We don’t need to wait for centuries to build a better world

A crucial argument for the incessantly promoted idea that capitalism will be with us for a long time to come is the idea of inertia in human understanding. Ideas are stubbornly persistent and can only be changed over long periods of time. Slow evolutionary change is the best we can hope for, and the prospects even for that are uncertain and fragile.

If the above were true, then there would have been no revolutions in history. That is quite obviously not the case. Consciousness can change rapidly. It does so exceptionally and under rare circumstances during periods of social upheaval. Yes, not everyday occurrences. But they do happen. “There are decades where nothing happens, and there are weeks where decades happen,” Lenin famously said.

We need not lean on Lenin. A survey of history need not be comprehensive to find examples of dramatic changes in consciousness, even if we exclude, for purposes of this discussion, national movements of liberation from colonialism, which generally didn’t meaningfully change social relations.

France alone offers us two examples: The French Revolution and the Paris Commune. That working people didn’t obtain what they wanted, the bourgeoisie were in a position to gain an upper hand due to material conditions and that a monarchal restoration would later occur doesn’t require us to deem the events of 1789 to 1793 a failure. The dramatic insertion into history of the popular masses is what we can center here, and it can’t be argued there wasn’t an overturning of a rotten ancien régime. Louis XIV’s boast that he was the state (“L’état, c’est moi”) was reality given his absolute powers. Peasants were subject to starvation during poor harvests, and were subject to being strapped to a plow like an ox to pull a cart or forced to spend nights swishing a stick in a pond to keep the frogs from croaking so the local lord wouldn’t have his sleep disturbed. Town laborers worked 16-hour days and wages were codified as “not exceed[ing] the very lowest level necessary for his maintenance and reproduction.” The church provided the ideology to cement feudal relations in place, telling them all this was God’s will.

These conditions were endured, until they weren’t. Rebellions were hardly unknown across feudal Europe, but had tended to be isolated affairs. French peasants and laborers had been acquiescent to their miserable conditions, or so it seemed. As discontent among social classes mounted, the first demonstrations broke out in 1787. Organization and the education movements provide put people in motion. In only two years, the movement went from issuing petitions asking for reforms to overthrowing the monarchy. 

The throne of king Louis Philippe is burned in the place de la Bastille, at the foot of the July Column, during the French revolution of 1848. (painting by Nathaniel Currier)

There are also the revolutions of 1848 across Europe. It is true these would falter one after another as traditional authorities, mostly monarchal and military, would reassert themselves. But these upheavals could never have occurred without peasants and proletarians ceasing to continue total deference to elites and institutions. Masses were in motion, but the ideas, although temporarily crushed, survived and began to be implemented within decades. 

Societies across Europe were rigid class dictatorships, with the elites of their countries horrified at the very idea that common people might be given some say in how they were ruled. Incontestable violence was the frequent response to any stepping out of line. And while demands like a constitution wouldn’t seem at all radical today, they were in 1848 — granting them would have meant at least some rights for common people codified in law. The revolutions were failures in terms of immediate results, but the ideas raised would become common sense not long into the future. 

When implemented, these changes were not revolutionary, it is true, as national elites found they could accommodate such demands and not have their rule challenged. But millions previously resigned to bowing their heads and accepting their bitter lot learned to speak up, to organize, to struggle and to imagine that a better world could be brought into being. As Priscilla Robertson wrote in her marvelous account, Revolutions of 1848: A Social History, “Most of what the men of 1848 fought for was brought about within a quarter of a century, and the men who accomplished it were most of them specific enemies of the 1848 movement.”

An early demonstration in the Paris Commune

No account of 19th century uprisings could possibly omit the Paris Commune, the first socialist revolution in history. Consciousness wasn’t simply profoundly changed in 1871; the ideas of that new consciousness were put in action. The Paris Commune enacted several progressive laws — banning exploitative night work for bakers, suspending the collection of debts incurred during the siege, separating church from state, providing free education for all children, handing over abandoned workshops to cooperatives of workers who would restart production, and abolishing conscription into the army. Commune officials were subject to instant recall by voters and were paid the average wage of a worker.

The Commune would be drowned in blood. But we can readily see the difference between the vision of a better world and the ruthless violence used to suppress any attempt at putting such a vision into practice. A National Guard commander freed captured French army officers in a spirit of “comradeship,” to the point where a top army commander was let go in exchange for a promise that the commander would henceforth be neutral — a promise that was swiftly broken. The Communards’ magnanimity was repaid with a horrific bloodbath. An estimated 30,000 Parisians were massacred by the marauding French army in one week. Another 40,000 were held in prisons, and many of these were exiled to a remote South Pacific island where they became forced laborers on starvation diets, eventually barred from fishing in the sea or to forage for food, and routinely subjected to torture. The restored government exerted itself to deny any political or moral content to the Communards’ actions, instead treating them as the worst common criminals as part of what developed into a de facto “social cleansing” of Paris; the French official overseeing the deportations, in his public statements, directly linked socialist politics with chronic petty crime.

The past is not forgotten. Chileans demonstrate in Plaza Baquedano, Santiago in 2019 (photo by Carlos Figueroa)

The very peacefulness of the Communards was a sharp divergence from ordinary governing practices. Only a people who had rapidly gained new and radical understandings of how society might be organized could have created such a government. Those ideas aren’t extinguished when bloodily suppressed, but remain alive for the next generations.

There are no shortages of examples to be drawn from the 20th century. Start with perhaps the most obvious example, Russia in 1917. Russia was a vast sea of illiterate peasants yoked to the land and held in bondage through superstition and backward social institutions; ruled by a tsar whose every word was incontestable law and backed by exiles, whippings and executions. Agitation by organizers in social democratic parties had made some headway, exemplified in the soviets of 1905, but even that was cut off when Russians accepted their country’s participation in World War I the same as the peoples of other countries. Yet three years later, all of Russia was in motion. Russians refused to accept any longer the brutality and backwardness forced upon them. More than 300,000 Petrograd workers took part in strikes during the seven weeks immediately preceding the February Revolution and mutinies spread throughout the army.

And it is not often remembered that women workers touched off the February Revolution — yet another overturning of social relations that required new consciousness. Women textile workers in Petrograd walked out on International Women’s Day, walked to nearby metal factories, told the men there to join them on strike, and both groups inspired workers in other factories to walk out. In two days, a general strike was underway in Petrograd, with demonstrators shouting anti-war and anti-monarchy slogans. And what could the October Revolution be other than a mass demonstration of changed thinking? Soldiers and sailors disarmed their officers and turned the military’s orientation 180 degrees, and that enabled civilians to disarm the police. The October Revolution took place in the capital city with the city’s residents filling the streets, occupying strategic buildings and electrifying the world with their cascade of motion and unity of purpose, backed across the country by workers, peasants, soldiers and sailors asserting their collective will. That was no “secret coup” as pro-capitalist historians consistently but falsely assert.

From object to subject in Nicaragua and Chile

And there is Nicaragua, the pre-revolutionary history of which was a history of exploitation. There would not have been a Sandinista Revolution coming to power in 1979 if it weren’t for the willingness of activists to adapt ideas developed elsewhere to Nicaraguan conditions and to draw upon local conditions and realities, blending them with the writings of 1930s liberator Augusto Sandino. In just a handful of years, a country at the mercy of the gigantic neighbor to the north accustomed to treating everything south of the Rio Grande as its “backyard” and under the whip of a brutal local family dictatorship maintained through copious amounts of torture and violence overturned both. A mass change in consciousness was created, without which Nicaraguans in huge numbers wouldn’t have had the fortitude to overthrow the Somoza family, defy the United States and create a dramatically different society and governing structure.

The Sandinistas also provided an important lesson, one equally applicable to advanced capitalist countries as underdeveloped ones. Although no theory can be transplanted whole to another place or time, there was an explicit acknowledgement, which was acted upon, that workers are not only blue-collar factory employees, but are also white-collar and other types of employees in a variety of settings, in offices and service positions, among others. Any revolution that seriously attempts to transcend capitalism, which means eliminating the immense power of the capitalist elite, has to include all these varieties of working people if it is to succeed in the 21st century. Mass consciousness would change so thoroughly that the Sandinistas had to go ahead with an insurrection sooner than they had planned because everyday people were moving forward so fast.

A different type of transformation was attempted in Chile, where the movement toward socialism was voted in but soon had profound effects. So profound was the beginnings of that transformation that frightened capitalists used fascistic levels of violence to turn back the clock. But, given the past couple of years of movement work in Chile, culminating in a Left-led writing of a new constitution to replace the Pinochet constitution, the ideas of the early 1970s have not been buried forever. Following the election of Salvador Allende, Chilean workers rapidly learned to manage their enterprises and take control of their lives. 

Marchers for Salvador Allende.

A representative example would be the Yarur textile factory, the enterprise focused on by Peter Winn in his indispensable study of the Allende years, Weavers of Revolution. Those workers had to overcome fear and memories of past repressions before they could band together to improve their conditions. Dr. Winn painted a vivid picture of the Yarur facility at the time of President Allende’s victory: “A passive and isolated work force, carefully selected and socialized, purged of suspected elements, disciplined by the Taylor System, and represented by a moribund company union; a paternalistic patrón who dispensed favors and largesse at his pleasure in return for unconditional loyalty, but who punished disloyalty with righteous anger; a network of informers that covered both the work sections and the company housing; and a structure of scaled punishments for transgressions against the patrón or his social politics that ranged from a verbal warning to summary dismissal and blacklisting.”

Yet in a matter of months, this once-cowed workforce went from clandestine work to create an independent union seeking merely better wages and working conditions to openly making demands such as firing hated foremen and moving to “free the factory.” Dr. Winn wrote, “The roots of revolution might be present, along with the justification for rebellion, but a precondition for this revolution from below was a dramatic change in the workers’ view of themselves, their capacity and power, as well as their perception that for once the state would support them in any showdown between capital and labor.” This leap in consciousness was replicated across the country. 

President Allende’s Popular Unity government achieved strong results in its first year. Unemployment was halved, inflation was reduced, the labor share of income increased from 55 percent to 66 percent and not only did the country see strong industrial growth, the growth came from production of basic goods such as food and clothing in contrast to prior years when growth was based on durable goods such as appliances and automobiles. Perhaps the most basic measure of the improvement was that the poor could now afford to eat meat and buy clothes. What might have been created if the U.S. government and Chile’s capitalists hadn’t crushed it?

What might have been created without interference?

Not all the revolutions discussed were successful, and you might disagree with the direction that some of those that were successful took. There can be no guarantees for the future. The point here isn’t that a change in thinking among enough people that a revolutionary situation arises, and is acted upon, guarantees success. Overwhelming power was brought to bear on the revolutions that failed, and overwhelming power was brought to bear on those that did succeed, distorting the results. We can not know what might have been accomplished had revolutionary governments had the space and time to develop peacefully, including in many other examples that could have been cited in this brief survey.

We might also consider non-revolutionary changes on a national level. To cite just one example, consider Germany. Having unified across the 19th century mostly due to the expansionary tendencies of Prussia, and finally achieving unification through Prussia’s lightning victories over Austria in 1866 and France in 1870, Prussian militarism was a dominant ideology in the young country with the military holding strong sway. Although the rise of Hitler had multiple causes, the militaristic ultra-nationalism that was in large part a holdover from Prussia accommodated itself well to Nazi government; indeed, supported it before the taking of power. 

