On the topic of the Russian Revolution, it might appear that everythingworth saying has already been said. Both critics and defenders of the revolution repeat again and again what was already being said and written in the 1920s. Throughout the Soviet decades leftists repeatedly cited the pronouncements of Trotsky and of his biographer Isaac Deutscher on the bureaucratic degeneration of the regime, on the incompleteness of the revolutionary process and on the possibility of it being rolled back. Social democrats repeated the arguments of Kautsky and Martov concerning the premature nature of the Bolshevik experiment and its anti-democratic character, while liberals insisted that an economy not constructed on the firm foundations of the market and private property could not be viable. It seemed as though the collapse of the Soviet system in the years between 1989 and 1991 would dots all the i’s and conclude the discussion. At least on the emotional plane, however, the events of those years turned out to be a complete surprise for the ideologues. To propagandists of capitalism, the fate of the ‘Russian experiment’ seemed absolutely natural, but from 1989 it appeared as though history was mocking the liberals; after confirming all their theories and forecasts, it immediately began to refute them. All the promises of a shining future, of dynamic growth and a ‘normal economy’, turned into their opposites. Not one of the ‘positive’ recipes has worked, while liberal values are becoming steadily less interesting to anyone but professional intellectuals.

It is striking how liberal ideologues have been forced to turn to the language of Soviet communism, mirroring its arguments. The liberals speak of the difficulties of the transition period, of the insufficiently consistent implementation of reform policies, of specific mistakes, and finally, of resistance and sabotage by hostile forces standing in the path of history or even trying to turn it back. This is not simply because all the ideologues of capitalism in Russia, as in most other East European countries, studied in Communist Party schools. Western ‘experts’ who never graduated from Soviet Party schools say the same. Behind this is their impotence in the face of uncomprehended mechanisms of history, along with an inability and unwillingness to give clear answers to concrete questions.

It is not surprising that, against this background, the debate about the outcome of the Russian Revolution should be unfolding anew. Uncertainty about the state of society means that people are forced continually to look back. If everything is meant to be so clear, then why is everything actually so incomprehensible? The examination of the past conceals a fear of the future. The discussion is going in circles. Everyone repeats their old arguments, hoping to find their old theses confirmed by the events of 1989-91. Meanwhile, people are confronted by the paradox that, to make sense of the past, it is necessary first to try to gain a better understanding of the present.

The collapse of the Soviet system was not only a fatal blow to the communist movement, in whose ideology the Russian Revolution of 1917 played a central role and for which it created a whole system of myths. The damage suffered by social democracy was not less, and in a certain sense was even more. Now that left-centrist governments have come to power in many countries of Europe, this is even more obvious than it was a few years ago in the time of the undivided hegemony of neoliberalism. Leftists are coming to power, not in order to implement their own programmes, but to continue the policies of the neoliberals. In many ways, these neophytes of capitalism are more dangerous than ‘normal’ bourgeois politicians. Why should the defeat of communism have been accompanied by the moral collapse of social democracy, which wasted no opportunity to condemn communism?

Although the ideologues of right-wing social democracy in the West in the early years of the century set out to show that, by constantly increasing the number of their electoral supporters, left parties would sooner or later win the support of the majority of the people and come peacefully to office, the fact remains that not a single government of the Left won power in Europe before the Russian Revolution of 1917. Perhaps this was no more than a coincidence. But the events that unfolded in Russia could not fail to have an enormous influence on both the bourgeoisie and the working class of the West. After 1917, the ideology of social reformism based itself on three main premises: that a society qualitatively different from that of capitalism was in principle possible; that processes of social transformation did not have to be revolutionary; and that within the framework of the ‘mixed economy’ it was essential to unite the democratic achievements of the West with the social achievements of the East. Meanwhile the Western workers’ movement rejected the revolutionary path and opted for social compromise. But compromise requires a readiness for concessions by both sides. The events in Russia frightened not only the bourgeoisie, but also significant numbers of workers. The more workers were told of the cruelty of the Bolsheviks, and later of the Soviet regime, the stronger the reformist orientation of the majority of workers became.