“Sooner or Later We’ll Find an Alternative to Capitalism”

25 december 2017

Johan Galtung is a Norwegian sociologist, mathematician, and the principal founder of peace and conflict studies.

Resume: What we should learn from the Russian Revolution as a major event in human history is that it was a concerted effort to get rid of that monster—capitalism. Capitalism produces enormous inequality and, as Marx predicted, misery at the bottom.

In 1993, Johan Galtung founded TRANSCEND, a network for Peace and Development. A living classic of neo-Marxism, Norwegian sociologist and mathematician, who is credited for predicting in 1980 the fall of the Berlin Wall (and eventually of the Soviet Union), and in 2009, the demise of the U.S. empire by 2020, is sharing his views on the lessons of the Russian Revolution, the future of the left idea, prospects of Donald Trump’s “supermarket revolution,” and the relevance of the Big Data for running the state and society.

– 2017 marks the centenary of the Russian Revolution. Do the current developments require reconsidering that revolution? Or vice versa, without reconsidering it we won’t be able to understand the ongoing changes?

– The question is basically about the dialectics of perception of history. Should we judge the past basing on the present or should we contemplate the present trying to somehow reflect on the past. I think both premises are right. And I think what we should learn from the Russian Revolution as a major event in human history is that it was a concerted effort to get rid of that monster—capitalism. As we all know capitalism is immensely productive, it is very clever in producing a great variety of products that change our lives, no doubt about that. At the same time, it produces enormous inequality and, as Marx predicted, misery at the bottom. Now, what Marx could not predict—but we should be aware of that—the world’s reaction to the Russian Revolution.

I think what makes the Russian Revolution so important in human history is not so much that its program was a success or that it was instantaneous. It posed a direct challenge to the very existence of capitalism. We haven’t solved this problem, although a hundred years have passed. But the challenge is still there. Sooner or later we’ll find an alternative to capitalism.

The Russian Revolution as a way to reconstructing the world came as such a radical challenge to some states that they went for a compromise called the “welfare state,” “social democracy,” or “social capitalism” (in Germany). In other words, the Russian Revolution had an immense impact on the world.


– Have we learned all the lessons we could from the Russian Revolution or is there still something we don’t know and or don’t understand?

– I think we have to learn that a basic change was necessary. The term ‘revolution’ has two meanings. One is turning things upside down: the underdogs of yesterday will be the “topdogs” tomorrow and vice versa. But the “topdogs” didn’t like that, as you can understand. And the other idea of revolution is conquering the state. It’s a movement to conquer the state as a form of organization. I think what we have learned is that the Russian Revolution did that, it did conquer the state. The state was in a very bad shape of course and maybe not so difficult to conquer at that time. But by conquering the state the Bolsheviks used the state to build the economic structure they wanted—a state economy often called “state capitalism.”

Remarkably, if the Mensheviks’ program based on cooperatives had won, more of those at the bottom of society would have had the advantage. We can say that we have still the Bolshevik-Menshevik dilemma in front of us, and basic changes are needed in many places in the world. I think I would rather act for the Mensheviks than the Bolsheviks.


– So, the Russian revolution managed to conquer the state, but doesn’t it look that ultimately the free market conquered revolution? We have Che Guevara T-shirts, matryoshkas with Lenin, Hollywood blockbusters like “Matrix,” and “V for Vendetta.” Has the market commercialized revolution?

 – You’re absolutely right, these are all attempts to get rid of the fear of revolution, make the word “revolution” innocent, not dangerous. It’s equal to “conquering revolution.” And these attempts are very conscious. And there is also a tendency to avoid mentioning the word “revolution.” They’d rather speak about “basic social change.”

Even the left, like the rest of the West, are frightened by the word “revolution.” The West is still haunted by what happened after the French Revolution and the Russian Revolution. But it should look a little bit more at the Chinese Revolution, but mostly they don’t understand that one. And the West should not exaggerate the role of the Communist party. There are many factors in revolutionary movements, but the West continues to scare itself with the “Communist revolution.” Well, call it “commune,” it would help. In honor of the Paris Commune of 1870-1871. Commune isn’t more than Communism.


