O, sing me not that song again
My lovely Nora, dear,
The strong, the proud defiant strain
It breaks my heart to hear.
Charles J Kickham
150 years on from the Communist Manifesto, the spectre that haunts the collective imagination of Europe and the world is not the looming prospect of communism, but the experience of "communism", that is, Stalinism. Ours is an age of disillusionment. We live in the time after the fall of "utopia". Not only is "utopia" discredited and abandoned, so also - and the two are connected - is much that went to make up the old liberal commitment to social progress and belief in general social and human improvability, and even "perfectibility".
Yet this social and political timidity of thought, hope, program, and action, this collective abandonment of hope for anything more than individual 'prosperity', is twinned paradoxically in our world with dazzling scientific and technological realities and possibilities. It exists in a world in which humankind has greater technical mastery over nature - including its own physiology - than the old social optimists could imagine even in their highest flights of creative extrapolation and fantasy.
We are living through a tremendous revolution in artificial intelligence and in communications - communications which can bring immense quantities of information, sorted, sifted and collated, quickly to hand, and which might make possible continuous political democracy, on the model of an old city state or a local soviet in 1917, for vast or dispersed populations. We are in the comparatively early stages of a revolution in biological science and therefore in medicine and healing. Even death can now really be pushed back, and back. Marx and Engels, writing about the spectre of communism 150 years ago, and also Lenin and Trotsky, organising the October Revolution in Petrograd 80 years ago, would be as astonished as they would be elated at what is real now or almost immediately possible for humankind.
The prevailing "anti-utopianism" is in stark contrast with the once widespread assumption that humankind, using science and technology, would move itself and its society upwards and upwards, from lower to higher, and higher, levels of literacy, education, self-awareness, freedom, and control of its own society. With the old common idea - it was one of the root notions of the theorists of bourgeois democracy, when they were serious about it - that major social inequality would radically diminish, or even disappear. With the old assumption that despite its frequent and known misuse, science offered the benign hope that it could help create a society altogether better on every level of culture and civilisation. That the general level of society and humanity would rise.
Not so long ago the technical and scientific wonders we have now would have generated renewed hope and fantasies and "utopias", and buttressed and strengthened and vindicated the old socialist idea, whose premises and prerequisites - abundance of the basic of life for everyone - are proved to have been no utopia. But "utopia" is dead... Now, though people take for given an endlessly coruscating fountain of scientific wonders, around which economic and social life is organised and reorganised, they also take as given and settled the present social relations and structures of capitalist society. There is to be no human breakthrough into a society that is qualitatively better. there must be no more striving for something proved to be unrealisable: that is the way to pull down the pillars of the Temple on our heads. There is not, nor can there b, " perfectibility" of society or humankind. That is the lesson of the 20th century. The future is seen as a continuing, perhaps intensifying, now: and the negative things in our society will probably continue and perhaps get worse.
Where once existing positive things were emphasised and extrapolated from and generalised and imaginatively supplemented with things of their own sort to build hopeful and positive perspectives and programs which elaborated ideas about better social ways and means and social structures, now a whole large culture of books, movies, TV, comic books, extrapolate from the negative things in capitalist society and in the experience of Stalinism and fascism, and tease out from them general "anti-utopian" ideas, and fictions embodying nightmare scenarios.
Leon Trotsky once tried to explain the ancient Greek tragedies as at root an expression of the terrible contradiction and tension between on the one side their free-flowing, unencumbered flights of creative imagination, and on the other side the primitive level of their technology and social productivity - what they could actually do with their ideas. Late 20th century capitalist society's tragedy - it is in the first place a tragedy of the labour movement - is the very inverse of that, its mirror-image: tremendous technology and social productivity enable us to casually do now things that were even a few decades ago conceivable only as products of supernatural intervention, as magic and miracles. Yet, even so, we suffer now from a general paralysis of social and political imagination and vision: indeed from a mass aversion to it - strong as if produced by aversion therapy - that is akin to superstition. An age of disillusionment...
On one level these pervasive anti-utopias express the victory of the bourgeoisie in the battle of ideas. Of those in whose interest it is to conceive of our social reality as, in its fundamentals, fixed and unalterable. Yet the acceptability of these ideas is rooted in the disillusionment of millions of people with what has happened in the world in the last several decades.
We live in the time after the fall of utopia and the bloody death of utopianism. Ours is the age of disillusionment, of the strange combination of immense technical possibilities with social hopelessness. One hundred and fifty years on from the Communist Manifesto, the spectre that haunts the collective imagination of Europe and of the world is not the looming prospect of "communism" but the haunting nightmare memory of the terrible experience of "communism", that is Stalinism, in practice.
Not only is utopia dead, but so also is much of the old liberal idea of progress. Not so long ago, it was a widely-held assumption that humankind would move upwards, from lower to higher levels of technology, literacy, education, civilisation, and human control of nature and of society. Despite its frequent and known misuse, science was widely seen to offer the benign hope of an altogether better world.
