Arthur Koestler, “Scum of the Earth”, 1941

When, on August 23rd, I saw the inconspicuous Havas message on the third page of the Eclaireur du Sud-Est, saying that a treaty of non-aggression had been signed between Germany and the Soviet Union, I began beating my temples with my fits. The paper had just arrived. I had opened it while we were walking down to the St. Sébastien for lunch. ‘What is the matter?’ said G. ‘This is the end, I said. ‘Stalin has joined Hitler.’ He would,’ said G., and that was all. (...)

Next morning, August 24th, the news had spread from the third to the front page. We were spared none of the details. We read about von Ribbentrop’s lightning visit to Moscow and about his cordial reception—and I remembered what fun our Party papers had made of the ex-commercial traveller in champagne who had been promoted chief diplomatic salesman of Genuine Old Red Scare, bottled in Château Berchtesgaden.

We learned all the picturesque details of how the swastika had been hoisted over the Moscow aerodrome and how the band of the revolutionary Army had played the Horst Wessel song—and I remembered the whispered explanations of the Party officials after the execution of Tukhachevsky and the other Red Army leaders. The official explanation (Version A, for the pious and simple-minded) stated that they were ordinary traitors; Version B (for the intelligentsia and for inside use) informed us that, although not exactly traitors, they had advocated a policy of understanding with the Nazis against the Western Democracies; so, of course, Stalin was right to shoot them.

We learned of the monstrous paragraph 3 of the new treaty, a direct encouragement to Germany to attack Poland—and I wondered how this time the Party was to explain this latest achievement of Socialist statesmanship to the innocent masses. Next morning we knew it: Humanité, official organ of the French Communist Party, explained to us that the new treaty was a supreme effort of Stalin to prevent the threatening imperialist war.

Oh, they had an explanation ready for every occasion, from the extension of capital punishment to the twelve-year-old to the abolition of the Soviet workers’ right to strike and to the one-party-election-system; they called it ‘revolutionary dialectics’ and reminded one of those conjurers on the stage who can produce an egg from every pocket of their frockcoats and even out of the harmless onlooker’s nose.

They explained everything so well that, during a committee meeting, old Heinrich Mann, at one time a great ‘sympathiser,’ shouted to Dahlem, leader of the German Communists: ‘If you go on asking me to realise that this table here is a fishpond, then I am afraid my dialectical capacities are at an end.’

As of 2020 in the political discourse on social media there seems to be only two paths: “socialist” or “capitalist”. In reality, the true choice lies between pragmatism and dogmatism, but the line of division between these two is not exactly where most people expect it to be.

What can we learn from rise and fall of USSR?

There's little doubt that USSR was “socialist”, as it not only had “Socialist” in its name, but also, and most importantly, pursued policies of socialist thinkers, specifically #Marx, #Engels and #Lenin. In their socialist economy private for-profit trade was replaced by a transitional solution to #communism, still involving prices and money, but with state owned means of productions and central planning. For-profit private trade was actually a crime (of “speculation”), punished under article 154 of criminal code of USSR.

As result, #USSR experienced a fast growth, shortage of goods, strong industrial production, flourishing black market, free high education and public health, stagnation and secret loans from the “imperialist” powers it condemned in official propaganda.

An important checkpoint was the New Economic Policy of 1922, when Lenin decided to relax the ideological position of the Soviet state and allowed for-profit enterprises, specifically with the objective of stimulating economy.

That certainly was a pragmatic decision and it resulted in accelerated growth of agricultural and industrial production.

Then however #Stalin decided it was too much of a “compromise” and reintroduced harsh collectivisation and nationalisation in all sectors. This step marked USSR's return from pragmatism back to dogmatism.

Was USSR policies dogmatic? Certainly so, placing all private trade and production in criminal code was dogmatic. Was it sustainable? At the time of its dissolution in 1991 USSR owed over $70m to the Paris Club, and was unable to pay not only installments, but even salaries and pensions internally.

Capitalism... or what exactly?

While Marxism-Leninism was a very detailed, even prescriptive ideology that described both social and economic relations at every level of society, most definitions of “#capitalism” are based on presence of a few typical features: private ownership of means of production and for-profit trade.

There's however nothing in “capitalism” that precludes operations of other forms of economic activity: cooperative, state-owned, non-profit enterprises are all widespread and coexist along with private for-profit ones. Pragmatic “whatever works” approach seems to be at the very core of capitalist economies.

