Mon Nov 7th, 2005 at 03:33:13 AM EST
On a snowy day in St. Petersburg 88 years ago, something happened.
For me, back under the ancien regime, 7 November meant having to stand through one hour of an absolutely boring ceremony with the whole school (with, on average, a dozen of us fainting and falling); and was a rather glaring sign of foreign occupation*.
With the Soviet Union long dead, it is even less relevant today, you’d think. But, as I will argue in four steps, it has much more relevance to our present situation (and indeed to what we do here at EuroTrib) than we’d like to admit – and that we should take the neocons’ rhetoric more seriously.
(Some of you won’t like it. If I was bold enough, most of you won’t :-) You can flame me.)
- For new readers to ET: I’m in Budapest/Hungary.↑
Even while we hated 7 November and knew the system is based on lies, we still had romantic illusions about the original event – some widespread even in the West. But one does well to discard them all (as I did when learning more).
The tale sold to us kids (corrected only in high school) was about oppressed workers overthrowing the Tsar – but the Tsar was overthrown half a year earlier: the Bolsheviks toppled the new bourgeois government, capitalising on its broken promises. Lenin wasn’t the purity whose legacy got corrupted by Stalin – the first gulags (in which the inmates’ deaths were planned in) were created along the White Sea Canal construction under Lenin, just a few months after revolution. Dzerzhinski’s Cheka (the later KGB) started the Red Terror at the same time.
Stalin didn’t start the conflict with the peasant majority either. The hero of Western intellectual communists, Trotsky, earned the hate of peasants with seizure of surpluses, with draft in harvest-time into a Red Army disciplined by commissars and statutory executions, and with putting down the thus ignited uprisings. In fact, (re-)starting collectivisation was a 180-degree-turn for Stalin, adopting Trotsky’s position – and the limited market economy in-between (in the twenties) can be seen as the early economic failure of the Revolution.
What came after could be termed state capitalism – with the Party members, being the effective owners, acting as capitalists. That it came to this is a straight consequence of Lenin’s concept of a revolutionary avant-garde: from early on, steering from above meant the hollowing-out of the democratic element of the Revolution, the soviets (workers’ councils); and as selection overtook election, the nomenclature became the new elite. And thus not just peasants but workers too became subjects instead of constituents.
Also, in the early years, there was an alternative that was both left-radical and democratically supported: in Siberia, a rival government, consisting of other communists (Mensheviks and Socialist-Revolutionaries) and liberals, implemented similar sweeping reforms and raised its own Red Army, without terror. But this government was overthrown in a coup by ex-Tsarist Rear-Admiral Kolchak - with predictable results on the morale of Red Army 2.0 turned White Army 3.0.
2. Then again...
If one wants to pass judgement on the October Revolution, the focus of the above treatment is too narrow. What were the alternatives? The Whites had their own, White Terror. Most were not much more democratic, and were supported by foreign powers with their own imperial agenda. We are speaking of a country in which just a few years earlier, the government’s chosen method to confront public discontent was to blame the Jews and instigate massive pogroms1.
Indeed the weakness of the Kerensky government, and then the ease with which the Siberian government was toppled, could be read as proof positive that well-meaning progressives stood no chance, that there was neither a real pluralistic alternative, nor a non-revolutionary way to push out the old elites. That the Red Army was ten times as big as all the Whites combined implies more than just Trotsky's harsh methods, it implies mass popular support. The Bolshevik Revolution was a genuine attempt at making real progress, but there were too many paths to catastrophe.
It is a commonplace that outside Moscow, the countryside looks as if it were 100 years ago, and power didn’t change either – then Tsar Nikolai, now Tsar Putin. This is not completely true either. The decrepit wooden houses in those villages reached by no paved road have electricity and flowing water. Pension is not much, public transport crappy, but neither existed 100 years ago. There are no big landowners: collectivisation can, the land distribution during and after Trotsky’s requisitions can’t be undone.
Attitudes changed too. People of every background value their children’s education very high. Curiously, even while the regime was built on a pile of lies clear to everyone, some of its professed ideals were adopted by a majority. The oligarchs of the Yeltsin era were detested so much that it was no wonder Putin could finish them off so easily. And even while the Politburo and Central Committee members had their private dachas, full-comfort with Western accessories, what struck me when seeing the first pictures after 1989 was the lack of ornaments: a kind of Puritanism forced even on the dictators.
But, you might protest, not only were the above often the results of propagandistic moves, but all of these advances happened in the West too – and got much further, without the bloodshed!
I don’t think so.
Western social reforms happened with the backdrop of the Soviet Union. The connection is rather clear in the case of the US New Deal2 (where indeed the New Deal, the FBI and the bad news from Russia combined to root out social movements), and fascisms (which often defined themselves in contrast to Bolshevism). The waves of reforms after both World Wars, especially after the second, when the welfare state was implemented Europe-wide by either Social Democrats or Christian Democrats, happened with comparatively little resistance from the elites – at any rate, much less than before the wars. (After all the violent death of expansive fascism3 made that a less attractive alternative.)
