Capitalism and socialism in the twenty-first century
By Tariq Ali
Marx once wrote that “history weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living,” and even twenty years after the Soviet Union’s collapse activists are still confronted by the legacy of Stalinism. At the same time, capitalism has failed millions of working and poor people around the world. The following is a speech given by Tariq Ali at the New York City launch of his book, The Stalinist Legacy: Its Impact on Twentieth Century World Politics.
I’M VERY happy that Haymarket Books has reprinted this collection which, as time goes on, I had almost forgot existed. I barely remembered it until Anthony Arnove dug it out from somewhere or the other. Penguin Books published it because at that time, in the 1980s, there was a huge debate about which way forward—a decrepit capitalism or a revived living socialism—and this was a big debate. That debate is now returning in a modest way. One shouldn’t exaggerate, but people are getting interested in socialism again, so I think it’s timely. And to show you how it’s coming back again, I will tell you a little story.
About a year ago, I was rung up by a German theater in Essen, which is a big industrial town in Germany like Manchester in England, an historically working-class town. The dramaturge at the theater in Essen said, “We want you to write a play for us.” I said, “I might be interested; what do you want me to write a play about?” She said, “We want you to write a modern version of Don Quixote.” So I said, “Yes, it’s a tall order.”
Then I met with a French director who works with the theater a lot, and I said, “Look, it would be absolutely crazy to do a play which presents the old characters in modern clothes; it’s not going to work. The only way to do it, I think, is to bring in Don Quixote and Sancho Panza out of the seventeenth century world into the twentieth-first century world in their medieval clothes and let them see what’s happening in this world.” I continued, “I just want to be very clear that if I write this play, it really will be a defense of radical ideas and anticapitalism and we will show the audience what is happening in this world.” He said, “Well, yes, but show them how?” I said, “We will show them how bankers and politicians are in bed with each other—sometimes literally. We will show them what happens when you fight wars. We’ll have a huge scene in a US military hospital in Germany where veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan are hanging around without legs and arms.”
“It’s not going to be a feel-good play in that sense.” I continued, “Lastly we will tackle the thorny questions of sexuality and politics in the Middle East.” He said, “Could you just write this down in two or three pages?” And I did, and it’s happening, and they are going to do it and everything is now being designed. I said, “Any problems?” He said, “No, no, everyone is very keen. But do be aware that Brecht is regarded by half of Germany as a Stasi agent.” I said, “Well that’s totally disgusting.” He said, “It is totally disgusting, but that is the reality. So you just have to be aware of that.”
Bertolt Brecht as a Stasi agent brings us to the topic of socialism in the twentieth century, and what happened to it. I’ll just spell out my views on it, and then we can discuss and argue. The basic thing to understand about the twentieth century is that this was the first time in the history of the world that a revolution had been made (in 1917) by political revolutionaries who had set out with the idea of making a socialist revolution.
This wasn’t accidental like the English and French bourgeois revolutions were. It’s not that the English puritans and the French enlightenment revolutionaries set out with the idea that we’re going to make a bourgeois revolution that will complete the transition from feudalism to capitalism, and these are the institutions we’ll set up, and then we’ll execute a tiny proportion of the aristocracy.
No. They didn’t set out like that. It happened, but it happened because there were movements, class forces, social forces from below, political struggles, and social struggles in a congealed way, not like we know them now from the top. And these revolutions, including the bourgeois revolution in sixteenth-century Holland were, if you like, uncoordinated and not thought-out revolutions. The Russian Revolution was the first revolution in the history of humanity which was totally thought-out and Lenin (not very fashionable these days) said, “This is what we are going to do; we may not succeed, but this is the attempt to create on a global scale a power structure that will benefit not just Russians, but the entire world.”