Of course, Marxists never subscribed to the older naive liberal view of steady and inevitable improvement. We have had a darker, less complaisant, less unconditionally optimistic, view of society as it exists, seeing it as a society built on capitalist class exploitation, rent and riven by class struggle - the successor to earlier societies where the class struggle had, in the words of the Communist Manifesto, led to either "a revolutionary re-constitution of society at large, or the common ruin of the contending classes". We saw social reality not as inevitably progressing but as a continuous struggle between the forces of socialism and those of barbarism. But we had hope and the will to fight for the progressive outcome by way of building labour movements and converting labour movements to socialist ideas: we conceived of the class struggle as also, and all-shapingly, a battle of ideas.
Yet today, Marxism too is in eclipse, unable to offer the creative, active, conditionally optimistic alternative to the predominant social pessimism that it once counterposed to the sleepwalking bourgeois optimism. The contrast is, indeed, stark. Ours is a world where "the tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living". The typical futuristic romances at the end of the 20th century are despairing, space-Gothic, horror stories - in which humanity has become its own Frankensteinian monster - purveying waking nightmares about humankind's future.
The science-fiction nightmares - today's mass-consumption anti-utopias - tell the story, as the old utopian and visionary exhortations about the benefits of scientific and technological progress told the earlier story of widespread social optimism.
Take the splendid film Blade Runner, with its double parable in the form of a creation story set not in the Garden of Eden, not in an "utopian" paradise, but in the ecological hell of a ruined Earth. Humankind is God the creator to the androids, who have an essentially human consciousness, a short life, and no power to shape their destiny. Human beings are to them what the forces of recalcitrant nature have been to human beings throughout our history. They fear death, seek understanding, and want contact with their Maker. But humanity, the life-creating God to the androids, has turned the whole Earth into a poisoned, dying world. The God has lost his own Heaven; seeking Heaven, he has found Hell. He is Lucifer, Angel and Devil; he has cast himself out of Paradise, and has himself destroyed that Paradise; he is a tormenting, exterminating nemesis to his human-like creations. He has difficulty distinguishing his creatures from himself. When one of the outlaw androids, on the run from the exterminator, literally meets his maker, the scientist who designed robots like himself, he rips his head off - as humankind has, seemingly, ripped its own head off, and the Earth's too. Humanity, having become God, is less than human.
Or take another film, Soylent Green, in which Edward G Robinson - an actor who once visited Trotsky in Mexico - plays an old man living in a Malthusian nightmare of a ruined world where green grass and free animals exist only on film records, and the teeming masses of humans live on food made out of dead human beings, in a social system made possible only by the arbitrary rule of all-powerful, socially-responsible policemen, like the hero, played by Charlton Heston. Or Judge Dredd, the vastly popular comic depicting the rule of robot-like but human judges with the power of instant death or life over the citizens of another ruined world.
Many other examples could be cited. These will to posterity mark ours as an age of miracles and wonders which has somehow nevertheless lost hope of such "miracles", which dreads the future and fears its own creations. In our late 20th century world, the future holds only horror and disaster. The paths of scientific glory lead only to nightmare and destruction, creating a world like the abattoir and the crypt. Progress leads to regress; increasing knowledge to greater terror of the unknown; greater technical possibilities of human control, to a world growing more and more beyond human control. Human control over nature leads not to human advancement, but to the ruination of nature. Humankind can only foul its own nest. An earlier age would have looked for the source of the curse, the hidden sin, and the search might lead eventually to a remedy; we do not even do that.
None of this, in its objective causes, is at all mysterious. We fear atomic power, first as the Bomb and then also as nuclear fuel. We fear that the ecological system in which we live is falling into slow ruin. Third World slum conditions re-emerge in the world's most advanced cities, and all our notions of how to control our conditions seem to have failed.
Bourgeois democracy has not deepened, increasing its social dimension. On the contrary it has become shallower, more bureaucratised, and more discredited among large numbers of people. In Britain the bourgeoisie is in the process of hijacking the Labour Party, built by the working class over one hundred years, and we are learning that even long electoral interest and electoral effort may not affect what happens very much. Bureaucratised politics becomes a cynical profession, overlapping with show-business and advertising.
The growth of international corporations, as powerful as medium-size nation-states, has moved much power of decision and regulation out of the sphere of governments, that is, of existing democracy. Existing governments are not as powerless as, for political reasons, they sometimes pretend, but the trend is real. "Internationalism" is a means not for extending democracy beyond national limits, but for the emancipation of capitalist enterprise from possible electoral control.
At the root of the loss of hope is the failure of socialism and communism, the logical social next step, extrapolating from and building on advanced capitalism, that seemed not only logical but desirable and possible to millions over so many decades. But it is not only that. It is also the failure of older prescriptions, or rather the realisation of something resembling them with unexpected results.
"The first step... is... to win the battle of democracy", said the Communist Manifesto. In many countries the working class has "won the battle of democracy" to the extent that it has the vote and wide civil liberties. Yet everywhere the working class is quiescent or in tow to capitalist political formations. In fact the working class has not won "the battle of democracy" as Marx, Engels, and the democrats of the day understood it in 1847-8 - social democracy. The forms of democracy have been turned against the substance. If outright failure has to be registered for the hopes released by the French Revolution, in which socialism too has its roots, then the first failure, the one that conditioned the rest, was not the failure of socialism and communism but the failure of democracy and the hopes vested in it.
