On Recapturing the Soviet Past

On Recapturing the Soviet Past

The dead, claims a French legal saying, seizes the living–“le mort saisit le vif”–and indeed the dead weight of the past often seems to be strangling the present, particularly when this past is


The dead, claims a French legal saying, seizes the living–“le mort saisit le vif”–and indeed the dead weight of the past often seems to be strangling the present, particularly when this past is not properly tackled. Amnesia is as much a disease for a nation as it is for an individual, in both cases a heavy handicap for current conduct. Hence, the importance of the new Soviet attempt to remember the country’s collective past, described at length in these pages [see Dev Murarka, “Recovering the Buried Stalin Years,” October 24, and “A New Revolution in Consciousness,” October 31]. Indeed, the Soviet Union is at one and the same time trying to recover its memory and the capacity to speak with more than one voice; it is learning to remember and to debate. Mikhail Gorbachev’s major speech at the seventieth anniversary of the Revolution had been presented in advance, wrongly, as an important part in this process. But it provides a good opportunity to take stock, to grasp better the link between this remembrance of things past and present policy, while incidentally assessing our own attitude toward the upheaval that is beginning to alter the shape of Soviet society.

Life does not begin at seventy. Speaking in the Kremlin on this festive occasion, Gorbachev was bound to draw up some kind of balance sheet, although half of a nearly three-hour speech devoted to the past did not allow for too sophisticated a historical assessment. Inevitably, Gorbachev hailed October 1917 as a momentous break in human history. Quite naturally, he put the accent on the pioneering efforts and sacrifices of the Soviet people, which led to positive results despite “real crimes based on the abuse of power.” He was entitled to argue that, without a shift to collective farming and a rapid rate of industrialization, the country would never have been able to stand up to the Nazi invaders, even if his description of the ravages of collectivization was much too mild. Then came the 1,418 days of “blood and sweat.” The ordinary Soviet people, both soldiers and civilians, were rightly the heroes in the Gorbachev version, although he also mentioned the role of the military command, with Stalin at its head. A case can clearly be made for a more balanced portrait of the dead dictator. After all, the main weakness of Nikita Khrushchev’s famous indictment of Stalin, back in February 1956, was his most un-Marxist explanation of the tragic failings of a whole system through the psychopathology of a single man. The snag is that when it comes to an analysis of Stalinism as a system, and especially of its birth, Gorbachev himself is of little help.

A man can be in some respects a pathfinder, the champion of glasnost and perestroika (“restructuring”), and in others remain a prisoner of the past. In his analysis of the struggle after Lenin’s death, of the “nucleus of the party headed by Stalin” defending the Leninist heritage against a “petty bourgeois” opposition, Gorbachev is a pure product of routine courses on “Marxism-Leninism,” a worthy pupil of another politician who had been a leader in Stavropol, Mikhail Suslov, the late official keeper of post-Stalinist orthodoxy. It is difficult to decide which of several passages in the speech is worst. There is the description of Trotsky as “an always prevaricating and swindling politician,” borrowed less from Lenin’s testament than from the vocabulary of Andrei Vyshinsky, Stalin’s notorious chief prosecutor. There is a reference to Nikolai Bukharin and his supporters rapidly “recognizing their mistakes” (over the rate of growth), an ominous understatement when one knows what preceded and especially what followed this repentance. Indeed, significantly, there is no mention in so many words of the ghastly Moscow trials in which Vyshinsky gained his international reputation. Yet worst of all is probably the suggestion that Stalin defeated the opposition “ideologically and organizationally,” an eloquent euphemism when one knows that those were the years when freedom of debate was eliminated in the Communist Party, when political dissent became a criminal offense and the iron rule of the General Secretary prepared the ground for his tyranny.

In a serious debate over the period, somebody will naturally have to plead Stalin’s case. Actually, many a sympathetic Western writer did try to explain, if not justify, the phenomenon of Stalinism. With the backward Soviet Union isolated and forced to pack into a couple of decades an industrial revolution that had taken centuries in Western Europe, with the Bolsheviks compelled to carry out the contradiction in terms “primitive socialist accumulation,” there was arguably no other solution. Or, more colorfully, since barbarism had to be driven out of the Soviet Union by barbarian means, nobody was better equipped for it than a barbarian leader. Yet none of this means that Stalin won by ideological means. Mikhail Gorbachev did duly proclaim that “the guilt of Stalin for the mass repression and lawlessness…is immense and unforgivable,” but his analysis of the early struggle may raise some doubts about his own vision of inner party democracy.

