Twenty five years after the collapse of Stalinism, Aindrias Ó Cathasaigh looked at its consequences in Issue 58 (December 2014).
A quarter of a century has now passed since the fall of the Berlin wall. Unless you’re pushing forty at least, your entire political activity will have taken place in the post-Wall world. The majority of that activity will have happened since its fall unless you have the free bus pass in your pocket or in the post. As if that wasn’t enough, Marathon and Opal Fruits have in the meantime become Snickers and Starburst. The point is not to remind ourselves how old we’re getting, but of how long a shadow the upheavals of 1989 cast over us all.
Some on the left haven’t stopped crying into their beer since. The most lachrymose are those who frankly believe that Stalinism was a good thing, people whose conception of socialism is irreparably warped anyway. But beyond that, many socialists look at 1989 and all that as a tragedy, an outright victory for capitalism and a catastrophe for the cause of socialism.
Of course, much depends on how we regard the system which got swept away in it all. The claim of that system to be socialist has to qualify as the cruellest and biggest of its lies. The decay of the Russian revolution became a full-scale counter-revolution from the 1920s on under the leadership of Stalin. Russian society came under the control of a ruling class, accumulating wealth and privileges for itself through the exploitation of workers. The fundamental driving force of the Russian economy was essentially the same as that at work elsewhere: it was a capitalist country through and through. Under the political influence it won at the end of the second world war, it imposed versions of the same system in eastern Europe.
The most noticeable difference between this capitalism and others was the overarching role of the state. However, in spite of neoliberal propaganda, the state is not the antithesis of capitalism, but an integral part of its functioning. The history of capitalism, east and west, is indelibly marked with the use of the state’s coercive powers to clear the way for accumulation and maintain its functioning. This, after all, is why Marxists have seen it as an instrument of capitalist rule. State control of key sectors of the economy is commonplace where private capital cannot see its way to making enough profit. In times of war and emergency, this state has never hesitated to assume overall direction of economic activity. Such state capitalism keeps the system intact. The political power inextricably bound up with it can even facilitate capitalist exploitation further by preventing workers organising in unions or parties to defend their interests against their political-economic rulers.
It was common enough for socialists to say that the Stalinist system wasn’t fully socialist, but that it was a post-capitalist one, based on socialised planned economies. Therefore such societies represented something other than capitalism, a step forward compared to it, which was worth defending. Radical democratisation was needed in the political sphere, but their economic frameworks should be reformed rather than overthrown.
Such a view mistook certain common features of capitalism for the system’s essence. State ownership of the economy, in part or in whole, is in no way incompatible with the extraction of surplus value from the working class. Government planning is something increasingly common in capitalist economies. The crucial point is the situation of the workers. If they are subject to the direction of another class, forced to accumulate wealth for the good of others, alienated from their own labour, then what you have is capitalism, whatever its outer covering looks like. Socialism would see workers democratically controlling their own labour, directing it towards their collective and individual welfare. A society in transition from capitalism to socialism would be moving from the first to the second, and the success of its transition could be measured precisely by how far it had progressed along that path.
Although when and how is a matter of debate, there would be a point in Russia’s counter-revolution when it could have been halted and reversed, when the working class could have asserted itself strongly enough to push the bureaucracy aside and regain the initiative it had won in 1917. But when that counter-revolution had consolidated its power for generations, the prospect of removing it while leaving the economic pillars standing was gone. In eastern Europe such a prospect was never there, because nothing like workers’ revolutions had happened there. Indeed, how workers’ states —even horribly misshapen ones—can be established without the workers is one of the strangest paradoxes to be resolved by socialists who imagined that capitalism had been got rid of in eastern Europe.
Much like capitalism elsewhere, Stalinist societies were prone to economic crisis, and fearful of revolt by the working class. Such revolt surfaced repeatedly, against odds difficult to imagine in the west, adding heroic chapters to the struggles of our class. Again and again, the ruling classes were forced to manoeuvre between concession and repression. Attempts in the 1980s to refurbish the system opened cracks among the rulers through which popular discontent could break through.
