Marxism, liberalism and the Euston Manifesto
“It is at times like these that voices like Geras are sorely needed.” @GraySergeant
“I wish we hard Norm’s intelligence, clarity and compassion to fall back on now.” @SP_Duckworth
Geoffrey M. Hodgson
In 1967, Norman Geras came to the University of Manchester and took up a position as a lecturer in politics. I was then an undergraduate student in Manchester and three years his junior. We were both involved in left politics and our paths soon crossed. Together we campaigned against the Vietnam War.
When I briefly flirted with the International Marxist Group in the early 1970s, Norm was a member too. (I’m unsure when he left – he may have stayed on until its dissolution in 1983.) Norm and I were both members of Marxist reading groups, where together we discussed economics and politics.
Disillusioned with the far left, I re-joined the Labour Party in 1974. (I was previously a member in 1966-1968.) Norm did not take that route. Yet we remained in contact until I left Manchester in 1980. I returned to the University of Manchester on a research fellowship in the 1984-1985 academic year. Norm and I met up again. I recollect another study group in that year in which we both took part.
Marx and Human Nature
Norm’s 1983 book on Marx and Human Nature had a big impact on me. In the 1970s he had argued forcefully that the natural foundations of human existence had to be taken into account. The book refuted the fashionable misconception that Marx had denied the existence of a universal human nature.
Against social constructionism, Norm argued that human beings cannot be reduced merely to their relations with others. He argued more generally that human nature had biological as well as socio-cultural foundations.
In 1983 I had already encountered the work of Thorstein Veblen. These influences drove me into biology and evolutionary anthropology. In retrospect, Norm’s input was crucial in the development of my thought. The result was a number of works of mine on evolutionary themes, particularly from 1993 onwards.
After I finally left Manchester in 1985 I did not meet Norm again. We moved in different political spheres and I lost personal contact, but his incisive intelligence had made a permanent mark on me. Despite the intense political disputes on the left, he was always respectful and never acrimonious.
The 2003 Invasion of Iraq
In 2003 Norm retired from his post of Professor of Politics at the University of Manchester. That was the year of the fateful invasion of Iraq. He started a blog, when this mode of communication was in its infancy. Unfortunately I was unaware of this initiative at the time.
Norm supported the US-led invasion in 2003. He argued that it was a humanitarian intervention to remove the vicious dictator Saddam Hussein.
I had supported the first Iraq War in 1990-91 on the grounds that it was important to restore Kuwait’s sovereignty after Saddam’s invasion.
But, like many others, I opposed the 2003 invasion because of its lack of UN backing, its illegality, and disbelief in the pretext that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. I thought that it would have been better to put other pressure on the regime, along the lines proposed by the French government at the time.
The Euston Manifesto
In 2006 the Euston Manifesto was published. I did not become aware of its existence until a couple of years later. The Euston Manifesto is a bold plea for democracy and universal human rights and for a re-alignment on the left. Its signatories include supporters and opponents of the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
The Euston Manifesto launch in 2006
Left to right: Alan Johnson, Eve Garrard, Nick Cohen, Shalom Lappin and Norman Geras
The Manifesto criticises that “anti-imperialist” left that ends up supporting totalitarian regimes and reactionary insurgent forces, on the grounds that that they are opposed to the West. The Manifesto unequivocally condemned terrorist and the deliberate use of force against civilians.
Principle number seven of the Manifesto reads:
“We recognize the right of both the Israeli and the Palestinian peoples to self-determination within the framework of a two-state solution. There can be no reasonable resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that subordinates or eliminates the legitimate rights and interests of one of the sides to the dispute.”
Crucially, the Manifesto recognizes the right of both Israel and Palestine to exist, against the “anti-Zionist” rhetoric of many on the left. This “anti-Zionist” left aligns with groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah who declare explicitly for the destruction of Israel.
On reading the Euston Manifesto I found myself in complete agreement with it. I wrote to the organizers offering my support and my signature. But I received no response. It seemed that the group had quickly become moribund.
The Norman Geras Reader
Norm died of cancer in October 2013. I have recently read The Norman Geras Reader – a great collection of some of his writings, which was published in 2017. The Reader also contains the text of the Euston Manifesto.
Everyone on the left would benefit from the Reader, especially the majority in the Labour Party who have come under the sway of a leader who is anti-West, who has joined in with promotors of terrorism, who has shared platforms with anti-Semites, and who remains equivocal about the right of Israel to exist.
The “What’s there is there” subtitle of the Reader in part refers to instances of anti-Semitism in Marx’s writing, which some Marxists choose to deny. Today it might also apply to another over-adored leader of our time.
Long before others, Norm rang alarm bells about these reactionary tendencies on the left. This remains one of the most important and prescient features of Norm’s writing. This is one of several reasons why he deserves to be remembered.
Marxism and liberalism
But despite our strong convergence over the Euston Manifesto, I found that in other respects Norm and I had diverged since we last met in the 1985.
Norm had moved politically in a liberal direction, but I had moved further. The Norman Geras Reader shows that Norm had remained a Marxist (of sorts) until his death. By contrast, I had departed from Marxism in about 1980 and set out on a decades-long journey from socialism to liberalism.
Despite his continuing adherence to Marxism, the Reader shows that Norm was strongly sympathetic to liberalism and he took its achievements very seriously.
For example, in a 1999 essay he argued that a “minimum utopia is to be conceived not only as socialist but also as liberal”. In 2012 he argued more forcefully:
“Unless … Marxists show themselves willing to engage fully with the intellectual resources of liberalism … unless a Marxist political theory comes to terms with the truths of liberal political theory, acknowledging the normative force of human rights, the idea of judicial independence and the separation of powers … insisting on free elections and an untrammelled freedom of speech and opinion, understanding the virtues of political pluralism … Marxism as a political movement might as well shut up shop.”
