From the drama of history to history as sham: on the fetishism of socialist ‘fakeness’.
In the unpublished work known as the 1857 Introduction (MEW 13: 615-641), Marx opens his consideration on method by stressing how, by beginning their analyzes with the figures of the ‘isolated hunter or fisherman’, political economists Adam Smith and David Ricardo still stood ‘with both feet on the shoulders’ of what he termed ‘the eighteenth-century prophets’ (615). The reference to religion is deliberate. It evokes the parallel Marx had drawn in the Poverty of philosophy between the bourgeois standpoint on feudal society and Christian theologians’ relationship to other forms of belief. If, to the latter, ‘every religion, other than their own, is a fabrication of man’, whereas theirs ‘is a revelation from God’, to the former ‘there was once a history, but there isn’t one anymore’ (eine Geschichte [hat es] gegeben, aber es gibt keine mehr, MEW 4: 139).
It follows that, in the teachings of economists – i.e., Marx’s modern-day prophets –, the ‘eighteenth-century individual’ does not emerge as the combined ‘product… of the dissolution of feudal societal forms’ and of ‘the new forces of production developed since the sixteenth century’; this socially produced individual ‘hovers’, rather, ‘as an ideal, whose existence they project into the past’. In other words: ‘Not as a historic result but as history’s point of departure’ (MEW 13: 615 – my stress).
Crucially, Marx argued that the bourgeois standpoint on political economy did not arise solely from the gestures of a) projecting back that which first had to be borne historically and b) self-identifying with its realization. He stressed a further operation, namely, c) naturalization. That is, modern economists’ elevation (or hypostatization) of the eighteenth-century individual from prophane inhabitant of a concrete social reality to the status of ‘natural individual appropriate to their notion of human nature’; as such, ‘not historically engendered, but posited by nature’ (615). Marx concludes with the assertion that this illusion ‘has been common to each new epoch to this day’ (615-16).
If that is so, is there an illusion appropriate to and bred by our own times? Not quite. Though the present might show a knack for hatching minor chimeras and boast new devices to propagate them, the uncomfortable fact is no epochal transition separates Marx’s 1850s from our 2020s. If that is so, then that master illusion should not have substantially transfigured either. In other words, if the present epoch is governed by a capitalist societal formation that, despite many relevant mutations, remains unaltered in its foundations with regards to the one Marx dedicated a lifetime of study and critique to, so it must be with our illusions. The eighteenth-century variant Marx had sought to dispel might well possess a new physiognomy; its inner-workings, however, should have remained unchanged.
The contemporary survival of a mode of naturalization Marx had attributed to bourgeois political economists’ ‘peculiar method of procedure’ suggests this is indeed the case; more specifically, their penchant for arranging institutions into one of ‘only two kinds’, i.e., ‘artificial and natural’ (MEW 4: 139). ‘Artificial’ stands here for things constructed, hence both fickle and hollow, while ‘natural’ represents that which is genuine, eternal and, above all, static. Nothing could be further from Marx’s own concept of nature; indeed, his thought disputes and seeks to overcome the nature-society dualism altogether (but that’s another story).
If these definitions (and the binary itself) seem decidedly archaic, one discipline, contemporary history, has raised them to the status of living fossils. Modern-day historians, especially those dealing with the recent past, show a decidedly eighteenth-century propensity to put things into either an ‘artificial’ or a ‘natural’ box. The meaning of ‘natural’ remains largely unchanged; it corresponds, namely, to those deeper traits and propensities of being human, which had supposedly lay in waiting until capitalism provided a societal form fit for their realization. The role of the ‘artificial’ has also endured: to provide natural’s suitable foil.
Yet, the range of historical experience deemed ‘artificial’ went through a key enlargement in the twentieth century. That is, once the Russian Revolution of 1917 heralded the first lasting experience of a post-capitalist societal form. From that point onwards, it was no longer merely feudal (or, more broadly, pre-capitalist) society that stood as the inauthentic counterpart to a capitalist social order presumed to be more reflective of human nature; the mantle of artificiality began to envelop the historical attempts to surpass the latter as well, i.e., socialist societies. If this practice had already been widespread during the Cold War, state socialism’s collapse or significant transmutation as of 1989-1991, followed in most cases by a cataclysmic capitalist restauration, played a key role in cementing into common sense the aura of artificiality that had been attributed to it from the other side of the Iron Curtain.
That very metaphor was, in fact, an embodiment of this gesture of (de)naturalization. It was not employed to denounce the East-West partition of Europe as a product of oppression or the like, but rather to smuggle in the message of the contrived nature of this border-setting act; that is, it worked less through the allusion to the cold and rigid materiality of the barrier, then to the theatrical gesture of a curtain being drawn. A similar logic was responsible for the conversion of the Berlin Wall to the quintessence of ‘real-existing’ socialism: every country has borders; this one, however, was drawn by someone to keep people in. It embodied ideologically-driven arbitrariness rather than the negation of freedom as such. A more far-reaching critique was never intended. Given the attachment of its propagators to the Western establishment, the ‘official’ outcry directed at the Iron Curtain and the Berlin Wall throughout the Cold War was not (nor could it have been) targeted at the existence of borders as such, or of border walls for that matter. Their recent apotheosis in Europe and the United States constitutes no incoherence in this regard.
Yet, to come back to the crux of Marx’s critique, the manner in which a previous historical formation is approached and explained, and especially the way its deficiencies are devised, show an intimate connection to the overall self-understanding (and the dominant ideological constructs) of a given societal form. My argument is that this assessment can be extended to the confrontation with a competing social system, as was the case of state socialism. In this sense, both ‘neoclassical’ and later ‘neoliberal’ bourgeois economics were, to a significant extent, responding to the seismic shifts of 1917 and 1989, respectively, in clinging to and refining the anachronism of the ‘isolated individual’. As for the historical scholarship entrusted with state socialism’s postmortem, it hinged its analysis on the natural/artificial binary instead. The problematic result was that, instead of portraying men and women in socialist societies as the simultaneous ‘authors and actors of their own dramas’ (MEW 4: 135), with all the contradictions this entails, mainstream historical accounts of the post-1989 era chose to depict them as partakers of a senseless if elaborate sham (in German: Schwindel, also meaning fraud or scam).
A sham, because the crucial presupposition of such accounts is that the artificiality of socialist societies was embodied not only in their made-up, inauthentic quality as such, but also in how poorly hidden the strings of the ostensible puppet show were. Hence, the depth of the fakeness is compounded by the suggestion that every member of those societies, except its most fanatic defenders, and every visitor from outside, except the true believers, was completely aware of it at all times.
This enlargement of the historical topography of the ‘artificial’ to encompass twentieth-century socialist experiments carries consequences on many levels. For starters, it marks – knowingly or not – a doubling down on the status of the capitalist social order as ‘natural hence eternal’ (MEW 4: 140, my stress); whether this is declared or merely suggested is of secondary importance, as I will argue below; yet, besides such ‘indirect apologetics’ (G. Lukács) of the status quo by means of a Whig interpretation of history updated for the ‘American age’, the notion of state socialism (or ‘historical communism’) as primarily ‘fake’ carries a range of interpretative and epistemological ramifications as well.
It means, for instance, that the prevailing attitude attributed to ordinary people living under socialism by their (mostly West European or US-based) chroniclers is that of hypocrisy. Hence the historian’s primary task to unmask the fakeness, that is, the glaring inconsistency between discourse and practice, between slogans and life ‘as it really was’; in short, the imperative to repeatedly remind the reader how these societies fell short of the ideals they proclaimed to be founded upon. This is, obviously, no illegitimate knowledge goal in itself; only that this analytical modus is insistently present in communism studies, while only playing a minor role in depictions of the Western powers during the Cold War and beyond. As a result, irrespective of whether the USSR, Yugoslavia, East Germany or China make up the object of analysis, some wrinkles notwithstanding, the unwritten goal of the approach in question is more or less the same, namely, to demonstrate these societies came to embody the very opposite of what they claimed to be, that they were unequal, stunted and suffocating; above all, however, that they were ‘doomed from the word go’ (Darko Suvin), i.e., that they could not have been successful. This element rounds up the ‘fakeness’ paradigm in the form of an axiom; a mask of artificiality must drop at some point.
The collapse of the late 1980s and early 1990s emerges, in this sense, as the self-evident conclusion that endlessly reinforces the premises above. Socialism’s precipitous fall – and even the bloody nationalist conflicts that came in its wake – cannot but emerge as the irruption of suppressed realities held in place by the fragile combination of top-down arbitrariness and hypocrisy as overarching societal mood.
The paradigm does stumble when it comes to explaining China’s development in the last few decades. By assigning the latter the status of an ‘authoritarian state capitalism’ it is possible, however, to blame its failings on the ruling party (or other socialist remnants), and trace back almost every positive development to a bourgeoning capitalist economy well connected to the global markets (though the efficiency of one-party rule has seduced some in the West). Once again, COVID-19 complicates this binary picture, considering the capacity of Chinese authorities (and citizens) to keep the pandemic in check and the Global North’s utter failure to do so. The rising tide of Sinophobia this year as an insidious and premeditated ‘save face’ for the West’s authorities demonstrates, however, the extent to which the attribution of fakeness is nuance and evidence-proof: China’s successes in the context of the pandemic are a result of repression and repression alone; thus, the mechanisms of power responsible for successfully keeping the virus at bay can only be identical with the ones at work in the initial suppression of information regarding the virus’ existence in late 2019.
In this regard, recent anti-China agitation in Western countries harkens back to an attitude towards the ‘socialist other’ structured by the artificial/natural binary. As was the case during the Cold War, the adversary’s faults are illuminated from the standpoint of one’s own presupposed accomplishments and overall superiority. Then as now, the comparison is neither straightforward nor comprehensive, considering it matter-of-factly elides the ‘Third World’. For if the mantle of fakeness applies generically to every socialist society, from Cuba to Vietnam, their benchmark is, crucially, not capitalist society in general. It is, rather, one particular set of images – or projections – of it. In other words, what is naturalized in the contrast with socialism is not capitalism as such, but a certain image of the affluent West, in a spectrum going from a rosy picture of its Fordist/Welfare State representatives to more ‘free market’ varieties, i.e., from Sweden to Switzerland, and downright mythical iterations of the United States of times past.
This ‘natural cum eternal’ West does not need to be (and seldom is) openly articulated in studies of twentieth-century communism; the West is present rather as a silent norm. In other words, by stressing the artificiality of the rival social system, operators of the fakeness paradigm underwrite, in the same breath, the perennial status of the societal form they presuppose and assume as natural. Just as in the treatises of political economy that Marx subjected to critique, however, this requires historical scholarship to naturalize not only an image of bourgeois society, but also a conception of individual that is adequate to it.
This helps to explain why individualism, competitiveness, nationalism, racism etc. emerge in narratives of socialist fakeness as history’s veritable prime movers. That is, as historical factors which might well be lamented, but whose existence need not be explained. The naturalization of these tendencies also means they appear (quite spontaneously) as somehow more humanly plausible than solidarity, internationalism, fraternity/sorority and the struggle for equality. If the latter make an appearance as drivers of historical subjects in the context of socialism at all, they do so as either subterfuge or imposition, i.e., the two modi of fakeness.
This is not, I must stress, a question of the historian’s particular assessment of, for instance, individualist tendencies as either superior (or more prevalent) to those of community and solidarity. What is decisive, rather, is the suggestion that the former are genuine, the latter contrived. In other words, the dividing line for such attributions is not drawn on the basis of value judgements, but along the natural/artificial binary.
In that sense, when confronted with fascism as a historical phenomenon, these scholars can and do condemn it for many crimes, attributing the mass movement and its leaders with innumerable faults; being hypocritical and insincere, however, are not among them. In other words, fascists are not accused of not believing what they say, nor are ordinary Germans or Italians in the 1920s and 1930s accused of ‘not really being fascists/nazis’. Hence, despite its advocates’ convergence with a time-honored and ever recurrent effort to condemn fascists and communists in unison, the fakeness paradigm falls short in this regard; its own premises dictate that, whereas communism is a pure manifestation of artificiality, fascism must reflect, at least to some degree, genuine human drivers. Hence, if it construes communism as sham, it cannot help but portray fascism as destiny.
The same analytical dead-ends dictate the interpretative failure of this conception of history regarding the present times. Through recourse to the artificial/natural binary, the fakeness paradigm produced an effective critique of socialism that doubled as a subtle ratification of capitalism; yet, to do so, it had to demote social change and revolution to theatrics and, in fact, equate ‘changeability’ itself with frailty. And because it is structured along a binary, even if capitalism may be superficially framed as the dynamic and innovative counterpart to stunted socialism, its naturalization as a societal form presupposes articulating it as fundamentally static.
Put differently, in the framework of the fakeness paradigm, capitalism emerges as the first historical formation that changes, but only to turn into itself, again and again. As for socialism, its greatest weakness (which doubles as the perennial argument against its comeback as a political project) is that ‘it did not work’, i.e., that it ‘ended’. From this vantage point, the historical merges with the artificial and renders transience a mere birth-defect. In contrast, permanence and resilience are construed as defining properties of the societal form that is natural(ized), i.e., the capitalist mode of production.
While this framework fit well with the mood of self-congratulatory euphoria that accompanied Western liberal capitalism’s victory in the Cold War and the onset of ‘globalization’, it has proven a poor set of lenses to confront the crises and processes of change that, especially since the late-2000s, have fractured that societal model’s claim of finality and inevitability. The events of the 1990s in both the former socialist and ‘third’ worlds had, it must be said, made readily clear what kind of upheaval was to be expected once unfettered capitalism was allowed to rupture the social fabric of entire countries in search of the ‘isolated individual’ of economics manuals. It took, however, the crisis of 2008 to bring these realities home, introducing the specter of mutability back into the triumphant West; adding to these woes, climate change has raised the prospect that ‘Western liberal capitalism’ has to change, and in no small degree, so as to avert environmental catastrophe.
If the theses raised in this essay have any validity, then the combined imperatives of rehabilitating change as a fundamental social praxis and restoring the status of objective possibility to an alternative social order are both bound to stumble on the schematic accounts of the last, great attempt to transcend the capitalist system (and, of course, on many other obstacles). In other words, there is much more at stake in how the drama of twentieth-century communism is interpreted than the latter's assignment to the ‘dustbin of history’ might suggest.
This is visible in the contemporary restating of the artificial/natural binary; most evidently, in the critique of the Western establishment itself and its institutions as ‘fake’, its charges against state socialism now employed against it, most notably by actors from the far-right spectrum. Yet the binary truly reaches its paroxysm in the notion of the Anthropocene. With it, the cycle approached in this essay sees its completion, considering the category draws the mantle of fakeness over human sociability as such. With the utter artificialization of humanity, it consummates the naturalization of nature, raising the prospect that only the cataclysmic purge of the former can effect the ‘restoration’ of the latter.
Both from the standpoint of historiography and of emancipatory social praxis, then, the same question emerges: what changes when the history of communism is written from the standpoint of a possible socialism and the environmental crisis is faced through the concrete articulation of that capitalism-transcending alternative?
Carouge GE, 11 January 2021.