Christopher Hitchens on the great question of the day

At the close of the Fifties, the New Left put on a mass meeting in London, at which the star speaker was Isaac Deutscher and the slogan was ‘Into the Red Sixties’. At the close of the Seventies, there was a much-anticipated rally in Central Hall, Westminster, unironically billed as ‘The Debate of the Decade’, between Tony Benn and the leaders of the supposed British extra-parliamentary opposition. At this event, the motion for the debate was reform versus revolution. On the cusp of the Eighties and Nineties, New Left Books offers us a discourse of positive revolutionary gradualism from a young Muscovite dissident, winner of the Isaac Deutscher Memorial Prize for his last book, who is fighting to save the Soviet Union for socialism. You certainly need a dialectic to interpret this evolution.

At least the Deutscher meeting prefigured a decade of radical turbulence, accompanied by the widespread defeat or discredit of reformism, and social democracy of the ‘Great Society’ or ‘White Heat’ stripe. By the time of the Benn evening, people (at least the people outside the hall) were not so much debating alternative paths to socialism as they were the utility or desirability of socialism itself. Even poor old welfarism was being widely derided as the road to serfdom. Revolution, especially in Europe, seemed less a romantic or Utopian conceit than a fantasy. The one ‘revolutionary’ outcome with which the British Left could claim any kinship had, as it happens, just taken place in Zimbabwe, but the meeting was far too parochial to bother with that bizarre combo of guerrilla struggle, electoral tactics and neo-colonial compromise. Now, at the end of the Eighties, revolutionary change is a near-commonplace in Europe: except that it is directed against the Red Flag.

Some of the irony detected in this, by the pundit class and by reliable supporters of the President and Prime Minister, is superficial. In several of the countries of Eastern Europe, and potentially in Russia also, the wave of emancipation contains ideas that are not at all alien to Eurosocialism, and to the tradition of Jaurès, Gramsci and Plekhanov. Notably in Czechoslovakia and East Germany, pre-war social-democratic and reformist organisations have either been reborn or have renounced their forced assimilation into the ‘front’ of the former monopolistic party. (Havel first spoke to the masses in Prague from the balcony of the old Socialist Party newspaper office.) The time for a book on the European Left and the practice of structural reform could, in this sense, hardly be more propitious.

Boris Kagarlitsky, who sprang apparently fully-accoutred onto the Soviet scene a few years ago, to demonstrate the long-suspected existence of a democratic-socialist opposition within the USSR, is in one way very well placed to conduct the survey. He writes from the other shore, in that he has experienced both the failure of the Communist system and the astonishing possibility of its abdication. In his last book The Thinking Reed he elaborated an alternative to the fossilised Stalinists and the often uninteresting or sinister ‘dissidents’ who insisted that Communism was axiomatically beyond reform and would yield only to the doctrine of force. It’s not his fault that the pace and rhythm of events have outdistanced the theses presented here. But it’s a shame that he has written such an undialectical essay.

The introductory chapter, ‘Marxism and Reformism’, is a disappointing rehearsal of an old story. The European Left divided, some time between 1905 and 1914, into those who accepted gradualism and those who advocated the decisive revolutionary stroke. It’s often forgotten (including, I may say, by Kagarlitsky) how much else apart from ‘gradualism’ was accepted by the gradualists. British, French and German official socialists reconciled themselves to the continuation of Empire, to the maintenance of a class system, and finally, to the waging of war on one another’s civilians. At the end of the First World War, those with gradualist scruples either did nothing to arrest the rise of the ‘stab in the back’ Right, or actually collaborated with it against Bolshevism. R.H. Tawney, a writer who could have been read with profit by Kagarlitsky, used to say that you can peel an onion layer by layer, but you can’t dismember a tiger claw by claw. The later Stalinist metaphor, of slicing the salami until only one fraction remains, has deposed this image in the minds and memories of most democrats, but perhaps it shouldn’t have. Naturally, Kagarlitsky prefers – as who would not? – to stress the buried alternative of Rosa Luxemburg, Gramsci and others, but the fact is that these democratic revolutionaries fell victim to the reserve strength of violence and ruthlessness generated by the power of old Europe, whereas Lenin survived it. So Hitler was overrun by a Stalin-dominated Red Army rather than by European Marxist humanists. Hence, at least until very recently, our common difficulty.

Lenin was fond of saying that quantity turned into quality, though he kept changing the proportions of this alchemy. As Kagarlitsky points out, classic social democrats imagined a series of self-conscious and graduated reforms, mounting through universal suffrage and labour organisation, ineluctably metamorphosing state and society without violence or rupture. Kautsky, Bernstein and others thereby sought to evade the boring reform/revolution dichotomy by turning it into a false antithesis. Yet critical mass via reform seems never to have been attained in any country save (yes, I know) Sweden, which might be called a social-democratic state irrespective of the composition or character of its ruling party at any given time. The other examples cited by Kagarlitsky are unpersuasive. It is true that socialist and leftist parties played the decisive and most honourable part in transforming much of Southern Europe from semi-fascist dictatorship into quasi-modern pre-1992 pluralism, but this apparently organic mutation from one strain to another was also the fruit of a strong business pressure for European integration. And the final shift of power wasn’t as peaceful and evolutionary as all that, if the weight of Portugal’s African wars and the Greek colonels’ expedition to Cyprus is left in the scale.