Bravo. But unlike Norm I agree with the closure of Marxist activity in the conclusion as well as with the preceding necessary conditions. Marxism cannot be liberal and it should shut up shop as a political movement. We can retain Marx’s more robust analytical insights, particularly on the nature and dynamics of capitalism.
But Marxist politics have been a disaster, and its dreadful and murderous consequences are not accidental. Marxism is incompatible with liberalism.
The politico-economic preconditions of liberalism
Norm rightly berated Stalin and other totalitarian Marxists. But are the disastrous consequences of Marxist regimes all down to bad people gaining positions of power? Surely it must be more than that? Why has every Marxist regime breached human rights, terminated free elections, curtailed freedom of speech and ended political pluralism?
To answer these questions we must look at the politico-economic conditions under which liberal-democratic states have been established and sustained. It is not just about the personalities of individuals.
There is a widespread opinion among non-Marxist social scientists that democracy requires countervailing political and economic power to have a chance of survival. In Marxist terms, if the economic “base” determines the “superstructure”, then a pluralist polity requires a pluralist (or mixed) economy, and not one that is encompassed by a massive state.
A complete concentration of political and economic power in the hands of the state, which Marx and Engels advocated with enthusiasm, always requires and enables a despotic political regime. There are no exceptions. The centralizing economic project within Marxism is incompatible with liberalism.
Accordingly, to prevent such a concentration of economic and hence political power in the hands of the state, there must be a private sector that is free to trade on markets.
Capitalism, socialism and greed
Norm disliked the greed and avarice that is often encouraged by capitalism. I do too. But I have learned that market economies come in many forms and are infused by different cultural precepts. A market economy does not necessarily mean a dog-eat-dog dystopia of greed and selfish individualism. As the Nordic examples illustrate, a better capitalism is possible. We need to build on their achievements and move still further in an egalitarian direction.
Furthermore, socialist bureaucracies can encourage selfishness, corruption and ruthless, power-seeking behaviour. Under real socialism these outcomes have typically been just as bad as those found within the worst of capitalisms.
A Worker Cooperative in New York City
Our understanding of human nature is relevant here, as Norm would have insisted. Over hundreds of thousands of years we have evolved to cooperate in small groups of no more than a hundred or so. This suggests that If socialism is to work, then it must be on a small scale.
Capitalism can also engender cooperation within autonomous firms, coordinated by markets. Some of these enterprises could be converted into worker cooperatives.
Class struggle and universal rights
There is a second reason why Marxism is incompatible with liberalism and with the principles in the Euston Manifesto. It concerns the issue of class struggle and proletarian dictatorship, about which Norm (at least in his Reader) had little to say.
In Marxism, class struggle is both an analytic and a normative doctrine. It is about the working class seizing power and ending the rule of the capitalists. This doctrine means that the rights of one social class are privileged over another. Universal individual rights are no more. As Engels put it, the legal and individual rights of the Enlightenment are “nothing more than the idealized kingdom of the bourgeoisie.”
Any regime that denies rights to some, especially with malleable criteria concerning who is denied those rights, ends up denying rights to everyone. These are the consequences of Marx’s notion of class struggle and the “dictatorship of the proletariat”.
This is a clear totalitarian impulse. Marxist revolutionaries are deemed to know better what is in the interests of the working class than the working class itself. Democracy becomes an impediment to the realization of those true interests, about which the masses are not fully aware.
Conclusion: wrong turnings
Alas, Norm was silent in his writings about these problems (as far as I am aware) and I never had the chance to discuss them with him. I would have welcomed that.
The Euston Manifesto was a noble attempt to re-orient the left. Especially in the light of the Corbynista takeover of the Labour Party and the rise of anti-Semitism on the left, it should be re-read today. But sadly the Manifesto initiative was stillborn.
I wonder if one of the reasons for the failure of the Manifesto to keep up the momentum it briefly gained at its launch was the incomplete diagnosis by its promoters of where the left has gone wrong?
The Norman Geras Reader shows that the one leading Eustonite was still under the gravitational pull of Marxism, and reluctant to break from its power. (But Eustonite Alan Johnson took a different view on this important issue.) For whatever reason, The Euston Manifesto became a terminus, rather than the starting point of another journey.
Norm and I were both strong opponents the “anything goes” cultural relativism that overtook the left after the Vietnam War. Nick Cohen shows in his book What’s Left? that cultural relativism was one major wrong turning made by the left in its long evolution from the eighteenth century.
But another was the abandonment of universal human rights, when the influence of Marxism over the left became pre-eminent in the late nineteenth century. That wrong turning must also be recognized and reversed. That necessitates a break from Marxist politics, rather than promoting the unrealizable fantasy of a Marxist-liberal marriage.
We live in increasingly worrying times. We need another Manifesto that builds on Norm’s achievement but takes us still further toward the goal of a more egalitarian and humane society.
1 September 2018
Camic, Charles and Hodgson, Geoffrey M. (eds) (2011) Essential Writings of Thorstein Veblen (London and New York: Routledge).
Cohen, Ben and Gerrard, Eve (eds) (2017) The Norman Geras Reader: ‘What’s There is There’ (Manchester: University of Manchester Press). See esp. pp. 56, 108.
Cohen, Nick (2007) What’s Left? How the Left Lost its Way (London and New York: Harper).
Geras, Norman (1983) Marx and Human Nature: Refutation of a Legend (London: Verso).
Hodgson, Geoffrey M. (1993) Economics and Evolution: Bringing Life Back Into Economics (Cambridge, UK and Ann Arbor, MI: Polity Press and University of Michigan Press).
Hodgson, Geoffrey M. (2013) From Pleasure Machines to Moral Communities: An Evolutionary Economics without Homo Economicus (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).
Hodgson, Geoffrey M. and Knudsen, Thorbjørn (2010) Darwin’s Conjecture: The Search for General Principles of Social and Economic Evolution (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).
