From 1917 To 2017

Revolution Revisited

Barun Das Gupta

Two years from now, in 2017, communists all over the world will observe the centenary of the October Socialist Revolution (OSR) in Russia. In the last one hundred years two important developments have taken place. During the closing decades of the nineteenth century and the first two and a half decades of the twentieth century, socialism as a political ideology and as a movement was growing from strength to strength. It culminated in the overthrow of Tsardom in Russia and conquest of power by the Bolsheviks or communists under Lenin. For the first time in the history of civilization, the poor, the deprived and the dispossessed captured state power and set out to create a new, classless and exploitation-free society. But the closing decade of the twentieth century saw the collapse of the Soviet Union and the People's Democracies of Eastern Europe and restoration of capitalism in what was usually called the 'socialist world'.

The mighty waves released by the OSR had hit every country in the world, including India. Marxism or communism as a philosophy, as an analytical tool that enabled people to understand the mechanics of change in society and thereby enabled man to replace the existing society with a better one fired the imagination of the people in country after country. The vision of a New World Order inspired the exploited and oppressed peoples.

But the success of the Bolsheviks and their decision to impose the 'dictatorship of the proletariat' also raised questions. What exactly did this dictatorship mean? Whose dictatorship it actually was? The very next year, 1918, the German communist leader (of Polish descent) Rosa Luxembourg, who was soon to be executed by the German imperialists, wrote her book the Russian Revolution. In it she raised the question of the dictatorship of the proletariat. With almost uncanny prescience she wrote :
"Yes, dictatorship! But this dictatorship consists in the manner of applying democracy, not in its elimination, but in energetic, resolute attacks upon the well-entrenched rights and economic relationships of bourgeois society, without which a socialist transformation cannot be accomplished. But this dictatorship must be the work of the class and not of a little leading minority in the name of the class—that is, it must proceed step by step out of the active participation of the masses; it must be under their direct influence, subjected to the control of complete public activity; it must arise out of the growing political training of the mass of the people." Rosa was emphatic in asserting that "Freedom only for the members of the government, only for the members of the Party—though they are quite numerous—is no freedom at all. Freedom is always the freedom of the dissenters."

As it turned out, the so-called dictatorship of the proletariat degenerated into the dictatorship of the Communist Party and then to the dictatorship of one individual—the General Secretary of the CPSU—Josef Stalin. Lenin died in early 1924 and the full control of the party was taken over by Stalin. During the last two years of his life, illness had practically disabled Lenin and the party was coming increasingly under Stalin's control. After Lenin's demise he became the single unchallenged power centre in the party and the state. Thus began the process of de-Leninization and the rise of Stalin's cult of personality. His aims, objectives and the methods to achieve these were very different from those of Lenin. How socialism would have evolved in Russia if Lenin were alive for another decade can only be a subject of academic debate. Would democracy and socialism come to be looked upon as two mutually exclusive (if not antithetical) concepts?

In his The Proletarian Revolution and The Renegade Kaustsky, Lenin wrote :
"Proletarian democracy is a million times more democratic than any bourgeois democracy; Soviet power is a million times more democratic than the most democratic bourgeois republic."

That was the type of society Lenin was trying to build in Russia. Death cut his life short. Dictatorship of the proletariat was to be a passing phase. It was to last till the remnants of feudal and bourgeois elements were finally liquidated. Democracy, not dictatorship, was going to be the guiding ideal of the new state. Under Stalin a journey in the reverse direction began. Conscious and spontaneous participation of the people in socialist construction was no longer necessary. Fear of the almighty state was to compel them into working for what the state wanted them to do. The Soviet State came to depend more and more on terror symbolized by Stalin. And, the process became irreversible. Through the notorious Moscow trials of the 1930s,

Stalin liquidated the entire old guard of the Bolshevik Party, except his cronies like Molotov, Voroshilov, etc. The last chance of a democratic system developing in the Soviet Unioa was effectively and finally scotched.

