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Common Errors in English Usage and More 18th and 19th Century European Classics

Capitalists despoil the environment.

Clearly governments of all stripes have done their share of environmental damage. The air and water in such different countries as Mexico, India, and China is dreadful despite their extremely varied political and economic structures. The most notorious capitalist depredations have taken place outside the borders of the capitalist countries: Americans in Brazil, the Japanese in Maylasia. However, the Soviet Union turned large areas of Eastern Europe and its own territory into toxic wastelands far worse than anything in the capitalist world.

At least in capitalist economies, countervailing economic forces can sometimes create anti-polluting pressures: real estate interests oppose nuclear plants, fishing interests oppose dams. Unilateral development projects which are not forced to take such factors into account are far more likely to damage the environment.

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Capitalists commodify and simplify culture.

The common view of summarizing American culture abroad as the triumphant march of Disney and McDonald’s embodies this thesis. Marx articulated this line of thought in the early pages of the Manifesto; and it is one of the hardiest elements in Marxism, very much alive today in the writings of academic Marxists. While it seems at times as if everything has its price and we admire only what is profitable or expensive, it is not clear that this is so very much worse than the earlier sort of society in which things were valued according to their aristocratic prestige or holiness. After all, market value is an expression of collective democratic attitudes. If we decide that a basketball player is more valuable than a ballerina it is not because we are capitalists but because more people enjoy basketball than ballet.

But most people in capitalist societies deplore the fact that price and profit seem to lie behind everything we do and self-denunciations of excessive materialism are commonplace. So there is some truth in the accusation.

However, it is not clear what the socialist alternative would be. It seems obvious that because public debate and the arts were strictly controlled in Communist countries public discourse was also radically simplified. Ideas and artistic creations became political rather than economic commodities, at the service of political ends. Exceptionally complex and subtle thinkers emerged in Communist states here and there (Mikhail Bakhtin is a currently popular example), but the trademark of most Communist public culture was crudity and over-simplification.

“But that was not real socialism,” socialists may argue. And indeed, the point is a valid one. True socialists would never have tolerated such a narrow, anti-democratic culture as existed in the former Soviet Union and China. However, any culture which prizes the masses above the individual and in which collective power is expressed in a central government claiming to represent those masses is going to have difficulty encouraging complexity and subtlety, characteristics more often associated with aristocratic cultures, whether in Renaissance Florence or Heian Japan.

The analysis of “commodification” can be seen as just another instance of “essentializing,” a term popular on the contemporary left. It may be true that almost everything has a price in a market economy, but that does not mean that it makes sense to reduce the essence of everything to its price. When people’s homes burn, they usually don’t rush to save the most expensive items in the house, but the most personal: family photographs, children’s stuffed animals, etc. Marxists see economic forces everywhere just as Freud saw suppressed sexuality everywhere, and as some religious people see sin everywhere. There is no simple formula for determining what is the “real” key to understanding human behavior–we’re more complicated than most Marxists allow.

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Capitalists promote war to increase profits.

While it is true that the U.S. raised itself out of the Depression of the 30s by war spending, that can be used as much as an argument for Big Government as for Big Business. European economies did not experience the same benefits. Most businesses suffer rather than benefit in wartime. In the global marketplace, war is a major enemy of business, destroying both assets and markets.

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Capitalists and capitalist states are always motivated by economic considerations.

Marx thought that he had found a “scientific” basis for socialism by seeing all important social activity as shaped by the means of production and means of exchange in the culture under study. He had many brilliant insights, and his method of analysis can still be useful today; but it seems clear that capitalist nations and their populations are often swept up in nationalistic, religious, or other manias which override their economic self-interest. The Underground Man observes in Notes from Underground that people often act against their own best interests–and that seems to be as true of nations as it is of individuals.

During the Vietnam War radicals often quoted a statement of President Eisenhower’s that Southeast Asia should not be “lost” to Communism because of its valuable natural resources. But anyone studying the Vietnam war would be hard-pressed to find evidence of any economic benefit accruing to the U.S. from it. Indeed, Eisenhower probably felt compelled to justify what was essentially an ideological battle in capitalist terms because such attitudes are considered “rational” in capitalist nations.

A more sophisticated Marxist analysis argues that the domination of world economies and the creation of neocolonialist hegemony (control) requires the defeat of Communism, so that even very costly wars have a long-range rationale of making the world safe for corporate profit. This is an argument that can be wielded with great power, but it is not a universal explanation for foreign policy within capitalist nations. It should be noted that socialist states have hardly been immune from allowing economic considerations to influence their foreign policy either.

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All socialists are Communists.

It might be more accurately said that all Communists are socialists. In the Communist vocabulary “socialism” is seen as the more general term which includes various political philosophies including Communism. Many Western European socialists during the Cold War were vehemently opposed to Soviet-style Communism, as are most socialists today. The term “socialism” is often used by advocates of mixed economies in which capitalism plays a substantial part, moderated by a government which regulates the economy to promote public welfare. Many social critics using socialist analysis do not clearly advocate any specific political or economic system.

