Bring on the hypnotist

Neal Ascherson

  • After the Fall: The Failure of Communism and the Future of Socialism edited by Robin Blackburn
    Verso, 327 pp, £32.95, November 1991, ISBN 0 86091 540 9

The revolutions of 1989 were ‘the end of an era in which world history was about the October Revolution ... Those of us who believed that the October Revolution was the gate to the future of world history have been shown to be wrong.’ Not many of the contributors to After the Fall are able to face that wrongness with the stoic honesty of Eric Hobsbawm. They face it, but often fail to contain their rage and misery. Some perform their own version of ‘Back to the Drawing-Board’, a dive back into the warrens of classic Marxist literature where – somewhere – the plague-rat of error must be hiding. Others, with much justification, relieve their pain by belabouring the goblins dancing on the grave of ‘actually existing socialism’: carpet-baggers, warmongers, Thatcherites, nationalist demagogues, and gutless intellectual capitulators to the New World Order. After the Fall is, for the most part, the voice of that homeless Left which wandered and prophesied in the sands between Communism and Labourism (or Continental Social-Democracy). Most of the contributions appeared in New Left Review. All but about three were written before the collapse of Soviet Communism and then of the Soviet Union following the putsch in August 1991, which gives them a flavour of antiquity. But the reader’s hindsight does not greatly diminish their perception. These writers all knew the game was up. Exactly which game that was, however, is a matter which divides them.

A few writers are brave enough to admit that they felt sad. Alexander Cockburn, who has always been perfectly lucid about the corruption of Soviet Communism, makes a sardonic prediction about what will follow: ‘accelerating Balkanisation of what was the Union, strife between the Republics, looting of resources by foreign powers and extension of foreign influence up to the Urals meeting the Japanese coming the other way. In Russia, presidential ukase will stifle trade unions and representative institutions. A year or two from now Boris Yeltsin may be able to stand atop the converted mausoleum and view the parade of new times: Soviet lumbermen under the command of Georgia Pacific and the Japanese: oil drillers bearing the standard of Conoco; long battalions of unemployed under the discipline of the Chicago School.’

Like Hobsbawm, Fred Halliday and Eduardo Galeano in this book, he points out that the enormous influence of the Soviet Union in the post-war world was not all malign, but – in ways which were unintended as well as intended – often positive. The USSR was ‘the counterweight to US imperialism and the terminal savageries of the old European colonial powers’; the decolonisation of Africa and Asia was an outcome of the Cold War, made possible by direct Soviet assistance and by Western fear of Soviet influence outside Europe.

Cockburn remarks that without the USSR there would have been no Marshall Plan. One could add that there would probably have been no welfare state or soziale Marktwirtschaft either. The end of the Cold War, in fact, has so far provided a much more revealing opportunity for retrospection than the end of the Bolshevik Revolution, allowing everyone to see how complicated and ‘reciprocal’ (E.P. Thompson’s word) that world order was. The Communist ‘threat’ induced the West to construct a new model of welfare capitalism based on full employment – the model whose utterly unforeseen ‘Thirty Glorious Years’ produced the most rapid and widespread increase of prosperity the capitalist world had ever seen. If this success owed its starting impulse to rivalry with the Soviet Union, it might seem plausible to say that it also destroyed the Soviet Union: as Western economies moved into new generations of technology which were increasingly capital-intensive and research-based, so the Communist world lost its capacity to keep pace. As Fred Halliday puts it, the Soviet imperium failed to compete in ‘consumer culture on the one hand, the third industrial revolution and the spread of information technology on the other ... At the same time, improvements in communications meant that ‘it became more and more possible for people within Communist states to hear and see what was happening in the outside world.’

This is true, and yet what took place was even more paradoxical. It was not capitalism’s success which finally sank Communism, but one of its failures. To be precise, the fatal hole in the ironclad side was struck in the mid-Seventies, as the Western economies slowed and then halted after the sixfold rise in oil prices. For states like Poland, already embarked on a wild rush of growth financed by Western loans and on an ambitious industrial renewal based on Western imports, this was the beginning of terminal disaster for the regime. Foreign debts ballooned out of control; inflation poured in. By the end of the decade the debt was astronomical, the imported machines were stopping for lack of spare parts and the population were sleeping on winter streets to keep their places in food queues. Industrial unrest became political opposition and then, in 1980, the Solidarity revolution. Less spectacularly, the same missile from the West holed all the Communist economies below their waterlines, and eventually the Soviet Union too. It was not the West which collapsed under the hammer blow of oil prices: instead, its recovery from that calamity showed just how resilient international capitalism had grown since the Thirties. But the East had grown dependent on the system it intended to bury, and the sudden change in prices, interest rates and demand for imports dealt the ‘planned economies’ a mortal wound.