Marx and Engels advocated battle against vested interests and against hereditary rights and privileges. In our day, the knocking-down of many such vested interests has, as the Manifesto put it, "left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous 'cash payment'."
The working class fought for a free press. In Britain, the struggle for an unstamped (untaxed) press occupied militants and incipient socialists in a heroic struggle for many years. They believed that, like the truth, a free press would, by spreading education, enlightenment and reason, make the people free. They got an unstamped press. After a while they got Rothermere. Today we have the Murdoch press. We have television most of which is commerce-driven "wallpaper for the mind" and "chewing gum for the eyes".
A vast destruction of the old apparatus of sexual repression has brought to society, to the collective, all-pervasive commercialised sexual images like sugar in processed foods.
The working-class movement itself generated its own petty-bourgeois extension, the "labour lieutenants of capital", tied to the system and tying the working class to it.
Yet nobody but a fatuous and naive person could ever imagine that a world could be remade - a powerful and immensely flexible and dynamic and adaptable ruling class overthrown - a subordinate class organised and educated in adequate conceptions of the needs of its struggle - without battles and setbacks, massacres and political masquerades, treacheries and usurpations. As Marx put it: "Proletarian revolutions criticise themselves constantly... come back to the apparently accomplished in order to begin it afresh... seem to throw down their adversary only in order that he may draw new strength from the earth and rise again, more gigantic, before them, recoil ever and anon from the indefinite prodigiousness of their own aims..." Something has 'interfered' with and derailed this natural process.
The central experience in our growth of hopelessness is, it seems to me, the experience of Russian Revolution. The problem is not just that it eventually failed, but the peculiarities of its failure, and the horrors of its decades-long "posthumous existence" in the form of Stalinism, an immense empire of systematic lies into which generations fed their hopes and their credulities. Tens of millions of people thought the future could be shaped and human life be self-controlling. Limited early success, 1917 and after, bread confidence... and credulity. And then they found that everything had been 'switched'. They had been tricked by faith and fate.
Socialism? If this was socialism, then capitalism was better. Horrified awareness overtook at different turning points a succession of political generations - the Moscow Trials, the Stalin-Hitler Pact, the annexation of Eastern Europe, Hungary 1956, Czechoslovakia 1968, Cambodia 1975, Afghanistan 1979. And Tienanmen Square, 1989... Then the Stalinist system collapsed, leaving nobody with the possibility of illusion. It is appropriate that the ex-"believers" are among the most prostrate conservatives. They are left mouthing the idea that all "utopias", and all politics concerned with such things, are dangerous tales told by idiots - ultimately and incurably treacherous.
The poisonous reality of Stalinism and the vapours unleashed by the collapse of that system taint our world, paralysing wills and intellects. Yet none of the problems which generate despair today seem so daunting and insurmountable if only we believe in, and can get enough people to believe in, or believe again in, the possibility that old socialist goals can now be realised. There have always been forces for social hope. To understand why they are so weak now, and thus to make firm the intellectual basis for regenerating a powerful will for socialism, we have to understand what has happened to the idea of communism in the last 80 years - that is, we must understand Bolshevism and Stalinism.
In 1917 the Bolsheviks proved in practice that the working class could take power. With exemplary courage and determination, they followed the revolutionary policy outlined by Marx in March 1850 on the basis of the Manifesto and his active experience in the 1848 revolutions: "In general they [the Communists] must restrain in every way to the extent of their power the jubilation and enthusiasm for the new order which follows every victorious street battle, by a calm and cold-blooded conception of the situation and by an open distrust of the new government. Side by side with the new official governments, they must simultaneously set up their own revolutionary workers' governments, whether in the form of municipal committees, municipal councils or workers' clubs or workers' committees, so that the bourgeois democratic governments not only immediately lose the support of the workers, but find themselves from the very beginning supervised and threatened by authorities behind which stand the whole mass of the workers. In a word: from the first moment of victory our distrust must no longer be directed against the vanquished reactionary party, but against our previous allies, against the party which seeks to exploit the common victory for itself alone.
"But in order to be able energetically and threateningly to oppose this party, whose betrayal of the workers will begin with the first hour of victory, the workers must be armed and organised. The arming of the whole proletariat with muskets, rifles, cannon and ammunition must be carried out at once, and the revival of the old bourgeois militia, directed against the workers, resisted. Where this cannot be effected, the workers must endeavour to organise themselves independently as a proletarian guard with chiefs and a general staff elected by themselves and put themselves under orders not of the state but of the revolutionary municipal councils established by the workers. Where workers are employed in state service, they must arm and organise in a separate corps or as a part of the proletarian guard with the chiefs elected by themselves. Arms and munitions must not be given up under any pretext; every attempt at disarmament must if necessary be thwarted by force. Destruction of the influence of the bourgeois democrats upon the workers, immediate independent and armed organisation of the workers, creation of the most difficult and compromising possible conditions for the momentarily unavoidable rule of the bourgeois democracy - these are the main points which the proletariat, and consequently the League, must have in mind during and after the coming rising".
