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Why Socialism?

American Intellectual Reactions Against The Cold War Political Economy, 1948-1975

"Amazing how the technology tools trap one, they're so powerful. I was impressed because most of the sort of fervour for developing the [atomic] bomb came as a kind of anti-Fascist fervour against Germany. But when VE Day came along, nobody slowed up one little bit. No one said, ”Ah well, the main thing -- it doesn't matter now.” We all kept working, and it wasn't because we understood the significance against Japan. It was because the machinery had caught us in its trap and we were anxious to get this thing to go."

-- Frank Oppenheimer

"[General Curtis R.] LeMay believed that ultimately we're going to confront these people in a conflict with nuclear weapons, and by God we better do it when we have greater superiority than we will have in the future. At the time, we had a 17 to 1 strategic advantage in nuclear numbers. We'd done ten times as many tests as they had. We were certain we could retain that advantage if we limited the tests. The Chiefs were all opposed. They said, ”The Soviets will cheat.” Well I said, ”How will they cheat?” You won't believe this, but they said, ”They'll test them behind the moon.” I said, ”You're out of your minds ... That's absurd.”

It's almost impossible for our people today to put themselves back into that period. In my seven years as Secretary, we came within a hair's breadth of war with the Soviet Union on three different occasions ... During the Kennedy administration, they designed a 100 megaton bomb. It was tested in the atmosphere. I remember this.

Cold War? Hell, it was a hot war!"

-- Robert McNamara

Following the Second World War, America emerged as the world's foremost superpower. Many argued America was perhaps the world's only superpower, as it had been American involvement in the war that proved decisive in its outcome. Ostensibly, it had been state-capitalism that enabled the United States to achieve this military predominance by way of its economic power. However, while the might of America's military economy was not in question, its social viability was. Where the conclusion of the World War had brought international political eminence to the United States, the ensuing Cold War and the inexorable illogic of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) aggravated internal contradictions and dissent within American itself.

By the supplications of intellectuals ranging from Albert Einstein and John Kenneth Galbraith to Paul Goodman and Herbert Marcuse, America was represented as a sociopolitical conundrum that required reconstruction. These scholars argued that the race towards militaristic economic ascendancy held no promise beyond atomic fallout. By this race America failed to recognize that all elements of society had subordinated themselves to the demands of a political economy gone MAD. Already before World War Two politics was defined not by social relations but by economic ambitions, and with the advent of Cold War these ambitions organized America for the mass production of nuclear arms. Here was the pinnacle of anti-social activity, formalized in an asocial political economy. America was now in the business of manufacturing its own apocalypse, and it was this nuclear mode of production that obviated the malignant absurdity inherent within the political economy.

This absurdity roused intellectuals to challenge a system that actively aspired towards commercial gain regardless of human cost, and by their protestations intellectuals hoped to reorient that system to value humanity over capital. Their anti-atomic, anti-capitalist stance was captured well in the proclamation of physicist Albert Einstein, who declared; "I am convinced there is only one way to eliminate these grave evils, namely through the establishment of a socialist economy." To this end radical economist Karl Polanyi claimed a socialist economy was de facto more democratic than industrial capitalism; for "[s]ocialism is, essentially, the tendency inherent in an industrial civilization to transcend the self-regulating market by consciously subordinating it to a democratic society." So it was that while the government reinforced capitalism by means of McCarthyism, the Second Red Scare, and the Truman doctrine, intellectuals reacted against irrational capitalism with scientific socialism.

In order to appreciate the substance of intellectual responses to American modernity during the Cold War era, we shall here survey their reactions against the United States' political economy between the years 1948 and 1975. We will begin first with a discussion of the nature of intellectual anti-capitalist formulations, then outline the central precepts of their optimistic socialistic programs, and close with a brief commentary on their impact.

The American political economy had been based on capitalism since the early nineteenth-century, and since that time America experienced a continuous series of popular and lower class anti-capitalist movements, protests, and demonstrations. During the Cold War however anti-capitalist criticisms came with increasing regularity and force from citizens working inside of officially capitalist institutions, and in particular from America's own intellectuals who were motivated to express despair regarding the features and future of American modernity.

