The third chapter of Michael Parenti’s “Blackshirts & Reds” is often seen stand-alone under the title “Left Anticommunism: The Unkindest Cut.” Though it is amazing that such a brilliant piece of writing is widely available, and though it definitely holds up on its own, I tend find it unfortunate that it doesn’t appear hand-in-hand with the subsequent chapter from that same book.

In “Left Anticommunism” Parenti chiefly focuses on smashing cheap and opportunistic rhetoric against the Soviet Union from self-described “leftists.” Parenti dispells many myths and stereotypes about “power-hungry dictators,” but in doing so he implicitly raises an important question: if socialism wasn’t defeated by betrayal, then what happened? “Communism in Wonderland” undertakes a task even rarer among “leftists” in the West: sympathetically describing problems inherent to socialism in the Soviet Union and Cuba, developing the argument with careful reference to primary sources such as Raúl Castro and East German statesmen. Put together, the two chapters comprise a significantly more complete appraisal of communist history and attitudes towards it throughout the world.

Although Parenti appears to uncritically embrace the cheap canard of China as revisionist and led by a “nominally communist leadership” [1] — essentially the same vice he criticizes Noam Chomsky for in relation to the Soviet Union — he provides a valuable showcase of exactly what kind of issues Chinese socialists seem to have been successfully tackling with their hybrid system these last four decades. [2]

Ultimately, Michael Parenti’s summary of communist history stands out because it does not indulge in indiscriminate and disdainful condemnations. It portrays past efforts as well-meaning and heroic, struggling to overcome problems nobody foresaw or could foresee. In doing so, he reminds us that we have contributions to make, that we can make unprecedented innovations with hindsight, and that we will secure more permanent victories in the future.  — Roderic Day


Left Anticommunism

In the United States, for over a hundred years, the ruling interests tirelessly propagated anticommunism among the populace, until it became more like a religious orthodoxy than a political analysis. During the cold war, the anticommunist ideological framework could transform any data about existing communist societies into hostile evidence. If the Soviets refused to negotiate a point, they were intransigent and belligerent; if they appeared willing to make concessions, this was but a skillful ploy to put us off our guard. By opposing arms limitations, they would have demonstrated their aggressive intent; but when in fact they supported most armament treaties, it was because they were mendacious and manipulative. If the churches in the USSR were empty, this demonstrated that religion was suppressed; but if the churches were full, this meant the people were rejecting the regime’s atheistic ideology. If the workers went on strike (as happened on infrequent occasions), this was evidence of their alienation from the collectivist system; if they didn’t go on strike, this was because they were intimidated and lacked freedom. A scarcity of consumer goods demonstrated the failure of the economic system; an improvement in consumer supplies meant only that the leaders were attempting to placate a restive population and so maintain a firmer hold over them.

If communists in the United States played an important role struggling for the rights of workers, the poor, African-Americans, women, and others, this was only their guileful way of gathering support among disfranchised groups and gaining power for themselves. How one gained power by fighting for the rights of powerless groups was never explained. What we are dealing with is a nonfalsifiable orthodoxy, so assiduously marketed by the ruling interests that it affected people across the entire political spectrum.

Genuflection to Orthodoxy

Many on the U.S. Left have exhibited a Soviet bashing and Red baiting that matches anything on the Right in its enmity and crudity. Listen to Noam Chomsky holding forth about “left intellectuals” who try to “rise to power on the backs of mass popular movements” and “then beat the people into submission. … You start off as basically a Leninist who is going to be part of the Red bureaucracy. You see later that power doesn’t lie that way, and you very quickly become an ideologist of the right. … We’re seeing it right now in the [former] Soviet Union. The same guys who were communist thugs two years back, are now running banks and [are] enthusiastic free marketeers and praising Americans.” [3]

Chomsky’s imagery is heavily indebted to the same U.S. corporate political culture he so frequently criticizes on other issues. In his mind, the revolution was betrayed by a coterie of “communist thugs” who merely hunger for power rather than wanting the power to end hunger. In fact, the communists did not “very quickly” switch to the Right but struggled in the face of a momentous onslaught to keep Soviet socialism alive for more than seventy years. To be sure, in the Soviet Union’s waning days some, like Boris Yeltsin, crossed over to capitalist ranks, but others continued to resist free-market incursions at great cost to themselves, many meeting their deaths during Yeltsin’s violent repression of the Russian parliament in 1993.

Some leftists and others fall back on the old stereotype of power-hungry Reds who pursue power for power’s sake without regard for actual social goals. If true, one wonders why, in country after country, these Reds side with the poor and powerless often at great risk and sacrifice to themselves, rather than reaping the rewards that come with serving the well-placed.

For decades, many left-leaning writers and speakers in the United States have felt obliged to establish their credibility by indulging in anticommunist and anti-Soviet genuflection, seemingly unable to give a talk or write an article or book review on whatever political subject without injecting some anti-Red sideswipe. The intent was, and still is, to distance themselves from the Marxist-Leninist Left.

Adam Hochschild, a liberal writer and publisher, warned those on the Left who might be lackadaisical about condemning existing communist societies that they “weaken their credibility.” [4] In other words, to be credible opponents of the cold war, we first had to join in cold war condemnations of communist societies. Ronald Radosh urged that the peace movement purge itself of communists so that it not be accused of being communist. [5] If I understand Radosh: To save ourselves from anticommunist witchhunts, we should ourselves become witchhunters.

Purging the Left of communists became a longstanding practice, having injurious effects on various progressive causes. For instance, in 1949 some twelve unions were ousted from the CIO because they had Reds in their leadership. The purge reduced CIO membership by some 1.7 million and seriously weakened its recruitment drives and political clout. In the late 1940s, to avoid being “smeared” as Reds, Americans for Democratic Action (ADA), a supposedly progressive group, became one of the most vocally anticommunist organizations.

The strategy did not work. ADA and others on the Left were still attacked for being communist or soft on communism by those on the Right. Then and now, many on the Left have failed to realize that those who fight for social change on behalf of the less-privileged elements of society will be Red-baited by conservative elites whether they are communists or not. For ruling interests, it makes little difference whether their wealth and power is challenged by “communist subversives” or “loyal American liberals.” All are lumped together as more or less equally abhorrent.

Even when attacking the Right, left critics cannot pass up an opportunity to flash their anticommunist credentials. So Mark Green writes in a criticism of President Ronald Reagan that “when presented with a situation that challenges his conservative catechism, like an unyielding Marxist-Leninist, [Reagan] will change not his mind but the facts.” [6] While professing a dedication to fighting dogmatism “both of the Right and Left,” individuals who perform such de rigueur genuflections reinforce the anticommunist dogma. Red-baiting leftists contributed their share to the climate of hostility that has given U.S. leaders such a free hand in waging hot and cold wars against communist countries and which even today makes a progressive or even liberal agenda difficult to promote.

