I took the title from a discussion on Quora about whether Communism is dead or will re-emerge, and if so under what conditions. I don’t believe that the author of the post (Susanna Viljanen, from Aalto University in Finland) who opens that discussion wanted to see Communism arise again, but rather is asking if it can, and under what circumstances. She clearly states at the beginning of her argument,
By now, Communism is dead and buried. Its failure was so spectacular, its achievements so appalling and its legacy so hateful and bitter that nobody in their sane minds – especially in the Eastern Europe, where it was brought by conqueror’s bayonets, want it back. The first round of Communism was the greatest tragedy world ever has seen.
I think we can all agree with that sentiment. Viljanen opens her post with a quote she says is from Karl Marx:
History has a tendency to repeat itself: first time as a tragedy, second time as a farce.
She then adds her own twist: “a third time as a melodrama.”* I won’t debate whether this is true, but Viljanen continues:
Communism and Nazism are basically each other’s mirror images. They appeal to same kind of people and they promise same kind of world – and deliver similar results. So as long as there will be Communists, there will be Nazis as well… But neither ideology can gain enough support as long as the society is a) stable and b) provides its members decent living.
By that logic I assume the reverse: as long as there are Nazis there will be Communists as well, a sort of balancing act between two extreme forms of totalitarianism. But I think that presumes a right-left axis, and I have to argue that for all the labels applied to it, Communism was not a leftwing ideology, but only masqueraded as one, just as the Talibangelists in the USA masquerade as Christians.
…To win, both Nazism and Communism need an unstabilized society – one in chaos, civil war, bankruptcy, natural catastrophe or horribly divided.
She is suggesting, I believe, that the current situation in the USA is becoming (or has become) fertile ground for revolution (a belief shared by some researchers into income inequality; the USA is the fourth highest nation in the GINI inequality scale), but I would disagree: in a deeply consumer-oriented society like the USA, revolutions are rare. You can distract too many people from their political goals with a sale on iPhones (or, for the right, AR-15s) too easily. People in the USA will storm the breach to buy a discounted TV set in a Black Friday sale, but organize nationwide for political purposes? Unlikely (as long as that TV is working). A revolution requires a cadre of informed, dedicated ideologues at its core, and I don’t see them anywhere.
On the other hand, I think the USA is the womb of a rapidly-developing rightwing coup; more like the Nazi solidification of power post-1933 than their Beerhall Putsch. I think the alt-right which always portrays itself as the victim, as the target, as the underdog, is more likely to rise up, but in support of — not against — the totalitarian state because it supports the racist/xenophobic/misogynist ideologies of the alt-right.** But a Communist revolution? Never.
Looking at the USA today, with its rise of (and support in the White House for) neo-Nazis and crypto-fascists, a rightwing coup seems inevitable. I don’t see a parallel rise in Communists or any left ideology in that country to match the rise of authoritarians and fascists (in other western nations, as well as the alt-right continues to grow). But, certainly, the current US situation can be called unstable, with its democracy at grave risk — from the right, not the left.
In fact, there is no real left wing in American politics. Those accused of being in the “radical left” would barely be called centrists in other nations, and most would be considered moderate conservatives at best. The right throws the adjective “socialist” at opponents as an invective but they clearly don’t understand the word. To them, a socialist is merely someone they don’t like, who doesn’t share their rightwing views, someone who wants to spend tax dollars on anything aside from the military, or who thinks corporations should pay taxes. You might as well be speaking Klingon if you try to explain socialism to the right.
The USA has nothing to compare with an actual leftwing party that one can find pretty much everywhere else. The USA only has shades of rightwing in its political landscape. A party like Canada’s NDP is incomprehensible to Americans.
I think some of the comments that follow the original post are also interesting. Communism was a failed ideology and failed economic model, and nothing like what Marx envisioned (to be fair, his vision was shy of actual, practical details and was never meant as a template). Communisim very quickly devolved into a totalitarian state in every nation where it was tried (within months of the October Revolution in 1917). No one wants to see that return (although the current situation in Russia is hardly different under Putin than under his mentor, Andropov).
