The rulers of the capitalist world who came to Paris for the bicentennial celebrations last month were in a smug mood. True, the great French Revolution was not the last, but the bourgeois order now looks more solidly entrenched than it has for quite a time. So, 1789 could be celebrated because 1917 is apparently a dead end, or at least is being presented as such with the full power of the propaganda machine. The bloody leap backward in China in June and the simultaneous rejection of the regime by Polish voters have been used to drum the rather contradictory message that the communist world is both totalitarian and crumbling from within. The massacre in Beijing allowed the propagandists to stress the evil and unreformable nature of communism, while events in Poland, Hungary and the Soviet Union enabled them to boast at the same time that a specter is haunting Eastern Europe, the specter of capitalism.
To peddle this message the propagandists could not afford to be very choosy. They had to present the students and workers singing “The Internationale” in Tiananmen Square as the worshipers of capitalism. They were also bound to conceal the fact that today’s villain, Deng Xiaoping, the executioner in chief, had only yesterday been their hero, praised as the man capable of putting “capitalist substance into socialist forms” and given as an example to Mikhail Gorbachev because Deng has put the accent on consumer goods instead of bothering about democratic nonsense. All that is now conveniently forgotten. The hypocrisy should take nobody by surprise, coming from an establishment that had previously demonstrated, in connection with Solidarity, that it could hate labor unions at home and love them beyond the Elbe. Those who still cherished illusions about the official Western proclamations of sympathy for the Chinese rebels were quickly undeceived. When it was suggested that, in the new circumstances, Britain should guarantee the right of entry to the Chinese from Hong Kong with British passports, Her Majesty’s government rejected the very idea. Its charity went as far as to make exceptions for the happy few with fat wallets: visas for those with Visa cards. As a British member of Parliament put it, Margaret Thatcher is an advocate of “Access-card democracy.”
But their hypocrisy does not justify our complacency. The crisis of socialism does exist, even if the “free market” ideologues try to exploit it to their advantage. Moscow’s Congress of People’s Deputies, behaving as if it were a constituent assembly; the Polish elections; the Hungarian round table, foreshadowing another condemnation of a “communist” regime—each day some event reminds us that an era is definitely coming to an end. But if the twilight of a reign is obvious, the shape of its successor is not. Will the Soviet bloc begin to build socialism in democratic fashion or will it pay for past sins by a capitalist restoration? The latter risk can no longer be ruled out, but Western propaganda has managed to draw from recent events the categorical conclusion that capitalism is eternal because socialism (and communism even more so) is either a utopia à rebours or a figment of the imagination. The success of this campaign makes it imperative to rehearse in a new context the old argument against the identification of socialism with Soviet reality.
The Lasting Curse
The inquiry takes us back to the origins, to the fact that the Revolution happened in backward Russia and did not spread to the advanced capitalist countries for which it was designed in Marx’s conception. The isolated Bolsheviks, unless they gave up power, had to industrialize the conquered territory, to carry out within a short spell the “primitive accumulation,” including the massive uprooting of peasants, that had taken decades of ruthless oppression to accomplish in the Western countries. Whether Stalinism, with its “concentrationary” universe and its Byzantine cult, was the inevitable political product of this vast social upheaval will be disputed by historians for generations. But inevitable or not, the birth of the system and its development have a bearing on the current debate.