Cynicism From Above, Cynicism From Below

Cynicism From Above, Cynicism From Below

The state bureaucracies of Eastern Europe are unable to accept any challenge to their right to decide and control.

By Richard Swift

The Nature of the System

The battle for popular control of society and its institutions has traditionally been identified with the Left of the political spectrum. However, the current structures and practices of state socialism[1] in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union have cast doubt on the traditional identification. There Marxism, once a living part of working class experience, has been ossified and manipulated to justify whatever policy helps maintain and reproduce the existing relations of domination. This has resulted in a myriad of clever evasions by some on the Left. For others it has meant a very basic crisis of definition. It has forced the latter to think in new ways about political power and its relationship to economic power. No longer can the abolition of private property in the means of production be seen as a sufficient condition to guarantee working class sovereignty. Direct and indirect forms of democracy need to be evolved for both state and economy.

Similarly it is necessary to reconsider the categories and language that Marxism has used in analyzing society and developing its politics. The inversion of Marxist language and categories into an ideology against popular control makes this a fundamental task. The critique of “Marxism-Leninism” that is being made in a very practical sense by the people living in state socialist societies provides us with an excellent starting point.

The problem of how to define and effectively criticize existing state socialism is a difficult, yet crucial, one for the left. Many socialists are haunted by the fear of playing into the hands of anti-communism and the forces of reaction. This tendency to always glance over one's shoulder has resulted in a failure to appreciate the importance of the democratic opposition in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Opposition is judged more on its political shortcomings than on its courageous stand in the face of monolithic power. Little account is taken of the political context in which the opposition must struggle. There is a general failure to understand that the priority of this struggle must be the creation of a space where political life and the debate about the meaning and purposes of socialism can begin again. The fundamental questions this opposition is asking about Marxism cause a good deal of discomfort amongst Marxists of various political stripes. Yet a clean break with the Soviet precedent can only be achieved by supporting the democratic opposition without ideological reservations.[2] Only with practical political support for the democratic opposition will there be a chance of renewing the old vision of a socialism where democracy is a principle and not just a tactic. The popular distrust (and hostility) which already exists towards Marxism, in both East and West, marks this as a critical problem.

An honest self-examination by Marxists must come to terms with the fact that the directives of oppression in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union are drawn from the arsenal of socialist ideas and values. It is useless to bemoan betrayal, revisionism and deformation. Certain tenets of Marxism in general, and the Bolshevik tradition in particular, have proved highly adaptable in administering what Ferenc Feher has called “the dictatorship over needs”.[3] The state socialist tendency (traceable in part back to Marx) to glorify the achievements of capitalist efficiency in production, science, and technology are central here. These are held to be neutral phenomena which may serve socialism as well as capitalism. The emphasis in state socialist economy thus becomes a rather productivist concept of growth with the capitalist inefficiencies removed. Work (wage labour) is the ultimate official value. The capitalist methods (hierarchy) and technology of production reproduce relations of domination but in a different context.

With the capitalist autocracy in economic production retained and a market system based on some degree of consumer choice removed, there is little space for popular needs to merge in the process of economic planning. Growth and the abolition of the private means of production are seen as enough to guarantee socialism. Any considerations of ecology and a self-managed division of labour tend to get lost in the shuffle.

The decisive failure has been the inability (unwillingness) to develop democratic forms in either the economy or political life. This has led to a situation where needs are bureaucratically determined and prioritized from the top down. The model is one of a hyper-rationalistic[4] society with no dysfunctions emerging either through messy conflict or dissent. The result is a socialist version of the rather Germanic myth of a perfectly ordered, conflict-free society. That the whole thing is a myth, with conflict, dysfunctions and dissent simply not officially recognized, does not seem to dampen technocratic enthusiasm. Typical problems include imbalances in production between consumer and capital goods, high defense spending, shortages, a black market and low productivity. Although the economy in state socialist societies has superceded the particular forms of capitalism (the central role of the market, private appropriation of wealth, labour as commodity) this has failed to achieve the more profound vision of Marx, a rupture in the rule of capital over man. This radical rupture would assume a collectively decided purpose behind an economics defined by human need. Such a purpose is a precondition for a society where money doesn't talk.

