Date: Fri, 31 Oct 97 15:16:34 CST
From: rich%pencil@YaleVM.CIS.Yale.Edu (Rich Winkel)
Subject: Boris Kagarlitsky on Russian Revolution
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** Topic: Boris Kagarlitsky on Russian Revolution **
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/* ---------- "Boris Kagarlitsky on Russian Revolu" ---------- */
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Subject: Boris Kagarlitsky on Russian Revolution

The Unfinished Revolution

By Boris Kagarlitsky, 27 October 1997

On the topic of the Russian Revolution, it might appear that everything worth saying has already been said. Both critics and defenders of the revolution repeat again and again what was already being said and written in the 1920s. Throughout the Soviet decades leftists repeatedly cited the pronouncements of Trotsky and of his biographer Isaac Deutscher on the bureaucratic degeneration of the regime, on the incompleteness of the revolutionary process and on the possibility of it being rolled back. Social democrats repeated the arguments of Kautsky and Martov concerning the prematureness of the Bolshevik experiment and its antidemocratic character, while liberals insisted that an economy not constructed on the firm foundations of the market and private property could not be viable. It seemed as though the collapse of the Soviet system in the years between 1989 and 1991 would place all the dots on the i's and conclude the discussion. At least on the emotional plane, however, the events of those years turned out to be a complete surprise for the ideologues.

To propagandists of capitalism the fate of the “Russian experiment” seemed absolutely natural, but from 1989 it appeared as though history was mocking the liberals; after confirming all their theories and forecasts, it immediately began to refute them. All the promises of a shining future, of dynamic growth and a “;normal economy” turned into their opposites. Not one of the “positive” recipes has worked, while liberal values are becoming steadily less interesting to anyone but professional intellectuals.

It is striking how liberal ideologues have been forced to turn to the language of Soviet communism, mirroring its arguments. The liberals speak of the difficulties of the transition period, of the insufficiently consistent implementation of reform policies, of specific mistakes, and finally, of resistance and sabotage by hostile forces standing in the path of history or even trying to turn it back. This is not simply because all the ideologues of capitalism in Russia, as in most other East European countries, studied in Communist Party schools. Western “experts” who never graduated from Soviet party schools say the same. Behind this is their impotence in the face of uncomprehended mechanisms of history, along with an inability and unwillingness to give clear answers to concrete questions.

It is not surprising that against this background the debate about the outcome of the Russian Revolution should be unfolding anew. Uncertainty about the state of society means that people are forced continually to glance back. If everything is so clear, then why is everything so incomprehensible? The examination of the past conceals a fear of the future. The discussion is going in circles. Everyone repeats their old arguments, hoping to find their old theses confirmed by the events of 1989–1991. Meanwhile, people are confronted by the paradox that in order to make sense of the past it is necessary first to try to gain a better understanding of the present.

The collapse of the Soviet system was not only a fatal blow to the communist movement, in whose ideology the Russian Revolution of 1917 played a central role and for which it created a whole system of myths. The damage suffered by social democracy was not less, and in a certain sense was even more. Now that left-centrist governments have come to power in many countries of Europe, this is even more obvious than it was a few years ago in the time of the undivided hegemony of neo-liberalism. Leftists are coming to power not in order to implement their own program, but to continue the policies of the neo-liberals. In many ways these neophytes of capitalism are not less but more dangerous than “normal” bourgeois politicians. Why should the defeat of communism have been accompanied by the moral collapse of social democracy, which wasted no opportunity to condemn communists?

Although the ideologues of right-wing social democracy in the West in the early years of the century set out to show that by constantly increasing the number of their electoral supporters left parties would sooner or later win the support of the majority of the people and come peacefully to office, the fact remains that not a single government of the left won power in Europe before the Russian Revolution of 1917. Perhaps this was no more than a coincidence. But the events that unfolded in Russia could not fail to have an enormous influence on both the bourgeoisie and the working class of the West.