Memorial of the 1848-49 revolution in Hungary. (photo by Globetrotter19)

But after World War II, those tendencies rapidly receded. Would anybody today see Germans as a nation of Prussian militarists bent on expansion? German national culture is very different today. Ideas changed sharply and rapidly. Yes, under the impact of a second devastating defeat in a continent-wide war. But the potentiality of such a change had to have been there, and we can point to the wide interwar support of the Social Democratic and Communist parties, and the rise of social democracy before the first world war. The treachery of the Social Democrats and sectarianism of the Communists, and their destruction during the Nazi régime, undermined the chances of more profound change (while acknowledging Allied and particularly U.S. impositions from 1945 that limited change in West Germany to capitalism under U.S. suzerainty and Soviet compulsion that molded East Germany). 

Changes in consciousness and belief systems don’t need decades, much less centuries, to change. Such changes don’t, and won’t, happen without enormous organizing, which includes gaining the ability to disseminate materials exposing and contradicting standard ideology and presenting alternatives that speak to people’s lives and goals, most importantly conceivable ideas and concepts that lead to a better world. A better world will come about through the everyday work of organizing and campaigning, not through blueprints. Some of the bricks of today will inevitably be used in building the institutions of tomorrow but those bricks can be arranged differently.

What is radical one day is everyday common sense another day, and the time span between those two days is not necessarily distant. The idea that one family was granted the right to rule in perpetuity, the idea that a human being could own another human being, the idea that everyone was born into a particular class and could never leave it, have passed into history. Why shouldn’t the idea that only a minuscule number of people have the ability to manage enterprises and should therefore be paid hundreds of times more than those whose work produces the profits also pass into history?

The idea that capitalism doesn’t work for most people, that a better world is possible, has animated millions and some of those millions have tried to put those ideas into practice. The ability to see through capitalist propaganda arose quickly — the peoples mentioned throughout this article didn’t need centuries. Popular opinion changed dramatically and rapidly.

That shifts in mass consciousness with revolutionary potential have rarely taken place in the world’s advanced capitalist countries does not mean they can’t happen in the future. What forms any such uprisings might take can’t be known, and could take different forms than previously seen. Repressive rule, whether through monarchs, armed force or economics, is not forever. Nothing of human creation is forever. Capitalism isn’t an exception and will be history when enough people decide to make it so. Organize!

The “innocence” of early capitalism is another fantastical myth

It is not unusual for critics of United States foreign policy, whether or not they feel free to use the term “imperialism,” to express regret that a previously rational system has soured. Such sentiments are routine for liberals and hardly unknown among social democrats.

Such sentiments are, to anyone who cares to pursue a study of history, quite ahistorical. Violence, force and coercion — exemplified in widespread use of slave labor, imperialist conquests of peoples around the world and ruthless extraction of natural resources — pervades the entire history of capitalism. The rise of capitalism can’t be understood outside slavery, colonialism and plunder. To follow up on my previous article discussing how U.S. domination of the world is rooted in the stranglehold Washington has over the world’s financial institutions and its possession of the dominant currency, let’s conduct a further examination of the history of how capitalism functions, this time highlighting imperialism and violence.

My inspiration for this examination is my recent reading of John Perkins’ Confessions of an Economic Hit Man. Mr. Perkins, for those not familiar with his book, provides a first-hand account of how the U.S. government employs debt, financial entanglements, bribes, threats and finally violence and assassinations of national leaders who won’t place their economies and resources under the control of U.S.-based multi-national corporations. That is no surprise to anyone paying attention, but the book became an improbable best seller, meaning there must have been many eyes opened. That can only be a positive development.

The conquest of the Incas (mural by FUEJXJDK)

But even Mr. Perkins, who is unsparing in drawing conclusions and under no illusions about what he and his fellow “economic hit men” were doing and on whose behalf, shows a measure of naïveté. He repeatedly draws upon the “ideals of the U.S. founding fathers” and laments that a republic dedicated to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” has morphed into a global empire. Given the outstanding service he has provided in writing his book, and the physical danger that he put himself in to publish it (he postponed writing it multiple times fearing possible consequences), least of all do I want to imply criticism or raise any snarky accusations against Mr. Perkins. My point here is that even a strong critic of U.S. imperialism with eyes open can harbor illusions about the nature of capitalism. The all-encompassing pervasiveness of capitalist propaganda, and that the relentless dissemination of it across every conceivable media and institutional outlet, still leaves most people with a wistful idealization of some earlier, innocent capitalism not yet befouled by anti-social behavior and violence or by greed.

Such an innocent capitalism has never existed, and couldn’t.

Horrific, state-directed violence in massive doses enabled capitalism to slowly establish itself, then methodically expand from its northwestern European beginnings. It is not for nothing that Karl Marx famously wrote, “If money … ‘comes into the world with a congenital blood-stain on one cheek,’ capital comes dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt.”

Markets over people from the start

Although the relative weight that should be given to the two sides of the equation of how capitalism took root in feudal Europe — feudal lords pushing their peasants off the land to clear space for commodity agricultural products or the capital accumulated from trade by merchants growing large enough to create the surpluses capable of being converted into the capital necessary to start production on a scale larger than artisan production — is likely never to be definitively settled (and the two basic factors reinforced one another), force was a crucial midwife. English lords wanted to transform arable land into sheep meadows to take advantage of the demand for wool, and began razing peasant cottages to clear the land. These actions became known as the “enclosure movement.”

Forced off the land they had farmed and barred from the “commons” (cleared land on which they grazed cattle and forests in which they foraged), peasants could either become beggars, risking draconian punishment for doing so, or become laborers in the new factories at pitifully low wages and enduring inhuman conditions and working hours. The brutality of this process is glimpsed in this account by historian Michael Perelman, in his book The Invention of Capitalism:

Simple dispossession from the commons was a necessary, but not always sufficient, condition to harness rural people to the labor market. A series of cruel laws accompanied the dispossession of the peasants’ rights, including the period before capitalism had become a significant economic force.

For example, beginning with the Tudors, England created a series of stern measures to prevent peasants from drifting into vagrancy or falling back onto welfare systems. According to a 1572 statute, beggars over the age of fourteen were to be severely flogged and branded with a red-hot iron on the left ear unless someone was willing to take them into service for two years. Repeat offenders over the age of eighteen were to be executed unless someone would take them into service. Third offenses automatically resulted in execution. … Similar statutes appeared almost simultaneously in England, the Low Countries, and Zurich. … Eventually, the majority of workers, lacking any alternative, had little choice but to work for wages at something close to subsistence level.”

Additional taking of the commons occurred in the early 19th century, when British industrialists sought to eliminate the remaining portions of any commons left so there would be no alternative to selling one’s labor power to capitalists for a pittance. As industrial resistance gathered steam, the British government employed 12,000 troops to repress craft workers, artisans, factory workers and small farmers who were resisting the introduction of machinery by capitalists, seeing these machines as threats to their freedom and dignity. That represented more troops than Britain was using in its simultaneous fight against Napoleon’s armies in Spain.

Slavery critical to capitalist accumulation

Nor can the role of slavery in bootstrapping the rise of capitalism be ignored. The slave trade, until the end of the seventeenth century, was conducted by government monopolies. European economies grew on the “triangular trade” in which European manufactured goods were shipped to the coast of western Africa in exchange for slaves, who were shipped to the Americas, which in turn sent sugar and other commodities back to Europe. Britain and other European powers earned far more from the plantations of their Caribbean colonies than from North American possessions; much Caribbean produce could not be grown in Europe, while North American colonies tended to produce what Europe could already provide for itself.

Britain profited enormously from the triangular trade, both in the slave trade itself and the surpluses generated from plantation crops produced with slave labor. Proceeds from the slave trade were large enough to lift the prosperity of the British economy as a whole, provide the investment funds to build the infrastructure necessary to support industry and the scale of trade resulting from a growing industrial economy, and ease credit problems.

Sheep in a meadow (Eugène Verboeckhoven)

Spain’s slaughter of Indigenous peoples and Spanish use of the survivors as slaves to mine enormous amounts of gold and silver — the basis of money across Europe and Asia — also was a crucial contributor to the rise of European economies, both by swelling the amount of money available and enabling the importation of goods from China, which was not interested in buying European products but had a need of silver to stabilize its own economy. The Spanish priest Bartolomé de las Casas, horrified at what he witnessed, wrote in 1542, “the Spaniards, who no sooner had knowledge of these people than they became like fierce wolves and tigers and lions who have gone many days without food or nourishment. And no other thing have they done for forty years until this day, and still today see fit to do, but dismember, slay, perturb, afflict, torment, and destroy the Indians by all manner of cruelty — new and divers and most singular manners such as never before seen or read of heard of — some few of which shall be recounted below, and they do this to such a degree that on the Island of Hispaniola, of the above three millions souls that we once saw, today there be no more than two hundred of those native people remaining.”

When the Spanish were kicked out by Latin America’s early 19th century wars of liberation, that did not mean real independence. The British replaced the Spanish, using more modern financial means to exploit the region. The era of direct colonialism, beginning with Spain’s massive extraction of gold and silver, was replaced by one-sided trading relationships following the region’s formal independence in the early nineteenth century. George Canning, an imperialist “free trader” who was the British foreign secretary, wrote in 1824: “The deed is done, the nail is driven, Spanish America is free; and if we do not mismanage our affairs sadly, she is English.” 

Canning was no idle boaster. At the same time, the French foreign minister lamented, “In the hour of emancipation the Spanish colonies turned into some sort of British colonies.” And lest we think this was simply European hubris, here is what the Argentine finance minister had to say: “We are not in a position to take measures against foreign trade, particularly British, because we are bound to that nation by large debts and would expose ourselves to a rupture which would cause much harm.” What had happened? Argentina flung its ports wide open to trade under British influence, flooding itself with a deluge of European goods sufficient to strangle nascent local production; when Argentina later attempted to escape dependency by imposing trade barriers in order to build up its own industry, British and French warships forced the country open again.

The “right” to force opium on China to maintain profits

Imperialism was not confined to any single continent. Consider Britain’s treatment of China in the latter half of the 19th century. (We are concentrating on Britain for the moment because it was the leading capitalist power at this time.) British warships were sent to China to force the Chinese to import opium, a drug that was illegal back home. This was done under the rubric of Britain’s alleged “right to trade.” Under this doctrine, underdeveloped countries had no choice but to buy products from more powerful capitalist countries, even products that caused widespread injury to the country’s people. This could also be considered a “right” to force opium on China. Where else but under capitalism could such a preposterous “right” be conjured? U.S. smugglers also made enormous fortunes selling opium to Chinese as well.

A 2015 Medium article detailing the background and results of the two opium wars, noted the huge amounts of money that were made:

“Opium was big business for the British, one of the critical economic engines of the era. Britain controlled India and oversaw one million Indian opium farmers. By 1850, the drug accounted for a staggering 15 to 20 percent of the British Empire’s revenue, and the India-to-China opium business became, in the words of Frederic Wakeman, a leading historian of the period, the ‘world’s most valuable single commodity trade of the nineteenth century.’ Notes Carl Trocki, author of Opium, Empire and the Global Economy, ‘The entire commercial infrastructure of European trade in Asia was built around opium. … [A] procession of American sea merchants made their fortunes smuggling opium. They were aware of its poisonous effects on the Chinese people, but few of them ever mentioned the drug in the thousands of pages of letters and documents they sent back to America.’ ”

Eventually, Chinese authorities ordered foreigners, mainly British and U.S., to hand over all opium. After a refusal, Chinese authorities destroyed all the opium they could find. In response, British warships were sent to bombard coastal cities until China agreed to the one-sided Treaty of Nanking, in which it was forced to pay Britain an indemnity of millions, to cede Hong Kong and to open five ports to trade, where foreigners were not subject to Chinese law or authorities.

