The year was 2081, and everybody was finally equal. They weren’t only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else. All this equality was due to the 211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments to the Constitution, and to the unceasing vigilance of agents of the United States Handicapper General.
This is not my version of 2081, but Kurt Vonnegut’s in the opening lines of his “Harrison Bergeron,” a short story about a future in which everyone is the same. Attractive people are forced to wear masks, smart people have earpieces that regularly distract their thoughts with loud noises, and so on.
As one would expect with Vonnegut, there are some darkly hilarious moments — such as a ballet performance in which the dancers are shackled with leg weights — but unlike most of his stories, “Harrison Bergeron” is based on a reactionary premise: equality can only be achieved by reducing the most talented down to the mediocre ranks of the masses.
Socialism has often been portrayed in science fiction in these types of gray dystopian terms, which reflect the ambivalence that many artists have toward capitalism. Artists are often repulsed by the anti-human values and commercialized culture of their society, but they are also aware that they have a unique status within it that allows them to express their creative individuality — as long as it sells. They fear that socialism would strip them of that status and reduce them to the level of mere workers, because they are unable to imagine a world that values and encourages the artistic expression of all of its members.
Of course there’s another reason that socialist societies are imagined to be grim and dreary: most of the societies that have called themselves socialist have been grim and dreary. Shortly after the revolutions in Eastern Europe that ended the domination of the Soviet Union, the Rolling Stones played a legendary concert in Prague in which they were welcomed as cultural heroes.
The catch is that this was 1990, Mick and Keith were almost fifty, and it had been years since their most recent hit, a song called “Harlem Shuffle” that is god-awful. Forget about the censored books and the bans on demonstrations. If you want to understand how boring Stalinist society was, watch the video for “Harlem Shuffle” and then think about one of the coolest cities in Europe going out of its mind with joy at the chance to see those guys.
Does it really matter if socialism is boring? Perhaps it seems silly, even offensive, to be concerned about such a trivial matter compared to the horrors that capitalism inflicts all the time. Think about the dangers of increasing hurricanes and wildfires caused by climate change, the trauma of losing your home or your job, or the insecurity of not knowing if the man sitting next to you sees you as a target for date rape. We like watching movies about the end of the world or people facing adversity, but in our actual lives most of us prefer predictability and routine.
Worrying that socialism might be boring can seem like the ultimate “white people problem,” as the Internet likes to say. Sure it would be nice to eliminate poverty, war, and racism . . . but what if I get bored?
But it does matter, of course, because we don’t want to live in a society without creativity and excitement, and also because if those things are being stifled then there must be a certain ruling clique or class that is doing the stifling — whether or not they think it’s for our own good. Finally, if socialism is stale and static, it will never be able to replace capitalism, which can accurately be called many nasty things, but boring is not one of them.
Capitalism has revolutionized the world many times over in the past two hundred years and changed how we think, look, communicate, and work. Just in the past few decades, this system adapted quickly and effectively to the global wave of protests and strikes in the ’60s and ’70s: unionized factories were closed and relocated to other corners of the world, the stated role of government was shifted from helping people to helping corporations help people, and finally all these changes and others as well were sold to us as what the protesters had been fighting for all along — a world in which every man, woman, and child is born with the equal right to buy as many smartphones and factory-ripped jeans as they want.
Capitalism can reinvent itself far more quickly than any previous economic order. “Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form,” write Marx and Engels in The Communist Manifesto, is “the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the capitalist epoch from all earlier ones.” While earlier class societies desperately tried to maintain the status quo, capitalism thrives on overturning it.
The result is a world in constant motion. Yesterday’s factory district is today’s slum is tomorrow’s hipster neighborhood. All that is solid melts into air. That’s another line from the Manifesto and also the name of a wonderful book by Marshall Berman, who writes that to live in modern capitalism is “to find ourselves in an environment that promises us adventure, power, joy, growth, transformation of ourselves and the world — and at the same time, that threatens to destroy everything we have, everything we know, everything we are.”
Yet most of our lives are far from exciting. We work for bosses who want us to be mindless drones. Even when a cool, new invention comes to our workplace, we can count on it to eventually be used to make us do more work in less time, which might arouse the passions of management, but will only fill our days with more drudgery.
Outside of work, it’s the same story. Schools see their primary role as providing “career readiness,” which is an inoffensive phrase that means getting kids prepared to handle the bullshit of work. Even the few hours that are supposed to be our own are mostly spent on laundry, cooking, cleaning, checking homework, and all the other necessary tasks to get ourselves and our families ready for work the next day.
Most of us only experience the excitement of capitalism as something happening somewhere else: new gadgets for rich people, wild parties for celebrities, amazing performances to watch from your couch. On the bright side, at least most of it is better than “Harlem Shuffle.”
Even worse, when we do get to directly touch the excitement, it’s usually because we’re on the business end of it. It’s our jobs being replaced by that incredible new robot, our rent becoming too expensive ever since the beautiful luxury tower was built across the street. Adding insult to injury, we are then told if we complain that we are standing in the way of progress.
The sacrifice of individuals in the name of societal progress is said to be one of the horrors of socialism, a world run by faceless bureaucrats supposedly acting for the common good. But there are plenty of invisible and unelected decision-makers under capitalism, from health insurance officials who don’t know us but can determine whether our surgery is “necessary” to billionaire-funded foundations that declare schools they have never visited to be “failures.”
