What went wrong with the Soviet Union and the communist revolution can hardly be said to hinge upon the wrongdoings or moral flaws of any single person like Joseph Stalin. Or Vladimir Lenin, for that matter. It’s true that Lenin was a kind of authoritarian deviation from mainstream Marxist socialism, but it is also a fact that the only kind of socialist system (in name if nothing else) that has ever existed on any larger scale has been of the authoritarian bent. If you list all of the libertarian socialists, anarchists and left-wing Marxists, these are all theorists and philosophers. If you list the leading authoritarian socialists, these are all real leaders with real power. Coincidence?
The following is a slightly edited extract from Hanzi Freinacht’s book ‘Nordic Ideology: A Metamodern Guide to Politics, Book Two’. This is the second book in a series on metamodern thought, a work of popular philosophy that investigates the nature of psychological development and its political implications.
“Trotsky wouldn’t have saved the communist experiment. Nor would Lenin had his health been better.”
It’s not a coincidence. Some people like to say that “real socialism has never been tried”. But as you’ll see, it has never been tried because it has never been possible in the first place. And this impossibility is exactly what has derailed all real attempts.
Let’s go on with the story. Lenin’s doctrine which guided the 1917 revolution (or coup) was an authoritarian deviation of the ideals of socialism, effectively banning worker control of factories and other socialist elements, and the other Bolshevik leader, Leon Trotsky, soon followed this elitist top-down perspective.
Lenin died in 1924, Stalin took over and from there on it was mounting totalitarianism and violent oppression, culminating in the 1937-38 Great Purge. If Stalin hadn’t won the power struggle, other and similar problems had still been likely to occur. Stalin’s contestant Trotsky was even crazier. He was more optimistic about a communist revolution in Germany (and less optimistic about Stalin’s “socialism in one country”) and would thus have been likely to have adopted a blatantly aggressive foreign policy—more wars, more people killed. Trotsky also had a more radical vision of the malleability of the human mind; that everyone could become Aristotle—an exceedingly dangerous and cult-like idea. Quoting Trotsky himself:
“It is difficult to predict the extent of self-government which the man of the future may reach or the heights to which he may carry his technique. Social construction and psycho-physical self-education will become two aspects of one and the same process. All the arts—literature, drama, painting, music and architecture will lend this process beautiful form. More correctly, the shell in which the cultural construction and self-education of Communist man will be enclosed, will develop all the vital elements of contemporary art to the highest point. Man will become immeasurably stronger, wiser and subtler; his body will become more harmonized, his movements more rhythmic, his voice more musical. The forms of life will become dynamically dramatic. The average human type will rise to the heights of an Aristotle, a Goethe, or a Marx. And above this ridge new peaks will rise.”[i]
There’s an interesting tension here: On the one hand, Trotsky approaches some of the metamodern developmental perspectives, seeing the human being as a project of playful self-recreation; on the other hand, he falls into the traps of utopianism (the non-relative kind) and idealizing his own image of what a good human being would be like. He didn’t realize that the only credible form of utopia is relative, and he never referred to any sound theories of psychological development. He simply believed that once a socialist society had been achieved, then a new and better humanity would emerge and a just social order would come into being once and for all. Consequently, everything became a means to this impossible end; after all, the zealous revolutionary would think, what’s a few millions deaths if that’s the price of achieving an absolute utopian ideal. This, of course, puts one on a path to totalitarianism. We must thus stay clear of the mistakes represented by Trotsky and others like him. These are dangerous intellectual waters we are crossing.
Present-day Marxists often say that critics of Marx have failed to grasp the depth and entirety of Marx’s writings, in particular the three volumes of his magnum opus, Capital. But if you read the writings of Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin, there can be little doubt that they knew their Marx very well. And if you read e.g. Simon Sebag Montefiore’s biographies, it is apparent that even Stalin was very intellectually gifted: reading Darwin at thirteen in one sitting, becoming an acclaimed poet at 16, masterminding an impressive bank robbery at 29, and managing an incredibly large and diverse workload as military leader and head of state—all while producing writings that were not necessarily innovative, but certainly well written and incisive. For instance, you have Dialectical and Historical Materialism, in which he relates to not only Marxist doctrine but also a wider philosophical canon including Hegel, Kant, Feuerbach and others. As such, I seriously doubt that a better and more detailed reading of Marx is the solution to the problems of Marxism, communism and socialism.
As you may know, Trotsky was eventually murdered on Stalin’s orders by a Soviet agent with an icepick to the head in Mexico City. But communism was doomed to fail long before this. Trotsky wouldn’t have saved the communist experiment. Nor would Lenin had his health been better.