The result of these reforms was a society no more fitting classic Marxist theory: the new majority became the middle class. A Middle Class dreaming of becoming Upper Class, and even tough, like before, those dreams come true only for a lucky few, this prospect banished thoughts of revolution – or even class, hence the illusion of a classless society. To put in simple terms: the have-mores could now count on a majority of have-somes against the have-nots to defend the status quo.
What I want to get at here in Point 3 is that the European welfare state, and the US New Deal, came to be because most of the elites agreed to an armistice in the class war – and that not the least because they were scared of a communist revolution at home, scared because of the apparent indestructibility of the Soviet Union.
Thus, it seems to me, to put it drastically: the well-being of many of yours was made only possible with the deaths of millions of Russians (& other subjects of the Empire)4.
There is one group of ideologues apparently aware of this fact.
I was annoyed to no end by American triumphalism (most strongly the neocons, but not just them, and not just Republicans) about supposedly "winning" the Cold War. If anything, this was the implosion of the regime – with unfolding events taking the West by surprise.
However, looking back at the events of the last one-and-half decade, I now see more to it.
Imagine it from their point of view: where every menacing progressivism is somehow connected to the Commies, where the threat of WWIII and the "threat" of social changes are intractably connected as a single existential threat. The ex-Trotskyists among them must have known both that the Soviet Empire grew out of genuine leftist attempts at change (see point 2) and that the seeds of its massive problems were planted in the very beginning (see point 1). What a feeling of relief the collapse of the Soviet Empire must have been. A massive failure of the Left. No more fear of final defeat. No realistic alternative.
No more need for an armistice.
You won – you won the freedom to re-start the class war, and the confidence that you’ll win.
For wider parts of the economic, political and media elite (both in the USA and Europe), this doesn’t need to be more than half-conscious. And with 'class war', I mean neither a grand conspiracy nor every rich man participating – just that those willing to bend the truth to defend their situation will do so, and that those whose view on reality is constrained by their position will stay so. But for the neocons (and partially the neoliberals), the end goal is clear: undoing one hundred years of social progress.
Thus was national health care defeated, the Greenspan bubble economy set off, and thus unfolded the Bush admin’s bold dismantle-it-all policies. Thus came the Social Democrat retreats worldwide in face of ever increasing neoliberal demands in the nineties, the economic and social 'reforms', and the flunky statistics much criticised here at ET. And these will continue: what should they fear?
After all, the erosion of the middle class is very slow. Even if the coming collapse of the credit-based US economy is worse than generally expected, it may take decades until the new underclass (which again fails classic Marxist analysis: it’ll be less of a workers’, more of a service class) becomes the majority. Until then, the middle class will behave like a toad boiled slowly. And the present underclass is not much active either – compare and contrast the present uptick in arson attacks and urban violence in France (the "riots") with, say, recent events in Argentina or Bolivia, or indeed, 1968 (as eloquently argued by Jérôme or Ritter, Jérôme again and others). (It would be the height of irony if China, an officially communist country now with rather brutal worker exploitation, experienced a revolution...)
No, I don’t want to suggest that we will need a revolution to stop this, not to speak of red terror. But what I do think follows is that today, for a leftist government to be really successful as a leftist, it must be prepared to wage some serious conflict, and not falter in face of heavy and constant opposition5. For us Europeans, that means we can’t simply dream of a return to the consensus-building system of the "Rhineland Model", because most of our industrial bosses aren’t a partner in that – they now dream different dreams. At the same time, focusing on what our opponents do wrong is not enough - the October Revolution should be a lesson that the task is difficult: there are too many ways for good intentions to lead to catastrophe.
- This was when the anti-semitic 'classic' "The Elders of Zion" was forged by the Tsarist secret service. Later the White propaganda would create the idea that Communists=Jews. (I think the importance of the Russian propagandists is greatly underestimated, that of 19th century German anti-semites overestimated among the historical origins of Nazi ideology.)↑
- Keynes wrote this:
The authoritarian state systems of today seem to solve the problem of unemployment at the expense of efficiency and of freedom. It is certain that the world will not much longer tolerate the unemployment which, apart from brief intervals of excitement, is associated and in my opinion, inevitably associated with present-day capitalistic individualism. But it may be possible by a right analysis of the problem to cure the disease whilst preserving efficiency and freedom. I recall a much better quote than the above, from some originator of the New Deal, that connects "saving capitalism" with possible socialist revolution, but couldn’t find it. If you know it, please post it!↑
- Fascism didn’t die with WWII: the Spanish and Portuguese versions lived on – tough growing sclerotic – until the seventies, and then reincarnated in South America.↑
- One can speculate whether it would have worked if Revolution happens say in England first, but I’m sceptical – Marxists were too naïve to have enough checks and balances against individuals with ambition for power, and even with worker control rather than centralised planned economy, I suspect it would have failed economically on the development front.↑
- There is a much moe recent and much less bloody example than the October Revolution. Tough Chavez may be criticised for many things, this is certainly a lesson from Venezuela.↑