When Will Capitalism Answer for Its Crimes?

People aren't turning to socialism because they're naive. They're turning to socialism because they know we don't have to live in misery.

A homeless woman sits on Wall Street outside of the New York Stock Exchange in 2017 Spencer Platt / Getty Images

Capitalism is a formidable social system. Despite the best efforts of hundreds of millions of socialists over the last century and a half, it remains the hegemonic system governing production and politics around the world. That dominance at least partially explains the sense of shock palpable in the writings of media figures who have slowly awoken to the growing socialist revival in the United States. There’s a very real sense in reading these pieces that the authors just can’t believe anyone is still questioning capitalism.

Connor Friedersdorf’s recent piece in the Atlantic is emblematic of this genre. In his article, Friedersdorf attempts to pile as many bodies at the foot of socialism as possible, through a familiar tour of the death tolls attributed to regimes in countries like the USSR, China, and Cambodia.

These deaths, he argues, are ignored by contemporary advocates of socialism, like Mathieu Desan and Mike McCarthy, the authors of the Jacobin article he is criticizing. In fact, the present resurgence of socialism in the United States is “mostly grounded in [an]…ignorance of 20th-century history every bit as myopic as far-right Holocaust deniers.”

Yet for anyone seeking deeper historical knowledge of the experience of twentieth-century communist regimes, Friedersdorf’s article is sure to prove a disappointment. Indeed, it’s more than a little ironic that he attempts to paint socialists as historically ignorant, when his own writing reveals a near total lack of understanding of anything about these societies. Like the American warmakers Friedersdorf so often criticizes, he’s only really interested in body counts.

For example, Friedersdorf brings up the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia, which ruled the country from 1975-1979 and presided over a genocidal level of violence against the country’s population. For Friedersdorf, Cambodia was ruled by “the same economic system” as Russia or China.

Such an assertion betrays a near-total ignorance of the actual history of the Khmer Rouge, whose connection to socialism was roughly analogous to Donald Trump’s connection to Christianity.

From long before they took power in 1975, the Khmer Rouge were an ethno-supremacist movement dedicated to restoring the glory of the Cambodian nation and scapegoating ethnic Vietnamese and Chinese. Socialist phraseology served as mere window-dressing.

Upon taking power, the regime emptied the cities of their populations to boost rural agriculture, abolished money, and grandiosely blew up the country’s central bank. Predictably, the economy collapsed, and the regime was short-lived.

This fact in and of itself should serve as a clue that it was a rather different kind of society than either China or Russia after their revolutions. After all, whatever the many crimes of those regimes, and whatever their considerable economic problems, both countries achieved relatively high levels of economic growth that considerably raised their populations’ standards of living over decades.

To top it all off, the Khmer Rouge would never have come to power in the first place without the savage American intervention in Cambodia, most centrally a bombing campaign that devastated the countryside. Only the brutality of the world’s foremost capitalist power, acting in the name of combating communism, could create the conditions in which a regime like the Khmer Rouge could attain state power.

For Friedersdorf, however, avoiding historical myopia apparently means ignoring this kind of historical context, so long as it allows one to pile more corpses at the feet of socialism.

But what of China? Here, Friedersdorf comes rather closer to the mark. The Chinese famine of 1958-61 was one of the greatest peacetime catastrophes of the twentieth century, and there is no doubt that the particular forms of state planning the Chinese state adopted contributed to it.

But once again, with some more historical context, things begin to look rather different. For while China experienced three years of world historic catastrophe in the mid-twentieth century, around the world, countries which did not have the systems of food support that China built experienced decades of slow-motion starvation. Around the world, landlords’ ability to exclude rural populations from their private property left the rural poor in utter destitution.

In their book Hunger and Public Action, the economists Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen bring this point out particularly forcefully in a comparison of India, where, for all talk of socialism, landlords still held sway, and China, where they did not:

it is important to note that despite the gigantic size of excess mortality in the Chinese famine, the extra mortality in India from regular deprivation in normal times vastly overshadows the former. Comparing India’s death rate of 12 per thousand with China’s of 7 per thousand, and applying that difference to the Indian population of 781 million in 1986, we get an estimate of excess normal mortality in India of 3.9 million per year. This implies that every eight years or so more people die in India because of its higher regular death rate than died in China in the gigantic famine of 1958 – 61. India seems to manage to fill its cupboard with more skeletons every eight years than China put there in its years of shame.

In other words, though India experienced no concentrated period of starvation which can be easily identified and hung around the neck of a particular ideology, its ordinary conditions for the latter half of the twentieth century, in which an extraordinarily unequal distribution of land obtained, created an excess mortality that, over the long term, dwarfed that of the worst famine of the century.

This gets to the very heart of why Friedersdorf’s article is so unsatisfactory. Most of the death and suffering resulting from capitalism remains stubbornly unspectacular.

When people with diabetes ration their insulin because of rising costs, and some of them die, that’s a consequence of the distribution of property rights that exists in our society. When the poor and the non-white suffer increased mortality from airborne pollution, that too, is a consequence of our current economic system.

This exercise could be extended indefinitely. The people whose lives are devastated because our society prioritizes the property rights of the wealthy over the needs of the poor are victims of an injustice every bit as much as those who died in compressed catastrophes under states calling themselves socialist.

One could, of course, turn this logic around, and point to the human potential lost in quotidian inefficiencies of the state socialist regimes, and the human dignity assaulted by their political corruption. But what would be the point?

Few today would honestly say that, given the choice between life in an an advanced capitalist democracy like the US and an authoritarian developmental state like China or the USSR, they would choose the latter. But this is not the choice on offer today in the United States. It’s not the vision of socialism McCarthy and Desan advanced in their original article, which is grounded in the centrality of democracy to human liberation.

In fact, the socialist tradition is full of voices who have been stridently critical of those regimes on precisely these grounds. Friedersdorf might contend that it’s where socialists end up, even when they want to go somewhere else, but it’s hardly credible to argue that an attempt to build socialism in the most advanced economy in history will necessarily end up in the same place as revolutions in developing countries against tottering agricultural elites.

What contemporary socialists, whose numbers are growing at an incredible rate, are arguing is that life for tens of millions of Americans can be decisively improved by a whole host of measures that would rein in the power of capital, from Medicare for All to subordinate the healthcare industry to human need to a renewed union movement that would curb the despotic power employers wield over their workers. Some socialists, including McCarthy, Desan, and myself, go further, arguing that we will only have a humane society when a small portion of humanity no longer wields exclusive control over our productive resources.

These arguments are gaining traction today not because Americans are unfamiliar with the legacy of state socialism, but because they are all too familiar with the state of American society today. Today’s socialists have succeeded where Friedersdorf has failed: they have linked the everyday tragedies they see around them to an economic system that has delivered ever more spectacular rewards to the wealthy, while most barely tread water. They have understood that though Americans may not be perishing en masse in a famine, they are needlessly suffering in innumerable ways because of the way our society distributes property.

The task today’s socialists have ahead of them is a daunting one. Capitalism’s resilience is not to be underestimated. But Friedersdorf’s article is a timely reminder that whatever the sources of that resilience, the quality of the system’s apologists is certainly not among them.