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Reforming the Unreformable

Reforming the Unreformable

Wednesday, 29 December, 2021 - 10:30

On the anniversary of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, we remember some of those who believed that this union should never have seen the light of day in the first place. Those critics were not all “right-wingers.”

Among them were “left-wingers,” the most prominent of whom is the Czech-Austrian Karl Kautsky who was known as “The Pope of Marxism.”

Kautsky argued against the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, which the Russian Soviet Republic would spring from a few years later. He claimed that the conditions for building socialism were not available in Russia and that the security regime based on terrorism, dissolving the Constituent Assembly, and silencing the press, was attempting to compensate for this grave shortcoming. The working class in Russia was indeed too weak to carry a socialist regime in the Marxian sense. Many Russian workers were killed over the course of the civil war, while those who survived became cadres of this new regime. On the other hand, attempts at a “proletarian revolution” failed in the more advanced countries, especially Germany. There, the revolutionary fever of 1918- 1919 was crushed, radical leftist leaders Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were assassinated, and the vast majority of German socialists were busy with democratic and union struggles, dismantling the Empire, and consolidating the Weimar Republic as an alternative.

Lenin and Trotsky, the two leaders of the October Revolution, gave harsh, defamatory responses to Kautsky, their former mentor. They fiercely defended the Revolution and the new order it introduced, as Lenin branded Kautsky a heretic adjective, a quality he became associated with around the world, the “renegade.” Meanwhile, Trotsky defended the terror of the new order, which was justified, in his opinion, by the conditions of the civil war.

However, another critique, one less committed than Kautsky to the “scientific laws” of history, painted the new regime as having a reactionary, authoritarian nature that is difficult to overlook. The time of empires came to an end with the collapse of the Ottoman, Habsburg, and German empires. As for the Bolshevik Revolution, it enabled Russia to maintain the Tsarist Empire, reproducing it in a communist mold. Because this was an empire in an age of imperial collapse, a security consciousness shaped its behavior, not only on the domestic front but externally as well. Stalinism initially developed the principle of “building socialism in one country” before the end of World War II rendered swathes of Central and Eastern Europe a broad belt around a bloated, slouching belly. Following Stalin’s death, this project culminated in the erection of the Berlin Wall.

Early on, it became evident that the task of curing this ill political body had already become an impossible one. Nikolai Bukharin, himself a leader of the October Revolution, may have been the first to attempt this.

Bukharin was later executed in 1938 after writing from his prison a notorious undignified plea for clemency to Stalin. Nikita Khrushchev was the second to attempt reform, carrying out noticeable measures to this end both at home and abroad. However, he was later deposed in 1964 by Leonid Brezhnev and his group of Stalinist sympathizers. The third was Mikhail Gorbachev who, immediately after trying his hand at fixing the dilapidated structure that was the USSR, saw the entire structure collapse.

What Gorbachev tried to do from the imperial center was also attempted by other reformers in the periphery. At least two can be mentioned here: Imre Nagy in Hungary, whose attempts at reform failed and was executed two years after the 1956 revolution was put down, and Alexander Dubcek in Czechoslovakia, who was removed from his positions in the party and state after the “Prague Spring” of 1968 was crushed. Poland gave us two other not insignificant examples: the first was Władysław Gomułka, the anti-Stalinist communist who assumed the leadership of the party on the back of labor protests in the city of Poznan, or the 1956 October Revolution. Gomułka, whose name was linked to the “Polish road to socialism,” swiftly stopped in the middle of that road and immersed himself in the Soviet mantle.

The 1970 labor and popular protests targeted him personally as an enemy. The second was represented by General Jaruzelski, who declared a state of emergency in 1981 to prevent the Warsaw forces from intervening militarily to suppress the Solidarity union. However, as soon as the revolutionary wave began to rise in Central Europe in 1989 and the Round Table talks were held, the communist regime collapsed and Jaruzelsky retired from politics altogether.

Outside of power, European communist parties’ experiences told us the same story. The experience of the Italian Communist Party, the largest of them, was the richest: the Party, which, along with the French and Spanish communist parties, agreed to adopt “Euro communism” as a more suited theory to European democracy in the mid-seventies, and at the same time, concluded the “historic compromise” with the Christian Democrats, went far beyond what its reformist leader Enrico Berlinguer had had in mind. As soon as the latter, who had wanted to turn it into a democratic socialist party, died in 1984, the party began abandoning almost everything communist about it. The fall of the Soviet Union was its chance to complete the mission in name and action.

Today, Vladimir Putin is not like Vladimir Lenin. The latter had to carry two burdens, Russia and Communism. The former cares only about “Russia,” invigorating it with nationalism, populism, and Orthodox Christianity. That gives him a practical advantage over his late namesake. However, what is happening on the border with Ukraine suggests that the one burden is not normal or simple. There is something about it that reflects hindrance and slowness. As for the failure to reform and progress, it alone elevates this hindrance into a doctrine and model.

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