On one possible 100th anniversary of the October Revolution, I wrote a review of two books about Communism for the Los Angeles Review of Books and tried to use the review as an opportunity to ask how the contemporary left should think about the 20th century:
UNLESS YOU ARE reading this in North Korea, or perhaps Cuba, capitalism is your problem. Your suffering today — right now, this minute — almost certainly has something to do with the market allocation of goods and the selling of your labor power. (This is true even if your suffering is of the unavoidable human variety that can be at most eased by a superior system of economic distribution: the difficulties that come from the hard work of being young, being old, or being middle-aged.) The profit motive as an organizing principle for human societies has not disappeared, though in some places it has been tempered. The basic promise of liberal democracy — that it should be possible, through collective action, for people to exert control over their own lives — strains against the power of money and markets to influence political outcomes. It’s 2017, and capitalism is still your problem. And if by some miracle it isn’t your problem, then congratulations: you’ve managed to offload your problems onto some poor souls located somewhere else in the system.
A hundred years ago, if you were in just the right place and were just the right person, you might have been able to imagine that it would be otherwise. The Winter Palace had fallen. Vladimir Lenin and a cadre of fellow revolutionaries had taken responsibility for shepherding in a new order. Capitalism had, at last, a true world-historical rival; its internal contradictions were leading inevitably to socialism. Its days were numbered.
We know, or think we know, where all this — the idea the world once called communism — leads. It leads to famines, to work camps, to cults of personality, to drab public art, to crumbling apartment blocks, to the loss of political rights, to forced confessions, and to shooting a few million of your closest comrades in the back of the neck in the pursuit of a just cause. The reason that capitalism is your problem today is that communism failed, catastrophically, to provide a better alternative. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, it seemed to leave liberal capitalist democracy as the only viable system remaining, This is what Francis Fukuyama meant when he declared, with apologies to Hegel, that the global spread of liberal democracy represented “the end of history.”
Yet that argument now seems as unfortunate and dated a product of the 1990s as Stone Temple Pilots and Jar Jar Binks. Certainly its optimism no longer seems warranted, after the scandalous global response to the financial crisis that began in 2007 has led, in the United States and elsewhere, to the rise of an unholy union of xenophobic and plutocratic politics. In the wake of these developments, even Fukuyama has admitted that he can now more clearly see how liberal democracy can fail. But where does that leave us, 100 years after the October Revolution? If capitalism and democracy are not going to save us, can there be anything from the legacy of communism that is worth salvaging?