A prototypic Red-basher who pretended to be on the Left was George Orwell. In the middle of World War II, as the Soviet Union was fighting for its life against the Nazi invaders at Stalingrad, Orwell announced that a “willingness to criticize Russia and Stalin is the test of intellectual honesty. It is the only thing that from a literary intellectual’s point of view is really dangerous.” [7] Safely ensconced within a virulently anticommunist society, Orwell (with Orwellian doublethink) characterized the condemnation of communism as a lonely courageous act of defiance. Today, his ideological progeny are still at it, offering themselves as intrepid left critics of the Left, waging a valiant struggle against imaginary Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist hordes.

Sorely lacking within the U.S. Left is any rational evaluation of the Soviet Union, a nation that endured a protracted civil war and a multinational foreign invasion in the very first years of its existence, and that two decades later threw back and destroyed the Nazi beast at enormous cost to itself. In the three decades after the Bolshevik revolution, the Soviets made industrial advances equal to what capitalism took a century to accomplish — while feeding and schooling their children rather than working them fourteen hours a day as capitalist industrialists did and still do in many parts of the world. And the Soviet Union, along with Bulgaria, the German Democratic Republic, and Cuba, provided vital assistance to national liberation movements in countries around the world, including Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress in South Africa.

Left anticommunists remained studiously unimpressed by the dramatic gains won by masses of previously impoverished people under communism. Some were even scornful of such accomplishments. I recall how in Burlington Vermont, in 1971, the noted anticommunist anarchist, Murray Bookchin, derisively referred to my concern for “the poor little children who got fed under communism” (his words).

Slinging Labels

Those of us who refused to join in the Soviet bashing were branded by left anticommunists as “Soviet apologists” and “Stalinists,” even if we disliked Stalin and his autocratic system of rule and believed there were things seriously wrong with existing Soviet society. [8] Our real sin was that unlike many on the Left we refused to uncritically swallow U.S. media propaganda about communist societies. Instead, we maintained that, aside from the well-publicized deficiencies and injustices, there were positive features about existing communist systems that were worth preserving, that improved the lives of hundreds of millions of people in meaningful and humanizing ways. This claim had a decidedly unsettling effect on left anticommunists who themselves could not utter a positive word about any communist society (except possibly Cuba) and could not lend a tolerant or even courteous ear to anyone who did. [9]

Saturated by anticommunist orthodoxy, most U.S. leftists have practiced a left McCarthyism against people who did have something positive to say about existing communism, excluding them from participation in conferences, advisory boards, political endorsements, and left publications. Like conservatives, left anticommunists tolerated nothing less than a blanket condemnation of the Soviet Union as a Stalinist monstrosity and a Leninist moral aberration. [10]

That many U.S. leftists have scant familiarity with Lenin’s writings and political work does not prevent them from slinging the “Leninist” label. Noam Chomsky, who is an inexhaustible fount of anticommunist caricatures, offers this comment about Leninism: “Western and also Third World intellectuals were attracted to the Bolshevik counterrevolution [sic] because Leninism is, after all, a doctrine that says that the radical intelligentsia have a right to take state power and to run their countries by force, and that is an idea which is rather appealing to intellectuals.” [11] Here Chomsky fashions an image of power-hungry intellectuals to go along with his cartoon image of power-hungry Leninists, villains seeking not the revolutionary means to fight injustice but power for power’s sake. When it comes to Red-bashing, some of the best and brightest on the Left sound not much better than the worst on the Right.

At the time of the 1996 terror bombing in Oklahoma City, I heard a radio commentator announce: “Lenin said that the purpose of terror is to terrorize.” U.S. media commentators have repeatedly quoted Lenin in that misleading manner. In fact, his statement was disapproving of terrorism. He polemicized against isolated terrorist acts which do nothing but create terror among the populace, invite repression, and isolate the revolutionary movement from the masses. Far from being the totalitarian, tight-circled conspirator, Lenin urged the building of broad coalitions and mass organizations, encompassing people who were at different levels of political development. He advocated whatever diverse means were needed to advance the class struggle, including participation in parliamentary elections and existing trade unions. To be sure, the working class, like any mass group, needed organization and leadership to wage a successful revolutionary struggle, which was the role of a vanguard party, but that did not mean the proletarian revolution could be fought and won by putschists or terrorists.

Lenin constantly dealt with the problem of avoiding the two extremes of liberal bourgeois opportunism and ultra-left adventurism. Yet he himself is repeatedly identified as an ultra-left putschist by mainstream journalists and some on the Left. Whether Lenin’s approach to revolution is desirable or even relevant today is a question that warrants critical examination. But a useful evaluation is not likely to come from people who misrepresent his theory and practice. [12]

Left anticommunists find any association with communist organizations morally unacceptable because of the “crimes of communism.” Yet many of them are themselves associated with the Democratic party in this country, either as voters or as members, apparently unconcerned about the morally unacceptable political crimes committed by leaders of that organization. Under one or another Democratic administration, 120,000 Japanese Americans were torn from their homes and livelihoods and thrown into detention camps; atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki with an enormous loss of innocent life; the FBI was given authority to infiltrate political groups; the Smith Act was used to imprison leaders of the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party and later on leaders of the Communist party for their political beliefs; detention camps were established to round up political dissidents in the event of a “national emergency”; during the late 1940s and 1950s, eight thousand federal workers were purged from government because of their political associations and views, with thousands more in all walks of life witchhunted out of their careers; the Neutrality Act was used to impose an embargo on the Spanish Republic that worked in favor of Franco’s fascist legions; homicidal counterinsurgency programs were initiated in various Third World countries; and the Vietnam War was pursued and escalated. And for the better part of a century, the Congressional leadership of the Democratic party protected racial segregation and stymied all anti-lynching and fair employment bills. Yet all these crimes, bringing ruination and death to many, have not moved the liberals, the social democrats, and the “democratic socialist” anticommunists to insist repeatedly that we issue blanket condemnations of either the Democratic party or the political system that produced it, certainly not with the intolerant fervor that has been directed against existing communism.

Pure Socialism vs. Siege Socialism

The upheavals in Eastern Europe did not constitute a defeat for socialism because socialism never existed in those countries, according to some U.S. leftists. They say that the communist states offered nothing more than bureaucratic, one-party “state capitalism” or some such thing. Whether we call the former communist countries “socialist” is a matter of definition. Suffice it to say, they constituted something different from what existed in the profit-driven capitalist world — as the capitalists themselves were not slow to recognize.

First, in communist countries there was less economic inequality than under capitalism. The perks enjoyed by party and government elites were modest by corporate CEO standards in the West, as were their personal incomes and life styles. Soviet leaders like Yuri Andropov and Leonid Brezhnev lived not in lavishly appointed mansions like the White House, but in relatively large apartments in a housing project near the Kremlin set aside for government leaders. They had limousines at their disposal (like most other heads of state) and access to large dachas where they entertained visiting dignitaries. But they had none of the immense personal wealth that most U.S. leaders possess.

The “lavish life” enjoyed by East Germany’s party leaders, as widely publicized in the U.S. press, included a $725 yearly allowance in hard currency, and housing in an exclusive settlement on the outskirts of Berlin that sported a sauna, an indoor pool, and a fitness center shared by all the residents. They also could shop in stores that carried Western goods such as bananas, jeans, and Japanese electronics. The U.S. press never pointed out that ordinary East Germans had access to public pools and gyms and could buy jeans and electronics (though usually not of the imported variety). Nor was the “lavish” consumption enjoyed by East German leaders contrasted to the truly opulent life style enjoyed by the Western plutocracy.