The immediately relevant question is whether this piece of potted history will hinder researchers in their efforts to extend the frontiers of knowledge. There are some hopeful signs that it will not. Gorbachev himself announced that a special commission will study the archives. In a press conference November 3, his right-hand man in ideological matters, Politburo member Alexander Yakovlev, specifically denied that Gorbachev’s report could be interpreted as “some kind of directive restricting the framework of future research.” On the other hand, such a narrow official version, proclaimed from the platform on a great festive occasion, will in the best of cases slow down the offensive of Yuri Afanasiev and other progressive historians against the conservatives entrenched in the academic journal Voprosy Istorii, in the universities, in the innumerable chairs of Marxism-Leninism.

For there should be no misunderstanding over what is at stake. The problem is not to prove whether Stalin or Trotsky was right in the controversy over Socialism in One Country (though here again the Gorbachev version is clearly on Stalin’s side), whether Nikolai Bukharin or Yevgeny Preobrazhensky was wiser in the conflict over primitive accumulation. The question is to allow historians first, and then the Soviet people, to reconquer their past, to examine all issues from Brest-Litovsk and Kronstadt to the strange interregnum of Konstantin Chernenko, with the help of all the available archives and, in the near future, the complete works of the main protagonists, from Bukharin to Zinoviev. The question is to give the Soviet people the chance to make up their own minds about, say, the views of the Workers’ Opposition, or the respective arguments of Lenin and Trotsky in their prerevolutionary confrontations, or of the Mensheviks, for that matter. It means the right, too, to read Rosa Luxemburg lecturing both Lenin and Trotsky, warning them at the very beginning of the Revolution that “without general elections, without unrestricted freedom of press and assembly, without a free struggle of opinion, life dies out in every public institution, becomes a mere semblance of life, in which only the bureaucracy remains as the active element.” In other words, no taboos and no holy rites, remembering that Stalin had installed his own byzantine cult on top of that of Lenin, inaugurated by him after the latter’s death.

Yet why bother about the past at such a vital juncture in the Soviet Union’s current history? Mikhail Gorbachev is now embarking on a major peace offensive, and in his anniversary speech he tried to find some theoretical foundations of a lasting period of coexistence. The Soviet Union is in the early stages of a major economic reform destined to reshape the functioning of society. Whatever the rhetoric, its people are not all on the same side of the barricades. Perestroika divides, and in the conservative camp, judging by the outbursts of some supporters of Pamyat (“Memory”), there are people hankering after the good old days of czardom with its knout and its pogroms, Why choose a moment of such crucial decision to quibble over the past and criticize Gorbachev for some historical slips? Because past and present are interlinked, because curing collective amnesia is merely a means for gaining mastery over current action. Or, if you prefer to put in the words of Alexander Yakovlev, the Russians “are peering so intensely at their history…for the sake of today and tomorrow” in search of “ways to resolve present tasks.” We already saw how a proper assessment of the birth of Stalinism has a bearing on future democracy within the party, but there are many, many more links.

If the Soviet people are allowed to study their past from all angles and are able to examine, say, the economic controversies of the 1920s, they will naturally come to expect the same clash of ideas over the issues raised by perestroika, over the rise in prices and the abolition of food subsidies, over the transformation of the welfare state or the proposed increase in wage differentials. Indeed, they may even want to have a debate on equality, hitherto dismissed in all official pronouncements as a means of leveling down. As economic reform unleashes social forces, glasnost may gradually lead to an open confrontation of conflicting interests.

It may have another impact, too. Faced with the passive resistance of part of the bureaucracy and the potential discontent of workers adversely affected by reform, Gorbachev and his colleagues decided to play the card of greater democracy–through having several candidates in votes for local councils (the soviets) and in elections for factory managers. The purpose, for the moment, is apparently to choose the best person for the job. But, since “freedom is always and exclusively freedom for the one who thinks differently,” it should lead logically to a choice among platforms. The day that elections on the shop floor are concerned with labor relations and the division of labor, while those in the soviets will deal with different policies and different conceptions of running society, the change will be really revolutionary.