When further demands were refused, the British, French and U.S. navies launched the second opium war, attacking coastal and interior cities. They invaded Beijing, “chased the emperor out of town, and, in an orgy of fine-art and jewelry looting, destroyed the Versailles of China, the old Summer Palace.” A new treaty, more unequal than the first, was imposed, forcing open the entire country. A British lawyer enlisted to provide justification for this behavior wrote, as the first opium war was developing, “Our men of war are now, it is to be hoped, far on their way towards China, which shall be ‘our oyster, which [we] with sword will open.’ Then may we extract from the Emperor an acknowledgement of the heinous offence — or series of offences — which he has committed against the law of nature and of nations, and read him a lesson, even from a barbarian book, which will benefit him and all his successors.” 

Fantastic profits for European capital; death for Africans

Nor was Africa spared exploitation. Far from it. The exact number of Africans kidnapped and forcibly transported across the Atlantic will never be known, but scholars’ estimates tend to range from about ten million to twelve million. The human toll, however, is still higher because, simultaneous with those who were successfully kidnapped, millions more were killed or maimed, and thus not shipped across the Atlantic. This level of inhumanity cannot be accomplished without an accompanying ideology. 

Walter Rodney, in his outstanding contribution to understanding lagging development in the South, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, pointed out that although racism and other hatreds, including anti-Semitism, long existed across Europe, racism was an integral part of capitalism because it was necessary to rationalize the exploitation of African labor that was crucial to their accumulations of wealth.  “Occasionally, it is mistakenly held that Europeans enslaved Africans for racist reasons,” Dr. Rodney wrote. “European planters and miners enslaved Africans for economic reasons, so that their labor power could be exploited. Indeed, it would have been impossible to open up the New World and to use it as a constant generator of wealth, had it not been for African labor. There were no other alternatives: the American (Indian) population was virtually wiped out and Europe’s population was too small for settlement overseas at that time.”

The triangular trade (Graphic by Sémhur)

Exploitation did not end with the end of slavery in the 19th century, Dr. Rodney pointed out. Colonial powers confiscated huge areas of arable land in Africa, then sold it at nominal prices to the well-connected. In Kenya, for example, the British declared the fertile highlands “crown lands” and sold blocks of land as large as 550 square miles (1,400 square kilometers). These massive land confiscations not only enabled the creation of massively profitable plantations, but created the conditions that forced newly landless Africans to become low-wage agricultural workers and to pay taxes to the colonial power. Laws were passed forbidding Africans from growing cash crops in plantation regions, a system of compulsion summed up by a British colonel who became a settler in Kenya: “We have stolen his land. Now we must steal his limbs. Compulsory labor is the corollary of our occupation of the country.” In other parts of colonial Africa, where land remained in African hands, colonial governments slapped money taxes on cattle, land, houses and the people themselves; subsistence farmers don’t have money to pay money taxes so farmers were forced to grow cash crops, for which they were paid very little.

The alternative to farming was to go to work in the mines, where wages were set at starvation levels. European and North American mining and trading companies made fantastic profits (sometimes as high as 90 percent) and raw materials could be exploited at similar levels. (A U.S. rubber company, from 1940 to 1965, took 160 million dollars worth of rubber out of Liberia while the Liberian government received eight million dollars.) Another method of extracting wealth was through forced labor — French, British, Belgian and Portuguese colonial governments required Africans to perform unpaid labor on railroads and other infrastructure projects. The French were particularly vicious in their use of forced labor (each year throughout the 1920s, 10,000 new people were put to work on a single railroad and at least 25 percent of the railroad’s forced laborers died from starvation or disease). These railroads did not benefit Africans when independence came in the mid-20th century because they were laid down to bring raw materials to a port and had no relationship to the trading or geographical patterns of the new countries or their neighbors.

The entire territory that today constitutes the Democratic Republic of Congo was, in the late 19th and early 20th century, the personal possession of Belgium’s king, Leopold II. At least 10 million Congolese lost their lives at the hands of Belgian authorities eager to extract rubber and other resources at any cost. This genocidal plunder — the loss of life halved the local population — rested on a system of terror and slave labor. This system included forced labor requiring work in mines day and night, the chopping off of hands as punishment and “the burning of countless villages and cities where every individual who was found was killed.”

As the U.S. grew to prominence, becoming a leading capitalist power itself as the 20th century began, overthrowing governments to ensure undisputed “profitable investment” became routine. The U.S., incidentally, was the first country to recognize King Leopold’s claim to Congo.

If it’s your “backyard” you do what you want to do

The U.S. has long considered Latin America its “backyard.” Cuba’s economy was based on slave-produced sugar cane under Spanish rule, and when a series of rebellions finally succeeded in freeing the country from Spanish colonial rule, Cuban independence was formal only as the United States quickly became a colonial master in all but name. U.S. forces left Cuba in 1902 after a four-year occupation but not before dictating that Cubans agree to the Platt Amendment. The amendment, inserted into the Cuban constitution as the price for U.S. withdrawal, gave the U.S. control over Cuban foreign and economic policies and the right to intervene with military force to protect U.S. corporate interests. By 1905, U.S. interests owned 60 percent of Cuba’s land and controlled most of its industry. Just four months after the 1959 revolution took power, the U.S. government was already viewing the potential success of the revolution as a “bad example” for the rest of Latin America. The U.S. State Department defined U.S. goals in Cuba as “receptivity to U.S. and free world capital and increasing trade” and “access by the United States to essential Cuban resources.” Those goals have not changed to this day.

That follows naturally from what the pre-revolution U.S. ambassador to Cuba, Earl T. Smith, had said of the island country: “I ran Cuba from the sixth floor of the US embassy. The Cubans’ job was to grow sugar and shut up.”

When a strike broke out against the United Fruit Company in Colombia in 1929, the action was put down through a massacre of the workers. The U.S. embassy in Bogotá cabled the State Department in Washington this triumphant message: “I have the honor to report that the Bogotá representative of the United Fruit Company told me yesterday that the total number of strikers killed by the Colombian military exceeded one thousand.” Honor. Think about that.

For much of the 20th century, the effective ruler of Guatemala and Honduras was the United Fruit Company. The company owned vast plantations in eight countries, and toppled governments in Guatemala and Honduras. For many years, United Fruit had an especially sweet deal in Guatemala. The company paid no taxes, imported equipment without paying duties and was guaranteed low wages. The company also possessed a monopoly on Guatemalan railroads, ocean ports and the telegraph. When a president, Jacobo Arbenz, moved to end this exploitation and orient Guatemala’s economy toward benefiting Guatemalans through mild reforms, the CIA overthrew him. U.S. intelligence agencies declared Arbenz’s program had to be reversed because loosening the United Fruit Company’s domination of the country was against U.S. interests. The U.S. instituted what would become a 40-year nightmare of state-organized mass murder. A series of military leaders, each more brutal than the last and fortified with U.S. aid, unleashed a reign of terror that ultimately cost 200,000 lives, 93 percent of whom were murdered by the state through its army and its death squads.

Viñales Valley, Pinar del Rio province, Cuba (photo by Adam Jones adamjones.freeservers.com)

But not outside ordinary policy. The United States has militarily invaded Latin American and Caribbean countries 96 times, including 48 times in the 20th century. That total constitutes only direct interventions and doesn’t include coups fomented by the U.S., such as Guatemala in 1954 and Chile in 1973. Most of these invasions were for reasons along the lines articulated by former U.S. president William Howard Taft: to ensure profits for one or more U.S. corporations or to overthrow governments that did not prioritize the maximization of those profits. 

But not outside ordinary policy. The United States has militarily invaded Latin American and Caribbean countries 96 times, including 48 times in the 20th century. That total constitutes only direct interventions and doesn’t include coups fomented by the U.S., such as Guatemala in 1954 and Chile in 1973. Most of these invasions were for reasons along the lines articulated by former U.S. president William Howard Taft: to ensure profits for one or more U.S. corporations or to overthrow governments that did not prioritize the maximization of those profits. 

The U.S. invaded and occupied Nicaragua multiple times. One of these occasions, in 1909, came as a result of a Nicaraguan president accepting a loan from British bankers instead of U.S. bankers, then opening negotiations with Germany and Japan to build a new canal to rival the Panama Canal. The U.S. installed a dictatorship, and President Taft placed Nicaragua’s customs collections under U.S. control. The disapproved British loan was refinanced through two U.S. banks, which were given control of Nicaragua’s national bank and railroad as a reward. These developments were not an accident, for President Taft had already declared that his foreign policy was “to include active intervention to secure our merchandise and our capitalists opportunity for profitable investment” abroad.

All these atrocities — and countless others — all happened before the assassinations in Ecuador, Iran and Panama of heads of state who refused to do as they were ordered to by U.S. government operatives (and, in the case of Omar Torrijos, refusing the bribes that were the first tactic to get local leaders on side) recounted by Mr. Perkins in Confessions. No, those atrocities — and the author leaves us in no doubt that those were not “accidents” but were assassinations carried out by the U.S. government — do not represent an unprecedented turn to the dark side. Those acts, as are the present-day sanctions that kill in the hundreds of thousands, are business as usual for the U.S. government and the capitalism it imposes around the world. Imperialism, brutality and violence are nothing new; they are essential tools long wielded in abundance.

Far more examples could be cited; the above represents a minuscule fraction of atrocities that could be told. Such a long history of systematic violence and brutality speaks for itself as to the “morality” of capitalism.

Riots don’t change systems: There’s no shortcut to organizing

You say you want a revolution? There are no “lessons” for anyone on the Left to draw from the January 6 insurrection on the Capitol building in Washington.

If we were to set aside for a moment the fascistic nature of the mob, egged by on former President Donald Trump and his minions (which I am not suggesting we actually do), there is nothing to be taken in the abstract. Apparently there are some folks who, while certainly not condoning the political outlook of the insurrectionists, believe the example set might provide something of a template for how to achieve very different goals.

Even before we get to what should be an obvious observation — the Trumpite mob was enabled by some Capitol Police officers and law enforcement agencies largely share the insurrectionists’ politics while not hesitating to crack down violently on Left demonstrations, no matter how peaceful — governments and economic systems are not overturned by mobs storming the headquarters of the government. Any change to a better world by Left-led social movements can’t succeed without having a large majority of the population behind them with a significant number willing to act on the desire for systemic change in well thought out moves and not simply be passive supporters. There is no shortcut to organizing.

Hugo Chávez swearing in as Venezuela president in 2013 (photo by AVN, Prensa Presidencial/Venezuelanalysis)

As comforting as it may be to believe that any form of economic democracy, whether we call that socialism or something else, can simply be voted in, that path isn’t available. History has amply demonstrated that peaceful roads will meet with massive counter-attacks, from the Paris Commune in 1870 through Salvador Allende’s democratic election in 1970 and right up to today with the Bolivarian Revolution. That, on the other hand, doesn’t mean we are condemned to wringing our hands in frustration and doing nothing as capitalism continues to immiserate more people and destroy the environment.

Everything of human creation has a lifespan and everything of human creation can be changed or removed by human hand. Slavery, feudalism and other systems of the past were not natural, they were not ordained — they were products of human imagination. Capitalism is not the end of history. It is nothing more than one more system of repression, one more system of organization. It is no more permanent than slavery, feudalism or any other system of the past. If this were not so, there would not be so much frenetic activity put into convincing us that “there is no alternative.”

