Who killed the revolution?
Written by Sungur Savran
Monday, 19 November 2007
On this 90th anniversary of the October Revolution, a debate on the question of why the new state and society born of that world historical event have collapsed is as important as a celebration of the event itself. The October Revolution led by the Bolshevik Party under the leadership of Lenin and Trotsky was an event that determined the course of history not only for Russia but on a world scale all throughout the 20th century. For Russia it meant a first glimpse of how ordinary workers and peasants could rise to the helm of the state; it also meant industrialisation, an end to underdevelopment, victory against fascism, the absence of unemployment and misery for the masses, universal social services and a life free from all the scourges endemic under capitalism. But through the workers' state and the economy of transition between capitalism and socialism that it established, it also had immense repercussions for the whole world on the economic, political and ideological levels. It proved, for the first time in history, that ordinary working people were capable of overcoming the brute power and ideological obfuscation of bourgeois rule and take over the state in order to rule society. It represented a glorious precedent to be emulated for revolutionary movements all around the world. It forced capitalism to adopt the so-called welfare state to keep the working class in check. It provided political ground for manoeuvre for the liberation movements of colonial peoples. And above all, it acted as a living refutation of the major pillar of bourgeois ideology that postulates that a complex, technologically advanced modern economy can only function on the basis of the "free" market, competition and private property.
That it did all this is amply demonstrated by the fact that in all these areas things have been reversed after the collapse and dissolution of the Soviet Union, itself the most immediate product of the October Revolution. The international bourgeoisie has since stepped up and universalised its assault on the so-called welfare state, a process that had already started in selected countries such as Britain and the United States in the late seventies and early eighties. The idea of collective solutions to the problems paused by the crisis of capitalist relations, solutions based on socialised property, central planning and production for need instead of profit, has received an immense blow. National liberation movements have been left out in the cold under the new balance of forces that condemns them to isolation and solitude. And, of course, Russia itself and all the other former Soviet republics, not to mention the others, find themselves face to face increasingly under the threat of the inherent scourges of capitalism, e.g. increasing inequality, unemployment, poverty, prostitution, organised crime etc.
In sum, the October revolution and the state born of this revolution are of momentous historic significance and the collapse suffered in 1991 should therefore pose the most urgent questions for both theoretical inquiry and political movements that purportedly fight for a better world. The appalling fact is that the historical roots and causes of the demise of the October revolution and the state born of that revolution have hardly been a matter for serious discussion in the sixteen years that have since gone by. This is rather understandable for bourgeois theory. The two fundamental schools of thought regarding the socio-economic and political structure of the Soviet Union and similar societies suffered the same fate upon the collapse of the Soviet Union: instant death. The more prominent of the two was the theory of "totalitarianism", which held that, as opposed to "authoritarian" state systems, "communism", just like fascism, was immune to internal contradictions and could only be destroyed, just like its predecessor fascism, from the outside. A clear ideological expression of militant "Cold War" anti-communism, this theory was totally refuted by the implosion of the Soviet state without any serious intervention from the outside. The other was the "convergence" theory, according to which, after World War Two, the two systems, capitalism and socialism, progressively took over certain characteristics of each other, capitalist countries developing the so-called welfare state and socialist countries adopting the methods of market economics. A product of social-democratic thinking, this theory collapsed as well when the "convergence" (!) was finally obtained on the ground of neither the "welfare state" nor "market socialism", but pure-breed liberalism celebrating the "free market" and private property. Besides this utter bankruptcy, bourgeois thought has no interest in looking for the real causes of the collapse of the Soviet Union for the simple reason that the less the question is discussed, the better it is for bourgeois ideology, which can thereby lay the whole blame on the "original sin" of socialism, its unfeasibility and its necessarily despotic nature.
If this last statement is true, it follows that for those who do not wish to close the book of socialism, a serious and detailed theoretical and political explanation of why the Soviet Union (and similar societies) collapsed is of vital importance. The more socialists are silent on these questions, the deeper becomes the defeat suffered by the failure of the first wave of attempts at the construction of socialism. The absence of theories that explain this world historical event immediately evokes in the minds of intellectuals, trade unionists and socialist militants alike the idea that it is the whole project of socialism that is to be faulted. The single most important source of liberal, post-modernist and post-Marxist ideas on the left today is the silence of the Marxist movement on the roots and causes of the collapse of the Soviet Union.
There is, of course, a second reason, one perhaps even more important than the first if one takes a longer term view, why a serious analysis of what went wrong is essential for the future of socialism. This can be formulated very succinctly: If one wishes to avoid the same kind of failure in the future, one simply has to know what went wrong so as to reformulate and strengthen the socialist programme with a view to avert the same kind of problems recurring in the future.
