As we enter the last decade of the twentieth century, the ruin of ‘Marxist-Leninist’ Communism has been sufficiently comprehensive to eliminate it as an alternative to capitalism and to compromise the very idea of socialism.footnote The debacle of Stalinism has embraced reform-communism, and has brought no benefit to Trotskyism, or social democracy, or any socialist current. Mummies of Lenin and Mao are still displayed in mausoleums in Moscow and Beijing as emblems of an old order that awaits decent burial. However, today’s moribund ‘Great Power Communism’ is not a spectre stalking the globe, but an unhappy spirit, begging to be laid to rest. Yet a socialism willing to confront history and to engage with the most penetrating critics of the socialist project could enable a new beginning to be made. Significant anti-capitalist movements still exist, some influenced by the Communist tradition, but they lack a programme that could take us beyond capitalism. There are surviving regimes that call themselves Communist or Socialist, but whether or not they can point to real achievements (as can, say, Cuba in the fields of public health and education) there can be no doubt that they too require an even more thoroughgoing renewal and reorientation—one aimed not just at constructing a genuinely democratic culture and polity, but also at discovering a new and viable socialist model of economy.

As we address the death-throes of the former Communist world, we should not forget the different, but very serious, ills of the capitalist world. The globe is now more firmly within the grip of the processes of capitalist accumulation; we should be all the more attentive to the price exacted by these processes, their harvest of mayhem and misery, destruction and neglect, division and irresponsibility. In the 1980s the workings of capitalism were associated with an obscene process whereby huge populations in the poorest countries found their prospect of development blocked by their debts to the richest, and by the latter’s exclusion of their products. The distribution of economic and political power in much of the capitalist Third World proved compatible with widespread famines and epidemics of curable disease. Attempts by movements based among the poor to challenge this state of affairs were often met by merciless repression and death squads. Indeed there can be no doubt that the loss of human life, and extent of physical suffering, in the capitalist Third World in the eighties greatly exceeded that experienced in the countries ruled by Communist bureaucracy—a dismal comparison that does nothing to justify the stifling tyranny exercised by the latter, but which does put it in perspective. Meanwhile, the workings of capitalism in the metropolitan regions were marked by fundamental instability, mass unemployment, a buoyant arms trade, an escalating crisis of social provision, and—most serious of all—a gathering and global ecological crisis. While the Communist states have a terrible ecological record, their very economic failures have set some limits on the damage done. Capitalism, with its uncontrolled momentum and heedless rapacity, has brought humanity to a point where its powers of intervention in nature risk the destruction of the habitability of the globe.

The destructive and exploitative dynamic of capitalism, and its implication in an unfree social and political order, helps to provoke movements of contestation; but it is still hard to discern the outlines of a non-capitalist model. Anti-capitalist movements can do valuable work checking particular manifestations of the divisive or destructive logic of capitalist organization. Nonetheless if they won sufficient support, what could they offer at the level of regional or national government? And if dissatisfied with the world model presided over by the Group of Seven, what would they develop in its place? Answers to these questions will emerge, if at all, in large measure through impulses derived from the experience and reflection of anti-capitalist movements in the historic zones of capitalist accumulation in both the First and the Third Worlds. However, the anti-capitalist Left will have no credibility unless it can account for the dire experience of Communism since 1917. In some ways this fact is a tribute to Communism, since, for good or ill, its impact on the history of the twentieth century has been huge. Indeed the political movements and orders claiming allegiance to ‘Marxism-Leninism’, though now foundering on all sides, have been second only to liberal capitalism as protagonists and shapers of the age in which we live; ahead of fascism and colonialism, and capable of subsuming at least some of the appeal of nationalism and religion—again, for good or ill. While Communism was able to attract impressive organizers and intellects in the First World, it was generally less influential than the social-democratic variant of socialism. In the Third World, Communism was generally far more effective than social democracy, and the same could be said for the respective record of these two currents in the resistance movements of occupied Europe and Asia in the Second World War.

Someone as little suspect of sympathy for Communism, or any sort of socialism, as Ludwig von Mises was to describe the broad socialist tradition as the ‘most powerful reform movement that history has ever known, the first ideological trend not limited to a section of mankind but supported by people of all races, nations, religions and civilizations.’footnote1 This is a tribute to Communism as much as to the largely Eurocentric social-democratic tradition. It is neither desirable nor possible to pass by the Communist experience as something without significance to those who would construct an alternative to capitalism. Nor should critical reflection content itself with simply denouncing the evident denial of democracy, including socialist democracy, that is the hallmark of Stalinism. If all that was lacking in these Communist regimes was democracy then its introduction would solve everything. But, however welcome moves towards democratization are, or would be, in the Communist or formerly Communist states, it is already clear that this is far from solving all their problems, and is certainly far from yielding an advance beyond both Stalinism and capitalism. There were always socialists and Marxists who denounced the repressive features of Communism, and who sought to identify the basic flaws in its conception of the socialist project.

It is interesting to recall Kautsky’s first reaction to the Russian Revolution. This is how he later summarized it:

If they [the Bolsheviks] succeeded in making their expectations and promises come true, it would be a tremendous accomplishment for them and for the Russian people and, indeed, for the entire international proletariat. The teachings of Marxism, however, could then no longer be maintained. They would be proved false; but, on the other hand, socialism would gain a splendid triumph, the road to the immediate removal of all misery and ignorance of the masses would be entered in Russia and pointed out to the rest of the world. How gladly I would have believed that it was possible. . .The most powerful, best founded theory must yield when it is contradicted by the facts. However, they must be facts, not mere projects and promises. . .[M]y expectant benevolence did not last long. To my chagrin, I saw ever more clearly that the Bolsheviks totally misunderstood their situation, that they thoughtlessly tackled problems for the solution of which all conditions were lacking. In their attempts to accomplish the impossible by brute force, they chose paths by which the working masses were not raised economically, intellectually or morally, but on the contrary, were depressed even deeper than they had been by Tsarism and the world war.footnote2

Kautsky, writing this in 1931, could certainly dispute Stalin’s empty boast to be constructing ‘socialism in one country’ in the name of orthodox Marxism. In The Communist Manifesto and in other writings, Marx and Engels famously insisted that a genuine socialism could only be built on the basis already laid by capitalism; in The German Ideology they had observed that socialism would require social overturns in at least several of the most developed countries. From this classic Marxist conviction it followed that it was a complete delusion to attempt to ‘build socialism’ in one large backward country or, as was subsequently to be attempted, in a string of backward countries. By this Kautsky did not mean that nothing at all should be done and that Russia should simply be handed over to the Whites. His Menshevik friends were quite prepared to form a government in Georgia where they had majority support, and to promote social reforms. It was the specific abuses of party dictatorship and so-called War Communism, and their latter systematization and intensification under Stalin, that he attacked. Kautsky was on firm ground in arguing that Marx had insisted on the primacy of the struggle for democracy, and had outlined his notion of a ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ in terms irreconcilable with a narrow party dictatorship. Kautsky is sometimes chided for ‘economism’, yet his critique of Bolshevik strategy was centred upon its ominous implications for the cultural and political development of the toilers. He warned that conspiratorial, secretive and hierarchical organization ‘may be rendered necessary for an oppressed class in the absence of democracy, but it would not promote the self-government and independence of the masses. Rather, it would further the Messiah-consciousness of leaders, and their dictatorial habits.’footnote3