What should someone coming of age in 2020 or so–someone post-millennial, who has no memories of all of any part of the twentieth century–learn about communism, and really existing socialism?
It is, I think, very clear by now to everyone except the most demented of the herbal teabaggers, and should be clear to all, that communism was not one of the brightest lights on humanity’s tree of ideas. Nobody convinced by the writings of Marx and his peers that a “communist” society was in some sense an ideal who then achieved enough political power to try to make that vision a reality has built a society that turned out well. All, measured by the yardsticks of their time and geographical situation, were either moderately bad, worse, disastrous, or candidates for the worst-régime-every prize. None attained the status of:
a prayse and glory that men shall say of succeeding plantations, “the Lord make it like that of New England.” For wee must consider that wee shall be as a citty upon a hill…
Moreover, those who took Marx most seriously and fell under his intellectual spell either did first-class work only after they had liberated themselves and attached themselves to some other’s perspective (as Perry Anderson did to Weber via “modes of domination” and as Joan Robinson did to Keynes). Too close and uncritical a study of Marx is a mode of self-programming that introduces disastrous bugs into your wetware. The thinkers useful for the twenty-first century are much more likely to be along the lines of Tocqueville, Keynes, Polanyi, de Beauvoir, Lincoln, and (albeit in his intellectual rather than his political or personal practice) Jefferson than Marx. (And Foucault? Maybe Foucault–nah, that is too likely to introduce a different set of dangerous bugs to your wetware…)
Yet the ideas and the arguments for “communism” were (and are?) powerful. And they were very convincing to millions if not billions of people for fully a century and a half. How should post-millennials understand this? How much about this ought they to learn? And how best to present the subject so that they gain the fullest and most accurate understanding, in the short time that is all that they can afford to spend on it?
first second take on readings, in the order in which I would put them a course:
- John Maynard Keynes (1931): Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren in [Essays in Persuasion]
- Ursula K. Leguin (1974): The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia
- Friedrich Engels (1845): The Condition of the Working Class in England
- Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels (1848): The Communist Manifesto
- Karl Marx (1849): Wage Labor and Capital
- Karl Marx (1853): On Say’s Law, from Chapter 17 of Theories of Surplus-Value
- George Orwell (1937): The Road to Wigan Pier
- Edmund Wilson (1940): To the Finland Station
- Francis Spufford (2011): Red Plenty
- Brad DeLong (2009): Understanding Karl Marx
- Brad DeLong (2014): Prolegomenon to a Reading Course on Karl Marx
- Milovan Djilas (1957): The New Class
- Rene Dumont (1970): Is Cuba Socialist?
- Simon Leys (1974): Chinese Shadows
- Jasper Becker (1997): Hungry Ghosts
- Leszek Kolakowski (1974): Leszek Kolakowski Trolls English Historian E.P. Thompson…
- Joan Robinson (1953): Open letter from a Keynesian to a Marxist
- Paul Samuelson (1962): Economists and the History of Ideas
- Charles Maier (1997): Dissolution
- Matthew Yglesias (2006): Can Social Democracy Explain Its Own Success?
- Fred Halliday (2009): What Was Communism?
More Scattered Things I Have Written: on and About the Subject:
- (2003): Let’s Get Even More Depressed About Cuba
- (2005): Lire le Capital: Mail Call
- (2005): Unstructured Procrastination
- (2006): Introducing Serious, Permanent Bugs into Your Wetware
- (2007): Why Everybody Should Be Short Louis Althusser and His Intellectual Children
- (2007): Keynes, Marx, Trotsky, Yglesias
- (2007): James Scott and Friedrich Hayek
- (2008): Relevance of Marx
- (2008): Evaluating Karl Marx as Political Activist
- (2008): Good Riddance to Fidel Castro!
- (2008): Los Gusanos–the Worms–Infest the Comment Section Tonight…
- (2009): Department of “Huh?”: In Praise of Neoclassical Economics
- (2010): James Scott, “Legibility,” Flavius Apion, Anoup, the Emperor Justinian, Robin of Locksley, Rebecca Daughter of Mordecai, King Richard, and Others…
- (2011): Marx’s Half-Baked Crisis Theory and His Theories of Surplus Value, Chapter 17
- (2011): What Was Karl Marx’s Principal Contribution?
- (2011): Washed-Up, Marginal, Authoritarian, and Unappealing Leftist Watch: “Castro Did Lots of Good and Humane Things, Despite Being a Dictator; but the Bottom Line Is U.S. Hatred of Castro Had Nothing to Do with His Being a Dictator…”
- (2013): Robert Paul Wolff on Paul Samuelson on Karl Marx: Thursday Whiskey-Tango-Foxtrot-Bang-Query-Bang-Query Weblogging
- (2014): Marx and the Mechanical Turk
- (2015): Hoisted from Other People’s Archives from 97 Years Ago: The Already-Written Fidel Castro Obituary–(Rosa Luxemburg, “The Russian Revolution” Chapter 6)
- (2016): It’s Fidel Castro’s 90th Birthday!