Socialism is as Dead as Communism


September 15, 1991|By FRANZ SCHURMANN

On August 2, a communist youth newspaper in Moscow featured a cartoon on its front page showing a man in a straight jacket being carried away to a mental institution. He was screaming, "We shall live under communism."

Well before its final collapse, most Soviet citizens knew that communism, once their powerful religion-like faith, was dead. Many communists continue to hold power both in the Soviet Union and elsewhere. But those who support them do so largely because they oppose radical economic privatization which could cost them their jobs.

All over what was once the Second World, remnant communists are now called right-wingers and conservatives, the same contemptuous epithets revolutionary communists once used to describe their foes.

In the West, some political intellectuals still want to rescue socialism from the fate of its cousin, communism. Socialism, they maintain, is a system of government which cares for the people -- unlike capitalism, which exploits them.

The idea of a beneficent, creative and efficient government in the interests of all working people was central to both reformist socialism and revolutionary communism. But the rub is that people all over the world -- whom both communists and socialists used to refer to as "the masses" -- no longer believe that government anywhere can or will rescue them from their plight and, in fact, probably will only make it worse. And without that earlier faith in the progressive potentialities of government, there is no way the fires of socialist idealism can be lit again.

In the Soviet Union, the socialist system ravaged a potentially rich economy and gave rise to a bloated patronage system. The universal health care it created gave the Soviet Union, alone among advanced nations, a declining life expectancy. And full employment led to conditions where, as people joked, "everyone has a job and nobody works."

In many Third World countries where socialist regimes came to ** power, the current rush toward the market is a reaction against massive mismanagement, corruption and oppression by these regimes.

As the gap between poor and rich widens in the capitalist countries, many still hope for beneficent governments to bring about social and economic justice. Yet socialist or labor movements and unions have been declining. Earlier socialist visions which once aroused such enthusiastic response are dismissed as the rhetoric of intellectuals.

The Harvard sociologist Daniel Bell, a Marxist in his youth, wrote of an "end of ideology" in the 1960s. Yet ideology is hardly vanishing in the modern world.

In the Soviet Union two belief systems are rapidly rising from the bottom to replace socialism. One is nationalism, evident

especially now in the Russian Republic. Nationalists believe in strong state power, and many people are worried that, once in power, they could turn fascist.

The other rising ideology is religion, noticeable not only in the Soviet Union but throughout the Third World. In many poor countries religious movements are providing people with community services nationalist and socialist governments would not or could not provide. Their political strength comes from the fact that they are trusted by the people whom they treat as individuals and not masses.

Some Western intellectuals hope that the worldwide turn toward democracy can reinvigorate socialism. But the strong democratic movement in the Soviet Union wants the market and private property, two features disliked by Western socialists. New democratic movements in the Third World have more in common with Soviet democrats than with Western socialists.

In the entire world, there is only one communist movement which is gaining strength: the Communist Party of Peru, more commonly known as the Shining Path.

Though shunned by the Latin American left, it has a chance of some day coming to power in the shambles of that ravaged country.

Its characteristics -- totalitarianism, mysticism, and a ruthless resort to violence -- are anathema to all democratic socialists. Yet those were the marks of communism at its most triumphant, not just in the Soviet Union but in many if not most other communist countries.

Those still seeking justice in an evil world would do best to accept that both socialism and communism are dead, and work for a new vision of a better future in tune with emerging and not vanishing realities.

Franz Schurmann, author of numerous books on foreign affairs, teaches history and sociology at the University of California, Berkeley. He wrote this commentary for Pacific News Service.

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