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Socialism in No Country

Why the revolutionary left has always been bad news for democracy

Photo 12/ UIG/Getty

In her illuminating essay “The Revolutionary Tradition and its Lost Treasure”—itself a lost treasure, as so few people who consider themselves within the Western revolutionary tradition ever read or even know about it—Hannah Arendt explains a political concept Thomas Jefferson advanced toward the end of his life, involving the creation of what he called “wards” or “elementary republics.” Jefferson proposed that counties throughout the United States be subdivided into units small enough to permit citizens to conduct their politics on a face-to-face basis. Jefferson was vexed that the U.S. Constitution had, in theory, granted fundamental power to the people, without however giving them any tangible way to actually participate in the process of governing. The elementary ward republics he advocated would, he hoped, provide a means for citizens to exercise political power directly, rather than solely through their elected representatives.

Arendt, like Jefferson, was a devoted civic republican, who considered the devolution of political power to small, subsidiary units the only viable way for republican democracy to thrive. Active citizen participation in political life was the guiding ethic of republican politics, and so a sustainable republic had to be designed to preserve the basic conditions of face-to-face participation. As she examined each of the major European revolutions of modern times, Arendt discerned a phenomenon that struck her as the concrete realization of Jefferson’s ward republican scheme. With every such upheaval—which always commenced spontaneously, she noticed, never at the instigation of outside forces—the participants were able to quickly organize themselves into decentralized, self-governing workers’ and governing councils; Arendt named this the “council system.” The French Revolution sprouted its pioneering revolutionary societies and municipal councils; the Russian Revolutions of both 1905 and 1917 birthed the legendary workers’ councils known as soviets; subsequently, councils emerged in the Bavarian Soviet Republic during the short-lived German Revolution of 1918–1919; and much later still, during the abortive Hungarian Revolution of 1956 against an imperialist Soviet Union, an entire council system sprung up spontaneously, first in Budapest, then throughout the rest of the country.

The denouements of each of these experiments in spontaneous republican self-government were never pretty. If they were not crushed by the centralized, rightist state against which they rebelled, they were mercilessly subverted—in Arendt’s terminology—by the “professional revolutionists” of the left, a new personality type for the modern political drama. What made the council system so precious, in Arendt’s view, was its absolute novelty: It represented an entirely new type of political system, one that was imagined, though only in the vaguest outline, by Jefferson. According to Arendt, even the ideologically hidebound Marx and Lenin realized, if only dimly and fleetingly, that something truly revolutionary in human history was afoot in the creation of these organizations.

In Marx’s case, his transitory epiphany occurred during the Paris Commune of 1871; in Lenin’s, it struck when he confronted the sudden appearance, seemingly out of nowhere, of the self-organized soviet workers’ councils during the Revolution of 1905. Arendt contends that neither Marx nor Lenin was capable of comprehending these assemblies as possible harbingers of a radical new form of government. Marx’s and Lenin’s focus was trained exclusively on seizing power—the main, if not sole, business of the professional revolutionist. Arendt writes, “The part of the professional revolutionist usually consists not in making a revolution but in rising to power after it has broken out.” “Seizing power” might have been a better way for her to phrase that thought. Power—maximum power—is truly, for these professional revolutionists, the coin of the realm. In 1917, as soon as Lenin realized the dire threat that the soviets represented to his party’s potential monopoly of power in the revolutionary context, he moved to eradicate them as ruthlessly as Czar Nicholas II must have wished he had done when he had the chance.

At the other end of the spectrum of the socialist movements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries stood the anarchists, who believed almost religiously in the ability of the masses to self-organize, and abjured the idea of a centralized state, especially of the totalistic kind Marx advocated. Mikhail Bakunin, the leading proselytizer of anarchist thought in the second half of the nineteenth century, spoke his feelings about Marx’s theory of communism thusly: “I am not a communist because communism concentrates all the powers of society into the state; because it necessarily ends in the centralization of property in the hands of the state.” Arendt gives the anarchists credit for possessing a keen appreciation of the efficacy of decentralized institutions like her beloved council system, but she faults them for not understanding that the revolutionary process requires, in addition to the dismantling of an existing oppressive state, the creation of a new and more enlightened one. Regrettably, Arendt failed to discern the close affinity between anarchism and republicanism, manifested in their mutual embrace not only of radical decentralization, but of the principle of federation (as opposed to strict hierarchy).

There is now an organization in the United States called the Young Democratic Socialists of America (YDSA)—the youth wing of the older DSA. Unfortunately, no self-identified socialist regime in the world—all of which have been installed by professional revolutionists in the Marxist-Leninist tradition—has ever been the least bit democratic. No democratically elected legislative body has ever voted to take control of their nation’s “means of production,” except to the most modest extent. Jacobin magazine, which could reasonably serve as the house organ of the YDSA, points to Salvador Allende’s brief presidency of Chile as an example of a situation in which true socialism might have been democratically installed, had it not been for America’s intervention.