– Fear seems to be a component of the general mythology about the Russian Revolution. Would you agree that the horror stories about the “bloodthirsty Commies” seeking to enslave the free world are now being remastered in the remake? Are today’s stories about Russia manipulating the Internet and reconstructing the Soviet Union basically the same myth?

– No, it is not quite the same myth. I think there’s much mythology about the Bolshevik revolution. But the Soviet Union formed in 1922 was a firm reality. That reality had many faults to be copied by other countries, and the Bolshevik revolution caused much debate and criticism on all sides. But when it comes to the Soviet Union of 1922, everybody agrees there is no myth here, it was an objective, positive reality.

The sources of historical fear of revolution lie in France. The model of the Great French Revolution was disastrous. And not only because the very word “revolution” was taken over from the French, but the Russians in 1917 thought they should do exactly what the French had done. They were actually imitating the French. In general, there’s very much copycat thing going on. Take, for example, the five major railway stations in Moscow copying the five stations in Paris. So, when the Great French Revolution ended up with terror, Russians saw it as a kind of normal, natural course of things. But it was a catastrophe that triggered a chain of violence. 

As for the fear of the Soviet Union, I found the answer to it for myself in 1953. I was one of the ten members of the Norwegian students’ delegation visiting the Soviet Union. It proved to be one of the basic experiences in my life. I was a member of the delegation because I was a student leader, a Deputy Chairperson of the National Union for International Affairs. In a sense, it was a kind of protest on my part (I was born in 1930 to a conservative upper-class family. In fact, I come from the old-nobility Galtung family whose first record dates back to 1050, that is, the end of the Viking period). So, three weeks in the Soviet Union changed my life. I remember when I came back people were extremely interested in what I had learnt. And I said I had learnt two things. First, most of what I had heard about dictatorship in the Soviet Union was correct. But second, and most important, was that the Soviet Union did not want any war. And I said: “If you want to protect yourself against the Soviet Union, social democracy is the best approach.”


– Can we say that the chain of violence that you’ve mentioned is definitely preconditioned?

– As we all know, the French Revolution ended with Napoleon. It was Napoleon who brought some order into the mess in 1807, thereby creating conditions for capitalism. But he did not stop at that. He turned into a dictator. His catastrophic narcissism and paranoia made him launch a war against Spain and then Russia. In 1812 Napoleon created a certain catastrophic trend, actually made the footsteps for Hitler’s invasion. So, your country was invaded by two West European dictators: Napoleon and Hitler. And from the Western point of view, because it was Napoleon who had done that, somehow it became normal. And from the Russian point of view, it also became normal in a sense that you were expecting an invasion. And, of course, the intervention of 1918-1922 was in the same line.

Hitler attacked the Soviet Union, if you want, not so much to destroy the Soviet Union as to tell the French: “You didn’t manage, I’ll manage.” What Hitler hated most in this world was France. Because of constant French-German wars, because of Germany’s defeat in WWI and all the sufferings France brought to Germany. Hitler agreed that the aristocracy, and particularly Keiser Wilhelm, were responsible. But he certainly would not forgive France for being very active, together with England, in boycotting Germany economically in a bid to punish it. But it was stupid anyway.


– Can we say that violence is immanent to revolution?

– You know, I am a Ghandian, and I believe in non-violent revolution. And I believe that if it is Ghandian, it will be much more revolutionary in the sense of fundamental change. Because one basic point is to try to act in such a way as to build bridges across class and nation divides, and get a so called “protagonist-antagonist meeting.” Violent revolution doesn’t do that, violent revolution kills. The level of violence in the Russian Revolution, that’s what was frightening. But we must remember (and that is a fundamental point) that social democracy, welfare state, “social capitalism,” as it is often called in Germany, would not have happened without the Bolshevik revolution. 


– Does it mean that the ideas underlying the Russian Revolution, the ideas it proclaimed are still relevant today? How much are they productive?

– Of course, they remain relevant. One of them, a fundamental one, is the challenge to capitalism, of which I spoke above. I think that a very important aspect about the Bolshevik revolution was that it started with the industrial workers, who were led by Marxist thinking, coming to power. And it was a great success. And very quick.