Rich, Dave (2016) The Left’s Jewish Problem: Jeremy Corbyn, Israel and Anti-Semitism (London: Biteback).
Posted in Democracy, Labour Party, Left politics, Lenin, Leszek Kolakowski, Markets, Marxism, Socialism
Geoffrey M. Hodgson
Karl Marx was born on 5 May 1818. He was one of the greatest social scientists in human history. The intellectual structure of his thought has affected our understanding of history, of economic development and of political power. All modern scholars of significance have to define their position in relation to Marx’s monumental achievement.
Many of Marx’s predictions were wrong. He was mistaken, for example, about the general deskilling of the working class. On the contrary, although many remain unskilled, average skill levels have increased. Furthermore, although many remain desperately poor, the average standard of living of the working class has vastly increased since his time.
On the other hand, some of Marx’s predictions have been vindicated. He characterized the nature of the capitalist system more acutely than any of his predecessors and he predicted its spread over the entire world. He saw capitalism a dynamic system that broke down archaic institutions and barriers to trade.
Marx also focused on the generation of inequality under capitalism, which has increased and is recognized as a serious problem.
Marx got some forecasts wrong and some right. Prediction is far from everything in social science. What towers above all is his contribution to our understanding of the inner dynamics of capitalism. With all its shortcomings and theoretical flaws, it remains a huge achievement.
Was Marx the author of the Marxist tragedy?
Let us turn from Marx the social scientist to Marx the politician. Remarkably, from 1917 to the present day, a number of regimes have been set up by revolutionary activists who have claimed to be Marxists. All of these turned sour: these totalitarian regimes led to millions of deaths. Estimates vary. 90 million is on the conservative side, with about 65 million in Mao’s China alone.
Marxism has various ideological immune systems to deal with these brutal facts. One gambit is to blame it on the hostile interventions of foreign powers. But it is implausible that these alone are responsible for the outcomes. No foreign intervention prompted Mao’s Great Leap Forward of his Cultural Revolution, for example, which together led to about 40 million deaths.
Another argument – due to Leon Trotsky – is to blame it on the creation by tyrannical leaders such as Stalin of a bureaucratic caste that denied the working class any democratic power. But this implausibly assumes that a huge nationwide bureaucracy can somehow be run on the basis of meaningful votes on every important decision. No-one with any practical experience of a large organization would entertain such a fantasy.
A more colourful recent excuse is due to Yanis Varoufakis, the influential Greek academic and politician. He argued that the Marxist texts were too powerful. As a result they attracted devious opportunists who rode the Marxist rhetoric for “their own advantage.”
The problem, it seems, was that Karl Marx and Frederick Engels were too powerful with their prose. If only they had written more turgid texts – then millions would have been saved from the famines and the Gulags.
Seriously, though, the greater problem is not the power of the language, but what it says and what it empowers and enables. Marxism creates a sense of historical destiny, where the creation of socialism is a seemingly obvious solution to the ills of the world, which will defied only by the rich, whose resistance must be crushed.
Marx bears some responsibility for the murdered millions
At least two major aspects of Marx’s thought removed protections of human rights and paved the way for brutal totalitarianism.
The first was his doctrine of class struggle. Analytically, this may have some value and it is subject to academic debate. But it was also a normative doctrine, about the working class seizing power and ending the rule of the capitalists.
Marx and Engels argued that the current aims and desires of the proletariat were less important than its historical destiny to abolish capitalism and become the ruling class. They wrote:
This is the first totalitarian impulse. Marxist revolutionaries are deemed to know better what is in the interests of the working class than the working class itself. Democracy becomes an impediment to the realization of those true interests, about which the masses are not fully aware.
The normative doctrine of class struggle has another outcome. It means that the rights of one social class are privileged over another. Universal individual rights are no more. As Engels put it, legal and individual rights are “nothing more than the idealized kingdom of the bourgeoisie.”
Their normative arguments in favour of socialism are not based on any alleged rights. Instead, socialism is seen as historic destiny. Marx tried to show that crises within capitalism are recurrent and inevitable, and that capitalism digs its own grave by enlarging and empowering the working class.
The consequence of this class deprivation of human rights was enshrined in law under Marxist-socialist regimes. The 1918 Constitution of the young Soviet regime distinguished between the rights of the workers and the rights of others. The Soviet state also announced that it
A major problem here was that the criteria used to decide what was detrimental were unspecified, opening the door to arbitrary repression by the authorities. This is exactly what happened.
A regime that denies rights to some, especially with malleable criteria concerning who is denied those rights, ends up denying rights to everyone. These are the consequences of Marx’s “dictatorship of the proletariat”.
A full concentration of economic power leads to totalitarianism
A second aspect of Marx’s thought that promoted totalitarianism concerns the economy.
But as subsequent experiences from Russia to Venezuela illustrate, such a massive concentration of economic power requires for its enforcement, and sustains as an outcome, a massive concentration of political power that is intolerant of democracy. The good intentions or democratic inclinations of leaders are not enough. Those most hungry for power, and least affected by moral qualms in exercising it, will eventually rise to the top.
There is a widespread opinion among non-Marxist social scientists (including Barrington Moore, Douglass North and Francis Fukuyama) that democracy requires countervailing political and economic power to have a chance of survival. In Marxist terms, if the economic “base” determines the “superstructure”, then a pluralist polity requires a pluralist (or mixed) economy, not one that is overshadowed by a massive state.
A complete concentration of political and economic power in the hands of the state, which Marx and Engels advocated with enthusiasm as well as eloquence, always requires and enables a despotic political regime. There are no exceptions.
