A century of revolutions

Published : Jan 22, 2000 00:00 IST

Whose century? Whose millennium? A reflection on our times.


THERE are many features of modern civilisation, positive as well as destructive, which are specific to the 20th century, either because such features did not exist in the past or, more commonly, because they have been transformed beyond recognition. Most narratives would probably foreground the question of science and technology, neither of which originated in this century but which have cumulatively changed the whole pattern of human existence in ways that were unimaginable at the end of the previous c entury. It has been estimated, for example, that the 20th century has witnessed greater development of the productive forces, and thus of the human capacity to produce wealth, than all the centuries and millennia previous to it. This rapid technological change is obvious in industrial production and information technology; even in agriculture changes have been so dramatic that the peasantry in the old sense, of subsistence farming and production for local use through non-industrial means, is now in most parts of the world a vanishing category. At the other end of this achievement, the destructive aspects of this technology pose such threats to the natural environment that, for the first time in human history, it is not clear whether the species, indeed the planet itself, can survive such destructiveness.

Anecdotally, in other words, one can isolate this feature or that, according to one's taste or preoccupation, or one may simply draw up a random list of such isolated features. A great many of such features are, in any case, of crucial significance. It i s very important, however, first to try and form a coherent picture of our times, even as the century ends in the midst of loud pronouncements of so many other endings: the end of ideology, the end of history, the end of modernity, the end of socialism, the end of nations and nation-states, and so on. I have elsewhere used the term "The Post Condition" for this temper of postmodern thought which seems to wallow in a permanent twilight. Yet, in order to form a coherent picture of the century that now is fading into the past, it is best to recall what has been its central aspirations and struggles; all the rest, including the issues of science or technology, can then be seen in a proper perspective. Here, then, I will comment in a very general way on wha t seems to be the defining feature of this century. (Later essays in this series will focus on more specific issues.)

AS one begins to reflect upon the 20th century, it takes little acumen to realise that what makes this century unique in all the centuries of the millennium that too is now drawing to a close, and indeed all the millennia that went before it, is that soc ialism emerged as the central fact around which most aspirations and conflicts on the global scale were shaped: struggles for and against socialism, achievements in its pursuit, failures and defeats, alignments and adversaries, wars (hot and cold), the b loodletting but also the glories.

That is one way of saying it. Equally plausibly, one could say that this century was triangulated by imperialist domination on the one hand, and the struggles against this dominance on the other, which were waged, centrally, by forces of socialism and na tional liberation. None of these forces originated in the 20th century. The history of colonialist capitalism is spread over roughly half a millennium, and none of the peoples who were vanquished by colonialism went down without a struggle; in that sense anti-colonialism is as old as colonialism itself. And, some rudimentary idea of socialism emerged toward the end of the 18th century, in the crucible of the French Revolution. The idea of socialism is thus as old as the idea of revolution itself, in the modern sense; and, already by the middle of the 19th century, Marx and Engels had begun to formulate that theory of the proletarian revolution which the 20th century inherited. However, all these forces - of capitalism and colonialism, as well as social ism and anti-colonial national liberation - underwent profound changes in the course of the 20th century. Recalling some details should give us a proper perspective on these momentous changes.

Thus, mass parties of the working class had indeed emerged in Europe during the last quarter of the 19th century, and by the 1920s such parties had come to occupy key positions in Parliaments, often winning a plurality of votes, in such countries as Germ any, Austria, Belgium, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Italy and the Netherlands. The Bolshevik Revolution was, however, the key event that put the question of revolutionary change on the agenda in a host of countries. This combination of the mass parties of th e working class and the possibility of revolution across the continent produced the phenomenon of fascism. It is no wonder that fascism was the most ferocious precisely in the four countries - Spain, Germany, Italy and Austria - where the workers' moveme nt was the strongest. Nor is it surprising that fascistic tendencies of the Far Right have remained a punctual tendency in the age of imperialism throughout the century and on the global scale.

But the Bolshevik Revolution also transformed socialist politics from a European phenomenon into an international, indeed global, one. This transformation was owed to five factors. That the revolutionary break had come first in the predominantly agrarian society of Russia produced a sea-change in revolutionary theory, positing the worker-peasant alliance as the precondition for proletarian politics, thus opening the way for the peasantry to emerge as a revolutionary force; all subsequent revolutions wer e to occur in predominantly peasant societies.

Second, Bolshevik theory, as articulated by Lenin and his associates, and in opposition to every strand of European bourgeois thought, recognised the legitimacy of the national and colonial questions, hence the necessity of wars of national liberation th roughout Asia, Africa, Latin America and within corners of Europe itself. All subsequent socialist revolutions were to have an intrinsic relationship with revolutionary nationalism and anti-imperialism, and communist politics were to have a profound impa ct on a host of other nationalist movements, from India to South Africa.

