“The Russian bourgeois dreamed of an agrarian evolution on the French plan, or the Danish, or the American – anything you want, only not the Russian. He neglected, however, to supply himself in good season with a French history or an American social structure.” Trotsky—History of the Russian Revolution
The issue of “modified capitalism” or “a mix of systems” or “Scandinavian style capitalism” has been coming up a great deal on social media as the capitalist juggernaut crushes more and more people and the idea of revolution seems less far-fetched and therefore, to certain social layers, more terrifying. I’ve added a section to my sidebar post, “Answers to a Few Things I’m Tired of Hearing,” (point #20) , but it’s coming up so often now that I’ve decided to talk about it here. This is mostly a copy of what I put there, with some expansions.
Of course it is tempting to point and say, “They do it there, why can’t we do it here?” Like all easy answers to difficult questions, it makes intuitive sense, but falls apart upon examination. Before I get into methodological problems, let’s look at it historically for a moment.
There is no question that in certain countries the working class, through terrible struggle and through the creation of labor parties, was able to win significant and important concessions from capital that have made those societies far more humane. This was a product of the post WWII conditions, that is, a time when capitalism, having gone through this slaughter, and massive destruction of property, had given itself a certain amount of flexibility. At the same time, the bourgeoisie was absolutely terrified of the social revolutions that were threatening throughout Europe (and Asia). In general, expressing it in the form of an equation, we get something like this:
Flexibility in capitalism + fear of social revolution = the possibility of reform.
That is pretty much what happened in the Scandinavian countries (as well as England, Belgium, &c) after WW II. But then, what about the US? Alas, thanks above all to the betrayals of the Stalinists in the US Communist Party, the same upsurge in the US (1946-48 strike wave, see also the Progressive Party ), was not able to produce a political arm, which has crippled the ability of the US working class to win similar concessions (although it still did win some: see medicaid, medicare, &c). But here’s what I want to emphasize: The idea of doing so now, when capitalism has so little flexibility that it is taking away every tiny thing once gained, and is going so far as to turn police forces into militarized terrorist gangs, and is attacking democracy on every front, is utterly absurd. And if you believe the best way forward is to recreate those post-war conditions, in other words, to have a third world war (nuclear this time) merely so capitalism can continue its bloodbath while being a bit gentler in the more privileged countries, I’m going to have to fight you on that.
Moreover, capitalism is international. Financial exchanges, capital investments, and deals for new factories fly across borders that, after all, are only intended to keep the working class in place, not the elite, and certainly not the elite’s money. I won’t say that a butterfly in New Mexico can cause a hurricane in China, but we’ve seen that a bank failure in Thailand can cause a stock market crash in New York. And as these crises increase in frequency and severity, we know who is asked to pay for them. Hint: It isn’t the capitalists. Not here, not in Thailand, and not in Iceland.
Capitalism is rattling itself apart like a machine whose control mechanism has broken. Rather than the Scandinavian countries being a model for what the US should do, the US is a predictor of what will inevitably happen there. We can already see it in the virulent anti-immigrant stances that are more and more common there (and in Australia). Such reactionary positions are not independent of attacks on the working class domestically, but are part of the same process. In other words, the reformists in most of those countries have either lost power, or are moving sharply to the right. The others will follow because they must. If capitalism is to be preserved, it must be preserved on the backs of the working class; the working class, on the other hand, has no way to protect what it has won, or, in this country, to win basic human rights like healthcare, without a program that rejects the idea that capitalism has a right to exist. However much you’d rather it were otherwise, those are our choices: the needs of the masses, or the free market.
What I want to emphasize, though, is the method behind this confusion: in part, it comes from looking at surface phenomena and accepting them, without digging deeper into causes. But another part comes from the same methodological flaw that produces right Libertarianism: the idea that the way forward involves thinking up what sort of society you’d like to live in, then convincing enough people that this would be a good idea that it is (somehow) implemented. I hope and believe that, someday, this can happen—that humanity will achieve a level of cooperation and a height of intellectual power that we will be able to plan out our own future development. But we’re not there yet. Now we’re where history has placed us, and we have to move forward from here as best we can, and that means, among other things, a study of history, and an effort to learn its objective laws. That is where to begin, not with picturing an ideal society, but with where are we, how did we get here, what are our options, and what do we need? Turning the US into another Scandinavia is simply not on the table.
One last point, because it’s somewhat related: for those who claim the Scandinavian countries are socialist. Uh, no. They do not have public ownership of production, state power in the hands of the working class, or state monopoly on trade—and those are only the foundations upon which socialism can be built, not even addressing distribution. Socialism does not mean capitalism that isn’t quite as brutal as it is elsewhere. It is a sign of the poverty of political understanding in the US, and additionally a sign of the barbarity of the US ruling class, that anyone could look at those countries and consider them socialist. As a side note, I have yet to meet anyone from Sweden or Norway or Iceland or Denmark or Finland who claims to live in a socialist country.