Review of Gabriel Kolko?s ?After Socialism: Reconstructing critical social thought?. Routledge, UK. 2006.
A realistic appraisal of the state our world can cause depression. Reality is perilous and tragic, and prospects for change seem dim. This might be a function of forces beyond the control of those who are trying for change. On the other hand, it might be because those of us who want change and who have wanted change over the years have failed and continue to fail. Gabriel Kolko?s book, ?After Socialism?, argues the latter point ? that part of our world?s travails are due to the failure of socialism as an idea and as a movement. He also argues that socialist theory has failed, and by following it we have failed in identifying those things that were under our control and those that were not.
The title of the book sounds like yet another anti-leftist, ex-leftist manifesto. But Kolko, a retired historian and now political commentator, is well past the stage of his career where he?d have an interest in recanting leftism in order to rise in the world. Behind him is an important body of analysis of US foreign policy, the role of war in history, and the evolution and destructive effects of capitalism. When he says socialism has failed as an idea and a movement, he means that it has failed in its most important task, the task he agrees with, the task of replacing capitalism. He traces the reasons for this failure, the reasons capitalism is still on track to destroying society and the planet, and sets out some premises ? truisms, really ? for thinking about political problems.
Kolko?s first target is socialist theory. Marx lived in a 19th century intellectual culture and adopted many of its ideas and inheritances, among them Hegel?s dialectics, the work of various 19th century British economists, and a general belief that there were laws of motion in society that led to constant forward progress. Hegel?s dialectics were obscure and useless: ?His chain of reasoning and logic defies a coherent analysis: it is circular, assumes forces and relationships, and appearances versus realities, which only befuddled true believers; those who accept Hegel?s system ignore that its meanings and assertions are constantly changing and defy logic, and his philosophy is the height of mysticism masking as a rational process.? (pg. 14) The British economists, especially Smith, Malthus, and Ricardo, besides their optimism, had a view of societies in equilibrium which, despite Marx?s addition of crises, were not able to incorporate the catastrophes and breakdowns that characterize our history: ?Economics was reduced to propositions? that were mechanistic assertions of those putative natural laws grounded in the eighteenth century?s very diverse legal, theological, and mathematical rhetoric? social breakdowns, much less calamities, had no place whatsoever in such thinking. As for mass behaviour, rationality was assumed where it was not explicitly postulated. Stupidity, the failure of intelligence, ambitious rulers immune to the larger public interest, these and other sources of crises were not predicted.? (pg. 11)
Three key elements missed by the theory are the role of leaders, the role of wars, and the role of migration: ?Socialist politicians of all stripes tamed and exploited the working class when there were no wars and, for better or worse, capitalism in one way or another co-opted the working class during peacetime. Marx did not count on the way its leaders mediated the proletariat?s anger and thereby mitigated capitalism?s severe social dysfunctions. He ignored migration ? even then a mass phenomenon ? as an answer to increasing poverty and the industrial reserve army? It is a fact that the working class finally became radicalized and a force for fundamental change, but almost wholly in connection with wars, when its leaders could no longer deceive many of them.? (pg. 27)
Why do such theories, despite their incoherence and failures, continue to have such strong adherence and attract such decent people? Kolko offers four reasons. First, because they offer comforting certainties in a world where the alternative ? constantly trying to figure out how things work and what to do from some basic principles and premises ? is draining and frightening. Second, because of organizational imperatives: parties and institutions that spring up around ideas also generate personal bonds and demands for action. Such institutions and bonds can keep ideas alive beyond their usefulness. Third, the academic professionalization of theory creates an environment in which most social thinkers are in universities where proliferation of complex and original ideas is encouraged over relevance. There are mechanisms for expanding ideas, but not for paring down or dropping useless or irrelevant ones. Finally, and most important, ?[Marxism?s] failure was in fact no more nor less than that of all social thought that emerged in the nineteenth century, and this very absence of rational alternative theories to Marxism made its perseverance more plausible.? (pg. 35)
What consequences did the failure of socialist theory have? ?One can only Marxism by its fundamental predictive failures and total inability to define socialism in a manner that prevented its systematic perversion as a historical force in the hands of those proclaiming themselves social democrats and Bolsheviks. Marxism never provided an analytic or programmatic political and ideological foundation adequate to cope with the awesome tasks that rational and democratic reform required in so many nations for dealing with the multiple economic, political, and social challenges they confronted.? (pg. 35)
