I recently contributed to a Forum of former Communists, many of whom write under pseudonyms such as ‘Kim Philby’, ‘Guy Burgess’, ‘Uncle Joe’ and even ‘Graham Norton’ (this latter was in a discussion about gay rights in the old Communist movement. It clearly wasn’t the real Graham Norton from the tone of the message.)
It is very depressing that, 16 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, there is little attempt to go back to basics and analyze what went wrong, or to come to a consensus and point a way forward to insure the mistakes of the past are not repeated. Until this is done, of course, the extreme Left will be isolated politically in tiny factions and splinter groups.
The particular Forum I looked at, when my name was mentioned on it, seems to be full of unreformed hardliners or Stalinists, who are under the illusion that everything in the Soviet garden was absolutely rosy until Mikhail Gorbachov came along and ruined it.
It probably makes a big difference that I saw things weren’t right long before the Soviet Union collapsed - in the mid 1970s in fact. It became increasingly obvious to me that a ruling clique, awarding themselves special privileges, had distorted Socialism, that careerists and opportunists had gained control of all the organs of State power, and that while the basis of Socialism remained, and many things were achieved (such as full employment, social security, good education, etc.) there was no prospect whatsoever of a genuine people’s democracy developing, let along the self-governing Stateless society of Communism proper.
It seems things started to go wrong at the very outset, when even under the leadership of Lenin and Trotsky bureaucrats and Party officials started awarding themselves special privileges. The Kronstadt uprising tried to go back to the ideals of the Bolshevik Revolution, but was crushed by Trotsky’s Red Army under the orders of Lenin. This was, of course, hushed up by both ‘Stalinist’ and ‘Trotskyist’ branches of the Communist movement, as it tainted the revolutionary reputations of all the early Soviet Bolsheviks, including Lenin , Trotsky and Stalin.
The corruption of Party officials and State bureaucrats got worse as time went on, and careerists and opportunists with no allegiance to Socialism whatsoever flocked to the Party and took over the State to further their own selfish interests. I have talked to some members of the ruling elite from one Socialist country, and they confirm this was the case. They joined the Party merely to further their own careers, and only paid lip-service to Socialism.
I have analyzed elsewhere why this was possible when Marx, Engels and Lenin had said the workers’ vigilance and overwhelming numerical superiority would prevent a new ruling clique taking over. Basically, to make the Marxist-Leninist system work you need an incredible level of political commitment and maturity from millions of people on a daily basis to stop corruption and infiltration by careerists/opportunists. Once a ruling clique is in control, it is almost impossible to oust them under the one-party system.
‘Democratic centralism’, which is supposed to insure decisions are made by the rank and file Party members, who are then bound by these democratic decisions till the next Party Congress, worked no better in the various Communist parties of the world than it works in New Labour today. Decisions in the Soviet Union were made by the Central Committee and handed down, or by the supreme leader himself - such as Stalin. Few dared to challenge these decisions. In New Labour, Party Conferences are carefully controlled, and in any case all important decisions are made by the Prime Minister and the Cabinet. Democracy doesn’t enter into it. Centralism most certainly does.
Things are no better in the various other factions of the Left - the Trotskyist and Maoist ones for instance. Basically, if you don’t agree with the Party line, all you can do is leave and start a new faction of your own. In a one Party state, of course, even this option is closed to you, or extremely dangerous and likely to result in long-term imprisonment or worse.
The ‘comrades’ in these various Communist factions and splinter groups are all convinced Marx, Engels and Lenin were infallible and beyond criticism. Their written works can never be really challenged in the light of experience and updated. In this they share the blinkered outlook of religious fundamentalists who insist not one word of The Bible, The Torah or The Koran, etc. can be changed in the light of new experience and knowledge gained since they were wirtten.