In the sphere of politics the situation is even more dismal. The ambiguous legacy of the “dictatorship of the proletariat”[5] especially when combined with older forms of autocracy (Czarism, oriental despotism and the byzantine traditions of Imperial Austria) has proved tragic for the Left. Not only has state socialism failed to extend those democratic freedom won in the bourgeois era, it has failed to even maintain them. A statement by the left opposition Praxis group in Yugoslavia indicates the importance of these freedoms and criticizes the apocryphal dismissal of them as singly bourgeois illusions.

"The basic civil rights and liberties are the great achievements of the past democratic revolutions. They are necessary — though not sufficient — conditions of a free life in any society. A critique of these rights which rejects or disparages them as merely “formal” “abstract” or bourgeois is not only devoid of historical sense, but, in the context of societies which have not only not overcome this “bourgeois” level but have not even approached it, also expresses an aggressive obscurantism.”[6]

Again the more profound elements of the Marxism critique have been buried under the usual scientistic cant about the necessity of iron discipline and the “leading role” of the party. The party-state dominates all social groups and the institutions of civil society, destroying their autonomy and capacity for self-government. The ideological rationales from apologists are as ingenious as they are torturous. The populations are held to be immature and in need of the firm guiding hand of the party at the helm. The ubiquitous influence of the Central Intelligence Agency and “enemies from abroad” are seen to be everywhere capable of destabilizing state socialism even after three decades of its existence. These old tired arguments pretend that the crisis in socialism does not exist. Criticism destroys the unity of world progressive forces and plays into the hands of anti-communism. According to this schema, world politics is reduced to a morality play with easily identifiable good guys and bad guys. Those who are on the receiving end of this type of logic cannot be blamed for becoming cynical about official Marxism and its scientific pretensions. A perpetual state of emergency is used to put off forever a process which Marx hoped would result in the abolition of political power as such. Relations of subalternity,[7] new alienation come to dominate in all aspects of society-production, the press, the army, trade unions, the party - commandism is the order of the day.

Analytic Controversies

The decisive issue of the nature and direction of state socialism[8] divides much of Western Left opinion. This is not the place to evaluate the many worthwhile contributions dealing with this problem. It is important, however, to locate the misleading and superficial tendencies in the analysis associated with different critical schools. While interpretations vary widely there is a general unwillingness to go to the root of the matter.

Domination in all its most important aspects has destroyed any progressive impulse in state socialism. But domination varys greatly in both means and ends. To define it principally in the ways in which it is similar to capitalism misses the point. Yet there is a constant effort to observe the new realities in terms of the old. Whether one evaluates state socialism positively or negatively, the crucial questions asked have to do with the role of the market, whether a new class with a relationship to private property is emerging, or if this or that reform is moving in the direction of capitalism or socialism. The ecomony is the major preoccupation. There is an almost universal insistence that state socialism is a transitional form of society — in movement either forward toward socialism or backwards towards capitalism, This use of the word “transition” is rather tautological and far from the original Marxian idea of a self-destroying transitional state. The predominance of analytical catagories developed under the conditions of capitalism blocks the possibility of investigating state socialism as a new form of domination with a stability and dynamic of its own is consistantly missed.

“Repressive tolerance is a luxury state socialist bureaucracies cannot afford.”

One analytical tendency assumes that the old categories applicable to capitalism are directly transferable to the analysis of the new type of social formation. A return to capitalism (Maoism) or a form of state capitalism (unorthodox Trotskyism) is the direction in which these analyses lead us. What is ignored is the specificity of capitalism and the centrality of the plan under state socialism and its role in overriding popular needs and their articulation. Emphasis is placed instead on the economic rights and privileges of the bureaucracy, ignoring the fact that the roots of domination in state socialism lie not in the economy but at the centre of the political system. The analysis of this tendency in its calculations never really comes to terms with the socialist demogogy of the legitimating ideology in state Socialist societies.

