Finnish Broadcasting Company, 26 March 2004

Socialism, democracy and conceptual embezzlement

By Hannu Reime

A documentary produced by the Radio News & Current Affairs Department of the Finnish Broadcasting Company in the weekly series Maailmanpolitiikan arkipäivää (‘everyday world politics’). The programme was broadcast in Finnish, except for the comments in English by the interviewees which were then translated into Finnish.

Series producer: Matti Törmä

Broadcast on March 26th, 2004, at 8.30 am. on Radio Channel 1, and re-broadcast the same day on Radio Channel 3 at 10.30 pm.

Persons interviewed:

        George Wilmers, mathematician, Manchester (GW)

        Ehud Ein-Gil, journalist/writer, Tel Aviv (E-EG)


         “Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting” from the album Blues & Roots by Charles Mingus

        “Galbi” from the album Yemenite Songs, sung by Ofra Haza

Producer: Hannu Reime (HR)

Sound technician: Aki Apilo

Duration: 24’37”

Text read by the radio announcer:

The topic in our program series this week is socialism and democracy and, more generally, use and misuse of political terms. Dr. George Wilmers, a logician from Manchester, and the Israeli journalist/writer Ehud Ein-Gil challenge the view that there was some kind of socialism in the former Soviet bloc. The documentary “Socialism, democracy, and conceptual embezzlement” is compiled by Hannu Reime.

GW: Democracy is a political idea, of course, it means nothing more than rule by the will of the people as expressed by direct voting or through elections. The main socialist currents prior to the Russian revolution all regarded democracy as intrinsic to the organisation of socialist society although, of course, there was no general agreement as to how this should be organised. One should remember, for example, that this is reflected in the very name of the social democratic parties, which were actually revolutionary parties in the early part of the 20th century.

[music (Mingus), which rises from behind the voice and then fades…]

E-EG: At that time, of course, many national liberation movements used socialism as a tool to help them. They believed that they should promise something to the masses, to the workers, to peasants, offer something more than just national liberation in order that they will be motivated, mobilized to the fight. So a lot of these movements used socialism as such a tool. But in South Yemen, it so happened that on the left-wing of the movement, people took it seriously, talking about socialism. They didn’t think it should be only a tool but they wanted to have socialism over there.

[Mingus rises again and then fades …]

HR: We have just heard views on the relations between socialism and democracy, and socialism and national independence. The British mathematician George Wilmers reminded us of the historical closeness of socialism to democracy, and the Israeli writer Ehud Ein-Gil commented on how national movements often used socialism as a tool and not as an end in itself, with South Yemen in the 1970s as a partial exception. The music you heard was “Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting” by Charles Mingus from 45 years ago, a fascinating and electrifying jazz performance which relays the feeling of a prayer meeting in a congregation of Black people in the Deep South of the United States. With Mingus’s bass accompanying, each soloist rises — as if being a member of the congregation — to testify on his belief:

[Mingus rises and then fades…]

HR: George Wilmers and Ehud Ein-Gil, in their own way, testify for socialism in this documentary. In their interpretation of socialism, I would say, it’s not a question of religious belief, nor of knowledge in the strict scientific sense but rather something which starts as a critique of the existing conditions, as a critique of capitalism. An important aspect or a starting point of socialism, is critical questioning, asking why workers can be dealt with like raw materials and other items of expenditure. Or why the Unites States attacked Iraq? Why the reason for war was first said to be Saddam Hussein’s WMDs, and then, when none was found, his horrendous human rights record, whereas the brutal treatment of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza is ignored when even a small note from Washington to Jerusalem would better their lot? Or more generally, what, in fact, is the so called “Western community of shared values”? Or is it really true that the foreign policy goal of the of the only remaining superpower in the world is to promote democracy, or is it only an ideological construction, a part of propaganda, one component of which is the widely shared view that it was socialism that collapsed 15 years ago? It’s interesting that it’s precisely on this view of socialism that the winners of the Cold War accept the ideology of the defeated side. On the other hand, former East Germany, say, was also called the German Democratic Republic. I’ve never heard anyone say that democracy collapsed in the Eastern parts of Germany in November 1989.

