Michael Parenti maintains that the Soviet Union didn’t collapse of its own accord in 1991 – that it was overthrown by the US and their allies. He details the US-backed coup undertaken by Boris Yeltsin’s in 1993 when the Russian parliament refused to approve his extreme market-based reforms. Parenti also discusses the extreme misery Wall Street elites and the State Department inflicted on the Russian people in the effort (prior to Putin’s rise to power) to transform their country into a third world sweatshop. He highlights the massive increase in gang inequality and crime, and the increase in gender inequality (as the right to maternity leave, day care, divorce and abortion were stripped from the Russian constitution), sexual harassment, domestic violence and murder of women by their husbands.
The US Left’s Virulent Anticommunism
Parenti freely acknowledges that Soviet citizens sacrificed civil liberties for economic democracy, ie a society in which all citizens are lifted out of poverty and enjoy free health care and education, subsidized housing and public transport and an absolute guarantee against brutal exploitation. He contrasts this with life in the US, where working people enjoy neither economic democracy nor civil liberties. He’s also scathingly critical of the American left (he mentions Noam Chomsky by name), which is much more virulently anti-communist than their right wing counterparts.
He goes on to detail serious weaknesses of the Soviet system, which he believes contributed to its demise. Overall he feels the Soviet economic system suffered from an absence of independent analysis. While Karl Marx offers a thorough critique of capitalism, he has no counterpart to critique the socialist/communist model.
The Human Nature Debate
Where Parenti and I part company is is contention that “pure socialism” (ie total abolition of the state) is impossible. He makes the argument that if workers run everything, it’s impossible to accumulate enough surplus value to finance an army to 1) to break the stranglehold of the capitalist class and 2) to defend against counter-revolution. He also maintains a state is necessary to protect against the greedy, acquisitive nature of human beings.
These views are also contradicted by decades of sociological research that human beings (like all primates) are hard wired to be social animals and naturally inclined towards cooperation and interdependence (see Human Nature: Cultural or Genetic). There is also strong evidence that much of the greed and antisocial behavior that characterizes the capitalist system stems from traumatic child rearing styles.
The Social Conquest of Earth is a book dedicated to an examination of human nature. Through an extensive review of scientific, anthropological, psychological and sociological research, it attempts to determine whether “human nature” is mainly genetically or culturally (ie environmentally) determined. The answer Wilson comes up with is surprising. He concludes that the social traits that make us human are mainly culturally based with only a minor genetic contribution.
In my view, these findings have profound implications regarding our ability to do away with capitalism and the state and govern ourselves.
The book’s primary focus is the “eusocial” nature of human behavior. By definition, a euosocial species is one that forms groups consisting of multiple generations in which members are prone to altruistic acts (eg acts in which they sacrifice themselves for the good of the group). Wilson uses his own extensive research into the genetic evolution of eusocial insects (eg ants, bees, wasps and termites) to inform his conclusions about the limited genetic role in “human nature.” I personally find his arguments quite convincing.
My favorite part of the book is where he demolishes Noam Chomsky’s theory of all language having a universal, genetically based grammar (see Sticking it to Chomsky).
I was also intrigued by the extensive research suggesting that our color perception is culturally rather than genetically based. Anthropological research suggests that human ability to recognize different colors depends on whether your native language has specific words differentiating them. Some indigenous groups have no words for different colors and can only identify them as “black” or “white.”
Research findings are consistent across a broad range of linguistic groups. Wilson cites a study by Berlin and Kay showing that the 2-11 colors identified in various societies are consistent across linguistic groups:
Cultures with only 2 color terms identify black and white.
Cultures with only 3 color terms identify black, white and red.
Cultures with only 4 color terms identify black, white, red and either green or yellow.
Cultures with only 5 color terms identify black, white, red, green and yellow.
Cultures with only 6 color terms identify black, white, red, green, yellow and blue.
Cultures with only 7 color terms identify black, white, red, green, yellow, blue and brown.
Cultures with 11 color terms (such as English) identify black, white, red, green, yellow, blue, brown, purple, pink, orange and gray.