Those schools of socialist thought which do recognize the primacy of the political tend to do so in a superficial manner. The system’s basically healthy direction must overcome some unhealthy blockages which are of a political and hence derivative nature. Bureaucracy (orthodox Trotskyism) or bureaucratic attitudes (mainstream Eurocommunism) are seen as predominately political distortions of a more or less socialist economic structure. A new ruling class cannot consolidate itself without the traditional bourgeois relationship to private property. The crucial point that both these analyses overlook is the fusion of political and economic forms of domination in state socialism. This leads to underestimating the deeply entrenched political and economic interests of the bureaucracy and to an overly optimistic prognosis about its overthrow. The root of the failure lies in the inability to critically analyze the theory and practice of Bolshevik democratic centralism with its tendencies towards hyper-rationalistic planning, social engineering, and politics based on management and administration rather than working class power. A careful reconsideration of these assumptions is too threatening. It is easier to see the problem as one of bad rather than good leadership, cynical bureaucrats rather than dedicated revolutionaries — instead of questioning the fundamental divisions between conception and execution and ruler and ruled.

Western Marxism has paid far too little attention to what the opposition in state socialist societies have to say about their own circumstances. The main current amongst democratic oppositionists is to look at their societies as unique social formations with a logic of their own which cannot be defined principally in terms of its relationship to capitalism. Absolute control of the political arena is essential for the state socialist ruling class to legitimate both its economic and political policies. In this context the struggle for democratic freedom has a different meaning than it does under liberal capitalism. There formal political democracy (although absolutely essential for working class struggles) may serve to mask the main relations of domination which lie in the monopoly power that transnational corporations exercise over the economy. The ideological struggle is much more concentrated under state socialism where there is no separation of public (political) and private (economic) spheres. The battle for autonomy and for decision making space by both the intelligensia and the working class has a significant and threatening impact on bureaucratic perogatives and power. Repressive tolerance is a luxury state socialist bureaucracies cannot afford[9]. It is in this sense that it is important for the Western Left to appreciate the limited program (rights to independent trade unions, freedom of religion and national cultural rights, freedom of the press, opinion, and association) of the democratic opposition in Soviet-type societies. The issues cannot be defined in relation to a capitalism creeping in through the back door but as the political dynamics of a new social formation.

Conservative critics of state socialism have been no more successful than the Left in penetrating the ideological veils that surround state socialism. Too often their perspectives are clouded by a desire to discredit socialism and the peculiarities tend to get lost in the dust of domestic political battle. The convergence school which stresses the continuity of statist and technocratic tendencies under both capitalism and state socialism does so only at the cost of ignoring the specificity of each system. While it is true that there is no decisive contradiction between international capitalism and state socialism[10] (although there is plenty of vigourous competition, particularly in the area of international power politics), the rulers of each system depend heavily on a perceived contradiction to legitimate their power. Real differences underpin this political offensive on each of their parts. Here two different ideas of democracy, albeit a rather prescribed democracy, are the crucial issue. The Soviet system grants limited economic rights (a guaranteed living at a certain level and the right to work) while liberal capitalism grants limited political rights (formal universal franchise, freedom of assembly, press and opinion). In both systems these rights are constantly in danger of being eroded and can only be effectively defended by working class struggle. Yet the rulers and ideological priests of each system trumpet the meager freedom that they each allow as compared to the sham freedom of their competitors. In this sense they perform services of mutual reinforcement.

The totalitarian school analyses state socialism with the main emphasis on the terrorist control of the state over every aspect of social life and individual decision. In contrast to liberal society where the state is constitutionally restrained and the rights to property provide a bulwark against state encroachment — the state under socialism is seen as having almost totally unimpeded control of society. This view runs up against the realities of periods of resistance and of liberalization which dot the history of state socialism.