Second, in communist countries, productive forces were not organized for capital gain and private enrichment; public ownership of the means of production supplanted private ownership. Individuals could not hire other people and accumulate great personal wealth from their labor. Again, compared to Western standards, differences in earnings and savings among the populace were generally modest. The income spread between highest and lowest earners in the Soviet Union was about five to one. In the United States, the spread in yearly income between the top multibillionaires and the working poor is more like 10,000 to 1.

Third, priority was placed on human services. Though life under communism left a lot to be desired and the services themselves were rarely the best, communist countries did guarantee their citizens some minimal standard of economic survival and security, including guaranteed education, employment, housing, and medical assistance.

Fourth, communist countries did not pursue the capital penetration of other countries. Lacking a profit motive as their motor force and therefore having no need to constantly find new investment opportunities, they did not expropriate the lands, labor, markets, and natural resources of weaker nations, that is, they did not practice economic imperialism. The Soviet Union conducted trade and aid relations on terms that generally were favorable to the Eastern European nations and Mongolia, Cuba, and India.

All of the above were organizing principles for every communist system to one degree or another. None of the above apply to free-market countries like Honduras, Guatemala, Thailand, South Korea, Chile, Indonesia, Zaire, Germany, or the United States.

But a real socialism, it is argued, would be controlled by the workers themselves through direct participation instead of being run by Leninists, Stalinists, Castroites, or other ill-willed, power-hungry, bureaucratic cabals of evil men who betray revolutions. Unfortunately, this “pure socialism” view is ahistorical and nonfalsifiable; it cannot be tested against the actualities of history. It compares an ideal against an imperfect reality, and the reality comes off a poor second. It imagines what socialism would be like in a world far better than this one, where no strong state structure or security force is required, where none of the value produced by workers needs to be expropriated to rebuild society and defend it from invasion and internal sabotage.

The pure socialists’ ideological anticipations remain untainted by existing practice. They do not explain how the manifold functions of a revolutionary society would be organized, how external attack and internal sabotage would be thwarted, how bureaucracy would be avoided, scarce resources allocated, policy differences settled, priorities set, and production and distribution conducted. Instead, they offer vague statements about how the workers themselves will directly own and control the means of production and will arrive at their own solutions through creative struggle. No surprise then that the pure socialists support every revolution except the ones that succeed.

The pure socialists had a vision of a new society that would create and be created by new people, a society so transformed in its fundaments as to leave little opportunity for wrongful acts, corruption, and criminal abuses of state power. There would be no bureaucracy or self-interested coteries, no ruthless conflicts or hurtful decisions. When the reality proves different and more difficult, some on the Left proceed to condemn the real thing and announce that they “feel betrayed” by this or that revolution.

The pure socialists see socialism as an ideal that was tarnished by communist venality, duplicity, and power cravings. The pure socialists oppose the Soviet model but offer little evidence to demonstrate that other paths could have been taken, that other models of socialism — not created from one’s imagination but developed through actual historical experience — could have taken hold and worked better. Was an open, pluralistic, democratic socialism actually possible at this historic juncture? The historical evidence would suggest it was not. As the political philosopher Carl Shames argued:

How do [the left critics] know that the fundamental problem was the “nature” of the ruling [revolutionary] parties rather than, say, the global concentration of capital that is destroying all independent economies and putting an end to national sovereignty everywhere? And to the extent that it was, where did this “nature” come from? Was this “nature” disembodied, disconnected from the fabric of the society itself, from the social relations impacting on it? … Thousands of examples could be found in which the centralization of power was a necessary choice in securing and protecting socialist relations. In my observation [of existing communist societies], the positive of “socialism” and the negative of “bureaucracy, authoritarianism and tyranny” interpenetrated in virtually every sphere of life. [13]

The pure socialists regularly blame the Left itself for every defeat it suffers. Their second-guessing is endless. So we hear that revolutionary struggles fail because their leaders wait too long or act too soon, are too timid or too impulsive, too stubborn or too easily swayed. We hear that revolutionary leaders are compromising or adventuristic, bureaucratic or opportunistic, rigidly organized or insufficiently organized, undemocratic or failing to provide strong leadership. But always the leaders fail because they do not put their trust in the “direct actions” of the workers, who apparently would withstand and overcome every adversity if only given the kind of leadership available from the left critic’s own groupuscule. Unfortunately, the critics seem unable to apply their own leadership genius to producing a successful revolutionary movement in their own country.

Tony Febbo questioned this blame-the-leadership syndrome of the pure socialists:

It occurs to me that when people as smart, different, dedicated and heroic as Lenin, Mao, Fidel Castro, Daniel Ortega, Ho Chi Minh and Robert Mugabe — and the millions of heroic people who followed and fought with them — all end up more or less in the same place, then something bigger is at work than who made what decision at what meeting. Or even what size houses they went home to after the meeting. …

These leaders weren’t in a vacuum. They were in a whirlwind. And the suction, the force, the power that was twirling them around has spun and left this globe mangled for more than 900 years. And to blame this or that theory or this or that leader is a simple-minded substitute for the kind of analysis that Marxists [should make]. [14]

To be sure, the pure socialists are not entirely without specific agendas for building the revolution. After the Sandinistas overthrew the Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua, an ultra-left group in that country called for direct worker ownership of the factories. The armed workers would take control of production without benefit of managers, state planners, bureaucrats, or a formal military. While undeniably appealing, this worker syndicalism denies the necessities of state power. Under such an arrangement, the Nicaraguan revolution would not have lasted two months against the U.S.-sponsored counterrevolution that savaged the country. It would have been unable to mobilize enough resources to field an army, take security measures, or build and coordinate economic programs and human services on a national scale.

Decentralization vs. Survival

For a people’s revolution to survive, it must seize state power and use it to (a) break the stranglehold exercised by the owning class over the society’s institutions and resources, and (b) withstand the reactionary counterattack that is sure to come. The internal and external dangers a revolution faces necessitate a centralized state power that is not particularly to anyone’s liking, not in Soviet Russia in 1917, nor in Sandinista Nicaragua in 1980.

Engels offers an apposite account of an uprising in Spain in 187273 in which anarchists seized power in municipalities across the country. At first, the situation looked promising. The king had abdicated and the bourgeois government could muster but a few thousand ill-trained troops. Yet this ragtag force prevailed because it faced a thoroughly parochialized rebellion. “Each town proclaimed itself as a sovereign canton and set up a revolutionary committee (junta);” Engels writes. “[E]ach town acted on its own, declaring that the important thing was not cooperation with other towns but separation from them, thus precluding any possibility of a combined attack [against bourgeois forces).” It was “the fragmentation and isolation of the revolutionary forces which enabled the government troops to smash one revolt after the other.” [15]

Decentralized parochial autonomy is the graveyard of insurgency — which may be one reason why there has never been a successful anarcho-syndicalist revolution. Ideally, it would be a fine thing to have only local, self-directed, worker participation, with minimal bureaucracy, police, and military. This probably would be the development of socialism, were socialism ever allowed to develop unhindered by counterrevolutionary subversion and attack.

