Socialism and the Soviet Bloc

Socialism and the Soviet Bloc

Readers may recall the shocked grief and revulsion of Alyosha Karamazov as he discovered that the corpse of his saintly master, Father Zossima, was stinking.


The unbelievers were delighted, and as for believers, there were some among them who were even more delighted than the unbelievers themselves….
   What happened was that an odor of corruption began to come from the coffin, growing more and more perceptible…. Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

Readers may recall the shocked grief and revulsion of Alyosha Karamazov as he discovered that the corpse of his saintly master, Father Zossima, was stinking. The collective reaction after Stalin’s death was both less sudden and more traumatic. Nearly three years elapsed after the funeral before the believers were told by Khrushchev, the official keeper of the shrine, that their demigod had not been as holy as he had been painted. On February 23, twenty-five years after Khrushchev’s revelations, the Soviet Communist Party will hold its twenty-sixth Congress. Whatever takes place in the Kremlin hall, we are in the twilight of the Brezhnev era. Once Khrushchev lifted the coffin lid, the odor began to spread, affecting party members and fellow travelers, sympathizers and mere onlookers. It was to change the moral climate of politics. The shock may prove salutary in the long run, even if it has not so far. Indeed, not unsuccessful efforts have been made to present the stench of decaying Stalinism as the natural smell of socialism and in this way to discredit Marxism, revolution, or the very idea of resistance to the established order.

Macaulay once claimed that there is no spectacle more ridiculous than the British public in one of its periodic fits of morality. He obviously had not seen successive generations of leftists cursing their former gods and damning what they had worshipped. Let me hasten to add that learning from past mistakes is a virtue, passion against parties or doctrines that led one astray is perfectly natural, and heretics are the salt of the earth. But periodic bouts of recantation are something quite different. Moral indignation turns into moralizing, converts give the impression of changing bandwagons rather than ideas, and people who rebelled against a gruesome and treacherous orthodoxy in the name of socialist principles trample those very principles to the applause of their new sponsors,

Leaving aside these stage performers making capital out of their conversions, genuine motives for disenchantment have not been missing in the last twenty-five years. The illusions which survived the Soviet invasion of Hungary were shattered when Soviet tanks entered Prague. Hopes raised by China’s Cultural Revolution crashed with the fall of the “Gang of Four.” The atrocities of Kampuchea’s Pol Pot regime, the invasion of Kampuchea by the Vietnamese, and of Vietnam by the Chinese–all this has been too much for a single generation to swallow. And yet it is not enough to explain the current political disarray. After all, previous generations have been submitted to no lesser shocks: the mass purges of the 1930s, the Nazi-Soviet Pact and the postwar repetition throughout Eastern Europe of the Moscow trials should have strained the allegiance of the most faithful. The basic difference is that in the meantime millions have ceased to view the Soviet Union as a socialist model.

The discarding of mythical models and the recognition, however belated, of crimes committed in the name of socialism are indispensable steps on the road to recovery. They should be followed by an open and unflinching debate over the causes of the disease and possible remedies. Despite the publicity surrounding spectacular about-faces, however, it cannot be said that critical analysis has gone very far. The keepers of Soviet orthodoxy and their followers, naturally enough, have refused to see the crisis of their model. Disappointment has come from sections of the new generation of alleged rebels. In retrospect, it is possible to see that in chanting “Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, Mao and Lin Piao,” they were as empty and dogmatic as later, when, merely reversing the slogan, they put the blame for the gulag on Marx. These rebels were irrational in both their enthusiasm and their indignation.

By now the reader will have guessed that this essay is far from trendy. Its author, having hailed the French student and worker rising of 1968 as a possible portent of Marx’s return to his home ground, that of advanced capitalism, does not change sides because events are moving more slowly than he would have hoped. He feels no need to bury Marx, to apologize for his convictions, or to wear a cross, any cross whatsoever. And, having twelve years ago treated Paris and Prague as part of the same struggle, he still wonders how this struggle can be resumed and linked together, despite the seemingly stiffer odds. But to think of potential action, of ends and means, of real situations, one has to give up introspection or abstract preaching for the unfashionable realm of concrete history.

Stalin is dead. Whether one dates the beginning of his reign in the middle or the late l920s, the Soviet Union has now lived longer under his successors than under Stalin himself. To explain the tragedy by the wickedness of one man, never tenable, is by now plainly absurd. On the other hand, the system linked with the man’s name, shaken and apparently threatened for a decade after his death, has somehow survived. This Brezhnevian restoration raises questions. How solid and permanent is this new stability? What contradictions are hidden behind the apparently stable surface? When will they reach a breaking point and who is likely to exploit them?

