What is Left? Nihilism vs. Socialism

The history of socialism is a noble tradition. It has been an epithet used by tyrants to curse their enemies and a flag by which working people transformed their workplace and the societies that they lived in. Almost every story we hear that involves someone standing up to authority involves socialism. It is the valiant story of individuals and groups who attempted to transform the status quo of their time against overwhelming odds. Socialism has changed peoples’ expectations of rights, fairness, work, and the kind of leadership they should expect.

On the one hand, socialism has completely transformed society over the past 200 years. More than just the revolutions that have had some success in various parts of the world under a socialist flag, socialism can be directly credited for the existence of unions that defend workers rights, a universal education system in most parts of the world, a general health care system (especially in many Western countries), and a system that hybridized elements of State protectionism and laissez fair capitalism.

On the other hand, socialism has been an abject failure. Socialism has never usurped Capitalism, in a meaningful or long lasting way, as an economic system. Most socialized systems of care balance the cruelty of benign neglect with the indifference of the queue. Even Libratory Socialism concerns itself primarily with navel gazing, the cacophony of the mob or the selfishness of the individual. Socialism has served better as a corrective to a world-system than it has as the transformation of one system for another.
The family tree

Socialism comes out of a historical lineage of ideas that stretches from the Ancient Greeks, the Polish Socinians, the Enlightenment and classic liberalism. While it is primarily understood as a political philosophy in resistance to the status quo of the 19th and 20th centuries it actually agreed with the majority of the choices that those in power made. It agreed that aboriginal people, wherever they were found, should be integrated into the life of the society, it agreed with the rise of industrialization (with very few exceptions), and it agreed with basic economic principles (wealth, price, exchange).

The tendencies in socialism that came to be known as ‘Marxist’ or ‘Communist’ exemplify this position. The rhetoric was always that the goal was the direct and communal control of society for the common benefit of all members. The reality was two-fold. The conception of history that came out of the Marxist tradition (dialectical materialism) dictated that the transformation of society would pass through capitalism, as it had through feudalism, to transform into socialism and eventually communism. This meant that progressivism was embedded within this (the dominant) branch of socialism. This meant (especially prior to the Russian Revolution) that the path to revolution had to pass through the industrialization of society, and that the places where industrialization was most advanced were the places where socialist revolution was most likely to occur. Imagine the surprise when the backward (industrially speaking) country of Russia became the location of the first socialist revolution. This surprise must have transformed to horror when Lenin’s policy of War Communism and the New Economic Policy, which mimicked the worst aspects of capitalist extraction of value and allowed a limited return to free trade, became the baseline on which the Soviet economy was based.

To what extent did the libertarian tradition in socialism also represent this position? While the basic position of libertarian socialism seems innocuous (who could be against ‘freedom’ or ‘liberty’?) the actual positions taken by libertarian socialists mirror the larger socialist movement. Instead of arguing for the creation of an administrative body to manage the transformation to a socialist society, libertarian socialists argue for ‘self-management’ in ‘free federations’ to deal with the question of power. Outside of the question of how practical (or often) these ideas are in a moment of contestation with the status quo is the question of what this practice means for libertarian socialists and whether this practice has informed socialism as a corrective to the worst excesses of the Capitalist system or as the correct vehicle for the transformation of society.