A serious movement needs to use a wide range of tactics and approaches wielded by cohesive organizations bringing together movements in broad alliances that provide scope for people with specific issues and oppressions to advance their goals simultaneously with rooting these in larger understandings of their structural causes and the systemic crises that must be tackled. The days of telling people that you need to “wait your turn” and, anyway, “your oppression will be solved once we have a revolution” need to be definitively over. On the other hand, splintering into a myriad of groups working only on specific issues in isolation from one another is a guarantee of ineffectiveness in terms of tackling the overall systemic problems that underlie so much of what we fight. 

Masses in motion in 1917

It’s a myth that the October Revolution in 1917 Russia was the work of a small conspiratorial clique that violently took power. A contingent of Bolsheviks walked into the Winter Palace, then moved through hallways until they found the room where the remnants of the Provisional Government were meeting and simply arrested them. Hardly a shot was fired in St. Petersburg (then known as Petrograd).

How could it have been that simple? Because the entire country was in motion and support for the deposed government had evaporated. The urban masses in St. Petersburg and Moscow, and in other cities, had swung behind the Bolsheviks. In the countryside, where political support remained with the Social Revolutionaries, there was tacit support for the revolution — peasants had actually defied the Right Social Revolutionary leadership (the SRs having just split into two) by taking land from landlords and the aristocracy and redistributing it among themselves, actions strongly supported by the Bolsheviks and the Left Social Revolutionaries, who would soon join the Bolsheviks in a coalition government.

Meeting at the Putilov Factory (1917)

All this could have happened because Bolshevik, Left SR and Interdistrict Organization agitation had turned the Russian Army, which led to the disarming of the police, who melted away. Russian soldiers and sailors took control of their units, refusing to follow orders by their officers, and even disarming them, putting control of the army and navy in socialist hands. This was most clearly demonstrated when the army chief, Lavr Kornilov, attempted a coup against the Provisional Government. Train tracks were torn up to block military movement into St. Petersburg, and Aleksander Kerensky, leader of the Provisional Government, had to call on Bolshevik militants to defend the capital. Enormous work over years, in extremely repressive conditions, was behind all this.

And what of the February Revolution that preceded the October Revolution? 

Neither the Bolsheviks or any other party played a direct role in the February revolution that toppled the tsar, for leaders of those organizations were at the time in exile abroad or in Siberia, or in jail. Nonetheless the tireless work of activists laid the groundwork. The Bolsheviks were a minority even among the active workers of Russia’s cities then, but later in the year, their candidates steadily gained majorities in all the working class organizations — factory committees, unions and soviets. The slogan of “peace, bread, land” resonated powerfully.

On one particular day, tens of thousands of women textile workers walked out, then went to the metal factories and asked the men working there to join them. They did, the strike spread and within two days a general strike took hold. In another five days, the tsarist régime was finished — one of the world’s most brutal dictatorships brought to an end. Why that one day? Why that one strike among many that had broken out in recent weeks and over years? We can never know with certainty. The most we can say is that on that particular day, Russians finally had enough. This was an amazing feat, overthrowing an autocratic régime that had endured for centuries. Here, too, police considerations are part of the equation — some of the troops sent by the tsar to put down the rebellion refused to fire or even took the side of the people.

Yet there was no spontaneity at work. Russia’s socialists had tirelessly laid the groundwork, and although the tsar’s secret police had decimated their ranks and so many had paid with exile, banishment, hard labor, jail and execution, the ideas could not be stamped out. The talks of the socialist agitators, the words of the socialist newspapers, pamphlets and fliers, resonated with the experiences of Russians — not only in the cities, but in the countryside and in the army and navy. It was this practical work, carried out over many years, that provided the people of Russia with the tools necessary to understand, and then change, their conditions. Organizing.

Masses in motion in 1979

One more example. The Sandinistas took power in 1979 at the head of a broad coalition encompassing wide sections of Nicaraguan society, despite the efforts of Nicaragua’s corporate elite — industrialists and agricultural exporters — who wanted Somoza removed but retain his extremely repressive system. The United States government, under Jimmy Carter, was working toward the same goal, having decided that Somoza had become too much of a liability. Therefore, Sandinistas argued, the task was to build its own multi-class coalition, going beyond peasants and blue-collar workers to include other social groups, including church groups and social christians.

Although Sandinistas developed an insurrectionist strategy in an underdeveloped country of the Global South, their strategy has broad applications for the developed countries of the Global North, for similar social complexities and differentiations exist there. While no theory can be transplanted whole to another place or time, organizers explicitly acknowledged, and acted upon, the fact that workers are not only blue-collar factory employees, but are also white-collar and other types of employees in a variety of settings, in offices and service positions, among others. Any revolution that seriously attempts to transcend capitalism, which means eliminating the immense power of the capitalist elite, has to include all these varieties of working people, those regularly employed and those precarious, if it is to succeed in the 21st century. 

Strikes alone would not be enough. In September 1978, Sandinista forces attacked the National Guard in several cities, including León, sparking uprisings in each of them. Although the Sandinistas were forced to retreat, thousands left with them in long columns, demonstrating that they would not abandon the people who supported them and the cause of building a better world. 

On June 4, 1979, Sandinista calls for an “insurrectional general strike” shut down the country. Coordinated attacks began in a series of cities, isolating units of the National Guard and forcing the Guard to stretch its forces too thin. By July 16, almost every major city in Nicaragua was in insurgent hands and the régime was about to topple. The U.S. government this day was still trying to negotiate a deal to block the Sandinistas from assuming power with the Roman Catholic archbishop of Managua, various members of the anti-Somoza corporate elite and the Junta of National Reconstruction — this last maneuver was an effort to get the Junta, the government in waiting that had recently been formed, to add a member of the National Guard and a member of Somoza’s Liberal Party. With Nicaraguans solidly behind them, the Sandinista could easily say no to the U.S. maneuvers.

On July 17, dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle fled the country after years of waging war on his country’s people and muscling in on so many businesses that even sizable numbers of Nicaragua’s bourgeoisie wanted him gone. Years of tireless organizing by Sandinista militants, often at the risk of their lives, led to that day. Two days later, on July 19, the Sandinistas marched triumphantly into Managua, the capital, having already captured control of much of the country in the late stages of the insurrection.

This success was not the product of a random mob attacking a government building, but patiently building a mass movement that became strong enough to topple a deeply corrupt, extraordinarily brutal dictatorship.

A disorganized group of people, even if they had the goal of bringing into being a better world that we would agree with, has no chance of success. None. Trying to create an alternate history or counter-factual by substituting good people for the fascists acting out an absurd fantasy is a sterile exercise, and one undertaken in an absence of historical knowledge. It would be a service to humanity and the health of the Earth if capitalism and the governments upholding it through violence were swept into the dustbin of history. But that will take monumental organization, getting a healthy majority to back the vision of a better world, linking hands across borders and solidarity across movements. That is as far removed as can be from a mob egged on by an aspirant fascist.

Work is inevitable but its organization is not

All human societies, from the most primitive to the most modern, have an important commonality — the need to work. Water, food, shelter and other basics of life don’t arrive as gifts. Work is required to secure them and to raise the next generation.

So fundamental is this basic principal of human life that generations of Marxist theorists have based analyses of social societies and structures on the economic base of a given society. The base-and-superstructure framework is controversial to most other schools of thought, although it ought to be obvious that capitalist organization of an economy puts strong parameters on how that capitalist country can organize itself politically and culturally. Nonetheless, can traditional Marxist understandings be stretched to wider interpretations?

Computer engineer Paul Cockshott, in his latest book, How the World Works: The Story of Human Labor From Prehistory to the Modern Era,* answers with an emphatic yes. His premise is that Western Marxism has been too dominated by “people with a training in the humanities or social studies” who have a “reluctance to use mathematical quantitative analysis.” He intends to infuse the term “mode of production” with a “much more technological interpretation.” In other words, a study of technology is a better basis for understanding the organization of labor in the various modes of production over the course of human history.

This stress on technology is a strength of the book, but also, at times, a weakness. This perspective does enable fresh thinking about subjects as disparate as why agriculture supplanted the hunting-gathering stage, the inefficiency of capitalism and the cause of the weaknesses of the Soviet Union that culminated in its collapse. How the World Works is a book full of interesting ideas — I took double the amount of notes I ordinarily take to review a book, a good measure of its content.

How the World Works takes the reader through all the basic modes of production of human history — lengthy chapters each on “pre-class society,” slave economy, peasant economy, capitalist economy and socialist economy, plus a final brief chapter on “future economy” that revolves around the impending exhaustion of fossil fuels and the decrease in available energy that post-fossil fuel societies will likely face. Crucially, the book argues that the “idea of abstract labor” applies to all economies, not only capitalist ones.

Transitions to agriculture despite the extra work

Professor Cockshott demonstrates that agriculture required more work hours than did hunting-gathering, and asks the question: Why was the transition made? He argues that hunters wiped out big game and the population of hunter-gatherers became too large for available land to support. Although agriculture required more work, more food per unit is also produced. This change came with a crucial development — there was now a surplus. Hunter-gatherers had no storage facilities and had to be mobile; what was taken was quickly eaten. These were often egalitarian societies (although not always, based on studies of isolated societies that survived into the 20th century).

With the new phenomenon of surplus, the ability and, given the cyclical nature of agriculture, the necessity, of storing food for future use enabled the rise of hierarchy and significantly deepened the subordination of women that had its roots in hunting-gatherer societies’ tendency for women to move to other settlements for marriage, putting those young women, cut off from their original community, in subordinate positions to their husbands and mothers-in-law. But although a surplus is necessary for a nonproductive elite to arise, the book argues that a surplus on its own is insufficient to develop the social stratification that would develop:

“A class society requires a surplus, but the converse does not hold. A food surplus does not necessitate an exploiting class. Establishing that seems to have required other misfortunes: war, patriarchy, and religion.” [page 45]

Authoritarian ideologies must be developed to justify unequal status, and human sacrifice fuels high social stratification. Ideologies of superior and inferior human beings justified slavery, but Professor Cockshott additionally argues that slave economies were dependent on transport and urban markets. Labor is the source of value in slave economies. The next stage, feudalism, also featured exploitation but in a different form. A lack of transport and limited circulation characterized feudalism. Lords did not have to engage in systematic trade and peasants were self-sufficient; coercion was the glue that kept this economy in place.

The shift from feudal farming to capitalist farming required that peasants “be deprived both of security of tenure and access to communal lands” [page 93]. And that brings the book to its longest chapter, the discussion of work in a capitalist economy. Here is where the author’s technological perspective more fully comes into play. The price of labor regulates product pricing and profitability, and, crucially, if workers were paid the full value of their work in a capitalist enterprise there would be no profit for the capitalist — “in a capitalist society, there will be a markup” [page 111].

Advance of mechanical energy under capitalism

Where capitalism differs from feudal and slave economies is far greater use of mechanical energy and scientific research. In contradiction to a commonly accepted theory that the use of slave labor in the Roman Empire prevented the primitive steam engine that was developed then from being introduced into production because using machines would have been much more expensive than continuing to use slave labor, Professor Cockshott argues that Hero’s turbine was vastly inefficient to be of any industrial use. Even the first steam engines of the 18th century were exponentially more powerful and could greatly expand industrial capacity. He argues that it was this new capacity that was the catalyst for industrial capitalism: “Existence of commodity relations and wage labor would not have been sufficient to generate the capitalist mode of production” [page 123].