To stress the importance of the answers is to labor the obvious. The future of the other nuclear giant, dominating half of Europe and looking beyond, interests everybody. For a socialist, however, the problem has two additional dimensions. One is the reluctance to accept that the changes embodied in the October Revolution ultimately led to a dead end. The second is more practical. To be able to present the Soviet bloc as a mighty monolith, threatening and immutable, should help our ruling classes at home. The capitalist establishments, too, are not as triumphantly safe as they look. Barely out of the ’60s, with the unrest of the young generation, they were thrown at once into an economic crisis, still unfinished but having already destroyed the postwar image of modern capitalism as a guarantee for growth. True, the system has confirmed in the process its capacity for survival. Nevertheless, a Soviet bogy helps it to silence the opposition, as Solzhenitsyn’s message–revolution leads to the concentration camp–earlier helped to demoralize the generation of young rebels.

In the West, the return of the classical capitalist crisis compels the establishment to refurbish its obsolete ideological wares of the postwar period. In Eastern Europe a different kind of economic crisis puts no lesser strain on the Soviet establishment. My ambition here is not to find a definition for the Soviet system, to determine whether it is “state capitalist,” or a “bureaucratically degenerated workers’ state,” or whatnot. It is to suggest that if in the first quarter-century after Stalin’s death the Soviet economy was sacrificed to preserve the old political order, in the second quarter-century the political structure is likely to burst asunder under economic and social pressure. It is to show that Marx’s celebrated mole has kept on digging eastward, too, that contradictions, far from vanishing, have gathered momentum, and that a socialist opposition could seize the resulting opportunities.

In addition to mood and purpose, there exists internal and external pressure for change. Even if one thinks, as I do, that Solzhenitsyn’s success is due more to the collapse of the Soviet myth than the other way round, the impact of his writings in the Western world is undeniable. And Solzhenitsyn is not only the moving witness and the false prophet, he is also a pure product of the Soviet regime and an illustration of what happens when the road forward is blocked. Solzhenitsyn’s message looks ostentatiously to the past, and his chosen constituency, the peasantry, is shrinking, yet the fact that he nevertheless finds an echo in the country strong enough to frighten the leadership is a measure of the damage wrought by Stalinism and an indication of the ideological desert into which Stalin’s heirs are preaching. Indeed, this lesson can be extended well beyond the frontiers of the Soviet Union.

Since whatever its immediate attraction, the “messianism of backwardness” cannot prevail in the Soviet Union for long, the pressure for change has accumulated within Soviet society. Since 1968 there can be no doubt that the Soviet Union itself will be the location of the main battlefield in the Soviet bloc. The countries of Eastern Europe may show the way, hasten the pace, influence the course of Russian events, but Moscow will not allow them to break radically with the established pattern. The decisive conflict will ultimately have to be fought within Soviet frontiers.

Soviet society, it will be argued, is far from frozen. The weight of rural Russia is declining. The rising working class is no longer made up of uprooted peasants thrown into town. Mass education, while transforming the workers, has also produced an army of teachers, technicians and production engineers who do not quite know where they belong. Altogether, the various social groups, while no longer decimated by Stalin’s mincing machine, have not yet acquired the cohesion to crystallize and express their interests. So far, the only obvious conflict is within the Communist Party, between the apparatchiks and the technocrats, a conflict bound to intensify as the pace of the Soviet economy slackens. The authorities in their search for higher productivity will be driven to break the existing truce, to attack directly the interests of the workers and thus lead, unwittingly, to the revival of a labor movement.

I will not attempt to specify when this will happen, on how big a scale, or even to assure that such an outcome is inevitable. Though Brezhnevism as a pattern of rule is clearly doomed, the scenarios for the succession are many. If I am correct to place an accent on a growing and evolving labor movement in the widest sense of that term, this is due to a combination of analysis and opinion. It is, in my view, the most likely prospect and it has my preference.

But can the workers play a role in that part of the world? The Polish workers have shown how much can be achieved within a decade. In the winter of 1970-71 the shipwrights of Szczecin and the women of Lodz gained for the Polish workers the right to block unwanted policies. In the summer of 1976, when the Government tried again to boost consumer prices, this veto power was strikingly confirmed. The strikes and concessions they wrung from the Government in the summer of 1980 suggest that the Polish workers may be on the way to conquering the right to strike. In any case, Poland, with its mass of peasant smallholders and its mighty Catholic Church, is not presented as a model: it is shown as an example of how workers could suddenly climb on the political stage all over Eastern Europe.

