What was communism?

19 October 2009
Article

The twentieth anniversary of the fall of communism - as system, ideology and strategic challenger to capitalism - is an appropriate moment to assess its legacy. But this must discard triumphalism, and be rooted in an awareness of communism's history, its myths, and its relation to capitalist modernity.

Few occasions are more propitious for forgetting the past than moments of historical commemoration. Amidst fond recollections of the fall of the Berlin wall, and in a time of, at least temporary, improvement in relations between Russia and the west, few may spare a thought for what it was that ended two decades ago. On two issues history has given its ultimate verdict: the cold war, the third and longest of the three chapters that made up the great global civil war of 1914-91, will not return; the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), as a multinational state and as a global ideological and strategic challenge to the west, is indeed dead. However, on a third component of this story - the worldwide communist movement - the verdict is, as yet, less clear.

Communism, embodying the ideology and the social aspirations underlying the Soviet challenge, and the worldwide echo that challenge evoked remains to be interred. But to bury communism can only be done on the basis of recognising what it represented, why millions of people struggled for, and believed in, this ideal and what it was they were struggling against. It can also only be done when the legacy of this ideology and movement is assessed and not simply forgotten, or conveniently, and in violation of all historical evidence, dismissed as an "illusion".

Judging from the politics and intellectual debates of today, neither those who celebrate the end of communism, nor those who are now articulating a radical alternative, have carried out such an assessment: between (on one side) the still resilient complacency of market capitalism and an increasingly uncertain world of liberal democracy, and (on the other) the vacuous radicalisms that pose as a global alternative, the lessons of the communist past remain largely ignored. And so, as they say, they will be repeated. 

A story foretold

The question of what kind of political and social system was communism, too near to allow of an easy perspective, has occasioned several candidate explanations. These include, in summary terms:

  • a dictatorial tendency whereby revolutionary elites seized control of societies
  • a flawed movement for the self-emancipation of the working class
  • an expression of messianism
  • a product of oriental despotism
  • a failed developmentalist project. 


Communism embodied features of modern politics that should not be abandoned: a belief in mass participation in politics, a radical separation of religion and state, a promotion of the public, political and economic, role of women, hostility to inter-ethnic conflict, and an insistence on the need for the state to intervene in economic and social affairs. Joseph Stalin and Gosplan may have discredited a particular form of "planning", but the general application of rational scientific, managerial and political thinking to human affairs, the better to manage the future, is an entirely legitimate and necessary aspiration, not least in an age of resource-depletion and looming ecological crisis. Communism had no monopoly on these ideas - any tough-minded liberal could have supported them - and the interpretation given to these values was authoritarian, bloody, in some cases criminal. This does not mean, however, that these goals, democratically and humanely conceived, are not necessary parts of a contemporary politics. 

Yet it is essential to look, without ambiguity, at the failure of communism, and not avoid the issue that too many retrospective analyses have avoided: the fact that its failure was necessary, not contingent. This system, denying political democracy and based on the command economy, did not just fail because of a false policy here or there, let alone because classical Marxist theory was abandoned. As even sympathisers like Rosa Luxemburg realised in 1917 itself, it was bound from the beginning to fail. 

It is common, and somewhat too easy, for defenders of Marxism in the contemporary world to argue that Marxist theory and communist practice were divergent, and that, hence, the theory bears no responsibility for the communist record. If by this question is meant whether another Marxism, a more liberal or "genuine" or "democratic" one, or, if you incline in the other direction, a more resolute, militant, disciplined one, could have prevented the collapse of the communist states then the answer is no. 

There were certainly, throughout its seventy-year history, choices for the Soviet system: the "new economic policy" (NEP) could have been continued after 1928, there could have been a different trajectory in the middle 1930s if Stalin not Kirov had been assassinated, or Nikolai Bukharin had become party leader; if Nikita Khrushchev had not been ousted in 1964; if economic reform, of a kind Mikhail Gorbachev was to attempt after 1985, might have begun twenty years earlier. And so on.

As for the final period, the Soviet system could certainly have continued for another generation, if another Soviet leader, a conservative like Grigory Romanov or Viktor Grishin, had come to power in March 1985 instead of Gorbachev. But, in the longer run, neither prevailing Communist Party of Soviet Union (CPSU) ideology, nor (in my view) any variant of the Marxist tradition remotely related to 1917, could have saved, let alone developed that regime. It had reached a dead end; but that aporia, although contingent in timing and form, was inevitable sooner or later. 

A force in its time

The revolutionary-socialist movement was not, however, some mistake, some aberrant illusion: it was at once a global movement of collective purposive action, across all continents, and a product of the structural tensions within the development of capitalism over the past two centuries. It is therefore pointless to begin a critique of it by seeing it as something that could, in its negative and positive features, have been avoided - or as, neo-liberal orthodoxy would claim, something that was just some historical illusion.

True, it had its illusions; but so does the capitalist ideology which posits that everyone can become a millionaire, the newly fashionable "well-being" fantasy that the process of ageing can be halted or reversed, or the irrational belief in divine beings, and afterlives, that much of humanity still espouses and, in many societies, east and west, tries to impose on others. Moreover, like these fantasies, socialism was also an inevitability, as much as the other features of the development of capitalist modernity - be they democratisation and scientific change, authoritarian capitalism, inter-state war, or colonialism. 