If the totalitarian theorists are right, we should be facing a period of ever increasing state control. Yet in many state socialist countries there has been a definite extension of the political indifference area. A greater latitude in cultural and personal matters marks the present era in comparison to the ideological inquisitions of the Stalin period. Physical liquidation as the normal course for dealing with opposition has been curtailed. In countries such as Hungary and Poland there have been both economic liberalizations and a greater toleration in intellectual life. The system has proved neither immune to internal conflicts nor totally insensitive to pressure from the grassroots. The spectre of revolt, particularly spontaneous workers revolt, is one the bureaucracies must all live with.[11] Political process, albiet the exclusive preserve of an elite, still goes on and as the case of Czechoslovakia proves, can spill over its banks and infect public sentiment.[12]

Nowhere is the limited effectiveness of state socialist 'totalitarianism' so obvious as in the realm of consciousness. Despite an elaborate network of institutions engaged in the work of censorship, news management, and the production of official viewpoints through culture and ritual — the monster of consciousness remains at large.[13]

The quality of state socialist propaganda is often quite laughable. In comparison with its Western competitors, who provide a view of a way of life based an a seductive (if ultimately impoverishing) consumer culture, state socialist propaganda is overtly political and very clumsy. While the journalists of Time and Newsweek present an American mythology to the world, their Eastern counterparts write and broadcast not for the public, but for the censor. It is upon him that their continued livelihood depends. One of the censor's basic principles, a basic principle of all forms of absolutism, is that there is no news but good news.* The credibility gap engendered has not only discredited the regimes in question, but the Marxism which they use to justify themselves.

* This principle has been modified somewhat in the case of Polish and Hungarian liberalizations. Here criticism may be allowed in individual cases although they must never be generalized into a critique of policy or society.

The Monster of Consciousness

The visitor to Eastern Europe in particular is struck by the degree of western influence especially in the cultural universe of everyday life. Western cultural styles are increasingly tolerated as the old Stalinist puritanism collapses. Coca Cola, blue jeans, western music, Hollywood film stars, melt into what appears as a mindless glorification of corporate consumer culture. Window shopping threatens to outstrip football as the most popular spectator sport.[14] Things Western carry such status that a quick profit may be turned by selling a Levi-Strauss label to adorn a Polish made shirt. Even May Day was celebrated in Budapest with a punk rock concert in 1978. The old cultural conservatism of Eastern European and Soviet Marxism is no match for the latest fads and fashions from the West. This superficial evidence of a failure in the battle for hearts and minds mirrors a deeper malaise that infects all levels of state socialist societ. The situation was eloquently described by the Polish socialist Wlodzimierz Brus when he gave the Isaac Deutscher Memorial Lecture in 1976.

“The gift of liberty is like a horse handsome, strong and high spirited. In some it arouses the wish to ride; in many others on the contrary it increases the desire to walk.” - Massimo d'Azamlio 1848

“Deprivation of freedom, even in its present day forms which are 'soft' compared with the Stalinist period, destroys the roots of human creativity and initiative, and stifles the ability to make intelligent choices. In consequence a deep contradiction persists between 'mine' and 'theirs', the latter meaning what is supposed to be common ownership. The official ideology, by contrast, incessantly preaches the theme of social integration, based upon what is allegedly 'all power to the people' and on mass participation in economic decision-making. The ideology cannot, of course, be abandoned — it is, after all, the regime's source of legitimation — but since it is in striking contrast with observable reality it naturally contributes to a breakdown in social morality and it leads to cynicism and frustration. Too often the natural outlet for these deep social contradictions finds its expression in pursuing strictly egotistic interests, in developing an admiration for bourgeois patterns of success in general and of consumerism in particular and these are met, in practice but obviously not in words, with far greater approval by the Party leadership than activities which are closer to the socialist ideal but carry a threat to the regime. From the side of the political elite there is undoubtedly an element of rationality in this encouragement of bourgeois individualism in its several manifestations.”[15]

The backwardness of the masses is a self-fulfilling prophecy for the bureaucracy. An atomized and depoliticized population is much easier to control than a militant and class-conscious one. If aspirations and desires can be channelled into the world of private achievement then the political power and policies of the elite are safe, at least in the short-term, the limited possibilities for private material improvement tend to intensify the conflicts between groups in society as well as those between the individual and society. The social decomposition caused by consumerism without consumption (at least in anything approaching the levels achieved by industrial capitalism), has effects on the level of individual psychology; in Hungary, the country which has gone furthest down the road to what Brus terms 'enlightened socialist absolutism' these effects are particularly striking. In 1977, 20,000 people tried to kill themselves and 4,500 succeeded, giving Hungary the highest suicide rate in the world.

