Topic: Decline of the West
Various conservative commentators are worried that young people have become skeptical of capitalism and enamored of socialism. The commentators point out that Millennials really have no idea what they’re talking about. And this is no doubt true. What passes for historical education in the United States has more or less degenerated into a branding exercise. Capitalism = “greed” and “exploitation”; socialism = “equality” and “fairness.” The kids are right, though, that socialism is the antithesis of capitalism. If you want the former, the latter must be uprooted. So what must go if greed and exploitation are to be replaced by fairness and equality? In the thicket of those devilish details is where Millennials lose their way. After all, one cannot eliminate vices without eliminating the institutions that foster them. To get rid of greed (the profit motive) and exploitation (work for wages), private property, money and the market economy must go. How to get rid of these things, though, and what can possibly replace them?
As it happens history has the answers to these questions, for there was a time and place when capitalism was uprooted in the name of socialism. This enterprise was launched in 1918 by the newly installed Bolshevik regime in Russia, and it reached its climax in the Thirties as the Party/State “built socialism.” Undeniably, private property, money and the market economy were all eliminated in the Soviet Union. But later generations of socialists have, and Millennials no doubt would, deny that what replaced these things was socialism.
The usual line is that Stalin, a cruel and cynical tyrant, perverted the pure Marxist-Leninist vision that informed the Party in its early years; that is, that there were roads to true socialism not taken. But there’s nothing much to this alibi. The first attempt to build socialism in Russia is usually called War Communism. It took its spirit and much of its methodology from the so-called War Socialism (Kriegssozialismus) of the military regime that controlled Germany in the last half of the Great War. War Socialism was economic mobilization by military methods: conscription, coercion, top-down control. Essentially, the German economy was placed under the control of the Great General Staff of the Army for the singular purpose of maximizing the war effort.
Lenin, who much admired the Ludendorff/Rathenau program, as War Socialism was also called, appropriated its methodology for his own purposes. In revolutionary Russia, socialism was to be built by the same methods. And the necessary first step was the destruction of “capitalism”—which entailed the destruction of nothing less than civil society itself. For no independent institution could be permitted to stand in opposition to the Party/State. To be sure, existing experts—factory managers, administrators, technicians, scientists, etc.—could not be summarily purged. They would continue to be needed for some time, until the Party could train its own technical cadres. But these “bourgeois specialists” had to be closely supervised lest they sabotage the building of socialism. And this in fact was the genesis of the Party/State, which put a political watchdog at the elbow of every such specialist. To foreign observers it might seem that the USSR had a conventional structure: government, armed forces, various economic sectors. But in reality the Party controlled them all, and in the fullness of time Party membership became an absolute prerequisite for any responsible post.
The other characteristic feature of War Communism was its extreme violence. Obviously capitalism would not just vanish. It would have to be battered down, hence the purges, proscriptions and firing squads of the Red Terror. “Class enemies” were ruthlessly eliminated using measures from which the much maligned tsarist regime would have shrunk.
So capitalism was duly destroyed but in the process the economy was brought to the point of collapse. Lenin and his colleagues thereupon, as a measure of self-preservation, called a retreat on the economic front. The building of socialism was deferred for a time and the market economy was partially restored under the name of the New Economic Policy (NEP). This brought a measure of prosperity sufficient to stabilize the situation and buy time for the Party to consolidate its hold on power. But the Party was ill content with this. Socialism had still to be built; NEP was seen as a regrettable necessity, to be discarded as soon as possible. This undercurrent of discontent favored the rise of Stalin who, once he became supreme, resumed the building of socialism using the methods of War Communism. The resulting slaughter rivaled that of the Final Solution.
Thus the destruction of capitalism necessitated the establishment of a dictatorship that evolved into an all-embracing despotism; it necessitated the killing of scores of millions of human beings; it necessitated the ruination of a great nation, Russia, which may never recover from the ordeal it underwent between 1918 and 1991. And the “roads not taken,” those that supposedly led to “socialism with a human face,” were in fact roads to NEP-like un-socialism that the militant Party could never have tolerated.
Our contemporary socialist-hugging Millennials know nothing of this history or, of they do, they believe it to be irrelevant. In these enlightened times, supposedly, capitalism will be kindly and gently replaced by a sort of uber-Scandinavian welfare state: Denmark on steroids. After all, the things most desired by Millennials—free healthcare, free education, secure employment, ease, abundance, tolerance, inclusion, fairness, equality—are basic human rights. Once they’ve been proclaimed as such and guaranteed by a beneficent government—presto, socialism!
That Millennials could live without such capitalist accessories as skinny jeans, smartphones and Amazon strikes me as a dubious proposition. No doubt when the implications of destroying capitalism sank in, these things too would be branded as basic human rights. In short, young people will bash capitalism right up to the point that the bashing begins to impinge upon their own comforts and conveniences. Then will come the NEP.Even so we’re probably in for a Time of Troubles, for nothing good can come of a delusion so widely held as socialism, Millennial style. To demand all good things while rejecting the mechanisms that alone can produce them is a recipe for generational frustration. But this time, at least, the lesson of history is unlikely to be driven home with such sanguinary ruthlessness as it was in earlier times. No doubt $40,000 in student loans is a sad burden. Still, it beats a bullet in the back of the neck or a decade in the Gulag.