Let’s find out what really went wrong.
“…an appeal to ‘human nature’ and her innate individuality is of course a romantic reciting of beliefs rather than a behavioral-scientific explanation.”
The Mainstream/Libertarian Account
What then can account for the structural failure of the communist project, as viewed altogether? Well, in all places where you see communism (or “socialist” states claiming to attempt to achieve full communism, which is when the state itself has been made obsolete), there are one-party systems, human rights abuses, limits to civil liberties and severe problems with the economy—as recent relapses in Venezuela remind us. These societies simply don’t last; their social sustainability is quite limited.
I suppose you’ve heard the common wisdom response? “Communism was not just a nice idea that turned out to be terrible in practice—it was a terrible idea that was consequently (and predictably) terrible in practice!” All mainstream critiques of communism argue along these lines, more or less. This holds true from more sophisticated versions, like in the Polish philosopher Leszek Kołakowski’s meticulous studies[ii] of the inherent flaws of Marxism, over Karl Popper’s The Open Society and Its Enemies, to Nobel Prize winner Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s massive, intense literary masterpiece The Gulag Archipelago, which derives the horrors of communist forced labor camps directly from Marxist-Leninist doctrines.
This line of argument (often put forth by libertarians and conservatives, but increasingly by everyone) holds—more or less explicitly—that communism was a mistake because it failed, morally and intellectually, to understand human nature itself. This is the case even in Solzhenitsyn’s existentialist account.
According to the libertarian mainstream account, humans are not collectivist beings who value equality over all—so the argument goes—they are freedom-loving individuals, who need to find their own paths in life in order to find meaning and dignity. As such they must be allowed to compete on free markets, serving themselves first—in fair exchanges with one another, where goods and respect are earned by hard work and good character. They must reap the rewards of individual action, of innovation, of reasonable and free competition. In this view, the closer you come to a libertarian capitalist standpoint, the farther away you are from Gulag and the secret police knocking on your door.
But concealed beneath the nice-sounding libertarian creeds of a “freedom-loving individual”, is also a somewhat darker assumption: that people are most often rather selfish, and, the reasoning goes, if you try to create a society in which this truth is not honored, it will backfire seriously—because it can ultimately only be built on self-deceit. Instead, the argument goes on, we should build a society in which people can work for their enlightened self-interest, which will generally produce more sustainable relations, more productive behaviors, and a greater abundance of goods and services on the markets (both quality and quantity).
As in Adam Smith’s classical 1776 notion of “the invisible hand”, this argument marries a belief in freedom to a measure of conservatism; a sober and realistic look at people’s moral qualities and real behaviors. It’s true that Smith warned about the corrosive effects of repetitive factory work, but his analysis stopped there. If we let people work selfishly under controlled circumstances (policing, rule of law, private property, consumer rights, etc.), then they will, on average and over time, do something that is collectively good.
Hmm, okay boomer. There may be some truth to these received wisdoms of our day and age. But upon closer inspection, such an appeal to “human nature” and her innate individuality is of course a romantic reciting of beliefs rather than a behavioral-scientific explanation. They just make vague assumptions about “human nature” and engineer morally weighted conclusions from there. This mainstream account of why communism failed has pretty weak explanatory power.
But aren’t there yet more general and structural causes for the spectacular failures of communism? I’m glad you asked, because indeed there are.
“The non-moralistic point is important here […] sustainable, fair and dynamic societies are not created by the purity of your soul and its habits of self-flattery.”
A Jammed Information Feedback System
If we’d like to take it one step farther towards a more solid critique, we can look at the issue from the perspective of society’s information processing.
From this perspective, we can see that economic central planning is often a bad idea. The demand for goods and services is extremely difficult to predict on a large scale, so it is more intelligent to let many different agents make all the small decisions, “as if their businesses depended upon it”, rather than letting the government make a five-year plan and be done with it. Simply because these many agents, working with varying timeframes and perspectives, can process much more information, they can make more calibrated, sustainable and innovative decisions.
Once you have committed to a five-year plan, there is bound to be any number of errors: shortages and unwanted surpluses. People will have enormous incentives to trade with one another, to remedy the shortages and do away with the surpluses—hence de facto reopening a free market, a rather innocent version of the “black market”. But for the socialist planning to work, large parts of such free trade need to be illegal.