Despite significant divergences in policy due in part to levels of popular resistance and in part to different cultural and political traditions, certain common features stand out throughout the different state socialisms. The strict control of informatics is one of these. Another is the purely formalistic use of Marxism in analysis and its public presentation in monotonomously predictable and highly stilted language. This type of Marxism Leninism becomes so elastic that seemingly any policy can be included as a socialist one. Miklas Haraszti reports in his study of the sociology of work in a Hungarian factory that the piece work system is defended as being the ideal form of socialist wages, the embodiment of the principle 'from each according to his capacity, to each according to his work.' This alteration of the old communist ideal ' from each according to his ability to each according to his need' is the work of a Hungarian expert in 'management science'. The labour 'exchange' program which brings workers from all over Eastern Europe to the labour starved factories of East Germany is universally acclaimed as an example of the highest achievement in socialist internationalism. In fact the system differs little from the oppressive guest worker system which operates in Western Europe. Barrack conditions and cultural alienation are the defining characteristics. In a similar but more sinister vein, political rhetoric is used to justify the suppression of dissenting views. In the German Democratic Republic left opposition theorist Rudolf Bahro is arrested as an imperialist spy. In Czechoslovakia the human rights Charter 77 is officially portrayed as a 'cynical and cold blooded act calculated to cause chaos in a peaceful country'. Record work achievements are seen to be a consequence of working class 'disgust the endeavour of the renegades who concocted the squib "Charter 77"'. All this comes from a booklet entitled In the Name of Socialism compiled by the Czechs from official sources to influence foreign public opinion.

The crude justifications for almost any policy of economic rationality or political repression in Marxian terms tends to undermine the very socialism in whose name it claims to speak. Its contrast with peoples' everyday experience creates an enormous credibility gap and an ideological vacuum. To prevent this vacuum from being filled by an effective political critique from below the party state must resort to further bureaucratic fiats. If concessions are granted it is almost always in the area of the economy but seldom in the expansion of political and cultural rights. The underlying principle which must never be questioned is the party's unchallenged right to decide and control what is written, said, and, where possible, thought.

A former Polish censor, Tomasz Strzyzewski, who recently defected to Sweden has revealed the scope and extent of censorship in his country. Although the word 'censorship' has been eliminated by the office of Censorship, the activity is still pervasive. The Central Office of Control of the Press, Publications and Theatre is a major institution — almost a ministry with its president, vice-president, its departments and services. All books, plays and the entire press is checked preventively — that is before they appear in public. Such matters as foreign affairs, economic relations with the West, the democratic opposition and the measures taken to curb it are very strictly controlled or in the latter case, barely mentioned at all. There are blacklists of major intellectuals and writers whose names and the titles of whose work are strictly proscribed. The system operates through 'interventians' by the Central Office but most frequently through the self-censorship of press and media journalists.

According to Strzyzewski this form of news and culture management represents more than simply lack of confidence in the citizen. “More than lack of confidence... it is the government's contempt of the citizen that this is all about. It is possible that at a certain time, the government may lack confidence in a fraction of the population; but it is not possible to be afraid of everyone all the time. No, it is a question of contempt, since the aim of censorship is not to convince, but to manipulate everybody all the time. Cynicism, that's the operative word.”

If this is true in Poland, with Hungary, one of the most liberal countries in Eastern Europe, it is acutely the case in Czechoslovakia, the German Democratic Republic or the Soviet Union itself. The cynicism of the rulers gives rise to a cynicism of the ruled. This shows most clearly in things like sabotage, alcoholism, absenteeism, low labour productivity, a refusal of available forms of participation and a generalized sense of disdain about the institutions of administration and those who control them. A cynicism from below is in an important sense a healthy development. State socialism and its managers have shown long ago that their socialism is merely rhetorical. They have made a laughing stock of any idea of a society cemented by moral incentives or socialist community. Attempts at socialist renewal such as those in Poland in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968, or the various left opposition tendencies have been vigoursously discouraged. Replacing the self-blame of consumerism ('you are what you possess') with the structural and more political blame of cynicism from below is a healthy social symptom. It is a necessary if not sufficient condition for change. It is a negation of the negation.

