Behind the ideological differences that for so long seemed to divide them, did Soviet communism and American capitalism share some fundamental dream of modernity? Susan Buck-Morss’s large and splendidly illustrated book argues that each in their own fashion was possessed of an idea of mass utopia. Author of two distinguished works on the Frankfurt School and Walter Benjamin, The Origin of Negative Dialectics (1977) and Dialectics of Seeing (1989), Buck-Morss breaks quite new ground here, with an ambitious comparison of state legitimations, industrial technologies and popular culture in the USSR and USA, focused mainly—though not exclusively—on the 1920s and 1930s. She brings to this project a set of concerns and methods inspired by a deep immersion in Benjamin, whose Arcades Project was the subject of her second book, and whose traces are visible everywhere in this one. In the age of Ford and Stakhanov, dreams of another and happier world had unpredictable impulses and longings in common, best sounded with the instruments Benjamin used to plumb the oneiric layers and recesses of nineteenth-century Paris. These visions, she insists, are not to be condescended to. Flying in the face of globalizing triumphalism—and its despairing opposite, sectarian nationalisms—Buck-Morss seeks to reincorporate the experience of ‘socialism in one country’ into a wider historical narrative, which sees the end of the Cold War as a process of mutual defeat, the collapse of twinned, inseparable projects. Her book is a provocative elegy to what may have been lost in this outcome.

Dreamworld and Catastrophe opens with a striking chapter on ‘Mass Sovereignty and the Image of the Enemy’, which sets out the political basis of this argument. Drawing on Benjamin’s ‘Critique of Violence’, but also and more heavily on Carl Schmitt, whom Benjamin admired, Buck-Morss—with a deep antipathy towards political power of any form—explores the contradictions in both communist and capitalist versions of popular sovereignty. The state can send to their deaths the very people whose will it is meant to embody, just as it can forcibly repress public demonstrations of disaffection, using its mandate to mask the disappearance of that mandate, because ‘modern sovereignties possess a supralegal or perhaps prelegal form of legitimacy . . . [a] wild zone of arbitrary, violent power, and it lies at their very core’. This ultimate source of legitimacy comes from the power of any regime to wage war. Following Schmitt, Buck-Morss concludes that ‘the act of identifying the enemy is the act of sovereignty’—‘the act that brings the collective into being.’

The enemy, however, can loom at two distinct levels: the empirical foe within the political imaginary of any community, and, ‘on a metalevel’, any ontological threat to this political imaginary itself. During the Cold War, East and West were antagonists on this metalevel because their respective political imagin­aries constructed the world in irreconcilable categories. For the West, nation-states defined the normal field of hostilities, whereas for the East, history was the arena of class struggles. The two visions of the world had a common origin in the French Revolution, whose dual legacy—‘revolutionary terror and mass-conscripted, nationalist war’—they divided, as rival ‘ur-forms’ of sovereignty. This was to be a difference, Buck-Morss suggests, between political imaginaries structured by space and by time. For capitalist powers, the world was an armed chequerboard of territories and frontiers, while for the Bolsheviks all conflicts were judged as diachronic episodes in a long-run movement of history. The Iron Curtain, which operated for the West as a physical barrier containing the Soviet threat, was for the East a ‘temporal bulwark, protecting the nascent socialist societies so that they could develop in history uncontaminated by the economic and social distortions of capitalism.’

Each proclaiming their descent from one aspect of the Jacobin Republic, East and West were compelled to invoke its legitimacy even as they acted in the logic of the other. ‘Brezhnev could no more have justified the invasion of Czechoslovakia in terms of Soviet (much less Russian) national interest than Johnson could have justified the war in Vietnam in terms of protecting the property interests of the capitalist class.’ Buck-Morss’s deft analysis of the origins and contradictions of national and revolutionary sovereignty ends with the claim that each eventually suffered a crisis of legitimation, as material conditions undermined the stability of both. The class regimes of the communist East, which had promised to overtake the West economically, fell far behind it, while the nation-states of the capitalist West, which had offered welfare borders to their peoples, were overtaken by a global economy beyond their control. Historically, the outcome of the Cold War was thus ‘a double defeat’, for both sides.

Such were the ‘dreamworlds of democracy’ that form the ‘political frame’ of Buck-Morss’s account. When she moves to ‘dreamworlds of history’ and of ‘mass culture’, her exposition alters. Rather than sustained conceptual argument, here she proceeds by way of deliberately discontinuous cameos, ‘dialectical images’ after the practice of Benjamin, whose force is designed to come in part from their very form as fragments. The clearest commonalities between communist and capitalist systems lie in the realm of technology, and here Buck-Morss finds her richest material. Chapters on ‘Domestic Space’ and ‘The Nature of Machines’ point to areas of surprising overlap, as well as familiar contrast, between the way the two systems dreamt of technological progress. The resemblances in the desiderata of domesticity across the ideological divide are explored, in a section that ends with the memorable scene of Khrushchev and Nixon arguing the merits of their regimes in a kitchen showroom, the American ideal brought to Moscow. Buck-Morss comments: ‘It is one of the great ironies of the century that socialism betrayed the interests of women by obliterating domestic space, while capitalism betrayed their interests by idealizing it’. More generally, she remarks that the Soviet order catered to people’s need for security while denying them immediate satisfactions, while the American offered them instant gratification but left longer-term needs unattended.

If these were contrasts in Eastern and Western patterns of consumption, in the field of production there were not merely close similarities but direct inter-connexions. In a fascinating chapter, Buck-Morss looks at one of the ways Stalin’s government financed the massive industrialization drive of the First Five Year Plan. With agriculture in deep crisis after collectivization, grain exports could no longer supply hard currency for purchase of industrial equipment abroad. So the decision was made to sell off the country’s art treasures. Millions of dollars’ worth of masterpieces and thousands of tons of antiques were flogged in clandestine transactions. One beneficiary did especially well:

In the twelve months between April 1930 and April 1931 alone, Andrew J. Mellon, Secretary of the Treasury of the United States, bought close to seven million dollars’ worth of Hermitage paintings . . . Included were two Renaissance master­pieces of Jan van Eyck, five Rembrandts, four Van Dycks, two Halses, as well as paintings by Botticelli, Chardin, Perugino, Poussin, Rubens, Titian, Velázquez and, the most expensive purchase, Raphael’s Alba Madonna, for which Mellon paid almost 1.7 million dollars.