It was the misguided fatalism inherent in the Cold War political economy that provoked the entry of intellectuals into the realm of political commentary, and this fatalism was neatly reduced into a single stanza by Herbert Marcuse in the opening line of his metaphorical One Dimensional Man; "Does not the threat of an atomic catastrophe which could wipe out the human race also serve to protect the very forces which perpetuate this danger?" Stated obversely; while American citizens busily engaged themselves in consumer-nationalism (the patriotic duty of stockpiling consumer goods to financially support the national stockpiling of nuclear arms), it was by unreflective consumer-nationalism itself that the need for nuclear weapons was sustained. Thus the threat of nuclear war endured by what psychologist Erich Fromm dubbed the quest for "absolute security," whereby citizens expended "most of their energy protecting their health" and were left with little mental energy to devote to the contemplation of the potential hazards of the protective measures themselves.

With respect to political relations, the impossible "goal of absolute security is" especially "damaging when it dominates foreign policies. The nuclear armament ... has shown that already. Economically it impoverishes us, ... psychologically it creates fear and apathy," and nationally "the human attitudes tend to become escapist attitudes." Hence by the threat of nuclear holocaust the conditions of reality had become too terrifying to acknowledge, and society instead indulged itself in the shallow, untenable belief that a nation "of consumption-happy, fun-loving, jet-traveling people creates the greatest happiness for the greatest number." "Contrary to this view" however, Fromm believed such a "way of life leads" in fact "to increasing anxiety, helplessness and, eventually, to the disintegration of ... culture."

The disinclination to face fear thereby begat an inability to experience emotion, and the genuine psychological needs of consumer-nationalists were left unfulfilled. These repressed feelings were not simply extinguished, but were unconsciously marshaled into a cultural "pathology of normalcy." By this normalcy social interactions became pathological rather than communal, and this pathological acculturation entailed not healthy community socialization but "socializing to the national norms and regimenting to the national 'needs'." Under capitalism such "needs" are economic, and an "exaggerated competitive attitude is inculcated into" citizens who are "trained to worship acquisitive success." Acquisitive success underwrites the development of social customs and institutions that "less and less represent ... human values, but simply adjustment to a mechanical system." The unfeeling and impersonal nature of that system has "taken a huge toll in disrupting normal human impulses and relations," and man is today "the prisoner of the very economic and political circumstances which he has created." These circumstances prescribe citizens that have "no convictions, either in politics, religion, philosophy or in love," but are instead "attracted by the 'latest model' in thought, art and style," and live "under the illusion that the thoughts and feelings ... acquired by listening to the media of mass communication are" their own. This was "a result unique in history: an elite that had imposed on itself morale fit for slaves."

This servile morale was the direct consequence of a political economy that existed not to serve its populace, but the business requirement of production for destruction. Proportionately, the anomic morale of the "consumption-happy, fun-loving, jet-traveling" lifestyle obfuscated the destructive character of production, and blindly permitted it to persist. However, while the production of nuclear weapons was the purpose by which the mania of American modernity was exemplified, this was not the original principle that had enabled the economy to dominate society.

When considering the origins of the inversion between economy and human society, economists John Kenneth Galbraith and Karl Polanyi perceived in the distorted form of the Cold War political economy the foundational content of American society. Regardless of the methods and means by which free and unfree immigrants had traveled to seventeenth-century New England, early Anglo-Americans agreed on one fundamental financial tenet; the notion that wealth generated in America should remain in the control of Americans. This tenet we shall refer to as American Wealth, and it was by this tenet that Americans of divergent social classes united to fight their war of Independence from England, and in the centuries following independence the foundational features of the United States were erected within a sociopolitical framework that focused on the extension of wealth by the pursuit of profit. "[P]roductivity, inequality and insecurity ... were the ... preoccupations of economics," and by tending to these preoccupations America achieved a level of material prosperity unparalleled in world history. Regrettably, by the economically oriented infrastructure of that prosperity, citizens living in twentieth-century America found themselves subject to the conditions of a political economy whose criterion and motive force was the outmoded eighteenth-century imperative of profitability.

