In nlr 194, Göran Therborn, adopting a broad historical-comparative perspective, tried to draw up an overall balance sheet of the achievements and failings of the Left. One of his major arguments was that the crisis of both the social-democratic and the Communist Left was more conjunctural than structural, and that the ‘current—perhaps terminal—crisis of socialism might very well be due to its success rather than to its failure, in as much as it could be seen to derive from the achievement of socialist thinking in having grasped and solved earlier problems’ (pp. 24–25).
What I would like to argue here is that while Therborn’s argument that the present crisis of the Left lies in its success in overcoming earlier problems does make sense in the case of the Western Social-Democrats, it does not in that of the Communist Left. In the latter case, the idea that the crisis was due to ‘conjunctural’ factors, such as the 1980s’ ‘prolonged boom in the West and the stagnation in the East’, (p. 21) and to the ‘solution of earlier problems’, is based less on sober analysis than on a reluctance to accept that the Soviet experiment was from beginning to end an unmitigated disaster. On the other hand, as far as the social-democratic side of the balance sheet is concerned, Therborn, not differentiating sufficiently between Communist failure and the minor problems social-democratic regimes are facing today, accepts rather too readily the neo-liberal fiction about the supposed crisis, or even bankruptcy, of the Western welfare state.
Therborn is quite right to point out that until the 1960s the pace of Soviet industrialization had been quite impressive, and that it was only with the required shift from capital to consumer goods and services that the rigidities of the Soviet development model became apparent. Yet even that early economic achievement cannot really be considered a successful ‘solution’ if one takes into account both the incredible human cost of Stalin’s forced industrialization, and the fact that Russia had experienced very impressive rates of industrialization for several decades before the October Revolution.
There is no reason to believe that the hypothetical continuation of capitalist growth after 1917 would have achieved less impressive results than the Soviet programme—particularly in a capitalist Russia that had adopted an authoritarian, though not totalitarian, model of development. In fact, counterfactually speaking, a Japanese type of
In other words, it is very hard to see the overall Communist trajectory, from the destruction of the autonomy of the soviets onwards, as any-thing but a colossal failure; as a wrong turn, lead ng (for structural rather than conjunctural reasons) into a tragic cul-de-sac. It is just as hard to cite the very limited economic egalitarianism that was actually achieved, or the broad distribution of some social rights (like the right to work) as justification for a system that combined totalitarian political controls with monumental economic rigidities and inefficiencies.
If early Soviet industrialization cannot be considered a successful solution to Russia’s backwardness, then it becomes even more problematic to maintain that the collapse of the Soviet model was due mainly to conjunctural, rather than structural/systematic, reasons. For even if the conjunctural situation was favourable for Russia, it is difficult to envision how the Soviet system could possibly have adapted itself successfully to the post-industrial realities of the present world without radically restructuring its dominant relations of production. Even if it might have been possible, as in present-day China, to change the collectivist relations of production without at the same time changing the totalitarian relations of domination, this by no means would have meant that the resulting revolution (like that in China’s economic system) would have been due mainly to conjunctural developments. The East European crisis was a systemaic one: it was a matter of either accepting a permanent state of backwardness and peripheralization, or for the Soviet system to open up and ‘liberalize’—at least its economic institutions. In this sense the crisis was clearly structural rather than conjunctural.
If Therborn’s ‘crisis-deriving-from-success’ hypothesis (p. 30) does not apply at all to the Communist case, it is certainly appropriate for the West European social democracies. In these cases it is perfectly true that the social-democratic forces, through their crucial contribution to the construction of the welfare state, managed to humanize capitalism and so created the necessary but not sufficient conditions for its transcendence in some rather distant future.