Balance sheet of the Left

Print edition : February 19, 2000
A reflection on our times - II. AIJAZ AHMAD

A HUNGARIAN historian coined the phrase "The Short Twentieth Century, 1914-1989", which the British historian Eric Hobsbawm then made famous, to indicate that the real dynamic of the 20th century is the one that was set in motion by the First World War a nd the Bolshevik Revolution, and that the dynamic then ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union. To grasp this dynamic, then, we need something resembling a balance sheet of the Left. Such a narrative would take into account the lasting achievements o f socialism in this century as well as some of the key problems and failures, but above all it will spell out the material and historical conditions in which the whole dynamic unfolded.

First, then, the historical conditions! The great success of the Bolshevik Revolution has obscured from later memory the fact that the years 1917-1921 were a period of general upsurge in several countries: Germany, Hungary, Italy and so on. Lenin had ass umed that Moscow would be a temporary headquarter which would then move to Berlin; German was adopted, and remained, as the main language of the communist International. In this perspective, then, the fact that the revolution was beaten back across Europ e, in countries economically and socially much more advanced, proved to be as decisive a fact as that it succeeded in Russia, which had been a serf society only two generations earlier, had no prior structures of democratic governance, and only a rudimen tary knowledge of industrial or bourgeois culture, in a couple of cities. For comparison, one could recall that the Iran which Ayatollah Khomeini took over was socially, culturally, educationally, industrially and in its level of urbanisation much more a dvanced, with a modern proletariat comprising a much larger proportion of the population, than was the case of the Russia of 1917. As late as 1926, only 7.6 per cent of the population was employed outside agriculture. This same historic condition was to be repeated in China where at the time of the 1949 Revolution, an average Chinese survived on half a kilogram of rice per day, bought one pair of footwear every five years, and had a life expectancy of 35 years.

Second, a country already ravaged by the First World War was then devastated by a massive Civil War (1918-1920) and a foreign intervention that witnessed the introduction of British, French, American, Japanese, Polish, Serb, Greek and Romanian troops on Soviet soil. A majority of the Bolsheviks died in battle, so that, as Charles Battleheim, the French economist, has estimated, some three-fourths of the state personnel that was subsequently directed to start building socialism in the USSR was comprised of former members of the Czarist bureaucracy - hardly the human raw material to build a revolutionary society. By then, the Soviet economy had fallen to 10 per cent of its pre-war size. Thanks to this hardship, two million people emigrated from Russia, i ncluding most of the educated people, who were able to re-make their lives elsewhere.

Third, there was great isolation symbolised by the fact that the United States did not even recognise the USSR until 1933, just as it has forced Cuba to live under an economic embargo for over 40 years. No more socialist revolutions occurred until after the Second World War. When social democratic governments or coalition governments were formed - Sweden, Finland, Germany, Belgium during 1917-1919; somewhat later in Britain, Denmark and Norway - they were deeply hostile to the Bolshevik Revolution and w ere quick to shed whatever Marxist heritage some of them had heretofore claimed. When Lenin promulgated the New Economic Policy after the Civil War, planning a mixed economy and inviting foreign investments, none of the capitalist countries, including th e social democratic ones, responded, and the denial of technologies, investments and materials continued. As late as 1933, Churchill was praising Mussolini as a bulwark against bolshevism, and even though Stalin incessantly offered a pact of "Collective Security" against fascism after 1934, the West kept open its option of alignment with fascism against the USSR up to 1938-39. After the Second World War, Soviet policy advocated the formation of states throughout Europe, west as well as east, not on the model of the USSR but multi-party parliamentary democracies. Only after the promulgation in 1947 of the Truman doctrine, calling for a "roll-back" of communism, did the policy change in Eastern Europe.