By continuously aiming politics at profits, economic goals had usurped social requirements, and production was altered from a means into an ends. Polanyi referred to this shift as The Great Transformation, and claimed that in this transformation lay the seeds of future disaster. "[N]ever before ... were markets more than accessories of economic life. As a rule, the economic system was absorbed in the social system." Under capitalism however the economic system was based on an exchange market, and by the constitution of the market, labor and land were for the first time commuted into objects that existed only by the axioms of commercial exchange. To treat labor and land in this way was to convert them into false commodities, and thus "subordinate the substance of society ... to the laws of the market." In enacting this subordination, and permitting "the market mechanism to be sole director of the fate of human beings and their natural environment," capitalist nations instigated "the demolition of society." It had therefore been the rise of capital markets that heralded the displacement of social security in favour of individual economic appetition, and that comprised the first step on the road to consumer-nationalism and twentieth-century production for destruction.

By the time the Cold War arrived then, America was a nation whose political economy was honed by its evolutionary responses to the competitive struggle for profit. "The terms of the struggle were established by the market," and by the 1950s the market stipulated the mass production of atomic weapons. Here for the first time was a condition that nullified the formerly absolute wisdom of A.J. Muste's insightful formulation; "The problem after a war is with the victor. He thinks he has just proved that war and violence pay. Who will now teach him a lesson?" The problem of the Cold War was the problem of nuclear Armageddon, and hence the predicament was not determining who might teach the victor a lesson, but that there would be no distinction between victor and victim, and no lesson left to teach.

The complication that confronted intellectuals was communicating this danger to people trapped within a system that perpetuated the danger while also insulating itself from social sources of authentication. "As a technological universe, advanced industrial society is a political universe," and as that socio-mechanical macrocosm "unfolds, it shapes the entire universe of discourse." Therefore the only way to subvert that universe was to enter it and convince its inhabitants that their rules were heedless of the social forces that underpin human existence. Thus the opprobrium of Paul Goodman and Herbert Marcuse; "There is a pathos in our technological advancement"; "Technological rationality has become political rationality." By this self-normalizing techno-political rationale the spectrum of "political thought" now converged in "the platforms of two major parties that agree on all crucial issues," including "the Cold War and the Expanding Economy," which are in fact two complementary and self-certifying aspects of a single objective -- systemic self-protection. "When this point is reached, domination -- in the guise of affluence and liberty -- extends to all spheres of private and public existence" and the political economy constitutes its own "totalitarian universe in which society and nature, mind and body are kept in a state of permanent mobilization for the defense of this universe." Where mobilization and defense had previously entreated absent-minded consumption, they now requisitioned atomic bombs. Surely this was insanity reified. But how should a sane person proceed?

Here at least the answer was straightforward; "Dissatisfaction with our way of life is the first step toward changing it." Intellectuals argued that the means to escape destruction and domination consisted firstly in acceptance of, and dissatisfaction with the inevitability of mutually assured destruction, and secondly in the conscious recognition and rejection of a social life dominated by profit-centric norms. The political intent of intellectuals was thus to empower the citizenry with the intellective tools necessary to extricate themselves from an archaic conception of American Wealth that had been distorted by consumer-nationalism, existential angst, and political passivity. Thus would citizens be enabled to become actively engaged in defining the structure, values, and direction of their lives, work, and political economy.

For Fromm, civic empowerment and redirection meant "transforming our social system from a bureaucratically managed industrialism in which maximal production and consumption are ends ... into a humanist industrialism in which man and the full development of his potentialities -- those of love and of reason -- are the aims." Industry was to support humanity and never the reverse, and a truly humanist industrialism was to be "upheld at all cost -- even that of efficiency in production, economy in consumption or rationality in administration." As manifest in the delineation of these ideals, we see they "can be indicated only in negative terms because they ... amount to the negation of the prevailing modes";and where the prevalent mode is capitalism, its negation is anti-capitalism; that is, socialism.

