The Mental Illness of Anachronistic Radical Socialism

April 13, 2022

By Stephen Gowans

Some radical socialists practice a politics that carries over from the days when to be a revolutionary meant supporting the Soviet Union or China. With the Soviet Union gone, and socialist China a distant dream (and perhaps one never to be achieved under the direction of the current communist party), socialists of this persuasion have cut reality to the Procrustean bed of what being a revolutionary socialist used to mean. If the Soviet Union and socialist China are gone, they’ll be recreated. Russian imperialism is transformed into Soviet anti-imperialism and Chinese billionaires are turned into socialists with Chinese characteristics. The reality of a world of inter-imperialist rivalry is conjured into a world as it once was – divided by a capitalist, imperialist camp, on the one hand, and a socialist, anti-imperialist camp, on the other.

But the latter camp, notwithstanding the socialists’ need to create a nostalgic fantasy, today comprises countries that are neither socialist, however much they once were, nor anti-imperialist, despite their rhetoric. All the same, the socialists’ anachronistic politics demand that they have a state to support, and if a state can’t be supported on the basis of its current actions, it will be supported on the basis of its former actions, or delusions about what its current character is.

The alternative idea that socialists might actually do what they’re supposed to do, namely, promote the interests of a class, the proletariat, is dismissed as anachronistic, an antique idea that may have made sense in Lenin’s day, but is no longer current, or is the refuge of cowards who refuse to take sides in struggles between states. Devotion to the class war is understood to be a distraction from participation in wars between nations.

However much it is difficult for anachronistic radical socialists to understand, Russia is not the Soviet Union, is not socialist, and has not escaped the capitalist logic and raisons d’état that compel large capitalist states to dominate and exploit other states, especially their weaker neighbors, and to engage in struggles with other capitalist states for markets, spheres of influence, investment opportunities, and strategic territory.

And while it may be difficult to understand that China’s growing prosperity has less to do with socialism and far more to do with capitalism, especially the country’s emulation of the mercantilist policies that built the capitalist West, this is the reality. There is no socialist China. There is a capitalist China, which, in its industrial planning and state owned enterprises coexisting with privately-owned business, merely recreates what other successful capitalist countries did to lift their millions out of poverty. If we’re going to talk of a socialist China we might as well talk of a socialist Germany and a socialist Japan and a socialist South Korea, for all of these countries, and more, relied heavily on industrial planning and state owned enterprises to lift their millions out of poverty, as capitalist China is doing today. It’s not by accident that the conflict in the years leading up to WWI between an ascendant Britain, and a rising Germany, whose development was nurtured by a dirigiste state animated by the goal of catching up to the world’s hegemon, is looked to as an historical analogy to understand the current conflict between today’s hegemonic power, the United States, and a rising China.

According to the Chinese Communist Party’s August 2021 statement of its mission, socialism is effectively capitalism (releasing and developing the productive forces, the party says) under the direction of the Communist Party. In other words, to the Chinese Communists, socialism is another word for capitalism, but under Communist dirigisme (emulating mercantilist methods.)

With China now well down the capitalist road, anachronistic radical socialists sing rhapsodies to capitalism in China, while deploring it elsewhere, except in Vietnam. Docilely following wherever their hero state leads, they repeat in celebration of Chinese “socialism” the stock phrases Republicans once reliably used to justify their regular assaults on the working class—phrases such as “a rising tide lifts all boats” and “hundreds of millions lifted out of poverty.”  To say they make themselves into laughing stocks is to say more than is necessary.  

Deluded that Putin’s Russia is Stalin’s Soviet Union and Xi’s China is Mao’s People’s Republic, the anachronistic radical socialists dream of a multipolar world in which the United States is counterbalanced by China and Russia. Multipolarity, in their fantasy, is a return to the original Cold War, one pitting US-led capitalism and imperialism against Soviet-led socialism and anti-imperialism. But multipolarity in reality means a return to a vigorous inter-imperialist rivalry, one which gave rise to the industrial extermination of WWI, followed by the even greater exterminations of WWII. The praxis of the multipolaristas is solidarity with anti-US poles of attraction for no other reason than they’re anti-US poles of attraction. Baby imperialisms are to be nurtured and supported so they grow up to become big imperialisms that can compete with the one big imperialism, that of the United States—like supporting Germany in the runup to WWI, so it could compete against Britain, in a multipolar world. Somehow, this is supposed to deliver us all to a better place. In Lenin’s view—one which anachronistic radical socialists now scorn—a better place is a nonpolar world free from imperialism, to be achieved, not by supporting this national bourgeoisie or that, but by overthrowing them all.

To help midwife the birth of the emerging multipolar world, the anachronistic radical socialist turns skepticism of US pretexts for imperialist assaults into a need to believe the very same pretexts Moscow recycles for its own imperialist assault on Ukraine. NATO’s humanitarian interventions in the former Yugoslavia and Libya to prevent claimed genocides are scoffed at, for good reason. The proposal to mount a humanitarian intervention in Xinjiang to prevent a claimed Chinese genocide against the Uyghurs is denounced correctly as an imperialist plan backed by a black legend. But Moscow’s pretext of humanitarian intervention in Ukraine to prevent an alleged genocide is accepted uncritically, even though Moscow has not invoked the Genocide Convention, something it would do if it genuinely believed what it claims. The pretext is also accepted without skepticism despite the fact that Moscow has already displayed a manifest willingness to lie to advance its aims in Ukraine; after all, the Kremlin insisted Russia would not invade Ukraine, going so far as to mock anyone who said it would. And then it did what it swore it wouldn’t do. You would think, having been misled once, the radical socialist Russophiles would learn, but their need to have a state (in place of a class) to support militates against their learning of lessons.     

Gullible, they turn socialist praxis into Russian information warfare, aping Moscow’s narrative as ardently and faithfully as CNN mimics Washington’s, right down to euphemizing Russia’s war of aggression on Ukraine—the supreme international crime—as a mere “crisis”, or a “special military operation”, or worse, not a conflict between Russia and Ukraine at all, but “a hybrid US war.” In their minds, their devotion to radical socialism is proved by their fidelity to the hero state’s message and the zeal with which they propagate its fictions. Questions are discouraged, thought frowned upon, skepticism denounced as betrayal. They are good soldiers, and will not stray from the narrative of the hero state, will not refuse to accept its word on all matters, will not question its mendacities nor deplore its absurdities. In this, their eagerness to make themselves into laughing stocks knows no limits.

Radical socialists used to say that they practiced a scientific socialism. It was scientific because it tried to adapt to reality, not obfuscate it or fit it to a Procrustean bed. But what many radical socialists practice today cannot be called scientific, or indeed, even coherent socialism. Their practice instead is based on a detachment from reality and a construction of a pleasing fantasy of a world that once was but is no longer; in other words, it is little more than mental illness.