What Was Socialism ... and Why We Will All Miss It So Much

By Rush, Norman | The Nation, January 24, 1994 | Go to article overview

What Was Socialism ... and Why We Will All Miss It So Much


Rush, Norman, The Nation


Given its stupendous implications, the assisted suicide of actually existing socialism from 1989 to 1991 has called forth an oddly deficient intellectual reaction from intelligent onlookers and professional commentators in the West. Many of the larger if subtler aftereffects are going unremarked.

Mainstream comment has been predictably self-congratulatory and has focused narrowly on questions like which late-stage influence (the stratagems of the Polish Pope, the communications revolution, the Star Wars budgets) did the trick, or which Sovietologists have the best claim to be counted among those least amazed by the abruptness and scale of debacle.

On the left--and I do mean the chartered antitotalitarian left--a persistent impulse has been to show that the socialist project, deformed and betrayed though it was in the Russian model and its clones, is still somehow salvageable. This sentiment, doggedly appended to declarations of relief that the cold war is over, yield two main contentions. The first is that greater and timelier infusions of democracy might have saved Russian socialism. The second, a cloudier thing, is that because the continuing structural imperfections of capitalism are so alarming, a socialist option just has to be viable.

But it really is over for socialism. I don't take any pleasure in it, but for a long time, my attitude toward socialism has been something like Houdini's toward spiritualism. He wanted the afterlife to be real, and the wanted mediums to be what they said they were. But the more he probed and tested, the more disenchanted he became and the more keenly he felt the impulsion to publich his unhappiness. I feel close to him.

The truth is that whatever it has achieved practical expression, socialism is finished. While our attention has been fixed on the spectacular demolition derbies taking place in Russia, China, Cuba and Eastern Europe, in the background another long-running sequence of socialist defeats is winding up. To remain afloat, nominally socialist and social democratic parties in Europe and elsewhere jettison what used to be the basic objectives of socialism and offer programs ever more finely attuned to the imperatives of mature capitalism. Most now support thre reprivatization of industries nationalized in more heroic times at their own urging. (No sooner had Mikhail Gorbachev announced his intention to remake the Soviet union along Swedish lines than that particular demi-socialist model went, in effect, bankrupt.) Membership in trade unions, those flagship institutions of the former socialist political culture, is collapsing. Guerrilla socialism in Latin America is aggressively de-Marxifying itself. As for the enclave microsocialisms like the kibbutzim in Israel, the ejido collectives in Mexico, the Yogoslav self-managed industrial sector--whose existence provided a fallback hope for left idealists that a redeemed form of nonstate socialism might someday arise--all are in serious, probably terminal, difficulty.

But what was socialism? It's necessary to be clear about this because popular conceptions of socialism are becoming so approximate, based as they so commonly are on nostalgic afterimages of failed socialist societies or on outright caricatures produced by the victors. For the young, especially, socialism is rapidly receding into the category of anciently powerful social concept now needing a lot of contextualizing, like the phlogiston theory, the divine right of kings, the vaginal orgasm.

What socialism was supposed to be was not at all clear to the creators of actually existing socialism when the moment came to enact it in Russia. There are no blueprints for a working socialist society in Marx or Engels. Engels was especially offhand, writing in one connection that the Shaker village presented a good idea of what a future socialist society would resemble--minus the religion, of course. When it came to realizing socialism, it was all improvisation. …

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