The original see at http://www.hartford-hwp.com/archives/63/087.html
The unfinished revolution
By Boris Kagarlitsky, in Green Left Weekly
Nr. 296. 5 November 1997
On the topic of the Russian Revolution, it might appear that everything
worth saying has already been said.
Throughout the Soviet decades, leftists repeatedly cited Trotsky and his
biographer Isaac Deutscher on the bureaucratic degeneration of the regime,
the incompleteness of the revolutionary process and the possibility of it
being rolled back. Social democrats repeated the arguments of Kautsky and
Martov concerning the prematureness of the Bolshevik experiment and its
antidemocratic 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 conclude the discussion. However, the events turned
out to be a complete surprise for the ideologues. 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.
Liberal ideologues have been forced to turn to the language of Soviet
communism. 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
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" 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.
Against this background, the debate about the outcome of the Russian
Revolution is unfolding anew. Uncertainty means that people are forced
continually to glance back. If everything is so clear, then why is
everything so incomprehensible?
The examination of the past conceals a fear of the future. The discussion
is going in circles. People are confronted by the paradox that in order to
make sense of the past it is necessary first to gain a better
understanding of the present.
The collapse of the Soviet system was not only a fatal blow to the
communist movement. 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. Leftists are coming to power not in
order to implement their own program, but to continue the policies of the
neo-liberals. In many ways, these neophytes of capitalism are not less but
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
Although 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 and come peacefully to office, not a single government of
the left won power in Europe before the Russian Revolution of 1917.
Perhaps this was no more than coincidence. But the events 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 social transformation did not have to be
revolutionary; and that within 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
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
postwar era represented a sort of reaction by western society to this
Prince Kropotkin in his time reminded Lenin that the revolutionary terror
delayed the spread of the principles of the French Revolution in Europe by
a full 80 years. In Kropotkin's view, the same would also happen with
Russian socialism. But of course, subsequent events hinged not only on the
terror, but also on the system and structures that arose out of the
Like the 18th-century French Jacobins, the Bolsheviks were harsh,
authoritarian and at times incompetent. But they managed to achieve
changes so far-reaching that their full significance will be apparent only
For all their errors and crimes, both the Jacobins and the Bolsheviks
inspired millions, giving them back their self-esteem and their belief in
their own strength. On this level the Russian Revolution, for all its
authoritarianism, had an immense liberating significance.
This might be termed the "revolutionary impulse". Communist ideology
during the period of industrialisation 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.
The influence of the Russian Revolution on western society was also
enormous, but it turned out to be quite different from what the ideologues
of October had hoped. The Russian experience both impelled the ruling
classes to make concessions, and at the same time acted as an obstacle to
the search for a distinctive European model of radical social change.
The success of reformist endeavours was directly proportional to the
seriousness of the "revolutionary blackmail" embodied in the world
communist movement and the "Soviet menace". Socialism was able to play a
huge role in improving the functioning of capitalism precisely because of
its anticapitalist essence.
If socialism had not been a real alternative, if it had not had its own
economic and social logic that could serve as a real basis for the
creation of a new society, it would not have been able to develop the
ideas and approaches needed for successful reforms.
If socialist ideology had ceased to be a fundamental alternative to
capitalism, if the labour movement had lost its capacity for aggressive
militancy and had not been capable of determined struggle, it would not
have been able to subdue anybody or anything. Without class hostility,
there would not have been any social reforms or social partnership.
Partnership in this setting does not arise out of mutual sympathy between
the partners, but from an understanding that rejecting partnership could
have catastrophic results.
East and west
When examined from the point of view of liberal "common sense", the
whole period since 1917 seems like a chain of errors and crimes. This
impression is misleading; the impulse of 1917 lasted so long for the
reason that along this path there were also impressive victories,
including economic ones.