Discussion of the end of the Cold War brought Halliday into collision with Edward Thompson, and their three-part dispute is reprinted here. Thompson reproached Halliday for describing the final arms-reduction process without mention of the Peace Movement as an influence on both superpowers, and went on to accuse him of a more general ‘passivity’ in his analysis. The E.P. Thompson line on the Cold War (which I still find persuasive) was that it was not so much a conflict as a system which both superpowers had an interest in maintaining: a reciprocity in which the Cold War came to be mostly about itself. Halliday, in contrast, thought that the Cold War was a form of ‘intersystemic conflict’, global and irreconcilable. Thompson called that view ‘a retreat to immobilism’. Writing in 1990, he went on to assail ‘bookish’ dissidents in Eastern Europe for their misguided enthusiasm for the free market and concluded, anxiously enough, that ‘we should take a hand in writing alternative scripts.’

But what lines and stage directions should these scripts provide? At this length of time after the revolutions, we know what happened in the play that was finally put on. Most of these contributors, however, could not yet know. On the face of things in 1990 (which is when most of them wrote their pieces), there were still grounds to hope that a reformed and democratised socialism might succeed in parts of Eastern Europe. The opposition groups from the last decades of Communist rule generally led the revolutions, on the hustings or in the street, and formed or helped to form the first post-revolutionary governments. From clandestinity they brought an interesting amalgam of ideas, most of them originating in dissident Marxism, which included workers’ control in enterprises, a concept of property which was ‘social’ rather than state or private, and a Gramscian view of self-managing civil society – as well as a commitment to ‘bourgeois’ liberties like political pluralism and parliamentary democracy. This was the elusive ‘Third Way’ – the alternative script which had been accumulating Communist rejection slips since 1917.

But the Third Way again failed to materialise. The economies were too broke to afford such experiment, the International Monetary Fund forced a choice between Reaganite capitalism and starvation, and – most importantly – the people did not want it. In spite of all the brilliant visions of a new society projected in the Committee for the Defence of the Workers (KOR) in Poland, among the Czech Chartists or in the Neues Forum group and its allies in East Germany, not one brick of their new social reality has been laid. The people preferred to try capitalism, which they knew worked – for some, at least, and perhaps for them too. For uncorrupted socialists, this has been a more painful defeat than the long overdue collapse of the Soviet system. But After the Fall shows that they handle this pain in different ways.

Hans Magnus Enzensberger reacts with a sort of derisive populism. The death of Utopia, he argues, hurt bureaucrats and intellectuals alike, both deeply insulted by a spontaneous popular movement which they did not predict. While the German élites grew hysterical over unification, which they called ‘regressive’, the masses calmly got on with it in a decent, ordinary manner. ‘The revolutions ... have not brought forth any new demands. The only demands are those of 1848, which have remained unfulfilled until now.’ Ralph Miliband, by contrast, opens with a conventional explanation to the effect that Communism turned vicious because it became a development creed in backward countries (yes, but then why was Czechoslovak Communism so much more cruel and repressive than its equivalent in more backward Poland?). Then he laments that the idea of ‘council Communism’ – democracy based on the producer at the workplace – has never been accepted either by Communist Parties or by social democrats. As a project, it remains ‘a marginal movement whose proponents constitute a small and barely audible voice in labour and socialist ranks’.

And yet for any old soixante-huitard, and I must be one myself, workers’ self-management of some kind has to be at the centre of socialist thinking. This is an assumption on which Professor Jürgen Habermas, a great authority among the German radical young back in 1968, now turns ferociously. Like En-zensberger, he dismisses the 1989 upheavals as ‘revolutions of recuperation’ with a ‘total lack of ideas that are either innovative or oriented towards the future’. (This seems a gross oversimplification to me, even if none of the innovative ideas could be put into practice.) He bows with respect and regret over the grave of the Middle (i.e. Third) Way, but recognises that it is dead. ‘We can now forget speculation about state socialism’s potential for reform and democratic development: not because it is inherently impossible but because history has moved on and wiped it from the agenda.’ But he is much less respectful about the non-Communist Left’s loyalty to the idea of self-managing socialism or democratically-controlled production. Habermas declares that these ideas about free associations of producers are relics of the remote past. ‘The roots that bind romantic socialism to its original context of early industrialism have lain bare for a long time,’ and they amount to nostalgia for guilds and societies of handloom weavers pitched into the alienation of the factory system. And yet ‘the idea of the preservation of these eroded communities has been connected with “socialism” ever since.’

