“How could anyone possibly say that the October Revolution was in vain?” the poet Tvardovsky angrily told Solzhenitsyn in what now seems another age. Today the Soviet rulers dismiss 1917 as the root of all evil. Indeed, toppling statues. renaming streets, rechristening Leningrad Sankt Peterburg, they wish to obliterate seventy-four years of their existence (considering the role played in the ancien régime by so many of the new anti-Communist crusaders, this preference for amnesia is understandable).
The abortive putsch precipitated the pace of events but also raised a host of question marks. Can Mikhail Gorbachev recover sufficiently to be more than a figurehead at the center? Is it possible to conceive a confederation of allegedly equal states when one of the members has half the population and nearly two-thirds of the national product? What form will the class struggle take now that Russia in particular is quickening its step on the road to capitalism, and how will the “grand duke” Boris Yeltsin and his fellow “democrats” react when they meet popular resistance? And, on the world scale, how will diplomacy be carried on now that one of the two superpowers, while remaining nuclear, accepts so ostentatiously the suzerainty of the other?
These are the questions for tomorrow. Today is one of those moments of vital change when a writer, it seems, has a duty to his readers. As the new turncoats, the Soviet vicars of Bray, prostrate themselves in front of the golden calf and listen religiously to the officiating priests in International Monetary Fund vestments, as the West’s huge propaganda machine seizes this opportunity not just to bury communism, socialism, Marxism et al. but to dismiss any opposition to the rule of capital as a form of mental aberration, he must, at the risk of repetition, overemphasis and oversimplification, state, however briefly, what in his opinion is coming to an end and what is at stake in the ideological offensive.
We are witnessing the ultimate stages of something that began as the heroic search for a historical shortcut. Very rapidly this experiment was turned into a Marxist tragedy, as the revolution failed to spread and the Bolsheviks found themselves with the rugged reality of backward Russia and the need to accomplish within a short spell what Western Europe had achieved, in no gentle fashion, over a couple of centuries. Whether what happened had to happen is a matter for speculation. “Primitive accumulation” of capital did produce Stalinism, with its bloody collectivization, its discipline imposed by the dread of the concentration camp and its Byzantine cult of the ruling demigod. But it also produced a political system that survived the Leader and proved strong enough to resist pressure for the indispensable economic reform, because that reform threatened its hold on power and privilege. Thus, after an abortive attempt by Nikita Khrushchev to alter things, the Soviet Union and its bloc lived through two decades of economic stagnation. By the time Gorbachev picked up spectacularly where Khrushchev had left off, the perestroika, or revolution from above, was probably destined to veer in a capitalist direction.
Balance sheets drawn in the moment of bankruptcy are always distorted, the liquidator concentrating on the bottom line rather than the what-went-before, the stirring story of an enterprise, and this is no exception. The tale of the past seven decades cannot be written all in black. It involves illusions and enthusiasms, heroic deeds and genuine sacrifices, mass education, the rise of the downtrodden and the wholesale transformation of society. A similar point-counterpoint is needed for the external version. It is true that Stalin turned big Communist parties with popular roots into obedient puppets, but also true that Russia’s pioneering example inspired millions throughout the world to defy their establishment. The tanks that brought the Stalinist regime up to the Elbe were the same tanks that had liberated that part of Europe from the Nazis. Even more recently, while infecting all countries that entered its orbit with bureaucratic inefficiency, the Soviet Union was also the only potential external obstacle to the expansion of American imperialism. Having been all my conscious life a stern critic of Stalin and his heirs, I find it quite easy to say that the pictures of the Soviet era now being drawn, often by former admirers or practitioners, are caricatures.