In doing so the Bolsheviks vindicated the Communist Manifesto. The Stalinist counter-revolution against Bolshevism vindicated the ideas of the Communist Manifesto too, but negatively. If Stalinism, official "communism", had anything to do with socialism, then it was a historical regression to ideas that the Communist Manifesto polemicised against, the idea of the "utopian socialists" who believed in going into the wildernesses of America to create socialist colonies which would then demonstrate their superiority in competition with advanced capitalism. The Stalinist drive to create closed-off societies which would compete with capitalism, and from backwardness come to outstrip and surpass it, was a gigantic exercise in utopian colony-building. Although in fact it had nothing to do with socialism, except by negation, it did claim to be socialism, it has had much to do with how socialism is seen now, and it did relate to capitalism by counterposing "force of example to pave the way for the new social Gospel" and by resolving "future history... into the propaganda and the practical carrying out of their social plans". That was not the approach of the Bolsheviks. They understood what Marx had written in the Manifesto: "The theoretical conclusions of the Communists are in no way based on ideas and principles that have been invented, or discovered, by this or that would-be universal reformer. They merely express, in general terms, actual relations springing from an existing class struggle, from a historical movement going on under our very eyes". Or again: "The working class have no ready-made utopias to introduce par decret du peuple. They know that in order to work out their own emancipation, and along with it that higher form to which present society is irresistibly tending by its own economical agencies, they will have to pass through long struggles, through a series of historical processes, transforming circumstances and men. They have no ideals to realise, but to set free the elements of the new society with which old collapsing bourgeois society itself is pregnant".
The Bolsheviks did not believe that communism could be created in backwardness and underdevelopment such as that which prevailed in the old Empire of the Tsars. They believed, with Marx, that communism had to be built on the foundations, structures, and social potentialities that the most advanced capitalism had created. They knew that "the elements of the new society" were not adequately developed in Russia.
The Bolshevik-led Soviets had state power, but they understood that there were proper limits to the surgical and engineering power of the state in relation to society, that is, the population; their "reshaping reason", armed with the state power, could only reorganise, modify, and set on lines of development. The obdurate reality of society could not be taken by storm, like political power, but only transformed over time, in the interests of the wage-workers and poor farmers. Society could not be reduced to a tabula rasa, a blank slate on which anything could be written. It could not at will be recreated from the ground up. The immense concentration of state power characteristic of Stalinism would have seemed to those who formed the government in October 1917 to be a throwback to Pharaoh's Egypt or pre-Spanish Peru.
The Russian working class was a comparatively small minority in a vast land inhabited by peasants scarcely two generations out of serfdom, a country which was, taken in isolation, one hundred and more years behind advanced Europe. The Bolsheviks would have dismissed as impossible and ridiculous the idea that the workers would or could, having seized power, then begin to construct, in parallel to capitalism, a closed-off society on communist principles. They understood from what they knew of history that in those conditions communist principles could not for long govern society. They would have branded an attempt at "socialism in one country" as a regression from Marxism to the socialism of the epoch before the Communist Manifesto - to the socialism of Robert Owen and Etienne Cabet, who, following imaginary maps of history, as far from social reality as the chart which guided Christopher Columbus, so he thought, to the Indies, built doomed primitive-communist colonies in the backwoods of America.
By the middle of the 20th century the predominant model of communism would become a state-imposed forced march for industrial growth and development, in which an authoritarian or totalitarian state held the proletariat and the whole people in an iron grip of terror and exploitation - essentially playing the role which in Marxist theory the bourgeoisie had embodied in history. This model was supposedly rooted in the 1917 Revolution. But it had nothing to do with the workers' revolution of 1917.
It was not the Bolsheviks' policy, but the policy of those who drowned the Bolshevik revolution in blood, stole its identity and its symbols, and buried it in a falsely marked grave. Before the rise of Stalin's USSR, no Marxist could have put forward such a policy without hearing the voice of the founders of Marxism insisting that in such conditions, no matter what the rulers' intentions were, "all the old crap" of class society - in the first place, class differentiation and class exploitation - would inevitably return.
Lenin saw the Russian Revolution as part of a larger world, the key parts of which were ripe for communism, and in unity with which Russia would "construct the socialist order". He saw the working-class seizure of power in Russia as a pioneering "moment" in an unfolding revolution of the working class in western Europe, where capitalism had done its progressive historical work. As Rosa Luxemburg, a fervent supporter and loyal though severe critic of Bolshevik rule, put it: the Bolsheviks had taken their stand on international socialism.
But then a gap between intentions and expectations on one side, and uncontrollable reality on the other, opened wide under the feet of the Bolshevik regime, first shook it out of recognisable shape and then pulled it down. Other wills and other intentions and strivings cut across, and would ultimately nullify, their will, their hopes, their programme - and with it, international communism for the rest of the 20th century. The working-class revolution in Russia, to which nothing in the way of communism was possible without the economic and social collaboration of advanced Europe, remained isolated. The revolutions which the Bolsheviks had expected did erupt in Europe, beginning with Germany in November 1918. Soviets appeared all across central Europe, and even as far from Russia as rural Ireland. In 1919 Soviet regimes ruled for a few weeks in Bavaria and Hungary, before being crushed by bourgeois forces.