Indeed, Einstein believed state-socialism was the only political arrangement that could "overcome and advance beyond the predatory phase of human development" which had been the wretched lot of American citizens living and working under capitalism. Socialism was by design antithetical to economic predation, as under socialism "the means of production are owned by society itself and are utilized in a planned fashion ... which adjusts production to the needs of the community" rather than the needs of accumulation. Therefore under a socialist economy, "economic freedom would mean freedom from the economy -- from being controlled by economic forces and relationships." Such a standard of freedom would permit "the restoration of individual thought [that was] now absorbed by mass communication and indoctrination," and thus enable the "liberation of ... individuals from politics over which they have no effective control." Hence if the breakdown of society and the buildup of military dangers was the result of a political focus on profit, then the solution was to deconstruct the political economy and reconstruct it to focus on people.

Such a program was of course easier to theorize on paper than to put into practice. As already noted, the pragmatic challenge confronting intellectuals was motivating the public at large to question the momentum of their own lives, and it was the material and intellectual momentum inherent within the American political economy that embodied the most significant obstacle to effecting socialism. For the "most effective and enduring form of warfare against liberation is the implanting of material and intellectual needs that perpetuate obsolete forms of the struggle for existence." In Marcuse's estimation then, the paucity of support for socialism was indicative not of any infirmity on the part of socialism, but indicated instead the strength of the forces that perpetuated obsolete intellective forms and prevented the realization of socialism.

Although Marcuse and his comrades understood the nature of the difficulties they faced, by the strength and momentum of state-capitalism intellectual socialism was not merely prevented, it was rendered moot. Put simply, the failure of intellectual socialism had two causes; first, because it was intellectual; and second, because it was socialism.

In reacting against the American political economy, intellectuals focused their efforts on producing objective analyses, and emphasized the importance of ideas and logical inferences. As a result, readers were often left to reflect in solitude on abstract theories that functioned at a level of conceptualization beyond that of the average reader, and in some cases even required the training of a professional academic. Additionally, while they presented impressive philosophical justifications for the indispensability and ethicality of socialism, intellectuals provided little practical advice. In place of definite conclusions and popular organizations, scholars offered moralistic ruminations on the intricacies of institutionalization and policy formation.

Further to these problems, many of Marcuse's "obsolete forms" adhered within the social and political relations of the classes with the most political power, the middle and upper classes. The dilemma here was that there were precious few aspiring bourgeoisie who were inspired to pronounce themselves the one-dimensional product of a compulsory miseducation. For these reasons intellectual socialism was largely confined to a scholastic audience.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, these intellectuals were pushing a political system that the American government denounced wholly and perennially by way of the news media, Hollywood movies, and political campaigns. The combination of governmental disapprobation with obscure intellectualism hardly added up to a political program that might arouse mainstream enthusiasm.

In evaluating the impact of these intellectuals, it is notable that by the lights of the definitions of socialism that they employed, John Maynard Keynes alone had a greater socialistic influence on the political economy than this entire group. Similarly, the United States government itself had achieved a greater socialist impact during World War One by establishing state control over production and distribution, and then again during the 1930s under the social welfare programs of President Roosevelt's New Deal.

In responding to the self-destructive tendencies of the paranoid materialism that was the Cold War American political economy, these intellectuals sought to assist their fellow citizens in unpacking the convolutions of modernity, and to redirect them away from their senseless drift towards a World War society. Their goal was to disrupt state-capitalism and to set Americans on a path toward state-socialism, and in this they failed. Their defeat was the product of their own analysis, and if not by their analytic intent, then by their academic mode of expression intellectuals remained politically distant from the popular audience they hoped to reach. By their words and their methods, intellectuals left the public precisely where they had been prior to the explication of intellectual socialism; that is, the public was left to continue considering how they might improve their chances inside the capital market, rather than being motivated to contemplate how they might free themselves from its domination.

Because intellectual socialism was formulated as a communal response to the threat of nuclear annihilation, its historical import is twofold. First, it was a reflection of the norm-circular potential of state political economies, and a confirmation of the ability of a society to maintain a self-destructive course even when exposed by intelligent criticism. Second, the deficiencies of Cold War intellectual socialism are an object lesson in the reality of political practicality, for in this lack of success the modern student uncovers a deeper understanding of the reasons that intellectuals supported socialism, how they approached its popularization, and why their arguments came to naught.


Part of the series: UWO

[ essay :: history, politics, violence ]

Last updated May 30, 2011