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  • The Future of Socialism
  • Francisco C. Weffort (bio)

The events of the last three years have hit the left like an earthquake. The collapse of socialism that began in 1989 surprised everyone. It was like a bolt of lightning from a blue sky. Even more shocking were the events of 1991, when the entire Soviet empire unraveled and the Russian Revolution, one of the largest mass movements of modem history, reached its end as an immense and tragic failure. The left everywhere is now facing the most serious challenge in its history.

When Joseph Schumpeter published his classic Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy in 1942, it was capitalism that seemed to be doomed. The Great Depression of the 1930s had been followed immediately by the Second World War; fascism, which had scored a string of impressive political successes during the preceding decade, was still cresting toward its military high-water mark. Despite capitalism's tentative recovery in the United States in the late 1930s, it continued to teeter on the brink of collapse in Europe. Allied with Stalin's USSR, the capitalist democracies of the West might win the war (as they did), but even that victory, many thought, would not be enough to save them from ultimate disaster. Since the end of the First World War, socialism had appeared fated to triumph in the modem age. Indeed, even though the march to socialism began to lose strength in the second half of the twentieth century, the socialist mystique endured right up until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

While he himself loathed socialism, Schumpeter believed that [End Page 90] capitalism would succumb before it. Soviet-style central planning and state control of production looked to him like the wave of the future. Perhaps precisely because he was a thoughtful foe of socialism, Schumpeter provides a striking example of the persuasive force of the ideologies of his time, and of the tricks that history can play on those who seek to rely purely on reason. What has been falsified in Schumpeter's case is not just a particular prediction of socialist victory, but an entire teleological conception of history, a conception that was not his alone.

Although it is commonly associated with leftist thought, the idea that history moves toward a finality long predates the writings of Karl Marx or the rise of modem socialist groups. Schumpeter puts it forward with an academic's habitual caution: in the inevitable journey from capitalism to socialism, he says, one cannot exclude the possibility of chaotic situations occurring along the way. Schumpeter hedges quite a bit, for example, when he says that the crucial word "inevitability" refers only to "tendencies present in an observable pattern" that "never tell us what will happen . . , but only what would happen if they continued to act as they have been acting in the time interval covered by our observation and if no other factors intruded. "1 I do not believe that Marx would disagree with any of this, for though he often spoke as a prophet, he still enjoyed taking all the precautions of a scientist.

One of the virtues of great and unexpected events like those of 1989 91 is that they breathe new life into the old idea that history, in the last analysis, is the history of liberty. The determinism so common among modem thinkers—be they socialist, liberal, neoconservative, or what have you—is thus bracingly placed in question. Even when we consider Schumpeter's efforts to criticize Marx, their commonly held view of history as necessary movement remains unmistakable in the background. Schumpeter's prediction, more sociological than economic, that capitalism would founder due to flagging technological innovation was not confirmed. And even though modern capitalism has destroyed the "protecting strata" (craft guilds, aristocratic classes, etc.) just as Schumpeter feared, this has not had the catastrophic consequences that he imagined. On the contrary, successful modem capitalism rose to the challenge by devising other protective mechanisms. In the same way, capitalism proved itself able to neutralize the hostility of intellectuals, even to the point of gaining the adherence of many of them.

If the case of Schumpeter is interesting because it suggests...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-3214
Print ISSN
1045-5736
Pages
pp. 90-99
Launched on MUSE
2008-01-01
Open Access
No
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