A counter-reading of the 20th century

What if we viewed the Soviet Union as the single most important political actor of the 20th century? While reviled, it staved off some of the worst possible outcomes — above all the victory of the Nazis. One could also argue, perhaps more counterintuitively and controversially, that their development of nuclear weapons prevented all-out nuclear war by subjecting the US (which showed itself to be willing and even eager to use nuclear weapons when it was the sole nuclear power) to the logic of “mutual assured destruction.” (Of course, both achievements are reversed in popular mythology: now Western schoolchildren learn that the US defeated Hitler all but singlehandedly and that the Soviets were constantly itching to carry out a nuclear first strike.)

The rise of the Soviet Union also had the indirect effect of enabling the postwar settlement that gave workers an unprecedented (and long-mourned) seat at the table. Between this and the boom in investment, the postwar era serves as a kind of Golden Age for most Western nations — an era of broadly shared prosperity that in the US even appeared capacious enough to start accommodating the demands of women and blacks. Meanwhile in the decolonizing world, the existence of two centers of global power allowed newly-formed countries some room to maneuver, rather than allowing the US to simply take on the mantle of the former colonizers unchallenged. In neither part of the world are we looking at a paradise, but surely everyone was better off — or at least on a better trajectory — than they would be under the neoliberal settlement.

Paradoxically, however, if the existence of the Soviet Union made the Western capitalist classes more willing to accommodating workers’ demands, the unattractive example of the Soviet model — which was exaggerated for ideological reasons but still fell far short of its promises — deprived the rebellions of the 60s and 70s of their logical endpoint. Even though there were movements that had some vision for overthrowing the capitalist ruling classes once and for all and organizing economic life differently, there was never a real popular mandate for such a change. Indeed, the concessions that Western powers made in order to counter the communist threat often served to legitimate capitalism as such, even though such measures were a significant (and as we now know, sadly short-lived) aberration.

From the perspective of Nixon’s “silent majority,” then, the rebellions appeared to be narcissitic and self-indulgently romantic at best, dangerously naive and nihilistic at worst. The crackdown that began in the 70s thus enjoyed popular support even as it destroyed the basis for the widely shared prosperity that legitimized the power structures that were carrying it out. I don’t want to claim that the Soviet Union had any serious capacity to assist in fighting this crackdown — certainly their foreign policy had long been to maintain the status quo indefinitely — nor that it would have necessarily turned out better if they had. But by monopolizing the space for an international anti-capitalist movement without actually maintaining the ambitions that went with it, it effectively deprived the Western leftist movements (which its very existence had done so much to enable, albeit mostly indirectly) of any ground to stand on.

Overall, if we think, as good Marxists must, in messianic/apocalyptic terms, then the Soviet Union was not the messiah of the left, but the katechon — successfully heading off one “man of lawlessness” (Hitler) and holding another (the US) at bay for over a generation. And now that it has been removed, the man of lawlessness enjoys free rein in the form of a rapacious and unrestrained capitalism and in a Western bloc that feels empowered to go to war largely on a whim.

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