Third, the Communist International (Comintern, for short) served for two decades or more both as the nursery in which large numbers of revolutionaries learned the theory and practice of socialist revolution and as the forum where militants from around th e world could learn from one another directly, with little hindrance of language, race, region, or religious origin.

Fourth, the theory and practice of socialism upheld the idea that revolutionary change was required not only by classes formed on the terrain of property and production - in other words, workers and peasants - but also by a whole host of social groups wh ich faced a variety of oppressions: women as women, minorities as minorities, the craftspeople ruined by the capitalist market, linguistic groups, cultural entities, and so on; that women across national or religious boundaries had certain common interes ts - the idea of a Women's International, so to speak - first grew on socialist soil, well before modern feminism was even a glint in anyone's eye. Socialist unity was thus conceived of as a dialectical play between the whole host of particular, sectiona l interests and the common, universal interest - whence came Gramsci's famous conception of the Communist party as "the collective intellectual."

Finally, all this was translated into a powerful universalist culture. This culture was comprised both of institutions - political parties, trade unions, mass organisations of women and students, theatre groups, writers' associations, anti-fascist commit tees, and the like - and of values. In sharp contrast to capitalist globalisation which was intrinsically racist, the primary value upheld in socialist internationalism was that of radical, universal equality. In this sense, then, the socialist movement became the chief exponent of the rational and egalitarian values of 18th century Enlightenment. Hence, Eric Hobsbawm's felicitous characterisation of the cumulative socialist current as "the Enlightenment Left." Hence also the fact that the postmodernis t attacks on Marxism have gone hand in hand with attacks on the Enlightenment as well.

Because all the socialist revolutions were 20th century revolutions, and because it was in this century that socialism ceased to be a European phenomenon and spread to the whole world, thus becoming a common patrimony for all humanity and an aspiration f or universal emancipation, we can justifiably say that the practical struggle for socialism has been a uniquely 20th century phenomenon.

Some analogous transformations took place within anti-colonial struggles as well. The outstanding feature of all anti-colonial struggles prior to this century was that they were led and waged by traditional strata, in defence of traditional systems and v alues. The outstanding feature of the anti-colonial movements of the 20th century, by contrast, has been that the leadership shifted in most places, and increasingly so, to classes and social groups of the modern type, which fought in pursuit of a future that was envisioned as being new and different. Not that such movements were without attachment to traditional cultural values, but at the heart of most such visions was the making of a new society on the debris of colonial oppression. In many areas, th erefore, anti-colonial movements tended to converge with movements of social reform, with varying degrees of democratising spirit.

The Bolshevik Revolution had an immense impact on the fortunes of anti-colonial movements in several ways. Since Czarist Russia was itself at the centre of a huge colonial empire, which had recently fought a war against an Asian adversary (Japan), a revo lution there naturally inspired many of the anti-colonial militants. Then there was the declared policy of the Bolsheviks in favour of national liberation. Third, there was the immensely popular idea of the mass mobilisation of workers and peasants in pu rsuit of freedom: a revolution not from above, by the elites, but from below, by the masses. A key contribution of socialism to anti-colonial movements - and to a whole host of movements for radical change - was that the process of emancipation could onl y be a process of self-emancipation by the oppressed themselves.

Fourth, there was the direct involvement of communists in a host of anti-colonial movements. Fifth, the fact that the major colonial powers were also the main enemies of socialism created among numerous anti-colonial militants a natural affinity with the cause of socialism. If all the socialist revolutions of Asia and Africa took the form of national liberation movements, it was also the case that all the communist and socialist movements in our continents which became mass movements did so in the persp ective and environment of nationalism. Yet, because this was a revolutionary nationalism, it thought of nationalism not as something that closes in upon itself and excludes others, as ethnic nationalisms of today do, but as part of an international movem ent against the common colonial enemy. Thus, socialism had a deeply civilising influence upon nationalism itself, rescuing it from chauvinism and bigotry, and giving to it a universalist content.

THIS vision of nationalism as part of the project for universal emancipation was greatly strengthened by the immense support that anti-colonial movements punctually received from socialist countries and the world-wide communist movement. Amilcar Cabral, the great revolutionary leader of Guinnea-Bissau, once reminded everyone that every gun that was ever fired in anti-colonial revolutions on the African continent had originally come from a socialist country. Thus it is that a wide variety of nationalist leaders around the world, from Nelson Mandela to Yasser Arafat, who were by no means communists themselves, nevertheless refused to become a part of the anti-communist crusades. And a whole host of radical nationalist regimes, from Nasser's Egypt to FLN' s Algeria, which suppressed communists within their own territories, nevertheless carried out reforms inspired by the socialist project and relied heavily on the Soviet Union in their struggle for independence from imperialism. The Non-Aligned Movement - more accurately, the Bandung project - would have been unthinkable without implicit support from the socialist countries; indeed, Zhou En-lai and Marshal Tito were among its key authors.