Fourth, at no point in its history until about 1970 was the Soviet Union free of the fear of imminent military destruction. Ten weeks after the end of the Second World War, the U.S. chiefs of staff made a covert plan to prepare the United States to drop atomic bombs on 20 key Soviet cities, in sharp contrast to the USSR which reduced the size of the Red Army from 12 million persons in 1945 to three million in 1948. Soviet re-armament and the race for atomic and nuclear technologies were reactive strateg ies, against a declared policy of encirclement, symbolized by the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan of 1947 and the formation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) in 1949, not to speak of the American threat, on the eve of the Italian ele ctions of 1948, of military intervention if the communists, with two million members, won the elections. Even after the USSR had developed its nuclear deterrence and delivery system, some of the fear remained, because there persisted an opinion at the hi ghest levels of the U.S. policy establishment, including such illustrious figures as Defence Secretary Caspar Weinberger, who seriously considered a nuclear option in which much more of the USSR but much less of the U.S. would be destroyed.

Fifth, there was the fact of war itself. During the 1930s the Soviet economy grew faster than that of any country except Japan, but then a quarter of the Soviet industrial assets were destroyed during the Second World War, while during that same War the U.S. economy grew at the rate of 10 per cent per annum - faster than ever before or since. Out of 5.7 million Russian prisoners of war in Germany, 3.3 million died. In all, the Soviet Union lost 20 million lives, in addition to 50 million injured - by fa r the greatest single catastrophe any country has suffered in human history. Even the demographic result was such that as late as 1959 the USSR had seven women between the age of 35 and 40 for every four men of the same age. Nor was the human toll limite d to the USSR alone. In the three regions where the issue of socialism was most sharply posed after 1950 - Korea, Indochina and Portugal's African colonies - death toll was estimated at close to eight million. This does not include scores of wars around the globe, from Malaya to El Salvador, that the West fought for the containment of communism - for example, the Greek Civil War which took 80,000 lives.

Sixth, this combination of extreme initial backwardness, unremitting subsequent carnage and unbearable defence expenditures left behind lasting effects, restricting the overall significance even of the stupendous rates of growth that the socialist countr ies actually achieved. According to Angus Maddison, the distinguished economic historian, Soviet per capita economic growth in the half century up to 1965 was the fastest in the world, faster than Japan; during the 20 years after 1950, Soviet food consum ption doubled, disposable incomes rose by 400 per cent and purchase of consumer durables by 1200 per cent. Between 1950 and 1980, the rate of growth in East Germany was as fast as in West Germany while economies in virtually the whole of Eastern Europe g rew faster during this period than did that of the United Kingdom. Even so, per capita gross national product (GNP) in the Soviet Union in the mid-1970s was only equal to that of Spain and half of West Germany. At no point did the annual aggregate produc t of the countries of the Comecon (Council for Mutual Economic Assistance, the economic association of east European countries) equal one-fourth of the NATO countries, and if one includes Japan the ratio declines further. In such circumstances, even a se mblance of parity with NATO's war machine absorbed much higher proportions of the resources in these much poorer economies, and yet NATO's military technology remained so superior that every one of the innovations in nuclear technology and most in conven tional warfare originated there.

WE shall come now to the immensely impressive achievements of socialism. It needs to be said, however, that the cumulative effects of factors that we have summarised above produced enormous distortions. It is virtually impossible to build a socialist dem ocracy superior to the liberal democracy that was already evolving in parts of the capitalist world with a political party whose best rank-and-file cadres have been killed in war, which has always lived under siege and never in an environment of democrat ic constraint and civility, which has set out to build a socialist society with a state apparatus comprised largely of the remains of the Czarist bureaucracy, and which continues to live under threat of annihilation. An extreme centralisation of authorit y, which then has a disastrous logic of its own, would seem to flow from the circumstance itself. And, if break-neck industrial development is quite accurately seen as the only guarantee of survival when there are no resources available for such a develo pment, would there not be a temptation to break the worker-peasant alliance, subjecting the working class itself to maximisation of industrial production and the peasantry to a collection of tribute that for some years came to be called 'primitive social ist accumulation', recalling the brutality that Marx had described in his famous chapters on primitive accumulation of capital? And, since all the states of the world had openly adopted the objective of annihilating the Soviet state, it seemed logical an d sensible to organise society not on lines of socialist democracy, as theoretical Marxism had always envisioned, but on a war footing, on the single criterion of efficiency and productivity.