Stalin died in 1953. Three years later, in 1956, the CPSU held its historic Twentieth Congress. In his long speech at that Congress, Nikita Khrushchev as the First Secretary of the party referred to the "negative characteristics of Stalin which developed steadily and during the last years acquired an absolutely insufferable character."

He went on to add :
"As later events have proven, Lenin's anxiety was justified. In the first period after Lenin's death, Stalin still paid attention to his advice, but later he began to disregard the serious admonitions of Vladimir Ilyich. When we analyze the practice of Stalin in regard to the direction of the Party and of the country, when we pause to consider everything which Stalin perpetrated, we must be convinced that Lenin's fears were justified. The negative characteristics of Stalin, which, in Lenin's time, were only incipient, transformed themselves during the last years into a grave abuse of power by Stalin, which caused untold harm to our Party."

Very pertinently, he said: 'We have to consider seriously and analyze correctly this matter in order that we may preclude any possibility of a repetition in any form whatever of what took place during the life of Stalin, who absolutely did not tolerate collegiality in leadership and in work, and who practiced brutal violence, not only toward everything which opposed him, but also toward that which seemed, to his capricious and despotic character, contrary to his concepts.'

Amusingly and paradoxically, this is exactly what Khrushchev and the CPSU did not do, neither then nor anytime till the party's dissolution. No 'serious and correct analysis' was made as to how the personality cult of one individual could grow and assume such monstrous proportions in a society that was supposed to be socialist. Or, how 'socialist legality' was violated with such impunity and for such a long time. In fact, de-Stalinization was carried out in the typically Stalinist way. Stalin was solemonized and exorcised. And everybody was happy ever after. The inner contradictions in the party and the Soviet State were neither analyzed or identified, nor resolved.

Stalin died, Stalinism was denigrated but the CPSU continued to follow the same old Stalinist model of party organization. Communist parties all over the world were cast in the Stalinist mould. Marx said : Question everything. But if a new entrant to a communist party had the habit of asking frequent questions about party policies or decisions, he was soon be marked out as a person of doubtful loyally and then to be hounded out of the party for engaging in anti-party activities. The precondition to being a member of a communist party was to follow the party line unquestioningly and uncritically. The party did not allow any questions to be asked.

As stated earlier, the Soviet State ruled by terror. The CPSU alienated itself progressively from the people. At the same time, the need to build heavy industries, especially armaments industry, consumed the bulk of the capital, leaving very little to invest in sectors that improved the standard of living and quality of life of the Soviet people. To be sure, education up to the highest level was free, health care was free, employment was guaranteed. But that was about all. Many needs could not be met. Housing continued to be an acute problem. People had been told that under socialism production would be geared to meet the needs of the people, not for inflating the profits of the factory owners. There would be enough for all. The people gradually realized that that was not to be.

After the Second World War, the need to keep pace with the United States forced the Soviet Union to join a fierce arms race. Much of the capital being generated went to the needs of the defence sector. It was corroding the Soviet economy. At another level, the East European countries that were liberated from fascist occupation by the Red Army of the Soviet Union, saw communist parties being saddled in power. Before the war in none of these countries, except perhaps Germany, did the communists have a mass following. They were a weak force in the political life of their countries.

They were imposed on the people of East Europe by the Soviet Union and it is Soviet power rather than the support of the people that kept them propped up. That is why the collapse of the Soviet Union inevitably led to the collapse of the so-called 'People's Democracies' of East Europe. In all these countries as well as in Russia and the constituent republics of the erstwhile Soviet Union, capitalism came back with vengeance. Bourgeois intellectuals started taunting the communists, saying "communism is the longest road from capitalism to capitalism", or "communism is no longer an 'ism', it has become a 'wasm' now." Still reeling under the shock of the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the failure of Soviet system, the communists could not counter them on the theoretical plane. They lost the battle at both ends.