Limitations on productive capacity were overcome with the rise of fossil fuels and in turn advances in technology arising from more efficient fossil fuels led to innovation and new products that beget more new products. In turn, the capital required to build and operate large industrial factories was beyond the reach of workers and previously independent artisans, forcing small independent producers out of business due to the scale of competition. “[T]he application of powered machines and fossil fuels allowed rising labor productivity that closed off whole branches of production from the self-employed artisan” [page 128].

An English watermill (photo by Martin Bodman)

The capitalist who innovates early reaps an increased profit, but such benefits are always temporary as competitors will soon adopt the innovation. Perpetual competition forces increased reliance on technology, although the author argues that innovation for a capitalist is only worthwhile when wages are high. An example not examined in the book that also serves as a partial explanation for why so much production has been shifted to low-wage, developing countries is the ability to pay drastically lower wages. That is an “innovation” that competition dictates be swiftly copied. The book argues that the ability of capitalists to innovate “shouldn’t be overrated,” but the continual shifting of production and the development of global supply chains is grim evidence of considerable capitalist innovation, one of course deeply negative for working people. Control of the means of production also gives capitalists control of the technology necessary to make these transformations in production possible — yet more innovation that is bad for working people.

The mathematical approach of How the World Works does serve the author well in his theory of why the wage gap between men and women persists: Professor Cockshott argues that it is because women work fewer hours then men and as a consequence are less likely then men to be the sole wage earner in a family; he believes the wage gap won’t be closed until it is equally likely that women will be the sole family wage earner as men. The level of such a wage earner can’t fall below starvation level for the basic reason that mortality rates would skyrocket; it is the ensuing shortage of workers that would occur rather than any morality that put an ultimate lower limit on wages.

That natural lower limit of course does not prevent wages from falling to deeply exploitative levels. On top of that, finance produces still more inequality — it is not only unproductive but a huge drain of money. “Since so little finance goes into increasing real production, these rents [windfall profits] can only be sustained by depressing the real living standards of much of the population” [page 196]. Concomitant to that is the ever increasing cost of housing, which is a product of inefficiency. Because housing is an asset subject to speculation, it appreciates in price and thus speculation becomes more profitable than engaging in productive activity, which in turns draws in more speculative capital, further fueling the process. Loans by banks in turn go disproportionally to real estate. Yet more exploitation.

Judging socialism by actual conditions, not ideals

The chapter on “socialist economies” is likely to be the most controversial for many readers; certainly is was for myself. The chapter opens by noting, quite correctly, that there is no uniform definition of socialism. How the World Works argues that “as social scientists, we cannot judge the real world by the standards of an ideal one. It is not the job of reality to materialize our ideals. Reality just is in all its glories, horrors, and contradictions” [page 209]. To that, there is nothing to do except agree. Material reality is what we have to go by.

Interpreting that reality, on the other hand, leaves room for debate. How the World Works shoots down various theories of why the Soviet Union and the model it imposed on Central European countries wasn’t socialist, including that is used money, you can’t have socialism in a single country and there was scarcity rather than the plenty that socialism is supposed to provide. So far so good, although these arguments are presented in a somewhat cartoonish fashion rather than in their full complexity. Having ably dispensed with these arguments, and reiterating that there was a “common understanding” that those countries were socialist, the author offers his concept of what socialism actually is, based on what did exist.

Although he writes that “What distinguishes them are the forms of property and the way in which the surplus product is determined,” he concludes that socialism is characterized by machine industry and agriculture, the same as capitalism. His definition rests on, inter alia, a mix of technical achievements such as “widespread use of electricity” and “widespread use of machinery and applied science” interspersed with social relations such as “the absence of a class of wealthy private proprietors” and “public or cooperative ownership of most of the economy” [pages 209-201].

German hydroelectric power plant

To be sure, claims that the Soviet Union was “capitalist” is ultra-left phrase-mongering that sheds little light. But is socialism simply expropriation and building industry? If so, then one would have to agree with Josef Stalin’s boast in the 1930s that socialism had been built and Nikita Khrushchev’s follow-up boast in the 1950s that the Soviet Union was in the process of building communism, the successor to socialism. But is that all there is? A fuller definition of socialism mandates that democracy be extended to economic matters and strengthened in political matters, beyond what is possible in capitalism. It would follow then that expropriating capitalists and establishing state or cooperative ownership of most of the economy is a precursor to socialism, not the actual content in itself.

An alternative theory, not discussed in the book, is that the Soviet model represented a post-capitalist economy (certainly not capitalist) in transition to socialism, a transition never completed. Perhaps this can be seen as edging toward idealism and in contradiction to the agreement above that those countries had to be judged based on their material reality, which obviously included the fact that they had to expend so much of their resources on defense against never-ending attacks from the capitalist world. But to put forth this position is not to dismiss those experiences but rather to lament what could have been. The grassroots movement in late 1960s Czechoslovakia to keep the economy in state hands but have it managed by the workers through councils and coordinating bodies in a system of democratic social accountability was the advancement to socialism that never developed because of the Warsaw Pact invasion. That invasion was a function of closed-minded ideological prescriptions that had become calcified in one particular form, which evolved in chaotic fashion in one country (the Soviet Union) that cannot be extricated from the specific absolutist cultural heritage of that country’s dominant nation (Russia).

Socialism should be not only industrial development and an end to private capital but a democratic system that grows, develops and changes with the rise in consciousness and development of a society’s members, not a rigid formula.

Fiscal imbalances through imbalanced taxation

The term “actually existing socialism” was often used for the Soviet bloc, and despite the clumsiness of the term, perhaps that is a reasonable compromise. Those countries have reverted to capitalism, and so a discussion of their economies inevitably moves toward determining the reasons for why. Professor Cockshott puts forth an original theory on this: the system of taxation. Specifically, he argues that reliance on sales taxes and taxes on enterprise revenue rather than assessing income tax on wages hid the cost of free social services, forced up the cost of machinery and thereby discouraged mechanization and made the relative cost of providing free services more expensive. As a result, managerial hoarding of labor was encouraged with concomitant overstaffing and lack of efficiency measures. This thesis is related to his belief that the Soviet use of money was a mistake; rather, people should have been paid in “labor hours.” To this last point, we will return.

Mathematics are used to explain this theory. The economy is divided into three parts — production of the means of production (or what are called producer goods), production of consumer goods and the provision of uncharged services, such as education, health care and public infrastructure. The money for the third category has to come from some revenue stream, and the need to pay for those and the necessity of the first category of producer goods constrains what is available for consumer goods. Assuming that what is available for consumer goods must be limited to the money-equivalent of the hours spent producing consumer goods, the author suggests there were three possible methods of taxation: an income tax on employees, a sales tax or VAT, or by pricing all goods at a markup or profit.

Blockupy 2013: Securing the European Central Bank (photo by Blogotron)

Because there was no income tax in the Soviet Union, revenue for social services was raised from taxes on enterprise revenue, those producing for consumer goods and those producing for producer goods, and from sales taxes. Because of that, the costs of machinery is much greater, thereby making the provision of social services far more expensive that it would have been. It was “short-term populism that hampered efficiency” [page 256] and made labor cheap and machinery expensive.

Concomitantly, the author argues that Soviet workers should have been paid in labor hours rather than rubles. This would have been a fairer way of paying people and would have made any imbalances easier for all to see; money was necessary to disguise that, for example, that collective farmers were underpaid relative to their labor. In essense, the argument is that one hour of work should have been compensated by one hour of labor credit. Doing so would have immediate egalitarian effect:

“The significance of labor tokens is that they establish the obligation on all to work by abolishing unearned incomes; they make the economic relations between people transparently obvious; and they are egalitarian, ensuring that all labor is counted as equal. Is it the last point that ensured labor tokens were never developed under the bureaucratic state socialisms of the twentieth century. What ruler or manager was willing to see his work as equal to that of a mere laborer?” [page 263]

This arrangement would also eliminate black markets because the labor credits could not be circulated or transferred to someone else; they could only be used at communal stores. But “it is absolutely essential” that prices reflect the work value put into them to avoid imbalances. This would in turn make planning more responsive because deviations of sales from actual production would send a signal that production levels should be adjusted to real demand.

What caused the Soviet Union to collapse?

The foregoing were serious weaknesses in the Soviet economy, Professor Cockshott argues, in addition to the most skilled technical and professional employees becoming dissatisfied because their gains were not comparable to elites in the capitalist West. That social group’s dissatisfaction mattered because it was disproportionally represented in the Communist Party. The structural changes made by Mikhail Gorbachev had the effect of disorganizing an economy in which enterprises were strongly interlinked and enabling the rise of black-market criminals as state revenues plunged because declines in production resulted in less revenue due to the reliance on taxes on enterprises and sales taxes.

The author makes a strong case for his thesis that the taxation system underlaid Soviet economic crisis. I found much merit in it and considering it enriches our understanding of Soviet economics. But this is an instance where a heavy reliance on mathematics and technology leaves out some of what is a bigger picture. Left out is the over-centralization of the economy, the inability of central planners and the distribution system to have the knowledge necessary to ensure that raw materials and supplies were delivered properly and a rigid production quota system based on physical output. Base wages in the Soviet Union were low; workers counted on the bonus to be paid for fulfilling quotas. Managers and directors were responsible for fulfilling quotas handed down from ministries and their jobs were on the line if they didn’t. Thus both management and floor workers had incentives to hide capacity and keep quotas as low as possible, and keep extra materials and personnel on hand to “storm the plan” if they had fallen behind.

Surpluses of material somewhere meant shortages somewhere else; the difficulties in distributing sufficient supplies enhanced these tendencies. And because quantity and not quality was what mattered, shoddy products could be produced without real penalty. A full description of the Soviet economy can’t exclude these factors. Although the author dates the start of the imposition of capitalism to 1986, which should properly be dated to 1990, when General Secretary Gorbachev rammed through the legislature a series of measures that introduced elements of capitalism, including laws that ended working peoples’ limited ability to defend themselves and mechanisms to enable privatizations, that is a minor technical point. Reforms instituted from 1986 did place the burdens squarely on workers because of their one-sided implementation, and Professor Cockshott is entirely correct in writing that Gorbachev’s reforms ultimately disorganized the economy, precipitating a collapse.

Ultimately, the measure of a book isn’t whether we agree on all points; disagreement with some points of a book with such a large volume of interesting theories and analyses is inevitable. What is pertinent is stimulation of thought and the challenge of worthy ideas. A book that intends nothing less than to reveal the workings of the world from the earliest prehistory to the present day and beyond has set itself a sweeping goal. How the World Works succeeds marvelously.

* Paul Cockshott, How the World Works: The Story of Human Labor From Prehistory to the Modern Era [Monthly Review Press, New York, 2019]

All seemed possible when the Sandinistas took power 40 years ago

This week marks the 40th anniversary of the Sandinistas taking power in Nicaragua, a milestone that merits celebration regardless of our opinions on how the Sandinista Revolution evolved. Nor should the hand of United States imperialism in distorting that revolution be ignored — the huge cost exacted by the U.S.-directed and -funded Contras totaled more than four years of Nicaragua’s gross domestic product.

