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Friday, February 15, 2019


Nine days ago, in response to a post entitled “From Each According to His Ability,” S. Wallerstein wrote a comment to which I did not at the time respond, but which has been rattling around in my mind, and I decided today to have a stab at a response.  Here is his comment:

“What's fascinating about this conversation, among other things, is that no one participating, including myself, believes in the higher morality of Socialist Man any more.  If we were having this discussion in the 60's or early 70's, the higher morality of Socialist Man would have been taken for granted. Anyone who talked about monetary rewards for right choices, as Professor Wolff does above, would have been mocked as being infiltrated from Readers Digest.  I'm not sure exactly when I stopped believing in the higher morality of Socialist Man, but now that I see that others no longer believe in it, I realize that I haven't believed in it for quite a few years. That's a real sea change among what might be called the "socialist community".”

As soon as I read this comment, my mind went to the beautiful closing passage from Leon Trotsky’s 1924 book Literature and Revolution.  Trotsky was a class act, unlike the man who had him murdered.  Those who want to know more might read Isaac Deutscher’s monumental three volume biography [Stalin only got one volume from Deutscher.  BTW, I have some lovely personal stories about Deutesher, whom I met twice, one of which involves Mika Bzrezinski’s father.]  Here is the passage:

“Man will make it his purpose to master his own feelings, to raise his instincts to the heights of consciousness, to make them transparent, to extend the wires of his will into hidden recesses, and thereby to raise himself to a new plane, to create a higher social biologic type, or, if you please, a superman. It is difficult to predict the extent of self-government which the man of the future may reach or the heights to which he may carry his technique. Social construction and psychophysical selfeducation will become two aspects of one and the same process. All the arts—literature, drama, painting, music, and architecture will lend this process beautiful form. More correctly, the shell in which the cultural construction and self-education of Communist man will be enclosed, will develop all the vital elements of contemporary art to the highest point. Man will become immeasurably stronger, wiser, and subtler; his body will become more harmonized, his movements more rhythmic, his voice more musical. The forms of life will become dynamically dramatic. The average human type will rise to the heights of an Aristotle, a Goethe, or a Marx. And above this ridge new peaks will rise.”

This was written in the glory days of the Bolshevik revolution, and although Trotsky was unusually rhapsodic, he was not alone in his belief that socialism would usher in not merely a new stage in the development of the social relations of production but also a new era in individual human fulfilment.  I was deeply moved [and also, I must say, somewhat amused] by Trotsky’s vision of the man of the future [needless to say, he does not mention the woman of the future], but the truth is I do not believe a word of it. 

There are three different claims at issue here, and it is useful to distinguish among them.  The first, expressed so beautifully by Trotsky, is that socialism will unleash the creative artistic energies lying with the human psyche in ways never seen before, so that all of us will become Aristotles, Goethes, or Marxes, and new now unimaginable forms of human creativity will rise above them.  The second is that just as feudalism requires [and recreates] feudal types – lords, peasants, serfs, priests, kings and queens – and capitalism requires [and brings into existence] capitalist types – legally free laborers, entrepreneurs, capitalists, petit bourgeois  – so socialism requires, will call forth, and will reproduce new types, whose moral sensibilities will resonate to the clarion call “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.”  The third claim, which I think S. Wallerstein is alluding to [though I may be wrong], is that socialism will not only produce, but requires, a degree of social responsibility and revolutionary morality that will make the day-to-day motivations of men and women under socialism different from and more admirable than the motivations of men and women in capitalist societies and economies.

Trotsky’s claim is just hogwash, and his own examples say as much.  Aristotle, Goethe, and Marx [and Shakespeare, Austen, Palestrina, Bach, Dickinson, Michaelangelo] come from many different stages in the development of the social relations of production, and there is not the slightest reason to imagine that their creative abilities can be arranged in an evolutionary, or revolutionary, sequence.  Aeschylus is [at least] as great a playwright as Ibsen, and Bach is surely a greater composer than Chopin.  Trotsky was only 45 when he wrote Literature and Revolution, and we can forgive him his enthusiasm, but no one can take his vision seriously.

Properly understood, the second claim is probably correct, although in the absence of any true socialist society it is speculative.  Clearly the personality types characteristic of medieval France differ from those characteristic of nineteenth century England.  [For some perceptive observations along these lines it is useful to re-read Alexis de Tocqueville’s L’Ancien Régime et la Révolution.  Also, of course, Max Weber’s famous monograph The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.  And, at a deeper level, Erik Erikson’s Childhood and Society.]  What kight such socialist types look like?  Well, one could do worse than to examine an early Israeli Kibbutz or a contemporary community collective food market.

But it is the third claim about which I am most concerned here, and about which I am skeptical.  Does socialism require that we all be better people, fairer, more generous, more concerned about others, more committed to ”the cause,” more ready to make sacrifices for the common welfare?

Lord, I hope not, because save in the excitement of revolutionary days, this sort of spiritual transformation is simply not going to happen.  That is the import of Oscar Wilde’s famous one-liner, “Socialism will never work – too many meetings.”  A system of social relations of production and the associated institutional arrangements is sustainable only if it can function successfully in quotidian ways with the ordinary run of human being.  Even in holy orders, it is only the exceptional priest or nun, destined for sainthood, who can resist what Weber, in another context, called the routinization of charisma.

