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.
In each case success was limited, partly because of human failings, some at the lowest levels of the organisation, some at the highest. In the USSR party and government were too closely intertwined (as church and state came to be in Christendom); co-optation made the party too self-perpetuating, too little self-critical; and where the comforts of life were scarce, the temptation to use influence to get an unfair share was strong. The Party, like the Roman Church, became too rich, and was no longer hungry for change. Dissidents were purged wholesale, as heretics were got rid of at the stake. The Church came down in the end to burning witches, as agents of the Devil, instead of regenerating itself and society, and thereby made a Reformation inevitable. In its later Stalinist phases the Communist Party was doing much the same. The failure of its mission is a tragedy for mankind as a whole, like the failure of all religions in turn to live up to their proclaimed ideals.
Among the features of the ‘New Civilisation’ that the Webbs expressed most respect for in their magnum opus of 1935 was its pro-gramme for solving the problem of nationalities. This was designed to draw together in one family a medley of peoples, at all levels of development, many of them heirs to old feuds among themselves, while endowing each of them with freedom to foster its own culture. Here was one field where the existence of a party winning recruits among all the peoples, and everywhere working towards the same general objectives, was most vital.
On 2 September the Union was dissolved. It is of interest now to compare the last scenes of what the West always went on calling the ‘Russian empire’ with those of the Western empires. In important features the comparison seems very much in Soviet Russia’s favour. While the West exploited its colonics (though not seldom the cost outstripped the profits), it appears that Russia – though benefiting in some ways from the Union – has on balance been subsidising the other members, particularly the poorer ones (and Eastern Europe too), rather than squeezing them. Russia’s populist leader has been able to garner votes by helping to dismantle the Union instead of demanding its maintenance – much as, in Yugoslavia, Croatia and Slovenia have long wanted to shake off the burden of subsidising ill-developed Bosnia and Macedonia. All Western imperialists, on the contrary, fought tooth and nail to prevent some or all of their colonies from breaking away, the worst being the French with their murderous wars in Vietnam and Algeria.
What violence has taken place in the USSR has nearly all been the work of regional governments or factions, attacking one another. It was foreseeable that nationalist demagogy would seize its chances in the vacuum so suddenly opening up; but it is greatly to the credit of Soviet rule that, if it could not bury all old local animosities, it calmed some of them and kept them all within bounds. Nothing has happened like the dreadful bloodshed that accompanied Indian independence and partition in 1947, partly though not wholly the outcome of long-continued dividing and ruling by the British.
All the same, a free, peaceful, democratic future for the minor republics is more easily hoped for than expected. Capitalism has very seldom been got going anywhere under democratic auspices; it goes too much against the grain of human nature. The record of the Baltic States, for example, during their brief inter-war period of independence is not encouraging. They had never had a time of opportunity to recover from the crippling experience of German conquest, and reduction to serfdom, in the Middle Ages. Under Tsarism, down to the Revolution, their German landowners still ruled the roost, and were an incubus on the Russian people as well as on their own. In the Thirties it was only a question of whether Russia would take these provinces back or Germany would get them again. During World War Two the Nazis were able to recruit there not only troops for service in Russia, but death-squads for dealing with Russian Jews. Armenians and Azerbaijanis, with ancient grudges fanned by religion, are at loggerheads again over a patch territory: no great wonder, when Britons and Argentinians ean so easily be set bawling their silly heads off over scraps of islands in the South Atlantic.
Central Asian cities, for centuries wrapped in Stygian darkness, had come to look, when I saw them some years ago – with the admittedly myopic eye of a tourist – remarkably modern and progressive. It will be sad if all this improvement sinks back into the sands, blighted by ethnic quarrels and newly-stirred religious fanaticism. Pakistan is said to be desirous of having consulates all over the region; by advertising itself as a pillar of the pure faith, its government will be scoring a success abroad to make up for the way its own country is going to rack and ruin, or heroin and gun.
At the time of the first Russian revolution in 1905-6, when peasants were seizing land, nationalities revolting, liberals calling for a constitution, Tsarism was helped to crush them all and recover power by generous loans from the West. It had a military alliance with France, Britain was soon to join them in the Triple Entente (and thereby treble the likelihood of the war that broke out in 1914). There were no lengthy hesitations then about coming to the aid of a Russian government in difficulties, as today when it is the Russian people that needs help. After the revolution of 1917 the Allies invaded Russia and fomented a ruinous civil war. The USSR had to grow up in a hostile capitalist world. A still more destructive invasion came in 1941. Subsequently the USA and its European satellites kept an arms race going, largely with the object of impoverishing the USSR. All this helped to impede its development; most of all, perhaps, by making it easier for the men in power to eliminate their critics and silence discussion.