If you look at the impact of that revolution, it had a completely international impact. It was like lightning. It created anticolonial movements. It encouraged liberation movements, which were not communist in any sense of the word, but inspired by this event to challenge imperialism. The Bolsheviks did think sometimes in slightly crazy ways. For instance, in 1919 they thought: how are we going to stop these imperial powers that are intervening in our country and waging a civil war? Trotsky says to Lenin: “Why don’t we hit them where it will hurt them at the heart of their empires?” So Lenin said, “Yes, that’s a good idea; what are we going to do?” Trotsky finds out that there are only 36,000 English soldiers controlling India, and he’s astonished when he finds this out. He says, “Thirty-six thousand white soldiers—that’s all?” So he asks his generals and marshals to prepare an emergency plan for a red cavalry of 25,000 soldiers—recruited largely from Central Asia—that can go through Afghanistan into India, defeat the British Imperial Army, and declare Indian independence. That’s how they thought. I’m glad they didn’t try it, because who knows where it might have led us, but the thinking was absolutely clear: Hit the capitalist powers at their weakest points.
The entire leadership of the Marxist movement in Russia—both Bolshevik and Menshevik—was agreed that it was a backward country. A large bulk of the country was unorganized peasants barely liberated from serfdom. The size of the working class was miniscule compared to the countries of Western Europe, especially Germany. So they said, “What are we going to do?” And for a long time they said it’s not going to be possible. What transformed their thinking was World War I, because the First World War politicized the peasantry who were recruited as soldiers into the imperial army to go and fight, and the defeats they suffered radicalized them considerably. It was the soldiers and workers (and for soldiers, read peasants in uniform) who effectively provided the base for the revolutionary movement that won.
Despite this, the thinking of the entire Bolshevik leadership at that moment was that if the revolution doesn’t take seed in Germany we are sunk. There is no way we can build socialism in Russia. We do not have the industrial base to do it. We need German industry and the German working class to do it. Every single thing was linked to the German Revolution. If you read the writings now, which I’ve been doing for other purposes, it’s a constant theme. If you look at the pamphlets at the time—in 1917, Lenin wrote Can The Bolsheviks Retain State Power?—it wasn’t a stupid question.
And so they pushed and pushed and pushed. Hungary fell for a short time to a communist uprising. There was an uprising in Munich—foolish, because the conditions weren’t right. The leader of the communist uprising in Munich, Eugen Leviné, said to the leaders in Moscow, “I don’t think the timing is right, let’s don’t go for it; the timing is never right”—which is also true. He went for it and the revolt failed, and he made one of the most moving speeches in communist history. “Yes, we lost. But you have to understand,” he said to the court. “We communists are dead people on leave. Our lives don’t matter. We will carry on. You can execute me.” They executed him the following day.
Then the revolutionaries tried it in Berlin. Rosa Luxemburg was completely opposed to it, because, she said, “It is not right. We do not have a majority of workers with us. Many of them are still loyal to the German Social Democratic Party. It’s an adventure.” But the decision had been taken by the Spartakusbund, and they went for it, and they lost. In this process we lost in Germany the most capable, intelligent, gifted leaders of the German working class. This is what happens when you have revolutions full stop. The successful revolutionary country wants to push and push, because it knows it can’t survive on its own.
The French did it. They did it in a deformed way via Napoleon, who said, “Unless we gain Europe they will surround and destroy the gains of the French Revolution.” He was right on that, completely right. Had he succeeded in destroying czarism—when he invaded Russia, the plan was to destroy czarism. The initial plan was to completely give rights to the peasants, give them the Code Napoleon [which prohibited privilege by birth], and distribute the land. Had they done that, it might have been a different story. They didn’t do that; Napoleon fought the war in a conventional way. But the aim was that, and also to set up republics. If you don’t set up republics, it creates little monarchies. But that was the plan.
Forget the French Revolution. In the modern world, it’s the Cuban Revolution. I’m just saying that this is a weakness of successful revolutionary movements.
The Cuban Revolution succeeded through a combination of circumstances—one is that the Americans were totally unprepared for this event on their doorstep, completely unprepared for it. The revolution succeeded, and they chuck out all the American companies, etc. Then they realize: “We’re a tiny island and we need other Latin American countries with us.” In Cuba it worked in the sense of being successful by keeping the United States at bay. It worked because it was not simply the armed struggle groups that were very important; there was also a mass movement, the July 26th movement, in the cities. They had urban organization. The guerrilla foco theory—that a small group of armed revolutionaries can trigger off a revolution anywhere—when you think back on it now, it’s completely schematic.
