When the scale of the global financial crisis became clear with the collapse of Lehman Bros in 2008, Will Hutton, the Observer’s Keynesian economics columnist, pointedly remarked that the crisis of capitalism was upon us but the Marxist left, which had been predicting it for decades, was in no position to do anything about it. More recently, just a month ago, Nouriel Roubini, who almost alone amongst economics forecasters had predicted the financial crash, told the Wall Street journal that Marx had been right in claiming that capitalism was doomed to destruction. The re-discovery of Marx is, outside the small and largely marginalized groups on the left in western countries, still very much a minority interest. However, given that for the past twenty years at least, it has been taken for granted amongst mainstream political and economic theorists that Marx and all his works were truly dead and buried, the revival of interest is significant. Francis Fukuyama’s triumphalist 1992 celebration of ‘The End of History’ has turned out to be amongst the shortest-lived of mistaken ideas. Whether the first decades of the twenty-first century will turn out to herald the ‘final crisis of capitalism’ we cannot know. But only willfully blind defenders of the crisis-ridden status quo would confidently predict that its future is assured. Given the grave and growing instability of the global financial system, - and, if one wanted to compound the problems by mentioning the impact of wars, military intervention and revolution in the Middle East, Afghanistan and elsewhere, as well as the small matter of man-made global warming and climate change – a burning question presents itself. Why are there no mass movements committed to halting this headlong rush to catastrophe? Why are there no effective radical parties of the left dedicated to changing the system once and for all? That is the question. Given the patent failure of finance monopoly capitalism to achieve the ‘free market’ nirvana preached by its Hayekian and Friedmanite ideologues, one might have expected a vigorous revival of socialism. It is important to consider why there has been no such revival.
In seeking an answer we must look once again at the Soviet experience and its impact on the rest of the world. For our purposes this means primarily addressing the question of Stalinism. It would be neither appropriate nor possible here to go into the complexities of the debate about the meaning of Stalinism or the precise nature of the regime over which Stalin presided. The Marxist left in Britain has for more than sixty years been divided in its interpretation of the nature of the Soviet regime between the late 1920s and its demise in 1991. For most communists, following the Moscow line, the Soviet Union and the countries of Eastern Europe and elsewhere allied to it, were regarded as socialist. For most orthodox Trotskyists, the Soviet Union and its allies were bureaucratically deformed workers’ states. For some neo-Trotskyists, these countries were not considered to be socialist at all, but were regarded as versions of ‘state capitalism’. Whatever the differences between Marxists, all accepted the undeniable fact that the Soviet Union and other self-proclaimed socialist countries had put an end to private ownership in the means of production; all had established nationalized industries and largely collectivized agriculture, and operated their economies on the basis of centralized state planning. This was the system widely regarded by both left and right as ‘socialist’ or ‘communist.’
During the 1930s, through the years of the great depression, there existed a world-wide communist movement, closely allied to Moscow through the Communist International (Comintern.) In many countries the communist parties led mass working class and peasant movements. Communists were to the forefront of social struggles and of the movements in opposition to fascism and war. The Comintern organized the international brigade volunteers who fought to defend the Spanish republic against Franco fascism. During the Second World War, in which the Soviet Union played by far the largest part in the destruction of fascism, communists were to the forefront in all the resistance movements in occupied Europe. After the war mass communist parties emerged in France and Italy and communist movements led successful revolutions in Vietnam, China and later, Cuba..
Between the late 1920s and 1953 the Soviet Union was led by Stalin. Whatever its accomplishments, and they were in many ways astounding, the regime over which he came to exercise iron control, developed into a tyranny. The forced march to transform the vast territory from a backward agrarian country into an advanced industrial state, cost the lives of millions. In 1931, at the beginning of the four year plans, Stalin declared that the country was 50 to 100 years behind the west in terms of its industrial development. It had, he said, 10 years to catch up. It would either succeed or perish. Exactly 10 years later the Nazis invaded. After unimaginable sacrifices, Soviet armed might, made possible many argued by the forced march of the five year plans, succeeded in defeating the greatest war machine history had ever known. Some have argued that this accomplishment justified the means employed to achieve it: ‘You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.’ This claim might possibly have some flimsy credibility if it could be shown that (a) there was no alternative to the draconian forced march onto which Stalin dragooned the country, and (b) given that, the sacrifices of millions of lives were inevitable. Neither of these is true.
