The rise and fall of socialism in terms of human nature

Gulag museo Venäjällä.
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The following presentation was given at a panel discussion organised by the New History Association, where David Graeber and David Wengrow‘s work The Dawn of Everything was evaluated from different points of view. Other contributions dealt with prehistory from the perspective of the philosophy of history and the relationship between the Enlightenment and the indigenous people’s critiques of the European estate-based society.

In the context of this debate, we have also translated Nancy Lindisfarne and Jonathan Neale‘s article All Things Being Equal into Finnish. It is a noteworthy critique of The Dawn of Everything. The original English text can be read on their Anne Bonny Pirate blog, and the Finnish version on the Uusi historia website.

Gulag museum in Russia. Locations of prison camps on the map. PHOTO: Dmitry Rozhkov, CC BY-SA 4.0.

FEATURED IMAGE: Gulag museum in Russia. Locations of prison camps on the map. PHOTO: Dmitry Rozhkov, CC BY-SA 4.0.

On the rise of socialism

Graeber and Wengrow discuss socialism in only one endnote in their book when talking about historical comparisons. They say that comparing historical events may help to understand them: it can at least give some idea of what might happen. They go on:

“The problem is that since the Iberian invasion of the Americas, and subsequent European colonial empires – – there’s ultimately been just one political-economic system and it is global.” [1]

In the endnote, they clarify their view:

“The closest we have to a historical comparison is economic: the Socialist Bloc, which existed from roughly 1917 to 1991– – is often treated as a (failed) experiment in this sense. But some would argue that it was never really independent from the larger capitalist world system, but simply a subdivision of state capitalism.” [2]

The endnote contains at least three erroneous statements about the “Socialist Bloc”:

First, taken in context, the “Socialist Bloc” was not just the “Socialist Bloc”, that is, a group of socialist or so-called socialist states.

In fact, in addition to the socialist countries, it included a systematic Marxist world outlook (philosophy of history, political science, moral philosophy, aesthetics, theory of knowledge, etc.), and the communist world movement based on that world outlook. It also included the communist-led liberation movements in various parts of the Third World and the various united fronts that communists led or participated in in the West.

Secondly, it was not just a question of creating a different economic system. In fact, the aim was first socialism, with political power at the grassroots level, with workers’ councils (= “soviets”), and then a classless communist society, in which, among other things, the state, money and the division of labour would be abolished and a new kind of human being would be born.

The third error in the footnote is the claim that the “Socialist Bloc”, i.e. communist parties, communist-led trade unions and national liberation movements in various countries, was not, at the time of its formation and expansion, a force independent of and opposed to the capitalist world system.

The Marxist worldview, the communist world movement and socialist revolutions were an inevitable and legitimate reaction to the exploitative capitalism, colonialism, and imperialism of their time. They were the social product of an entire historical era.

War propaganda during the First World War.
War propaganda during the First World War was extremely nationalistic in every camp. Here the Germans are portrayed as bloodthirsty gorillas. The communists were right when they said it was a war of redistribution between the imperialist powers, in which the workers of these countries were sent as cannon fodder. The same explanation no longer fully fit the Second World War, in which Nazi Germany’s quest for total destruction led arch-enemies Churchill and Stalin to join forces to defeat Hitler. The situation is somewhat similar now, as a broad united front has been formed against Russia’s brutal war of destruction in Ukraine. PHOTO: Library of Congress, public domain.

Socialist revolutions or attempts at them in the last century are often seen as “coups” by small groups. That view is not correct. First, the revolutions were born out of extremely difficult social conditions; the Russian revolution, for example, was motivated by the misery caused by tsarist semi-feudal rule and the imperialist world war. Secondly, that view would mean that some power-hungry individuals or groups could, at will, change the course of history and mobilise millions of people. That is historical idealism.

Western democracy owes much to the existence of the communist movement, national liberation movements, and the socialist camp. The spectre of socialism forced capitalism to reform, and it was able to do so, resulting in the golden age of capitalism from the 1950s to the 1970s. In the West, predatory capitalism was transformed into a democratic market economy based on the rule of law. However, this transformation took place within the imperialist world system.

About the fall of socialism...

Graeber and Wengrow are right in their footnote that the “Socialist Bloc”, the socialist countries, turned into state capitalism. In other words, the attempt to overthrow the capitalist world system failed.

Socialism was supposed to be workers’ power, and power was supposed to be at the grassroots level, with the councils (= soviets). That did not happen in any socialist country. The socialisation of the means of production inevitably led to one-party rule, the formation of a new kind of bureaucratic elite, and a new kind of exploitation.

It can be debated whether socialist countries were ever socialist, and if so, when they ceased to be socialist and established a new form of state capitalism. By no means did it happen in 1991, when the state-monopolistic and imperialistic Soviet Union collapsed, but decades earlier.

It was not possible to create a world free from exploitation and oppression based on Marxism. In a sense, Marxism posed the question correctly: a new human must be created. The declared aim of the Chinese Cultural Revolution was a revolution in the human soul. That, too, was right: a profound change of mindset is needed; otherwise, humanity will destroy itself.