If there are such strong incentives for doing something that is illegal, the legal system must be stretched out to deal with a lot of people and situations. And for a legal system to realistically do that, it has to perform a lot of quick trials (or go after the “kulak” farmers who insist on producing their own goods). Hence the quality of the rule of law decreases, hence people stop respecting the system altogether, hence corruption becomes rampant—in exactly the kind of system that depends upon the goodwill, mutual trust and solidarity among citizens.
I am simplifying to a semi-violent extent, but please bear with me; we are looking at some of the basic principles.
And from there on, the legal system spirals out of control and begins punishing people very severely and rather arbitrarily, and from there on the incentives for everyone are to be very careful and suspicious and to collect as much political power as possible. And the way to do that is by spying on others, and informing, so that you have more information, more juicy threats to make, and more favors to call. All of these things become more important for your survival (and prosperity) than being an efficient office clerk or entrepreneur. Gain power, don’t rock the boat.
And from there on, the incentive of the political leadership becomes to hide some of the bad stuff that’s going on, because you need the legitimacy of the system in order to legitimize your power, your power being the only protection from being swallowed as the revolution begins to eat its own children in a spying-reporting slugfest. So you need to control the press and other media, which means people get even less reliable information to make decisions and regulate their behaviors correctly—which messes up decision making even more, across the board. And people thus fail to coordinate their actions at a large scale and over longer stretches of time, which means more shortages and errors; which means more incentives for corruption.
And in order to defend the false positive image conjured up by the controlled media that people no longer trust, you have to make parades and celebrations and fake display villages—lots of them—so that people will believe that things are alright and keep up the enthusiasm. And people will need to show up and be enthused at such occasions in order not to seem suspect, which in turn makes them start to genuinely insist they live in a fantastic society since the least convinced ones will be viewed as most suspect. It is a kind of Stockholm syndrome, by which hostages begin to love and admire their captors.
This is classical cognitive dissonance: People will genuinely believe things are awesome because it’s too dangerous not to. And this again messes up any hope of self-corrective feedback cycles. As the historian Anne Applebaum and many other foreign travelers in the Soviet Union noted, Soviet citizens would often—amidst obvious drudgeries—emphatically insist that theirs was a superb society. Gulag survivor Solzhenitsyn described in his books how people would come to the labor camps and insist upon keeping their beliefs in the benevolence of the Soviet Union, even as they were being beaten, starved and degraded.
The social dynamics of religious cults come to mind here. It is as though the communist project, by its inherent dynamics, drew people into a nationwide cult: a dynamic followed even down to gory details like “cult of personality” and the cult-like, or at least extremely sectarian, organization of Trotskyist organizations around the world.
And indeed, what would a society run by, let’s say, the Scientologists look like? We may have an example in present-day North Korea; a surviving spawn of the Soviet Union. The similarities between Scientology and North Korea are striking, even down to the level of comportments and demeanors displayed by those who harass deviants from the dogma.
However, once the spell is broken and society collapses, traumas surface and abound. Today’s happiness research lays its verdict: Post-communist societies are the least happy (relative to their levels of economic prosperity), and the longer a country stayed under communist rule, the less happy the population.
Other measures also suffer a special “communist penalty”: lower interpersonal trust, loneliness, corruption and poor public health lingering on for decades. In terms of cultural and political progressivity, these societies also relapse dramatically: Poland turns to tradition and Catholicism, East Germany generates more than its fair share of neo-nazis, Russia becomes chauvinist (and born-again Orthodox) and forgets its former communist cosmopolitanism and dreamy gaze at space colonization, China’s new openness is only skin deep, still being profoundly authoritarian and nationalist—and North Korea becomes a downright patriarchal, racist caste system on surveillance steroids, literally worse than anything George Orwell could have dreamt up.
Phew. Where were we? So communism is bad, which has to do with a vicious spiral that grows from an inefficient way of organizing the market, a case of jammed real-time information processing—rather than any romantic notion of a violated “human freedom” or vague general speculations about the nature of humanity. The violations of human rights flow from this jamming of the information system, from a chronic failure to successfully coordinate human behavior in the millions.
The non-moralistic point is important here—and obvious, in a way. We all have a tendency of casting our beliefs about humanity and society in moral terms. And we tend to flatter ourselves: If only people “realize” that our own beliefs are the correct ones, if they could only bring themselves to see the true beauty of what we see, then life would be so much better. But sustainable, fair and dynamic societies are not created by the purity of your soul and its habits of self-flattery. Good societies are created by a) correct analysis, b) smooth information processing for the coordination of human agency, c) the dynamic balancing of different powers—and d) the dialectical conflict and mutual interdependence between different political interests and ideas.
