Four years ago in November, when the 70th anniversary of the Revolution was being celebrated, I was in the procession moving slowly along the Nevsky Prospekt in Leningrad. Placards everywhere hailed perestroika; the atmosphere, as well as I could make out, was of good-humoured hopefulness, rather than vibrant enthusiasm. In the evening a multitude gathered to watch the fireworks over the river, close to the Winter Palace. A few juvenile rowdies were in evidence, no police. It is melancholy now to learn of that city, with its heroic record, renouncing its name, and going back not even to its last, Russian name of Petrograd, but to the original German one; and of the return of the flag of the Tsars, which was flying over the Winter Palace when the workers were massacred outside it in January 1905.
It is not, however, for any Marxist to be astonished at what has befallen the Soviet Union now. Marxism is founded on historical materialism, and the Soviet system has failed to produce the material welfare that the Soviet peoples were entitled to expect from it. Long years of torpor wheezingly presided over by Brezhnev left it too rheumatic for recovery. Only abroad were bold steps still being taken, criminally in Czechoslovakia, foolishly in Afghanistan. Perestroika could have succeeded only if the Communist Party could have been made to realise that the day of reckoning was at hand, and to reorganise itself drastically for the task of mobilising national energy. Gorbachev gave the right call, but was unable to crank up the rusty engine.
Deafening applause for the superior virtues of ‘Democracy’, as a method now fully vindicated, resounds through the West. A truly democratic society is indeed highly desirable. It has never existed anywhere yet, and will not be brought into being simply by politicians telling us that we have got it already. Marx saw it as the long-term goal, at a time when anyone in Western Europe calling himself a democrat was regarded with deep suspicion; but political democracy, he pointed out, could not be established without social democracy. In the West inequalities of wealth and education are much too great to allow democracy to change from a catchword into a reality. Soviet Communists are accused of having feathered their nests at the expense of their people. In Britain a party which has held power for a dozen years with a minority of votes has plundered the people of a gigantic sum of national wealth.
Especially in a vast region as backward and diverse as the old Tsarist empire, the conception of a party of activists brought together by socialist ideals to guide and inspire their country, was a challenging one. The Soviet Communist Party did enlist a great deal of constructive energy, and what it accomplished was in many ways impressive. It made the USSR strong enough to save Europe from Fascism, though at fearful cost to itself. The immense experiment might be compared to the attempt of the Medieval Catholic Church – disciplined, supra-national, at its best devoted to the highest aims to civilise a barbarous continent.