In the realm of theory, then, almost the worst consequence was that methods and models that were adopted under sheer historical compulsion were then internalised and presented as the very essence of socialism, so that alternative models from the socialis t perspective became very scarce, especially inside the socialist countries, which were the only countries where these alternative models could have been tested concretely. Meanwhile, complete identification of party and state, which was itself a result of an objective circumstance, resulted in the disappearance of the distinction between the political realm and the executive function.

Similar distortions occurred in the ideological realm as well, two of which we might mention for illustrative purposes. When standards of living in the Soviet bloc remained far inferior to those of the core countries of advanced capital, despite herculea n efforts to increase production and highly impressive gains in per capita GNP, a sense grew that this disparity after some 50 years or more of revolution was indicative of the superiority of the capitalist system. Bulgaria was not compared with Turkey, or Russia with Greece and Spain; nor did it matter that East Germany had inherited a far inferior economic base than West Germany; nor that the socialist countries did not plunder Third World resources as advanced capitalism did. What mattered was that t he average Soviet or East European citizen did not live as well as the American or the Japanese. In this condition, then, Soviet military and economic aid to national liberation movements and some countries of the Third World became increasingly unpopula r as a very great but unnecessary drain on scarce national resources, reinforcing trends of xenophobia and political conservatism that were rising owing to other causes as well. Indeed, chauvinistic Russian nationalism grew on this soil as well as with t he resentment that East European allies themselves were receiving very considerable economic aid and subsidies from the Soviet Union.

One needs to keep in view this whole range of problems in assessing the achievements of socialism. From the world-historical perspective, one of the central achievements of the USSR was that it saved the world from fascism. As Eric Hobsbawm, hardly an ad mirer of the Soviet Union, has put it: "The institutions of liberal democracy virtually disappeared from all but a fringe of Europe between 1922 and 1942 as fascism and its satellite authoritarian movements and regimes rose. But for the sacrifices of the USSR and its peoples, Western liberal capitalism would probably have succumbed to this threat and the contemporary Western world (outside an isolated USA) would now consist of a set of variations on authoritarian and fascist regimes rather than a set of liberal ones. Without the Red Army the chances of defeating the Axis powers were invisible."

A Soviet soldier places the red flag over the Reichstag, the German Parliament building, in Berlin on April 30, 1945. From the world-historical perspective, one of the central achievements of the Soviet Union was that it saved the world from f ascism.-AP

It is a very cruel irony of history that the liberal capitalism that had been thus saved by the Soviet Union then turned against that same saviour the mightiest military machine and economic power that the world has ever known.

Socialism created the world's first state system based on the most extensive collective and re-distributive economic rights, namely the "social state", against the state of liberal capitalism based on possessive individualism. It demonstrated how such fu ndamental human rights as free universal education at all levels and free universal health, not to speak of full employment, could be achieved at relatively low levels of economic prosperity. It was the first system ever to set out on the premise that, f ar from leaving personal well-being to the vagaries of the market and its endless competitions, socio-economic systems could be planned for the common good. Socialist societies were also the modern world's first relatively egalitarian economies, based on modern industrial production, until the bureaucratic corruptions of the 1970s set in. On gender issues, the record of socialist societies was at best ambiguous. It is worth recalling, however, that legislation on women's issues in the first years of the Bolshevik Revolution, before the later deformations began, was more advanced than in any of the most advanced of the capitalist countries of that time; that Muslim women always had more rights in the Asian republics of the Soviet Union than in any other Muslim country, Turkey and Tunisia included; and that, after the collapse of communism, people like Jurgen Habermas, the German philosopher whose anti-communist sentiments are well-known, opposed the unification of Germany on the ground, among others, t hat legislation for East German women was far superior to the West and that those women were likely to lose security and status as a result of the unification.