If I may descend abruptly from the world historical to the personal, in my own career I lived through this routinization.  The Afro-American Studies Department I joined in 1992 was staffed by an extraordinary group of men and women [more precisely men and one woman, the Chair] all of whom had come out of the Civil Rights and Black Liberation movements, from CORE, from SNCC, from the Panthers, from the Black Arts Movement, from the Institute of the Black World.  They had a passion and a commitment quite unlike anything I had ever witnessed, and it inspired a series of classes of graduate students in the ground-breaking doctoral program we created and which I ran for twelve years.  By the time I retired in 2004, these founding members were getting ready to retire, and were being replaced by fine, accomplished young scholars, none of whom had come out of a movement [there being no longer a movement from which they could come.]

It is always thus, alas, and so it will be with socialism, if or when its time comes.


howard b said...

I've briefly lived on kibbutzim and have relatives in Israel still living on kibbutzim
A few observations: first life is lively and full as supposedly in city states; second, the kibbutzniks at the oft of the last century came from a revolutionary movement who wanted to change the world; third, the best talent of the Kibbutzim very badly desired to leave; fourth, though locally in some regards socialistic, they adapted to the broader capitalist society I can't say with what success, plus they belong to a militaristic culture that is Israel. Not only must we ask about the morality under socialism, but whether, as in 1984, socialist societies will be at war?
Or if there would prevail a broader peace

s. wallerstein said...

Thank you very much.

I was thinking first of all of Che Guevara's concept of " the new man" (they never include women), who under socialism would sacrifice comfort and even a long life for the cause of the revolution. Guevara seemed to have believed that the spirit of the first days of the Cuban Revolution, middle class urban people going to the countryside to tutor illiterate peasants and to cut sugar cane would continue indefinitely.

That was generally mixed in with the very non-Marxist idea of moral incentives, of sermons about sacrifice, of will power overcoming obstacles. I believe that did a lot of damage in the Latin American left: probably some of the errors of the Allende government were due to a belief that normal people will undergo endless sacrifices if properly inspired and Chavez in Venezuela seems too to have fallen under that illusion.

Some small groups on the Latin American left, guided by these principles, formed guerrilla groups which "committed suicide" in armed struggle against rightwing dictatorial regimes such as that of Pinochet. A tragedy seen with hindsight.

I was also thinking of the Chinese cultural revolution or at least how it was seen by Western Maoists. A while ago I read a dialogue with Foucault and French maoists (from around 1970) where the maoists insist on how Chinese peasants, inspired by the thought of Chairman Mao, work ceaselessly and unselfishly, to construct communism in China. Foucault, being a very bright person, is slightly skeptical, but a lot less skeptical than any of us would be today.

You still find people who think like that on the Latin American left, but a lot fewer than one would have found in the early days of the Cuban Revolution or even during the 80's during the golden days of Sandinismo.

Christopher J. Mulvaney, Ph.D. said...

Socialist Man and Socialist Science

A tragic episode in Soviet history is traceable to the same kind of thinking expressed in the Trotsky quote, i.e., socialist man is a creation of social relations, not genetics. The notion that environment constituted the nature of man was transferred to the the realm of botany and biological sciences by Lysenko. There was a complete repudiation of genetic theory enforced by the repressive estate apparatus and a new scientific orthodoxy decreed. Traits were not inheritable, genes don't exist and natural selection was rejected. Scientists were fired, jailed and executed in purges of the Universities. Lysenkoism is also credited with reducing crop yields.

Matt said...

A good deal has been written on this - or at least closely related - topics. My survey of what I've read leads me to believe that there's a lot of disagreement, but that most people looking closely at the matter don't think that Marx's ideas on the topic (which are not very developed, admittedly) are likely to be right. I'd recommend the sections in Allen Buchanan's book _Marx and Justice_ on revolutionary motivation; discussions by Alec Nove in his _The Economics of Feasible Socialism_ and in the volume on _Problems of the Planned Economy_ in the New Palgrave Encyclopedia of Economics; several papers in the volume _Alternatives to Capitalism_, edited by Jon Elster and Karl Ove Moene; and the first couple of chapters of Joseph Heath's book, _Morality, Competition, and the Firm_ (in particular, the discussion of stakeholder theory and State Owned Enterprises.)

None of this will come close to giving fully satisfactory answers, of course, but all seem pretty relevant, for people who are interested in these topics.

Michael Llenos said...

Is the imaginary world of Star Trek a good example of a socialist government? Some may say that my question is irrelevant since Star Trek is based on science fiction and not history. But I will respond by saying that a lot of the technology we have today was first sported by William Shatner on the '60s Star Trek show. Plus, the Star Trek show showed women serving in a make believe Starfleet. Now we have women serving in the U.S. Navy ship fleet. A lot of dumb bigots got angry because Uhura was an officer serving on the Enterprise bridge in the '60s. But one young lady saw that good example of Uhura and became the first female African-American astronaut for NASA. Could the fictional world of Star Trek be the utopia that everyone, especially socialists, should be aiming for? However, they do say truth, or even future truth, is stranger, or could be stranger, than fiction.