Another thing that the Bolshevik revolution did positively, was the five-year plans. That made an enormous impression. It showed that it was possible, if you had the power to do it, to organize the country in such a way that you can raise the level of the most down-and-out. Within five years, ten years at most. Now, the countries that picked that up in Western Europe were the Nordic countries. And of course all Communist and Labor European parties which participated in Comintern. They left Comintern eventually because the membership made it impossible for them to win any election. But they brought in a tremendous inspiration of the five-year plans in political and economic practice where possible. And they also brought in the Soviet Union idea that had many followers.

And something fantastic that happened in your country in 1922 was the Soviet Union. To create a union of so many nationalities was fantastic. And I think creating such a union under tsarism would have been impossible. Of course, the Bolsheviks executed the tsar, in a way imitating the guillotine and following the French example. But eventually the Soviet Union came as a completely new experience of state-building that left France far behind. The French union of Bretagne with Normandie, or Northern France with the Paris region, or the Bordeaux region with Occitania—this is something that the French learned from the Soviet Union. But of course they rejected the ridiculous practice of running everything from the capital, Paris, like the Bolsheviks started running everything from Moscow and Petrograd (Saint Petersburg).

And I would also say that much of Bavaria’s relative autonomy in today’s Germany comes from the Soviet Union model. As we know, Bavaria, Bayern, had the Soviet communist episode. It didn’t last very long, but it was their way to gain autonomy from Berlin, from Prussia. From those whom they called the Wein-Katoliken, the Catholics drinking vine in Northwest Germany.

And if we speak about left thinkers, I would draw your attention to one person, Maxim Litvinov, the Foreign Minister during the between-the-wars period. He proposed the idea of peaceful coexistence, of active and peaceful coexistence, which is a major idea in human history. It depended on that. Importantly, Litvinov stood precisely for active coexistence, he wanted the countries to interact in active trade. And so they did. The country that was very instrumental in that sense was Finland, which helped the Soviet Union to establish trade relations with the rest of the world.

– Has the left idea preserved its creative potential? Is it able to mobilize society or intellectuals in particular?

– But isn’t the application of the Bolshevik experience of state-building to creating a welfare state and social democracy enough? And these conceptions were realized by people whose representatives and political parties formed the Comintern. Of course, they were scared by what was happening there, and they also knew perfectly well that in order to win an election at home they had to shed the Comintern membership. On one end of political spectrum, there was extreme radicalism of the Bolshevik revolution, and on the other end, no less extreme cruelty of fascist capitalism. And out of that social democracy in Western Europe emerged.

Today we have conservative parties, but basically we have social democracy. We have a guaranteed platform at the bottom. We let people accumulate money. True, we are not good at controlling the growth of super profits. We say: “Let them go, let them do that. That’s not important. The important thing is the level of those at the bottom.” And the country that became the master of doing that was, well, the Soviet Union.

Marx said that there were two basic values in the world: nature (he called it land) and human labor. This is a very wise observation. And I think that if the Russian Revolution had from the very beginning staked on these values or put its feet firmly on preserving its main resource—land, and on preserving human dignity and labor, and paid less attention to the command role of the state, it would have been more successful.

In 1953 I visited most of the Soviet republics. It was a very hectic trip but I could see well the unity of the country and the opportunities that were open to the republics. I knew perfectly well that politically, economically and militarily they were directed from Moscow. But they had a high level of autonomy, more than in tsarist Russia, which had tried to impose the Russian language and the Russian style all over. The Soviet Union did not do that. So, I see the Soviet Union as very successful, although today many say that historically it suffered a defeat and that it was a blind alley. I think that with time, perhaps soon enough, the Soviet model will become relevant again and the Soviet Union will reintegrate. 


– Is there a contradiction between the left idea and the liberal idea? Is it correct to make the dividing line, or does the ideological dividing line lie elsewhere?

– Well. The dividing line has gradually disappeared. It was blunted to such ideas as social democracy and a welfare state. But I repeat: we wouldn’t have a welfare state in the Nordic countries, or would have it maybe later, much later, if it hadn’t been for the Bolshevik revolution. And even more, I would emphasize, more than the Bolshevik revolution, if it hadn’t been for the Soviet five-year plans.