One of the most ingenious forms that cynicism from below attains is that of the joke. A lively political humour has developed under state socialism which explodes the pretensions and constituting myths of the planning elite. Where the space is missing for an organizational resistance, irony becomes a most important weapon for creating an autonomous psychic space. Laughter is the widespread and entirely understandable response to party-state authoritarianism. The bitterness of the humour gives it a sharp political edge. It clearly marks the failure of bureaucracy (hopefully inevitable) in regimenting popular consciousness.

Political jokes touch practically every aspect of life under state socialise. The tension between ideal and reality provides a fertile ground. The legitimating ideology of official Marxism-Leninism is turned on itself in a manner which reveals the hollowness of its claims. In some the privileges of an elite supposedly committed to equality are revealed.

Breshnev's mother comes to visit him in Moscow. He picks her up in a chauffer driven Rolls.
M. "Son, where did you get the car?"
B. "It comes with the job Ma."
She notices his fine new suit.
M. "San, where did you get the good cloths?"
B. "They come with the job Ma"
They arrive at Breshnev's penthouse apartment. 'It comes with the job Ma'. Fine furniture - 'comes with the job'. The mother thinks for a moment - 'I'm glad to see you are doing so well son, but what will happen to you if the Communists come back?'

Other jokes poke fun at the scientific nature of the 'correct line' ideology of administration.

Q. What is it when you have too much food in the country and no food in the city?
A. A Bukharinite right deviation.
Q. What is it when you have all the food in the city and none in the country?
A. A Trotskyite left deviation.
Q. What is it when you don't have any food anywhere?
A. The correct application of the party line.

Similarly the pompous boasts of socialist efficiency come under fire.

Socialism comes to the Sahara. They have their first five year plan. Nothing happens. They have their second five year plan. Same thing. Then during their third five year plan they begin to run out of sand.

What's twelve yards long and eats potatoes?
- A line-up in a Polish meat store.

The institutions which possess a monopoly of top down political power are held up to ridicule.

At school the teachers are taking up a collection for the party in Ethiopia. Everyone is supposed to bring in five kopeks the next day. Everyone dutifully brings theirs except for young Franz. Franz explains:
'My father says that Ethiopia is a long way away, we don't get much news of it, how do we even know they have a party there.'
A week later another collection is taken up this time for the trade union in Ethiopia. Everyone brings their five kopeks except Franz. Again Franz explains.
'My father says that Ethiopia is a long way away, we don't hear much about it, how do we even know they have a trade union there.'
A week later another collection is taken, this time for the starving millions in Ethopia. Everyone brings their five kopeks except for Franz who brings fifteen kopeks. He explains:
'My father says if they have starving millions in Ethopia they must have a trade union and a party.'

Or the predictability and boredom of official pronouncements are caricatured:

Comrade Breshnev is addressing the Party Congress when a security agent passes him a note saying that a spy has infiltrated the congress. There was a brief pause while the security agents assured Breshnev that if he continued his speech they would keep a close watch and nab the culprit. Breshnev continued and soon out of the coner of his eye caught sight of a short dark man being led away by two hefty KGB agents. Breshnev was much impressed by the efficiency of the KGB being able to pick a spy out of the thousands in attendance at the Party Congress. He was curious as to how they had been able to do it so quickly, and queried the KGB agent in charge after finishing his speech. The agent proudly replied that it was simple. They had followed the teachings of comrade Lenin who had taught that 'the enemy never sleeps.'

The supposed final advent of communism and the almost forgotten 'withering away of the state' are other tempting targets for popular honour. With the utopian dimension of communism buried so deeply by the banal productivist realities of existing state socialism, this is a particular popular theme for wry reflection. No where else is the gap between theory and practice quite so obvious.

Breshnev decides that now that more than six decades of socialist transition have passed since the Russian revolution it is time to estimate how far the socialist world is away from the final goal of communism. This is an important theoretical and political issue so that it is necessary to set up a special study commission of leading party ideologues. The commission holds six months of intense investigation before reporting to the Party Congress that they are one hundred kilometres from Communism.