These features of a good society can be brought about more or less deliberately; they emerge either as the result of planned actions, or through blind processes that occur beyond our understandings (but for which we often like to snatch the credit)—and most often as a strange dance between these two: the deliberate and the stumbled-upon.
There was really nothing morally “lower” about the communist experiment, compared to the ideas of the American Revolution, (or the French Revolution for that matter). If you look at the “founding fathers”, Thomas Jefferson kept slaves, even got one of them pregnant, and Benjamin Franklin fabricated juicy lies about British atrocities—writing in the papers under several false names and claiming to have witnessed colorful barbaric acts committed by Indians, purportedly orchestrated by the British, in effect relying on racism. Most of the Declaration of Independence is not about human rights and equality, but is raging against the crimes of the British “tyrant”. After all, this was the writing of fiery revolutionaries, not human rights activists.
These guys weren’t necessarily any “nicer” than Lenin and Trotsky; and certainly not nicer than people like Emma Goldman or Rosa Luxemburg. They just happened to be on the beat with some ideas and societal developments that turned out to be highly competitive, hence leading to relatively sustainable societal structures. The American ideas of 1776 were simply better aligned with the long-term attractors than the Russian ones in 1917.
“the meta-ideology of modernity turned out to be not communism […] not fascism, not the night watchman libertarian minimalist state, not anarchist communes, not even social democracy (nice try, though)—but Green Social Liberalism.“
Marx Had the Wrong Meta-Ideology
Both versions of modernity, capitalism and communism, brought great good and great evil. Communism enriches and modernizes society, and it kills lots of people. So does capitalism. But one version still turned out to be preferable to the other and thus won out: capitalism allied with a multi-party system.
A lot of the weaknesses of the purportedly Marxian societies can be explained by the fact that there weren’t several parties (with minor exceptions, such as the contemporary Chinese tolerance of small opposition parties). This is a major difference to liberal democracy. Even in disorderly and corrupt Italy, one government can always be exchanged for another. This guarantees rudimentary accountability.
So why were the communist societies one-party systems? Because the Marxists believed only they embodied the meta-ideology; that they embodied the actual, deep structures of how societies evolve and operate. As such you can legitimize the self-organization of society as a whole: The meta-ideology is not any one position within society, but it constitutes overarching ideas about the fabric of society itself. So Marxism does not compete with liberalism, but with liberal parliamentary democracy itself. It is not just an ideology, but an attempt at a meta-ideology—like liberal democracy. If communism reaches a certain level of influence, it thus wipes out all competing parties.
If Marxism is a meta-ideology, it makes sense to organize society as a whole within the framework of what is analytically true either way to the communist mind. As such, communism was prone to be built on top of formerly autocratic, pre-democratic societies, where it could simply supersede the earlier form of governance, inheriting the strong state institutions that were not balanced by a strong parliament and division of powers.
But this is not unique to communism. When the American Revolution took hold, the elites of the early days also worked to keep a one-party system. This however broke down during the early 19th century when the vote was extended to non-elite groups and there was a rise of populist politics under President Andrew Jackson, with an electoral base in the southern states. All meta-ideologies set the framework for society as a whole, for its very definition of what society is.
Stop for a second to consider the words “holistic” and “totalitarian”. They are, in effect, the same word. When you have a theory about the whole of society, it makes sense to relate to it in a way that tries to grasp, and change, the whole of it. To relate to the “whole”, we must relate to the “totality”, even try to steer and navigate it. A challenge presents itself: How can we be holistic without falling into the traps of 20th century totalitarianism?
In truth, of course, the meta-ideology of modernity turned out to be not communism but rather what I have called Green Social Liberalism, the attractor point modern societies gravitate towards. Not communism, not fascism, not the night watchman libertarian minimalist state, not anarchist communes, not even social democracy (nice try, though)—but Green Social Liberalism.
The more modernized a society becomes, the more clearly it manifests Green Social Liberalism, something the Nordic countries have become prime examples of as I have written about in The Listening Society. In countries like Sweden, all parties in effect start to become one version or another of “green social-liberals”.
Much can be said in the analytical (and moral) defense of Marx, but after all, he did not claim that a huge middle class would grow up through the dynamic interrelation between private enterprise and public welfare, or that these populations would increasingly adopt individualism and cosmopolitanism, identity politics (gender, ethnicity, sexuality, youth subcultures) and ecological awareness as the ecological limitations of society’s growth became apparent. That’s just not what he wrote, I’m sorry.
Marx tried to identify the meta-ideology, to formulate it clearly, so that people could create political movements around it or otherwise navigate the world with its help. He made some important contributions, but he got some of the fundamental dynamics wrong. Analytical—not moral—mistakes that nevertheless cost many millions of lives. Oops.