The recent Yeltsin affair well illustrates the importance of glasnost in discussions. It was an open secret in Moscow that at the last meeting of the Central Committee, on October 21, Moscow party leader Boris Yeltsin, known as the most eager advocate of change within the Politburo, clashed with Yegor Ligachev, the Soviet second in command, who is reputed to have a more conservative conception of perestroika. Yet it was only on November 11 that Soviet viewers learned that Yeltsin had been removed from his Moscow job, and only on November 13 that Pravda devoted more than two pages to the exclusion proceedings. The report included Gorbachev’s rather sorrowful indictment of his former protégé, twenty-three speeches attacking Yeltsin with greater venom, and the accused man’s somewhat disjointed mea culpa. The witch hunt, the unanimous hostility and the self-criticism are painful reminders of the past. The sacking of the best-known reformer is a very worrisome portent. But we still don’t know, and neither do the Soviet people, what Yeltsin said on October 21 to precipitate the whole affair.

In the press conference already mentioned, Alexander Yakovlev told Western correspondents that this was an internal party matter and that Western parties, too, had their secrets. His point was valid, and yet at the same time irrelevant, since his party’s purpose at this stage has little in common with that of Republicans or Democrats. Gorbachev and his comrades are busy claiming that the success of restructuring depends essentially on the willingness of the people to participate, to take matters into their own hands. Now, it is as difficult to act on one’s own after years of blind or passive obedience as it is to speak with one’s own voice after decades as a ventriloquist’s dummy. The intelligentsia, judging by the media, is the first to try; the mass of the people have as yet not followed. A classic way to encourage discussion among the rank and file is to give publicity to a genuine debate at the top.

All the pieces now fall into place. A serious discussion about the past turns inevitably into a debate about the present. glasnost cannot be confined to the Central Committee. Freedom of thought within the party as a whole spells freedom of expression in the country at large. The monopoly of truth, including historical truth, is implied in the monopoly of power. The abolition of the former will mean the dissolution of the latter. The road leads ultimately from party rule from above to a still-undefined form of socialist democracy, with power springing from below. No wonder that this long and uncertain march does not begin smoothly from the very start.

Something must still be said about our own attitude toward the Soviet Union in transition. Even those of us who never accepted the idea that the Bolshevik Revolution could end in neo-Stalinist stagnation were worried by the long winter sleep and are, therefore, thrilled by the reawakening. What can we do to spur the process of change? Ideally, we should be in a position to preach by example. Most of the crimes described by Gorbachev, and certainly the controversy over Socialism in One Country, would not have taken place if the Revolution had spread, in keeping with Marx’s predictions, to the advanced capitalist countries of Western Europe. Even today, a socialist experiment in France, Britain or Italy, while it might not be a model, would have been attractive to the people of Eastern Europe as an example. But this never happened, and our impotence dictates a degree of modesty.

Our second-best hand is to struggle for disarmament. In fighting for our common survival, we are undeniably helping perestroika. Whether capitalism can live without the arms race (an idea at the heart of Gorbachev’s new thinking about lasting coexistence) is debatable. The Soviet Union would be much better off without it. The Soviet leaders have started their economic reform with limited reserves and therefore not much room for maneuver. A big shift of resources to consumer industries would help them tremendously in the years of transition.

Last but not least, there is the attitude best described as one of critical sympathy. The Soviet people have no need of another bunch of “friends of the Soviet Union,” those famous visitors always ready to say amen to any declaration by the incumbent in the Kremlin. They could use some help in their efforts to recover memory and voice, and we could assist them, for instance, by qualifying the official version. Thus, Gorbachev may well be right in claiming that Moscow was driven by Western action to sign a pact with Nazi Germany. But it was not forced to send a telegram to Hitler extolling a friendship “cemented by blood,” a gesture which degraded the labor movement within and without Soviet frontiers.

In Stalin’s time, when an isolated Soviet Union was seeking a dramatic shortcut to industrialization, it was the habit of its propagandists to present each evil as necessary and then each necessity as virtue. Half the Western left lost its credit and its credibility by giving its blessing every time to both conclusions. (The other half lost its in a different fashion.) The mood is no longer the same, yet the two questions must still be tackled in succession. Thus, it can be and is being argued that, after years of command and dictation from above, the Soviet economy requires a dose of wage differentiation to provide incentives, and that the resulting “meritocracy” will be better than its predecessor. All this remains to be proved. Even if it were, it would not turn provisional necessity into virtue. Social inequality, different health or housing services for the haves and the have-nots, will not become great socialist principles even if they are advocated by Gorbachev’s closest associates. And “to each according to his work” will not be hailed as the epitome of Marxist progress, even if Mikhail Gorbachev himself proclaims it. We must say as much, put matters into context for the sake of their glasnost and our own, particularly if we believe, as I do, that whatever happened later, 1917 is a crucial date to remember in the unfinished struggle for the mastery over our own fate.

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