Just as many of the tactics the U.S. government and those on its payroll are using in its all-out economic war against Venezuela replicate what was done to Chile during the era of Salvador Allende (including blowing up power plants to cause widespread blackouts), there are parallels with U.S. tactics against the Sandinistas. Pressuring opposition parties to boycott elections, then declaring those elections fraudulent, was a tactic used by the Reagan administration in 1984, just as the Trump administration is doing in Venezuela today following the attempts to delegitimize the Bolivarian Revolution by the Bush II/Cheney and Obama administrations.

Another parallel between the Bolivarian Revolution of the past 20 years and the Sandinista Revolution of the 1980s is the creation of a mixed economy. The intention of the Sandinistas was to build a mixed economy, one with socialist elements but that would leave much of the economy in the hands of Nicaragua’s big capitalists. The Bolivarian Revolution, although intended to progress toward a not necessarily strongly defined “socialism for the 21st century,” has struggled to advance beyond a stage of ameliorating the conditions of capitalism, although by any reasonable standard Venezuela does considerably more there than any so-called “social democratic” government has done.

The bottom line, however is this: Even when political power is taken out of the hands of a country’s capitalists, if economic power is left in those hands, that economic power will eventually enable the holders of that power (industrialists and bankers) to wrest control of the economy and ultimately force the government to bend to their will. That happened in Nicaragua — ultimately, the devastation wrought by the Contras, the financial blockade imposed by the U.S. and the contradictions arising from the Sandinistas giving ever more concessions and subsidies to Nicaragua’s capitalists resulted in the Sandinista government imposing an austerity program reminiscent of those imposed by the International Monetary Fund, excepting the dubious value of the IMF or World Bank loans.

All of that would be years in the future after the takeover. On July 17, 1979, dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle fled the country after years of waging war on his country and muscling in on so many businesses that even some of Nicaragua’s bourgeoisie wanted him gone. Years of tireless work by Sandinista militants, often at the risk of their lives, led to that day. Two days later, on July 19, the Sandinistas marched triumphantly into Managua, the capital, having already captured control of much the country in the late stages of the insurrection.

Nonetheless, in the early years the Sandinistas made good on most of the promises they had put forth in their 1969 Historical Program. Nor should the vast array of problems left behind by the Somoza dictatorship be forgotten. The following excerpt from It’s Not Over: Learning From the Socialist Experiment discusses the new revolutionary government’s struggles with restarting a shattered economy, meeting the expectations of its millions of supporters and attempting to keep industrialists from stripping their businesses of assets while seeking to create a democracy deeper than what is possible in capitalist countries and simultaneously preparing to defend itself against the inevitable counterattack from the U.S. government.

* * * *

New government begins process of rebuilding, with strains showing early

The nature of the enormous problems the Sandinistas faced had similarities to what the young Soviet Union faced in the early 1920s. A revolution had succeeded at enormous cost, with a civil war fought savagely by the revolution’s opponents wreaking staggering economic damage; the revolution faced hostile, much stronger foreign powers; the country was dependent on agricultural exports and could adjust that dependency only with difficulty and at the risk of potentially wrenching changes internally; expanding a small industrial sector was desirable but a goal for which the fulfillment would be partly in contradiction to its agricultural base; and a population that had lived in miserable poverty expected its material needs and wants to be met faster than the country’s shattered material base was capable of doing. Somehow these problems had to be solved by men and women with energy and determination but a lack of administrative experience.

Nicaragua’s militants who had participated in the revolution and found themselves in responsible positions upon the revolution’s victory had no experience in the affairs of state, because they had been shut out of public participation, and if their attempts at organizing became known to Somoza’s authorities, the prisons and torture chambers of the National Guard awaited.

So mistakes, many of them, were made in the early days of the revolution. How could it be otherwise? It is not remarkable that the Sandinistas made mistakes; what it remarkable is their willingness to learn from them and often correct them, sometimes effecting sharp reversals of bad policies.

The early Bolshevik cadres, similarly, couldn’t help but make mistakes when they were placed in responsible positions, having also been shut out of societal participation. But that is enough comparison; it would be too easy to overgeneralize and there were more differences than commonalities between the Soviet Union of the early 1920s and Nicaragua at the end of the 1970s. And the Sandinistas certainly carried out policies drastically different than did the Bolsheviks, having the experience of many revolutions from which to learn, but also having carried out a revolution on their own terms, with a mix of ideologies and strategies rooted in their own and their country’s historical experience. They could not have led a successful revolution otherwise.

And the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) did it with much help from inside the country, and very little from outside the country.

The Soviet Union’s theorists had consistently held the position that conditions were nowhere near ripe for a revolution in Central America, and because challenging official dogma in the Soviet Union was anathema, that viewpoint could not in those years be challenged. Indeed, the Soviet Union, since Stalin’s assumption of power, had opposed revolutions everywhere. True, it did use the Red Army to impose régimes in Central Europe, but that, too, went against the spirit of Marxism that believes revolutions can only be made by a people themselves, not imposed from outside. Stalin opposed home-grown communist revolutions in China, Yugoslavia and Greece — counseling revolutionary leaders to stop and instead back their nationalist capitalists in the first two and refusing to lift a finger for the third when its revolution was drowned in blood by the United Kingdom. All of Stalin’s successors held fast to this refusal to back revolutions elsewhere; partly this was out of ideological rigidity tinged with a lack of confidence in other peoples, but perhaps more it reflected a desire to maintain peace with the capitalist West at any cost.

Tomás Borge, the only FSLN founder who lived to see the revolution, spoke frankly during an interview conducted eight years after the Sandinistas took power. “Since it was not easy to see the prospects for such a change — even revolutionary forces in the world had not grasped the imminence of victory and had adopted a rather indifferent attitude — we did not receive support during the war from any of the socialist countries, except Cuba,” Borge said, without judgment.

“The Soviet Union and others did not support us because they believed that only the Latin American Communist parties were the representatives of revolutionary changes, and it was not possible for them to think otherwise at that time. They had been through a whole series of experiences, developing ideas in distant countries that divorced them from particular realities. … I am not blaming those countries, simply pointing out an objective fact. … It cannot be said — in that idiotic language that is sometimes used — that Nicaragua’s revolution was the fruit of Moscow gold. Not even the Soviets, the Soviet revolutionaries, believed in revolutionary change in Nicaragua. So how were they going to help us!”

Official commentary in the Soviet Union’s leading theoretical journal stressed the prevailing viewpoint that armed struggle was hopeless and that Latin Americans should use peaceful tactics while participating in broad coalitions — a view echoed by the head of the El Salvador Communist Party, who went so far as to call those who advocated armed struggle “nihilists.”

The behavior of the Moscow-aligned Nicaraguan Socialist Party can best be explained in this context. The party was a participant in the Sandinista governing structure, but less than two months after the FSLN took power, it issued a formal resolution calling on the FSLN to

“be sensitive to the demands and interests of the capitalist class allies. Putting aside or neglecting those interests, in the name of excessive revolutionary radicalism, will not only lead to losing those allies but will strengthen the counter-revolution. … [T]his revolution must be conducted in such a way as to prevent the influence of tendencies seeking to skip stages or leap arbitrarily over the necessary stages and their corresponding transformations.”

Overall, a statement quite consistent with the Nicaraguan Socialists’ long-standing resistance to revolution. The party’s resolution might reasonably be read as a warning against moving too fast, but regardless of how that resolution is interpreted, it is quite far removed from a “revolutionary” mindset. Continual shrieking about Soviet bogeymen under every rock ceases being comical at some point and becomes simply morbid.

Triumphing with a large coalition

Regardless, there was no need to worry about precipitous moves. The FSLN had consistently carried out its line of encouraging mass participation, creating the largest possible coalition in the final months of the insurrection and leaving plenty of room for political participation by sectors of society ranging from Marxist parties to its Left all the way to capitalist organizations on the moderate Right. Most of the eighteen ministers in the first government lineup were capitalist figures and two of the five seats on the executive body of the provisional government, the Junta of National Reconstruction, were held by prominent capitalists.

The FSLN had adopted Augusto Sandino’s motto, “Implacable in struggle, generous in victory,” and applied that generosity even to the National Guard. Seeking to avoid a bloody revenge, Borge recalled, “When they tried to lynch the [Somozist] prisoners who were in the Red Cross building, I personally went to see the relatives of our martyrs … and convinced them not to do it by saying, ‘So why did we make this revolution, if we are going to do the same things they used to do?’ ” Borge had the moral authority to make that plea, for he suffered through two prison terms in Somoza’s prisons, undergoing torture and being held in solitary confinement, and his wife was tortured to death by the National Guard. Borge had been involved in struggles against Somoza since the late 1940s.

Borge was one of nine members of the FSLN National Directorate, which was the ultimate authority after Somoza fled. The directorate’s structure was based on unity — when the three tendencies reunited, each tendency was represented by three leaders. Daniel Ortega, of the Tercerista tendency, as the one directorate member who also sat on the five-member Junta of National Reconstruction, became the Junta’s chair.

The insurrection of Leon in 1979 (photo by Dora María Téllez)

Ortega assumed his roles because the Terceristas were the dominant faction due to their strategy proving successful and because their tactics could include the other two tendencies’ strategies, giving them a moral authority within the FSLN. Ortega had a long history of political work, joining the student protest movement as a teenager despite the disapproval of his accountant father who had once been a fighter for Augusto Sandino. Interestingly, Ortega also gave bible lessons when a student. He joined the FSLN at age eighteen in 1963, becoming a resistance fighter before spending seven years in jail, where he was tortured.

The new Sandinista government may have shown generosity in victory, but it was going to consolidate that victory. An FSLN commander, Bayardo Arce, put it this way: “This is a Sandinista State; it is a state where the majority of our people subscribe to the political philosophy of Sandisimo, that is why the Council of State has to reflect this majority.” Arce was referring to a new legislative body that would soon be formed, but, more generally, he was noting the reality of Nicaragua. The revolution had been fought under the Sandinista banner, the Sandinistas had organized the insurrection and protected people from the wrath of Somoza’s goons as best they could; there simply would not have been a revolution without them. So while Arce’s words may have been difficult to hear for some, it was a plain statement of how most Nicaraguans felt.

Formally, the five-member Junta of National Reconstruction headed the government as a collective executive, and it ruled by decree for a year until the Council of State convened. Although the FSLN National Directorate was the true center of power, setting overall policy, the Junta worked by consensus in forming policies to implement the Directorate’s broad policy decisions, and the capitalists also had opportunity to affect the carrying out of policy through their ministerial positions. The Directorate worked in a collegial fashion, creating a collective style of leadership. The Sandinistas did not wish to have a dominant personality, nor were there any candidates for such a role; only Carlos Fonseca, killed in a National Guard ambush in 1976, had any potential to do so and it is an open question as to whether he could have. Among other reasons, Fonseca advocated the Prolonged People’s War line, not that of the Terceristas.

The nationalization of Somoza’s stolen property

One of the Junta’s first acts, in Decree Number 3, was to confiscate and nationalize the property of Somoza, his family and a few very close associates. Somoza’s business empire was so extensive that the Sandinista’s new state-controlled sector represented one-quarter of the economy. Included in the nationalization were Somoza’s landholdings, which constituted 23 percent of the country’s farmland. More than 90 percent of the confiscated lands consisted of the largest plantations, those more than three and a half square kilometers (875 acres).

This decree was followed by the creation of the Nicaraguan Institute of Agricultural Reform, and, unlike other ministries, this important department was put in Sandinista hands from the start, under the direction of Jaime Wheelock, a National Directorate member and a Proletarian Tendency leader. Wheelock had originally wished to implement his tendency’s more radical agricultural program, but a more modest program was implemented under Directorate consensus. And, already, the Sandinistas were holding back landless agricultural workers from seizing more land.