In short, then, the fortunes of radical nationalism were deeply tied to the fortunes of the socialist project, and the one could not survive without the other. It is at least arguable that the collapse of the Soviet Union has been as much a setback for a nti-imperialist nationalisms as for the worker's movements. Nor is it a wonder that the ethnic and religious nationalisms of today, which do not have the benefit of inspiration from socialism, tend to be so overwhelmingly right-wing and murderous.

But what about the great adversary: imperialism. As we said earlier, the history of colonialism is spread over roughly half a millennium. Then, with the division of Africa, the colonial conquest of the world was completed toward the end of the 19th centu ry. At the dawn of the 20th century, the spread of workers' parties in Europe was overshadowed by a ferocious rivalry among the colonial powers which eventually led to two world wars for a re-division of the world, culminating in fascism as well as the i nvention of weapons of mass destruction, thus threatening the survival of the human civilisation itself. If fascism exterminated millions of its hapless victims methodically and in cold blood, the American use of the atomic bomb against Japan dramatised the degree of barbarity that 'liberal democracies' were capable of. Through such means was it finally decided whether the Nazis or the Americans would dominate the planet. From this perspective, then, the story of the 20th century can also be told as the emergence of the U.S. as the single dominant power in the whole world. This had three phases.

THE United States had already emerged as the leading capitalist power by the end of the 19th century, outflanking Britain. Then, its role was decisive in both the World Wars. By the end of the First World War, New York had eclipsed London as the financia l nerve centre of the world, and it was the U.S. President, Woodrow Wilson, who supervised the postwar settlement. However, it was only after the Second World War, with the dissolution of the colonial empires in a context where the respective European po wers had destroyed large parts of each other's resources, that the U.S. emerged to unchallenged global supremacy within the capitalist world. Until about the middle of the century, the division of the world into competing colonial empires had obstructed the emergence of a perfect global market which required that capital have unfettered and equal access to all the territories under its dominion, and there be a single, or at least a united, power to guarantee that access. The dissolution of the colonial empires facilitated the emergence of the U.S. precisely to that position of hegemonic pre-eminence.

For the next roughly half a century, the U.S. reorganised the world market under its own hegemony and united the capitalist world under its military and political leadership against the socialist challenge and the forces unleashed by wars of national lib eration. Thanks to the unprecedented accumulation made possible by this extraordinary unity of the capitalist world, the U.S. also played the leading role in carrying out an enormous revolution in the whole range of sciences and technologies, superbly ai ded by its allies in Europe and Japan.

There was a complication, however. The same crisis of the Second World War which had dissolved the colonial power and brought to the U.S. its hegemonic position within the capitalist world had also broken the isolation of the Soviet Union as the only soc ialist country in the world, with strong gains being made both in southeastern Europe and East Asia, and eventually in corners of Latin America/Caribbean and Africa as well.

If the Bolshevik Revolution was the principal event of the first quarter of the century, the Chinese Revolution was so in the second quarter, and the Cuban and Vietnamese revolutions in the third. (That the revolution did not happen in India was at least as significant as the fact that it did in China; this Indian failure was to have decisive significance in the subsequent history of Asia. But that requires a separate explanation.) And if the revolutionary movements that arose in the wake of the Bolshev ik Revolution were smashed with relatively little effort, such was not to be the case immediately for the revolutions that occurred and the revolutionary movements that arose in the wake of the Chinese Revolution. It was only after the defeat in Chile, i n 1973, that the tide began to turn in favour of imperialism.

"Cold War" was one of the most perverse euphemisms ever invented by the media. The 45 years between the end of the Second World War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union were years of an unremitting, ferocious, historically unprecedented civil war on t he global scale. It is true that there was no shooting war between the U.S. and the USSR and that northwestern Europe witnessed the longest spell of peace in its modern history, but close to 200 wars were fought in the Third World, most of them for rolli ng back communism, defeating anti-colonial nationalisms and arresting the other nascent anti-imperialist movements in the already decolonised countries. The 40-year economic embargo and military intimidation against Cuba merely illustrates the brute fact that none of the little places where great revolutions had taken place was ever permitted the conditions of peace and autonomy where anything resembling socialism could be built. The human and material destruction of Vietnam before the Americans withdre w was of such a scale that Noam Chomsky has plausibly argued that the war was won not by the Vietnamese but by the Americans. The same story was to be repeated in such far-flung places as Angola, Mozambique and Nicaragua. The Soviet Union, meanwhile, was bled white by the stupendous expenditure of resources required to maintain some modicum of safety for itself in the face of the combined military machine of the North Atlantic Treaty Oraganisation (NATO) countries. Most postrevolutionary regimes were do ubtless riddled with problems and anachronisms of their own. However, considering the sheer scale of the military and economic pressure that imperialism was able to exercise against them, it is simply indecent to suggest that there was some peaceful comp etition in which those regimes collapsed under their own weight.

