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
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.
In essence, what we see today is nothing other than the crisis of the historic consequences of the Russian Revolution of 1917. The social reforms of the post-war era represented a reaction by Western society to this revolution. Prince Kropotkin reminded Lenin that the revolutionary terror delayed the spread of the principles of the French Revolution in Europe by a full eighty years. In Kropotkin’s view, the same would also happen with Russian socialism. Lenin undoubtedly saw things differently. But of course, subsequent events hinged not only on the terror, but also on the system and structures that arose out of the revolution. The Soviet model was clearly unsuited to being reproduced throughout Europe.
Like the eighteenth-century French Jacobins, the Bolsheviks were harsh, authoritarian, and at times incompetent. But at the same time they managed to achieve changes so far-reaching that their full significance will be apparent only after centuries. For all their errors and crimes, both the Jacobins and the Bolsheviks inspired millions of people, giving them self-esteem and a belief in their own strength. On this level the Russian Revolution, for all its authoritarianism, had an immense liberating significance. The fact that people gained a sense of being in control, that they became conscious of themselves as participants in historic events rather than onlookers, predetermined both the victory of the Reds in the Civil War and the later successes of the ussr. This might be termed the ‘revolutionary impulse’. However paradoxical it might seem, communist ideology during the period of industrialization served as a sort of Russian substitute for the well-known ‘Protestant ethic’. This is why after 1991 the Russian elites—unlike the Chinese ones—in putting an end to communism simultaneously did away with the only possible psychological and ethical preconditions for the development of capitalism. Here lies the reason why the ‘Russian reforms’ have failed, while those in China have succeeded. And this, perhaps, represents the only historical service which the present regime in Moscow has performed.