A review of The Long Detour: The History And Future Of The American Left, by James Weinstein

In his autobiography, Out of Step, Sidney Hook wrote: "I was guilty of judging capitalism by its operations and socialism by its hopes and aspirations; capitalism by its works and socialism by its literature." If James Weinstein were as candid as Hook he'd write: "I was guilty of judging capitalism by Marxist horror stories and socialism by Marxist fairy-tales." Unfortunately, Weinstein, founder ofSocialist Review and publisher of the leftist magazine In These Times, is not merely judging socialism by its hopes and aspirations. In exonerating socialism for its ghastly and even sanguinary failures and awarding it a moral superiority to all other forms of political organization, he hopes to resurrect his god that failed. But it will do no good. The Hayekian stake has been driven by Milton Friedman through the Marxist heart. The coroner's verdict was intoned by Daniel Bell some three decades ago: "The death of socialism is the most tragic—and unacknowledged—fact of the 20th century." And Weinstein, as his book demonstrates, is one of the leading unacknowledgers. 

Weinstein's book ignores one of the most spectacular events of the 20th century. In the late 1970s, some 60 percent of mankind, according to Joshua Muravchik, was living under socialist governments of the Communist, social-democratic, or Third World variety. And it was at the very height of this extraordinary domination that there exploded a global flight—a plebiscite by emigration—from socialist practice whether in the Soviet Union or Communist China, East Germany, Vietnam, or Cuba. The movement was outward bound by plane, car, sail-boat, raft, or foot—anything, no matter how risky, to get away from socialism, from centrally planned societies and their shortages of everything including decency. Millions of people embarked on the road from serfdom. Socialist parties in Britain, Germany, Italy, Spain surrendered once-sacred Marxist shibboleths and thereby hoped to achieve eternal life if not always electoral success. But that's not how Weinstein, a self-described "lifelong Socialist and one-time Communist," sees it. His attitude is like that of all socialist apologists: "Do it with my kind of real socialism and I swear it will be wonderful." But few people listen anymore except, of course, social scientists, especially mainstream historians in American universities. 

Weinstein's enemies are those old-timers, "megalomaniacal right-wingers [seeking] to promote their militarist policies and dreams of perpetual world domination, as the Bush Administration's actions show all too well." Ridding the world of the Taliban and Saddam Hussein doesn't count. Ridding the world of the Soviet Union and other socialist tyrannies in Eastern Europe and Central America—the earthshaking achievements of earlier "megalomaniacal right-wingers"—doesn't count either.

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So what about the Soviet Union? Ah, yes, Lenin established "a non-market, nominally socialist, inward-looking, defensive regime, much as China would do after 1949…." And then what happened? "The Soviet and Maoist regimes did discard their native capitalists." The italics are mine so you won't overlook the euphemism, the pathetic little verb dismissing Soviet and Chinese genocides of, perhaps, 100 million people; these are wished away in the Weinstein thesaurus as "native capitalists," landlords, kulaks, running dogs, vermin—those who stood in the way of building "nominal socialism." Did Hitlerdiscard his native Jews?

Weinstein's euphemistic talents re-surface when he discusses Stalin's forced collectivization of agriculture. "Displacing the kulaks," he writes, "removed enemies of collectivization from the countryside and may have reduced rural consumption, but it also created"—Silver Lining Department coming up—"a new source of workers for various projects." Wiping out by starvation millions of peasant farmers in Ukraine is "displacing the kulaks"? Has this man never read Robert Conquest's Harvest of Sorrow? Walter Duranty, meet James Weinstein. 

Has this life-long Socialist and onetime Communist really cleansed himself of his onetime loyalty to Moscow? I ask this question in light of his ridiculous assertion that Lenin and the party leaders "at least…had still been guided by humane principles and had vigorously debated social policy." Clearly, Weinstein has forgotten Bolshevik history. For in 1921 the Tenth Party Congress adopted a resolution condemning opposition. The resolution was then published except for one clause which was kept secret with good reason until 1924. The unpublished seventh clause began with these sinister words: "In order to ensure strict discipline within the Party and in all Soviet work and to secure the maximum unanimity in removing all factionalism…." So much for vigorous debate. And as for "humane principles," Weinstein seems to have forgotten the 18-day Kronstadt uprising in 1921 against the Bolshevik dictatorship, an uprising which Lenin and Trotsky suppressed with homicidal ruthlessness. Where has Weinstein been all these post-Soviet years when documents have shown over and over again that Lenin's inhumanity was exceeded only by that of his successor? When he writes that "there was virtually no popular pressure to counter the Bolsheviks' tendency to suppress all aspects of civil society, at least not until the 1980s," he ignores not only what happened at Kronstadt but also the later life-and-death power of the GPU, the NKVD, and the KGB, which made "popular pressure" a suicidal course of action. Besides, when discussing a totalitarian empire without democratic elections or genuine opinion polls, how can Weinstein even speak of "popular pressure"? 