Over forty years ago, Leszek Kolakowski was an Eastern European dissident and a perceptive critic of Marxism. He wrote:
“My suspicion is that this was both Marx’s anticipation of perfect unity of mankind and his mythology of the historically privileged proletarian consciousness which were responsible for his theory being eventually turned into an ideology of the totalitarian movement: not because he conceived of it in such terms, but because its basic values could hardly be materialized otherwise.”
Kolakowski was right. Many have still to learn the tragic lessons of Marxist failure in practice, as well as of its partial but flawed analytical success.
Critics will say that giving Marx some blame for the atrocities of the twentieth century is like trying to blame Jesus for the atrocities of the Spanish Inquisition. They are wrong, Jesus never advocated class war or a concentration of economic power in the hands of the state, both of which create the conditions for tyranny.
5 May 2018
Minor edits – 6 May 2018
This book elaborates on the issues raised in this blog:
Published by University of Chicago Press in January 2018
Courtois, Stéphane, Werth, Nicolas, Panné, Jean-Louis, Packowski, Andrzej, Bartošek, and Margolin, Jean-Louis (1999) The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press).
Fukuyama, Francis (2011) The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution (London and New York: Profile Books and Farrar, Straus and Giroux).
Kolakowski, Leszek (1977) ‘Marxist Roots of Stalinism’, in Robert C. Tucker (ed.) (1977) Stalinism: Essays in Historical Interpretation (New York: Norton), pp. 283-98.
Moore, Barrington, Jr (1966) Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Lord and Peasant in the Making of the Modern World (London: Allen Lane).
North, Douglass C., Wallis, John Joseph and Weingast, Barry R. (2009) Violence and Social Orders: A Conceptual Framework for Interpreting Recorded Human History (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press).
Posted in Common ownership, Democracy, Karl Marx, Labour Party, Left politics, Lenin, Leszek Kolakowski, Liberalism, Mao Zedong, Markets, Nationalization, Politics, Private enterprise, Property, Robert Owen, Socialism, Uncategorized
Geoffrey M. Hodgson
In terms of basic assumptions, Marxism has more in common with some prominent versions of so-called “neoliberalism” than is generally understood. Obviously, Marxism is opposed to a market economy. But some core ideas by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels are remarkably similar to those of some so-called “neoliberals”. For example, Marx’s definition of property resembles that of Ludwig von Mises.
But the parallels go much further, and are disturbing in their consequences. They concern the independence of the legal system and the nature and legitimation of democracy. They also concern the viability of civil society and the autonomy of personal and social life.
The argument here shows that liberalism – both historically and currently – is very different from some modern versions of “neoliberalism”. This “neoliberalism” is theoretically closer to Karl Marx than to Thomas Paine or John Stuart Mill.
Marxism undermines the autonomy of politics and civil society
The Marxian analysis of capitalism treats law and the state as an expression of class interests, which in turn are grounded on “economic relations”. Hence, for Marx, law and the state “originate in the material conditions of life“. They are part of the “superstructure” built upon the “economic base”.
The Marxist analytical reduction of everything to economics does not stop there. Consider the notion of civil society.
Civil society generally connotes a realm of free, partly self-organising, property-owning citizens, who interact under the rule of the state and its laws. In most accounts it includes private business and markets, but it is not reducible to them. It also embraces many forms of social association (including recreation, religion and philanthropy) that are not driven by business interests.
Distinctions between civil society and the state, and between civil society and the narrower world of trade and business, were developed by Enlightenment liberal writers such as Adam Smith, Adam Ferguson, Thomas Paine, Alexis de Tocqueville and others. They are crucial for modern liberal theory.
In its analysis of capitalism, Marxism made the state, law, politics and civil society all analytically subservient to markets and business.
These may be regarded as extreme formulations within Marxism. Certainly there are more sophisticated treatments by Marxists of civil society and the state, not least by Antonio Gramsci. But Marxism is severely impaired by the words of its founders.
The above extracts concern the Marxian analysis of capitalism, not its vision of an ideal society, which of course is strikingly different from that of (neo)liberals. While the Marxian analysis of capitalism undermines the conceptual distinction between civil society and the state – by making them both subservient to economic relations – Marxian politics also dissolves it in practice.
In his early tract On the Jewish Question, Marx argued that civil society and political society should become one and the same. In practice, under socialism, once much of the economy becomes a state bureaucracy. With private association under restriction, the scope of civil society is much diminished.
The conceptual and practical degradation of civil society is but one of the roots of totalitarianism within Marxism. Other sources are discussed elsewhere. The smothering of civil society within the party-state makes opposition more difficult and paves the way to dictatorship – a process witnessed in all Marxist regimes, from Russia to Venezuela.
The reclamation of civil society by Eastern European dissidents
Long before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, underground opposition groups had developed in several Soviet Bloc countries. After the crushing of the Hungarian Uprising in 1956, and after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, opposition to the Marxist party-state became most developed in Poland.
In 1971 the Polish intellectual Leszek Kołakowski wrote his Theses on Hope and Despair. These were circulated illegally in his home country.
Kołakowski complained that the Soviet-style regime had “monopolistic power” that impelled “the atomization of society and the destruction of all forms of social life not prescribed by the ruling apparat.” He called for a pluralist society with genuine freedom of information, discussion and association.
Subsequently, other Eastern European intellectuals such as Jacques Rupnik called for “the rebirth of civil society”. After the formation of the mass trade union movement Solidarity in Poland in 1980, still more voices were added. The Hungarian Andrew Arato wrote in 1981 of the new dissident wave:
“one point unites them all: the viewpoint of civil society against the state – the desire to institutionalize and preserve the new level of social independence.”
Before its unexpected elevation to political power in 1989, Solidarity saw itself as essentially a movement for the “self-defence” of civil society against totalitarian power.
But while the dissidents drew on Enlightenment and liberal thought, their political philosophy was often underdeveloped. After 1989, many former dissidents became influenced by extreme forms of market libertarianism. But given the parallels – explored below – between this “neoliberalism” and Marxist thought, there was more continuity in their thinking than immediately meets the eye.