It was tried in Argentina, where you have a huge workers movement due to the end of the hegemony of Peronism, which is a mixed blessing, but it is a blessing because Peronism gave the workers a lot of rights in Argentina. And to think you can climb or jump over the Argentinean workers’ movement with the crazy idea of a foco in a very obscure part of the country on the Bolivian border, it was a disaster.
Okay, so it’s a disaster, and you learn from it. But then you repeat that disaster a year later in Bolivia. These are very intelligent people. The Bolsheviks of course were the most gifted political leaders that Europe had produced. But the Cuban leadership wasn’t stupid either, nor was the French before them. It’s the arrogance, in a way, of success—that success creates. You think you can do it because someone else has done it [in another context—World War I] and by God they didn’t think they’d be able to do it, but they did it, and we can do it too. The analysis of conditions—social conditions, relationship of social forces—is never worked out. The groups in these countries are so much in awe of the people who succeeded that they go against their own better judgments and carry out the orders. It’s always a mistake to blindly carry out the orders of some parent group in some other country without thinking about the concrete conditions in your own country—always a mistake. If the conditions are right fine, great, but if they are not. The result is that in South America again we lost in every single country incredibly gifted, courageous people.
The same people in Germany who killed Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were the same people who then brought the fascists to power. One shouldn’t isolate these two processes, because they are very closely linked. But for me the question is: Okay, the revolution has been defeated. It has not taken off in Europe, so the Russian Revolution is totally isolated. What do you do? That was the big debate that gripped Russia in1920, and that is still a debate of importance to us today—not just as history, but to learn its lessons.
Under these conditions, the one thing you never do is disenfranchise the people who made the revolution. We know they are demoralized. It’s true. They’ve had enough. They’ve suffered the First World War in which millions died. They’ve suffered their own civil war in which twenty-two foreign armies intervened on the side of the Whites against them. The masses get exhausted, naturally. Look at the peasants in Afghanistan today. They’ve been fighting since the Russians went in, and they haven’t stopped fighting. I mean it is amazing they still do it. But I know from talking to people that they just are now reaching their limits and saying, after we kick the Americans out we hope no one else intervenes, because we don’t think we would be able to handle it. I was told this by an Afghan in Pakistan six months ago.
When the masses are exhausted, you have to understand that it’s a hiatus. The decision the Bolsheviks made—largely I think because the revolution failed in Germany—was to completely become an iron curtain, and I hate that phrase, but a fortress state. It’s one thing to say all the political formations who are helping the Whites, like conservatives and the cadets, can’t be allowed legality because they’ve taken up arms against us. That’s acceptable, but to ban all left organizations because they are not in your own party is a huge error, a huge error. And this error became institutionalized after the death of Lenin.
I want to advise those who haven’t read it to read Lenin’s last will and testament. It’s a very moving document just on a human level. Here is a leader paralyzed by a stroke in 1922 about to die who looks at what has been created and is partially horrified. In his letter he apologizes to the Russian working class. He says, “I apologize. I am sorry that I allowed this to happen.” He accepts responsibility. But that also indicates that had he been in full health, together with others, they might have been able to stem the rot. But once you ban all other parties you then ban dissent in your own organization. It’s logical. So anyone who is trying to argue against the leadership is regarded as an enemy and driven out or killed—in the case of the Stalinist takeover—within the Bolshevik party. And then follows the purges and the trials. The fact of the matter is that Stalin killed more Bolsheviks and revolutionaries than the czar did. That’s just a fact of history.
That then creates further demoralization, and a monstrous dictatorship sets in. This dictatorship is then presented to the world as socialism, and many people look to it, millions and millions accept it. Small minorities don’t, but they are small, tiny. But by and large the world accepts it and the world thinks this is the way things have to be if we are going to get socialism—and that was not the case.
(To be continued)