But for all its evils, Communism had an important role to play in our own politics and world views, and without it, we have lost part of ourselves. When it was around, democracy was better, more open, more inclusive, and stronger. Why? Because we had to be: we were locked in the Cold War fighting for the hearts and minds of every nation, especially those in the developing world. We had to show ourselves as better, not just stronger; we had to be a model of the best possible place to live.
We competed with the Communists on every level. They claimed they had the best education system: we had to prove we had better. They claimed the best healthcare system, we had to have a better one. They sent up the first satellite, then the first cosmonaut, we had to put someone on the moon. Their athletes won the Olympics; we had to win others. They had the best chess players, we had Bobby Fischer beat them. They helped developing nations improve, we had to better for them. They claimed they had gender equality and women’s rights, so we had to have them, too. They had the best grain harvest; our combines did a better one. They protected the environment, we went leagues further to protect and clean ours. And so on.
When the USSR collapsed, we lost our challenger, our sparring partner We lost our measuring stick, and with no one to measure ourselves against, we became worse. Much worse. The result since the fall of Communism has been the rise of predatory capitalism, accelerating income equality, the growing alt-right, the pseudo-Christian Talibangelists, the anti-vaxxer/anti-masker conspiracies, QAnon, and the rest of the dreck.
In the USA, once the bastion of democracy against Communism, the advances made during the Cold War in equality, integration, rights, environmental protection, labour legislation, freedoms, education, tolerance, healthcare, corporate taxation, and justice have been or are being rolled back to pre-1950 levels.
Can anyone imagine a US president openly lying, pushing mad conspiracies, boasting about adultery and paying porn stars, publicly insulting his opponents and even his own staff, sloughing off the deaths of nearly 200,000 fellow Americans and the infection of more than six million because of his bungling, or wasting almost $150 million of taxpayer money golfing AT HIS OWN RESORTS when there was a Khrushchev, Brezhnev, or Gorbachev to measure his actions against? When it mattered what the rest of the world thought?
When Communism was around, America presented itself as brave, free, strong, and the best place in the world to live. Today it’s a dumpster fire stumbling towards a second civil war.
Because we don’t have to prove ourselves to anyone any more, and because we don’t have to measure our behaviour or our leaders against any other’s, instead of striving to be the best, instead of proving ourselves better, we only have ourselves to look at. And in that mirror, we have become the worst we can be, not the best. Donald Trump whined about “shithole countries” and then turned American into one.
I wouldn’t wish Communism on anyone today, but America — and the rest of the West —was better when it was around.
* It’s actually a misquote from Marx’s 1852 essay, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte Marx was writing not about history in general, but about two specific people: Napoleon I and his nephew, Louis Napoleon (who became the failed emperor, Napoleon III). And he was referring to a previous comment by Hegel:
Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. Caussidière for Danton, Louis Blanc for Robespierre, the Montagne of 1848 to 1851 for the Montagne of 1793 to 1795, the nephew for the uncle. And the same caricature occurs in the circumstances of the second edition of the Eighteenth Brumaire.
According to Wikipedia, Marx also wrote a novel in 1837 (unpublished), called Scorpion and Felix, in which he wrote a similar sentiment:
Every giant … presupposes a dwarf, every genius a hidebound philistine… The first are too great for this world, and so they are thrown out. But the latter strike root in it and remain… Caesar the hero leaves behind him the play-acting Octavianus, Emperor Napoleon the bourgeois king Louis Philippe…
But Marx did not believe in or write about a cyclical view of history.
** Proof of this was seen in Portland, this year, when a tyrannical government sent in anonymous, illegal, armed troops to brutalize and kidnap protestors. Yet the right which likes to pretend it needs to be armed with military-style assault weapons to prevent a tyrannical government from taking over, cowered instead in its basements and bedrooms when this happened. The armed right will eagerly show up to shoot unarmed protestors, but not stand against tyranny because they in fact support that tyranny.