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Communism could never work because it goes against human nature. People are naturally more competitive than cooperative

This argument is actually dealt with by Marx himself in the Manifesto, where he puts forward his view that there is no such thing as fixed “human nature.” Human attitudes and behavior are constantly reshaped by the changing economic systems in which people find themselves. Engels went on to spend a good deal of effort showing that early hunter-gatherer and village societies depended far more on cooperation than on competition.

The Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin made the classic argument against social Darwinism in his Mutual Aid (1902), and leftist social scientists have developed it further. In many cultures prestige or authority are more highly prized than property, and competition may be expressed by acts of even radical “selflessness” such as giving away almost all one’s wealth in the “potlatches” of certain northwest tribes of Native Americans. Capitalism, socialists argue, simply brings these otherwise marginal emotions to the center and exaggerates them, stripping people of the strong ties which unite groups based on tradition, honor, religion, etc.

This is an argument that cannot be settled. No large socialist or Communist state ever managed to create a population of ideal Communist citizens–though it is worth noting that many contemporary Russians voice regret for the disappearance of old patterns of cooperation in the new capitalist era and are decidedly ambivalent about the virtues of competition.

Communists may have sounded naive when they foretold the creation of the new “socialist man,” but anti-Communists sounded equally naive when they asserted that contemporary attitudes toward property, work and money were universal truths unchanged throughout history. It was not entirely implausible to argue that if Europeans could change from believing in the divine right of kings, the necessity of permanent feudal ties, and submission to the Church, they could change further to reject individual self-interest, competition and private property as eternal truths which predominate in society.

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Communism is the opposite of democracy

Again, history provides plenty of examples of undemocratic Communist tyrannies to justify this stereotype. Various rationalizations have been advanced by such regimes to justify their use of the term “democratic,” but they do not seem to me worthy of examination here.

The important point is that Communism as Marx and others advanced it was to be a sort of super-democracy. What Marxists originally objected to were the limitations of democracy. Bourgeois democracy was denounced not because it was democratic, but because its benefits were concentrated in the hands of the bourgeoisie. The notion was to democratize the economy as well as government. With all wealth being held in common and controlled by workers, the factors in society which most directly affect daily life would come under the control of ordinary people, no longer to limited occasional trips to the ballot box.

During the Cold War, foes of Communism constantly articulated the struggle as being between Communism and democracy, while Communists insisted instead on seeing the struggle as being between Communism and capitalism–a term that was largely replaced in the U.S. by phrases with more positive connotations: “free enterprise” and “market economy.” Refusal to acknowledge this difference in usage probably led to more mutual misunderstanding and wasted breath than any other.

Communists may have often betrayed the ideal of democracy and even sometimes condemned it, but the original socialists were inspired by it and created the idea of socialism as an extension of it.

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The Communists want to take over the whole world.

Let us begin by acknowledging that Marxists indeed advocated that all the world should become Communist, but not by hostile takeover. Rather, they advocated a series of national revolutions around the globe which would allow the victorious workers ultimately to join together as one, abolishing the very idea of nationhood.

Indeed, when the Russian Revolution succeeded, a fierce debate erupted over whether it was legitimate to try to build Communism in one country without the support of other revolutions elsewhere. A counterattack by defenders of the old order was mounted by the “white Russians” (contrasted with the “red” Communists) aided by such foreign powers as Great Britain, Japan, France and the United States (which sent troops that never actually entered combat). In such circumstances, it is understandable that the new government should decide to press ahead without outside support, and that it would later try to generate revolutions abroad from outside.

The idea of a threat of world conquest by Communism was usually based on the experience of the period after World War II, when the Soviet Union imposed a series of Communist governments on the often unwilling populations of the countries they had occupied. They insisted that they were not conquering but liberating these nations from the shackles of capitalism. Having extended the bounds of the Revolution beyond the borders of the USSR, it was unthinkable that they should retreat and allow power to fall back into the hands of their bourgeois masters. Probably more important, however, was the desire of the Soviet Union to surround itself with a buffer of sympathetic, easily controlled states which could protect it from another invasion of the sort Hitler had carried out to such devastating effect.

The West viewed this move as purely an aggressive one, a forerunner of further campaigns of world conquest, and viewed the Soviet-backed Chinese revolution and the Chinese-backed Korean War which followed as proof of a general program of Communist expansionism, as was the Chinese conquest of Tibet. This was strong evidence, not lightly dismissed.

Yet the USSR did not in fact invade and “take over” China, and by 1960 had abandoned its former ally, and the North Koreans did not fall under the sway of China, stubbornly refusing to follow the Chinese lead to this day. The simple model of military conquest which dominated Western rhetoric about Communism during the Cold War was often a misleading guide to events, prompting American Presidents, for instance, to identify the Vietnam War as a Chinese project when it was in fact a civil war in which the Vietnamese Communists–both then and later–were often hostile to the Chinese. The invasion of Cambodia by the Vietnamese is another contest seen as an instance of Communist aggression when in fact the more liberal Vietnamese might have been able to prevent the genocide carried out by the radical–not to say insane–Communist Khmer Rouge if the Americans had not driven them out.

