After seven decades of unrelenting polemic against the USSR and the communist states of Eastern Europe – they were dictatorships, autocratic, undemocratic, brain-washed their people, callously allowed famines to decimate the people, consigned people to grinding poverty, imprisoned all and sundry and threatened the world with nuclear war – a new phase in the narrative emerged after 1989: communism in Eastern Europe and Russia has failed. The most astounding feature of this narrative is how vast numbers on the Left swallowed this story. All communism did was enable the rapid industrialisation of Russia and the Eastern Europe, they said. Or, it was not ‘true’ communism; or, if only Trotsky had outsmarted Stalin; or, Lenin and Stalin et al were merely new incarnations of the tsar; or, Lenin et al were no different from Hitler and the fascists; or, how can you expect communism to succeed in backward countries? (that one from an increasingly wayward and haughty Terry Eagleton); or, simply because communism came to an end, it was obviously a failure in those parts of the world.
Difficult it might be to push back against such an ingrained narrative (especially by bourgeois cynics and the fashionable left for whom the revolution is yet to come), but let’s see if we can do so.
To begin with, the Russian Revolution was the first successful communist revolution. With a mixture of extraordinary planning, unbridled optimism, sheer guts and good deal of luck, the communists succeeded in overthrowing the provisional government set up after the February Revolution of 1917. As Alain Badiou (to his rare credit) points out, that act inspired a century of revolutions. Lenin became the most read author of the first half of the 20th century, and revolutions won through in Eastern Europe, China, Cuba, Vietnam and so on. They were the defining feature of the 20th century.
Further, the fact the communists were able to weather attacks from all sides in the so-called ‘civil’ war – USA, UK, France, Germany, Canada, Japan et al supported Kolchak, Denikin, Yudenich, Wrangel and others as they attacked in wave upon wave from all directions. At times the new RSFSR was a rump of its final extent, losing the Ukraine, the whole east, Belarus and much more. Any other army would have given in, but the new Red Army (built almost from scratch after the mass and undisciplined demobilisation of the Russian Army in the later years of the First World War). How did they manage? We can gain an insight by looking at Stalin during World War II. Stalin? Yes, Stalin has emerged in research as the key figure who won the war. How did he do so? Under immense threat from Hitler’s attack, he drew together the most creative and independent strategists and let them get to work. Meanwhile, he inspired people to draw on the deep social, culture and economic resources of communist restructuring, moved whole industries east and out of harm’s way and dug deep to repel the bulk of Hitler’s armies. Let me put it this way: Stalin saved the world for Jews, gypsies, gays and communists – all subject to Hitler’s exterminations.
What about ‘democracy’ and ‘freedom’? Wasn’t the USSR a one-party state that allowed no opposition? In that respect, it was no different from any western state, which had variations on one pro-capitalist party. There was one huge difference, however: the Russian Revolution went past the arrested development of the bourgeois revolution, pushing through to a full communist revolution. What about dissidents and the Gulag? In any other country the act of plotting to overthrow the state is called high treason. But for some reason the capitalist world called them ‘dissidents’ in the USSR.
Still, what about ‘democracy’? I have little time for bourgeois parliamentary democracy, with its formal freedom in which you can choose variations on the same pro-capitalist party. Instead, Lenin and the Bolsheviks enacted an absolute freedom, the freedom to choose what type of state you want. And in the new Soviets, a far more radical form of democracy developed. The old bourgeoisie and aristocracy did not get a look in (as they shouldn’t), for this was a democracy characterised by the dictatorship of the proletariat. Even some fellow socialists were horrified. Karl Kautsky, of the German Social-Democratic Party, who had once been immeasurably influential on Lenin, was eventually seduced by bourgeois democracy into thinking socialist aims could be achieved in the formal freedom of the ballot box. Lenin saw through it and denounced Kautsky as a renegade.
Economics? Wasn’t the USSR a basket case by 1989? Didn’t people have to line up in queues for the odd loaf of bread, as the standard propaganda image would have us believe? I have little add here from my earlier post, which shows that, by and large, more than two decades of capitalism since 1989 have been disastrous for these places.
But didn’t the USSR finally fail in 1989, since it came to an end? Given the immense pressures from the capitalist world, the construction of the Cold War by the USA, the continued economic sanctions and drain on vital resources, it is a surprise that the USSR lasted as long as it did. Lenin and all those following dreamed of peace that would allow the building of communism. In the absence of that peace, their achievement was stupendous.
But probably the biggest success of the USSR and other communist states in Eastern Europe is that they gave us a sustained example of how difficult it is to construct communism after the revolution, how devilishly complex such a process is. To be sure, they made plenty of mistakes, only to learn from them and try something else. Until then, revolutionaries had dreamed, romanticised, formulated ideal blueprints, as they tend still to do today (especially in the West). Here was a moment when a revolution succeeded and communist construction began. As Jean-Jacques Lecercle put it, the USSR gave the capitalist world the biggest fright it ever had. I would add: at least until China.