The strength of the capitalists in some countries, and the strength and loyalty of their "labour lieutenants" in others, isolated the Russian revolution. Like the lone first soldier over the parapet into the enemy fortress who finds that no-one else has got through, the Bolsheviks were doomed.
The Bolsheviks, who had will and determination in greater than common measure, did not submit passively. Historical fatalism was not their tradition. They had had great hopes. But they had never believed that the bourgeoisie would fall like a stone tumbling into an abyss. It would have to be cut down in battle - prolonged battle, so it now seemed. They believed that the war had radically dislocated world capitalism. It had achieved no more than a temporary stability in 1920-21. The objective possibility of European revolution remained. The weakness lay in the "subjective factor", in the state of the labour movements. The victorious Russian revolutionaries would reorganise the workers' movement in the West and strike down the reformists who had been the shield (and, in Germany, also the sword) of the bourgeoisie. Thus, in a paradoxical inversion, they would first rescue the west European revolution, so that then the west European revolution could rescue them. A new workers' International was set up in Moscow in March 1919.
Publicly admitting that workers' rule in Russia was doomed in the medium term unless the workers took power in the West, the Bolsheviks held on. They did so by way of tremendous exertion against the "other wills" operating inside and outside Russia. Against all their intentions they thereby extemporised a first draft of what the Stalinist counter-revolution, overthrowing the workers' rule, would develop into an elaborate map of history as fantastic as any drawn up by the mid-19th century utopian colony-builders.
Full-scale civil war erupted in mid-1918. It would last for two and a half years. The Reds successfully contested with the counter-revolutionary "Whites" for the allegiance of the peasants in the countryside. Looking back at the revolution through the thick, opaque, bloodily-smeared lens of the Stalinist regime, later commentators have imagined a tyrannical and bureaucratic "Stalinist" state machine inexorably working its tank-like power in a drive to create a totalitarian state. But that is not what happened. That is read backwards into the history things that did not and could not exist then, to mix up the pages of two different calendars, that of the workers' revolution and that of the Stalinist counter-revolution. At the beginning, after October 1917, the working-class Soviets firmly controlled only the cities and the major towns. In July 1918 their erstwhile partners in government, the Left SRs, took up arms against the Bolsheviks - they shot and wounded Lenin - because they could not agree to accept peace with Germany on terms dictated from strength by the Kaiser. In order to create the state that existed by say 1921, at the end of the civil war, the Soviets and their Bolshevik leaders had to win the leadership and support of the mass of the people, the peasantry, in a fierce, free competition of ideas, leadership and arms with their bourgeois-landlord opponents, led by Tsarist generals like Kolchak, Denikin, and Wrangel. The "Whites" demagogically appealed to one sort of democracy (the Constituent Assembly) against the Soviets. The workers and peasants chose Soviet power against the bourgeoisie and the landlords.
Later in the century, Stalinist parties calling themselves "communist" would take power as already-mighty military-bureaucratic machines, in China for example. The Bolshevik party was not like that. The party that led the revolution was unruly, argumentative, and democratic. As late as 1918 its central administration had a staff of no more than a dozen, for a party with hundreds of thousands of members. The central party files were hurried jottings carried by the secretary, Sverdlov, in his jacket pockets. Only in the civil war and after did the party acquire a strong apparatus.
If the Bolsheviks had not won the competition for the minds and assent of the rural people, they could not have won the armed contest with the White armies and their foreign promoters, sponsors and allies.
To civil war was added foreign intervention by the armed forces of no fewer than 14 states. The seriousness of the foreign assaults on the Soviet government varied. They never became a full-scale, coordinated international anti-Bolshevik crusade, but they encouraged the internal armed opposition, fuelling it with hope and material aid. Yet the Bolsheviks did win popular support. The regime rested on it. It could not have survived without it.
In the course of the civil war much changed, including - and this is our central concern here - many of the defining ideas of communism. The exigencies of the civil war and the wars of intervention determined what the Bolsheviks did. Essentially, what was overridden was their democratic-socialist, Soviet-socialist programme. Even the highest point reached by Russian capitalism before 1917 had not made the country ripe for socialism; now the civil war wreaked great destruction, pushing Russia backwards even from what seemed possible in 1917. The Soviets had to organise an immense army for self-defence, subordinating all society and industry to the struggle to survive and prevail. A vast bureaucratic administration of society grew up around the maintenance of the Red Army. The Bolsheviks felt obliged to suppress, in so far as they could, the operation of markets, and to substitute a barracks communism-of-backwardness, in which the produce of the peasants was simply seized in order to feed the towns and the armies. This was "war communism". The regime still had mass popular backing. Throughout the civil war the peasants continued to support the revolutionary government - not without dissatisfaction, bitterness and episodes of militant resistance, to be sure - in the interests of winning the war against the White and foreign armies whose victory would have brought back the landowners to lord it over them once more. They supported the "Bolsheviks" who gave them the land while disliking the armed "Communist" requisitioners of their grain.
The working class itself changed. Much of industry seized up. The revolutionary workers had to staff the new army and the state machine on which survival came to depend. Very soon, it was not in fact the state "of the Paris Commune type" which Lenin, Trotsky and their comrades had aimed to create in 1917 - free, easy-going self-administration, with minimal bureaucracy - but a heavily bureaucratised state, increasingly modelled on and intertwined with the command structures inseparable from the sort of army they felt obliged to create.
