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Year of the Plague 20 – Thinking about Capitalism and Socialism – A Reflection on this the 75th Anniversary of the Defeat of German Nazism.

May 10, 2020

Hans Modrow. He’s still alive at 92

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While he didn’t go into great detail about its failings, the GDR’s glaring internal contradictions, Modrow did cite a number of problems: the lack of democracy in the system and the fact that the country’s youth felt they had no role, no contribution to make in the country’s future. He insisted that rather than rejecting Socialism that Marxists should instead learn from the system’s failures so that it could rise from the ashes, once again, as a system that had the possibility of liberating humanity…and that it would rise again because of the very nature of the world, the capitalist world in which we are living.

Speaking of Hans Modrow, the last leader of the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) before it collapsed and was reunited with the Federal Republic of Germany

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1.

On social media, someone posted an article from “The Jacobin” – an online Marxist source and a pretty good one at that – an article on the shift to the right in the Balkan country of Bulgaria with the headline “Never Forget What The Facsists Did.” The sub-headline reads “In Bulgaria, campaigns that equate Communism with Nazism aren’t about defending democracy against “Russian meddling,” they’re about rehabilitating Bulgarian fascism and its complicity in the Holocaust. It is written by one Jana Tsoneva who is described at the end of the article as “pursuing a PhD in sociology at the Central European University in Budapest. She works in the fields of political and economic sociology and is a member of the Collective for Social Interventions, Sofia.”

Realizing that for many Americans – and those who read this blog – the happenings in Bulgaria are far afield, still I urge you to read the piece, which from where I’m sitting is excellent. Although it deals with Bulgarian history, its themes are more generic, more universal. Its well written and its main message – that Communism and Fascism essentially have nothing in common – and how that comparison is repeated misused as an excuse for countries to move to the extreme political proto-fascist right – is worth understanding.

I’ve never bought into Fascism and Communism are twins joined at the hip… even though at times there are, what I would call superficial similarities. Dig deeper and the essence of the societies is profoundly different. Same goes for their historic leaders. Stalin and Hitler are often portrayed as psychic twins, which they weren’t. For all his foibles – and they were many – Stalin was not Hitler and Soviet Communism for all its weaknesses had virtually nothing in common with Nazism once the surface is scratched… And it is true that Soviet Communism collapsed and before it did, gave the world Chernobyl.

But it also did other things – like playing the pivotal role in the defeat of Nazism as numerous “Facebook friends” – whatever that means – have acknowledged on this the 75th Anniversary of the defeat of Hitler’s fascism. It also brought a whole generation of people out of poverty, educated them, provided them with free quality healthcare (certainly better than we have here) and it was the first human experiment with Socialism. That it collapsed ultimately because of its own inner contradictions is undeniable, albeit “with a little help from its – not-so friends.”

The horrors that Nazism created (along with Japanese militarist fascism which was no kinder nor gentler) defy description. These crimes have been somewhat simplified and reduced to Hitler’s destruction of European Jewry – one of the great obscenities of history, be it modern or ancient. But in essence, the horror Hitler and his henchmen perpetrated against the world extended far beyond the Jews. “The Holocaust” was more pervasive and embraced others as well, Slavic peoples relegated to inferior status not much better than Jews, those considered “eugenically unfit” – mentally and physically disabled and in many case, just people who were poor. Leftists of all stripes were through into the gas chambers and human incinerators as well. The Soviet people – along with the Chinese at the hands of the Japanese – paid a most terrible price

For as awful as some of Stalins’ practices were – and they were awful – they are small change compared with the crimes of the Nazis and to equate the two (Stalin and Hitler, Communism and Fascism) boils down to an intellectual and political crime against history, nothing less. Besides, the economic And yet, it has become fashionable in a number of Central European countries to do just but even to take the case further. So not just in Bulgaria, but in all of the Baltic countries, in the Ukraine, especially right-wing fascists who collaborated with the Nazis, most of them also hard-bitten anti-Semites as well are being resurrected as “nationalist heros.”

My distant relatives emerged from a town in central Lithuania, Prienai, through which the Neman River still flows. My ancestors lived along the Neman as rabbis and fisherman, at least that is what I was told anecdotally.Their descendants are no more. Try reading about what Lithuanian fascists did to my Jewish ancestors in Prianai after the Nazis came to power! You’d be lucky to get through a paragraph of it. They were slaughtered – not by Nazi SS units and einsatzgruppen elements – but by Lithuanian fascists who did so with great zest and sadism with SS officers looking on as bystanders.. The (German) Nazis hardly needed to intervene. This is the human detritus that is being “resurrected” in Lithuania, in Ukraine and in Bulgaria these days as “nationalist heroes” who “stood up” to the Soviets. Their willing, if not enthusiastic, collaboration with the Nazis and with the most savage of their crimes is downplayed,

2.

As Communism was collapsing in Eastern Europe – 1989-1990 – I happened to have the good fortune to find myself in Berlin both east and west. I wasn’t there when the wall came down, but a few months later. East Germany was in a free fall – its days numbered. At that time I happened to have had the opportunity to hear one of the last gatherings of the GDR’s Democratic Party of Socialism. It was a speech given by the caretaker General Secretary, Hans Modrow.. A good friend – for no good reason I might note – simultaneously interpreted it for me.

