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Criticism of the capitalist state does not equal support for totalitarian socialism.

Our primarily responsibility is to fix and improve the economic system in which we exist. From this it follows that the concern of U.S. residents should be with identifying problems and issues with capitalism. Usually, when problems with capitalism are exposed, the counter-argument is made that socialism is full of flaws and is an unsuitable substitute. Some of the criticisms of socialism, as practiced in U.S.S.R. or China, are well deserved, but the argument misses the point. Changing our economic or political system to be more egalitarian and fair for every one, not just those with capital, does not necessarily mean substituting it with a political/economic system that is also tyrannical, albeit for a different reason.

The productive argument is not whether this “-ism” is better than that “-ism,” but finding actual problems that affect people’s lives and acting to remove, or at least alleviate, these problems. Over 40 million people without health insurance constitutes a problem. We could do something about that. Unemployment is in double digits. We could do something about it as well. Foreclosures continue to increase. That is another solvable problem, if we are willing to go after the root causes.

Since I think we should use the same standards regardless of what “-ism” is being discussed, I would agree that communism/totalitarian socialism does not completely satisfy the needs of society, but nether does capitalism. Asking whether this “-ism” or that “-ism” is better is asking the wrong question. What we should be asking is whether there could be something better than either.

Let us qualify the basic human needs. Michael Bakunin, a Russian anarchist, listed three essential needs: economic/animal needs (food, shelter), intellectual needs (to be free to think, create, explore, and satisfy their curiosity), and the desire to rebel at perceived injustices, i.e. liberty (“God and the State”). Let’s assume that his argument is correct and let us take a look at how totalitarian socialism meets these needs. Economically speaking in the late 1980s, the basic needs were met for the vast majority of the population. Unemployment was low (0.02 percent in Bulgaria in 1991, 2 years after the fall of communism), homelessness was hardly detectable, and literacy was virtually universal. Why were people living in Bulgaria or any of the other communist countries unhappy? The unhappiness and dissidence stem from the intellectual restrictions posed on people, the clear existence of a ruling class in a system that is supposed to promote equality, and more importantly from the fact that people were still not in charge of their own lives. As we know, in totalitarian socialist countries, the state ordains everything and all the citizens have to do is follow the orders. Needless to say, dissidence is not tolerated in totalitarian states. So totalitarian communism may meet the basic economic criteria but fails the liberty criteria for human needs, as is constantly pointed out.

The story is reversed in the U.S., where liberty is a right, but the cult of accumulating property destroys the chance for a decent existence for a large part of the population. So economic needs are not met for many, but, at least theoretically, people are free. I say theoretically, because we do need to remember how African-American and other dissidents were treated by the FBI program COINTELPRO (Understanding Power by Noam Chomsky). We do need to remember that in 1918 a U.S. presidential candidate, Eugene Debs, was arrested and imprisoned for several years for making an anti-war speech (A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn). Should I mention the recent “Patriot Act”, rendition practices, and illegal wiretaps? It is fair to bring to light the atrocities committed by communist regimes, like Stalin’s, but we should not conveniently forget our own history: genocide against the native Indians, the only nation to use the atomic bomb, the only nation in the world to be sanctioned by the International Court of Justice for illegal use of force against another state, constituting international terrorism (the case Nicaragua vs U.S.A. was heard in 1986). We also need to remember that the U.S. government supported regimes (in El Salvador, for example) that executed dissidents en masse (Manufacturing Consent by Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman). All that being said, we still have more liberty than the people in most other countries.

As a slight digression, it is constantly argued that because the economy of the U.S. was better than that of communist Russia, capitalism is the better and more efficient system, which is true within a narrow sense. From a scientific standpoint, to meaningfully compare the behavior of two samples under different conditions over time requires that the two samples be identical at the beginning of the experiment. I am not sure how many economists will argue that Russia and the U.S. had the same economic and industrial capacities in 1917. The comparison between “apples and oranges” comes to mind. As a second point, the failures of “large scale” collectivism could be attributed at least in part to the “top-down” organization of the political and economic structure. There are numerous examples of workers wanting to do something but the Kremlin ordering something else (Anarchism by Daniel Guerin). In the cases where collectivism worked, it is the workers who were making the decisions, not bureaucrats hundreds of miles away. The problems of famines are inherent in a totalitarian state where there is no free exchange of information (Propaganda and the Public Mind, Noam Chomsky). The interesting part is that neighboring capitalist India caused the deaths of many more people over the same period of time. “He [Amartya Sen, Nobel Prize winner in economics] estimates close to four million extra deaths every year in India, which means that, as he puts it, every eight years in India the number of skeletons in the closet is the same as in China’s moment of shame, the famine,” writes Noam Chomsky in Propaganda and the Public Mind.

The recognition of the shortcomings of both capitalism and communism is not new. In 1840, Joseph-Pierre Proudhon in What is Property? took the time to warn against communism, while also arguing against property rights. “… Communism, taking uniformity for law and leveling for equality, becomes tyrannical and unjust. Property, by despotism and encroachments, soon shows itself oppressive and unsociable… Each is exclusive; each disregards two elements of society. Communism rejects independence and proportionality; property satisfies neither equality nor law.”

Michael Bakunin, writing three decades after Proudhon, warned against the dangers of the Marxist doctrine, which he saw as despotic because it proposed a political system dominated by a class of people who thought themselves better suited to run public affairs (God and the State and The International and Karl Marx by Michael Bakunin).

Even more recently, in 1938, Rudolf Rocker argued that “The economic dictatorship of the monopolies and the political dictatorship of the totalitarian state are the outgrowth of the same social objectives, and the directors of both have the presumption to try to reduce all the countless expressions of social life to the mechanical tempo of the machine and to tune everything organic to the lifeless rhythm of the political apparatus. Our modern social system has split the social organism in every country into hostile classes internally, and externally it has broken the common cultural circle up into hostile nations; and both classes and nations confront one another with open antagonism and by their ceaseless warfare keep the communal social life in continual convulsions … and the constant dread of new wars, which today dominates all peoples, are only the logical consequences of this unendurable condition, which will inevitably lead us to universal catastrophe, if social development does not take a new course soon enough. The mere fact that most states are obliged today to pay from fifty to seventy percent of their annual income for so-called national defense and the liquidation of old war debts is proof of the untenability of the present status, and should make clear to everybody that the alleged protection which the state affords the individual is certainly purchased too dearly” (Anarcho-Syndicalism Theory and Practice).

His words ring true even today. Bear in mind that currently the U.S. government is spending between 20 percent and 54 percent on the military, depending on whose expenditure distribution one believes, according to the War Resisters League. To summarize the argument, both capitalism and totalitarian socialism/communism tend to oppress people, but by different means, and to different degrees depending on the individual country.

Is it reasonable, when thinking about how the world should be, to limit ourselves only to existing political and economic systems and assume that nothing better will ever be possible? Do we just accept our reality, be obedient, and simply try to fit in better, disregarding all of the misery and human suffering we witness on daily basis? The directors of out current society would love for us to adopt that attitude! And while we should drop the presumption that if we were to simply adopt this or that strict ideological formulation everything will fall into place in a week, we should continue to look for ways to reach our vision of equality, liberty, and justice for all. As argued by Noam Chomsky, to reach that long-term vision we will have to move one step at a time, setting achievable goals that should take us closer. In his words, “Slogans are easy, but not very helpful when real choices have to be made.”

Alexi Goranov is a postdoc at the David H. Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research.