But still, the very fact that communism was an attempt at a meta-ideology, and that Marx got some important dynamics right (that capitalism is crisis-prone, for example), gave the organization of “The Communist Party” some nearly transcendental qualities in the eyes of its followers; attracting large parts of the 20th century intellectuals, apparent perhaps in France especially. The party was seen not only as “a party” with some “opinions”, but, not unlike the American creed, a kind of manifest destiny, of history’s dialectics made flesh. That’s of course also what made it so dangerously seductive, so blinding.
What we tend to forget, however, is that our current political status quo was created by a similar kind of meta-ideology; that of liberal democracy and the Enlightenment. Its structures were brought about by abrupt turns, and the carefully engineered ideas of leading thinkers were instituted under political struggles for monopolies of violence (like Montesquieu, but there were of course many others). A jerky ride of revolution, counter-revolution, conservation and reformation produced the current meta-ideology and its supremacy.
Why then am I saying all this? I want to draw your attention to the fact that communism failed to change the games of everyday life, but other meta-ideologies have been successful in doing so, and future meta-ideologies can do the same.
The conclusion, then, is not to avoid all holistic visions of society, to avoid all meta-ideologies, but to make damn certain you get them right from the beginning.
Again, so if Marx ended up non-linearly killing a hundred million—how many did Montesquieu save? How many instances of torture has he prevented? It’s a fair question.
“…the relative failure of the communist experiments does not permanently discredit all attempts to change the games of everyday life, to evolve the dynamics by which we live, love, trade, compete and cooperate. If anything, the victory of liberal democracy, and its gravitation towards Green Social Liberalism, shows us that such developments are indeed possible.”
Communism Is “Game Denial”
The central issue of communism’s failure was not that of some eternal, God-given “essence of humanity” being violated, but something far more mundane: that the games of everyday life were misunderstood and/or denied.
This led to a serious glitch in the self-organization of society, which—over a period of decades—led to a painful form of social disintegration and resulting oppression. Amidst all their atrocities, communist societies were relatively functional for a while, but their social sustainability was limited—much more so than liberal democracy with capitalism and welfare (the sustainability of which is, of course, also limited in time, as all things under the sun). And so they lasted for shorter periods of time.
From this viewpoint, two conclusions become apparent. The first one is, again, that the relative failure of the communist experiments does not permanently discredit all attempts to change the games of everyday life, to evolve the dynamics by which we live, love, trade, compete and cooperate. If anything, the victory of liberal democracy, and its gravitation towards Green Social Liberalism, shows us that such developments are indeed possible.
Rather, the failure of communism serves to underscore that you must make correct assessments of people’s behaviors—in these particular times and places in history—in order to create a sustainable social order. If you make unrealistic assessments about how people function, you set in motion vicious cycles that lead to truly terrible results. But on the other hand, if you fail to understand what attractors lie ahead, you stall historical progress, taking the losing side in history, which in the long run causes even more abrupt changes and catastrophic outcomes—for instance, that we might have global ecological catastrophes.
The second conclusion is that “game change” already has occurred throughout history, and that it is a measure of society’s progress: If, and only if, the games of everyday life become fairer and more forgiving, can “progress” be said to have materialized.
So this leaves us with the understanding that the rules of the game—in markets, in work life, in governance, in family life, in love and sex and friendship—can and will change and develop. The question is only how, when, and under the auspices of which meta-ideology.
The basic idea is that the meta-ideology of liberal capitalism is becoming less viable in the globalizing information age and that we should look for a new one: My suggestion for which is political metamodernism, a.k.a. the Nordic ideology, leading us towards a listening society and a Green Social Liberalism 2.0—through the method of “co-development”.
The Marxist critique and the failure of communism serve as fruitful starting points for seeing how a metamodern society can evolve from the modern one.
But to be very clear: the Nordic ideology and its metamodern politics is not communism. It’s much smarter than that.
Hanzi Freinacht is a political philosopher, historian and sociologist, author of ‘The Listening Society’, ‘Nordic Ideology’ and the upcoming books ‘The 6 Hidden Patterns of History’ and ‘Outcompeting Capitalism’. Much of his time is spent alone in the Swiss Alps. You can follow Hanzi on his facebook profile here.
[i]. Trotsky, L., 1925/2005. Literature and Revolution. Chicago: Haymarket Books. p 207.
[ii]. Kołakowski, L., 1976/2008. Main Currents of Marxism: The Founders—The Golden Age—The Breakdown. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.