To understand the connection between “neoliberalism” and Marxism we need first to address a much broader phenomenon within social science.
There is a widespread tendency to use the language of trade and markets to describe phenomena that are neither traded nor markets. I gave some examples in my Conceptualizing Capitalism book. I here call it market universalism.
Consider the notion of a “market for ideas”, which can be found in the writings of Nobel Laureate Ronald Coase. He did not refer to intellectual property but to conversation and freedom of expression.
Douglass North, another Nobel Laureate, wrote of “political markets”. He was not referring to vote-buying (in countries like India) or political bribery, but to the general process of multi-party competition in a democracy.
In a paper published in 1988, Bruce Benson and Eric Engen envisioned “the legislative process as a market for laws” where interest groups “pay” legislators for laws as “products”.
By minimal criteria, none of these is a market. Rules concerning contracts, enforcement and property rights are lacking.
For example, the ordinary communication or debating of ideas does not involve enforceable contracts. Generally, conversation is not an intentional transfer of property rights.
Similarly, if we vote for a politician or a party that does not typically amount to an enforceable agreement. Competition between politicians or parties for votes or power is not a contest for contracts under any established system of contractual rules.
Likewise, with the supposed “market for laws”, in reality there are rarely any enforceable contracts between interest groups and legislators.
There is a further problem. What would be the system of rules under which these supposed “contracts” between legislators and interest groups are formed and enforced? Hence a “market for laws” would require supra-legal institutions with their own (legal or other) rules. We would need markets for markets-for-laws, or markets for meta-rules.
This reveals a problem of an infinite regress, showing that not everything can be placed on a market. My Conceptualizing Capitalism book gives further reasons why markets cannot be universal. There will always be missing markets.
Market universalism and “neoliberalism”
Although market universalism may be dismissed as the harmless use of metaphor, it contains dangerous policy temptations.
Making everything a market denies the autonomy of law and politics: everything is subsumed within the market zone. All forms of association are regarded as market-like or contractual arrangements. Legal and political relations or rights are reduced to the “economic” facts of possession or control.
The temptation is to downgrade all non-commercial justifications for democracy, law or social life. Everything is forced into the conceptual straitjacket of property and contract, and evaluated in terms of profit and loss.
Previous liberal thinkers had defended rights to private property, other human rights, plus institutions such as democracy. By contrast, market universalism can highlight control over property first, on the grounds that it is the foundation of all other rights and liberties. Property moves from being a necessary but insufficient condition of liberty, to being necessary and sufficient for the same.
This transforms the Enlightenment argument that the government must be legitimated by representative democracy, rather than by tradition or divine rule. The “political market” makes democracy a market, and market-like criteria become the overriding source of legitimation for everything.
Furthermore, democracy may be seen as secondary or expedient, especially when property or markets are perceived as being under threat. By treating democracy as another market, a temptation is to regard markets and property as generally more important or supreme than democracy.
Consequentially, market universalism enables something very different from other forms of liberalism, and it involves a radically modified conceptual foundation. One may be tempted to call it neoliberalism.
This is the label suggested by Philip Mirowski, who addressed what he called the Mont Pèlerin “thought collective”. In a perceptive essay on this influential intellectual movement, which involved Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, Ludwig von Mises and others, Mirowski identified several of its traits including the following:
“Skepticism about the lack of control of democracy is offset by the persistent need to provide a more reliable source of popular legitimacy for the neoliberal market state. Neoliberals seek to transcend the intolerable contradiction by treating politics as if it were a market and promoting an economic theory of democracy.”
Foundations of anti-democratic authoritarianism
We can now see what Marxists and market universalists have in common. They all look upon capitalism as system where everything is reducible to a market.
For Marxists, this means that civil society is nothing more than the sphere of business and individual greed. In addition, the political and legal spheres are simply reflections of these business interests.
A policy consequence – after the socialist revolution – is to destroy civil society and absorb it into politics and the state. This forms part of the Marxist foundation for totalitarianism.
Of course, for “neoliberals”, markets are always beneficial. But the problem is much more serious than their ever-familiar agoraphilia.
Through notions such as “political markets” and “markets for laws”, market universalist “neoliberals” reduce the state and its legal system to a grand marketplace. The state and law become additional markets alongside others. The policy temptation is the practical marketization of the state and the doctrinal denial of the autonomy of politics.
Once politics and all civil society are seen through the lenses of trade and markets, then the basic elements of property and contract become supreme. Instead of being a necessary but insufficient precondition of liberty, property becomes both necessary and sufficient.
This transforms the Enlightenment argument that the government must be legitimated by representative democracy, rather than by divine rule. The “political market” makes democracy a market, and this becomes the overriding source of legitimation.
Consequently, democracy becomes secondary or expedient, especially when property or markets are perceived as being under threat. By treating democracy as another market, a temptation is to regard markets and property as generally more important or supreme than democracy.
Leading “neoliberals” like von Mises and Hayek have been described as classical liberals. But their views are a departure in important respects from the Enlightenment liberalism of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and from other more recent currents of liberal thinking. In some important respect they are closer to Karl Marx than John Stuart Mill.
Margaret Thatcher and Augusto Pinochet
Their supreme emphasis on property rights explains why some “neoliberals” have dallied with dictators. For example, in a book originally published in 1927, von Mises praised fascism as “an emergency makeshift” that “has, for the moment, saved European civilization”. Hayek was notoriously silent about the human rights violations in Chile under the dictator Pinochet. These fascist or dictatorial regimes were seen by them as saviours of private property.
Conclusion: liberalism is not “neoliberalism”
Despite their opposed policy stances, Marxism and the type of market-universalist “neoliberalism” discussed here have similarities at their theoretical foundations. While Marxism reduces the analysis of civil society and politics to an economistic world dominated by self-seeking egoists, this “neoliberalism” does exactly the same.