One might recall how, in 1918-20, fourteen capitalist nations, including the United States, invaded Soviet Russia in a bloody but unsuccessful attempt to overthrow the revolutionary Bolshevik government. The years of foreign invasion and civil war did much to intensify the Bolsheviks’ siege psychology with its commitment to lockstep party unity and a repressive security apparatus. Thus, in May 1921, the same Lenin who had encouraged the practice of internal party democracy and struggled against Trotsky in order to give the trade unions a greater measure of autonomy, now called for an end to the Workers’ Opposition and other factional groups within the party. [16] “The time has come,” he told an enthusiastically concurring Tenth Party Congress, “to put an end to opposition, to put a lid on it: we have had enough opposition.” Open disputes and conflicting tendencies within and without the party, the communists concluded, created an appearance of division and weakness that invited attack by formidable foes.

Only a month earlier, in April 1921, Lenin had called for more worker representation on the party’s Central Committee. In short, he had become not anti-worker but anti-opposition. Here was a social revolution — like every other — that was not allowed to develop its political and material life in an unhindered way. [17]

By the late 1920s, the Soviets faced the choice of (a) moving in a still more centralized direction with a command economy and forced agrarian collectivization and full-speed industrialization under a commandist, autocratic party leadership, the road taken by Stalin, or (b) moving in a liberalized direction, allowing more political diversity, more autonomy for labor unions and other organizations, more open debate and criticism, greater autonomy among the various Soviet republics, a sector of privately owned small businesses, independent agricultural development by the peasantry, greater emphasis on consumer goods, and less effort given to the kind of capital accumulation needed to build a strong military industrial base.

The latter course, I believe, would have produced a more comfortable, more humane and serviceable society. Siege socialism would have given way to worker-consumer socialism. The only problem is that the country would have risked being incapable of withstanding the Nazi onslaught. Instead, the Soviet Union embarked upon a rigorous, forced industrialization. This policy has often been mentioned as one of the wrongs perpetrated by Stalin upon his people. [18] It consisted mostly of building, within a decade, an entirely new, huge industrial base east of the Urals in the middle of the barren steppes, the biggest steel complex in Europe, in anticipation of an invasion from the West. “Money was spent like water, men froze, hungered and suffered but the construction went on with a disregard for individuals and a mass heroism seldom paralleled in history.” [19]

Stalin’s prophecy that the Soviet Union had only ten years to do what the British had done in a century proved correct. When the Nazis invaded in 1941, that same industrial base, safely ensconced thousands of miles from the front, produced the weapons of war that eventually turned the tide. The cost of this survival included 22 million Soviet citizens who perished in the war and immeasurable devastation and suffering, the effects of which would distort Soviet society for decades afterward.

All this is not to say that everything Stalin did was of historical necessity. The exigencies of revolutionary survival did not “make inevitable” the heartless execution of hundreds of Old Bolshevik leaders, the personality cult of a supreme leader who claimed every revolutionary gain as his own achievement, the suppression of party political life through terror, the eventual silencing of debate regarding the pace of industrialization and collectivization, the ideological regulation of all intellectual and cultural life, and the mass deportations of “suspect” nationalities.

The transforming effects of counterrevolutionary attack have been felt in other countries. A Sandinista military officer I met in Vienna in 1986 noted that Nicaraguans were “not a warrior people” but they had to learn to fight because they faced a destructive, U.S.-sponsored mercenary war. She bemoaned the fact that war and embargo forced her country to postpone much of its socio-economic agenda. As with Nicaragua, so with Mozambique, Angola and numerous other countries in which U.S.-financed mercenary forces destroyed farmlands, villages, health centers, and power stations, while killing or starving hundreds of thousands — the revolutionary baby was strangled in its crib or mercilessly bled beyond recognition. This reality ought to earn at least as much recognition as the suppression of dissidents in this or that revolutionary society.

The overthrow of Eastern European and Soviet communist governments was cheered by many left intellectuals. Now democracy would have its day. The people would be free from the yoke of communism and the U.S. Left would be free from the albatross of existing communism, or as left theorist Richard Lichtman put it, “liberated from the incubus of the Soviet Union and the succubus of Communist China.” [20]

In fact, the capitalist restoration in Eastern Europe seriously weakened the numerous Third World liberation struggles that had received aid from the Soviet Union and brought a whole new crop of right-wing governments into existence, ones that now worked hand-in-glove with U.S. global counterrevolutionaries around the globe.

In addition, the overthrow of communism gave the green light to the unbridled exploitative impulses of Western corporate interests. No longer needing to convince workers that they live better than their counterparts in Russia, and no longer restrained by a competing system, the corporate class is rolling back the many gains that working people in the West have won over the years. Now that the free market, in its meanest form, is emerging triumphant in the East, so will it prevail in the West. “Capitalism with a human face” is being replaced by “capitalism in your face.” As Richard Levins put it, “So in the new exuberant aggressiveness of world capitalism we see what communists and their allies had held at bay.” [21]

Having never understood the role that existing communist powers played in tempering the worst impulses of Western capitalism and imperialism, and having perceived communism as nothing but an unmitigated evil, the left anticommunists did not anticipate the losses that were to come. Some of them still don’t get it.

Communism in Wonderland

The various communist countries suffered from major systemic deficiencies. While these internal problems were seriously exacerbated by the destruction and military threat imposed by the Western capitalist powers, there were a number of difficulties that seemed to inhere in the system itself.

Rewarding Inefficiency

All communist nations were burdened by rigid economic command systems. [22] Central planning was useful and even necessary in the earlier period of siege socialism to produce steel, wheat, and tanks in order to build an industrial base and withstand the Nazi onslaught. But it eventually hindered technological development and growth, and proved incapable of supplying a wide-enough range of consumer goods and services. No computerized system could be devised to accurately model a vast and intricate economy. No system could gather and process the immense range of detailed information needed to make correct decisions about millions of production tasks.

Top-down planning stifled initiative throughout the system. Stagnation was evident in the failure of the Soviet industrial establishment to apply the innovations of the scientific-technological revolution of the 1970s and 1980s, including the use of computer technology. Though the Soviets produced many of the world’s best mathematicians, physicists, and other scientists, little of their work found actual application. As Mikhail Gorbachev complained before the 28th Communist Party Congress in 1990, “We can no longer tolerate the managerial system that rejects scientific and technological progress and new technologies, that is committed to cost-ineffectiveness and generates squandering and waste.”

