[Marxism] What’s Left of Communism?
lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Feb 26 12:32:43 MST 2017
(Worries over the old mole.)
NY Times Op-Ed, Feb. 24 2017
What’s Left of Communism
A hundred years after the Russian Revolution,
can a phoenix rise from the ash heap of history?
by David Priestland
Oxford, England — “Ura! Ura! Ura!” I vividly remember the wall of sound
as stern, gray-uniformed soldiers met their commander’s greeting:
“Congratulations on the 70th anniversary of the Great October Socialist
An exchange student in Moscow in 1987, I had traveled to Gorky Street on
that crisp November morning to see the military parade making its way to
Red Square. A row of assembled Soviet and foreign dignitaries presided
as the young servicemen paid homage at Lenin’s Mausoleum. This
impressive-seeming display was to showcase the enduring revolutionary
energy of Communism and its global reach.
The Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, spoke of a movement reinvigorated
by the values of 1917 before an audience of left-wing leaders that
included Oliver Tambo of the African National Congress and Yasir Arafat
of the Palestine Liberation Organization. Banners bore the poet Vladimir
Mayakovsky’s proclamation “Lenin lived, Lenin lives, Lenin will live
The claim had a hollow ring, for the economic problems of the U.S.S.R.
were evident to all, especially my Russian student friends, dependent on
poorly provisioned universities for food. Even so, the system still
seemed as solid as the mausoleum’s marble. I, like most observers, would
not have believed that within two years Communism would be crumbling,
and within four, the Soviet Union would itself have collapsed.
Soon, popular views of 1917 changed entirely: Unfettered markets seemed
natural and inevitable, while Communism appeared to have always been
doomed to Leon Trotsky’s “dustbin of history.” There might be challenges
to the globalized liberal order, but they would come from Islamism or
China’s state capitalism, no longer a discredited Marxism.
Today, as we mark the centenary of the February Revolution — prequel to
the November coup of Lenin’s Bolsheviks — history has turned again.
China and Russia both deploy symbols of their Communist heritage to
strengthen an anti-liberal nationalism; in the West, confidence in
free-market capitalism has not recovered from the financial crash of
2008, and new forces of the far right and activist left vie for
popularity. In America, the unexpected strength of the independent
socialist Bernie Sanders in last year’s Democratic race, and in Spain,
the electoral gains of the new Podemos party, led by a former Communist,
are signs of some grass-roots resurgence on the left. In 2015 Britain,
Marx and Engels’s 1848 classic, “The Communist Manifesto,” was a best
So did I witness Communism’s last hurrah that day in Moscow, or is a
Communism remodeled for the 21st century struggling to be born?
There are hints of an answer in this complex, century-long epic, a
narrative arc full of false starts, near-deaths and unpredicted revivals.
Take the life of Semyon Kanatchikov. The son of a former serf, he left
rural poverty for a factory job and the thrill of modernity. Energetic
and sociable, Kanatchikov set out to improve himself with “The
Self-Teacher of Dance and Good Manners” as his guide. Once in Moscow, he
joined a socialist discussion circle, and ultimately the Bolshevik party.
Kanatchikov’s experience made him receptive to revolutionary ideas: a
keen awareness of the gulf between rich and poor, a sense that an old
order was blocking the rise of the new, and a hatred of arbitrary power.
Communists offered clear-cut, convincing solutions. Unlike liberals,
they championed economic equality; but unlike anarchists, they embraced
modern industry and state planning; and against moderate socialists,
they argued that change must come through revolutionary class struggle.
In practice, these ideals were difficult to combine. An over-powerful
state tended to stifle growth while elevating new elites, and the
violence of revolution brought with it periodic hunts for “enemies.”
Kanatchikov, too, became a victim. Though awarded prestigious
appointments after the revolution, his association with Stalin’s
archrival, Trotsky, brought about his demotion in 1926.
By then, the outlook for Communism was grim. The first flames of
revolution in Central Europe in the aftermath of World War I had been
extinguished. The U.S.S.R. found itself isolated, and Communist parties
elsewhere were small and beleaguered. The American-forged modernity of
the Roaring Twenties was unapologetically consumerist, not communist.
But the flaws of laissez-faire soon came to Communism’s rescue. The Wall
Street crash of 1929 and the Depression that followed made socialist
ideas of equality and state planning a compelling alternative to the
invisible hand of the market. Communist militancy also emerged as one of
the few political forces prepared to resist the threat of fascism.