Within this version of “neoliberalism”, everything is legitimated by free contract in unfettered markets in all spheres of human interaction, including within the state itself. Like Marxism, it reduces everything to economics.
This entails a radical break from other forms of liberalism, and from all other doctrines that recognise the relative autonomy of the political and legal spheres from the economy and from civil society.
2 September 2017
Minor edits – 8, 10 September 2017
This book elaborates on some of the political issues raised in this blog:
Published by University of Chicago Press in January 2018
Arato, Andrew and Cohen, Jean (1992) Civil Society and Democratic Theory (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press).
Benson, Bruce L. and Engen, Eric M. (1988) ‘The Market for Laws: An Economic Analysis of Legislation’, Southern Economic Journal, 54(3), January, pp. 732-745.
Caldwell, Bruce J. and Montes, Leonidas (2015) ‘Friedrich Hayek and his Visits to Chile’, Review of Austrian Economics, 28(3), pp. 261-309.
Cohen, Jean (1982) Class and Civil Society: The Limits of Marxian Critical Theory (Oxford, Martin Robertson).
Hodgson, Geoffrey M. (2015) Conceptualizing Capitalism: Institutions, Evolution, Future (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).
Hodgson, Geoffrey M. (2017) Wrong Turnings: How the Left Got Lost (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, forthcoming).
Keane, John (ed.) (1988) Civil Society and the State (London: Verso).
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Posted in Common ownership, Democracy, Karl Marx, Left politics, Leszek Kolakowski, Liberalism, Ludwig von Mises, Markets, Neoliberalism, Politics, Private enterprise, Property, Right politics, Socialism, Soviet Union, Venezuela
Geoffrey M. Hodgson
The world is full of injustice and poverty, while the rich protect their wealth by manipulating the system of power. Consequently, many of the informed and intelligent are lured like moths to the lights of socialist revolution, promising social justice for the many not the few.
Vladimir Ilyich Lenin was a blazing light in Russia a century ago. Many intellectuals were attracted to his Soviet regime. Lenin is said to have coined the term “useful idiot” to describe the naïve among them (but no evidence has been found to support that attribution).
But in 1913 Lenin definitely did quote the old adage that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”. This was unwittingly self-referential and rather prophetic. Lenin’s post-1917 Bolshevik regime became a hell, in part of his own making. The good-intentioned (with sufficient means or influence) were invited from abroad to visit the young Soviet Republic.
Venezuela – “another world is possible”
But first let us consider the current case of Venezuela. Its experiment in radical socialism began in 1998 when Marxist Hugo Chávez was elected as President. Using the plentiful oil revenues during 1999-2007, his government expanded access to food, housing, healthcare, and education, especially for the poor and the indigenous minorities.
Chávez nationalized key industries and created participatory Communal Councils. He whipped up popular support against the rich elite and their perceived allies in the United States. But constitutional checks and balances slowed down his radical reforms. Criticism from the private press and political opposition countered the populist movement.
So in 1999, the new Constitutional Assembly, filled with elected supporters of Chávez, drafted a new constitution that made censorship easier and granted the executive branch of government more power.
The Constitutional Assembly extended the presidential term. It abolished the two houses of Congress. It also granted Chávez the power to legislate on citizen rights, to promote military officers and to oversee economic and financial matters.
In 2002 Chávez was briefly deposed in a coup, which probably had support from the CIA. But Chávez was restored to power by the army and popular mobilisations.
Chávez then seized control of the courts and the electoral authority, and suppressed much of the opposition media. He removed political checks and balances, seeing them as obstacles to his socialist revolution.
Accordingly, the device of populist democracy was used to push the country in the direction of dictatorship. His supporters were persuaded to approve increases in presidential powers, to protect the “socialist revolution” against its enemies. Since 2004, “defamation” of the government, including “disrespect for the authorities”, has been a criminal offence.
Chávez failed to diversify the economy and reduce its reliance on oil. He antagonised private investors. The state-centred economy was not robust enough to withstand the post-2008 oil price collapse.
Venezuela’s descent into hell
In a state-run economy, business corruption is encouraged by bureaucratic failure. Political corruption is facilitated by the gathering of powers in the hands of the ruling party and the state machine. The Venezuelan government became one of the most corrupt in the world. Serious shortages of food and medicine emerged.
“There’s no food”
Chávez died of cancer in 2013 and was replaced as President by Nicolás Maduro.
In 2015 and 2016, blaming internal “fascists” and US intervention for the severe shortages, President Maduro declared two states of emergency. These gave him powers to intervene in the economy. Arbitrary detentions of dissidents became more common.
The regimes of Chávez and Maduro wasted and misspent much of the money made in the oil boom, while over-extending the powers of their corrupt governments. The private sector was hobbled. The ultimate outcome of Venezuela’s experiment with populist socialism has been authoritarianism, destitution and starvation.
Because of a populist mistrust of liberal, pluralist institutions, Venezuela is lurching toward dictatorship. Press freedom is limited and critical journalists and opposition leaders are jailed.
Supporters of Chávez and Maduro blame the hostility of the US for Venezuela’s distress, just as it was blamed for economic problems in Cuba after its 1959 revolution. US belligerence made things worse, and will probably continue to do so.
But the major cause of economic stagnation in Cuba and Venezuela is the unchecked concentration of excessive political, legal and economic power in the hands of the overbearing state.
Los idiotas útiles
Back in the UK, Jeremy Corbyn attended a 2013 vigil following the death of Chávez, hailing him as an “inspiration to all of us fighting back against austerity and neo-liberal economics in Europe”. As late as 2015, when Venezuela was in ever-deepening crisis, Corbyn’s enthusiasm for the regime was undiminished. He remarked:
“we celebrate, and it is a cause for celebration, the achievements of Venezuela, in jobs, in housing, in health, in education, but above all its role in the whole world … we recognise what they have achieved.”