So the Trotskyists insist everything would have been OK had he gained the General Secretaryship of the CPSU after Lenin died, instead of Stalin. The Stalinists insist everything would have been OK if he hadn’t died and been replaced eventually by Kruschov, who denounced Stalin at the 20th CPSU Congress in 1956. Others insist Leonid Brezhnev was Stalin’s true heir, and everything would have been OK if Gorbachov hadn’t eventually taken over the leadership.
I tend to think, myself, that Gorbachov was on the right track, and had he not been deposed in the hardline coup of August 1991, and eventually replaced by the buffoon Boris Yeltsin, the Soviet Union may have survived as a much more democratic and dynamic Socialist federation.
Moving from the USSR to Yugoslavia, where Tito had established a unique brand of Market Socialism under which industry and services were communally owned in the form of competing cooperatives and publicly owned enterprises. Some of these ‘Stalinists’ on the forum, always opposed to Tito’s brand of Socialism, are saying his Market Socialism caused unemployment. What utter nonsense! Under any Socialist system full employment can be guaranteed, because private enterprise is not trying to make profits at the workers’ expense. Even under Market Socialism on the Yugoslav model, work can be shared out to insure full employment. If there was unemployment, the problem could have been easily solved by creating jobs in the social service area. This is not so easily done in a free enterprise economy where public services are starved of funds.
Until Marxists of all descriptions are willing to look at their theories in the light of experience, we will make no progress. The Soviet model left a lot to be desired as there was not only a lack of people’s democracy, but the huge State monopolies tended to be rather cumbersome and inefficient, with a few exceptions.
In Britain too we found that whilst nationalization might work for the railways and a few other industries, alternative forms of common ownership, such as the Cooperative Societies, were better for other industries and services.
Tito came to the same conclusion in Yugoslavia. But whilst the worker cooperatives and public enterprises had a great degree of democracy, on a nationwide scale they again had the one-Party state with the ruling clique. This ruling clique became nationaists overnight when the Yugoslav Federation broke up into separate, warring republics. This showed they had no loyalty to Socialist ideals, but were either Communists corrupted by power and determined to hang on to it at all costs, or in many cases were always just careerists/opportunists who joined the Party just to further their careers. Either way, they were happy to reject Socialism overnight and re-brand themselves free-enterprise nationalists in order to cling on to power. They used the nationalist banner to gain public support, at a terrible cost in human lives.
If Socialism is to stand any chance of replacing the capitalist system in the 21st Century it has to learn from the experience of the 20th Century variety. There is no monolithic ‘right’ brand of Socialism. The way forward is thru a pluralistic approach. Mao Zedung once said: ‘Let a thousand flowers bloom’. There are many roads to Socialism, many alternative models. All must be given a chance by abandoning the one-party Dictatorship of the Proletariat, and replacing it with multi-party people’s democracies under Socialist Constitutions. This would allow the electorate to choose different models of Socialism, and prevent a ruling clique gaining absolute power and control - they could always be voted out.
The self-governing society of Communism proper may well be too idealistic to ever be possible on a nationwide or worldwide scale, but some will still strive for it. It may work in small communes of idealists on a far less grand scale, but if it is to work on a national/global basis it requires a great deal of political commitment, maturity and vigilance by millions of people. I can’t personally see this happening in the foreseeable future. Rather than striving for Communism, I will be content to see truly Socialist states and federations established to replace the failing international capitalist system, which thru globalization is causing all sorts of problems for the environment, quite apart from its blatant exploitatin of human and natural resources around the world.
We are now reaching a stage where international capitalism based on giant multi-nationals does not offer true competition or a free market place at all. It could well be that only Yugoslav-type Market Socialism can do that, under a Socialist state which insures prices are controlled, there is full employment and the labor force is not exploited. And which also insures that the consumers’ interests are not sacrificed in the drive for increased profits.
The current trend towards mergers and take-overs, crushing competition. would not be allowed under Market Socialism. Certain industries, such as the railways, may be better run as a State monopoly, but most would be kept as competitive elements by State legislation.