The Soviets, the organs of popular self-rule, also changed. Most of the Menshevik and Social-Revolutionary participants in the 1917 Soviets - the bourgeois-democratic opposition to the Bolshevik-led majority in the days of the October Revolution - actively or passively supported the anti-Soviet armies fighting the Bolshevik government, and therefore left the Soviets or were driven out. The Soviets, like so much of society, had their life and vitality drained out of them and into the work of the army and of organising a state which administered backwardness and, now, chaos and economic regression.
The Bolsheviks never thought that Russia could be communist on its own; but now, out of civil war, something very alien to communism began to develop in the workers' state. It was shaped not by Bolshevik intentions, but by the exigencies of a long and terrible series of wars. Defending the right of free trade unions to help the workers fight that state and resist its giant pressure at the 10th congress of the Communist Party in early 1921, Lenin himself called it a "workers' state with bureaucratic deformations". 18 months later, the dying Lenin used a striking metaphor for the situation of the Bolshevik party at the head of the state: it was like driving a car in which the wheels did not respond to the steering.
The Bolsheviks undertook now not to "construct the socialist order", as Lenin had promised on 25 October 1917, with the perspective of international working-class revolution in mind, but to survive in power. The ruling party would defend and serve the working class, and develop the backward territory over which they ruled, until working-class revolution in the West would come to their aid and open up better options. The fate of the defeated Communards of 1871, the massacres of communist workers in Germany and Hungary, and the massacres and pogroms unleashed by their own opponents - in the Ukraine, especially, terrible slaughter of Jews was unleashed by the White armies - kept the Bolsheviks in mind of the alternative.
In 1921, three and a half years after the October revolution, a "New Economic Policy" put paid to war communism - around which some Bolsheviks had woven utopian fantasies that Russian could go from this primitive command-at-gunpoint economy to communism. Markets - in which self-interest and the drive for the accumulation of wealth would motivate farmers and merchants - were restored, under the ultimate control of the workers' state, which, as Lenin insisted, would hold "the commanding heights" of the economy for the working class. Socialism and communism would, Lenin of course believed, have been better; but the market was better than the primitive communism of the civil-war economy, because more appropriate to the level of development. Essentially this was a limited bourgeois counter-revolution, controlled and regulated by the workers' state and subjected to its purposes. To control the transition from war communism and to ensure the Bolshevik regime's ability to control events, all other parties, even those such as Julius Martov's Menshevik Internationalists who had never risen against the Soviet government or supported those who had, were banned. Soviet government became in fact what it had so far not been either in fact or in theory - a one-party monopoly regime. Theory would catch up. As a logical and necessary corollary of the ban on every other party, the Tenth Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (March 1921) banned factions within the ruling party.
This was a radical departure. In the course of 1917 and the civil war there had been many factions in the Bolshevik party For example, Bukharin set up a faction in 1918 to oppose Lenin's policy of accepting a forced peace at the hands of Germany, and in the course of the internal party fight the Bukharin faction published a daily factional paper.
The series of emergency measures in 1921 was intended to be a temporary response to an extraordinarily tense and dangerous situation, not the establishment of new norms. But in the sequel, even when in practice the ruling party was intensely faction-ridden, the emergency measures came to be the theoretical norm. And not only for Russia, but also for the non-Russian Communist Parties.
In the first year of the Russian Revolution, Rosa Luxemburg had urged that measures taken by the Bolshevik-Soviet regime in response to its perilous situation should not be erected into norms, either for the Bolsheviks or for their international supporters. Emergency and hard exigency do not make good general theory, and should not be used to set universal norms. Necessity should not be made virtue, she argued, adding her conviction that Lenin and Trotsky would be the last to think that enforced Bolshevik practice, in a backward country where the proletariat was a minority inhabiting urban atolls in an agrarian sea, should be made the ideal rule of international communism. In fact, however, that is what happened. Communist theory followed where Russian practice pioneered.
Under the regime of the New Economic Policy, which would last from 1921 until Stalin created the command economy at the end of the 1920s, occurred the struggle that would shape, reshape, and falsify communism for the rest of the 20th century. Under the NEP layers of the ruling party - which in relation to society was already a bureaucracy, based on a much shrunken remnant of the old working class - crystallised into a privileged elite which gropingly developed an awareness of its own distinct interests of its own and slowly began to evolve a new world outlook within a reshaped "Marxism" that became scholastic ideology.
Something akin to this "bureaucrats' Marxism" had developed in the early years of Russian Marxism - "Legal Marxism". Wanting to break with the old, heroic and self-sacrificing, tradition of "Narodnik" (populist) resistance to Tsarism in the name of the people and of a rather ill-defined utopian socialism, in the 1890s layers of the intelligentsia became "Marxists". But they came to stress only that part of Marxism which said that capitalism was progressive and unavoidable - thus licensing themselves to make peace with developing Russian capitalism. They became liberals... The working-class revolutionary Marxists - future Mensheviks and Bolsheviks alike - agreed that capitalism was inevitable and progressive in Russia, but combatted this one-sided Marxism.