Corbyn has since been challenged to come out against the hellish Maduro regime. Maduro’s government has been accused of arbitrary arrest, extra-judicial killings and torture.
Jeremy Corbyn and Hugo Chávez
Having managed to dupe many people with the mantra that he was a “peacemaker” in Northern Ireland (rather than a supporter of the IRA), Corbyn tried the same trick with Venezuela.
First he removed all mention of “Venezuela” from his website. Then, in an August 2017 interview, he condemned the “violence done by all sides”.
The Venezuelan opposition includes both rightist agitators and defenders of human rights. By simply condemning violence, Corbyn appeared as morally neutral between the regime and its diverse opponents. He ignored the politico-economic conditions that had given rise to the violence, and the previous actions of the Chavistas in creating them.
I wonder if Corbyn could be taken back in a time machine to the 1793-94 Terror of the French Revolution, or the Soviet Great Terror of the 1930s, or the occasion of Hitler’s invasion of the Sudetenland in 1938, and be asked to condemn with detached neutrality the “violence done by all sides”.
In the same interview Corbyn called for respect for “the independence of the judiciary and … the human rights of all”. He failed to note that Chávez and Maduro were primarily responsible for undermining both.
Questioned about his support for Maduro, Corbyn fudged:
“I gave the support of many people around the world for the principle of a government that was dedicated towards reducing inequality and improving the life chances of the poorest people.”
He omitted to mention that that same socialist Venezuelan government was now responsible for widespread starvation, rampant corruption and mass emigration.
But Jeremy of Islington is in search of socialist sainthood. He does not want the blood of any regime on his hands. He wants to go down as a peacemaker. He left it to his Corbynista Praetorian Guard to make a more forceful case for the Chávez-Maduro regime.
Over to the Corbynistas
Labour MP Chris Williamson tweeted on 11 August 2017 that the violence in Venezuela is “for the purpose of overthrowing democracy, not saving it”. Unlike Corbyn, this blamed all the violence on the opposition. It also overlooked the fact that Chávez and Maduro had been more effective in undermining democracy in Venezuela than anyone else.
Chris Williamson MP & Jeremy Corbyn MP
On the following day, Williamson Tweeted: “The US and global corporations are indulging in economic sabotage in Venezuela to bring down the government”. To a degree this may be true. But the statement ignores the greater part played by Chavista populism and its power-grabbing statist socialism in bringing about the economic and political catastrophe.
Other pro-Chavista idiotas útiles include Alexis Tsipras the Greek Prime Minister, Pablo Iglesias of Podemos in Spain, Jean-Luc Mélenchon the leftist French presidential candidate, Pope Francis and the Five-Star Movement in Italy.
The erosion of civil liberties and human rights has its roots in the concentration of economic and political powers in the hands of the state, whatever the “good intentions” that originally motivated the leaders and their supporters.
Stalin the Fabian and the Stalinist Fabians
Sadly, this is an old pattern. The Fabian socialist George Bernard Shaw visited the Soviet Union in 1931 and met Joseph Stalin. Shaw declared that Russia was becoming “a Fabian society”. This was at a time of mass famine and forced collectivisation.
George Bernard Shaw
In the preface to his 1933 play On the Rocks, Shaw defended the Russian secret police’s “liquidation” of detainees who could not give satisfactory answers to queries about “pulling your weight in the social boat” or “giving more trouble than you are worth” or had not “earned the privilege of living in a civilized community”.
In a letter published in the Manchester Guardian in 1933, Shaw and others dismissed reports of famine in the Soviet Union as “slander” resulting from a “lie campaign” against the “Workers Republic of Russia”. In fact, from 1932 to 1933, about six to eight million people died there from hunger.
Shaw subsequently attempted to justify the extermination of the Russian peasantry: “For a Communist Utopia we need a population of Utopians. Peasants will not do.” In 1936 Shaw defended Stalin’s purges and mass executions. In 1948 he declared that Stalin was “a first rate Fabian”.
Beatrice & Sidney Webb
Leading Fabians Sidney and Beatrice Webb were highly influential intellectuals in the British Labour Party. In 1932 they made a three-week visit to the Soviet Union. Their generally favourable impressions were reported in 1935 in their massive two-volume study, Soviet Communism: A New Civilisation? In the 1937 edition the question mark was removed from the title.
Their assessments of the Soviet Union were more cautious than those of Shaw, but they also denied the existence of a famine in the Ukraine in 1932-1933 and they opined that the liquidation of rich peasants (kulaks) may have been necessary to collectivize agriculture and increase its productivity. Their book received favourable reviews from left writers and it played a role in nurturing sympathy in the Labour Party for the Soviet Union, at least until the onset of the Cold War in 1948.
“Humane” Mao and the “Korean miracle”
Communism achieved another victory when Mao Zedong came to power in China in 1949. Professor Joan Robinson was a leading Cambridge economist, influenced by both Karl Marx and John Maynard Keynes. An enthusiastic supporter of Mao, she visited China several times.
Despite this first-hand experience, she failed to acknowledge that Mao’s Great Leap Forward in 1958-1961 had been an economic disaster: it had led to catastrophic famine and about 40 million deaths. In defiance she wrote: “the Great Leap [Forward] was not a failure after all, but the Rightists were reluctant to admit it.”
In the 1960s Robinson lauded the Cultural Revolution, approving of attempts by Mao and the Red Guards to root out “capitalist roaders” within Chinese society. She praised Mao’s “moderate and humane” intentions. In fact, the Cultural Revolution led to at least half a million and perhaps as many as two million deaths.
Violent struggles ensued across the country and paralyzed the economy for years. Many more millions of people were persecuted at whim by the Red Guards: they suffered public humiliation, arbitrary imprisonment, torture or execution. Countless more died when the army tried to re-establish order. In China’s totalitarian system they had no refuge or legal protection.
