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  • Socialism, Capitalism, and Modernity
  • G.M. Tamás (bio)

Western socialists who do not wish to be seen as apologists for tyranny may dispute whether "actually existing socialism" was socialism at all. Yet the parallels between Western democratic and Eastern revolutionary-despotic socialism are numerous enough to allow us to assert that socialism is one of the main strategies of modernity, indeed, the only one which is (or was) global. It is the only variant of modernity that East and West have in common; otherwise, the twain shall never meet.

The communist parties of Europe were born out of impotent rage against the First World War. Reformist trade unions and social democratic parties had failed to keep the international proletariat from killing one another in the service of their respective capitalist-imperialist masters. Class solidarity melted in the heat of nationalist frenzy. Marxist leaders of the social democratic center had no moral theory of war. Revolutionary antimilitarism ("defeatism") turned against social democracy in three important respects: 1) The incipient communist movement led by Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg refused to regard social equality as the main goal of the workers' movement, maintaining instead that the suppression of alienation was the true essence of socialist politics. Thus did the Zimmerwald-Kienthal revolutionaries break with the [End Page 60] idea of "working within the system" to achieve social justice and a better way of life for proletarians. They envisioned an immediate end to wage slavery and the division of labor as part of the revolution that would end all revolutions. 2) Because the proletarians themselves and their political representatives had proven unreliable, the "revolutionary subject" would henceforth be not the "empirical" working class itself, but rather the agent of its ideal essence as a class, the disciplined and self-conscious vanguard Party. 3) The liberal democratic illusion shared by the treacherous trade union leaders would be dispensed with, and Marx's vague notion of the "dictatorship of the proletariat" revitalized.

The messianic-revolutionary writers of the 1920s (Aleksandr Blok, Isaac Babel, Boris Pilnyak, Andrei Bely, and others) captured the prevailing sense of anticipation of the Last Battle that would overturn all previous orders and mark the rise of a new breed of healthy young barbarians to replace the corrupt old gentlemen who had sacrificed the flower of Europe's youth to the imperial system handed down by the Congress of Vienna. This sense that nothing was ever to be the same gripped figures as disparate as Spengler and Lenin, Mussolini and Béa Kun, Hitler and Trotsky. For their generation there was but one reality: war, a view most admirably described by Ernst Jiinger, especially in his great essay Der Arbeiter. The skull beneath the skin of politics was armed force commanded by blind will.

War was hated, but somehow expressed the truth of things. The ennui and disillusionment of the sad uniformed assassin made him ridicule any concept of law, any hope of liberty, any attempt to distinguish between naked power and legitimate authority. The veterans who had seen the ideals of liberal individualism die on the battlefields had very simple ideas about a just society. Justice was personified by the brave lieutenant who shared his tinned meat, his flask of brandy, and his bottle of aspirin with his men, and was ready as well to share their death in a long and meaningless war of attrition. In their view, the civilian world that had sat back peacefully while they bled in the stinking trenches deserved only contempt. This idea was shared by such Westerners as Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves, Ernest Hemingway, Henri Barbusse, Hans Carossa, Erich Maria Remarque—and John Maynard Keynes. The Bolshevik generation did not consist of Bolsheviks alone. All its members shared a disgust for what they saw as the sham ideals of liberal humanism, altruistic patriotism, and the like. A new society would have to be forged by disenchanted veterans, united by a common sense of betrayal; filled with distrust for individuality, conventional politics, conventional morality, and la patrie; and overcome by loathing for bankers, dukes, politicians, generals, poets, philosophers, and columnists.

Thus did radical defeatism help to shape Bolshevism, a hostile new sibling to social democracy...


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