– What do you think about the future of the left idea? Will it develop and to which end will it develop?

– We have been trapped for a long time in a false dilemma of the state versus the market, an open market versus a private market, etc. And the left idea has got lost in those false dilemmas, very often going for state enterprises, or going for mid-term planning, some kind of compromise, without quite knowing what it is.

I think the left idea should focus on the two values which I have mentioned:  respect for nature and respect for labor and human dignity. It should seek gradual increase in the guaranteed level of both these values. It should focus not on limiting those who are at the top, but on the rise of those who are at the bottom.

I think the alternative is based on cooperatives as a bottom line, basic form of organization of the economy and society. Cooperatives are run jointly by everybody in it and by rotating directorship for half a year, or one year, etc. Elements of that system existed in the Soviet Union and were materialized in a kolkhoz and in a sovkhoz. The difference between them was that the first had collective property, and latter had state property. And I can imagine pluralistic societies that would combine socialist, social democratic and capitalist forms of organization. That would be an alternative to the rigid capitalist system.

You know, we have to be open to the positive aspect of capitalism. And I think the positive aspect is that it can in principle be started almost anywhere. And it appeals to people with the initiative that we call entrepreneurship. Well, they have to put together the things that you need to produce, and basically you need five things: land, labor, capital, technology, and organization. The idea of the bad organization has been the basic reproach of all the left. That they have been bad organizers, well, I would argue.

If you have land, labor, and capital, then, for Heaven’s sake, pay attention to all the three of them. Don’t only stake on capital. Give it only some part. Give your attention to poverty and nature as well. Nature punishes us if we don’t respect it. Earthquakes, volcanoes and things of this kind are all the consequences of our neglect of nature.

Today we see a CEO squeezing his managers who squeeze the workers to achieve productivity. The chief executive officer has the task to handle the economic surplus to something called the Board, the Board of Trustees. Well, Trustees sound “trustworthy.” In reality, though, they are a board of investors and they want their money back. Now, this money gained by cheating customers, mistreating laborers, tormenting workers by the managers, all this money must be passed to the Board of Trustees by the chief executive officer. This state of things is totally unacceptable! Much more of the produced value should stay there where it’ s been created.

If you have a cooperative, much more created value stays with the cooperative. That’s why they are afraid of cooperatives. Cooperatives concentrate more power and money at the bottom level. And I hope the left idea will be heading this way.


– Now, let’s return to revolutions. What’s happening in the United States? Is it a revolution? Is Mr. Trump a revolutionary or counterrevolutionary?

– Well, I think the Trump phenomenon has two aspects. One aspect is that this is a clinical case of autism. And even if I’m brought to court I will say what I have just said. And Trump in the White House means that the White House is now a day-care center for the psychiatric patient. That’s one aspect.

But, having said that, I am of course not blind or deaf to certain abilities he has. He is consistent, and his program boils down to two points: “Give capital what capital wants” and “Give the army what the army wants.” What he wants I wouldn’t call “an anticommunist revolution,” I would call it “a super capitalist revolution.” In other words, capitalism without any constraints, pure capitalism, pure market. He’s a purist, a market fundamentalist, if you will. And as for the army, he’s of the firm belief that the military know best. They know where a military intervention is needed and in what way. In other words, “Give them the freedom.” So, you can say, he stands for the freedom of the supermarket, and for the freedom of the Pentagon. He doesn’t trust the State Department, but he has trust in the Pentagon. But I can say one thing. In fact, he shouldn’t trust the Pentagon either because the military are more sensible than he is.

As for the billionaires, I am not so sure they are more sensible than he is. I think they are like his companions. They use tax schemes, and they have unlimited opportunities to accumulate money and put it into speculation without any constraints. But we know too well that speculation is very-very dangerous, it does not create any value. The so-called derivatives, passing on a long chain, are bought and sold, there’s a good commission, but in the end they have a zero value. And it all can end up with a crash. I think it will end up with a crash. I think it is one of the factors contributing to a major crash of the U.S. economy in 2025, at the very latest.

