Was the European Left confined in a false dichotomy between capitalism and communism?



In the 2004 book "Camus and Sartre: The Story of a Friendship and the Quarrel That Ended It" (link to a brief review/synopsis), the author portrays two of the leading members of the literary class' political left as divided over the following dichotomy (emphasis mine):

Camus came to see oppression within both the Soviet Union itself and the Soviet system as the primary problem for the left in the postwar world, while Sartre began to see the seeds of global injustice in capitalism

This question is not to dwell on whether that formulation was the actual kernel of the quarrel between those two; but was the Post-WWII European Left really divided among these two lines, or is this a false dilemma (i.e. based on crowding out of a third way, or the unnecessity of choosing between the two, etc)?


Posted 2011-06-08T16:06:52.537

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I'd say definitely yes. You could say the same about the Rebublicans and Democrats. As Hegel notes, human beings tend to like capturing themselves on the horns of fictional dilemmas. – None – 2019-02-18T11:58:36.253

2As an aside in addition to my comment, the idea that you have to choose communism because you can see injustices that exist in the capitalist word is most definitely a huge false dichotomy, but using Camus and Sartre as examples of this is overkill. Sartre himself is enough, as Camus never to my knowledge makes the opposite mistake, which would be supporting fascism just because socialism is an impractical system. – Lennart Regebro – 2011-06-08T18:14:59.987

what third way do you have in mind? either you have freedom or you don't. – curi – 2016-06-11T11:05:13.830



Political words tend to change the meaning, but the original meaning of communism meant common ownership of all property. As such it was during all of the 19th century in practice equivalent to socialism and could be used more or less interchangeably.

Although the early usage of the word "Capitalism" meant having stock exchanges and investors, since the 19th century the word has acquired the more fundamental meaning of "private ownership of property".

In these senses of the word, capitalism vs communism is indeed a dichotomy, as something either is owned communally or not. Either everyone has a say over the usage of the property or not everyone has a say. (Although you can have both common ownership and private ownership at the same time, but of different things. As such hospitals may be owned by the state, but car factories not, for example).

In this viewpoint the left was definitely not stuck between a false dichotomy, as the dichotomy was true, and they had chosen one side of it.

However, the meaning of the word communism started changing after the Russian revolution. Socialism continued to mean common ownership, but Communism more and more meant a specific path to socialism, namely Marxism including it's bloody revolution and dictatorship of the proletariat.

As such, the dichotomy starts being false. Although the dichotomy between socialism and capitalism remains, communism then became just one form of socialism, with most notably reformist and democratic social democracy as a major option. But the "the left" was not caught in this false dichotomy, because social democrats tried that option. Only that part of the left (which got smaller and smaller every year) that still supported the communist dictatorships could be said to be confined in a false dichotomy. A confinement completely of their own choosing, of course.

After the fall of communism and the gradual realization that social democracy hasn't delivered, the word "communism" has again started to change meaning. "Social democracy" increasingly means what before would be called "social liberalism", capitalism with a strong protective state, "socialism" increasingly means "politicians being nice to people" and "communism" is starting to revert to its original meaning of "common ownership". As such, the dichotomy between communism and capitalism is again becoming a real one.

I would therefore say that:

No, the European left was not confined in a false dichotomy between capitalism and communism, unless you with "The European Left" means only those who supported or still support the communist dictatorships because they dislike capitalism. But that is a very narrow definition of "The European Left" (although undoubtedly some of this left was and is so sectarian that they wouldn't hesitate to agree with it).

Lennart Regebro

Posted 2011-06-08T16:06:52.537

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@Gray: but only as wholes iwth neither side giving an inch to the other, but as regebro explain some things can be held in common others not; so you can have both parties actively engaging with each other. – Mozibur Ullah – 2012-09-25T09:16:56.817

1Excellent exposition, the particular area of the dichotomy was over the dilemma Camus and Sartre argues over; considering the spectrum of socialism, was there an alternative place to have struck balance? Had that not arrived prior to the death of Camus? – mfg – 2011-06-08T18:55:05.687

1@mfg: Not within socialism no. Socialism is always caught in a struggle between idealism and realism as an effect of it's practical impossibility. The way out of that involves abandoning socialism, which usually is not an acceptable option for the socialists. :-) – Lennart Regebro – 2011-06-09T04:33:38.217

2Yes! Neither Marxism nor Leninism are equivalent to the classic notion of Communism. Indeed, the European "left" did seem to be mired in such a dichotomy, but it was not at all a "false" one. The important principles of capitalism and communism (as constructed) were properly and diametrically opposed to one another. – Cody Gray – 2011-06-09T05:13:17.843


The dichotomy of the question (Communism vs. Capitalism) and the dichotomy actually mentioned in the quote are very different. The quote says Camus saw oppression in the Soviet Union (and the Soviet system in general) as the "primary problem for the left" post-war. That is hardly the same thing as him feeling forced into a choice between Communism and Capitalism.

In fact, if you go a little further in the synopsis you'll read:

Camus, for his part, grew increasingly hostile to Marxism and flirted with anarchism, writing for a time in Revolution Proletarienne and advocating revolutionary trade unionism as a substitute for the leadership of the Communist Party.

This paragraph in and of itself seems to answer the question of the title, since Camus clearly didn't see an exclusive choice between Soviet Communism and US-style Capitalism (Revolutionary trade unionism would be an alternative to both).

But we don't only have to think about these two French intellectuals. There was a considerable amount of diversity in Western Europe.

Most of the thinkers associated with the Frankfurt School (a German Marxist group of academics), for example, were explicitly anti-Soviet. Herbert Marcuse in his One-Dimensional Man (1964) essentially characterizes Soviet Communism and western Capitalism as manifestations of the same modern control system that he criticizes, and this equal disgust at the US/Western Europe and Soviet systems can be seen in Erich Fromm and Theodor Adorno (e.g. Dialectic of Enlightenment, 1944), too.

So, I would say that the answer is no, the left wasn't confined in a false dichotomy between communism and capitalism post-war. The actual dichotomy on the left immediately post-war was not between capitalism and communism, but between whether the Soviet Union should represent the rallying-point of the "international" Left, or whether it was basically an abomination of Marxist teachings that should be denounced along with capitalism (Marxists keen to stick to their usual language could diss the USSR by referring to their system as "state capitalism").

Remember that for Marxists and many leftists, the USSR was a manifestation of Marx's predictions in the real world. The idea was, you jump on the train or history will pass you by. It's sad but not surprising that it took so long for Stalin to be universally denounced by the left. By the mid-1960's, though, you had tons of new anti-USSR left-leaning groups across Europe (see continental european new left)


Posted 2011-06-08T16:06:52.537

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