The Vietnam War was enormously prolonged because of the American conviction that the fall of Saigon would be swiftly followed by the fall of Laos, Cambodia, and much of the rest of Southeast Asia in a “bloodbath.” When Saigon did fall and the Americans left, many people suffered; but the predicted bloodbath and fall of “domino” states did not ensue. The Vietnamese were far more nationalist than expansionist, whatever their political beliefs.

Yet it would have been a foolish political leader indeed who did not take seriously the threat of invasion by Communist troops. Because of the secrecy of the Russians and the paranoia induced by the nuclear arms race fueled by both sides but led most often by the Americans, this threat was often wildly exaggerated. Hindsight tells us that much of the Cold War rhetoric envisioning the Soviet Union and its allies as bent on the military conquest of the rest of the world was mistaken; but their non-military and indirect military interventions posed serious threats that help to explain the inflamed rhetoric.

However the history of actual Communist states is analyzed, the notion of forcible imposition of Communism on unwilling majorities is certainly contrary both to Marx’s beliefs and those of most Marxists.

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Communism is a secret conspiracy to take over the world.

It is easy to see how this idea got started: some of the early radicals in the First International were indeed participants in secret conspiratorial movements, and in the Stalinist era the Soviet government routinely tried to recruit Communist Party members abroad to commit espionage. Now that the archives in Russia have been opened this effort is well documented. In addition, when Communist organizations were banned or suppressed, they naturally retreated underground, just as other persecuted groups like the early Christians have done. But to characterize Communism generally as a secret conspiracy is absurd.

First, it is important to note that Karl Marx fought against the mostly anarchist-dominated factions of the First International which advocated secrecy and terrorism on the very sensible ground that a successful revolution would need the backing of the majority of the population, and that such support could be generated only by widespread public understanding of the Communist program. TheManifesto was published precisely to encourage such public understanding and begins by mocking the stereotype–already in place in 1848–of Communism as a dark underground plot. Marx spent most of his life trying to explain Communism in many books and articles.

If anyone is responsible for the general public ignorance about Communist goals and ideas it is the capitalist press, which carefully avoided publicizing them. Reams of paper were spent routinely on denouncing the ideas of leftists and detailing their actions or threats, but almost never were their writings or speeches reproduced or seriously discussed. Theodore Kaczynski (“The Unabomber”) had more success using blackmail to get his ideas before the public than did anyone from the American Communist Party in its most successful period.

The goal of Communists has always been to generate mass movements leading to popular revolution involving the overwhelming majority of the population. The idea that we might wake up tomorrow ruled by fierce Marxists who had seized power in a coup was as loony as current right-wing fantasies about U.N. black helicopters taking over the country.

However, if we nuance this misconception a bit, more than a little truth emerges from it. Although the Communists led by Lenin were not secretive about their aims, they did successfully take over the 1917 revolution whose combatants mostly did not agree with their ideas. Although Lenin’s group called itself the Bolsheviks (majority), they in fact constituted a very small minority within the Russian Social-Democratic Workers’ Party. Their determination to be the leaders of the new state, their strict organizational principles, and their conviction that they could realize the the unspoken will of the masses as “the vanguard of the proletariat” led them to justify monopolizing power, suppressing all rivals, most of whom were eventually exiled or executed. They did have popular support, especially among workers and soldiers in the cities; but it is not at all clear that their philosophy was clearly understood or accepted by the Russian people generally.

Another notable instance of a revolution turning Communist was the uprising led by Fidel Castro (1956-1959) in which he did not proclaim his beliefs until after he had come to power.

In both cases, popular support for the Communist leadership was eventually generated by a combination of education, agitation, national pride, censorship, oppression, and the exile or execution of opponents. When Communist leaders have generated genuine widespread popular support (Mao in China, Stalin in World War II Russia), it was generally because they were seen to be fighting against an immediate threat on behalf of the people and not because their Communist ideology generated great enthusiasm.

Nevertheless, majorities within many Communist nations did come to believe in and endorse Communist ideas. Many can be found who are nostalgic for the good old days under Communism within the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, and there have been notable instances in which Communists have been returned to power by popular vote in former Communist dictatorships.

On the whole, it must be said that the general aims and ideas and much of the strategy of socialists and Communists have been freely available to anyone who wished to pay attention.

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Women Artists Assignment

Because the “Art of the Western World” series pays little attention to the many interesting women artists who worked during our period, we will be exploring the subject here on the Web. When you have finished exploring the following sites, please write 50-100 words about what you have learned or found interesting, referring to specific artists and images. Place your comments in the Women Artists’ Assignment threaded discussion in The Bridge.

Step 1

First, go to the National Museum of Women in the Arts and read and look at all the material connected to following links called “18th Century” & “19th Century.” Keep in mind that the only images illustrated on this site are those contained in this particular museum’s permanent collection, so they are mostly minor works, and many important artists are not represented or discussed.

National Museum of Women in the Arts: Establishing the Legacy: From the Renaissance to Modernism

Feel free to explore the museum further, but be warned that the “video tour” crashed my computer.

Step 2

Now explore the following three sites:


18th and 19th Century European Classics (Humanities 303)


Created by Paul Brians, June 30, 1998
Last revised December 8, 2005.