It is not enough to denounce ineptitude, one must also try to explain why it persisted despite repeated exhortations from leaders—going as far back as Stalin himself who seethed about timeserving bureaucrats. An explanation for the failure of the managerial system may be found in the system itself, which created disincentives for innovation:

  • Managers were little inclined to pursue technological paths that might lead to their own obsolescence. Many of them were not competent in the new technologies and should have been replaced.
  • Managers received no rewards for taking risks. They maintained their positions regardless of whether innovative technology was developed, as was true of their superiors and central planners.
  • Supplies needed for technological change were not readily available. Since inputs were fixed by the plan and all materials and labor were fully committed, it was difficult to divert resources to innovative production. In addition, experimentation increased the risks of failing to meet one’s quotas.
  • There was no incentive to produce better machines for other enterprises since that brought no rewards to one’s own firm. Quite the contrary, under the pressure to get quantitative results, managers often cut corners on quality.
  • There was a scarcity of replacement parts both for industrial production and for durable-use consumer goods. Because top planners set such artificially low prices for spare parts, it was seldom cost-efficient for factories to produce them.
  • Because producers did not pay real-value prices for raw materials, fuel, and other things, enterprises often used them inefficiently.
  • Productive capacity was under-utilized. Problems of distribution led to excessive unused inventory. Because of irregular shipments, there was a tendency to hoard more than could be put into production, further adding to shortages.
  • Improvements in production would lead only to an increase in one’s production quota. In effect, well-run factories were punished with greater work loads. Poor performing ones were rewarded with lower quotas and state subsidies.

Managerial irresponsibility was a problem in agriculture as well as industry. One Vietnamese farm organizer’s comment could describe the situation in most other communist countries: “The painful lesson of [farm] cooperatization was that management was not motivated to succeed or produce.” If anything, farm management was often motivated to provide a poor product. For instance, since state buyers of meat paid attention to quantity rather than quality, collective farmers maximized profits by producing fatter animals. Consumers might not care to eat fatty meat but that was their problem. Only a foolish or saintly farmer would work harder to produce better quality meat for the privilege of getting paid less.

As in all countries, bureaucracy tended to become a self-feeding animal. Administrative personnel increased at a faster rate than productive workers. A factory with 11,000 production workers might have an administrative staff of 5,000, a considerable burden on productivity. In some enterprises, administrative personnel made up half the full number of workers.

The heavily bureaucratic mode of operation did not allow for critical, self-corrective feedback. In general, there was a paucity of the kind of debate that might have held planners and managers accountable to the public. The fate of the whistleblower was the same in communist countries as in our own. Those who exposed waste, incompetence, and corruption were more likely to run risks than receive rewards.

Nobody Minding the Store

We have been taught that people living under communism suffer from “the totalitarian control over every aspect of life,” as Time magazine still tells us. [23] Talking to the people themselves, one found that they complained less about overbearing control than about the absence of responsible control. Maintenance people failed to perform needed repairs. Occupants of a new housing project might refuse to pay rent and no one bothered to collect it. With lax management in harvesting, storage, and transportation, as much as 30 percent of all produce was lost between field and store and thousands of tons of meat were left to spoil. People complained about broken toilets, leaky roofs, rude salespeople, poor quality goods, late trains, deficient hospital services, and corrupt and unresponsive bureaucrats.

Corruption and favoritism were commonplace. There was the manager who regularly pilfered the till, the workers who filched foodstuffs and goods from state stores or supplies from factories in order to service private homes for personal gain, the peasants on collective farms who stripped parts from tractors to sell them on the black market, the director who accepted bribes to place people at the top of a waiting list to buy cars, and the farmers who hoarded livestock which they sold to townspeople at three times the governments low procurement price. All this was hardly the behavior of people trembling under a totalitarian rule of terror.

The system itself rewarded evasion and noncompliance. Thus, the poorer the performance of the collective farm, the more substantial the subsidy and the less demanded in the way of work quotas. The poorer the performance of plumbers and mechanics, the less burdened they were with calls and quotas. The poorer the restaurant service, the fewer the number of clients and the more food left over to take home for oneself or sell on the black market. The last thing restaurant personnel wanted was satisfied customers who would return to dine at the officially fixed low prices.

Not surprisingly, work discipline left much to be desired. There was the clerk who chatted endlessly with a friend on the telephone while a long line of people waited resentfully for service, the two workers who took three days to paint a hotel wall that should have taken a few hours, the many who would walk off their jobs to go shopping. Such poor performance itself contributed to low productivity and the cycle of scarcity. In 1979, Cuban leader Raul Castro offered this list of abuses:

[The] lack of work discipline, unjustified absences from work, deliberate go-slows so as not to surpass the norms — which are already low and poorly applied in practice — so that they won’t be changed. … In contrast to capitalism, when people in the countryside worked an exhausting 12-hour workday and more, there are a good many instances today especially in agriculture, of people … working no more than four or six hours, with the exception of cane-cutters and possibly a few other kinds of work. We know that in many cases heads of brigades and foremen make a deal with workers to meet the norm in half a day and then go off and work for the other half for some nearby small [private] farmer [for extra income]; or to go slow and meet the norm in seven or eight hours; or do two or three norms in a day and report them over other days on which they don’t go to work. …

All these “tricks of the trade” in agriculture are also to be found in industry, transportation services, repair shops and many other places where there’s rampant buddyism, cases of “you do me a favor and I’ll do you one” and pilfering on the side. [24]

If fired, an individual had a constitutional guarantee to another job and seldom had any difficulty finding one. The labor market was a seller’s market. Workers did not fear losing their jobs but managers feared losing their best workers and sometimes overpaid them to prevent them from leaving. Too often, however, neither monetary rewards nor employment itself were linked to performance. The dedicated employee usually earned no more than the irresponsible one. The slackers and pilferers had a demoralizing effect on those who wanted to work in earnest.

Full employment was achieved by padding the workforce with people who had relatively little to do. This added to labor scarcity, low productivity, lack of work discipline, and the failure to implement labor-saving technologies that could maximize production.

The communists operated on the assumption that once capitalism and its attendant economic abuses were eliminated, and once social production was communalized and people were afforded some decent measure of security and prosperity, they would contentedly do their fair share of work. That often proved not so.

Communist economies had a kind of Wonderland quality in that prices seldom bore any relation to actual cost or value. Many expensive services were provided almost entirely free, such as education, medical care, and most recreational, sporting, and cultural events. Housing, transportation, utilities, and basic foods were heavily subsidized. Many people had money but not much to buy with it. High-priced quality goods and luxury items were hard to come by. All this in turn affected work performance. Why work hard to earn more when there was not that much to buy?

Wage increases, designed to attract workers to disagreeable or low-prestige jobs or as incentives to production, only added to the disparity between purchasing power and the supply of goods. Prices were held artificially low, first out of dedication to egalitarian principles but also because attempts to readjust them provoked worker protests in Poland, East Germany, and the USSR. Thus in the Soviet Union and Poland, the state refused to raise the price of bread, which was priced at only a few pennies per loaf, though it cost less than animal feed. One result: Farmers in both countries bought the bread to feed their pigs. With rigorous price controls, there was hidden inflation, a large black market, and long shopping lines.

Citizens were expected to play by the rules and not take advantage of the system, even when the system inadvertently invited transgressions. They were expected to discard a self-interested mode of behavior when in fact there was no reward and some disadvantage in doing so. The “brutal totalitarian regime” was actually a giant trough from which many took whatever they could.

There was strong resentment concerning consumer scarcities: the endless shopping lines, the ten-year wait for a new automobile, the housing shortage that compelled single people to live at home or get married in order to qualify for an apartment of their own, and the five-year wait for that apartment. The crowding and financial dependency on parents often led to early divorce. These and other such problems took their toll on people’s commitment to socialism.

