Acknowledging the Merits of Capitalism
Tibor R. Machan
Anyone with but a little knowledge of Marxism, at least Karl's version of it, knows that the old communist wasn't altogether hostile to capitalism. He regarded it as a necessary and indeed beneficial phase of the history of humanity. For Marx this history unfolded comparably to how an individual human being's history unfolds, with an infancy (tribalism), childhood (feudalism), adolescence (capitalism), young adulthood (socialism) and maturity (communism). But in the last analysis capitalism is undesirable, just as adolescence is, though with elements to it that are needed for the species to grow up properly.
One reason most American Leftists are confused is that they fail to see how the goal they all share, the planned economy--despite denying it a lot--requires this capitalist phase. Without it a society cannot advance because under capitalism the means of production develop powerfully so as to be taken over by the government under socialism. For a Marxist socialist to destroy capitalism amounts to killing the goose that lays the golden egg.
One of the flaws of Stalin's version of "communism" was that, well, it wasn't any kind of communism at all. It was in fact a form of fascism, something the late Susan Sontag very perceptively observed (to the consternation of many of her Leftist friends). Sure, Stalin, just as Lenin, invoked a kind of Marxist vocabulary in his rather inept ruminations about political economy. But the actual regime he headed up was a fascist dictatorship.
A very illuminating glimpse of this can be gained from Orlando Figes's The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's Russia (2007). The review essay of this book, by Joseph Frank in The New York Review of Books (February 26, 2009) is itself a fascinating read. No one can get through the book, or even the review, without affirming the fundamental viciousness of Stalin's regime, both a moral and political viciousness, that makes sense of why there remain Russians who are nostalgic for it.
What jumped out at me in the review essay is not the central feature of it, or even of the book, but a remark Frank makes about capitalism, one that's rare among Leftists. He observes that "Collaborations with Western left-wing parties during the Popular Front period had already opened the way for books and films to offer a much more alluring image of life in the capitalist West," much more, that is, than that which was presented to Russians by Soviet propaganda. This has produced an attitude favorable to liberalization, albeit not much came of it back then.
It is remarkable how when one considers capitalism in contrast to the Stalinist era--just as if one considers it in contrast to, say, (Cuba's) Castro's or (Venezuela's) Chavez's version of so called socialism (which is, as noted earlier, just a type of fascism)--even authors writing for a Leftist publication such as The New York Review of Books acknowledge that capitalism is superior. Of course, the capitalism they are talking about is actually a kind of welfare state "liberalism." But the essentials of capitalism, its system of private property rights, freedom of expression, democracy and so on, clearly compare favorably to the dictatorial regime that any large scale socialist system requires.
It would be useful if Leftists kept this in mind and instead of insisting on pushing Western welfare states further toward a planned, statist political economy they got on board with all those who want to develop the capitalist system to achieve its best version.
Of course, the concept "capitalism" is used to mean different systems by different people but the basic element of it, one that is acknowledged implicitly in both Figes's book and Frank's review, is its individualist social philosophy. Whatever the details of capitalism, about which there is a good deal of controversy--for example, there are so called left-libertarians who reject its embrace of the business corporation because it involves, they argue (dubiously, in my view), a form of statism--it should be evident by now, both from history and from theory, that the system is far more humane, far more productive, and far more just that all those put in opposition to it.
It is gratifying to read that some who would ordinarily be expected to oppose it actually acknowledge its merits.