Date: Fri, 7 Nov 97 10:48:40 CST
The unfinished revolution
By Boris Kagarlitsky, Green Left Weekly, nr. 296, 5 November 1997
On the topic of the Russian Revolution, it might appear that everything worth saying has already been said.
Throughout the Soviet decades, leftists repeatedly cited Trotsky and his biographer Isaac Deutscher on the bureaucratic degeneration of the regime, the incompleteness of the revolutionary process and 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 conclude the discussion. However, the events turned out to be a complete surprise for the ideologues. 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. Liberal ideologues have been forced to turn to the language of Soviet communism. 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.
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" 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.
Against this background, the debate about the outcome of the Russian Revolution is unfolding anew. Uncertainty 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. People are confronted by the paradox that in order to make sense of the past it is necessary first to gain a better understanding of the present.
The collapse of the Soviet system was not only a fatal blow to the communist movement. 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. 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 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 and come peacefully to office, not a single government of the left won power in Europe before the Russian Revolution of 1917. Perhaps this was no more than coincidence. But the events 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 social transformation did not have to be revolutionary; and that within the "mixed economy" 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.
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. But of course, subsequent events hinged not only on the terror, but also on the system and structures that arose out of the revolution.
Like the 18th-century French Jacobins, the Bolsheviks were harsh, authoritarian and at times incompetent. But 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, 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.
This might be termed the "revolutionary impulse". 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 reforms" have failed, while those in China have succeeded.
The influence of the Russian Revolution on western society was also enormous, but it turned out to be quite different from what the ideologues 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. The success of 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.
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, 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.
East and west
When examined from the point of view of liberal "common sense", the whole period since 1917 seems like a chain of errors and crimes. This impression is 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, 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 postwar 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 "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 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 socioeconomic successes of the USSR in the postwar 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 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 christened "liberal reforms". This reaction was part of a worldwide process. Just as the Holy Alliance after the Napoleonic wars tried to root out the results of the French Revolution, so today the International Monetary Fund, Maastricht Europe and the US "new world order" represent the reactionary answer of the old elites to the downfall of the revolutionary experiment.
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.
Since 1989 the reformist course of the labour movement in the west has totally exhausted itself, and there is no new strategy or ideology. 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.
Capitalism, after emerging victorious from its struggle with communism, has remained subject 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. 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 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.
People have either to organise themselves to carry out joint actions or to reconcile themselves to their fates. 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 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 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 creating the conditions for a train of new revolutionary shocks.
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.
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