Stalinism was a complex phenomenon that cannot be reduced to any simplistic formula. It is not helpful to use the term as a label to characterize all communist-ruled countries as diverse, for example, as Yugoslavia and Cuba, or for that matter to describe the Soviet Union and other states of Eastern Europe at different stages of their history, as for example, 1950 and 1980. But it is possible to point to certain definitive characteristics of Stalinism. From the late 1920s, following the defeat of the Left (Trotskyist) Opposition, Stalin’s policy of building ‘socialism in a single country’ came to be imposed as the state orthodoxy. There could be no alternative. Any suggestion of a possible alternative to the five year plans and forced collectivization of agriculture, was rejected tout court.
Given that the country existed isolated in a hostile capitalist environment it was easy and convenient to treat any deviation from the ‘correct’ course as evidence of opposition to socialism itself. ‘Those who are not with us, are against us’ was the watch-word. Stalin regarded himself as the true disciple of Lenin and the interpreter of ‘Leninism’. In the circumstances of the 1930s, particularly with the rise of fascism in Germany and the knowledge that the exiled Trotskyist opposition was engaged in a sustained ideological attack on Stalin, claiming that he had betrayed the revolution, the search for ‘hidden enemies’ inside the country became a paranoid obsession. Under a regime which allowed no legitimate voice of dissent, the imagined scope of hidden and conspiratorial dissent became limitless. This is the background to the purges of the late 1930s which eliminated the majority of the old Bolsheviks from the leadership of the communist party and spread like wildfire throughout the lower ranks of the apparatus and beyond. From the early 1930s to the end of the decade and the onset of war, millions perished, either in the famine induced by forced collectivization and the elimination of the kulaks, or through incarceration in slave labour camps in the ‘gulag archipelago.’ The full horror of what had happened during the years of Stalin’s dictatorship did not become widely known until after his death.
It was then revealed beyond any possibility of doubt that the trials of leading communists during the Soviet purges of 1936 – 1938, and those in Eastern Europe between 1949 and 1952, were grotesque frame-ups in which confessions to the most preposterous crimes were obtained through torture. The truth that emerged after Stalin’s death led indirectly to the splits within the world communist movement and, finally, played a part in its disintegration. What is the relevance of all this to the weakness of socialist opposition movements in the western world today?
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the states of Eastern Europe between 1989 and 1991, the world became safe for rampant neo-liberal capitalism. From 1945 to around 1980, western capitalism had to some extent been constrained by the need to compete with the communist world for economic and ideological influence in the newly independent ‘Third World’ countries whose anti-colonial stance inclined them towards closer association with the Soviet bloc. Also, in the advanced capitalist countries, particularly in Europe, the Keynesian/social democratic model of economic development based on mixed economy, was to some extent an attempt to counteract the influence of a more assertive socialist movement, often influenced by the perceived successes of Soviet and other communist countries. Thus, the continued existence of the Soviet Union and other communist-ruled countries who, whatever their faults, appeared to have achieved a more egalitarian distribution of wealth, acted as a brake on unrestrained ‘free-market’ capitalism.
But perhaps the most far-reaching propaganda triumph of neo-liberal capitalism in its drive to globalization, has been its equation of socialism with Stalinism. This perpetuates the old Hayekian canard that any attempt to constrain the ‘free market’ is ‘the road to serfdom’ leading inevitably to Stalinist tyranny. To be able to claim that ‘There is No Alternative’ to capitalism has enabled a vast army of propagandists in the media and academia to write the obituary of socialism and of Marxism. It is incumbent on the left to challenge this dangerous myth. Stalinism has done incalculable damage to the socialist cause and it is absolutely essential that this is properly understood. What happened to the Soviet Union under Stalin was not inevitable; it was not an inevitable outgrowth of Marxism. As US academic, Professor Stephen F. Cohen (Rethinking the Soviet Experience: Politics and History since 1917) has argued very persuasively, the outcome of the Soviet debates in the 1920s could have been different; a different course, leading to a very different version of socialism could have been undertaken. It suits both the apologists for Stalin and the advocates of neo-liberal capitalism to claim that there was no alternative to Stalinism. There is an alternative to both Stalinism and capitalism. It has yet to be tried and unless is tried humanity cannot be guaranteed a viable future.