There’s good reason to be skeptical of that claim. Allende, elected to his nation’s presidency in 1970 with 36.3 percent of the vote, was ousted in a bloody coup by right-wing forces three years later. Thirty years on, Chilean socialists would argue that Allende’s basic error was in disregarding “the law of the three-thirds,” meaning the almost even division between left, right, and center in Chilean politics. Allende represented a Popular Unity coalition, in which his principal partner was the Chilean Communist Party. While Allende seems to have been sincere in his commitment to build a “democratic, pluralistic, and libertarian” model of socialism (whatever he imagined that meant), Chile’s hard-line Communist Party was not so committed. Its leaders pressured Allende to move ahead ever faster with a radical socialist agenda, alarming not only Chilean rightists and many centrists as well, but also Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai, an informal adviser to Allende. In conversation with the Chilean foreign minister, Zhou said tersely, “You’re going too fast,” and implied doubt about whether it would be possible to create socialism in a country with a parliament and free press (i.e., a democracy), especially at such reckless speed.

Karl Marx predicted that when socialist revolution came, it would begin in one of the more advanced industrial countries, where the proletariat was the most numerous, and then spread to other capitalist countries, as had happened in the failed revolutions of 1848, which inspired him to co-write The Communist Manifesto. When an actual revolution did finally occur, it took place in the most backward of the major European powers, Russia, and was rooted mainly in the Russian peasantry. It did not extend to any other capitalist nation. Hence Stalin’s phrase, “Socialism in one country.”

Socialism in no country is more like it. The historical fact is, the essential accomplishment of modern revolutions, from the French Revolution on, has been to eradicate a reactionary feudal social order to make way for industrialization, and industrialization has meant, in one form or another, capitalism. Russia and China, over time, have each evolved their own distinct, if not bizarre, version of that system—the former, a kind of oligarchic gangster capitalism, with a ruthless (though immeasurably less ruthless than Lenin or Stalin) capo di tutti capi at its apex; the latter, a successful (if thoroughly corrupt) version of state capitalism—conjoined, ironically enough, with a semi-hereditary aristocracy (also known as the “princelings“) composed in part of descendants of survivors of the Long March.

Certain politicians, and gullible or careless members of the press, persist in claiming that social democracy is a form of socialism. This misconstruction enables conservatives to label proposals such as Medicare for All as socialist projects, and results from the erroneous assumption that if socialists support a particular program, that means the program is ipso facto socialist. Jacobin writers have been admirably straightforward in refuting this mischaracterization of social democracy. Neal Meyer, in a Jacobin piece titled “What Is Democratic Socialism?,” offers the following fair-minded description of social democracies: “Societies with robust social safety nets and labor movements that check the worst tendencies of capitalism and limit the power of the wealthy in key ways.” What, then, exactly, is Jacobin’s objection to Scandinavian-style social democracy, especially given the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s annual surveys that consistently show Scandinavians among the most contented people in the world? What the writers object to, you finally realize, is any significant degree of power remaining in the private sphere—they appear to want, exactly as Bakunin accused Marx of wanting, a total concentration of power in the state. The rejoinder that under their form of socialism the state would be restrained through a system of direct democracy is hardly reassuring, or realistic.

Political scientist Louis Hartz wrote a famous treatise back in the 1950s called The Liberal Tradition in America, arguing that because the United States never experienced a European-style system of feudalism, it boasts neither a tradition of serious political conservatism nor one of radical socialism. Now, however, some polemicists on the American left are seeking to dislodge Hartz’s claim by suggesting socialist politics has always been on the vanguard of reform in this country. John Nichols, a longtime and estimable correspondent for The Nation, published a book in 2011, The “S” Word: A Short History of an American Tradition ... Socialism. He also recently published an admiring piece in The Nation about the city of Milwaukee, Wisconsin’s past record of putting nominally socialist mayors in office. Nichols, born and raised in Wisconsin, knows full well that the only really important and enduring left-leaning political tradition in that state is Progressivism—a philosophy, not incidentally, deeply rooted in the civic republican ethos. The Progressive Movement in Wisconsin—and nationally, to an extent—was centered in Madison, the state capital, where Governor “Fighting Bob” La Follette (for whom Nichols’s great-grandfather campaigned) mobilized the intellectual resources of the state university (Nichols’s alma mater) to pioneer many of the most significant liberal policy reforms (such as Social Security) of the twentieth century. Socialists in Wisconsin and elsewhere indeed supported many of these policy innovations—in much the same way that extras on a movie set support the performances of the leading stars.

There is an old saying that a republican is just an anarchist without the strength of his convictions. We might propose instead that a republican is an anarchist with political common sense, who knows that at the end of any given political day, so to speak, an exercise of authority will probably be required. The recent revival of the republican tradition in America began in 1975, when scholar J.G.A. Pocock published his tome The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition. As William J. Connell explains in an essay called “The Republican Idea,” Pocock cautioned in that groundbreaking study that a republic should be “ever on guard to combat the corrupting effects of private wealth.” Connell went on: “Pocock so emphasized the subordination of private wealth to the good of the commonwealth that for many American historians today the rhetoric of ‘civic humanism’ has come to stand for a kind of communitarianism, if not socialism, offering a response even to that hoary question, ‘Why is there no socialism in the United States?’ For if—so the argument goes—for various historical and structural reasons (such as the absence of feudalism) America remains impervious to European socialism, its republicanism is a historically grounded political tradition which, like socialism, also prizes the sacrifice of private interests for the good of the community.” Viable republicanism in one country, in other words, easily eclipses the utopian idyll of socialism in none.