The primary mechanism by which libertarian socialists have practiced their socialism is by attempting to “build the new world in the shell of the old.” This practice extends from the idea that the socialist society must be exemplified by our behavior today. In order to create a self-managed society libertarian socialists would begin by self-managing their current struggles and organizations. In addition they would connect these self-management schemes through ‘federalism’ that would give them the ability to engage in self-defense and share resources. Over time, and especially in the past few decades these ideas have become increasingly popular in the capitalist space. Many work places no longer organize themselves in the classic ‘pyramid’ structure with a boss at the top and a clear organizational structure built on top of the line worker. Instead these work places have integrated the innovation of ‘self-management’ and allow for ‘teams’ to assume responsibility for the amount and form of their production. Arguably these innovations have been superficial, as the pyramid structure hasn’t been entirely destroyed but the experience of the line worker has qualitatively changed. Consumer cooperatives have benefited from libertarian principles. By cutting out the profit motive, they provide low cost services and goods to their members. By operating under principles of representational democracy there is a degree of control and participation far beyond the typical corporation. The secondary mechanism of libertarian socialist practice has been in revolutionary moments. Here it has always experienced the tension of its, ultimately, humanist perspective with the exigency of the revolutionary moment. This is best exemplified by the events in Spain where the CNT joined with the Catalan government in a common front against Franco’s fascism. This decision was based on the fear of isolation by the CNT and the belief that it was a higher priority to defeat fascism than to finish the revolution. Placing the war before revolution meant, ultimately, collaboration with the state against the revolution.

If socialism has been, at best, a corrective to the worst excesses of Capitalism then where else can we draw our inspiration from? If the mainstream of socialism (so called state socialism, communism, or social democracy) is solidly interested in the same progressive, economic assimilation as the dominant world then we could look to its rivals. If these rivals (libertarian and utopian socialists) have shown that they are co-optable or worse, that they are not capable of being effective in the time of crisis then where do we turn? If people couldn’t effectively combat the system of the 19th century when it was just becoming a worldwide system rationalizing everything, including its opposition, what hope do we have today long after the fact?
Russian Socialism

100 years later socialism was transformed by traveling to the rest of the world. African and Arab Socialism were innovations that reflected experiences that were authentically different than the socialism of the European Continent. The problem was that they were also directly reactionary to the Soviet Experience and were thus limited in their scope. They assumed colonialism, Marx, and a certain degree of nationalism. While these assumptions were relevant given the circumstances in which they occurred, they transformed these socialisms into purely political practice instead of more general political philosophy.

During the 19th century there was a strain of what is called socialism that, arguably, did originate outside of the mainstream of European thought. This Russian socialism prefigures Arab and African socialism in that it attempted, although by no means in these terms, to externalize the Russian experience in the vehicle of socialism. What Russian socialism had in common with European socialism was a belief in science as the means by which Christian parochialism could be challenged and by which the world could be truly understood. It also shared connection, through Russian émigrés like M. Bakunin and A. Herzen, to the greater Socialist movement happening in Europe. This is where the similarities end.

Philosophically the trajectory that Socialism was part of, the Liberal Tradition, advocated freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and freedom of thought. Even if the mainstream of Socialism eventually took a different tack from this origin, the basis of the Socialist project was in these values. These values were not part of the Russian experience. Instead Russian socialism started from a rejection of morality, truth, beauty, love, and social convention. As a political philosophy Russian socialism begins by questioning the validity of all forms of authority and ends by practicing the adage “The passion for destruction is a creative passion, too!” The Russian Socialists did not see the path to social revolution as progressive. Instead of seeing an industrial proletariat as the revolutionary agent the Russians saw their own rural peasantry. In 1861, when the peasants were freed from servitude but chained to debt, the Russian Socialists believed an uprising was inevitable. When it did not occur, nor could be inspired to occur, the Russian Socialists took action. Instead of locking themselves up in the Library of England for 10 years the Russian socialists moved into group houses with their comrades, took daring and ridiculous actions (like handing a socialist pamphlet to the sitting Tsar), and eventually committed Tsaricide. Of course, we know the Russian Socialists by another name, Nihilists.
Nihilism meet Anarchism

“Not until the movement started by Proudhon had reached Russia did the “propaganda of action” come into it. In Russia the government, controlling the military, was able to check instantly any movement which might appear in any of the few big cities. In the country no movement could have effect.”