Breshnev is frankly puzzled. What can this answer possibly mean? He decides, enough of these ideologues, let's ship the problem out to the Academy of Sciences to look at. Another six months and the answer comes back the same, one hundred kilometres. Breshnev is both confused and annoyed. The best brains in the country have only been able to come up with incongruous answers. He decides to give the problem to the Rand Corporation to see if a capitalist think tank can handle it with more efficiency.

He waits a year until Rand submits their final report. The answer is again the same — one hundred kilometres. Breshnev is beside himself. How can this be — one hundred kilometres from communism? He calls together all those involved in the study and demands to know what methods they used to reach this conclusion.

The head scientist pauses for a moment and then begins to explain:

Scientist: "Well, Mr. Chairman, we feed various kinds of data into our computer bank — material on production, consumption, gross national product, trade figures and indices for measuring scientific progress..."

Breshnev: "Yes ...yes...very good."

Scientist: "And then we feed in a quote from comrade Lenin which was that 'Each five year plan is a step towards Communism.'"

Cynicism itself (particularity the cynicism from above) is caricatured in others:

The foreign sales administration finally promotes Comrade K to a job which will allow him to take promotion trips abroad. On his first trip he goes to Copenhagen and sends back a telegram saying. 'I choose freedom'. This causes great consternation in the administration and promotes worries of new restrictions to be imposed by the central committee.

On Monday morning the party secretary sees Comrade K in the hall coming to work as usual. The surprised secretary stops him and incredulously asks him what he is doing there. K replies that he is going to work.

"But what about your telegram saying that you choose freedom?" the secretary demands.

K grins at him: "Faith, Mr. Secretary, faith."

In a similar vein the ritualistic ceremonies to celebrate the fraternal relations between the peoples of Eastern Europe and those of the Soviet Union are satirized:

The week November 7 - 14 is declared 'the week of undying friendship' between the peoples of Czechoslovakia and those of the Soviet Union. Appropriate official ceremonies are planned. Posters announcing 'the week of undying friendship' are put up. A Czech citizen paints under one of these, 'O.K., one week but not a day longer.'

The real tragedy in the bankruptcy of state socialism is caught in the distinction between capitalism and socialism that is widely adhered to:

'Capitalism is the exploitation of man by man and socialism is the complete opposite.'

These examples provide a flavour of the very practical critique of Marxism-Leninism which has developed in the popular culture of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. They should provide a hint to us that the conception of socialism represented by the Bolshevik tradition is a spent force. It is useless to hold to the position that 'Yes there are criticisms but still it is better than capitalism.' The mistake here is mixing up different with better (or if this naked ethical imperative is bothersome, 'historically progressive'.) Reform of this tradition will not do, a fundamental rethinking is necessary. This is a precondition to replacing a political culture of restraint with one of imagination.

We are left with the problem of what is needed to supercede cynicism from below. This poses the necessity of a new vision of socialism to replace the old. Cyncism tends to fill the vacuum left by a failure of vision. This is as much a problem in the West as it is under state socialism. In either case it is necessary to restore popular control to the centre of the socialist project.


1. The term 'state socialism' is used here to indicate the countries of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. While the institutional pattern described is to a large extent applicable to Third World socialism there are significant divergent features as well — forms of direct democracy, levels of participation, etc. The problems of, and possibilities for, Third World socialism differ radically and some options closed long ago for Soviet type socialism remain open in the Third World. This is not to discount a certain similarity of triumphalist style and strong internal and external pressures to adopt the Soviet model.

2. Those leftists who choose to support only the explicitly Marxist currents in the opposition will increasingly face a serious dilemma as even the Marxist currents have been forced to find a new political vocabulary to express their dissent. The discredited categories of Marxism-Leninism prove inadequate.

3. Feher, Ferenc; 'The Dictatorship over Needs', Telos #35, P.31 - 42. Feher is a participant in the Budapest School of Marxism which emphasizes the role of human needs in defining the socialist project. (See Agnes Heller's Marx's Theory of Needs, Allsion and Busby.) Feher and other members of the Budapest school have been forced into the Hungarian diaspora as a consequence of their opposition to a system which determines needs from the top down.