Admirers of Gorbachev’s limited reforms can still be found cursing the fact that the people just didn’t know their place, refused to accept the passive role alloted to them in incremental reform, instead taking matters into their own hands and further than was intended from above. Because it is, of course, untrue to say that the Berlin Wall ‘fell’: it was knocked, smashed to rubble by a popular uprising which —not unlike 1848 or the Arab spring—spread across borders like wildfire. The joy and enthusiasm of people getting off their knees and into the streets to kick a hated dictatorship into the gutter is something every socialist should celebrate.
And no socialist should honestly be surprised that right-wing forces managed to ride the wave of these movements. The simple force of inertia weighs in favour of those looking to reconstitute the old order on a new basis, as against those looking to overthrow it. While socialist currents existed throughout Russia and eastern Europe, they had been kept quiet for decades and were hardly likely to emerge fully formed out of the darkness. The myth that ‘western democracy’ was the answer to people’s problems had far more powerful forces to propagate it. Many popular revolts throughout history have stalled at an early stage, allowing other forces to fill the gap, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t authentic movements to begin with. It means that the left and the working class weren’t strong enough to win leadership of them.
“Meet the new boss / Same as the old boss”, the lyric sung a thousand times in such circumstances, was often literally true here. To an alarming extent, Communist Party apparatchiks and their placemen simply decked themselves out in reformers’ clothes and held on to positions of economic and political influence. The ease with which they shed their skins is further confirmation that socialism was not being replaced with capitalism, but one form of capitalism with another. In many cases they already had experience of introducing market mechanisms and forming partnerships with multinational companies, and adapting themselves to the new surroundings proved easy enough.
Twenty five years on, the political situation in Russia and eastern Europe is often grim enough, with right-wing governments merrily attacking the working class with gusto, sometimes utilising the repressive measures of old against opponents. To many, this is proof enough that the working class of these countries are worse off for the events of 1989, that those events clearly represent a setback.
But any comparison has to be a universal rather than a selective one. It is easy to isolate a particular time and place and find the result you are looking for, but we are dealing with a vast expanse of space and time. So we need to look at the devastating Russian famines of the 1930s as well as the shiny industrial breakthroughs of the 1960s, to examine the economic growth of modern Slovenia as well as the stagnation of Moldova, to see the wood rather than picking individual trees. Such a comprehensive examination would reveal a mixed pattern of improvement and decline in different areas. Medical statistics show that life expectancy across eastern Europe has clearly increased since 1989, but also that the differential with western Europe remains much the same. Overall, neither a dramatic rise nor a catastrophic fall in living standards is evident. Both nostalgic Stalinists and neoliberal ideologues have to systematically cherrypick their facts to sustain claims that 1989 was either the end or the beginning of a golden era for Russia and eastern Europe.
The theory that Stalinism was less than socialism but more than capitalism comes across here as an each-way bet. When such societies achieve something good such as full employment or space travel, that can be claimed as a benefit of the state-owned planned economy; when they do something bad such as shooting protestors or failing to provide basic consumer goods, that can be condemned as a failure of bureaucratic rigidity. Having your cake and eating it may be more comfortable than taking a clear position and sticking to it, but makes for political confusion.
The social welfare systems of Stalinist countries are often advanced in their favour. It is true that free health, education and childcare were often of a high standard. But the same could be said for Scandinavian countries in the heyday of Nordic social democracy. They were capitalist societies which provided a more generous welfare state. To see them as more than that is to shake hands with reformism in the belief that socialism is about making class society more tolerable rather than abolishing it.
It is important not to limit the comparison to raw economic indicators. People don’t live by bread alone, and as well as the absolute necessities of nourishment and shelter, need the freedom to think and express, to discuss and act collectively. The denial of political liberties under Stalinism is not an incidental matter, but at the heart of what was wrong with it, a sufficient condition in itself to rule out any affinity with socialism. The significant improvements in this relation across most of those countries (not all) is a major item on the credit side of the balance sheet.
