Many on the far left have different theories and reasons for the current and ongoing disarray, fracture and ineffectiveness of left-wing parties, organizations and tendencies around the world, a malaise which has undoubtedly served to hold back the cause of self-determination and social and economic justice.
Some, believing wholeheartedly in Marx’s principle of dialectic materialism, put this down to unfavourable objective conditions and, consequently, are content to wait until said objective conditions change, as they surely must as capitalism exhausts itself and the masses rise up spontaneously in resistance to continued oppression, repression, unemployment, imperialism and war.
Others are more circumspect about such orthodoxy, holding to the belief that it will take direct action to stir and inspire the masses. They bolster this position by pointing out that in certain situations the consciousness of the masses does not have to precede action.
But maybe neither position is correct. Maybe our present state is due neither to objective conditions nor a failure to act decisively. Maybe, instead, the moribund state of socialism in the world today is due to a fixation on and obsession with the past.
Just consider for a moment the variety of strands of socialist currents that abound: Marxist-Leninist, Marxist-Leninist-Maoist, Trotskyist, Revolutionary Socialism, Scientific Socialism, Parliamentary Socialism, and so on.
So many different tendencies which have led to the formation of so many parties and organizations vying for support and claiming legitimacy as the true vanguard of the movement.
Which then begs the question: What movement?
Because, currently, in Europe and the United States, there is no movement - or at least none either effective or large enough to be worthy of the name.
Yes, we all witnessed and were involved in the huge antiwar demonstrations that took place in advance of the US attack and invasion of Iraq, demonstrations the size and sheer breadth of which took all of us by surprise. And, yes, as ever, socialist parties came together to form broad front coalitions in order to make these protests and rallies as large and as effective as possible. However, as soon as the war began, what happened? The people disappeared; they returned home demoralised, not only by the fact the war proceeded despite their efforts, but also by the failure of the leadership within the global anti-war movement to adapt and offer any kind of strategy for a way forward once the war did proceed.
In the face of this the left floundered, coalitions withered away, and we all retreated back into the narrow confines of our respective parties and tendencies to the role we know so well: talking to and amongst ourselves on the margins.
I’ve already postulated the reason for the chronic weakness of the left as being due to a neurotic and divisive obsession with the past, one that gives truth to the adage that ‘over-analysis leads to paralysis.’ In order to come to any kind of conclusion that might lead to a solution, however, we need to be more specific than that. And in so doing we cannot but fail to arrive at the question of the Soviet Union and its rightful place in history as the main reason for division and sectarianism on the left.
In historical terms, to some the Soviet Union constitutes a socialist experiment that failed for one reason or another, to others it was nothing more than a state bureaucracy under which the masses were repressed and imprisoned on a scale never before seen.
Those who support the former position, that the Soviet Union was indeed a socialist state, typically claim that due to certain objective and external conditions the Soviet Union was never able to move beyond the stage of a state run, planned economy necessary to industrialise the country and develop the productive forces and a homogenized proletariat. They point to the fact that, as a semi-feudal, backward country at the time of the 1917 October revolution, the Soviet Union’s (Russian empire at that time) already weak economy was broken by the First World War. Then, after the war, as the ruling classes across the rest of Europe were able to crush all attempts by the proletariat to take power in their own countries, the Soviet Union became isolated, which served to further hamper its development. A civil war came after, which raged for three or four years, with the counter-revolutionary forces aided and abetted by imperialist countries in Europe and by the United States. Add to that a Second World War in which the Soviet Union faced a titanic struggle against a fascist invasion that ravaged the country, its economy and infrastructure, at a human cost of some 30 million lives, and you have many reasons for what came to be rather than what should have been.
And yet, even with all that, the Soviet Union, instituting a planned economy, still managed to develop from its semi-feudal,backward state to superpower status in just a few decades, inaugurating a space and nuclear program, as well as helping to stem the tide of imperialism in Korea, Vietnam, Africa, as well as coming to Cuba’s aid and ensuring its survival in the face of a US embargo and aggression. Domestically, it was able to provide and maintain full employment for its people, health care, education and housing.
Doesn’t matter, many socialists will say, because the price paid by the people, the workers, in the Soviet Union was repression. Rather than the workers controlling the state, the state controlled the workers. The system of worker-controlled factories and plants was abolished by 1918, as Lenin decided upon centralised control by the Party and no place in the decision-making process by non-Party workers. Under Stalin, repression and purges wiped out any vestige of hope of socialism ever taking root. The bureaucratic elite that formed around his rule enjoyed all the trappings and privileges of power - access to consumer goods, luxury items, etc. - while the workers in a supposed workers state lived in a state of perennial deprivation and hardship. Forced collectivisation in the countryside led to famine, which wiped out an estimated 2-3 million people, and there was no freedom of movement, expression, or even thought. The massive irrigation and road building programs carried out were done so using slave labour, and the formation of the Eastern Bloc after the Second World War exposed the Soviet Union as an imperial power rather than a socialist one.
Needless to say, there are other arguments that can be brought both in favour and against the Soviet Union, but I think the aforementioned is demonstrative of the schism that exists on the left with regard to this particular issue; the most divisive, as already stated, among socialists and responsible by and large for the myriad parties and tendencies which presently exist.
However, that said, today surely it is the task of finding a way to foment unity in order to move forward that should be occupying the minds of socialists across the world. Indeed, the preventable disease and chronic malnutrition suffered by millions in the so-called developing world; the huge and rising inequality that has spread on the back of a shift back to the laissez faire model of Capitalism of the nineteenth century, under which the market dictates who eats and who doesn’t, who in effect lives or dies, demands that we do, that we come together and agree on an international program of resistance.
For, judging by the aforementioned the unprecedented and coordinated anti-war demonstrations that took place across the world in February of last year, there is no doubt that the potential support and enthusiasm exists for a unified, multinational movement, one encapsulating the environment, social and economic justice, anti-imperialism, anti-war, pro-choice for women, an end to the IMF, World Bank, WTO and GATT, and labour and human rights for all.
The struggle over these issues could constitute be the first stage in the struggle for socialism. As things progress, and the movement grows and becomes increasingly effective, we could discuss and debate the doctrinal and historical issues and questions that divide us, with the aim of either reaching common ground or, in the worst case scenario, agreeing to disagree. Only when things reach a stage of critical mass, when the masses across the world, or even in a region of the world, start to rise up, will it become necessary to establish a leadership or a vanguard party to guide the workers and the oppressed to power. And at that stage the masses will decide, as they did in the case of Lenin and the Bolsheviks to the exclusion of the Mensheviks back in 1917.
However, that said, it is my contention, based on today’s realities, that this stage still remains a long way off, and perhaps will not even arrive for another generation or more.
With this in mind, today’s myriad parties, tendencies and disparate socialist organisations, by existing in and looking to the past, could be said to be serving no purpose other than their own self-aggrandizement, in a classic case of too many chiefs and not enough Indians.
Ultimately, it is only by looking forward with hope that socialism stands any chance of success. History is important to a point. However, if Marxism is anything it is a living science; and just like all living things it must move forward, rejuvenate and progress, or else it will stagnate and die.
As the current generation of socialists, we have an obligation to make sure that that doesn’t happen in our lifetime, that the idea of a world based on social and economic justice, the goal of ending the exploitation of man by man, is passed on intact to the next. We’ve yet to make our own history in struggle. Surely it is only by uniting that we shall ever be able to.
John Foley, USA