I gave three talks last week in the UK. Perhaps because they were different (communicative capitalism, derivatives as the commodity form of drive, and revolutionary theory), the reactions were different. Yet I was surprised that in the setting that I would have predicted would have had the most radical and politicized students (SOAS in London at a conference called Taking Control), the dismissive reaction to communism, "it doesn't work," seemed to be raised more often.
I also hear the claim "it doesn't work" frequently among my own students. Even radical leftists who should know better echo the refrain of the failure of communism and the failure of socialism (and this in contexts of asserting that we should fail better).
The communism fail meme has got to go. It's a myth; it's ideological; it is a sign of left fear rather than left reasonableness (and this is a good place to insert appreciation for Mark Fisher's account of capitalist realism).
So what does it mean to say that communism failed?
Is it only a reference to the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 and the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991? So is the claim that communism failed because the regime collapsed? Or is the claim that it failed because privatization and market measures were introduced? There is massive blurring between these two events the first involved mobilized struggles by the people, which means that the USSR was successful enough to produce subjects capable of acting and organizing, subjects who were more than passive consumers. That they revolted is in no way the same as wanting the full installation of market reforms that were forced onto the country via a shock treatment that created extreme wealth and extreme poverty. The presence of counter-revolution (extreme market measures) is not an indication of failure--it's an indication of capitalist counter-power. So communism failed temporarily to stop capitalist aggression. It's interesting, though, how specific this claim is and how easily it is rhetorically expanded into a larger claim about communism itself as a failure.
Does it the claim that communism doesn't work mean that the USSR failed in a different sense? If so, what is it? They had an elaborate, successful space program; they became an industrialized superpower in a remarkably short period of time, condolidating into several decades what took the US, UK, and Germany more than a century. They went further at eliminating economic inequality among their citizens than the US, UK, and Germany have ever done. They developed an advanced medical and scientific infrastructure. And the subways were totally amazing.
Or maybe the claim that communism failed is meant to refer to the Gulag. If that's the measure of failured, then the US has also failed. Our prison population exceeds 2 million; it is clearly a form of class and race war. Actual criminals (Wall Street) rarely do time, but people who act out of desperation are eaten up. Additionally, the US sanctions and participates in torture (harsh interrogation). And, the US has a prison camp where detainees sit without being officially charged and without possibilities for trial. If the USSR was a failure on these grounds, than the US is, too.
Maybe the claim that communism failed is meant to designate the bloody excesses of the Stalin period. It can't refer simply to show trials, we have our share of those and our courts now explicitly and without apology rule in favor of corporations. Yet if the point is that communism failed because of the Stalin period, then it needs to be accompanied by the recognition that the US was allied with the Soviet Union during much of the Stalin period, particularly WWII. So at the time of ostensible failure, we were closer to the regime than in any other period of Soviet history. That's the time period, in other words, when the USSR was not portrayed as a failed state at all but as a strong one. Additionally, we should note that anti-communism preceded Stalin and was amplified in the US in the decades after Stalin was gone.
I don't think communism failed and I think that there are important ways that the Soviet experiment succeeded. In fact, I actually don't think that radical leftists really think that the Soviet Union failed. I think that this language of failure, picked up from capitalist mainstream culture, covers over a more fundamental anxiety, namely, that communism succeeded. In other words, the left isn't afraid of failure; it's afraid of success.
Leftists really fear the bloody violence part of the Russian revolution and the Stalin period. At the Taking Control conference (and in his contribution to The Idea of Communism volume), Peter Hallward is quite great on this, emphasizing the legacy of anti-Jacobinism and the historical legacy of a preference for condemning some kinds of violence but not others. What is condemned? The violence of the people, the violence of the people fighting against those who would oppress them. State violence, the force of counter-revolution, is taken to be at some point justified and permissible. Revolutionary violence is condemned, over-condemned, infused with surplus condemnation,.
What are leftists afraid of? The violence of a Party? This seems a strange thing to fear is leftists area already thinking of themselves as participating in a party and a struggle. But maybe not. Maybe the fear is of the collective power of the people, of our own power, once it is outraged and unleashed. Maybe it's a fear of one's own inner violence. Maybe it's a fear for one's own privileged--an outraged people is unlikely to stop at the university gates.
And maybe once identified this fear can be channeled into strength, that is, into confidence in the power of the people actually to wipe out and remake. Collective power is the fundamental difference between right and left. The right emphasizes the individual, individual survival, individual strength, individual rights. The left is, or should be, committed to the collective power of the people.