Wanting It All

I listened to an East German friend complain of poor services and inferior products; the system did not work, he concluded. But what of the numerous social benefits so lacking in much of the world, I asked, aren’t these to be valued? His response was revealing: “Oh, nobody ever talks about that.” People took for granted what they had in the way of human services and entitlements while hungering for the consumer goods dangling in their imaginations.

The human capacity for discontent should not be underestimated. People cannot live on the social wage alone. Once our needs are satisfied, then our wants tend to escalate, and our wants become our needs. A rise in living standards often incites a still greater rise in expectations. As people are treated better, they want more of the good things and are not necessarily grateful for what they already have. Leading professionals who had attained relatively good living standards wanted to dress better, travel abroad, and enjoy the more abundant life styles available to people of means in the capitalist world.

It was this desire for greater affluence rather than the quest for political freedom that motivated most of those who emigrated to the West. Material wants were mentioned far more often than the lack of democracy. The émigrés who fled Vietnam in 1989 were not persecuted political dissidents. Usually they were relatively prosperous craftsmen, small entrepreneurs, well-educated engineers, architects, and intellectuals seeking greater opportunities. To quote one: “I don’t think my life here in Vietnam is very bad. In fact, I’m very well off. But that’s human nature to always want something better.” Another testified: “We had two shops and our income was decent but we wanted a better life.” And another: “They left for the same reasons we did. They wanted to be richer, just like us.” [25] Today a “get rich” mania is spreading throughout much of Vietnam, as that nation lurches toward a market economy. [26]

Likewise, the big demand in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) was for travel, new appliances, and bigger apartments. [27] The New York Times described East Germany as a “country of 16 million [who] seem transfixed by one issue: How soon can they become as prosperous as West Germany?” [28] A national poll taken in China reported that 68 percent chose as their goal “to live well and get rich.” [29]

In 1989, I asked the GDR ambassador in Washington, D.C. why his country made such junky two-cylinder cars. He said the goal was to develop good public transportation and discourage the use of costly private vehicles. But when asked to choose between a rational, efficient, economically sound and ecologically sane mass transportation system or an automobile with its instant mobility, special status, privacy, and personal empowerment, the East Germans went for the latter, as do most people in the world. The ambassador added ruefully: “We thought building a good society would make good people. That’s not always true.” Whether or not it was a good society, at least he was belatedly recognizing the discrepancy between public ideology and private desire.

In Cuba today many youth see no value in joining the Communist party and think Fidel Castro has had his day and should step aside. The revolutionary accomplishments in education and medical care are something they take for granted and cannot get excited about. Generally they are more concerned about their own personal future than about socialism. University courses on Marxism and courses on the Cuban Revolution, once overenrolled, now go sparsely attended, while students crowd into classes on global markets and property law. [30]

With the U.S. blockade and the loss of Soviet aid, the promise of abundance receded beyond sight in Cuba and the cornucopia of the North appeared ever more alluring. Many Cuban youth idealize life in the United States and long for its latest styles and music. Like the Eastern Europeans, they think capitalism will deliver the goodies at no special cost. When told that young people in the United States face serious hurdles, they respond with all the certainty of inexperience: “We know that many people in the States are poor and that many are rich. If you work hard, however, you can do well. It is the land of opportunity.” [31]

By the second or third generation, relatively few are still alive who can favorably contrast their lives under socialism with the great hardships and injustices of prerevolutionary days. As stated by one Cuban youth who has no memory of life before the revolution: “We’re tired of the slogans. That was all right for our parents but the revolution is history.” [32]

In a society of rapidly rising—and sometimes unrealistic—expectations, those who did not do well, who could not find employment commensurate with their training, or who were stuck with drudge work, were especially inclined to want a change. Even in the best of societies, much labor has an instrumental value but no inherent gratification. The sooner a tedious task is completed, the sooner there is another to be done, so why knock yourself out? If “building the revolution” and “winning the battle of production” mean performing essential but routine tasks for the rest of one’s foreseeable future, the revolution understandably loses its luster. There is often not enough interesting and creative work to go around for all who consider themselves interesting and creative people.

In time, the revolution suffers from the routinization of charisma. Ordinary people cannot sustain in everyday life a level of intense dedication for abstract albeit beautiful ideals. Why struggle for a better life if it cannot now be attained? And if it can be enjoyed now, then forget about revolutionary sacrifice.

Reactionism to the Surface

For years I heard about the devilishly clever manipulations of communist propaganda. Later on, I was surprised to discover that news media in communist countries were usually lackluster and plodding. Western capitalist nations are immersed in an advertising culture, with billions spent on marketing and manipulating images. The communist countries had nothing comparable. Their media coverage generally consisted of dull protocol visits and official pronouncements, along with glowing reports about the economy and society — so glowing that people complained about not knowing what was going on in their own country. They could read about abuses of power, industrial accidents, worker protests, and earthquakes occurring in every country but their own. And even when the press exposed domestic abuses, they usually went uncorrected.

Media reports sometimes so conflicted with daily experience that the official press was not believed even when it did tell the truth, as when it reported on poverty and repression in the capitalist world. If anything, many intellectuals in communist nations were utterly starry-eyed about the capitalist world and unwilling to look at its seamier side. Ferociously opposed to the socialist system, they were anticommunist to the point of being full-fledged adulators of Western reactionism. The more rabidly “reactionary chic” a position was, the more appeal it had for the intelligentsia.

With almost religious fervor, intellectuals maintained that the capitalist West, especially the United States, was a free-market paradise of superabundance and almost limitless opportunity. Nor would they believe anything to the contrary. With complete certitude, well-fed, university-educated, Moscow intellectuals sitting in their modest but comfortable apartments would tell U.S. visitors, “The poorest among you live better than we.”

A conservative deputy editor of the Wall Street Journal David Brooks, offers this profile of the Moscow intellectual:

He is the master of contempt, and feels he is living in a world run by imbeciles. He is not unsure, casting about for the correct answers. The immediate answers are obvious — democracy and capitalism. His self-imposed task is to smash the idiots who stand in the way. … He has none of the rococo mannerisms of our intellectuals, but values bluntness, rudeness, and arrogance. … [These] democratic intellectuals [love] Ronald Reagan, Marlboros, and the South in the American Civil War. [33]

Consider Andrei Sakharov, a darling of the U.S. press, who regularly praised corporate capitalism while belittling the advances achieved by the Soviet people. He lambasted the U.S. peace movement for its opposition to the Vietnam War and accused the Soviets of being military expansionists and the sole culprits behind the arms race. Sakharov supported every U.S. armed intervention abroad as a defense of democracy and characterized new U.S. weapons systems like the neutron bomb as “primarily defensive.” Anointed by U.S. leaders and media as a “human rights advocate,” he never had an unkind word for the human rights violations perpetrated by the fascist regimes of faithful U.S. client states, including Pinochet’s Chile and Suharto’s Indonesia, and he directed snide remarks toward those who did. He regularly attacked those in the West who dissented from anticommunist orthodoxy and who opposed U.S. interventionism abroad. As with many other Eastern European intellectuals, Sakharov’s advocacy of dissent did not extend to opinions that deviated to the left of his own. [34]