... and the view of human nature

In fact, the errors of Marxism were most fatally reflected in the view of human nature:

1) “Human is a social animal”. This was seen as a narrowly political matter. As Mao Zedong once said:  ”Is there such a thing as human nature? Of course there is. But there is only human nature in the concrete, no human nature in the abstract. In class society there is only human nature of a class character; there is no human nature above classes.”[3] – However, human sociality is a much broader issue. 

2) Holding on to the class character of human nature led to the denial of a universal human essence: people of different social classes “have nothing significant in common”.

This was an understandable view in a context of harsh exploitation. The owner of a 19th-century English coal mine and children working 16-hour days in the mines for starvation wages seemed to have nothing in common.

3) According to Marxism, people are inherently good – at least after the means of production are taken over by society and everyone becomes a worker. This is why independent courts were not considered necessary under socialism.

4) Marxism identified morality with politics – what was politically right was also morally right. One had to serve the people, to carry out the party line selflessly. Absolute selflessness became the ideal.

Occupy Wall Street in New York.
Occupy Wall Street and its slogan “We are the 99%” generated enormous enthusiasm around the world in 2011. But the adherence to consensus discussions and the anarchist refusal to form an organisation and write a clear programme may have been a major reason for the movement’s dissolution. Of course, a clear programme would have required insight into the causes of the rise and fall of socialism. In our view, the most important slogan in the quest for “a different world” should be this: “History does not begin with us.” PHOTO: Day 14 in the camp in Zuccotti Park in New York. David Shankbone, CC BY 3.0. PHOTO: Day 14 in the camp in Zuccotti Park in New York. David Shankbone, CC BY 3.0.

This was an understandable position in conditions of sharp class conflicts, oppression, and imperialist wars. One must not become a strikebreaker, one must not run away from the front when comrades are fighting against imperialist aggression.

But under normal human conditions, when people’s physical existence is not immediately threatened by hunger, oppression or war, the demand for absolute selflessness leads to hypocrisy and double standards and creates psychological conditions for red fascism.

When people try hard to be selfless, they easily deny themselves, their own needs and motives. It leads to the mystification of both their own imagined goodness and the real or imagined evil of others. The motives of politicians who pursued policies that the Chinese leadership considered wrong were explained as having joined the then-banned Communist Party in the 1920s and participated in its activities for decades only to restore capitalism once the party came to power after the revolution. Making mistakes became a matter of mortal fear. It also gave a free hand to treat dissidents inhumanely.

Red fascism arose not only in the leadership of the socialist states but also among ordinary people. This is often forgotten. In neighbourhoods, workplaces and universities, people were divided into quarrelling factions that denounced each other for arbitrary reasons.

An example from the Soviet Union in the 1930s: Helmi Heikkilä, an ethnic Finnish worker in Petrozavodsk, Soviet Karelia, wrote to the leadership of the Finnish Communist Party, then based in Moscow, in the summer of 1938, the peak year of the purges:

“I wonder about these arrests. Which Finns are currently at large? Mostly drunks and loudmouths. People who, by their lifestyle and their own words, are anti-Soviet material. Who are they arresting? People who have always done their job well, prize-winning Stakhanovites, active participants in social life – –.” [4]

The demand for absolute selflessness favoured people who were best able to deceive themselves. People, their motives, and human opinion-forming were explained irrationally. It tended to turn even normal people into drunks and The prevailing view of human nature destroyed those who were sent to prison camps, but, in a way, also those who sent them there unjustly. It is no wonder, for example, that the Chinese Cultural Revolution produced very little great culture. Its view of humans did not encourage the artistic expression of feelings.

Marxism assumed that humans are good, so there was no need for the rule of law or independent courts under socialism. Interestingly, Graeber and Wengrow also think that there is no need for independent courts but that they are instruments of oppression. They write, “’equality before the law’ – – is ultimately – – equality in common subjugation.” [5]

Graeber and Wengrow do not say that people are good, but to them human freedom means the right “to obey or disobey orders as they [people] saw fit” [6] – and laws are, in a sense, orders. So, according to them, people do not need laws to restrict their actions – it means that people are, at least in this sense, inherently good.

The impasse and collapse of socialism contributed to proving that this view is not true. Perhaps that is why Graeber and Wengrow ignored the experience of socialism when considering the lessons of history. Unfortunately, they are not the only ones. In Matti Puolakka’s view, the lessons of the rise and fall of socialism are essential to reflect upon if humanity is to learn from its history.


[1] Graeber David, Wengrow David, The Dawn of Everything. A New History of Humanity, Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2021, 449.

[2] Graeber, Wengrow 2021, 602.

[3] Mao Zedong, Talks at the Yenan Forum on Literature and Art (1942), Selected Works, Vol., 3, Beijing 1977, 90.

[4] Lebedeva Natalia, Rentola Kimmo, Saarela Tauno (ed.), ”Kallis toveri Stalin!” Komintern ja Suomi, Edita 2002, Helsinki, 375.

[5] Graeber, Wengrow 2021, 45.

[6] Graeber, Wengrow 2021, 45.

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