Nevertheless, looking back, it is easy to take the view that while Russia
received shocks, "Red terror", collectivisation, the Stalinist
Thermidor, the massive repressions of the 1930s, the horrors of war and
the strain of postwar reconstruction, the west got consumer society, a
viable democratic system and "civilised" capitalism. The point that
escapes the superficial observer is that the one would not have been
possible without the other.
The "successes" of the west would have been impossible without our
tragic history. By the 1930s the Soviet Union was no longer ruled by a
"revolutionary regime". Trotsky correctly called the new political order
the Soviet Thermidor.
In the 1940s, with the rise of the Soviet super-power, the regime
increasingly took on Bonapartist features. Though gravely weakened, the
revolutionary impulse still made itself felt, and this was the secret both
of the socioeconomic successes of the USSR in the postwar period, and of
the attractiveness of our country for the developing world.
Nevertheless, this impulse was finally extinguished. By the late 1980s, we
had a huge country with an inefficient super-centralised (and not
particularly planned) economy, and a bloated, hypertrophic bureaucracy
that was dreaming of acquiring property as well as power. The time had
come for restoration. This historical task was taken on by the Yeltsin
regime, with support from the west.
The time had come for an epoch of reaction, which the press christened
"liberal reforms". This reaction was part of a worldwide process. Just
as the Holy Alliance after the Napoleonic wars tried to root out the
results of the French Revolution, so today the International Monetary
Fund, Maastricht Europe and the US "new world order" represent the
reactionary answer of the old elites to the downfall of the revolutionary
It might be said that the main historical achievement of our revolution
was the reforming of capitalism in the west. Now, as a result of the
collapse of communism, this achievement is under threat. The defeat of the
revolution is not simply weakening reformism, but in a certain sense,
making it quite impossible.
Since 1989 the reformist course of the labour movement in the west has
totally exhausted itself, and there is no new strategy or ideology. As the
west has entered an era of acute social conflicts and unclear political
alternatives, the place of reformism and revolutionism has been taken
spontaneously by radicalism, expressed in uncoordinated aggressive demands
and in outbursts of unorganised protest.
Capitalism, after emerging victorious from its struggle with communism,
has remained subject to its own forces of self-destruction. It is as
though we had returned to the pre-October epoch.
Our historical task - ultimately, a question of survival - is becoming the
search for new forms of social being, without which neither politics nor
economics is possible. In Russia this social being cannot be bourgeois,
because of the lack of a fully realised bourgeoisie. Creating a
bourgeoisie retrospectively, on the basis of privatisation, is just as
impossible as living someone else's life over again.
For Russia as for many countries, the perspectives for the development of
the economy cannot be capitalist because of the ineffectiveness of the
model that has taken shape. Consequently, a radical, innovative
alternative remains on the agenda.
The ideology of the left can become an important factor in the
organisation of society precisely because of its collectivism. The task of
the left in Russia is not only to express already formed interests, but
also to help in their formation and, at the same time, to create itself as
a political force. This will need to be done all over again.
A renewal of the social being offers the only chance for democratic
development. Collectivism does not always guarantee freedom, but our
freedom can no longer be defended without it. Left radicalism, ripening in
a natural fashion in a land of failed capitalism, may not become the
ideology of progress, but without it progress is impossible.
People have either to organise themselves to carry out joint actions or to
reconcile themselves to their fates. The passivity and submissiveness of
the masses will not lead to stability, since the source of the
destabilisation is the people at the top.
In the age of the Holy Alliance it was possible to argue that the
historical project of the French Revolution had ended in total defeat. But
the epoch of reaction was followed by a new wave of revolutionary shocks,
preconditioned precisely by the policies of the restoration.
We are seeing the same thing today. The "new world order", which is
systematically doing away with the elements of the "social state" in all
countries, is creating the conditions for a train of new revolutionary
Reaction is a natural historical phenomenon, but it becomes exhausted just
as revolutions do. When this exhaustion sets in, a new era of change can
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