Now the bureaucrats took over "Marxism" and gutted it. Specifically, what they did was take all of it that was negative and critical of bourgeois society and bourgeois democracy, and cut off the positive working-class alternative: working-class democracy, expanded liberties, and working-class control. In their place they put their own bureaucratic anti-working-class alternative: totalitarian state power, miscalled socialism. Here they followed the pattern of the reactionary or feudal socialists criticised in the Communist Manifesto: "incisive criticism, striking the bourgeoisie to the very heart's core... In political practice they join in all coercive measures against the working class".
In their fight against "Legal Marxism", the revolutionary working-class Marxists of around 1900 had been able to base themselves on a rising working-class movement in their defence of an Marxism. Those who resisted Stalinist "Marxism" had no such base. In 1924 the bureaucracy implicitly broke with the Bolshevik programme of international revolution on which, according to the old ideas, the survival of the Russian revolution depended. Stalin proclaimed "Socialism in One Country", insisting that it was "Marxism" and "Leninism", and that the old ideas were "Trotskyist" heresy. "Trotskyism" would be the hood which the counter-revolution put over the head of Bolshevism as it was led, bound hand and food and gagged, to the guillotine; for this new gutted "Marxism" was armed with state power. The Stalinist counter-revolution disguised itself as Bolshevism triumphant.
Ban on factions or no ban, all the political struggles, to the end of the 1920s, including the class struggles and incipient class struggles, took place within the political monopoly of the Bolshevik party. Stalin's counter-revolutionary struggle against Leninism took place in name of Lenin; against equality, in the name of future communist egalitarianism; against Marx, in the name of Marxism; against any form of democracy, in the name of a higher democracy; his enslavement of the workers and the rural population in the name of working-class rule; his fight against communism, in the name of communism.
Stalinism was, as someone aptly said, the dictatorship of the lie. The power of that dictatorship to sap and confuse and disorientate is still strong today. This is the spiritual legacy of Stalinism, shaping today's culture of social despair, pessimism, and disillusion in the same way as its physical legacy, the aftermath of Chernobyl and the sulphur-belching factories of Russia and East Germany, still spreads physical ill-health in much of Europe.
The bourgeoisie has retained and adapted the spiritual legacy of Stalinism - its equation of communism with tyranny - and it has to be confronted, not only in terms of history, but of now.
Is capitalism then vindicated by the disintegration of utopian "state socialism"? Not so.
The Communist Manifesto contains one of the most profound and heartfelt paeans of praise ever written about capitalism: "It has been the first to show what man's activity can bring about. It has accomplished wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts, and Gothic cathedrals". Capitalism gave a tremendous boost to human capacity to change and control our environment and thus created the objective possibility of humanity rising above its "pre-history" out of the social jungle into a classless socialist society.
Marxists criticise the waste and irrationality and savage inhumanity of capitalism, but at the same time see capitalism as the necessary forerunner of socialism. That, not that capitalism is vindicated, is the proper conclusion from the experience of the Russian Revolution and of the society set up by its Stalinist gravediggers, who tried in their own way and for their own reasons to "by-pass" and "dispense with" capitalism.
Capitalism has not ceased to be irrational and inhuman, nor have market mechanisms ceased to be blind and wasteful just because of the Stalinist experiment in "state socialism". Wage slavery and exploitation have not ceased to be at the heart and root of capitalism. The possibility and even the inevitability remains of capitalism plunging once again into devastating slumps as in the '30s - and there are twenty million unemployed in western Europe alone now. Capitalism still presides over regular mass slaughters by hunger which are an indictment of any social system. Millions of poor children die needlessly under this system every year.
In the United States, the richest capitalist country in the world, thousands of people sleep on the streets, or get a living only through the drug trade. As already noted, Third World slum conditions exist side by side with obscene opulence in the its leading cities. In Latin America unemployment runs at 40% in many cities, workers' living standards have sometimes been halved since the debt crisis broke in 1982, cocaine gangsters rule huge areas, and malnutrition and even starvation are widespread. That "utopian state socialism" failed to bypass capitalism and emerge as a historical alternative to it does not mean that socialism has ceased to be the answer to capitalism!
Stalinism was an experience on the fringes of world capitalism, arising out of the defeat of a working class revolution, and stifling under its own contradictory bureaucratic regime.
Stalinism was part of the pre-history humankind must grow beyond. So, still, is capitalism!
Does the experience of Stalinism show that only a free market economy can give a secure basis for democracy; that without it you get state control, and state control inevitably stifles democracy? No, it does not.
Marxists do not want any sort of bureaucratic state, neither that of a country like the USA or Britain, where the bureaucratic state works in tandem with the bourgeoisie, nor that of the Stalinist systems where the bureaucracy was the sole master of society's wealth.
We advocate a "semi-state" without a standing army, without an entrenched bureaucracy. The Bolsheviks wanted that, too. They could not create it because of the backwardness of the isolated USSR, but it would be entirely possible in a country like the USA, especially with modern technology. The idea that only the market system of the West can be the basis for democracy is the idea that only wage slavery for the masses together with the phenomenal concentration of wealth - and therefore power - at the top of society can be the basis of democracy! It is a prize example of the crazy logic satirised by George Orwell according to which war is peace and lies are truth. It has a lot in common with the Stalinist habit of asserting that black was white, truth was lies, bureaucratic tyranny was socialism.