THE demonstration effects of the socialist experience, combined with the threat of socialist revolution elsewhere, had a deeply civilising influence on capitalism itself. In response to the Depression, capitalism was already imbibing from the Soviet Five Year Plans a tendency to nationalise, municipalise and otherwise regulate economies in the direction of greater state responsibility for planning and social provision. In mobilising the peasantry as a revolutionary class across continents, socialism pus hed the agrarian question to the heart of the democratic question. The most far-reaching land reforms were undertaken in Asia and Africa either by communists themselves or by anti-communists out of their fear of communism: in South Korea because of North Korea, in Taiwan under pressure from China, in Malaysia thanks to the great (eventually defeated) communist insurgency. In other countries, notably India, some partial agrarian reforms were attempted thanks to a combination of communist pressure and a r adical nationalism that was inspired by socialist example. Where communist movements were very weak or non-existent, such as Pakistan or pre-1978 Afghanistan, no land reforms took place.

What we have said here about the more radical agrarian reforms from which the Asian peasantries have benefited can be said equally for the gains the working classes made in the capitalist zones of Europe. One now forgets that in Europe the line against c ommunist revolution was drawn in the Greek Civil War, with 80,000 people dead; that in both France and Italy, the communist parties had emerged from the War and anti-fascist Resistance as the largest parties in their respective countries; and that the qu estion of communism was not settled in southern Europe until after the containment of the Portuguese Revolution of 1974 and the decisive electoral defeat of the Italian communists in 1976. The West European welfare state arose within this perspective, fa cilitated undoubtedly by Keynesian economics and American financing of West European reconstruction through the Marshall Plan, but with the express objective of immunising the working classes there against communist ideas. This type of state arose under social democratic management of the state in Scandinavia, under conservative government in Germany, and under Christian democrats with communist pressure in Italy, but the social democratisation of the working class was everywhere seen as an imperative i n the containment of communism.

It was under this imperative that the bourgeoisies there accepted far-reaching increases in social spending and equally far-reaching cuts in their own share of the value-added, in the shape of higher workers' wages and higher taxes to underwrite the welf are state. One can plausibly argue, I think, that in economic terms and social rights the West European working class perhaps gained more from communism, indirectly, than did the working classes of Eastern Europe - precisely because Western Europe was so much richer and could pay much more. Until the collapse of the Soviet Union, and with the exception of Britain where attacks came earlier, that settlement remained intact throughout the northwestern parts of the Continent and was extended to Spain and P ortugal as well, both of which had considerable communist parties. Now that the communist threat has been removed, and as Keynesianism becomes less and less possible, that compact can be repudiated under the rhetoric of fiscal responsibility, restructuri ng and the like. Or to put it differently: now that the Third International has been defeated, the Second International itself can supervise the emergence of what I have called a 'banker's Europe'. And yet I believe that the great experience that the Eur opean working classes have gained during that whole period will mean that any big attacks on them will necessarily radicalise at least some sections of them. Across the Atlantic, a 5 per cent increase in unionisation in the U.S. last year after two decad es of dormancy, in response to the more radical stance of the new AFL-CIO leadership, is hopefully a small sign of the times yet to come.

THE international socialist current has also gained a whole range of experiences that are likely to remain a part of our legacy. The very fact that roughly a third of humanity passed through this experience, memory and critical assessment of that experie nce - the best and the worst of it - shall remain an integral part of the emancipatory politics of the future; there are said to have been some 200,000 workers' actions in China over the past couple of years, and one can safely surmise that these actions were in memory of the revolution that once was, and in defence of what little of it still remains. Once the dust of the present conflagrations settles in parts of eastern Europe, it will again be remembered that an advanced full-employment welfare state , with low levels of crime or industrial accident or work-related psychological derangements, and with little of the pathologies of American mass culture, was achieved there at levels of economic development much lower than in western Europe; movements w ill undoubtedly grow to revive that experience, at a higher level of development than before. The workers' self-management experience in Yugoslavia has much to teach us about how to conceive of democracy at the point of production, how to fight against a lienation in the belly of industrial work, and how to struggle for a workers' state where the power of the working class may actually be greater than that of the bureaucracy that may yet be needed, provisionally, for some executive functions. From Cuba t o Kerala, we have gained much experience in how to produce and maintain literate, healthy, politically participating citizenries despite great resource crises - and in Kerala, of course, this experience has been gained within the belly of the Republic of the bourgeoisie.