The Rural Workers Association had emerged a few years earlier, organizing farm workers, particularly day laborers, and created a national organization by early 1978. The association not only organized guerrilla units and coordinated armed actions with the FSLN, but in the final months before the takeover backed spontaneous land takeovers. The land seizures assured there was sufficient food for the liberated areas; the seized lands were collectively farmed and managed, and not parceled into individual plots.

Celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Nicaraguan revolution in Managua, in 1989 (photo by tiarescott from Managua)

Other early acts of the Junta were nationalization of banks, insurance and foreign trade. Nicaragua’s banks, however, had collapsed; therefore taking them over meant taking over responsibility for the banks’ debts. As that amounted to a bailout, the capitalists were happy to go along with this decree. But this aspect of the nationalizations had its firm logic, as well — the banks had played a large role in the massive corruption under Somoza’s reign and the insurance companies were unable to cope with the country’s massive economic damage. Nicaragua’s foreign minister, Miguel D’Escoto, explained the banking and insurance takeovers in a letter to his embassies and consulates: “In this case, we were forced to act in response to economic necessity rather than ideological preference. The financial institutions were bankrupt. The nationalization of the banks was, in effect, the nationalization of their debt. In order to reopen the banks, the government has assumed an additional debt of $230 million.” That debt was on top of the $1.6 billion foreign debt that Somoza had saddled the country with, which the Junta agreed to honor.

The government takeover of foreign trade was also in effect a subsidy to capitalists, primarily agricultural exporters. The confiscation of Somoza’s properties put some of this sector under state control, but private plantation owners still commanded about three-quarters of the country’s agricultural exports, primarily cotton, coffee, beef and sugar. Maintaining agricultural exports was critical to economic recovery — they accounted for 80 percent of Nicaragua’s exports. Under the nationalization of foreign trade, the state sold imported inputs to exporters at the official exchange rate and purchased their production for export at guaranteed prices better than the exchange rates.

The state was guaranteeing the exporters a higher price, with the state absorbing the difference between the guaranteed higher price and the price set by the international market. The beneficiaries of this subsidy were overwhelmingly large plantation owners. A government pamphlet later explained that “100 percent of the private sector’s needs for working capital and investment” were now financed by the public, whereas never more than 70 percent of these needs had been subsidized under Somoza. The pamphlet continued, “Despite the fact that the private sector has made significant profits [in 1980 and 1981], the producers in this sector have not been forced to use these profits to meet their own needs for working and investment capital.”

Despite subsidies and guaranteed profits, the big capitalists continued to chafe at not being in charge politically. A class that believes it is entitled to exercise political control found it increasingly difficult to remain part of the government, and the contradictions between what the big capitalists wanted and the many policies of the Sandinistas that sought to provide better wages, benefits and working conditions, and new democratic structures, for urban and rural working people — the overwhelming majority of the population and the classes who made the revolution — slowly intensified.

Shifts in the government as the revolution advances

Those stresses caused a major shift in the cabinet. In December 1979 and February 1980, a series of resignations and reshuffles, along with shifts to the Left by other ministers, resulted in a radically different cabinet, with almost all ministries now headed by Sandinistas. Several members of the FSLN National Directorate assumed important ministerial positions. The work of the ministries were difficult at first; most of the bureaucrats who had worked in government before the takeover had fled. But the Junta asked lower- and middle-level employees to return, and about 90 percent did so. A new culture of honesty in the ranks of the ministries was created, and dedication and sacrifice were rewarded; massive corruption had been the norm under Somoza.

A new type of temporary legislature, the Council of State, convened on May 4, 1980. The council had 51 seats, each reserved for organized groups — eight political parties, three mass-participation and community organizations, seven labor organizations, seven professional guilds, five employer organizations and the armed forces. The Council originated most of the legislation and could pass or reject legislation introduced by the Junta of National Reconstruction, although the Junta could veto Council-passed legislation.

There had been hope among the employers that they would be able to control the Council of State, but when mass organizations aligned with the Sandinistas were granted seats, one of the capitalist members of the Junta, Alfonso Robelo, used that as an excuse to resign. Days earlier, the other capitalist Junta member, Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, had stepped down. Both were replaced by industrialists. The mass-participation organizations deserved representation, the Sandinistas argued, because of their massive growth during the past year. Robelo had wanted a guaranteed majority for capitalists on the Council, but walked out when a majority instead went to the organizations that had carried out the work of the revolution — the members of which had literally put their lives on the line for it and constituted a large majority of the country’s population.

The Sandinistas were also faced with the massive task of building a court system. Unlike in the ministries, it would not be possible to use the bricks of the past to rebuild; the court system had been a completely servile instrument of Somoza’s dictatorship. Plus there was the need to have trials for the thousands of imprisoned National Guardsmen. Special tribunals were created to try Somoza’s war criminals in which the defendants were afforded vastly more rights than political defendants had been under Somoza, and the trials were open to the international press, another change.

“We didn’t have anything,” said Nora Astorga, a trained lawyer who was selected to be the prosecutor at the trials of the Guardsmen. “They gave you a job and you had to do everything from finding people to do it and a house to do it in, to inventing the mechanisms. From nothing. They’d say to you, ‘You’re in charge.’ And you had to figure out how to do it.” Astorga found prosecuting Guardsmen difficult because many had wives and young children living in poverty. She had the authority to release them without trial, and did so in about one-fifth of the 6,000 cases she handled, and most of those who were convicted received sentences of five or less years. No more than fifteen percent received the maximum penalty of 30 years’ imprisonment; the Sandinistas had immediately abolished the death penalty.

Astorga said, “We had a group of compañeros who could go where the Guard member had lived to get information, to investigate why he joined the Guard, how he had behaved, what he had done. … I’m not saying we were never unjust. It’s difficult to be fair 100 percent of the time, but we made a tremendous effort.”

Citations are omitted from the above excerpt from the book It’s Not Over: Learning From the Socialist Experiment. The omitted sources cited in this excerpt are: Alan Benjamin, Nicaragua: Dynamic of an Unfinished Revolution [Walnut Publishing, 1989]; John A. Booth, The End and the Beginning: The Nicaraguan Revolution [Westview Press, 1985]; Forrest D. Colburn, Post-Revolutionary Nicaragua: State, Class, and the Dilemmas of Agrarian Policy [University of California Press, 1986]; Carmen Diana Deere and Peter Marchetti, “The Worker-Peasant Alliance in the First Year of the Nicaraguan Agrarian Reform,” Latin American Perspectives, Spring 1981; Gary Ruchwarger, “The Campesino Road to Socialism? The Sandinistas and Rural Co-operatives,” The Socialist Register, 1988; Richard Stahler-Sholk, “Stabilization, Destabilization, and the Popular Classes in Nicaragua, 1979-1988,” Latin American Research Review, Vol. XXV, No. 3 (1990); and “Nora Astorga In Her Own Words,” Envío, April 1988

The revolt that shook the world

History does not travel in a straight line. I won’t argue against that sentence being a cliché. Yet it is still true. If it weren’t, we wouldn’t be still debating the meaning of the October Revolution on its centenary, and more than a quarter-century after its demise.

Neither the Bolsheviks or any other party had played a direct role in the February revolution that toppled the tsar, for leaders of those organizations were in exile abroad or in Siberia, or in jail. Nonetheless the tireless work of activists laid the groundwork. The Bolsheviks were a minority even among the active workers of Russia’s cities then, but later in the year, their candidates steadily gained majorities in all the working class organizations — factory committees, unions and soviets. The slogan of “peace, bread, land” resonated powerfully.

The time had come for the working class to take power. Should they really do it? How could backward Russia with a vast rural population still largely illiterate possibly leap all the way to a socialist revolution? The answer was in the West — the Bolsheviks were convinced that socialist revolutions would soon sweep Europe, after which advanced industrial countries would lend ample helping hands. The October Revolution was staked on European revolution, particularly in Germany.

The beginning of the October Revolution in Nizhny Novgorod on the Annunciation Square

We can’t replay the past and counterfactuals are generally sterile exercises. History is what it is. It would be easy, and overly simplistic, to see European revolution as romantic dreaming, as many historians would like us to believe. Germany came close to a successful revolution, and likely would have done so with better leadership and without the treachery of the Social Democrats who suppressed their own rank and file in alliance with the profoundly undemocratic Germany army. That alone would have profoundly changed the 20th century. And provided impetus to the uprisings sparking off across the continent.

Consider the words of British prime minister David Lloyd George in 1919 as he discussed his fears with Georges Clemenceau, the French prime minister: “The whole of Europe is filled with the spirit of revolution. There is a deep sense not only of discontent, but of anger and revolt among the workmen against prewar conditions. The whole existing order, in its political, social and economic aspects is questioned by the masses of the population from one end of Europe to the other.”

What country goes first?

Russia was the weak link in European capitalism and the stresses of World War I added to the conditions for a revolution. Not an inevitability. Leon Trotsky’s analogy of a steam engine comes to life here: “Without a guiding organisation, the energy of the masses would dissipate like steam not enclosed in a piston-box. But nevertheless what moves things is not the piston or the box, but the steam.”

The October Revolution wouldn’t have happened without a lot of steam; without masses of people in motion working toward a goal. The revolution faced enormous problems, assuming it could withstand the counter-assault of a capitalist world determined to destroy it. The revolution was a beacon for millions around the world as strikes and uprisings, inspired by the example of Russians, touched off across Europe and North America. Dock and rail workers in Britain, France, Italy and the United States showed solidarity through refusing to load ships intended to be sent to support the counterrevolutionary White Armies that massacred without pity. Armies, assisted by 14 invading countries, that sought to drown the revolution in blood.

The revolution survived. But the revolutionaries inherited a country in ruins, subjected to embargoes that allowed famines and epidemics to rage. The cities emptied of the new government’s working class base, the country surrounded by hostile capitalist governments. There was one thing the Bolshevik leaders had agreed on: Revolutionary Russia could not survive without revolutions in at least some countries of Europe, both to lend helping hands and to create a socialist bloc sufficiently large enough to survive. The October Revolution would go under if European revolution failed.

Meeting at the Putilov Factory (1917)

Yet here they were. What to do? With no road map, shattered industry, depopulated cities and infrastructure systematically destroyed by all armies hostile to the revolution — having endured seven years of world war and civil war — the Bolsheviks had no alternative to falling back on Russia’s own resources. Those resources included workers and peasants. For it was from them that the capital needed to rebuild the country and then begin to build an infrastructure that could put Russia on a path toward actual socialism, as opposed to an aspirational goal well into the future, would come.

The debates on this, centering on tempo and how much living standards could be short-changed to develop industry, raged through the 1920s. Russia’s isolation, the dispersal of the working class, the inability of a new working class assembled from the peasantry to assert its interests and the centralization necessary to survive a hostile world — all compounded by ever tightening grasps on political power by ever narrowing groups that flowed from the country’s isolation — would culminate in the dictatorship of Stalin.

Privatization ends chance of democratic control

Stalin would one day be gone and the terror he used to maintain power gone with him. But the political superstructure remained — the single party controlling economic, political and cultural life, and the overcentralized economic system that steadily became a more significant fetter on development. The Soviet system was overdue for large-scale reforms, including giving the workers in whose name the party ruled much more say in how the factories (and the country itself) were run. Once the Soviet Union collapsed, and the country’s enterprises were put in private hands at minuscule fractions of the value of those enterprises, the chance to build a real democracy vanished.