George Wilmer and Ehud Ein-Gil don’t know each other but they share the view that the collapse of the Eastern bloc didn’t mean the collapse of socialism for the very simple reason that there was no socialism in the Soviet Union and other countries modelled on it. The word “socialism” has its origin in France after the revolution and Napoleon’s wars. During the 150 year history of the workers’ movement there have been “many sorts of socialists” as was commonly said in Finland. In the early history of the movement, however, the connection between socialism and democracy was so close that people usually thought of socialism simply as the extension of democracy from politics to the economy. As is well-known, the economy is the sphere of life where most of the important decisions from the citizen's point of view are made, and its importance has only grown in the last few decades. If socialism means a society where democracy has been extended from politics to the economy, then it’s true, by definition, that there couldn’t have been any socialism in the former Soviet Union and other state collectivist societies because there was no democracy, neither in their economies nor in their political system.

George Wilmers teaches mathematical logic at the University of Manchester. He studied it in the 1960s in Poland, the leading European country in the field. The reason I made contact with him is that more than two decades ago he wrote a very interesting article on Poland for the New York left-wing journal Monthly Review, and this article “Revolution in Poland” contained some really original ideas that have retained their validity despite the collapse of state collectivism. Wilmers wrote under the pen name Michael Szkolny in order to be able to visit Poland at the time. His most interesting idea was the notion “conceptual embezzlement”:

GW: A visitor to a country within the Soviet bloc a generation ago could only marvel at the pervasiveness of certain political terminology in contexts where the semantics which was intended was not only entirely different from the apparent meanings of the words but in some cases it became quite incoherent. For example, the word “socialist” itself simply came to designate the characteristics of the existing regime. An “anti-socialist element”, for example, was just someone who challenged the regime from whatever point of view, and the word “anarchist” on the other hand was a term of abuse reserved for any critique of the regime who accepted the absence of private ownership of the means of production but who challenged the lack of democracy in the organisation of society.

GW: Another example would be the word “internationalist” which simply came to mean “aligned with the current foreign policy of the Soviet Union.” And there were lots of other examples such as “working class,” “revolutionary,” “bourgeois,” which actually became almost completely meaningless in their usage, and this meaninglessness was also mimicked by their usage by Western Communist parties. In the lengthy post-war period leading up to the collapse of the Soviet Union this official abuse of language became so absurd, when compared to what everyone in those societies could see around them, that ordinary people simply regarded this language with contempt, and in private, if you talked to people, they would use these terms only ironically. In fact, almost no-one actually believed  the propaganda of official discourse, at least in the last years.

GW: But a point which I believe many analysts have failed to note, is that this official abuse of language was actually a very powerful means of ideological domination even long after people ceased to believe the official ideology. The reason for this was simply that large parts of ordinary language had become so debased that many coherent ideas had simply become inexpressible without complex circumlocutions. The word “socialist,” for example, was just one victim of this process. And it’s this process of the debasement of language of political discourse which I called conceptual embezzlement. In other words, the words sound familiar but when you try to analyse their meaning in a particular context, you find that the meaning has been stolen. Of course, this idea is actually implicit in two well-known works of  20th century literature, Zamyatin’s We and Orwell’s 1984. In the utopian societies, or dystopian societies, which Zamyatin and Orwell describe, most people actually believe the official propaganda, and what I’m saying is that it’s not actually necessary for people to believe the propaganda for it to be effective because the process of conceptual embezzlement, as I call it, actually deprives people of the linguistic tools to organise political resistance.