After 1917 the ideology of social reformism based itself on three main premises: that a society qualitatively different from that of capitalism was in principle possible; that processes of social transformation did not have to be revolutionary; and that within the framework of the “mixed economy8221; it was essential to unite the democratic achievements of the West with the social achievements of the East. Meanwhile the Western workers' movement rejected the revolutionary path and opted for social compromise. But compromise requires a readiness for concessions by both sides. The events in Russia frightened not only the bourgeoisie, but also significant numbers of workers. The more workers were told of the cruelty of the Bolsheviks, and later of the Soviet regime, the stronger the reformist orientation of the majority of workers became.

In essence, what we see today is nothing other than the crisis of the historic consequences of the Russian Revolution of 1917. The social reforms of the postwar era represented a sort of reaction by Western society to this revolution. Prince Kropotkin in his time reminded Lenin that the revolutionary terror delayed the spread of the principles of the French Revolution in Europe by a full 80 years. In Kropotkin's view, the same would also happen with Russian socialism. Lenin undoubtedly saw things differently. But of course, subsequent events hinged not only on the terror, but also on the system and structures that arose out of the revolution. The Soviet model was clearly unsuited to being reproduced throughout Europe. Like the eighteenth-century French Jacobins, the Bolsheviks were harsh, authoritarian, and at times incompetent. But at the same time they managed to achieve changes so far-reaching that their full significance will be apparent only after centuries. For all their errors and crimes, both the Jacobins and the Bolsheviks inspired millions of people, giving them back their self-esteem and their belief in their own strength. On this level the Russian revolution, for all its authoritarianism, had an immense liberating significance.

The fact that people gained a sense of being in control, that they became conscious of themselves as participants in historic events rather than onlookers, predetermined both the victory of the Reds in the Civil War and the later successes of the USSR. This might be termed the “revolutionary impulse”. However paradoxical it might seem, communist ideology during the period of industrialisation served as a sort of Russian substitute for the well-known “protestant ethic”. This is why after 1991 the Russian elites (unlike the Chinese ones) in putting an end to communism simultaneously did away with the only possible psychological and ethical preconditions for the development of capitalism. Here lies the reason why the “Russian reforms8221; have failed, while those in China have succeeded. And this, perhaps, represents the only historical service which the present regime in Moscow has performed.

The influence of the Russian Revolution of 1917 on Western society was also enormous, but it turned out to be quite different from what the ieologues of October had hoped. The Russian experience both impelled the ruling classes to make concessions, and at the same time acted as an obstacle to the search for a distinctive European model of radical social change. A solution was found in reformism. The success of the reformist endeavours was directly proportional to the seriousness of the “revolutionary blackmail” embodied in the world communist movement and the “Soviet menace”. Socialism was able to play a huge role in improving the functioning of capitalism precisely because of its anticapitalist essence. If socialism had not been a real alternative, if it had not had its own economic and social logic that could serve as a real basis for the creation of a new society, it would not have been able to develop the ideas and approaches needed for successful reforms. In order to reform the system, an ideological impulse from outside was necessary. If socialist ideology had ceased to be a fundamental alternative to capitalism, if the labour movement had lost its capacity for aggressive militancy and had not been capable of determined struggle against the bourgeoisie, it would not have been able to subdue anybody or anything. Without class hostility there would not have been any social reforms or social partnership. Partnership in this setting does not arise out of mutual sympathy between the partners, but from an understanding that rejecting partnership could have catastrophic results.

This might be called “postponed revolution”.

When examined from the point of view of liberal “common sense”, the whole period since 1917 seems with hindsight like a chain of errors and crimes. This impression is in fact misleading; the impulse of 1917 lasted so long for the reason that along this path there were also impressive victories, including economic ones. Nevertheless, looking back from the 1990s, it is easy to take the view that while Russia received shocks, “Red terror”, collectivisation, the Stalinist Thermidor, the massive repressions of the 1930s, the horrors of war, and the strain of the post-war period of reconstruction, the West got consumer society, a viable democratic system, and “civilised” capitalism. The point that escapes the superficial observer is that the one would not have been possible without the other. The history of the “successes” of the West would have been impossible without our tragic history. By the 1930s the Soviet Union was no longer ruled by a “revolutionary regime”. Trotsky correctly called the new political order the Soviet Thermidor, in which the new elite no longer served the “proletarian revolution”, but looked after itself. In the 1940s, with the rise of the Soviet super-power, the regime increasingly took on Bonapartist features. Though gravely weakened, the revolutionary impulse still made itself felt, and this was the secret both of the socio-economic successes of the USSR in the post-war period, and of the attractiveness of our country for the developing world. Nevertheless, this impulse was finally extinguished. By the late 1980s we had a huge country with an inefficient super-centralised (and not particularly planned) economy, and a bloated, hypertrophic bureaucracy that was dreaming of acquiring property as well as power. The epoch of the “Soviet Thermidor” had come to an end. The time had come for restoration. This historical task was taken on by the Yeltsin regime, with support from the West.