Given the vital nature of the need, it may be surprising at first sight to remark that, with one important exception, i.e. revolutionary Marxism, different currents of the international left keep absolutely mute on this question. But the surprise is ungrounded. For akin to bourgeois thinking, a majority of socialist currents on the international left also prefer to look away out of self-interest. This is because a serious discussion on the collapse of the so-called socialist countries, and a fortiori, of the Soviet Union, would end up by destroying the whole ideological, theoretical and programmatic basis on which these currents were constructed. What I have in mind is the different currents of the Stalinist family, including Khrushchevism and so-called "Euro-communism". It is not because these currents do not see that a serious discussion on the collapse of so-called socialist countries is vital to the future of the movement that they are totally silent; it is because this sort of discussion would positively harm their sclerotic world outlook that they avoid this discussion like the plague.
For the collapse of the so-called socialist countries has dealt a mortal blow to the whole theoretical edifice of world Stalinism. And as in the crystallisation of the transitional societies of the 20th century, so in the collapse of so-called socialist countries, the Soviet Union is the purest case that can shed light on the whole process in its entirety. In this brief article, we cannot go into all the aspects of Stalinist theory that were definitively refuted by the collapse of the Soviet Union. We will only briefly touch upon three decisive ones. First, Stalinism rises not only on the totally erroneous concept that from the 1930s on Soviet society had entered the stage of socialism, leaving behind the transitional stage between capitalism and socialism, but, more important for our present purposes, that this was an "irreversible" development. Stalin expounded this theory in all of his writings and more importantly the Soviet Constitution of 1936 explicitly proclaimed this idea. In a book published exactly in that same year, The Revolution Betrayed, Leon Trotsky, from the exile into which he had been sent by the Stalinist bureaucracy, wrote that the Soviet bureaucracy, unless toppled by the Soviet proletariat through a political revolution, would eventually proceed to re-establish capitalism in order to consolidate its privileges. History has totally demolished the former view of Soviet society and fully vindicated the latter.
Secondly, the international Stalinist movement continued to the end to proclaim the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) as the "vanguard party of international communism". It was this same party that laid the ground for the restoration of capitalism in the Soviet Union. Gorbachev was elected Secretary General of Stalin's party unanimously in 1985 and Yeltsin, who outwitted him in 1991, had served as the head of the Moscow branch of the same party until he was ousted for trying to force the pace of the restoration. The CPSU underwent no serious upheavals or ruptures from the 1930s until the collapse of the Soviet Union. So it was the "vanguard party of international communism" that finally brought down the workers' state and restored private property and capitalism in Russia and the former Soviet republics. A fine "vanguard party" indeed! The truth is that Lenin's party had suffered havoc, even destruction, at the hands of the bureaucracy in the Great Purges of the 1930s, which had transformed it from the vanguard party of the Soviet proletariat to the party of the bureaucracy. Hence, the smooth demolition of the workers' state by the CPSU implied precisely that Trotsky's prediction had been borne out. Having realised on the basis of the Polish events of 1980-1981 that its whole system was in jeopardy, the bureaucracy moved to finally liquidate the social revolution.
The third point cannot be elaborated here, but has to be clearly formulated. The contradictions that Soviet society and others that had been proceeding in its footsteps ran into starting with the 1960s, once the initial stage of industrialisation was nearly completed, were the direct consequences of attempting to build socialism on a national scale. Trotsky had clearly pointed out that cheap imported goods were more dangerous than the tanks of imperialist armies fro the Soviet Union. Having defeated the occupation armies of Nazism, the Soviet Union fell prey to the growing contradictions created by the impossibility of building socialism in a single country. The theory and programme of "socialism in one country", the characteristic hallmark of Stalinism, implied the divorce between the construction of socialism in the Soviet Union and social revolution in the rest of the world. Having arrested revolutions in many a country (China 1925-27, Spain 1936-39, Greece, Italy and France 1943-49 all the way to South Africa in the 1980s), the Soviet bureaucracy brought a self-inflicted defeat to the Soviet state.
The historical balance-sheet is crystal clear. The bureaucratic degeneration of the Soviet Union in the late 1920s and throughout the decade of the 1930s forms a turning point for the October Revolution. Hostage to the interests of the bureaucracy from then on, the Revolution fell after a long-drawn out process through which the bureaucracy as a social stratum was no longer able to sustain its privileges in the pores of the workers' state established by the October Revolution and turned to restoring capitalism. A more complete analysis of this process would require concrete research not only on the Soviet Union, but on the bureaucratic workers' states in Eastern and Central Europe, in Asia and in Cuba. But this much can already be said: the collapse of the Soviet Union and the final liquidation of the October Revolution do not imply the definitive bankruptcy of socialism and Marxism, far from it, but are the final indictment of Stalinism and the bureaucracy of which Stalinism is but the ideological and political expression. It is now up to Marxists to draw the lessons of this and develop a programme that will avoid a repetition of this sorrowful experience and to build an International that will fight not for "socialism in one country" but world revolution.
* This article was published in the special issue on the 90th anniversary of the October revolution of the Bulletin of the Balkan Socialist Centre Christian Rakovsky.
Sungur Savran is a leader of Workers' Power, which is the CRFIs' sector in Turkey
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