As result we have extremely diverse world of economies, that are very different in their social and political organisation, but all share the common features of capitalist economy: Russia, USA, France, China, India and practically all others.

Wait... communist #China? Yes, China is an interesting case because in spite of the country being run by Communist Party of China, it's hard to argue that a country with 60% of GDP produced in small and medium private for-profit enterprises is indeed “communist”. It just defies all postulates of communism, at least in the economic sphere.**

As result of this diversity, when talking about “capitalism” we need to be quite precise which one we mean: French, Russian, some other? Because all of these systems differ dramatically in their policies on income and inheritance tax, social welfare, social housing, public healthcare and dozens of other policies.

A frequent counter-argument here is that Western Europe was forced to introduce socialist elements as result of Soviet Union inspiring workers in the West. In the first place, it's not quite true as social policies predate Soviet revolution by a century.*** But even if it was the case, so what? These policies were introduced specifically because of the “whatever works” attitude and lack of any specific ideological rigidity as seen in USSR.

Dogmatism in capitalist economies

Make no mistake, capitalist economy can drift towards dogmatism just as well: US political discourse is the best example of it.

When people start talking about “#socialism” or “#communism” in response to any suggestion that barely mentions the word “public” (as in “public healthcare”), you know that they have abandoned the pragmatic approach and turned into ideology.

Now, if it's done against outcomes of process efficiency analysis (“ok, at this point having public healthcare might be actually cheaper”), then we are facing precisely the same bias that led USSR to ban private trade against all the experience that suggested otherwise.

This particular bias has its own name and it's called “#neoliberalism”.


  • * Nikolay Shmelyov “Credits and debts” (1987) explains in great detail the state of Soviet economy in mid-80's.
  • ** China started to abandon its hard Marxist-inspired economic policies starting from 80's, shortly after death of Mao. These changes were said to be inspired by Soviet NEP, and are a great example of economic pragmatism that made China the industrial power it is today.
  • *** In case of UK, first labour and what we would today describe as welfare laws were introduced in 18-th century. Public schooling and healthcare were proposed by no one else than Adam Smith around half century before Marx.

A spectre is haunting Europe – a spectre of political ignorance*. And those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it**.

I'm stumbling upon these phrases again and again: alt-right is accusing #BLM movement of being “Marxist”, while less perceptive BLM supporters innocently ask “what's wrong with it, #Marxism is for equality after all”.

As often, both claims have some clue but completely miss the point. One of BLM founders, Carol Swain, said in an interview she's a “trained Marxist”. Politfact ran a pretty good fact-check on all these “he said, she said”, but then it does what everyone does today:

Marxism usually means analyzing social change through an economic lens, with the assumption that the rich and the poor should become more equal

Sorry, but no.

Marxism, as conceived by Marx and Engels, had a number of very specific postulates that distinctively differentiated it from other socialist movements in mid-19th century.

Marx and Engels specifically, and categorically, required that two things happen in order:

  • violent revolution,
  • dictatorship of the proletariat.

As result of these two, the #bourgeoisie would be destroyed as a class, the state would “wither away”, and only then whoever was left alive would be equal. These items were subject of fierce debates between Marx, Engels and social democrats, who believed an evolutionary way to equality is indeed possible without violence.

These specific features of Marxism — fixation on violent #revolution and class conflict as some kind of “cleansing agent” for society were its distinct and fundamental postulates.

Each time you propose “evolutionary Marxism” or something like that, Marx and Engels turn in their graves, as you are undermining the very basics of what they were arguing for their whole lives.

How does Marxism fit BLM?

In short, it does not, not even slightest.***

For BLM to be Marxist, it would need to propose a violent revolution of Black people against White (and insist on it categorically), dictatorship of Blacks over Whites and eventually eradication of White people as a race.

If this sounds like nonsense regardless of you being a supporter or opponent of BLM, it's because it is. Nonsense created by mixing a century-old radical political philosophy that responded (poorly) to then-challenges, with a modern political movement operating in a society created almost entirely to the recipe of Marx's primary adversaries — the social democrats.


  • * Paraphrase of the starting sentence of the “Manifesto of the Communist Party”
  • ** George Santayana
  • *** Black Lives Matter UK has a nice summary of BLM postulates: “Those of all ethnicities and from all nations who believe in racial equality are anti-racists, they stand together, can choose to kneel together in peace and solidarity asserting black people are treated as equals to white people and is a human right to receive racial equality, social and criminal justice”.