As late as 1973 Robinson opposed “market socialism” and advocated a centrally-planned economy. She wrote of the “success of the Chinese economy in reducing the appeal of the money motive”. After extolling the virtues of Mao’s system, she reported that “Chinese patriotism and socialist ideology are pulling together”.
But a few years later, shortly after Mao’s death in 1976, the country overturned the anti-market policies that Robinson had celebrated in her writings. After accepting markets, Chinese growth took off.
In 1964 Robinson visited Communist North Korea and extolled the “Korean miracle” in its economy. She attributed its claimed success to public ownership and central planning.
But, within fifteen years, capitalist South Korea was surging ahead of its Northern neighbour. By the 1990s North Korea was experiencing mass famines. By 2010, GDP per capita in the South was about 17 times greater than in the North.
The “human face” of Soviet Communism
E P Thompson
The historian Edward P. Thompson left the British Communist Party after the 1956 Hungarian Uprising and subsequently played a major part in the formation of the New Left Review. But as late as 1973 he had sufficient residual sentimentalism for the Soviet Union to write of the
“times when [Soviet] communism has shown a most human face, between 1917 and the early 1920s, and again from the battle of Stalingrad to 1946.”
Leszek Kolakowski’s response to these rose-tinted words was devastating. He asked what Thompson might have meant by the “human face” of the Soviet Union during these years. Did it mean the “attempt to rule the entire economy by police and army, resulting in mass hunger with uncountable victims, in several hundred peasants” revolts, all drowned in blood”?
“Or do you mean the armed invasion of seven non-Russian countries which had formed their independent governments …? Or do you mean the dispersion by soldiers of the only democratically elected Parliament in Russian history …? The suppression by violence of all political parties, including socialist ones, the abolition of the non-Bolshevik press and, above all, the replacement of law with the absolute power of the party and its police in killing, torturing and imprisoning anybody they wanted? … And what is the most human face in 1942-46? Do you mean the deportation of eight entire nationalities of the Soviet Union with hundreds of thousands of victims … ? Do you mean sending to concentration camps hundreds of thousands of Soviet prisoners of war handed over by the Allies?”
Kolakowski searched for an explanation of Thompson’s incredible description of these events as “a most human face” of Communism. Perhaps this phrase is being used “in a very Thompsonian sense which I do not grasp”? A commentator on Kolakowski’s response wrote: “no one who reads it will ever take E. P. Thompson seriously again.”
Another “distortion”: the killing fields of Cambodia
Robinson and Thompson were not the only top-rank academics to be deluded by ideology. Consider the most important linguist of the twentieth century. Noam Chomsky loathed the American war in Vietnam. For him, to hide its own acts of oppression and mass murder, the West had duped the masses with its slick corporate propaganda. The West was fascism, with a fake mask of democracy.
But when reports emerged that the Communists were also capable of mass atrocities, he suspected an American conspiracy to exaggerate and to draw attention away from their own crimes. Then the evidence emerged of the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge in 1975-1979. Chomsky accused the publishers of the evidence of “extreme anti-Khmer Rouge distortions”.
Khmer Rouge Killing Fields
We now know that the Khmer Rouge obliterated about two million people – a quarter of the Cambodian population – in the pursuit of their Communist utopia. Chomsky’s reputation as a political thinker has never recovered.
Conclusion: what can we learn?
The first lesson is that thousands of highly intelligent people can be political idiots. We know that unintelligent people can be idiots (and even become presidents) but the task at hand is to explain intelligent idiocy. All it takes is a good dose of utopian idealism, combined with the view that the existing system is beyond reform.
Then when the likes of Lenin, or Mao, or Kim Il-sung, or Castro, or Pol Pot, or Chávez raise the red flag, the utopian intellectual flies to the light. A dose of reality may burn the wings. But the light of intellectual hope is so important that it must remained undimmed. Consequently, events as big as famines are based on the dark capitalist forces outside, or their devious agents within.
Many intellectuals are not practical people. They have lingered in their ivory towers. They know little of running organizations or state bureaucracies. Because of their well-motivated discontent and their search for hope, they can be attracted to Corbynism and other versions of leftist populism. But those lights are dangerous. They are ignited by opposition: without practical experience or feasible solutions.
Given such centralized powers, even well-motivated leaders will be tempted to curtail dissent and bully minority interests, in the name of the many against the few. Once on this slippery slope, human rights are eroded and the politico-economic system slides toward totalitarianism.
A lesson of the twentieth century is that classical socialism is a dead end. Viable democracies survive because there are countervailing, political and economic powers, which themselves depend upon mixed economies with large private sectors. Classical socialism unavoidably undermines the politico-economic foundations of democracy.
Instead we need to look to ways to making capitalism more egalitarian and inclusive, rather than chasing the dangerous dream of its abolition. Intelligent dreamers need to use their intelligence more wisely.
14 August 2017
Minor edits – 16, 20 August 2017, 27 September, 13 December 2017
This book elaborates on some of the political issues raised in this blog:
Published by University of Chicago Press in January 2018
Barsky, Robert F. (1997) Noam Chomsky: A Life of Dissent (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press).
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Thompson, Edward P. (1973) ‘An Open Letter to Leszek Kolakowski’, Socialist Register 10. See p. 77, emphasis added. Accessible on http://socialistregister.com/index.php/srv/article/view/5351#.VXBrZLFwYy8.
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Posted in Common ownership, Democracy, E P Thompson, George Bernard Shaw, Jeremy Corbyn, Joan Robinson, Karl Marx, Khmer Rouge, Labour Party, Left politics, Lenin, Leszek Kolakowski, Mao Zedong, Markets, Nationalization, Noam Chomsky, Populism, Private enterprise, Socialism, Soviet Union, Venezuela