“the collapse of Stalinism means that capitalism must confront itself”

Against the Current, No. 25, March/April 1990

Paul Buhle

AS JOEL KOVEL observes,* American “anticommunism” is not and has never been primarily the cr1tique of Stalinism (or Bolshevism), even while receiving considerable secondary reinforcement from the realities of Communist rule. “Communism” as ideology reputedly alien to Americans has been conceptually frozen in time and space—Kovel calls it the “black hole effect”—of an evil against which all points of analysis, all differentiations, effectively disappear.

If this is so, the end of Stalinism does not necessarily mean the end of anticommunism; but it poses problems more difficult, in sustaining the maneuvered dynamics, than anticommunism has faced in seventy years. According to a poll released in 1961, asking respondents to choose between all-out nuclear war and living under communist rule, 81% chose war and only 6% communist rule; taken again in 1989, the poll turned up only 47% to 32%. Unprecedented.

– The maintenance of a perceived reality or social construction for capitalism’s popular support (or acquiescence) has never been as simple as rendering communism evil. It has demanded, since World War II in particular, the risk of atomic or nuclear war—with a constant state of readiness for absolute destruction—a wildly exorbitant-rate of taxation for military purposes, and the sacrifice of increasingly large portions of habitable (or natural) countryside to toxification.

The radical quality of the break from the pre-1950 America of relative security low taxation and apparently endless open space can scarcely be appreciated. The memory of anything previous has eroded, merging “pre-Cold War” with Depression hard times. Yet the potential long-run resentment against the required sacrifices cannot be overestimated. Anticommunism in the broadest sense (communism as an obstacle to “growth,” the ultimate frontier of American trade) made the sacrifices acceptable. What does now?

Anticommunism could not, on the other hand, ever have succeeded without the consumer economy and its virtually all-pervasive ideology. Its apparent vindication has come with the failure of alternative systems to provide the rationale, let alone the means, for people anywhere in the world to embrace any ideal other than consumption. At that game; no Stalinist variant and no independent revolutionary regime could succeed for very long without a great, and ultimately unacceptable, social toll. The illusion of communist independence from the decisive, power of the world market will—along with the racist claims of colonialism and neo-colonialism—come to be seen as the most powerful myths of the century.

And yet the impossibility—in the short run, for Eastern Europeans and the virtual entirety of the Third World; in the not-so-long run, and, ecologically speaking, the planet—of American-style consumerism as a functioning international system clarifies the absolute outer limits of anticommunism.

Therefore, the collapse of Stalinism means that capitalism must (despite the continuing low- or high-intensity war against the Third World, now billed increasingly as attempts to substitute drug dealers, etc.) confront itself. We have already begun to see the first indications of implosion. We may anticipate—almost certainly earlier in popular culture than in political life—a  wholesale ideological erosion with the slightest economic recession.

It remains to be seen how the left (acting; at least preliminarily, as small, informally coordinated, groups) will take its opportunity in hand. What it will require, even more than organization, is the skill to formulate and propagate the catch phrases of those who no longer believe in the Cold War system and have begun to believe, once more, in the possibility of life-giving alternatives. George Lipsitz calls that future vision “a chorus of many voices and a land of a thousand dances.”** The emancipated rock n rollers of the Eastern bloc will surely help us find the America we have often missed right under our noses.

*Joel Kovel, “Anticommunism–The Encyclopedia of the American Left, eds. Man Jo Buhie, Paul Buhie and Dan Georgiakas (New York: Garland, 1990).

**George Lipsitz, Time Passages: Collective Memory and American Popular Culture (University of Minnesota, 1990), 271.

March-April 1990, ATC 25

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