A real democracy? Yes. For without economic democracy, there can be no political democracy. The capitalist world we currently inhabit testifies to that. What if the people of the Soviet Union had rallied to their own cause? What if the enterprises of that vast country had become democratized — some combination of cooperatives and state property with democratic control? That could have happened because the economy was already in state hands. That could have happened because a large majority of the Soviet people wanted just that. Not capitalism.

They were unable to intervene during perestroika. Nor did they realize what was in store for them once the Soviet Union was disbanded, and Boris Yeltsin could impose shock therapy that threw tens of millions into poverty and would eventually cause a 45 percent reduction in gross domestic product — much deeper than the U.S. contraction during the Great Depression.

A revolution that began with three words — peace, bread, land — and a struggle to fulfill that program ended with imposed “shock therapy” — a term denoting the forced privatization and destruction of social safety nets coined by neoliberal godfather Milton Friedman as he provided guidance to Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. Millions brought that revolution to life; three people (the leaders of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus) put an end to it in a private meeting. With the financial weapons of the capitalist powers looming in the background, ready to pounce.

The Soviet model won’t be recreated. That does not mean we have nothing to learn from it. One important lesson from revolutions that promised socialism (such as the October Revolution) and revolutions that promised a better life through a mixed economy (such as the Sandinista Revolution) is that a democratic economy and thus a stable political democracy has to rest on popular control of the economy — or, to use the old-fashioned term, the means of production.

Leaving most of the economy in the hands of capitalists gives them the power to destroy the economy, as Nicaragua found out in the 1980s and Venezuela is finding out today. Putting all of the enterprises in the hands of a centralized state and its bureaucracy reproduces alienation on the part of those whose work makes it run. It also puts into motion distortions and inefficiencies because no small group of people, no matter how dedicated, can master all the knowledge necessary to make the vast array of decisions that make it work smoothly.

The world of 2017 is different from the world of 1917; for one, the looming environmental and global-warming crisis of today gives us additional impetus to transcend the capitalist system. We need to produce and consume less, not more, unlike those of a century ago. We need the participation of everyone, not bureaucracy. Planning from below with flexibility, not rigid planning imposed from above. But we need also learn from the many advancements of the 20th century’s revolutions — the ideals of full employment, culture available for everyone, affordable housing and health care as human rights, dignified retirements, and that human beings exploiting and stunting the development of other human beings for personal gain is an affront.

The march forward of human history is not a gift from gods above nor presents handed us from benevolent rulers, governments, institutions or markets — it is the product of collective human struggle on the ground. If revolutions fall short, or fail, that simply means the time has come again to try again and do it better next time.

This article originally ran in the Indypendent newspaper of New York.

Can’t we have an honest conversation about Vietnam?

The Ken Burns/Lynn Novick television series on the Vietnam War provides yet another example of the narrowness of “acceptable” political discourse in the United States. More than four decades past the end of that imperialist adventure, having a serious discussion about it remains taboo.

The series also provides a fresh example of how the narrowness of acceptable discourse is disguised through the appearance of a vigorous debate. I will confess here I have not watched Burns and Novick’s The Vietnam War, but the consistency of the many discussions of it I have read confirm what would have been expected: The liberal side of the “debate” on the Vietnam War, that an “honorable” effort was tragically miscarried because of “mistakes.”

The series has a long list of corporate sponsors, typical for a Public Broadcasting System production. One of the Koch Brothers, David H. Koch, provided funding, as did the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and Bank of America. Such blue-chip sponsors are not going to associate themselves with any organization that has the slightest potential of providing any challenging critique.

Rice paddies in Vietnam (photo by Simon Gurney)

But let us not reverse cart and horse. This is the sort of case where corporate sponsors, including fiercely anti-democratic ones like the Koch Brothers, provide funding because they are confident of what they will be getting. There is no need for any formal censorship because corporate control of the media will see to it that viewpoints challenging the mythologies of capitalism are deemed out of bounds.

Most large, influential broadcast stations and print publications are owned by large corporations, and a typical small-city newspaper is owned by a prominent local businessperson if it is not owned by a large corporation. Powerful corporate interests appoint the top editors and managers of their media properties — these mass media decision-makers are men and women who already see the world through the prism of dominant ideologies, and those ideologies will be reflected in the way that news stories are covered. Those ideologies are also reflected in indirect ways — pressure to increase readership or viewership easily leads to pandering to perceived (and sometimes manufactured) consumer interests such as wall-to-wall coverage of celebrity gossip and exhaustive coverage of sports teams simultaneous with the shrinking of news sections.

The press isn’t free if you don’t own one

Many folks on the Left have the idea that there is some sort of organized conspiracy among owners and managers of major media outlets to make sure that ideologically inconvenient perspectives are shut out. That simply isn’t so. Competition alone would prevent any such collusion; within “acceptable parameters” reporters and editors want to be the first to report news. It is enough that corporate-inspired ideologies pervade a society and that corporate ownership ensures that decision-making positions are filled with those who hold to some variant of prevailing ideologies or are inclined to “play it safe” by cautiously remaining within “acceptable” boundaries.

The mass media will then simply reflect these dominant ideologies, and continual repetition through multiple mass media outlets reinforces the ideologies, making them more pervasive until the emergence of a significant countervailing pressure. The very competitive nature of mass media ownership helps dominant ideologies prevail — if so many different outlets report the same news item in a nearly identical way, that “spin” can easily gain wide acceptance. Or if stories are reported differently by competing media outlets, but with the same dominant set of presumptions underlying them, those dominant presumptions, products of ideologies widely propagated by elite institutions, similarly serve as ideological reinforcement.

Editors can reign in reporters with independent mindsets by not running unacceptable stories, or revising them so that dominate ideologies and mythologies are not challenged. When a reporter is fearless enough to follow the trail until some semblance of the truth can be published, even if in watered-down fashion, an exemplary punishment can be made of him or her (such as was done to Gary Webb after his reporting on the CIA). But even when that is not the case, a simple ignoring of a story can make it disappear.

The persistence with which stories are reported is another reinforcement — stories that serve, or can be manipulated, to uphold dominant ideologies can be covered for long periods of time with small developments creating opportunities to create fresh reports at the same time that stories that are ideologically inconvenient are reported briefly, often without context, then quickly dropped. An inconvenient story run once, then ignored, can even misleadingly be pointed to as “proof” that news is being reported no matter what interests are at stake.

One well-documented example will provide an illustration — coverage by elite media of Jerzy Popieluszko, a pro-Solidarity priest in Poland murdered in 1984 by Polish secret policemen in contrast to coverage of priests and other church personnel murdered in U.S.-backed Latin American dictatorships.

Human rights depends on if the U.S. supports the régime

In their classic book, Manufacturing Consent, Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman analyzed four U.S. media outlets that then often set the tone for the press — the most influential newspaper (The New York Times), the two main news magazines (Time and Newsweek) and the most authoritative television news broadcaster (CBS). Their study found 140 articles/broadcasts on Popieluszko and eleven articles/broadcasts on 23 victims in Guatemala during a period that overlapped with Popieluszko’s murder; the Times ran ten front-page articles on Popieluszko, none on the others.

The articles on Popieluszko routinely featured graphic descriptions of the details of his murder and consistently tied his murder to Polish communist authorities despite the fact that the murderers were swiftly arrested and found guilty in an open trial. By contrast, only four of the 23 Guatemalan victims had their names mentioned in any news account, little detail was offered for any of these murders, no remark was made concerning the fact that no arrests were made in any of these cases, nor was U.S. material support of the Guatemalan government that was behind the murders once mentioned.

None of the prevailing situation precludes energetic debate in capitalist mass media within the parameters set by prevailing ideological interpretations. Ideas that directly challenge corporate orthodoxy can be excluded at the same time that a debate among two or more “acceptable” ideas rages. This brings us back to interpretations of the Vietnam War. At the end of the 1990s a strong debate played out in the mass media outlets of the United States concerning the Vietnam War (one in which the Times was a significant participant).

A U.S. Air Force plane drops a white phosphorus bomb on Vietnam in 1966.

This debate had all the appearances of a serious dissection of a bloody, deeply divisive blot on U.S. history. But although the debate was heated and lively, it was only between two “acceptable” viewpoints — an honorable effort that tragically failed or a well-intentioned but flawed effort that should not have been undertaken if the U.S. was not going to be “serious” about fighting. Left out were the widely held views that the war should never have been fought because it was a war to extend U.S. hegemony or that the U.S. simply had no business fighting in someone else’s civil war.

Further, the first “acceptable” viewpoint implied, and the second explicitly stated, that the U.S. didn’t really fight hard to win the war, ignoring the actual intensive level of the U.S. war effort in which most of North Vietnam’s larger cities were reduced to rubble, much of the farming lands were destroyed and three million Vietnamese were killed. The total tonnage of bombs dropped by the U.S. in Vietnam exceeded that of all bombing by all countries during World War II. Reports of the countryside at the end of the war spoke of entire regions as “bare, gray and lifeless.”

So much for the proverbial “fighting with one hand tied behind the back.” And let’s not forget that the Vietnamese had already spent years freeing themselves from the grip of France, only to have the U.S. sabotage elections and resume the fight. That the Vietnamese have the right to decide for themselves how their economy will be structured, or even be allowed independent development at all, and that the U.S. used the full might of the world’s biggest military machine to prevent that, is still outside “acceptable” discussion.

Debate in the service of obfuscation

The liberal conception of an honorable effort that tragically failed is every bit an obfuscation as the conservative perspective that a well-intentioned but flawed effort that should not have been undertaken if the U.S. was not going to be “serious” about fighting. But that these two narrow perspective were allowed to fight it out provided the appearance of a free and open media at the same time that the media obscured.

To return briefly to Guatemala, there has only rarely been any effort in the U.S. to discuss Washington’s bloody role (and elsewhere in Latin America). The Eisenhower administration overthrew Guatemala’s democratically elected government, after a 1952 “national intelligence estimate” (a joint document put together by the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies) declared that the United Fruit Company’s massive profits there were a “U.S. interest” requiring intervention.

Allen Dulles, then the CIA director, met with a United Fruit official, promising that whomever the CIA would select as the next Guatemalan leader would not touch the company. The overthrow would institute a 40-year nightmare of state-organized mass murder. A series of military leaders, each more brutal than the last and fortified with U.S. aid, unleashed a reign of terror that ultimately cost 200,000 lives, 93 percent of whom were murdered by the state through its army and its death squads.

The worst of these dictators was General Efraín Ríos Montt, whose régime murdered more than 1,000 people a month during 1982. Ríos Montt was an evangelical Protestant preacher who declared that his presidency was the will of God. Ronald Reagan responded by paying a visit to Ríos Montt, declaring him “totally dedicated to democracy” and claiming that reports of human rights abuses were a “bum rap.”

Do you ever see of this (only one of dozens of examples that could be cited) discussed in the U.S. corporate media? I don’t, either.

In countries in which the media is controlled by the government, it is easy for people to disregard what they read or hear because it is all coming from the same source, even when there is room for different opinions. A system in which the mass media is believed to be independent is far more effective at suffusing a society with an ideology. Such a system is not the result of some sort of conspiracy or a conscious plan, it is simply a natural outgrowth of corporate institutions growing so powerful at the expense of all other institutions.

And when a particularly skilled team of producers is able to uphold the interests of elite institutions, corporate and otherwise, the red carpet will be rolled out. Slick, beautifully presented work beats ham-fisted propaganda every time.