Marshall Everett

Libertarian Socialists also had another name that may be useful to differentiate from it from its Socialist brethren, anarchism. If Libertarian Socialism is overly concerned with self-management, federations, and workingmen’s associations then anarchism may very well have been concerned with how to integrate the Russian innovations of nihilism. Bakunin is the case in point. Revisionists, of the Libertarian Socialist stripe, would focus entirely on Bakunin’s positive agenda of arguing for collective action to achieve anarchy; freedom of press, speech and assembly; and the eventual voluntary associations that would federate to organize society, including the economy. They do not attend to his negative agenda of demolishing political institutions, political power, government in general, and the State. As Bakunin provided the Nihilists with a formative gift in his essay “Reaction in Germany” (1842), he also received a gift from the practice of the Nihilist Dmitry Karakozov and his failed assassination attempt of the Tsar Alexandar II. Ten years later this nihilist practice (that was is full swing by this time) became the policy of the largest anarchist federation on the European Continent. This so called “propaganda by the deed” is the primary historical vehicle by which we know anarchism (and which Libertarian Socialists spend much of their time apologizing for and distancing themselves from).

“Terrorism arose because of the necessity of taking the great governmental organization in the flank before it could discover that an attack was planned. Nurtured in hatred, it grew up in an electric atmosphere filled by the enthusiasm that is awakened by a noble deed.” The “great subterranean stream” of nihilism thus had its rise. From nihilism and its necessary sudden outbreaks anarchism borrowed terrorism, the propaganda of action.”

Sergius Stepniak

The difference between “propaganda by the deed” and the nihilist practice of assassination is intention. The anarchists continued, due to their relationship to Socialism, to believe in a positive, progressive route toward their social ends and to be engaged in violence against heads of states and their lackeys with the (utopian) belief that the population bearing witness to these acts would both see the fallibility of power AND would rise up to fill this void. The nihilists had no positive intentions. In the parlance of modern anarchism they only desired to take direct action against great offense.

“Anarchism and nihilism are two words familiar to the young and now attractive to them. They do not believe in building a new society within the shell of the old. They believe that the old must be destroyed first. That is nihilism. In a way it is the denial of the “here and now.”

Dorothy Day

Let us state it clearly. The Socialist conception of history is a progressive tradition. The Marxists call it historical materialism and it is well stated, in their own language, by this quote from the Preface to Marx’s Contribution to the Political Economy

No social order ever perishes before all the productive forces for which there is room in it have developed; and new, higher relations of production never appear before the material conditions of their existence have matured in the womb of the old society itself. Therefore mankind always sets itself only such tasks as it can solve; since, looking at the matter more closely, it will always be found that the tasks itself arises only when the material conditions of its solution already exist or are at least in the process of formation.

The Nihilist concept of history was not progressive. The Nihilist’s opposition to the state is just a special case of his or her opposition to almost everything: the family, traditional art, bourgeois culture, comfortable middle-aged people, the British monarchy, etc. and is not oriented around their formulation of how to achieve a better world. In practice there were plenty of Nihilists who may have desired an anti-statist communal society but did not particularly see their resistance to the regime as linked to this desire.

Socialism will continue to have its adherents, who are attracted to its perspective of history, its democratic perspective of inclusion and participation, and its apparent dominance in the field of social contestation. Its criticism of Nihilism begins with the position of deep revulsion at its a-humanist perspective and practice. If we were to review the history of Socialism, we would see that a rejection of humanism is not necessary to inflict involuntary horrors upon real living people. If there is a lesson to take from the Soviet Union, The People’s Republic of China, or the Khmer Rouge it is that good intentions, and the practice of historical materialism, can stack up the bodies as well as the systems they would oppose.

What Nihilism provides then is an alternative to the alternative that does not embed an idealist image of the new world it would create. It is not an Idealist project. Nihilism states that it is not useful to talk about the society you ‘hold in your stomach’, the things you would do ‘if only you got power’, or the vision that you believe that we all share. What is useful is the negation of the existing world. Nihilism is the political philosophy that begins with the negation of this world. What exists beyond those gates has yet to be written.