Finally, there is the question of joint action on the two sides of the Elbe, despite the different political contexts, of which a writer is particularly conscious. To apply Marxist tools to our current predicament, to view the situation in terms of class conflicts, to refer to the social division of labor or the class roots of the withering state is now very unfashionable. To be with-it and sound scientifically up-to-date one must invoke the names of Moses or Mohammed, Krishna or Christ. To swim against such an obscurantist trend, however, does not call for much courage. I run the risk of being dismissed as a dinosaur; such a risk does not compare with the ordeals facing unorthodox thinkers beyond the Elbe.

A Rudolf Bahro is thrown into prison and then expelled from East Germany for expressing his views. Polish dissidents like Jacek Kuron or Adam Michnik, on their way to give a lecture in Poland’s “flying university,” never know whether they will be arrested or beaten up. The signatories of the Czech Charter in 1977 lie in jail and the wrath of the state spreads to their next of kin. The Soviet dissidents face the choice of the camp, the psychiatric ward, or exile. And we are talking here about prominent, hence relatively protected, people. In the circumstances, the elementary duty of the Western left is to fight for the rights of the East European dissidents, including the freedom to express views we do not share. Here the obligation is simple. The attitude will become more complex once we reach the higher stage of collaboration with the opposition in the Soviet bloc. Then action will be inspired not just by sympathy for the victims but also by a broad agreement with their political objectives. Is it not farfetched to expect some such collaboration in the not so distant future? This optimistic assumption rests upon two unmistakable trends. First, the economic crisis proves that the current reactionary rule, prevailing in both the East and the West, is not as solidly entrenched as most people think. Second, the narrowed economic gap between the two halves of Europe means that if we were to find Socialist solutions in the West, they would answer problems arising beyond the Elbe, too.

Sixty years ago the Western proletariat and its political parties failed to come to the rescue of the victorious and isolated Bolsheviks. The tragic failure does not explain it all, and does not release us from the need to make a critical analysis stretching beyond Stalinism to the behavior, plans and the very conceptions of the Bolsheviks. But the failure and the resulting isolation in a backward country have a great deal to do with the so-called primitive socialist accumulation, of which Stalin’s rule was the most ruthless expression. Paradoxically, Stalinism did not have its worst reputation when it was at its cruelest, with concentration camps packed to the full. On the contrary, with its seamy side hidden, it was still a source of inspiration. It is only now that the “odor of corruption” is spreading throughout the world.

The price that we in the advanced capitalist countries have to pay for this is heavy. There is the guilt by association. There are the Communist parties, which have long ceased to be instruments of revolutionary action, but have preserved the system of military command from above disguised under the title of “democratic centralism.” There is also the ideological desert after half a century in which “orthodox Marxism” was the name given to the set of “dialectical” quotations made to measure for the Kremlin. But whatever our price may be, it is light when compared with the burden carried on the other side of the Elbe, where it is the people’s daily reality. There Marxism is perceived as the cloak concealing injustice, exploitation and the Soviet tanks. My hope is that, as the mole keeps on digging, conditions may soon be ready in the Soviet bloc for the emergence of a socialist opposition. The main obstacle lies in this identification, and it is here that we in the West would help, if we could preach by example.

To talk of potential socialist examples in the industrialized countries of Western and Eastern Europe sounds more utopian today than it did, say, twelve years ago, when Paris and Prague were stirring. Yet we should not be surprised by the apparent relapse. Opportunities for radical change are exceptions, fleeting moments between long intervals, when the conservative inertia

   makes us rather bear those 111s we have
Than to fly to others that we know not of.

The hesitation is even greater when the alleged future is successfully presented as the devil about which we know only too much. Yet it is m those long intervals that contradictions build up and discontent reaches breaking point. The walls are not as solid as they look.

Finally, there is the limit of a metaphor. Socialism, despite the behavior of some of its alleged practitioners, is no religion and Stalin was no Father Zossima. Dead he certainly is, but he is also very far from buried, and it may take generations to get rid of the stench. The reason is obvious. To bury Stalinism really means to revive the idea of socialism and to begin its construction all over again, a prospect as deadly for the aged leaders of “really existing socialism” as it is for the old capitalist masters.

This task is, by its very nature, our common job, East and West.

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