Other attempts have also fizzled. Remember the promise of worker self-management in Yugoslavia in the 1960s and Poland in the 1980s? They are barely memories now.
If Marxist socialism means that the workers own and operate major industries, I do not see a future for it. American workers, except among the relatively few in the Industrial Workers of the World, have expressed little interest in this endeavor. After World War II, the United Auto Workers sought to negotiate for a role in managing the auto companies, but quickly abandoned this demand. Sure, there are some employee-owned businesses and cooperatives in the U.S., but they are relatively few and far between. Demands for higher wages, fringe benefits, grievance procedures, safe conditions, etc., are as far as American workers have been willing to go.
It should be obvious that the resistance of the capitalist state would make worker control over production impossible without a thorough-going revolution. Nothing resembling a workers’ revolution has ever occurred in American history. Should, by some miracle, the capitalist class turn over its enterprises to its workers, it is almost inconceivable that American workers would seek to manage them. The time and effort involved would be staggering, and the know-how perhaps beyond their abilities. Family obligations and leisure activities would surely take precedence. At most, they would hire experts to do it for them.
Are there other models of socialism? Or for that matter, worker control? Absolutely, but they exist only on paper, without the slightest prospect of them being put into practice.
FINALLY, the appeal of revolutionary socialism is limited. Even if it gained the support of a majority of workers, its appeal to other sectors of society will inevitably be limited. Even during the Russian Revolution, the Bolsheviks did not even win a quarter of the votes in elections for a Constituent Assembly. To gain power peacefully, socialists would have to work in coalition with more moderate parties. Revolutionary socialism could only be imposed by force. Under these circumstances, it is more likely that the counter-revolutionary forces would prevail, at great cost to the entire left.
The saddest argument is that socialism as Marx or Lenin understood it has not been tried yet, that every attempt to introduce it was misbegotten — not real socialism. Well, it has been nearly 170 years since the Communist Manifesto and a century since the Bolshevik Revolution. Haven’t Marx’s theories and Lenin’s practices had enough time to be judged? Isn’t it high time to give up the ghost? For progressives, social justice within the framework of a democratic polity and a mixed economy is the only realistic goal.
Bennett Muraskin, a contributing writer for Jewish Currents, is author of The Association of Jewish Libraries Guide to Yiddish Short Stories, Let Justice Well Up Like Water: Progressive Jews from Hillel to Helen Suzman, and Humanist Readings in Jewish Folklore, among other books.