I was having another look at Isaac Deutscher’s outstanding biography of Trotsky over the weekend (having not peeked at it since my late teens) and was reminded again of the chaos surrounding the USSR in the period post-civil war and pre-Stalin. Essentially, Lenin and his inner circle realised something pretty awful: socialism doesn’t really work. Like, at all. But when you’ve just gone through a pretty bloody revolution and a civil war after that on the basis of heartfelt belief in the tenets of socialism, it’s pretty hard to lay all that aside. So they tried to fudge things via something called the “New Economic Policy”; this was essentially letting capitalism back in under a new name. There was no real alternative: everyone was starving. This was because the peasants had no real reason to simply give food to the urban proletariat without some market function being added, and Lenin and Trotsky begrudgingly realised that when you have no one who knows how to run a factory running it anymore, it ceases to function. Under the N.E.P., they even tried to get foreign investors back in – it only didn’t work because no foreign investor was interested.
I give you this brief history lesson as the backdrop to this: those of us who say socialism doesn’t work, and that if you want an alternative to Osbornomics it will have to be something other than that which failed spectacularly throughout the 20th century, are not secret Tories. In fact, I don’t really understand why anyone would be a secret Tory nowadays given the political landscape, but I digress. If the only alternatives are a small state dismantling of public services over the course of a decade and Leninism, then the former is going to win. It’s that simple.
That’s economics – let’s now turn to foreign policy. I recall when I was arguing for western intervention in Syria in 2013, what I got a lot of was how bad American foreign policy had been over the last few decades. True, I had to say, it’s been pretty awful – Iraq was particularly misjudged. But what is the alternative, I would ask. Let thousands of people in Syria die while we stand back and watch? Because that’s the decision you make when you stay out of it, whether you like it or not. Some are fine with that – I don’t think what happens in the Middle East is our problem, they’ll say. At least that’s upfront and honest. To those who complain about Iraq and then say we should stay out of Syria miss this point: if the western invasion of Iraq was a disaster (which it was), and thus the chaos in the region is at least partly down to said invasion (which it is) – doesn’t standing back now seem like a complete abandonment of any morality on the issue? We create a problem, then as that problem spills out into other countries our response is to stand back and shrug?
What I’m asking for here is simply logical coherence, which sadly seems to be lacking. I don’t mind someone taking a completely different viewpoint that me on a matter of substance; I do have a problem with having a conversation about it in which the logic of a position unravels to no effect. Yes, capitalism has some real downsides to it, I agree, but what is the alternative? Again, read your Deutscher, or for that matter your Orwell, if you really want to understand the failings of 20th century socialism. To those who then say we’ll do it differently now so that it works – how? In what way will it be different? How will you specifically avoid the problems that faced Lenin in 1922? I’ve thought about this a lot more than most people and I just don’t see an answer that any of those questions.
And when does wanting to stop the West getting involved in ill-judged foreign “adventures” – starting wars on bad information or theory – become tacit or even overt support for thugs like Assad and Putin? Without stopping to think about it – without consulting reality, long and hard – you could easily end up in a place you would never have wanted to get to when you set out.
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