As his government was collapsing, Modrow spoke about, reflected upon the GDR as well as the future the future. From where I was sitting “he nailed it” – a kind of searing honesty that few appreciate – and certainly many people in the room – there were five hundred maybe more there – hated it and booed him with cat calls and loud interruptions, but he persisted.

What was it that so upset his fellow comrades, which made up most of the audience?

Modrow’s message was pretty clear: Socialism (or what the West calls Communism) had NOT failed… it had many genuine, real accomplishments and that was a fact. But like any new system it had its contradictions and for various reasons, its contradictions overwhelmed its positive aspects in the end and it was – and he was clear on this point – rejected by the people of East Germany. And a system calling itself “socialist” rejected overwhelmingly by its own people – regardless of how naive they might have been about the alternative, had to acknowledge as Hans Modrow did – that something had gone terribly wrong.

While he didn’t go into great detail about its failings, the GDR’s glaring internal contradictions, Modrow did cite a number of problems: the lack of democracy in the system and the fact that the country’s youth felt they had no role, no contribution to make in the country’s future. He insisted that rather than rejecting Socialism that Marxists should instead learn from the system’s failures so that it could rise from the ashes, once again, as a system that had the possibility of liberating humanity…and that it would rise again because of the very nature of the world, the capitalist world in which we are living.

He went on to predict that because of the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe (and two years later in the USSR) that Socialism and Marxism would be discredited and it mattered little if it were the Soviet variety or any other and that a kind of Capitalist Triumphalism would prevail – he suggested for a quarter of a century before Marxist ideas would begin to take hold again among broad masses of people the world round.

I remember distinctly thinking of how well the people of East Germany understood the contradictions of their own socialist society but how utterly naive they were about the capitalist future they were about to embrace. They knew where they were coming from – but frankly – didn’t have a clue, not the slightest clue as to where they were heading. Perhaps this is not so unusual as it seemed at the time.

But he also argued that Capitalism being Capitalism that it would, despite what seemed to be its overwhelming power in March, 1990, eventually be overwhelmed by its own contractions and would, one way or another, unravel and implode, starting with the biggest house on the block – the United States.

Man seemed to know what he was talking about.

I might add here, that although it is fashionable to attack the GDR as a failure that at least a part of this is simple propaganda. Yes, the Stasi was excessive to an extreme – and in my view – paralyzed the creative possibilities of society as a whole, but any notion that the economic model had failed, frankly is nonsense. The GDR was an advanced industrialized country, far more so in many ways than the USSR and if its standard of living was not as high as the FRG, it wasn’t very far behind. Any serious historical probe into the country’s economic, social and educational achievements

Modrow’s words – if not exactly, than still – the heart of his message, has stayed with me these thirty years since. And here we are.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. William Conklin permalink
    May 10, 2020 9:10 pm

    This is an extremely important essay. We are at a turning point in history. Capitalism has no chance of survival because it depends on continuous growth. . Kenneth Bolding, an economist from my generation, once said: “There are two groups who believe you can have infinite growth in a finite system; Economists and Idiots.” Neo-Liberal Economics is Capitalism’s last stand. If the peasants don’t revolt, capitalism will kill itself within 50 years. The best economic system that has been devised to date by humans is Socialism. Of course Socialism is defined in different ways. I define Socialism as an economic system in which the commons in run by the government and private industry is owned by the workers in the corporations. Socialism is a system that puts people first and profit is not an issue. Of course the rulers of the United States, the greatest capitalist power, will fight this to the bitter end, but the change must happen. It is the only hope for the future of the world in more ways than one.

  2. Sarge Cheever permalink
    May 11, 2020 2:03 pm

    Robbie–You’re overlooking Stalin’s role in the thirties in Ukraine, the purge trials, and his own anti-semitism.   True, Marxist ideology was not racist, but terrible things could be done in the name of “socialism in one state.”   In he thirties, the Soviet Union was ruled by a triad of Georgian gangsters–Stalin, Beria, and Orjonihidze  (so.?).  There may have been a fourth, but I’ve forgotten who.  Sarge   

    • May 11, 2020 2:50 pm

      I don’t argue with you on your criticisms.
      You are right Sarge… but then this wasn’t meant to be a detailed critique of Stalin (or the Soviet Union) so much that in spite of everything, Communism had some achievements, including in the USSR. I am not a big fan of Soviet Communism… had a chance to see it up close – a small window I suppose for about five years just as it was imploding. That said… 1. in spite of everything, Communism raised the standard of living of the overwhelming majority of people within its ranks – and provided key social services (education, medical care, housing (crumby as it often was), and good public transportation. Given what life was like under the czars, this was a genuine achievement – a kind of crash, forced modernization 2. It’s finest moment – its defense against the Nazis which was not only a military victory at unspeakable costs – something that you are well aware of – but also an economic achievement as the USSR outproduced the Nazis and that was a key factor in the end.
      And it is this last point that particularly grates… as in order to rewrite the history of WW2 – including the novels of Furst, Kerr – the wonderful writers you recommended and I read – U.S. historiography, film, and literature had to essentially rewrite the history of WW2… and we both know what that was about as well: without vilifying the USSR it would have been impossible to conduct the nuclear arms race, intervene in the Third World – from Vietnam to Iraq, etc etc..

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