But there are also other factors playing into that. One of them is the total imbalance between Trump’s finance sector and relatively low investment. And the point is not how small or how big this or that sector of the economy is, the point is whether the finance sector stands relative to the real economy. The volume of the finance sector is 15-20 times more in terms of the amount of dollars than that of the real sector of the economy.

Now, putting these two aspects together, I would say that relatively soon, probably even before 2020, we may see Amendment 25 of the U.S. Constitution enacted. The Amendment says that if a President is bodily or mentally not able to fulfill the functions of President, his presidency may be suspended.


– So, the situation is developing very much in line with your forecast of the demise of the American empire by 2020, isn’t it?

– Exactly, but in a more complicated way. I would like to make clear what I said almost ten years ago. I didn’t say “the end of U.S. violence.” Today the U.S. global violence is operating directly, with all the advantage of an empire, because if you have an empire, you can demand that a “vassal” state do the job for you. But the U.S. is gradually losing vassals.

Today the United States has only three countries fighting on its side—the United Kingdom, Denmark, and Norway. They were very active in Libya whereas other countries said their “No” to fighting on the U.S. side. Incidentally, the Prime Ministers of both Denmark and Norway were lavishly rewarded. The Prime Minister of Denmark was appointed Secretary General of NATO and then the Prime Minister of Norway took over that post.

Remarkably, Denmark, Norway, and the United Kingdom are protestant-evangelical countries, like the United States. And today they are uniting with the European Union where the majority of the population are Catholic (the exception is France and Germany, both Catholic and evangelical, but in both these countries there is a noticeable split between these confessions). However, generally, Catholic Europe does not want to fight in wars led by the U.S.

It is also worth noting that in the United States where many more people than in Norway say they believe in God there is an enormous number of people believing in Satan. And when you believe in evil, you see evil everywhere. Now let me make it clear: I am not saying the U.S. leads religious wars, I am saying it has historical, cultural ties with its vassal countries. But even these countries now feel increasingly reluctant to fight for the U.S.’ ambitions under Trump. My prediction is the United States will lose the three countries it exploits—the United Kingdom, Denmark, and Norway—very soon, before 2020.


– That’s extremely interesting. Can we say we’re witnessing a global revolutionary situation now? The erosion of leadership, the decay of the concept of a sovereign state, the booming expansion of Islam, stagnation of economic theory—is this all a sign of the “perfect storm” coming?

– I would prefer to speak of a different factor. The Russian Revolution proved unable to solve one fundamental task. The question remains: “What should we do with capitalism?” And I repeat what I have said: The left haven’t done their homework. Actually, the answer lies in the fair treatment of land (natural resources), labor, and capital; they should be more evenly divided. But we should also abandon the dogmatic track of seeing public versus private, a public enterprise (meaning state) enterprise versus private. Now, to put it very simple, should a post office be managed by the state or by the market? I think it’s a question of what is better for servicing the people. If you have a very large country, very thinly populated in some places like Norway, start with having the state doing it. Because a post office in very thinly populated places, where people have to drive one hour to go to the post office, won’t pay. So, let the state do it and then explore the conditions for the market taking over. There can even be a situation where a post office is run by the state in one part of a country and by the market in another. There must be a pragmatic, flexible approach to the state/public ownership. So I hope we will develop in that direction.


– Then what can we regard as a genuine revolution of today? Perhaps the Big Data? Will the Big Data become the new tool to manipulate societies? Will it control society?

– No, the Big Data is sheer propaganda. This is propaganda by the people who have the resources, who have the computers for storing a lot of data. No data—whether big or small—is able to make a society better. What matters is a firm goal, values, and political will. The basic needs of nature are diversity and symbiosis. And the basic needs of human beings are survival, wellness, options for having choices (and this is what actually freedom means), and identity (the meaning of good life). I think the West has been standing quite high as regards the first three human needs, particularly economic options, but the meaning of good life is not obvious to the West. In Marxist terminology this state of things is called “alienation from society.” And you find a lot of alienation in the West.

So, I think the Big Data is just one of the ways in which empty-headed people in the West try to impress the world. So I’d say: Stay different, stick to the basic values and preserve political will. And you won’t have to be scared of revolutions.

Interviewed by Alexander Solovyov.

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