THE ROLE OF COMMUNISM IN THE 20TH CENTURY
By Dave Stratman
Most Americans have rightly rejected Communism as a response to capitalism. Nevertheless Communism was presented by both its supporters and detractors as the revolutionary alternative to capitalism, and now Communism is dead. Where does that leave us?
Think about Communism as a kind of global company union. Given the actual role Communism played, I believe its collapse leaves us in a stronger position to change the world. Capitalism has survived the twentieth century only because the opposition to it has been dominated by a system with as great a stake in suppressing democratic revolution as capitalism itself. Once we understand Communism’s role, we can better see that democracy will win.
Here are some illustrations of that role.
THE RUSSIAN REVOLUTION
In February, 1917 a popular uprising of working people and peasants toppled the Czar. Workers took over factories and established Workers Committees to run them. Peasants took over large estates and ran them communally. Ordinary people of all backgrounds set up "soviets"—democratically-elected councils—as organs of popular democracy. The Czar was replaced by a government of industrialists, big landowners, and liberal aristocrats, which tried to restore elite power. In October this government was overthrown by workers and soldiers led by the Bolshevik (Communist) Party. Working people around the world took hope. Capitalists and kings trembled. The age of modern revolution had begun.
At the time of the February Revolution, the Bolsheviks were just one of several small revolutionary parties in Russia. From February to October, however, the Bolshevik Party won the contest for leadership of the revolutionary masses. Almost alone among the Social Democratic parties of Europe, the Bolsheviks refused to support the great slaughter of World War I, instead calling on workers of all countries to turn their guns on their masters. Alone among the Marxist parties, the Bolsheviks came to believe that working class revolution was necessary and possible in Russia at that time. After the fall of the Czar, they relentlessly attacked the new government and called for workers' revolution against capitalism. They had a disciplined organization of tremendous energy, which, in the words of an anti-Bolshevik commentator, "seemed to be everywhere" with posters, literature, meetings, speeches, rallies, all expressing the demands of the people: "The land to the peasants! The factories to the workers! All power to the Soviets!"
The orthodox Marxist parties of the time believed that economic developments determine historical events. The great contribution by Lenin, leader of the Bolsheviks, to Marxism was to show that human actors need not wait on blind economic forces. Organized as a disciplined, politically conscious party, they can create the conditions for revolutionary change.
But Lenin's theory had a fatal flaw which turned Communism into an anti-democratic nightmare. Lenin was right about the central role played by consciousness in human affairs. He was wrong about what political consciousness is and where it comes from.
Revolutionary goals and values in fact come from ordinary working people. Revolutionary consciousness consists of working people's consciousness of themselves as the source of the values and vision to create a new world. Lenin, however, believed that workers have no goals or vision but their own self-interest. With other prominent Marxists, he believed that revolutionary ideas come not from workers but from intellectuals.
Lenin's idea of revolutionary consciousness led him to a concept of revolution totally controlled from the top down. While the Communists helped to lead the revolutionary struggle forward, they simultaneously sucked the vital democratic element from it and turned it into its opposite: a device for a new elite to control working people.
The Communists expected their revolution to spread throughout Western Europe. Voline, a Russian anarchist active in the revolution, commented that Lenin was correct in expecting that successful revolution in one country would "set fire to the world." His mistake was in believing that Communist revolution would spread in this way. Lenin could not see that Communist revolution was sterile: "it could set fire to nothing, for it had ceased to `burn' itself;...it had lost the power of spreading, a character of great causes, because it had ceased to be a great cause....[Lenin] believed that the ultimate fate of the Russian Revolution depended upon its extension to other countries. Exactly the opposite was true: extension of the Revolution depended upon the results of the revolution in Russia."
JOINING THE CLUB
After their original hostility, the capitalist powers began to see the Soviet government as one with which they might usefully deal. The United States recognized the Soviets in 1933. In 1935, the Soviets signed trade agreements with France and Great Britain and a military pact with France. The Soviets were becoming members of the elite club. The Communist International called for Communists worldwide to join with "democratic capitalists" in a Popular Front Against Fascism. Stalin purged the Party of revolutionaries, executing them or sending them to the gulags.
With their revolutionary reputation largely intact, the Soviet Union began to play a key role in preventing working class revolution anywhere in the world.
A critical test for the Communists as allies of capital came with the civil war in Spain. In 1936 General Franco, leader of the Fascist movement, rebelled against the mildly reformist government. Workers armed themselves and beat back the Fascist armies, spreading social revolution as they went. Workers seized factories in Catalonia and other provinces and ran them themselves. Peasants took over large estates and farmed them collectively.
The Soviet Union agreed to sell arms to them, but only on condition that they abandon the revolution. Soviet agents sent to Spain for the purpose began to round up and execute revolutionary leaders. After a bitter three-year struggle and the abandonment of the revolution, the civil war was lost to the Fascist forces.
WWII AND THE "GRAND ALLIANCE"
World capital feared that World War II would bring revolution throughout Europe.
As the war drew to a close, this great fear seemed about to be realized. In France, Italy, Greece, and Yugoslavia, Communist-led resistance forces liberated large sections of the country before the arrival of Allied troops.
The national uprising of the French resistance took place before the Allied landing at Normandy; and the greater part of France, including Paris, was liberated by the armed forces of the Communist-led resistance, with the active support of the population at large. Liberation committees were established everywhere as organs of popular control. At the direction of Moscow, when the Allies arrived, the resistance forces gave over their weapons and their political power to them.