Adam Michnik, quite early in the experience of KOR and Solidarnosc, used to propose the example of the Spanish transition as one well worth studying. And indeed, the labours of the Eastern European opposition were classically reformist, in that they excluded confrontation with the ruling authorities from the beginning, as a matter both of practice and of principle, and made a moral appeal to an educated citizenry. But their objectives – a market economy, a parliamentary system and more scope for European national feeling – could hardly have been more boldly contrasted to the project of, say, Rosa Luxemburg. It’s true that the tactics, from open poetry readings and underground rock groups to spontaneous factory committees and guerrilla journalism, have a sweet flavour of the libertarian radical Sixties. One might stretch it a little further and say that demands for open government, ecological intelligence and demilitarisation make a good fit with some varieties of Western leftism. Kagarlitsky is dead right, in his pages on Chernobyl, to stress the bonding between nuclear grandiosity and state arrogance in general, and the importance of the disaster in initiating the great Russian rethink. But this kind of reformism is not really socialist even in the most diluted and sentimental sense of the term. That is why Kagarlitsky’s attempt at a synthesis between reformism East and West, while praiseworthy and topical enough, does not quite come off.

He has some additional non-theoretical disadvantages, not all of which result from his relative isolation in Moscow over the years. He tells us in a footnote that he has only just learned of the personal disaster which overtook Louis Althusser a decade ago (this in the context of a rather lenient judgment of Althusser’s work as ‘monstrously pseudo-philosophical’, which I was glad to see appearing under at least one of the rubrics of New Left Review). But his development at an enforced distance from the European Left does not license judgments as eccentric as this one: ‘It is not at all accidental that the Stalinist Morning Star received the support of the Labour weekly Tribune. In Britain, a country undergoing a severe structural crisis, such ideas readily find mass support.’ Or this: ‘Wilson’s technocracy generated opposition just as did that of the Shah of Iran, the only difference being that in the former case the collapse of modernisation brought the lumpen-bourgeoisie to the surface, and in the latter, the lumpen-proletariat.’ And I wonder what, in the history of mediocrity and opportunism that characterises the justly-declining Italian Communist Party, permits Kagarlitsky to write: ‘It should be remembered that Gramsci’s ideas always determined the PCI’s strategy. The Party’s policy from Gramsci and Togliatti to Berlinguer and Natti [sic] has been distinguished, according to general opinion, by an “invariable continuity”.’ Even this weird generalisation is eclipsed by Kagarlitsky’s view that after the revolution of April 1974, ‘the Portuguese Socialist Party was one of the most radical anti-capitalist forces in Europe.’ At times, in other words, one loses confidence in his judgment on matters Soviet, where he is the one giving instruction rather than exhibiting the need for it. The book is also weak on the Third World, having one or two misleading phrases about the floundering Garcia regime in Peru, and nothing at all on South Africa, a major country where something like a Popular Front tactic, allied to skilful and dedicated internationalist propaganda, may very well be on the verge of paying-off.

Still, his discussion of the reform process and its ambiguities in the East is a great deal more spirited and informed. A great strength of these chapters is the attention paid to the condition of the Russian working class. A fitter inquires of the Party why his skills are squandered on making refrigerators that nobody buys: ‘We convert expensive metal, paint and polystyrene for no purpose. And we get neither moral nor material satisfaction from the labour that we invest in thankless tasks.’ In one deft illustration we see how a system which fails the consumer also fails the producer. Not that Kagarlitsky idealises the proles. He points out that in today’s USSR discontent among workers is so bitter that ‘the labour movement is going its own way and the political democratic movements are going theirs.’ This wasteland of alienation is fraught with danger for the intellectuals, the cosmopolitans and the reformers, and far too little is being written about it. Kagarlitsky draws intelligently on the Polish precedent to argue that even in unpromising conditions the organised workers can make common cause with the ‘political democratic’ elements and overcome the populism and ouvrièrisme with which the Communist cynics had divided civil society.

There are two more serious omissions in the book. First, there is no treatment of the work of Rudolph Bahro. Second, there is no real discussion of the relationship between Western politics and strategy and the Gorbachev revolution from above. Bahro’s book The Alternative in Eastern Europe was one of the most prescient analyses, written from deep inside the Stalinist system, of the depth of its crisis and the possibility of its overthrow. In particular, it emphasised the connection between long-postponed technocratic ‘reform’ and the generating of multi-level popular opposition. Kagarlitsky has clearly heard of Bahro, because he devotes the whole of one disobliging, irrelevant footnote to him. But otherwise, not a word about one of the major contributors to the German and European reformist and revolutionary tradition.

Concentrated as he is on the germinal movement of the ‘rank and file’ and the ‘grass roots’, Kagarlitsky gives very little space to the motives and intentions of Gorbachev and his associates. In one way, this is a relief from the diet of Kremlin-centred reportage. But it leaves him with nothing much to propose on the great question of the day, which is: what caused the 1989 revolution? Was it, as self-congratulory conservatives claim, a reward for their selfless courage and resolve in the face of the Bear? Or was it the belated but inescapable recognition of the emptiness of the party-state concept? It would have been useful to hear from a participant how the different cycles of the Cold War affected the processes of argument and differentiation within Soviet élite and public opinion, and how the values of a Solzhenitsyn stood comparison with those of a Sakharov or a Medvedev.

In essence, this rather turgid history is an attempt to redeem the credit and the unity of the Left, at a time when socialist ideas are being widely and generally pronounced to be irrelevant and self-refuting. The book never comes together because it doesn’t take the challenge as frontal and historic, and because it assumes that there are tactical answers. There will be a role for the Soviet Left, and the Left in general, when it begins to dawn on more people that though the living standard of the American middle class is now the generally-accepted ideal, that standard is increasingly inaccessible even to Americans. The necessary period of idealism will have to give place to a hard politics in which those with a democratic-socialist tradition need not find themselves at a disadvantage.