HR: During the crisis caused by the Solidarity movement George Wilmers wrote that it was “no accident that the ideas which …[were] … alienated by the conceptual embezzlement” were those that belonged to the tradition of the workers’ movement like “socialism,” “internationalism” etc. When the powers-that-be pretended to be defending these values, although they themselves didn’t believe in them, they effectively stole them from the opposition. This explains the fact that the first independent workers’ organisation in the East bloc took Polish nationalism and the Roman Catholic religion as its ideology. Formal censorship existed, to be sure, but its role as a thought police was secondary.

When I requested an interview with George Wilmers, he wrote in his message that the way such notions as “democracy” and “democratic values” are now used in the world resemble the way the word “socialism” was used in the Soviet bloc. It’s easy to find “some interesting parallels between the ideological situation in the Soviet bloc in the thirty years preceding its collapse, and the current situation in the West”.

Let’s extend the story of the history of the use and misuse of socialism a bit, and move to Yemen in the Southern part of the Arabian peninsula with the help of the Israeli journalist/writer Ehud Ein-Gil. Before that we can listen Yemenite music for a moment. “Galbi” is Arabic and means ‘My Heart’; the singer is the late Ofra Haza from Israel:

[music (Ofra Haza), which rises and fades…]

E-EG: The story is a story of a young Israeli who will grow up and be educated as part of the mainstream Israeli society, and believed in all the myths that the Israeli society was based on, meaning the Zionist idea about historiography and idea about how the state was created.

HR: Ehud Ein-Gil works as a journalist for the respected Israeli newspaper Haaretz. Last month he published a novel in Hebrew with a fascinating title Milestones on the Road to Hadramaut. It’s an autobiographical novel that tells the story of a young Israeli who during his military service loses his faith in the official truths of  his country. In this the book resembles the autobiographical apostasy novel Os Filhos do Cardeal of the former Roman Catholic priest Eugênio Giovenardi from Brazil which was published as a Finnish translation three years ago. The motto of Ein-Gil’s book is: what has been, has been and what has not been, can have been. This refers to the fact that the reader does not know what in the book has happened and what is fictive. But the Hebrew verb form at the end of the sentence is ambiguous. It can also mean: what has not been, can be. This can be understood to refer to what the writer calls “Bedouin socialism with a human face” in the South Yemen officially called People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen in the 1970s. Older radio listeners surely remember that the Communist Party in Czechoslovakia in 1968 gave the name “socialism with a human face” to its democratisation program in 1968, a program whose realisation was cut short by Soviet tanks. In the novel by Ehud Ein-Gil, the main character, the writer’s alter ago, tells of somewhat similar events the following decade in a completely different setting, also far away from the focus of the world’s media attention. South Yemen had become independent when the British left the country in the autumn of 1967. There had been two rival national movements of which the more radical National Liberation Front came to power at the dawn of independence:

E-EG: So that was the beginning. Now, when they were in power, of course they started internal fights inside the movement between those who thought that socialism was only a tool, and those who took it seriously. The first round between them was lost by the left, and that’s one of the reasons why I used the name Hadramaut in the title, because the left was concentrated in this area of  South Yemen, and for a while there were two governments inside, one government in Aden, and the left ruled for some time in what was called at that time in Arabic the Commune of Hadramaut. They were defeated militarily, but a year later they succeeded in taking over the government. And from then on South Yemen was the most left-wing country in the world.

HR: When I ask Ehud Ein-Gil what he means when he says that South Yemen was for some time the most leftist country in the world, he tells about the radical land reform that, however, was realized without state power, and no-one was forced to till the land collectively though many did it. There’s also the interesting detail that they decided “not to give arms to the people so that this agrarian revolution …[was] … unarmed, because they didn’t want bloodshed.”  President Salem Rubay’ ‘Ali was against copying the East European model, and he wanted to keep South Yemen independent in the conflict between the Soviet Union and China. The president and his supporters had, however, opponents inside the Party, and in the summer of 1978 fighting broke out in various parts of the country. ’Ali was thrown out of power and executed. South Yemen aligned with the Soviet Union and started copying the East European political and social model. After the collapse of the Soviet bloc, the political line of South Yemen changed, and soon the country was united with North Yemen. Ehud-Ein Gil stresses, however, that “in the middle of Arabia, very close to Saudi-Arabia and all the conservative, traditional countries, South Yemen was for a while kind of a secular island,  which means also that women were a lot more liberated and free than in the surrounding area. It was a quite open country and not what people used to think of as a Moslem country. All this was lost. It’s a pity.”