An item in the background of the 1917 upheaval was the firing on Russian miners on strike, in April 1912, in the mainly British-owned Lena goldfield, when hundreds were killed or wounded. Today foreign capitalists are preparing to move in and get possession of goldfields and whatever else they can, as soon as they feel sure that every vestige of socialism has been swept away. But the two greatest gains of the West from Russia it owes, paradoxically, to what happened in 1917. In the first place, it was provided with a bogeyman, a demonic menace, that could always be used to discredit socialism, or in the USA even liberalism. But secondly, in face of growing Soviet strength and influence, some real change of front was necessary, though it took another world war and the loss of another large region, China, to make Western rulers face the need. Soon after that war the Marshall Plan sounded its inspiring trumpet-call: Capitalists of the world, unite! From then on the old obsession with beggar-my-neighbour competition was giving way to the vision of a capitalist Co-Prosperity Sphere (with Japan appropriately the chief beneficiary).
This has had – to give the Mammon of Unrighteousness his due – an imposing success. From 1917 can be traced the birth not only of an imperfect new civilisation in the USSR, but of another in the West. That today’s Western affluence should have come about, deviously, as a result of a Bolshevik revolution, is as bizarre an example as history can show of what Engels called the ‘parallelogram of forces’: the way that contending forces jostle one another out of direction, so that what comes about in the end is something that nobody was aiming at. There could be no clearer warning for Marxists – or anyone else – of the hazards of calculating causes and effects. Shakespeare’s dark backward and abysm of time gone by is not nearly so impenetrably dark as time to come.
Today the big Slav Republics of the western USSR are being eagerly invited into the capitalist club. Whether it will prove hospit-able enough to absorb these and other new members, we can only guess. There are already strains, with no longer any grand external danger to counteract them. Trade wars may come back; not much later, shapes of the past like the old Franco-Russian combination against Germany. A new, bigger combination of Europe and Japan against the American hegemony is not impossible to imagine; or of Europe and America against Japan and the Far East, White against Yellow. This is already being whispered about. In the USA they are still busy inventing secret devices for killing human beings rapidly from a safe distance, an art so dramatically demonstrated this year in Iraq; and the CIA is no less potent and sinister a weapon than the KGB ever was.
Norman Bethune the Canadian doctor, at a scientific congress in Leningrad in 1935, called Russia ‘the most exciting spectacle of the evolutionary, emergent spirit of man’ since the Reformation. Beatrice and Sidney Webb in the same year believed that they saw being erected ‘a shining example of socialism in a single country’, extorting admiration whereas previously everything the USSR attempted was pronounced by foreign experts a failure even before it began. Other countries, they wrote, had tried to form educated, cultivated classes: the USSR was the first to set out, without any kind of discrimination, to form a whole cultivated nation. It may be that the hopes kindled by that search for a better road are destined to vanish like a dream. But we are still a long way from the end of the story. We may yet see a renovated Communist Party, or a socialist successor to it. Euphoric predictions of prosperity, borne to Russia from outside on amiable vulture-wings, consist overmuch of incantations about the Market, the magic oracle that answers every query infallibly.
The Market can be no more in fact than a muddled and very wasteful ready-reckoner. It grows daily more thickly infested with cabals of stock-exchange gamblers and cheats, like a ship’s hull encrusted with seaweed and barnacles. Intelligent planning represents a much higher standard of economic organisation. Socialism is altogether an aspiration towards a much higher stage of human evolution. In Russia it may have come prematurely; everywhere it must learn to leave more room for individual initiative and activity.
The Webbs were not blind to defects in the USSR, among them a too great ‘concentration of authority’, apt to breed an ‘atmosphere of fear’ in the intelligentsia. Marxist thinking suffered from this at least as much as any other side of Soviet life. It had come from the West, and never got enough air to breathe or liberty to adapt itself to a new environment. When the earthquake is over, a good many of those who until lately were citizens of the Soviet Union may come to feel that some of the ideals it stood for deserve to be treasured; also that Marxist modes of thinking may enrich them, and help to explain what went wrong.