What, then, is socialism to be about in the future? The subtitle of this book is ‘The Failure of Communism and the Future of Socialism’, which raises at once the preliminary question of what that failure has to do with this future. Robin Blackburn, the book’s editor, assumes that they have everything to do with one another. He writes at the outset of his own chapter that ‘the anti-capitalist Left will have no credibility unless it can account for the dire experience of Communism since 1917.’ He then allots himself the longest essay in the whole collection, 77 pages of historical analysis of which ten are notes. There is plenty of intriguing stuff here: a replay of the forgotten debate on ‘socialist calculation’ with von Mises, Hayek, Lange and others, or some sparkling quotations from Victor Serge, or a precarious attempt to deny that Leninism was ‘inherently totalitarian’ (Lenin was not, but surely his -ism was). But I found myself soon gripped by terrible impatience. Enough of the past: how will we ever get to the future?

Alexander Cockburn tells here the story of a friend going to a hypnotist to cure his smoking, who wondered if he couldn’t get the whole Communist era wiped off his memory as well: ‘a straight transition from Kerensky and the Duma to Yeltsin and the Russian parliament, with everything in between a blur.’ This is the key metaphor in After the Fall. Many of the contributors are historians, who instinctively answer all questions about the future with revelations of the past. The ‘Future of Socialism’ is almost never addressed directly, although, to be fair, Blackburn winds up with a sustained and interesting plea for the ‘socialised market’ (as opposed to ‘market socialism’). He concludes, displaying commendable optimism of the will but frustrating vagueness of the defining intellect, that ‘the future belongs only to a diversified socialism, a “socialism without guarantees”, or even to some new concept more adequately embodying the goals of the Left and the creative impulse of anti-capitalist movements.’

Bring on the hypnotist! History is not bunk, but rather a set of bunkers. Some conceal treasures and revelations. Others, however, are used as refuges to duck into when life above ground gets too dangerous and discouraging. About the only contributors to go over the top and attack the future in detail are the two writers concerned with what will happen to women: Maxine Molyneux on ‘The “Woman Question” in the Age of Perestroika’ (an acutely topical essay still, even though that age has closed since the piece was written), and Lynne Segal on ‘Socialism, Feminism and the Future’.

The closing item is another Hobsbawm classic, ‘Out of the Ashes’, which first appeared in Marxism Today in April 1991. No resort to the hypnotist here. Hobsbawm sets off by declaring that his professional deformation is to answer the question about socialism’s future by asking: ‘What is its past?’ But this turns out not to be a dive for the bunker. He uses a discussion about the original meanings of ‘socialism’ and the much older term ‘communism’ to deploy his thoughts about the present. His lessons drawn from the second half of the 20th century are not unlike those of other contributors: ‘the argument that socialism is needed to abolish hunger and poverty is no longer convincing,’ he says, and ‘much that was once regarded as typical of a socialist economy’ has been ‘co-opted and assimilated by non-socialist systems’. The market is an indispensable guide to efficiency. But Hobsbawm then catalogues the horrors which result when the market becomes the only mechanism for distribution and allocation. Perhaps, he admits, this is ‘an argument not for socialism but for a humanised mixed economy ... I won’t say no.’ For the moment, the socialist agenda can only be defined by the worst consequences of capitalist development: damage to the ecology, the rapidly widening gap between rich and poor zones of the world, and damage to human morality. ‘Capitalism undermines and rots away the relations between human beings which constitute societies ... Socialists are there to remind the world that people and not production come first.’ Only in time, he concludes, ‘sooner or later’, will these problems come to require not just a better society but a different kind of society.

And here, perhaps, is the line dividing Hobsbawm from most of the other contributors, which is also the line marking off a ‘revisionist’ Communist from the more impatient tribes of dissident Marxism, including those descended from the House of Trotsky. They find it harder to confess their defeat or to look straight into the inhospitable future. But neither could they accept Hobsbawm’s ‘sooner or later’. If a different kind of society is needed, then it is needed now.