Even such democracy as we have in the West owes its existence to decades and centuries of struggle by the working class. Democracy in capitalism is limited, imperfect, and frequently not very stable.
Mass self-rule by the producers, dominated neither by a bureaucratic state monopoly nor by the economic rule of the multimillionaires and their officials, is a better form of democracy. It is democracy worth the name.
It is socialist democracy.
Does the economic impasse that brought down Stalinism show that centralised planning cannot work in a complex economy: therefore capitalism is the only possible system?
This argument too rests on the lie that Stalinism - the Stalinist command economy - was socialism.
The attempt to have the state control everything served the Stalinists, not the working class. Marxists never believed that the working class could take power and simply abolish the market: in 1921 Lenin set the goal of Soviet government as that of occupying "the commanding heights of the economy".
Socialism, once the workers have taken power and abolished wage slavery by taking the major means of production from the capitalist class, would - probably for generations ahead - operate through a combination of planning and market mechanisms - within the broad framework. of a flexible plan. There is a vast difference between an economy where the basic strategic decisions are made by democratic planning - which is certainly possible - and one where they are made by the crazy gyrations of the Stock Exchange. How quickly a workers' planned economy will be able to make its planning more comprehensive, and move towards replacing the market altogether, must be an open question. We do not know now how quickly computer technology will progress.
Should we think that when Communist Parties ditch Marxism and Communism, they must know what they're talking about? No, indeed!
The Stalinists rulers in the USSR created an ideology through which their interests and their immediate political concerns were expressed in stereotyped language derived from Marxism. Marxist analysis has been no part of that ideological process. How could it possibly be?
Communist Parties like the US and British CPs danced like performing bears to that official "Marxism". In the high Stalinist period, Moscow could say on Monday that Britain and France were democratic powers justly opposing ravenous German fascism, on Tuesday that the British and French warmongering imperialism were ganging up on peace loving Germany, and on Wednesday that it was Anglo-French democracy against German fascism again - and the CPs would jump accordingly. (They did that between September 1939 and June 1941).
CPs justified Stalin's terror and for decades lied systematically about the reality of the USSR. When told to, they collaborated with Nazis against socialists in German in 1931-33; co-ordinated Nazi-like campaigning against "Jewish Trotskyists" in Mexico in 1939-41 when Hitler and Stalin were friends, organised bloody counterrevolution against the workers in Republican Spain in 1937; and so on. The list is almost endless.
Finally: does the collapse of Communism vindicates the reformist "social democratic" model of socialism? Is there such a model of socialism? Social democracy defined itself historically not against Stalinism bur against Bolshevism. And the social democrats were wrong at every point against Bolshevism.
They either supported their own bourgeoisie, even against the revolutionary communist workers, or temporised and hesitated and thus helped the bourgeoisie to win.
It was the social democrats who rescued German capitalism in 1918 and thereby isolated the Russian Revolution. By betraying socialism or dithering in countries like Germany and Italy, the social democrats played the role of historic stepfather to Stalinism.
The Bolsheviks did not lead the workers to power believing socialism could be rooted in Russia; they led the Russian workers on ahead believing the European workers would follow. The socialist leaders in the West left them in the lurch, amidst the Russian backwardness. That was the root cause of the Stalinist counter-revolution.
Whatever about this or that error made by the early Communist International, the international Bolshevik current was entirely right against reformist social democracy.
The reformists' criticisms of Stalinism have often, of course, been correct. They have been right on the same questions bourgeois democrats have been right on.
The disintegration of Stalinism cannot lead logically to the conclusion that reformist social-democracy is the answer - unless we also accept that Stalinism was socialism, and that its collapse therefore shows us that capitalism is the best we can ever hope for.
Reformist social-democracy is not a different strategy for achieving socialism. Socialism is the replacement of wage-slavery and the capitalist system built on it by a different mainspring - free co-operative self-administering labour. What has that got to do with the achievements of social democratic reform?
The fight for welfare-state reforms, and the defence of existing welfare state provision, is indeed necessary for socialists. But socialists cannot stop there. And today most social democrats - like the British Labour Party - do not even "start" there.
Since the 1920s, social-democratic parties have abandoned even a verbal commitment to fighting for a socialist system defined as something radically different from capitalism. They aspire at most to modifying capitalism, with a few welfare measures. In the 1980s and '90s, social-democratic leaders in France, Spain, Australia, New Zealand, Italy, Greece and Britain have become no better than pale-pink Thatcherites and Reaganites.
The only model of socialism restored to its proper shape and colour by the disintegration of Stalinism and the open disavowal of socialism by the Stalinists is the only model of socialism that ever deserved the name - the fight to organise the working class as a clear conscious force, a class for itself, to break bourgeois state power and abolish wage slavery. Or, as the Communist Manifesto put it, "to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class, to win the battle of democracy... to centralise all instruments of production in the hands of the State, i.e. of the proletariat organised as the ruling class... In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all".
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