Meanwhile, significant developments were taking place in Asia. In China, after the excesses made in the anarchic decade of Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) which inflicted immense damage on the Chinese economy, the pendulum swung to the other extreme. In 1978, Deng Xiaoping launched the country on the path of capitalist development. He did this by labelling it as 'socialist market economy'. The phrase itself is self-contradictory. In a socialist economy, the market does not control the economy. The State does and uses it as a tool for attaining the objetives that have been set. In a market economy, it is the market which controls the economy and the market in turn is controlled by those individuals who own the means of production with the sole aim of maximization of profit. The two objectives are antithetical and irreconcilable.

The inevitable corollary of Deng's decision was that for the first time, China threw open its economy to foreign investment. In October, 1992, the 14th Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) formally christened the path of development it had chosen as "socialist market economy". Since then the party has not looked back. Today, China is a capitalist country ruled by the Communist Party.

Eventually, Vietnam also took the same path. The policy of Doi Moi or Renovation was adopted in 1986. It led to a high-level GDP growth (8.4 percent in 2005) and helped combat poverty. An article (without the author's name) entitled Vietnam's Economic Development: Private Sector Growth, Provincial Competitiveness and Best Practices in Economic Governance, published by the Asia Foundation had this to say :
"Much of this explosive economic growth is a direct result of the government's political economic reforms to encourage private sector growth. Since the implementation of the Enterprise Law in 2000, Vietnam has registered more than 1,20,000 formal private companies, six times the number registered in the nine years before the law's enactment."

Vietnam, like China, is now fully launched on the capitalist path of development.

All these developments : collapse and disintegration of the Soviet Union, the collapse of the socialist bloc of countries in Eastern Europe, the restoration of capitalism in all these countries, the path of capitalist development taken by China and Vietnam, necessitate a serious and in-depth study and analysis of the international communist movement in the past one hundred years. Why did it happen the way it happened? What caused this retreat? Was it inevitable? Has Marxist socialism really become invalid in today's world? There were different causes for the collapse in different countries. But the two main causes are first, alienation from the masses and dependence on state terror; and second, having willy-nilly to embark on a path of arms race with imperialism. It consumed resources and capital which could have been used for raising the standard of living of the masses.

To the present writer it seems that it is not Marxism or Marxist philosophy and economics per se which is responsible for the present world-wide crisis of the Marxists of all hues and brands. The responsibility has to be squarely owned up by the Marxists in every country who failed to apply Marx's theory to concrete conditions.

Marxism is an analytical tool that recognizes that in every social phenomenon at any given point of time there are different forces at work. Some of these are dying forces, some others are growing forces. By using the dialectical method, Marxists identify these contradictory forces at work and decide for themselves which are the growing forces which have to be strengthened and channelized along the path that will benefit society. If they make the wrong analysis, they will reach wrong conclusions. If the Marxist or communist parties misinterpret Marxism as a means to justify either their pragmatic stand on a specific issue or issues, or to buttress a decision the party has already taken by manipulating theory to fit facts, they will be resorting to sheer opportunism.

This and the other fact that in most colonial countries including India, the leadership of all the communist parties was monopolised by undeclassed petty-bourgeoisie who used the party to serve their own personal ends rather than to attain their professed goal that alienated and disillusioned large masses of the people who once came close to the party. It made some who were attracted by the ideals of a socialist society to see darkness at noon. Others lamented that the god they had implicitly reposed their faith in had failed.

Marxism is a creative philosophy, not a rigid, petrified dogma. Marxism recognizes that change is the law of life. Everything changes and so does human society, creating ever new conditions, throwing up ever new challenges, calling for ever new methods of tackling and resolving them. If the communists learn from their past mistakes and apply their theory to the concrete conditions obtaining in their respective countries by using Marxism as an analytical tool, the communist movement will revive. But the first condition for revival is to make a complete break with its Stalinist past. The communists must unequivocally state that they do not believe in any form of dictatorship, that they are for civil liberties and against gagging of different or dissident opinions.

As long as exploitation exists, class divisions exist and man's ceaseless struggle for a classless, exploitation-free society goes on, the communists have no cause for frustration or defeatism. They will remain alive because history is alive and the people are at struggle. Indeed, they still have a world to win!

Autumn Number, Vol. 48, No. 14 - 17, Oct 11 - Nov 7, 2015