THE first three quarters of this century were a period of immense expansion in the socialist forces, despite all odds. The reversals began - and then proceeded with a rapidity not foreseen even by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) - only during the f ourth quarter. This is not the place to summarise the complexities of that reversal. Suffice it to say that it was only after 1989-90 that the U.S. entered into the third and still continuing phase of its dominance, for, it was only after the collapse of the Soviet Union that it could truly claim to be unrivalled and unchallengeable in its power: "the sole superpower" as the phrase goes. It is in this capacity that it has been able to impose a neo-liberalist regime of capital accumulation across the glo be, including Western Europe itself where the American model, which combines high employment (frequently at cut-rate wages) with high incidence of poverty, has already been imposed on Britain and is now being urged upon a Europe that is currently ruled a lmost wholly by social democrats and where a unified "banker's Europe" is emerging under the guise of the European Union. And, it is in this capacity that the U.S. has so wholly turned both NATO and the United Nations as instruments of its own policy, as exemplified in the Gulf War and the brutal bombings of Kosovo. Not the least aspect of the multilateral agencies such as the World Trade Organisation (WTO) is to universalise the corporate practices, legal norms and management models utilised by and in the U.S. It is through the imposition of this neoliberal regime that the "third-worldisation" of what once was a socialist bloc is proceeding apace and the crises of stagnation in the First World are softened by exporting some of its worst consequences t o the peripheral economies, including the celebrated "tigers" of South and Southeast Asia. Indeed, the recent crisis of the "tigers" is being used to buy up assets there for a song and to soften those regimes for greater inroads by neoliberalism.

At the close of the century, when no real rival is left, the U.S. spends more on self-armament than the combined military expenditure of the next six countries, which accounts for the fact that it is the only power in the world with a global reach which enables it to destroy any home on this planet with precision-bombing, and with impunity. All its allies, including the European and the Japanese, depend on it to safeguard their interests in zones far from their own shores - which explains their supine c onduct in relation to the U.S. For all the decay in many branches of productive enterprise, the U.S. remains the global centre for higher education and training for the more privileged techno-managerial strata. And, for all the advances made by its allie s, notably Japan, in information technology, the U.S. remains the leading corporate power in the actually existing information industry, with enormous powers of ideological control, especially over the Third World, to which satellites and subsidiaries an d stooges spread all over the world telecast the news manufactured in the U.S.

This combination of virtual monopoly over higher education of Third World elites and over the most far-reaching ideological production of information industries has had devastating consequences for the political climate in Third world countries. In India , for example, there is not a single television channel or a national newspaper which registers even a modicum of dissent from the economic and political world-view of the Americans; what the U.S. preaches has become just the common sense of these native informants. Nor is it a matter of direct, coerced intervention. More than manufacturing the news, the U.S. manufactures the newscasters themselves, in their style and sensibility and allegiance, through a dense network of interlocked institutions, from school syllabi to the highest levels of specialised professional training, regardless of geographical location.

WHILE most of this century, from its second decade to the penultimate one, was dominated by struggles for and against socialism, the end of the 20th century bears a remarkable resemblance to the end of the 19th. That was a time in the history of Asia and Africa, after the decisive defeat of earlier waves of anti-colonial struggles and before the emergence of the more modern and mass movements of the 20th century, when colonialism was the strongest and anti-colonialism the most dormant.

Today we are in the process of a re-colonisation which has no historical precedent; it involves no territorial conquest of the colonial type but takes control of production systems, local resources, labour regimes and ideological apparatuses, in the most invasive and comprehensive manner that history has known. The time-honoured distinction between the national bourgeois and comprador is itself evaporating; more often than not, the 'national' of yesteryear has himself become the comprador of today. It i s in this larger framework that the stupendous power of "the sole superpower", so recently freed from great challenges, has acquired an air of invincibility, even eternity. Underneath all the philosophical hockum of the 'End-of-History' ideology, all tha t is being preached is that this power shall now never be dislodged.

Merely 13 years after the end of the 19th century, when colonialist capitalism had appeared so invincible, the Bolshevik Revolution broke the spell, and then, over the next five years, massive anti-colonial movements emerged, for the first time in histor y, in diverse countries, from India to Egypt. Another few years into the century, and the initial battles of the Chinese Revolution were being fought, in Shanghai and elsewhere. The century of revolutions, the 20th century, had by then fully begun. In th at sense, we are still mired in the reversal of the fundamental logic of the 20th century, which was the logic of socialist aspiration, democratic demand, and anti-imperialist masses on the move across continents. In historical terms, then, the 21st cent ury has not quite begun, is not yet likely to begin very soon, and cannot begin until the reversal itself has been reversed.

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