Socialist theory failed because it was inadequate and arcane. Because it was opaque, it became the purview of an educated few, and the membership of the mass socialist movement in Europe before 1914 did not apply or use the theory, but instead held to socialist values and an ethic of self-help: ?Socialism, especially before 1914, was in practice, as opposed to doctrine, always much more than Marxism. This plethora of noble impulses and good will were, in most cases, not an antidote to the defects inherent in Marxist theory because these well-intentioned noncomformists lacked analytic aptitudes for dealing with the inevitable problems of coping with a future that is inherently never certain.? (pg. 47) Neither those few equipped with the theory nor the mass movement that didn?t use it were able to cope with World War I. Lenin, however, was, and it is to this that Kolko attributes the success of Leninism: ?The triumph of Leninism was due wholly to Social Democracy?s refusal to oppose World War One effectively, which its analytic failure only exacerbated, and Lenin?s victory was only a grave symptom of the basic deficiencies of the original Marxist creed? his victory and the subsequent triumph of the movement he created was wholly inconceivable without the trauma and social and intellectual chaos which World War One and then World War Two produced. He understood full well the intimate linkage between war and revolution.? (pg. 47)
But if Leninism succeeded, why call socialism a failure? Lenin?s flexibility led him to an authoritarian structure ideal for taking power in the context in which he worked. ?The problem is? Communist parties that began with Lenin?s premises made a virtue of necessity and failed to see that an open, flexible structure was far better able to adapt to the peacetime realities they later confronted? in the end, they created new economic plutocrats and unresponsive class societies, calling it socialism. The freedom of imagination to neutralize these liabilities required open discussion, which the Communists precluded. This absence of free dialogue, above all, was the origin of their ultimate failures.? (pg. 49) Later Leninist parties, in China, Vietnam, and Cuba, all held to this flexibility, which enabled them to take power in times of social trauma and turmoil. But, beyond the authoritarian forms that these parties took, their very ideological flexibility enabled them to stray far from their values: ?sooner or later all political movements must have a functional, relevant basis for comprehending and dealing with the continuous operational problems of managing a society or they inevitably lose their ability both to rule and command the loyalties of their followers. It was precisely this? lack of explicit ethical norms to constrain as well as guide them that plagued their parties from the inception, producing a mounting cynicism among their leaders and technocrats that ultimately proved fatal.? (pg. 63)
In contrast to these failed theories, Kolko offers some truisms, basic premises, and programmatic suggestions. Chapters 5 and 6, on ?capitalist realities?, discuss economic history. Rather than trying to set out laws of motion, Kolko provides a sketch of recent economic history and its implications. He argues that economies have been shaped by state intervention and by wars, more so than internal laws of motion. It was wars, Kolko says, that enabled business to seize power from states. The organizational challenge of war was beyond military organizations (pg. 100) and business stepped into the void. ?Business people dominated the war organizations of all the major combatants during 1914 to 1918 and they saw no conflict between high profits for their constituencies and patriotism. This crucial precedent became the fundamental way the modern US and many West European economies have been organized? since 1914? despite the military?s pretensions, only business people had the minimum abilities to confront war?s decisive organizational and economic problems.? (pg. 101)
What are those trying for change to do? Wars brought capital to power, and because capitalism feeds on wars, and wars will eventually doom us all, we must oppose both capitalism and war. In economic and political programs, Kolko argues for paying attention to history and local specifics: ?A country with a food or water deficit, or a principally export-based economy or rural population, to name but a few key factors, will have very distinct objectives and problems.? (pg. 150). But immediate proposals for the economy in general, leftists should propose worker control (?from co-ops to more collective forms of ownership ? and yet others too numerous to mention? [pg. 159]) social democratic or Keynesian options: high and equitable taxation, generous social spending, and ?a definition of the social good that is implemented in fact and not merely rhetoric.?
If this does not sound like a rejection of socialism, it?s because Kolko has no objection to socialism?s values: ?[socialism?s] goals and objectives have been devalued but they can and must be reasserted along with a rigorous commitment to critical intelligence which is both candid and honest about the failures of the Left as well as those it opposes.? (pg. 153)
But Kolko?s point is that solving our problems will take more than good values: ?Socialism?s goals, which can be defended in economic or ethical terms, are far less controversial than practical questions of how parties, their leaders, and people should respond to reality ? (pg. 153) How should they respond? Organizations must provide mechanisms for internal democracy, dissent and criticism. They must also have frequent turnover of leaders and prevent their programs and policies from being subverted by leaders. He wants leftists to engage with the world as it is, constrained as it is, without abandoning radical principles: ?To state that all politics is inherently constrained and foredoomed to compromises and dilution is to miss the crucial point? The only way to do anything radical is to do it, and there is no substitute for actions in the face of deplorable conditions ? both domestic and international? the attempt to reform basically the world as it is (and is going) is worth the risk of failure, even if it is very large. Otherwise we can await doomsday.? (pg. 161)
In sum, Kolko wants us to think, and his book is a model of serious thinking. Even without (or perhaps especially without) the slightest hint of false optimism, such thinking is refreshing. His very pessimism is grounds for hope. Excessive optimism is depressing because if everything is going so well, how come we’re hurtling so fast towards doomsday? Kolko, by contrast, suggests we have failed – which means if we stop failing, maybe we have a chance.
Justin Podur is a writer and activist based in Toronto. He can be reached at email@example.com