4. Hyper-rationalism has led to an increasing anti-rationalism on the part of certain sectors of the opposition. This is most true of the relatively isolated opposition in the Soviet Union itself. Solzhenitsyn, despite the realism of much of his work, is the most obvious example here. Hyper-rationalism can also been seen in the Soviet choice of the psychiatric apparatus as a means of repression against dissent. If the system is close to scientific perfection, those who oppose it must be mentally unstable as they could have no possible rational grounds on which to stand. 'Story of a Workers' Group', Labour Focus on Eastern Europe, Vol. 2, No. 1, P. 2. This is perhaps the logical conclusion of 'current line' politics.

5. The phrase had a limited application and radically different meaning for Marx. Dictatorship in the twentieth century has transformed the meaning of the word. As Fernando Claudin points out: 'Marx and Engels in their theory of socialist revolution equated democracy with socialism and preached the struggle for democracy as the principal axis of the struggle by the proletariat to achieve its own class rule.' Claudin, Fernando; Eurocommunism and Socialism, New Left Books, p. 95. London, 1978. The phrase 'dictatorship of the proletariat is an unfortunate and dangerous baggage for the Left.

6. Belgrade Praxis Group, 'The Meaning of the Struggle for Civil and Human Rights', Telos #35, P. 186 - 191.

7. The phrase comes from Rudolf Bahro's excellent work on state socialism and indicates the dependent social relations cemented by state police methods which permeate over level society. Bahro's book, The Alternative is a Marxist expose of the contemporary circumstances of the German Democratic Republic. Since his arrest in late 1977 he has disappeared completely from sight. The official press claim he is guilty of espionage.

8. The term is used here reluctantly to take into account both the system's self-consciousness as socialist and its departure from the original definition of socialism as the self-government of associated producers. Other fruitful investigations of the phenomena described it variously as bureaucratic collectivism (Carlo, Antonio, 'The Socio-Economic nature of the U.S.S.R.', Telos #21) or drawn parallels with oriental despotism (Bahro). While it is tempting to follow Fernando Claudin (op. cit.) in dismissing Soviet-type societies as not socialist because socialism is impossible without democracy, this is somewhat unsatisfactory. It provides a useful evasion for socialists in that it fails to take into account the elements that make up and legitmate the new social formation and are in fact drawn from the socialist tradition.

9. A young German writer who used to write for East German Cabaret but now lives in the West recently commented in a Der Spiegel interview: 'In the East political cabaret is supposed to change society, but it is not allowed to say anything; in the West it is allowed to say whatever it pleases, so long as it cannot change anything at all.' Meszaros, Istvan, 'Political Power and Dissent in Post-Revolutionary Societies', New Left Review #108.

10. Jimmy Carter recently showed the limits of his human rights campaign at the time of the trials of the Helsinki monitoring group in Moscow. According to Carter, "We have expressed our displeasure in a very moderate way.... I have not embarked on a vendetta against the Soviet Union. We cannot interfere in their internal affairs." Montreal Gazette, 21 July 1978. Increasing east-west economic co-operation including the extension of western credit (with its accompanying pressures) should be seen as part of an overall attempt to co-ordinate Western stabilization policies with Eastern growth policies.

11. Examples of working class revolt have occurred most recently in Poland and amongst Rumanian miners.

12. In a system of closed but relatively stable politics there is often great speculation on the differences over policy existing at the higher levels of the party apparatus. It is very difficult to evalute what real differences do exist. The Prague Spring proves that change can come from within the party apparatus. However, it is a common tactic of powerholders in state socialist societies to strike a fashionably liberal pose (in private) and point to the possibility of greater evils in justifying their policies. This is quite easy to do in countries where the Stalinist past still casts along shade. Geography and the real possibility of Russian intervention provide useful rationales in Eastern Europe. An atrophied sense of possibility is a definite asset for a group of men whose vision cannot extend beyond keeping things together and themselves in power until they die.

13. The title of a surrealist tract.

14. Window shopping is also the only effective way to deal with periodic shortages in a wide range of goods.

15. Brus, Wlodzimierz, 'The Polish October: Twenty Years After, The Socialist Register 1977. Merlin Press.