Today we cannot understand anything of Europe, the European Left or any other problem in the world unless we start out, in a spirit of truth, from the epochal shift of the last few years that has resulted in the political, ideological and economic collapse of the Communist states in Eastern Europe.footnote It has been an event as overwhelming and as fraught with long-term consequences as the conclusion of the anti-fascist war half a century ago. When the Berlin Wall came down the judgement of many people, especially in Europe, was one of euphoria. They saw the coming of a new historical period marked by world cooperation, disarmament and democratic advance, which would provide a clear opportunity for democratic socialism with a human face. Now we can see that the reality is different and much harsher. Let us be clear. For my own part, I am no orphan of actually existing socialism or the Cold War, nor have I ever looked back at them with nostalgia. I have been active from an early age in a Communist Party, the pci, which has always striven both theoretically and practically to develop a line independent of the Eastern-bloc countries. Moreover, twenty years ago I was expelled from the party with the Manifesto Group—a long exclusion due to our openly argued position that we were witnessing a social and political degeneration of the regimes in the East, and that they could not be reformed without a radical break. If I mention this, it is not only to explain why I feel neither surprised nor contradicted by the present crisis, which I regard as inevitable and in many ways a liberation. It is also to recall that an earlier crisis, at the time of our expulsion, did not appear to herald defeat, but rather to constitute the great historic opportunity for a theoretical and practical leap forward by a revolutionary movement that based itself on the major gains of the preceding epoch. Those were the times, we should remember, of anti-imperialist struggle in the Third World, of the student and workers’ movements of 1968 in the West, the Prague Spring and the Chinese Cultural Revolution. In both East and West that attempt to move forward did not reach fulfilment, but nor did it end in rapid failure.

The present crisis of the Left is occurring under the dual impact of capitalist restructuring, with all its economic and cultural results, and the collapse of the planned economies. It bears the marks of both. The events of the last few weeks in the Soviet Union confirm this. It is true that the worst has been avoided: namely, the success of a coup d’état which was so resoundingly devoid of social consent or ideological bases that it would have had to engage in mass repression before arriving at a regime at once authoritarian and impotent. Nevertheless, the outcome is not a revival of Gorbachev’s original aim of self-reform of the Soviet system, but the taking of power by a new social bloc and a new political leadership that have radically broken with the October Revolution and everything it produced.

These dangers, with all their short-term costs for that region of the world, have become visible to everyone through the events in outlying lands of the ussr. At least in a first phase, we shall see not economic development and representative democracy, so much as production crises, mass unemployment and violent outbursts of nationalism—a democratic revolution accompanying and producing social restoration, disaggregation of the state structure of a large nuclear power, and rapid introduction of an unbridled capitalism which, for the time being, is more likely to follow the Brazilian than the German pattern.

But the purpose of my contribution is not to make analyses, judgements or predictions about that whole development in the East, for which I anyway lack the necessary competence. What I wish to stress here are the general, long-term elements that follow for the world order, and their repercussions on political and social struggle well beyond the frontiers of the ussr.

Firstly, a historical experience is now ending in painful defeat—an experience which, both materially and in terms of ideas, served sometimes as a model and in any case as a reference point for broad movements of liberation. It is now fashionable in the West, even on the Left, to treat that connection as a thoroughly harmful product of manipulation or folly—that is, to consider the October Revolution and its sequel not as a process which degenerated in stages but as a regression ab origine, or a pile of rubble. But the historical reality is rather different. First Stalinism, then the authoritarian power of a bureaucratic, imperial caste, were one side of that historical process, and we were wrong not to have seen its effects in time and denounced it in its roots. But for decades another side also continued to operate: the side of national independence; the spread of literacy, modernization and social protection across whole continents; the resistance to fascism and victory over it as a general tendency of capitalism; support for and actual involvement in the liberation of three-quarters of humanity from colonialism; containment of the power of the mightiest imperial state. First the involution and then the collapse of all that has direct and weighty consequences for the Left throughout the world. For the oppressed, it means the passing away not so much of a model—mistakenly held and now generally discarded—as of an ally and a support. And with it is going a legacy of cultural autonomy which the common sense of Marxism, in its most diverse forms, deposited in the world much more widely and deeply than in the Communist parties alone.