Even the unpromising terrain of the United States, uncongenial to
collectivism and godless socialism, became fertile ground. Aided by
Moscow’s abandonment in 1935 of its sectarian doctrine for a policy of
supporting “popular fronts,” American Communists made common cause with
moderate leftists against fascism. Al Richmond, a New York journalist at
The Daily Worker, recalled the new optimism as he and his colleagues
spent evenings in an Italian restaurant drinking toasts “to life as it
was just then, to that era, to its portents and hopes, sure of our
responses to the rhythm of this time, for in it we heard our own beat.”
Such optimism was shared by a select group. A victim of Stalin’s purges,
Semyon Kanatchikov died in the gulag in 1940.
Many were willing to overlook Stalin’s Terror for the sake of
anti-fascist unity. But Communism’s second coming in the late ’30s and
early ’40s did not long outlast the defeat of fascism. As the Cold War
intensified, Communism’s identification with Soviet empire in Eastern
Europe compromised its claim to be a liberator. In Western Europe, a
reformed, regulated capitalism, encouraged by the United States,
provided higher living standards and welfare states. Command economies
that made sense in wartime were less suited to peace.
But if Communism was waning in the global North, in the South it waxed.
There, Communists’ promises of rapid, state-led modernization captured
the imagination of many anticolonial nationalists. It was here that a
third red wave swelled, breaking in East Asia in the 1940s and across
the post-colonial South from the late 1960s.
For Geng Changsuo, a Chinese visitor to a model collective farm in
Ukraine in 1952 — three years after Mao Zedong’s Communist guerrillas
entered Beijing — the legacy of 1917 was still potent. A sober peasant
leader from Wugong, a village about 120 miles south of Beijing, he was
transformed by his trip. Back home, he shaved his beard and mustache,
donned Western clothes and evangelized for agricultural collectivization
and the miraculous tractor.
Revolutionary China only strengthened Washington’s determination to
contain Communism. But as America fought its disastrous war in Vietnam,
a new generation of Marxist nationalists emerged in the South, attacking
the “neo-imperialism” they believed their moderate socialist elders had
tolerated. The Cuban-sponsored Tricontinental Conference of African,
Latin American and Asian socialists in 1966 introduced a new wave of
revolutions; by 1980, Marxist-Leninist states extended from Afghanistan
to Angola, South Yemen to Somalia.
The West also saw a Marxist revival in the ’60s, but its student
radicals were ultimately more committed to individual autonomy,
democracy in everyday life and cosmopolitanism than to Leninist
discipline, class struggle and state power. The career of the German
student firebrand Joschka Fischer is a striking example. A member of a
group named Revolutionary Struggle who tried to inspire a Communist
uprising among autoworkers in 1971, he later became a leader of the
German Green Party.
The emergence from the late ’70s of an American-led order dominated by
global markets, followed by the fall of Soviet Communism in the late
’80s, caused a crisis for the radical left everywhere. Mr. Fischer, like
many other 1960s students, adapted to the new world: As German foreign
minister, he supported the 1999 American bombing over Kosovo (against
the forces of the former Communist Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic),
and he backed Germany’s welfare cuts in 2003.
In the South, the International Monetary Fund forced market reforms on
indebted post-Communist countries, and some former Communist elites
proved eager converts to neoliberalism. Only a handful of nominally
Communist states now remain: North Korea and Cuba, and the more
capitalist China, Vietnam and Laos.
Today, more than a quarter-century after the collapse of the U.S.S.R.,
is a fourth incarnation of Communism possible?
One major obstacle is the post-’60s split between an old left that
prioritizes economic equality and the heirs of Mr. Fischer, who stress
cosmopolitan values, gender politics and multiculturalism. Moreover,
championing the interests of the underprivileged on a global scale seems
an almost impossible task. The 2008 crash only intensified the left’s
dilemma, creating an opportunity for radical nationalists like Donald J.
Trump and Marine Le Pen to exploit anger at economic inequality in the
We are only at the beginning of a period of major economic change and
social turmoil. As a highly unequal tech-capitalism fails to provide
enough decently paid jobs, the young may adopt a more radical economic
agenda. A new left might then succeed in uniting the losers, both
white-collar and blue-collar, in the new economic order. Already, we’re
seeing demands for a more redistributive state. Ideas like the universal
basic income, which the Netherlands and Finland are experimenting with,
are close in spirit to Marx’s vision of Communism’s ability to supply
the wants of all — “from each according to his ability, to each
according to his need.”
This is all a long way from Moscow’s Red Square in 1987, even farther
from Petrograd’s Winter Palace in 1917. There will be no return to the
Communism of five-year plans and gulags. Yet if there is one thing this
turbulent history teaches us, it is that “last hurrahs” can be as
illusory as the “end of ideology” predicted in the 1950s or Francis
Fukuyama’s “end of history” of 1989.
Lenin no longer lives, the old Communism may be dead, but the sense of
injustice that animated them is very much alive.
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