In numerous countries, Marxism has learned the tough lessons as to how not to concede the power of religion entirely to the Right. Liberation theology is inconceivable except in the perspective of the global outbreak of socialist and national liberation movements across the globe, in which the Catholic nuns and priests who were working on the ground had to choose sides. Across the Catholic world, from remote barrios in Latin America to the jungles and shantytowns of Philippines, this is a gloriou s chapter of resistance against dictatorship, fascism and the rule of property which was shared by socialists with religious personnel. One now forgets that key Ministries in the Sandinista Cabinet were held by Jesuit priests, including the great poet Er nesto Cardenal. Nor is it peculiar to Catholicism. Numerous people associated with both the Protestant and Catholic churches in the U.S. played a key role in the movement against the war in Vietnam, in a far-reaching alliance in which communists, former Communists and independent Marxists were the other main element.

We may briefly refer to some other conceptual features which were specific to socialist theory but which have now become common features in a broad range of emancipatory movements. There was, first, the culture built around a specific identity, that of t he 'working class', which then was expanded to broader categories of 'the oppressed' or the 'the people'. Second, there was an explanation of inequality and injustice in relation to the capitalist system, property relations, exploitation and the like. Th ird, it located the possibility of revolutionary change within capitalism itself and, further, the agency of change in the capacities of the oppressed themselves. Fourth, it assigned enormous importance to ideology and consciousness, arguin g that ideological domination was as important as political or economic domination, and that no collective social change was possible without a fundamental change in structures of collective consciousness; hence the great emphasis on 'proletarian conscio usness', 'study group', 'party school' and so on.

The striking feature of modern struggles for justice is that these ideas, which are of classical Marxist vintage, are now deeply permeated in all those struggles, be it for racial justice, gender justice, defence of the human environment against blind pr ofiteering, or other 'social movement'. Feminist 'consciousness raising' was modelled on the communist 'study group', and when radical feminism speaks of women's oppression it speaks of unequal wages, unpaid domestic labour, the cost of reproduction, une qual property rights, alienation of the body through sexual exploitation and the like.

Finally, an attribute that is peculiar to Marxism is the attempt to combine a politics that is based squarely within the working class with the greatest achievements of 'high culture'. Hence comes Marxism's distinctive contributions to scientific thought , economic science, social and political philosophies, cultural theory and the arts. Marx was so formidable a philosopher that even The New Yorker, the magazine par excellence of the American bourgeois literati, was constrained to nominate him as the likely philosopher of the 21st century. Similarly, no roster of the great decisive poets of the 20th century would be possible without the commanding presence of Vladimir Mayakovsky, Aime-Fernand Cesaire, Bertolt Brecht, Pablo Neruda, Cesar Va llejo, Ernesto Cardenal, Nazim Hikmet and Faiz Ahmed Faiz. With the exception of Cardenal and Vallejo, they were all members of communist parties; Vallejo himself went off to fight in the Spanish Civil War, and Cardenal was an illustrious Minister in San danista's Nicaragua. Coming from Latin America, the Arab world, the Caribbean, Europe, Central America and South Asia, these are a small number of the great figures in what one may call 'Poetry International'. Indeed, it is a fundamental feature of the M arxist intelligentsia that every member of it, anywhere in the world, has always considered him/herself as part of a global fabric. I could equally well give the example of modern cultural theory where most of the commanding figures also turn out to be s omething of a debating society within the broad parameters of Marxism: V.N. Voloshinov, Georg Lukacs, Antonio Gramsci, Walter Benjamin, Louis Althusser, E.P. Thompson and Raymond Williams. One could offer many such examples. The point nevertheless is tha t it is this combination of a working class politics and the most advanced thought of the age which accounts for socialism's reach far, far beyond its distinctive precincts.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor