The Marxist Left: Turning America Upside Down (II)
Marxist philosophy would triumphantly predict the implosion of the capitalist system and the eventual victory of the socialist state. But when the opportunity came during the First World War, heralded as symbolizing the last death throes of “capitalist-imperialism,” for the workers to rise up and overthrow their respective states, they predominately threw in lot with the nationalist powers and defended their homelands. When the Bolsheviks rose to power in Russia, preying on the weakness of the Tsar’s abdication and the divided and weak Provisional Government, the workers and soldiers, however, did revolt, inspired by the promise of “Bread, Land, and Peace.” Many of them would receive none of these things after the communists came to power.
Importantly, the Bolshevik putsch struck a blow against Marxist inevitability: the first successful communist overthrow was in a backwards industrializing state, and not an advanced capitalist one, as Marx predicted; and Lenin had dragged the workers into the revolution, rather than one having occurred spontaneously “from below.”
Further embarrassment for Marxism came in the sphere of economics proper. While Marx had drawn off the Iron Law of Wages to predict declining wages in advanced capitalist countries; inexplicably for the socialists, the standard of living steadily improved for the overwhelming majority of workers. While the trade-unionists claimed credit for improving workers’ lives in the early twentieth century, unions have never been as powerful or as popular in the United States as in continental Europe. Trust-busting progressives attempted to claim credit for sheltering people from predatory corporations; but in general, businesses thrived and died as a matter of how quickly they could adapt to scientific revolutions; and that required freedom, which America had in abundance. Those corporations that grew into monopolistic positions did so precisely by allying with government (AT&T is a textbook example).
The end result? The great majority of hundreds of millions of Americans would have access to numerous household luxuries and conveniences at the beginning of the next century. In the interim, however, intellectual sentiment towards socialism grew; this was not due to the power of Marx’s economic critique of capitalism, though many cherry-picked it to retain the essential class warfare points; but mainly to aesthetic arguments promulgated by the Frankfurt School and the New Left at large. For example, noted economist John Kenneth Galbraith decried the “materialist culture” of America, rather than the productive forces of the capitalist economy; at that point, the left had conceded attacking capitalism on economic grounds to be a weak line of argument. What was needed for the socialist argument to gain better traction was to recreate the proto-socialist economic conditions that had caused the political program to succeed in Europe. What the left needed to do was to distort the economy so that Marxist arguments would seem to hold water.