The tolerance for Western imperialism extended into the upper reaches of the Soviet government itself, as reflected in a remark made in 1989 by a high-ranking official in the Soviet Foreign Ministry, Andrey Kozyrev, who stated that Third World countries “suffer not so much from capitalism as from a lack of it.” Either by design or stupidity he confused capital (which those nations lack) with capitalism (of which they have more than enough to victimize them). He also claimed that “none of the main [bourgeois groups] in America are connected with militarism.” To think of them as imperialists who plunder Third World countries is a “stereotyped idea” that should be discarded. [35]

As a system of analysis mainly concerned with existing capitalism, Marxism has relatively little to say about the development of socialist societies. In the communist countries, Marxism was doled out like a catechism. Its critique of capitalism had no vibrancy or meaning for those who lived in a noncapitalist society. Instead, most intellectuals found excitement in the forbidden fruit of Western bourgeois ideology. In looking to the West, they were not interested in broadening the ideological spectrum, a desirable goal, but in replacing the dominant view with a rightist anticommunist orthodoxy. They were not for an end to ideology but for replacing one ideology with another. Without hesitation, they added their voices to the chorus singing the glories of the free-market paradise.

Heavily subsidized by Western sources, the right-wing intelligentsia produced publications like Moscow News and Argumentyi Fakti which put out a virulently pro-capitalist, pro-imperialist message. One such publication, Literaturnaya Gazeta (March 1990), hailed Reagan and Bush as “statesmen” and “the architects of peace.” It questioned the need for a Ministry of Culture in the USSR, even one that was now headed by an anticommunist: “There is no such ministry in the United States and yet it seems that there is nothing wrong with American culture.” Who said Russians don’t have a sense of humor?

With the decline of communist power in Eastern Europe, the worst political scum began to float to the surface, Nazi sympathizers and hate groups of all sorts, though they were not the only purveyors of bigotry. In 1990, none other than Polish Solidarity leader Lech Walesa declared that “a gang of Jews had gotten hold of the trough and is bent on destroying us.” Later on he maintained that the comment did not apply to all Jews but only those “who are looking out for themselves while giving not a damn about anyone else.” [36] The following year, in Poland’s post-communist presidential election, various candidates (including Walesa) outdid each other in their anti-Semitic allusions. In 1996, at a national ceremony, Solidarity chief Zygmunt Wrzodak resorted to anti-Semitic vituperation while railing against the previous communist regime. [37]

Romanticizing Capitalism

In 1990, in Washington, D.C., the Hungarian ambassador held a press conference to announce that his country was discarding its socialist system because it did not work. When I asked why it did not work, he said, “I don’t know.” Here was someone who confessed that he had no understanding of the deficiencies of his country’s socioeconomic process, even though he was one of those in charge of that process. Leaders who talk only to each other are soon out of touch with reality.

The policymakers of these communist states showed a surprisingly un-Marxist understanding of the problems they faced. There were denunciations and admonitions aplenty, but little systemic analysis of why and how things had come to such an impasse. Instead, there was much admiration for what was taken to be Western capitalist know-how and remarkably little understanding of the uglier side of capitalism and how it impacted upon the world.

In the USSR, glasnost (the use of critical debate to invite innovation and reform) opened Soviet media to Western penetration, and accelerated the very disaffection it was intended to rectify. Leaders in Poland and Hungary, and eventually the Soviet Union and the other European communist nations, decided to open their economies to Western investment during the late 1980s. It was anticipated that state ownership would exist on equal terms with cooperatives, foreign investors, and domestic private entrepreneurs. [38] In fact, the whole state economy was put at risk and eventually undermined. Communist leaders had even less understanding of the capitalist system than of their own.

Most people living under socialism had little understanding of capitalism in practice. Workers interviewed in Poland believed that if their factory were to be closed down in the transition to the free market, “the state will find us some other work.” [39] They thought they would have it both ways. In the Soviet Union, many who argued for privatization also expected the government to continue providing them with collective benefits and subsidies. One skeptical farmer got it right: “Some people want to be capitalists for themselves, but expect socialism to keep serving them.” [40]

Reality sometimes hit home. In 1990, during the glasnost period, when the Soviet government announced that the price of newsprint would be raised 300 percent to make it commensurate with its actual cost, the new procapitalist publications complained bitterly. They were angry that state socialism would no longer subsidize their denunciations of state socialism. They were being subjected to the same free-market realities they so enthusiastically advocated for everyone else, and they did not like it.

Not everyone romanticized capitalism. Many of the Soviet and Eastern European émigrés who had migrated to the United States during the 1970s and 1980s complained about this country’s poor social services, crime, harsh work conditions, lack of communitarian spirit, vulgar electoral campaigns, inferior educational standards, and the astonishing ignorance that Americans had about history.

They discovered they could no longer leave their jobs during the day to go shopping, that their employers provided no company doctor when they fell ill on the job, that they were subject to severe reprimands when tardy, that they could not walk the streets and parks late at night without fear, that they might not be able to afford medical services for their family or college tuition for their children, and that they had no guarantee of a job and might experience unemployment at any time.

Among those who never emigrated were some who did not harbor illusions about capitalism. In fact, numerous workers, peasants, and elderly were fearful of the changes ahead and not entirely sold on the free-market mythology. A 1989 survey in Czechoslovakia found that 47 percent wanted their economy to remain state controlled, while 43 percent wanted a mixed economy, and only 3 percent said they favored capitalism. [41] In May 1991, a survey of Russians by a U.S. polling organization found that 54 percent chose some form of socialism and only 20 percent wanted a free-market economy such as in the United States or Germany. Another 27 percent elected for “a modified form of capitalism as found in Sweden.” [42]

Still, substantial numbers, especially among intellectuals and youths — the two groups who know everything — opted for the free-market paradise, without the faintest notion of its social costs. Against the inflated imagination, reality is a poor thing. Against the glittering image of the West’s cornucopia, the routinized, scarcity-ridden, and often exasperating experiences of communist society did not have a chance.

It seems communism created a dialectical dynamic that undermined itself. It took semi-feudal, devastated, underdeveloped countries and successfully industrialized them, bringing a better life for most. But this very process of modernization and uplift also created expectations that could not be fulfilled. Many expected to keep all the securities of socialism, overlaid with capitalist consumerism. As we shall see in subsequent chapters, they were in for some painful surprises.

One reason siege socialism could not make the transition to consumer socialism is that the state of siege was never lifted. As noted in the previous chapter, the very real internal deficiencies within communist systems were exacerbated by unrelenting external attacks and threats from the Western powers. Born into a powerfully hostile capitalist world, communist nations suffered through wars, invasions, and an arms race that exhausted their productive capacities and retarded their development. The decision by Soviet leaders to achieve military parity with the United States — while working from a much smaller industrial base — placed a serious strain on the entire Soviet economy.

The very siege socialism that allowed the USSR to survive made it difficult for it to thrive. Perestroika (the restructuring of socioeconomic practices in order to improve performance) was intended to open and revitalize production. Instead it led to the unraveling of the entire state socialist fabric. Thus the pluralistic media that were to replace the communist monopoly media eventually devolved into a procapitalist ideological monopoly. The same thing happened to other socialist institutions. The intent was to use a shot of capitalism to bolster socialism; the reality was that socialism was used to subsidize and build an unforgiving capitalism.