For that very reason, the revolutionary-socialist movement was, in its very illusions and delusions, itself a creature of its times, and of some of the chimeras that beset those times, not least a belief in a "science" of human evaluation and action. That there were, and to some extent, remain elements in the Marxist tradition that contributed not just to the revolutions, but to the particular, bloody and criminal, record of these regimes is especially the case with regard to four central elements of the communist programme:

  • the authoritarian concept of the state
  • the mechanistic idea of progress
  • the myth of "revolution"
  • the instrumental character of ethics. 


The four components

First, and as central to revolutionary Marxism as it is to the radical politics of the Islamic world, is the anti-democratic, Jacobin, theory of politics and of the "state": this, not the self-emancipation of the masses, or workers, or oppressed Muslims, is the core concept, indeed the core goal, of all modern revolutionary politics, secular or religious, from Lenin to Osama bin Laden.

Second, and equally central to modern revolutionary thought, is the supra-historical concept of "progress". Of course, it can, in certain ways, be defended: there has been progress in, for example, medical knowledge, or human wealth, or the development of capitalist democracy. This does not mean, however, that there is a destination of history, an "end" in the sense of a goal or telos, and of the kind implicit in most 19th-century thought. Even less does it imply that the pursuit of such a telos guides, or legitimates, political action and, in some cases, more than a few, the killing of people for being "reactionary". 

Third, and closely related to the myth of "progress" was the dangerous myth of revolution; not just "revolution", as a historical moment of transition, and a means of making the transition from one historical epoch to the other, but Revolution, indeed "The Revolution", as a historical myth, a cataclysm that was both inevitable and necessarily emancipatory.

Part of the rethinking of the socialist tradition has to be a re-evaluation of this myth, one almost as powerful and for sure as destructive in modern times as that of "nation". As with nations it is possible to make a distinction between what one may term "actually existing revolutions" (Russia, 1917, China, 1949, Cuba 1959, Iran 1979...) and the broader, ideological, myth: this latter myth, included within which was the idea of the 'irreversibility' of socialist revolutions, was shattered in 1989-91. 

The related myth, that somehow "Revolution" in the mythic sense remained possible within developed capitalism, was disproved long ago, arguably by the failure of the German revolution in the early 1920s, in my view in the failure of revolutions of 1848. What Marx termed "the sixth great power", in contrast to the five powers that dominated 19th-century Europe, became more and more confined to the semi-peripheral world. Yet the reality of revolutions as historical moments - inevitable and voluntaristic, emancipatory and coercive - is central to the history of the modern world. Not only did these revolutions transform the countries in which they occurred, but, by forcing the dominant classes in the counter-revolutionary states to reform, they in considerable measure transformed capitalism as well.

Fourth, underpinning these three ideas - "state", "progress", "revolution" - lay a key component of this legacy: the lack of an independently articulated ethical dimension. True, there was a supposedly ethical dimension - whatever made for progress, crudely defined as winning power for a party leadership, and gaining power for a, mythified, working class - was defended.

However, the greatest failure of socialism over its 200 years, especially in its Bolshevik form, was the lack of an ethical dimension in regard to the rights of individuals and citizens in general, indeed in regard to all who were not part of the revolutionary elite, and the lack of any articulated and justifiable criteria applicable to the uses, legitimate and illegitimate, of violence and state coercion. That many of those who continue to uphold revolutionary-socialist ideals, and the potential of Marxist theory, today appear not to have noticed this, that they indeed reject, when not scorn, the concept of "rights", is an index of how little they have learned, or have noticed the sufferings of others. 

History's verdict

Communism failed and was, given its internal weaknesses as well as the vitality of its opponents, bound to do so. However, it should not be forgotten that this attempt to escape the conventional path of capitalist development was for a time remarkably successful, not least in the ideological and military challenge it posed to the west but was in the end forced to capitulate, and to do so almost without a semblance of resistance. If nothing else, the communist collapse deserves careful study from the perspective of those who believe in elite-led or state-dictated social and economic development. This is certainly one "lesson" of communism.

There is, however, another aspect of communism, of equal importance, that is too easily overlooked in triumphalist post-1989 accounts in the west. Communism was, as much as liberalism, itself a product of modernity, of the intellectual and social changes following on from the industrial revolution and of the injustices and brutalities associated with it - in the industrial revolution, whose early impact on the city of Manchester was described by Friedrich Engels so vividly in 1844, in the cycles of boom and slump that culminated in the 1930s, and in the violence of colonial occupation, exploitation and war. If Engels were to return today, to the shanty-towns of most Asian, African and Latin American cities, and not a few cities in the developed world, he would not be so surprised. 

The greatest achievement of communism may well turn out to have been not the creation of an alternative and more desirable system contrasted to capitalism, but its contribution to the modernisation of capitalism itself. No account of the spread of the suffrage, the rise of the welfare state, the end of colonialism, or the economic booms of Europe and east Asia after 1945 could omit the catalytic role which, combined with pressure from within, the communist challenge from without played. 

Communism was not just a utopian project: it was a dramatic response to the inequalities and conflicts generated by capitalist modernity. The continuation of many of these same inequalities and conflicts today suggests that further challenges, of an as yet indeterminate nature, will result.  

 

Copyright © Fred Halliday. Published by openDemocracy Ltd.