4 July 2007

Learning from past mistakes

By Tapani Lausti

Gabriel Kolko, After Socialism: Reconstructing critical social thought. Routledge 2006.

We haven't got much time. If we cannot soon create mass opposition to the rampant and war-like capitalist system, we are doomed. This message of Gabriel Kolko's reminds one of Rosa Luxemburg's dictum "socialism or barbarism".

Luxemburg gets short shrift from Kolko, though. This is a bit surprising considering that Luxemburg was an early critic of the authoritarian tendencies of the Marxist movement, tendencies which Kolko rightly sees as one of the basic reasons why socialists of various currents have failed so miserably in fighting capitalism.

Be that as it may, Kolko's book is thought-provoking. His cruel conclusion is that socialist social theory has been mostly useless in trying to understand modern societies. World events have always come as a surprise to socialists. Neither could they foresee the consequences of their own actions. Thus the movements which were supposed to challenge capitalism have been hopelessly adrift in a world of wars and conflicts. Left-wing theorists were not able to rationally analyse the dramatic social effects of wars and immigration.

The book's title is somewhat puzzling. If the Soviet-type societies were not really socialist, why "After Socialism"? Kolko's provides this answer: "The problem is not to assert that socialism has not been tried but to comprehend — if only to avoid repeating their errors — how those who embarked upon the effort to attain it failed to do so. Leninists and Social Democrats did not capitalize on capitalism's profound failures to create social arrangements and positive precedents for others to follow, thereby gravely tarnishing socialism as an ideal and creating the need for a fundamental intellectual and ideological renovation that does not repeat its failures." (p. 170)

If much of the 20th century was wasted in various practical and ideological follies, the original idea of socialism is still valid in Kolko's eyes. He writes about "the larger but admittedly amorphous rationalist, humanitarian, internationalist, and radical tradition from which socialism emerged, which preceded Marxism by at least a century and ultimately was irrevocably committed to the transcendent goals of equality and social cooperation both within and between states." And he adds: "These premises and objectives are more relevant and imperative than ever, to be refurbished and reasserted." (p. 168)

At times it seems that Kolko has a too sweepingly negative attitude to all political and social thought since those early ideals were established. A lot has been learned from the mistakes of the past. And the current generation of radicals can still gain much from a non-conformist radical tradition from William Morris to Rudolf Rocker, Murray Bookchin and many other libertarians, including the Spanish anarchist tradition. It is perhaps symptomatic that the Spanish revolution of 1936 does not even get a mention in Kolko's book. Not that this tradition has any blueprints for future societies but that would be futile to expect anyway. Sources of inspiration there are, however. Perhaps Kolko has been influenced too much by his studies of communism, especially its Vietnamese version.

Kolko writes: "Candidly assessing socialism's ambitious ideology, both as an explanation and as a goad to action, is a prerequisite if critical social theory is to be reconstructed to become a guide to social reality and behaviour." (p. 20)

One is tempted to ask if social theory as a basis for a social movement is really necessary? Once there is a theory, it needs "experts" to interpret it, thus opening the door for new hierarchies. Would it not be enough to try and dismantle as many authoritarian hierarchies and undemocratic structures as possible and steer ahead with utmost transparency of any leadership needed?

Kolko seems to agree with this idea when he warns: "Workers' organizations and parties are as prone as any to be taken over by ambitious individuals and every obstacle must be created to keep "workers' control" from becoming a defense of new elites." And he adds: "There must be much experimentation because there is no certain and tried way to reform an economy and how to change it will vary by each situation and by country..." (p. 158)

Elsewhere in the book Kolko has this to say about articulating a critical and positive theory: "Capitalism and the foibles of socialist politicians offer many targets. It must also include the nature of power, history, and the direction of international relations — in brief, the structure and weaknesses of key institutions and the ways existing social systems have distorted technology." (p. 163)

One of Kolko's conclusions is this: "The vitality of the socialist vision of an equitable distribution of wealth and income is not that it is the perfect way to organize an economic system but that it is, by far, preferable given the alternatives, their impact on human and social forms and, above all else, their consequences for peace or war in the future." (p. 168)

This review cannot do justice to all the observations and analyses in Kolko's book. Despite some Marxists' outrage at Kolko's criticism, his work deserves careful study. Also, I cannot recommend more strongly these books which have formed an important part of my own education: The Politics of War: The World and United States Foreign Policy, 1943-1945 (Vintage Books 1968); The Limits of Power: The World and United States Foreign Policy, 1945-1954 (written with Joyce Kolko, Harper & Row 1972); Century of War: Politics, Conflicts, and Society Since 1914 (The New Press 1994). An example of his more recent work is Another Century of War? (The New Press 2002).


Visit the archive: Gabriel Kolko, Michael Albert, Noam Chomsky, István Mészáros


[home] [archive] [focus]