Caleb Maupin’s provocatively titled Getting Rich without Capitalism is a collection of essays which cover a range burning political questions in geopolitics, economics, and cultural theory.
Maupin covers a wide array of topics, such as neo-McCarthyism and the real reason for sanctions against Russia, how Ayn Rand’s philosophy can be linked to the psychology of mass shooters, and the Trump phenomena in the context of the history of American populism.
This book is an audacious challenge to radicals of the left and the right, and thus has the potential to frustrate many of its readers. The premise is as radical as its title and essays (the chapter entitled “In defense of socialist billionaires” comes to mind immediately), the left at a certain point in history made an abrupt turn away from tenants that it formerly held sacred, for reasons that Maupin suggests are extremely unsavory. Meanwhile the socialism of the 21st century is being developed in unexpected places by unexpected people.
One target of the book is “the new left”, the cultural turn in the 1960s spearheaded by the Frankfurt school (in particular one Herbert Marcuse) as well as a variety of university figures and academic stars. Maupin highlights the know well-known CIA influence on institutions like the Trotskyist “Partisan Review” and academics like Susan Sontag.
The CIA’s strategy was in some respects simple: instead of ham-fistedly countering Marxist influence tête–à–tête, it promoted versions of Marxism that were supple enough to accommodate certain American values (personal freedoms in speech or cultural production) while at the same time being utterly hostile to those of the Soviet Union.
Marxism’s “ruthless criticism of everything existing”, in the wrong hands, could actually be an advantage to the intelligence community, as such a broad-scope included the relatively newly formed Soviet bloc along with its growing pains. The more pliable and situated US could weather such criticism, whereas the Soviets had yet to fully consolidate their power, and thus demanded a heavier-hand in attempting to steer global political discourse.
While some of the points in the essays seem to border on the conspiratorial (and will undoubtedly be seen as such by some readers), the evidence is in on CIA promotion of “Modern Arts”, on the push toward drug culture and, most controversially, on an ideology of extreme “multiculturalism” or “pluralism”.
This history is open for anyone with an interest in the subject to locate and validate, and those who refuse to except it are likely beyond the expected reach of the collection– the far more crucial question is to what extent can we verify that such efforts were indeed successful? I will save this answer for the end of the article, as the answer requires us to radically re-evaluate many of the ideas radicals (of every variety) hold sacred.
The CIA chose pliability as its weapon in the ideological war with the Soviet Union, and Maupin suggests that it is those Socialists who were able to do the same that remain dangerous to the present.
The heroes of this book are those countries which are now ranked under the cumbersome title of “actually existing socialism”, predominantly the People’s Republic of China, for some a curious exemplar of anti-capitalism. Socialism as a term is at present not met with the type of derision I was accustomed to in the ’90s and early 2000s… yet this is perhaps partially explainable due its newly developing and broadening definitions developing in the wake of capitalist crisis.
While a dying breed of traditional conservatives (a la Turning Point USA) continues to promote the message that anything the government does is socialism, many on the left have begun to mirror this definition, switching the minus sign for a plus, aiming to remodel America in light of the “socialism” of Scandinavian social democracy. Perennially, there are also those defining socialism in terms of fantastic millenarian ideas of “full communism”.
Maupin answers by taking the path-actually-taken, or more concretely, he makes a move utterly intolerable to common-place skepticism replete in most American outlooks: he takes China at their word. Marxism in China is not just an empty authoritarian shell protecting a rich clique of businessman: “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics” is actually a long term strategic effort to build communism. Marxism-Leninism in these essays is about adjustment to living conditions, which means that ethical, cultural, and economic structures sometimes look strangely unlike those the left hopes to build… sometimes they might even wear the very mask worn by the enemy (see “Market socialism”).
While the structures of imperialism have changed and adapted, Maupin’s essays presume some staples that remain from the time Lenin wrote his crucial work on Imperialism: that the nation-state is the primary and decisive political tool by which the working class can achieve power, and the United States and its allies plans for economic and political hegemony is the primary contradiction of the modern political arena.
Socialism is not simply about creating an economy that benefits its population, but about understanding the way that governments across the world have been targeted for even minimal attempts to adjust their economies in this way.
While Maupin’s book defends governments like Iran, Russia and China (or more concretely counter-balances their positive qualities against the unremitting hysteria of their opponents on the left and right), his understanding of socialism is nonetheless not “nationalist” in anything other than an instrumental sense; in essence the book is about an alternative vision of universalism which can accommodate radical cultural differences, rather than subsuming them into a singular profit-seeking globalism. This is a progressive vision, it means high-speed rail, science and large-scale production… as Maupin puts it, his vision is “Science Fiction” not “Fantasy”.