Pressed hard throughout its history by global capitalism’s powerful financial, economic, and military forces, state socialism endured a perpetually tenuous existence, only to be swept away when the floodgates were opened to the West.

  1. Michael Parenti, 1997, Blackshirts & Reds, Chapter VI: The Free Market Paradise Goes East (I). 

  2. For more on this point, I offer the argument I developed in “China Has Billionaires (2021).” [web] 

  3. Noam Chomsky, Z Magazine, September-October 1995. 

  4. Adam Hochschild, The Guardian, 23 May 1984. 

  5. Ronald Radosh, The Guardian, 16 March 1983. 

  6. Mark Green and Gail MacColl, New York: Pantheon Books, There He Goes Again: Ronald Reagan’s Reign of Error (1983), 12. 

  7. George Orwell, quoted in Monthly Review, May 1983. 

  8. In the first edition of my book Inventing Reality (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1986) I wrote: “The U.S. media’s encompassing negativity in regard to the Soviet Union might induce some of us to react with an unqualifiedly glowing view of that society. The truth is, in the USSR there exist serious problems of labor productivity, industrialization, urbanization, bureaucracy, corruption, and alcoholism. There are production and distribution bottlenecks, plan failures, consumer scarcities, criminal abuses of power, suppression of dissidents, and expressions of alienation among some persons in the population.” 

  9. Many on the U.S. Left, who displayed only hostility and loathing toward the Soviet Union and other European communist states, have a warm feeling for Cuba, which they see as having a true revolutionary tradition and a somewhat more open society. In fact, at least until the present (January 1997), Cuba has had much the same system as the USSR and other communist nations: public ownership of industry, a planned economy, close relations with existing communist nations, and one-party rule — with the party playing a hegemonic role in the government, media, labor unions, women’s federations, youth groups, and other institutions. 

  10. Partly in reaction to the ubiquitous anticommunist propaganda that permeated U.S. media and public life, many U.S. communists, and others close to them, refrained from criticizing the autocratic features of the Soviet Union. Consequently, they were accused of thinking that the USSR was a worker’s “paradise” by critics who seemingly would settle for nothing less than paradisal standards. After the Khrushchev revelations in 1953, U.S. communists grudgingly allowed that Stalin had made “mistakes” and even had committed crimes. 

  11. Chomsky interviewed by Husayn Al-Kurdi: Perception, March/April 1996. 

  12. I refer the reader to Lenin’s books: The State and Revolution; “Left-Wing” Communism — an Infantile Disorder; What is to Be Done?, and various articles and statements still available in collected editions. See also John Ehrenberg’s treatment of Marxism-Leninism in his The Dictatorship of the Proletariat, Marxism’s Theory of Socialist Democracy (New York: Routledge, 1992). 

  13. Carl Shames, correspondence to me, 15 January 1992. 

  14. Tony Febbo, The Guardian, 13 November 1991. 

  15. Marx, Engels, Lenin, Anarchism and Anarcho-Syndicalism: Selected Writings (New York: International Publishers, 1972), 139. In her biography of Louise Michel, the anarchist historian Edith Thomas asserts that anarchism is “the absence of government, the direct administration by people of their own lives.” Who could not want that? Thomas doesn’t say how it would work except to assert that “anarchists want it right now, in all the confusion and disorder of right now.” She notes proudly that anarchism “is still intact as an ideal, for it has never been tried.” That is exactly the problem. Why in so many hundreds of actual rebellions, including ones led by anarchists themselves, has anarchism never been tried or never succeeded in surviving for any length of time in an “intact” anarchist form? (In the anarchist uprising Engels described, the rebels, in seeming violation of their own ideology, did not rely on Thomas’s “direct administration by the people” but set up ruling juntas.) The unpracticed, unattainable quality of the ideal helps it to retain its better-than-anything appeal in the minds of some. 

  16. Trotsky was among the more authoritarian Bolshevik leaders, least inclined to tolerate organizational autonomy, diverse views, and internal party democracy. But in the fall of 1923, finding himself in a minority position, outmaneuvered by Stalin and others, Trotsky developed a sudden commitment to open party procedures and workers’ democracy. Ever since, he has been hailed by some followers as an anti-Stalinist democrat. 

  17. Regarding the several years before 1921, the Sovietologist Stephen Cohen writes, “The experience of civil war and war communism profoundly altered both the party and the emerging political system.” Other socialist parties were expelled from the soviets. And the Communist party’s “democratic norms … as well as its almost libertarian and reformist profile” gave way to a “rigid authoritarianism and pervasive ‘militarization.’” Much of the popular control exercised by local soviets and factory committees was eliminated. In the words of one Bolshevik leader, “The republic is an armed camp”: see Cohen’s Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973), 79. 

  18. To give one of innumerable examples, recently Roger Burbach faulted Stalin for “rushing the Soviet Union headlong on the road to industrialization”: see his correspondence, Monthly Review, March 1996, 35. 

  19. John Scott, Behind the Urals, an American Worker in Russia’s City of Steel (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1942). 

  20. Richard Lichtman. 

  21. Richard Levins, Monthly Review, September 1996. 

  22. While framed in the past tense, the following discussion also applies to the few remaining communist countries still in existence. 

  23. Time, 27 May 1996. 

  24. Cuba Update, March 1980. 

  25. All quotations from the Washington Post, 12 April 1989. 

  26. New York Times, 5 April 1996. 

  27. Washington Post, 28 August 1989. 

  28. New York Times, 13 March 1990. 

  29. PBS TV report, June 1996. 

  30. Newsday, 12 April 1996. 

  31. Monthly Review, April 1996. 

  32. San Francisco Chronicle, 25 August 1995. 

  33. National Review, 2 March 1992. 

  34. See Andrei Sakharov, My Country and the World (New York: Vintage Books, 1975), especially chapters 3, 4, and 5. A memorable moment was provided me by the noted journalist I. F. Stone, in Washington, D.C. in 1987. Izzy (as he was called) had just given a talk at the Institute for Policy Studies praising Sakharov as a courageous champion of democracy, a portrayal that seemed heavily indebted to the U.S. media image of Sakharov. Encountering Stone in the street after the event, I said to him that we should distinguish between Sakharov’s right to speak, which I supported, and the reactionary, CIA-ridden content of his speech, which we were under no obligation to admire. He stopped me in mid-sentence and screamed: “I’m sick and tired of people who wipe the ass of the Soviet Union!” He then stomped away. Izzy Stone was normally a polite man, but as with many on the U.S. Left, his anti-Sovietism could cause him to discard both rational discourse and common courtesy. On subsequent occasions he talked to me in a most friendly manner but never once thought to apologize for that outburst. 

  35. New York Times, 7 January 1989. 

  36. Nation, 10 September 1990. 

  37. New York Times, 9 July 1996. 

  38. Washington Post, 17 April 1989. 

  39. New Yorker, 13 November 1989. 

  40. Guardian, 23 October 1991. 

  41. New York Times, 1 December 1989. 

  42. Monthly Review, December 1994.