This Nov. 7 saw, by the Gregorian calendar, the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. By any measure, it was the most important political event of the 20th century, and it shapes world history to the present day. Yet, no one today wants to own it. Boris Yeltsin, the first leader of post-revolutionary Russia, called Communism an experiment that should have been performed on a smaller country. Vladimir Putin, the ex-KGB colonel, has ostentatiously put as much historical distance as possible between present-day Russia and the revolution that made it a superpower. To be sure, the People’s Republic of China still calls itself Communist, as does Cuba. Neither, especially China, bears any resemblance to what Karl Marx would have recognized as Communism.
When Marx himself was asked by a correspondent in the 1870s whether he believed that a Communist revolution was possible in Russia, he replied that it was. Marx was doubtless trying to be encouraging to a backwoodsman, for his theory of socialism presupposed an advanced capitalist economy and a mature proletariat such as Russia had not achieved. More prescient was Tsar Nicholas II’s general staff, which told him bluntly that the state and the dynasty would not survive a protracted European war. The war soon came, and the state collapsed. Its short-lived successor did so as well, and a faction of a hitherto obscure revolutionary party was able to stage an overnight coup. Thus was the Bolshevik Revolution born, in the wrong place at the wrong time as its leader, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, confessed privately at the end of his life. History, however, responds not to theory but opportunity. To create socialism in the modern world — a hostile world, fourteen of whose powers had tried to crush the new regime at birth — a mechanized economy was essential, and Russia’s very modest industrial base, barely an eighth the size of its German foe in the Great War, would require a herculean effort the likes of which no society had ever attempted.
Lenin died before he could fairly attempt this task. His successor, Joseph Stalin, undertook to accomplish it in a scant decade. He did, at sickening human cost. The result was a military machine that was able to withstand the greatest onslaught in human history, the Nazi invasion of 1941. World War II was won in Europe by the forces of Soviet Russia, as even the committed anti-Communist Winston Churchill was moved to admit. No one can properly count the cost in life and liberty, and it is beyond human faculty to morally justify it. But neither has anyone ever explained to me how Europe could have avoided decades of fascist enslavement otherwise. History gives no award for good losers.
What, then, of Communism’s ideological rationale, the creation of a socialist society? Russian Communism was, of necessity, a tightly centralized form of state capitalism run by a one-party elite that concentrated power and privilege in its own ranks. But it was an elite open to talent, and the Soviet state did provide a basic structure of education, employment and social services for the majority of the population. It was not efficient, it was not liberal and it was not, by proper standards, just.
But the Leningrad I visited at the height of the Cold War was a city where I did not encounter beggars and the homeless and where the young people I spoke to expressed pride in what had been accomplished and hope for the future. I was reminded of this impression when I read Donald Kimelman’s recollection of his own visit as a foreign correspondent to the Soviet Union years later, in the supposedly stagnant and declining years of Communist rule. Kimelman had been prepared to find disillusionment; instead, he recorded, the wide cross-section of Russians he met were “Virtually without exception … passionate and relentless defenders of the Soviet state” both domestically and abroad, a posture, he concluded, that “went beyond the call of duty” — or of fear (The Philadelphia Inquirer, Nov. 5).
Communism had not achieved what Marx, or for that matter Lenin, had wanted of it, as the Soviet Union’s last leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, was foolish enough to state. By the time of Kimelman’s visit, too, Russians were aware of the gap in living standards between themselves and the West. But even in the mid-1980s, they did not appear prepared to repudiate their revolution. No doubt, there was a good deal of sheer national pride in this. That, though, was the very point: the 1917 Revolution was their revolution; it had seen them through the most terrible war in history, had sent the first man into space, and had stood toe-to-toe with the United States as one of the world’s two superpowers.
The Revolution was, of course, not confined to Russia; in its conception, it was intended to embrace the world. After World War II, the Soviet Union took effective control of Eastern Europe and appeared poised to dominate the Continent. At the same time, revolution came to China, and most of Eurasia was now, as American policymakers phrased it, “in Communist hands.” With the hindsight of 70 years, we can now see what actually occurred as a process of forced-draft economic modernization, in which China took essentially the same road Russia had, to wit, authoritarian state capitalism. After a period of isolation and strife, China emerged as a robust player on the world market, in which it has now taken an aggressive posture. As in Russia, the model adopted was a one-party state. China still uses the fig-leaf of “Communism” to describe its system, but to all intents and purposes it presents itself as a variant of managerial capitalism, a game it has thus far played well.
Does this mean, then, that Communism was a failure? The question is far too simple. Doubtless, Russia and China would have come to modernization sooner or later, but the revolutions that swept away their old regimes brought this about far more rapidly, and, in the case of Russia, just in time to deal with fascism. All of this has been consequential to the highest degree. Even in Russia, which has turned to an oligarchic capitalism since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Joseph Stalin remains the most significant, and for many the most highly regarded figure in the country, while Mao Zedong is still officially revered in China.
Which leaves two questions: Where does socialism stand today? And where are we now?
There are still many political parties in Western Europe that describe themselves as socialist or social democratic. They are no such thing.
Capitalism is the order of the day, and only fringe parties fail to worship at the Altars of Mammon. But social democracy — labor laws, the minimum wage, guaranteed income and pensions, subsidized housing, state-sponsored healthcare — owed much of its career in the years after 1917 to the oppositional presence of Soviet “Communism” as an alternative to winner-take-all capitalism. Our society, such as it is, would look a good deal different but for the goad of the Red Menace. That said, of course, the term socialism, in anything like the sense that Karl Marx and his disciples would have understood it, has been effectively stripped of its meaning. It’s no longer even a bogeyman, but simply a harmless term from a dead language.
So, where does that leave us? If Nov. 7 was the centennial of an all-but forgotten revolution, Nov. 8 was the first anniversary of the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States. Trump successfully presented himself as the catchment for the pent-up rage and frustration that has no outlet in our social system and that sooner or later was bound to result in a demagogue — or a visionary. Right now, however, we have no horizon for vision, and if many people can see the catastrophic career that capitalism has embarked us on — radical inequality, unchecked exploitation, ecological devastation — no one has yet offered a persuasive and politically feasible alternative. When things come to such an impasse, the dream of revolution revives. The job is to make sure it doesn’t turn into a nightmare.