The time had come for an epoch of reaction, which the press for some reason christened “liberal reforms”. This reaction was not an internal Russian affair, but part of a world-wide process. Just as the Holy Alliance in Europe after the Napoleonic wars tried to root out the results of the French revolution, so today the International Monetary Fund, Maastricht Europe and the American “new world order” represent the reactionary answer of the old elites to the downfall of the revolutionary experiment. It is wrong to try to justify this social reaction on the basis of its technological successes. The period of the Holy Alliance was also one of intensive technological development, but this did not alter the epoch's reactionary essence. It might be said that the main historical achievement of our revolution was the reforming of capitalism in the West. Now, as a result of the collapse of communism, this achievement is under threat. The defeat of the revolution is not simply weakening reformism, but in a certain sense, making it quite impossible.

It is not surprising that the collapse of the Soviet system has been a catastrophe for social democracy as well. Since 1989 the reformist course of the labour movement in the West has totally exhausted itself, and there is no new strategy or ideology. The result has been predictable. As the West has entered an era of acute social conflicts and unclear political alternatives, the place of reformism and revolutionism has been taken spontaneously by radicalism, expressed in uncoordinated aggressive demands and in outbursts of unorganised protest. The reason why history has not come to an end has been simply that capitalism, after emerging victorious from its struggle with communism, has remained subject to its own propensities, to its own forces of self-destruction. It is as though we had returned to the pre-October epoch.

Our historical task—ultimately, a question of survival—is becoming the search for new forms of social being, without which neither politics nor economics is possible. In Russia this social being cannot be bourgeois, because of the lack of a fully realised bourgeoisie. But creating a bourgeoisie retrospectively, on the basis of privatisation, is just as impossible as living someone else's life over again. For Russia as for many countries, the perspectives for the development of the economy cannot be capitalist because of the ineffectiveness of the model that has taken shape. Consequently, a radical, innovative alternative remains on the agenda.

The ideology of the left can become an important factor in the organisation of society precisely because of its collectivism. The task of the left in Russia is not only to express already formed interests, but also to help in their formation, and at the same time, to create itself as a political force. This will need to be done all over again.

A renewal of the social being is not identical to the triumph of democracy, but it offers the only chance for democratic development. Collectivism does not always guarantee freedom, but our freedom can no longer be defended without it. Left radicalism, ripening in a natural fashion in a land of failed capitalism, may not become the ideology of progress, but without it progress is impossible.

Lenin's book What is to be Done? could only have been written by a socialist from Russia. It would never have entered the head of a European social democrat that it was necessary to create a party of workers even before the rise of a mass working class, and then to “import” proletarian consciousness into the ranks of the proletariat. But this apparent theoretical absurdity was born of the contradictory nature and uneven development of real Russian history. And was this true only of Russian history?

People have either to organise themselves to carry out joint actions or to reconcile themselves to their fates. But the passivity and submissiveness of the masses will not lead to stability, since the source of the destabilisation is the people at the top. In Europe in the age of the Holy Alliance it was possible to argue that the historical project of the French Revolution had ended in total defeat. But the epoch of reaction in Europe was followed by a new wave of revolutionary shocks, preconditioned precisely by the policies of the restoration. We are seeing the same thing today. The “new world order”, which is systematically doing away with the elements of the “social state” in all countries, is in fact creating the conditions for a train of new revolutionary shocks.

At the very dawn of the modern era it was explained that after the restoration would come the “Glorious Revolution”. Reaction is a natural historical phenomenon, but it becomes exhausted just as revolutions do. When this exhaustion sets in, a new era of change can begin.