Weinstein's defense of the Bolshevik regime goes like this: Its political structure "was an amalgam of the worst aspects of feudalism, the harshest practices of capitalism and social protections associated with socialism—a curious mixture of progressive ideas and social policies and brutally retrograde political culture." And all this happened "despite the best intentions of many of its leaders." The ghosts of Beatrice and Sidney Webb stalk the corridors of Weinstein's memory. 

From the foregoing you wouldn't realize that Weinstein really believes, as he writes, that Lenin's revolution "stood socialism on its head." In fact, the Bolsheviks "did not—could not—create socialism as they and their comrades in Europe and America understood it." Nonetheless—here we go again—"the Bolsheviks were the first rulers to institute what we would now call a welfare state," and "the Soviet Union was the first country to introduce universal health care." Some universal health, where abortion was the only accessible form of birth control and to buy aspirin you had to be a member of the Nomenklatura. Ah well, you win some, you lose some. 

While Weinstein happily attributes "progressive ideas" and "humane principles" to the Bolshevik revolution, capitalism for him remains a ghastly system, full of tricks. Capitalist achievements that appear to be virtuous are to Weinstein really self-serving, examples of what he calls "the iniquity of corporate capitalism." Thus the huge increase in postwar college enrollment might seem to be a great step forward but what it actually did was to delay entry of millions of youth into the work-force, "thus protecting against high unemployment rates." Plus another little trick: "Millions of new workers, no longer needed for manufacturing, could now be trained for sales promotion, 'social control' (a.k.a. police work), administration and various kinds of research and development." He quotes approvingly Mario Savio, the Berkeley free-speechnik, who warned that the students were being trained "to become 'cogs' in corporate or government bureaucracies." When Weinstein condemns what he calls "value-free consumerism" under capitalism I could only recall the words of George Orwell: 

The damned impertinence of these politicians, priests, literary men and what not who lecture the working-class socialist for his "materialism"! All that the working man demands is what these others would consider the indispensable minimum without which human life cannot be lived at all…. Not one of those who preach against "materialism" would consider life livable without these things.

I was curious what the socialist view would be of the destruction of the Twin Towers and the lives of 3,000 innocent people. Could there be such a thing as a socialist view of this atrocity? Yes, there could: "The events of September 11 strongly suggest that the time for the left to examine the social possibilities inherent in our material achievements has arrived." Another example of Weinstein's talent for uncovering the silver lining in a cloudy shroud.

What impels a man to publish such burbling sloganeering after what we've lived through in the 20th century? And to write it in the guise of a message intended to rescue the American left from what Weinstein calls "its degraded state"? Speaking as a socialist, he writes about President Bush's "war against evil (the goal of which other than to assure his reelection remains unclear)…." Unclear? Not to Osama bin Laden or Saddam Hussein, wherever they are. "American foreign policy," he writes, "has become dangerous to our well-being." Not to al-Qaeda, North Korea, or Iran?

You may well ask: Why devote all this space to a stump-box book, one full of quotes and references without a single footnote? Well, this is an epistle by a self-proclaimed man of the Left to the American Left. Its incoherence, its attachment to fables posing as history, make it quite clear why the socialist Left has no future. Early in the last century, Werner Sombart, a German economist, wrote an article titled: "Why No Socialism in the United States?" His metaphorical answer was: "On the reefs of roast beef and apple pie, socialist utopias of all kinds have foundered." By his metaphorical answer, he meant that in a land of opportunity, socialism in all its utopian varieties had little chance of realization. Reading Weinstein's opus confirms Sombart's thesis. Socialism in America has been in Chapter 11 for more than a century, and its creditors ought by now to realize that it has no assets to distribute, nor will it ever have any. All its promises of goodies under real socialism recall a passage from Thoreau's Walden:

There is no odor so bad as that which arises from goodness tainted…. If I knew for a certainty that a man was coming to my house with the conscious design of doing me good, I should run for my life….