Socialism also involves plenty of change, upheaval, and even chaos, but this chaos, as Hal Draper might have said, comes from below. During the Russian Revolution, the Bolshevik-led Soviet government removed marriage from the control of the church one month after taking power and allowed couples to get divorced at the request of either partner.
These laws dramatically changed family dynamics and women’s lives, as evidenced by some of the song lyrics that become popular in rural Russian villages:
Time was when my husband used his fists and force. But now he is so tender. For he fears divorce. I no longer fear my husband. If we can’t cooperate, I will take myself to court, and we will separate.
Of course, divorce can be heartbreaking as well as liberating. Revolutions cast everything in a new light, from our leaders to our loved ones, which can be both exciting and excruciating. “Gigantic events,” wrote Trotsky in a 1923 newspaper article, “have descended on the family in its old shape, the war and the revolution. And following them came creeping slowly the underground mole — critical thought, the conscious study and evaluation of family relations and forms of life. No wonder that this process reacts in the most intimate and hence most painful way on family relationships.”
In another article, Trotsky described daily experience in revolutionary Russia as “the process by which everyday life for the working masses is being broken up and formed anew.” Like capitalism, these first steps toward socialism offered both the promise of creation and the threat of destruction, but with the crucial difference that the people Trotsky wrote about were playing an active role in determining how their world was changing.
They were far from having complete control, especially over the mass poverty and illiteracy that the tsar and world war had bequeathed to them. But even in these miserable conditions, the years between the October Revolution and Stalin’s final consolidation of power demonstrated the excitement of a society in which new doors are open to the majority classes for the first time.
There was an explosion of art and culture. Cutting-edge painters and sculptors decorated the public squares of Russian cities with their futurist art. For the record, Lenin hated the futurists, but this didn’t stop the government from funding their journal, Art of the Commune. Ballets and theaters were opened up to mass audiences. Cultural groups and workers’ committees came together to bring art and artistic training into factories. The filmmaker Sergei Eisensteingained world renown for the groundbreaking technique of his movies depicting the Russian Revolution.
The silly premise of “Harrison Bergeron” was refuted. Socialism didn’t find talented artists to be a threat to “equality” or find a contradiction between appreciating individual artists and opening up the previously elitist art world to the masses of workers and peasants.
The possibilities of socialism that the world glimpsed in Russia for a few years were not a sterile experiment controlled by a handful of theorists but a messy and thrilling creation of tens of millions of people groping toward a different way of running society and treating one another, with all the skills, impediments, and neuroses they had acquired through living under capitalism, in the horrible circumstances of a poor, war-torn country. They screwed up in all sorts of ways, but they also showed that socialism is a real possibility, not a utopian dream that doesn’t fit the needs of real human beings.
And the society they were pointing toward was a place where equality meant not lowering but raising the overall cultural and intellectual level of society. In the many novels, movies, and other artistic renderings of socialism, there is little mention of rising divorce rates and heated debates about art. Most of them imagine societies without conflict, which is why they seem so creepy — including the ones intending to promote socialism.
A similar problem exists inside many protest movements today, in which some activists want to organize movements and meetings around a consensus model, which means that almost everybody present has to agree on a decision for it to get passed. Consensus can sometimes be an effective way to build trust among people who don’t know and trust one another, especially because most people in this supposedly democratic society have almost no experience participating in the democratic process of discussion, debate, and then a majority-rule vote.
When organizers view consensus not only as a temporary tactic but as a model for how society should be run, however, there is a problem. I want to live in a democratic society with conflicts and arguments, where people aren’t afraid to stand up for what they believe in and don’t feel pressured to soften their opinions so that, when a compromise is reached, we can pretend that we all agreed in the first place. If your case for socialism rests on the idea that people will stop getting into arguments and even occasionally acting like jerks, you should probably find another cause.
Socialism isn’t going to be created, Lenin once wrote, with “abstract human material, or with human material specially prepared by us, but with the human material bequeathed to us by capitalism. True, that is no easy matter, but no other approach to this task is serious enough to warrant discussion.”
To be an effective socialist, it is extremely helpful to like human beings. Not humanity as a concept but real, sweaty people. In All That Is Solid Melts into Air, Berman tells a story about Robert Moses, the famous New York City public planner who flattened entire neighborhoods that stood in the way of the exact spots where he envisioned new highways. Moses, a friend once said, “loved the public, but not as people.” He built parks, beaches, and highways for the masses to use, even as he loathed most of the working-class New Yorkers he encountered.
Loving the public but not people is also a feature of elitist socialists, whose faith rests more on five-year development plans, utopian blueprints, or winning future elections than on the wonders that hundreds of millions can achieve when they are inspired and liberated. That is why their visions for socialism are so lifeless and unimaginative.
By contrast, Marx, who is often presented as an isolated intellectual, was a rowdy, argumentative, funny, passionate person who once declared that his favorite saying was the maxim: “I am a human being, I consider nothing that is human alien to me.” I find it hard to see how a world run by the majority of human beings, with all of our gloriously and infuriatingly different talents, personalities, madnesses, and passions, could possibly be boring.