Unlike those looking to Scandinavian social democracy, Maupin does not suggest a whole-sale adaptation of China’s model, but instead seeks to build “Socialism with American characteristics”, another idea which will leave a bad taste in the mouths of those with a third-world orientation… this is a populist book, in form and content. It places itself in a tradition of American leftist populism which has been forgotten in an era where many have come to use the term as a pejorative.
In this regard, one point of criticism I have (besides that the essay format entails a certain degree of repetition) is that of audience. The book makes frequent reference to “populism”, and certainly attempts a kind of populist rhetorical style in presenting its arguments, yet at the same time openly promotes concepts that are so utterly hostile to the average-Americans “common-sense” understanding of history that they threaten to make entire sections fall flat. For those who have a traditional understanding of Soviet history, riffing on the need for a 5 year plan might require more context than the short essay form is able to provide.
While I call this a rhetoric weakness, on the other hand it is one of the book’s most positive qualities: unrepentant forwardness and honesty. Those who have revisionist assessments of communist history are generally less forthcoming in works aimed at a mass audience, which can sometimes lead to feelings of betrayal or secrecy, particularly given the tendency for communist organizations to organize single issue front groups which mask their less “mass-line” opinions.
Maupin’s book in this sense is fiercely democratic, it sincerely promotes the idea that even Marxism’s most complex geopolitical schemas can be made accessible to everyone…whether or not that is a winning strategy remains to be seen.
Keeping on the theme of the book’s “populism”, it is also crucial how fair minded the book is with regards to people who might currently or otherwise become Trump supporters, or even “fascists”… for this very reason people occasionally mistake Maupin’s politics for actually being right wing. Instead, Maupin makes a more serious attempt at understanding the mass angle of the phenomena.
This approach is best exemplified in the German Jewish Marxist Enrst Bloch’s incredible essay on Fascism, The Heritage of Our Times, which is unfortunately written in too academic a style to serve as a handbook for a leftist theory of fascism, but otherwise should. For those who have not read it, it is a heterodox account which complicates the traditional 100% class based theory of fascism as “capitalism in decay”, in other words it serves as an alternative to Leon Trotsky’s over-referenced and extremely simplistic analysis of the phenomenon.
Bloch makes a serious attempt to understand the appeal of fascism for the masses, its alternative utopianism connected to pre-capitalist formations (ie an alternative anti-capitalist temporality), its attempt at adopting leftist rhetoric, aesthetics and ideas, and the resulting serious vital confusion.
Maupin correctly shows how this actually stands in contrast to the deeper motivations and ideological structure of the traditional far right which looked to esotericism, tradition (particularly the Indian and Tibetan caste systems and mythology) and was vehemently anti-Nationalist and anti-populist (for instance, in the works of Julius Evola who is again a cult figure on the right, no pun intended).
At a certain point this dialectic began to shift, and the left took up an anti-populist stance, even mirroring obsession with Tibet (as is well known at the time being supported by the CIA), and developing a dangerous brand of cultural elitism which drew it away from the masses, and towards incredibly esoteric and academic positions.
This brings me back to my opening question: can we say that contemporary Marxism in the West, so called “intersectional” politics, PC culture, “cultural Marxism” (a term which Maupin has rightly cautioned people from using in the past), the “cultural left” etc. is actually a product of CIA manipulation? There is no straightforward answer, which might seem unsatisfactory to either side of the debate that is currently splintering the left, and becoming one of the most heated and prevalent political questions of our times.
Undoubtedly a section of the left have become virtual cheerleaders for Imperialist regime change abroad, often under the auspice of democratic rights or minoritarian politics… in this case I can evoke the old adage that if such forces are not getting a check from the government they are fools for doing their work for free.
On the other hand, in creating such a stark categorization between the current “id-pol” and “anti-idpol” left, while it might be useful for making a point, we should nevertheless keep in mind that this history is complex, multifaceted and involved a wide spectrum of forces, many of whom would not even be recognizable with this metric.
My answer is perhaps vague (and yes, diplomatic), but a real response would require serious scholarly effort and a far more expansive venue. What I will say is the Maupin’s book is provocative, challenging and absolutely deserves space in the nebulous field of contemporary radical thought.
While the arguments in the book are often simplified due to their intended audience, it is well researched and full of information useful to radicals and anti-imperialists of any stripe. It is a rare, optimistic collection which warrants our attention.