Around the same time that Stalinism was departing the scene in eastern Europe, an array of states around the world dropped it too. For the most part, these were countries in the southern hemisphere which had adopted versions of the Russian model after ending colonial rule. Again, no workers’ revolution had brought them about, and no revolution was required to usher them out. Essentially, ruling elites saw no further advantage in hitching their wagons to an imploding star, and remodelled themselves accordingly.
One of the last men standing is China, along with its neighbours Vietnam and Laos. (North Korea, with its grotesque system of feudal absolutism, must be an embarrassment to even the most dyed-in-the-wool Stalinist.) While quaintly retaining the name of Communists, the Chinese ruling class have seamlessly presided over the most capitalist country in the world, coining its vast human and physical resources into profits all the bigger for the continuing suppression of workers’ rights. The options available to untramelled state capitalism have brought China close to a leading role in the world economy.
Cuba, on the other hand, has suffered heavily from the disappearance of the subsidies and trade it received as a loyal camp follower of the USSR. At the same time, the reprehensible economic blockade enforced by the US has limited Cuba’s chances of full dependence on the world market. Nevertheless, a move from state capitalism towards market capitalism is clearly taking place in slow motion, while Chinese-style restrictions on democratic rights remain. Supporting the Cuban people against the continuing efforts of US imperialism to bring them to heel should go without saying for any socialist, but that is not the same thing at all as supporting the Cuban government, let alone the undemocratic system it presides over. Supporting that government leads to going along with its solidarity towards reactionary regimes in Beijing and Tehran, for no better reason than they happen to find themselves on a different side to the US. There is no credibility in opposing US oppression of Cuba if you remain silent over China’s oppression of Tibet or Iran’s oppression of the Kurds. That would be to accept imperialism in some of its guises, when it should be rejected in total.
Some are taking it a step further, backing up Putin’s expansionist intimidation in Ukraine and elsewhere, and even Assad’s murderous attempt to cling to power. Old-fashioned Stalinism has here passed over into straightforward cheerleading of whoever sits in the Kremlin, as well as his puppets and his right to an imperial sphere of influence, regardless of what political flag he flies. Believing that a balance of empires is all we can hope for, desperately seeking someone with power to worship, dismissing any prospect of the working class being capable of acting for themselves on the political stage, is one of the most pathetic hangovers of Stalinism.
Claiming that life was alright under Stalinism for people who didn’t bother those in power—even if it were true—is to consign working people to a role as permanently meek objects of history, never its bold subjects. The lack of democracy under Stalinism was one of the key reasons it never caught on where people had any choice in the matter. It is crucial for the left to understand that having a free say in your life is important to the working class. And rightly so: we are not animals who can be satisfied with better rations, but humans who demand power over our lives. As Marx said, the working class needs its independence and self-respect as much as its daily bread. The basic human urge to control our destinies, to make life more democratic in the real sense, is at the heart of any meaningful socialist project.
While twenty five years is a long time, the mundane banalities and exceptional cruelties of life in Russia and eastern Europe before 1989 are still identified in the public mind with what socialism looks like. It continues to weigh down on attempts to envisage, let alone achieve, a society beyond capitalism. Instead of openly advocating an alternative way of running the world, these days the left usually reserves talk of revolution for internal consumption while presenting the working class with energetic programmes for reforming the worst excesses of capitalism. Failing to nail the lie that Stalinism equals socialism, or even a step towards it, has handed a huge advantage to the other side in the class struggle. Politics, even left-wing politics, now focusses on internal modifications of the power and wealth structure without questioning its foundations.
So Stalinism cannot be dismissed as ‘a historical question’. Being historical is no reason for socialists to forget something, anyway, but the shadow of Stalinism does still linger. Socialism has to make crystal clear that it has nothing whatever in common with that system, is determined to break unreservedly and unambiguously with that perversion of socialism, to remove that stain. Otherwise our gains won’t just be few, but will be deservedly so.