So we come back to the present time. I asked Ehud Ein-Gil what he thinks of the fact that religious, in this case, Islamic fanaticism, has replaced socialist ideas. Everything that Ein-Gil tells about in his novel has been wiped out.

E-EG: Well, it was wiped out as it was wiped out in other parts of the world. I think it’s a pity, because nationalism as a driving force of the Arab society lost during the 1970s, and then there was for the people who suffered under the nationalist regimes the question of what they could fix their hopes on. The only alternative almost only alternative then was some sort of socialism, which I don’t regard as socialism, anyway what was called socialism, which the Eastern bloc suggested. The other option was Islam. So when nationalism lost its attraction to the people, they looked for socialism, and when they didn’t find over there something very attractive, what was left was Islam, and when the Soviet bloc collapsed altogether and it was identified with socialism, so for people at that time, 1990, people thought: well, that’s it,  socialism is dead. What is left then, if we don’t want to live under these regimes that we have, which are nationalist only in language, and don’t offer any social solutions, any real social solutions, and we don’t want to be part of this underdeveloped world, and we have no hopes of going over to the developed one, so where could they fix their hopes on? There was nothing else, nothing else around, so then it’s quite understandable why there was a resurgence of Islam. It’s not only the militant and terrorist part of this movement but also people in the mainstream. They had something to hope for. They want to hope for something, that tomorrow will be better than yesterday. And the only thing that offered them something like this was the belief in God, which will, of course, fail them.

HR: The other person I interviewed for this documentary, George Wilmers, stressed at the beginning that socialism and democracy went closely together before the Russian revolution. Later they were separated, and both suffered the fate of conceptual embezzlement.

GW: After the Russian revolution and especially in the later years of the Cold War when it became evident that in the collectivist empire which claimed to be socialist, that is, the USSR, there was no democracy at all, the word “democracy” came to be associated with the generic form of  parliamentary democracy which is typified in the modern capitalist economies; democracy, in fact, became the key ideological weapon of the West. In the rhetoric of the Cold War, the idea of socialism in any version involving communal ownership of the means of production was represented in the West as inherently antidemocratic. This interpretation of socialism involves conceptual embezzlement of both “socialism” and “democracy”. Moreover, this was actually aided by Soviet propaganda itself which referred, always disparagingly, to “bourgeois democracy” but which, in fact, couldn’t discuss any serious alternative concept to this bourgeois democracy because it was clear that there was no democracy whatsoever in the Soviet Union. And with the collapse of the Soviet Union, in the triumphalism of the early 1990s, this embezzlement of the word “democracy” became complete. Essentially the official Western consensus has become that capitalism is a necessary prerequisite for democracy.

HR: George Wilmers reminds that many socialists were also indirectly responsible for these multiple embezzlements. Many “thought that […] the overthrow of capitalism could only result in a socialist society”, and they were completely wrong. In fact, very few socialists have thought over the nature of democratic decision-making in socialism or, for that matter, in capitalism. Wilmers refers to the work on social choice theory by the mathematician Moshé Machover also interviewed in this documentary series and his colleague Dan Felsenthal. They have studied voting power and the decision-making in, for example, the EU Council of Ministers. This work is mathematical but different solutions have deep political consequences. But in this we are moving from the realm of ideology, propaganda and conceptual embezzlement to that of real world. And it’s a topic for another story.

Interview with George Wilmers

See also:

[home] [focus] [archive]