By 1945, there were over 300,000 armed partisans in the north of Italy. (In the fall of 1944, the Allies halted their advance up the Italian peninsula, to allow the German and Italian Fascist troops freedom to smash the partisans. The Allies maintained this truce until mid-April, 1945 when, in fear of partisan victory throughout the north, they again went over to the offensive.) Ten days before the Allies arrived, the partisans liberated Bologna, Modena, Parma, Piacenza, Genoa, Turin, Milan, Verona, Padua and the whole region of Venice, and placed them under the control of national liberation committees. But at the direction of the Italian Communist Party, the partisans surrendered their arms to the Allies and returned confiscated lands and goods to the capitalists and big landowners.
The Greek resistance was "within a hair’s breadth of victory" over the Nazis and the Greek monarchy, backed by the British. But the Greek Communist leadership acceded to Stalin's demands to give over power to the British-backed forces and the working class forces were destroyed.
Only the Yugoslav Communist Party resisted the pressure from Moscow and completed the revolution.
Fernando Claudin, a former Spanish Communist leader, wrote, "in 1944-45 only the Communist parties could halt the revolutionary movement of the proletariat, and in practice this is what they did."
Why did the Communist parties of the world save capitalism? For two reasons. One, Stalin had made a deal with the U.S. and UK that France, Italy, Greece, and Yugoslavia would remain in the Western bloc after the war.
Two, the Soviets feared that revolution from below in Europe would lead to revolution from below in the Soviet Union.
THE COLD WAR: 1947-1989
As the immediate post-war years drew to a close, the world divided into two apparently hostile camps, which, however, had an abiding common interest: the prevention of working class revolution anywhere in the world.
While it still declared itself the world center of socialist revolution, the Soviet Union had become a firmly counterrevolutionary power. The Communist parties of Western Europe became part of the "loyal opposition," ruthlessly opposing any efforts to create movements to their left. The Communist parties of Eastern Europe were ruling apparatuses closely tied to Soviet power.
The counterrevolutionary development of the Communist movement meant that world capital faced a world without revolution. (China is another but similar story.)
The Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union was much like what Orwell describes in 1984: a perpetual state of war which provided the ruling elites of both societies a much-needed enemy to justify internal control.
The Cold War also provided each superpower with a rationale to protect its interests abroad. The U.S. attacked foreign lands to "save them from Communism." Soviet tanks smashed into Hungary and Czechoslovakia "to save them from capitalism."
WHY DID COMMUNISM COLLAPSE?
There are two curious things about the "collapse of communism." One is that the policy changes —"perestroika" and "glasnost," for example—which resulted in the "velvet revolutions" in Eastern Europe were initiated by Communist leaders themselves. A second is that, in most cases, the same elites, even the same individuals, are still in charge. The Communists have become capitalists. What’s going on here?
I traveled in Eastern Europe in February and March, 1990 to study the fall of Communism. Three months after the revolution in Romania, I asked a senator representing the Hungarian minority of Cluj-Napoca the cause of the economic crisis under Ceausescu. He said, "Workers in Romania have been on strike for five years. They show up for work, yes, but nobody works more than two hours a day. They smoke, drink, play cards, talk. Nobody works." I asked my guide and translator in Torun, Poland, the same question. We were in a hotel bar at the time, around 10 a.m. on a Thursday. He said, "You want to know the reason? Look around you!" The bar was full of people talking and drinking. "All these people here are at work. They check in and say, ‘I have to run an errand.’ Then they go out to drink."
Why did Communism not prevail? Because Communism did not have the same means to enforce its everyday rule as capitalism. In Communist countries, workers could not be laid off. Services like health care and education were free. The Communist system was a "command economy" in which nobody followed the commands anymore, and there was no practical way to make them work.
Capitalism is more efficient than Communism because it is better able to control people. Capitalism is based on an ideology of competition and market structures which force individuals to compete to sell their labor power. Capitalism is able to force people every day to face the possibility of failure and to face their fate alone. In capitalist society you’re supposedly "the master of your fate." If you’re rich, it’s because you’re smart. If you’re working at a boring or dangerous or low-paying job, it’s because you’re stupid. If you’re unemployed, you’re a failure. Meanwhile the rent and food and medical bills pile up.
Restructuring these societies is meant to enable the Communist elite to pit workers against each other for jobs and factories against each other for markets. Introducing massive unemployment into these societies brings the massive insecurity that goes with it. Finally the Eastern elite will have at their disposal the whips of hunger and insecurity that have served Western capitalists so well.
DEMOCRACY WILL WIN
Communism worked only while people maintained some faith in its revolutionary promises. When its credibility eventually crumbled, so did its ability to function.
We are told that the collapse of Communism represents the triumph of capitalism. But this would only be true if capitalism and Communism had truly been in a contest over conflicting social goals. In fact, despite certain differences, these systems share the same goal—elite control of workers. The collapse of Communism is a historic loss for the world elite.
The situation in the world is one of extreme danger for elites and great possibility for ordinary people. Millions, even billions of people worldwide are disgusted with capitalism and see no future in it. The people of Eastern Europe and China have tasted capitalist reforms and are spitting them out. The whole world is yearning for, struggling for real democracy.
Democracy will mean a world based on mutual support and equality. People will freely discuss and decide what their societies should be like in a world without presidents or Party bosses. People’s real talents will be used and their capacity for good will flower. The wealth that people create will serve the shared needs of all rather than the gluttony and power of a few. Our work, our struggles will go to making the world a more caring and more beautiful place for the generation that is passing away and for the generations to come.
These ideals represent the deepest longings of human beings. They link together men and women of every race and nationality. We cannot be stopped. Democracy will win.