The rise and fall of socialism in terms of human nature

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The following talk was held at a panel discussion organised by the New History Association, where David Graeber‘s and David Wengrow‘s work The Dawn of Everything was evaluated from different points of view. Other contributions dealt with prehistory from a historical-philosophical point of view, as well as the Age of Enlightenment and indigenous peoples’ criticism of European state systems.

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

About the rise of socialism

Graeber and Wengrow discuss socialism in only one footnote in their book. They argue that a comparison would make it easier to understand historical events: it would at least give some idea of what could 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 a footnote 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 footnote includes 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 Bloc, it included a systematic Marxist world view (philosophy of history, political science, moral philosophy, aesthetics, theory of knowledge, etc.), and the communist world movement based on that world view. 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 the workers’ councils (= “soviets”), and then a classless communist society, where the state, money, and the division of labour, among other things, would be abolished and a new kind of human would be born.

The third error in the footnote is the claim that the “Socialist Bloc”, i.e. the communist parties, the communist-led trade unions and the national liberation movements in the various countries, were not, when they were born and expanded, a force independent of and opposed to the capitalist world system.

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

The war propaganda during the First World War was extremely nationalistic in every camp. Here the Germans are portrayed as bloodthirsty gorilla womanizers. The communists were right when they said that it was a redistribution war between the imperialist powers, where the workers of these countries were sent as cannon fodder. The same explanation no longer fully fit the Second World War, where Nazi Germany's quest for total destruction caused arch-enemies Churchill and Stalin to join forces to defeat Hitler. The situation is partly similar now, when a broad united front has 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. Firstly, the revolutions were born because of extremely difficult social conditions; for example, the Russian revolution was motivated by the misery caused by tsarist semi-feodal 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, the 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 change 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 of 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 human souls. That too was right: a profound change of mindset is needed, otherwise humanity will destroy itself.

... and the concept of human nature

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

1) “Human is a social animal”. This was perceived as a narrowly political matter. However, human sociality is a much broader issue. ”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.” [3] Thus

2) there is no universal human essence, people belonging to different social classes have no significant common traits.

It 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, human is inherently good – as long as everyone becomes a worker after the means of production are taken over by society. That is why socialism did not see the need for independent courts.

4) Marxism identified morality with politics – what was politically right was also morally right. One had to serve the people, to selflessly carry out the party line. 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 establish an organization and write a clear program may have been it may have been an important reason for the movement to be dissolved. Of course, a clear program would have required insight into the causes of the rise and fall of socialism. In our opinion, the most important slogan when aiming 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.

In conditions of sharp class conflicts, oppression, and imperialist wars, it was an understandable vision. One must not become a strikebreaker, one must not run away from the front when comrades are fighting a war 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 humans try hard to be selfless, they easily deny themselves, their own needs and motives. It leads to 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 to be 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 was born not only in the leadership of the socialist states, but also among ordinary people. This is often forgotten. People were divided into quarreling factions in neighbourhoods, workplaces, and universities, denouncing each other for arbitrary reasons.

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

“It’s amazing when you look at these arrests. Which Finns are currently at large? Mostly drunks and mouth-breathers. People who, by their lifestyle and their own words, are anti-Soviet material. Who are arrested? People who have always done their job well, award-winning Stakhanovites, active participants in social life – –.”[4]

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

Marxism started from the premise that human is good, and therefore socialism did not see the need for the rule of law, independent courts. Interestingly, Graeber and Wengrow also think that there is no need for independent courts, but that they are instruments of oppression. They write that “’equality before the law’ – – is ultimately – – equality in common subjugation.” [5]

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

The dead-end 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 the view of Matti Puolakka, the lessons of the rise and fall of socialism are an indispensable part when, as and 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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