By Kumar David –
Socialism mercifully was avant-garde the world-over in the 1960s and up to the mid-1970s, my salad days as undergrad, postgrad and junior lecturer. It was the age of Heroic Che, steadfast Uncle Ho and young Mandela. There would have been others (Patrice Lumumba, Amilcar Cabral and Ahmed Ben Bella) but imperialism murdered or deposed them quickly. The sun still shone on anti-colonialism and anti-imperialism and the flame of the welfare-state was not yet extinguished in Europe. This haze also obscured the manic reign of power-crazed Stalin and the by then clinically crazy Mao. Why? They, for reasons more to do with the Cold War than ideology or principle, armed and bankrolled global revolt. Many fights ended in defeat, partial defeat or just faded away (Congo, Algeria, Angola, Mozambique, the Baathist experiment in Iraq-Syria, and Nasser’s Egypt come easily to mind) and ugh, there were grotesque bloodbaths in Indonesia (1965-66) and Chile (1973). On the bright side Vietnam won in April 1975 and Cuba survived and still struggles on. Then, oh then the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe went belly-up in 1989-90, Yugoslavia fragmented (early 1990s) and China retreated in the mid-1970s into a foreign policy sink-hole to lick its wounds, and a little later to repair its Mao-shattered economy. If you stand back and survey these last eighty-plus years with eagle-eye, it’s been one helluva roller-coaster ride!
Does the dice seems to be rolling the other way again? Not so fast, the scorecard is still mixed. True the times when liberals – some Trotskyites too – lumped Hitler and Stalin together as two sides of a coin has passed. Ted Grant said Stalinism in its conduct, was Nazism pulverising all social independence but with a statist economy. Material benefits to the underprivileged aside, empirically there is truth to this description. Authoritarianism in China is miles different from Stalinist Russia or the US’s besotted Saudi Arabia and UAE and the material uplift of the populace in the PRC they say is a ‘wonder of the modern world’. On balance nevertheless, the world-over, the hopes of leftists and socialists are nowhere near scoring a walkover victory. One reason is that the far-right (political primitives a la Trump and religious and racial extremists of whom we possess a fair share) are making gains in many places. This, largely, is a consequence of the remarkable failure of liberal-democracy cum capitalism, everywhere, to achieve much; the centre has hollowed out.
But there is another reason why socialism hasn’t got voters cheering widely; the power-drunk greed of nominally left/socialist government leaders who hang on to office at any price. The reply that dictatorships of the right are more frequent and more brutal is not adequate because people’s expectations from the left are different. There are two cases in the crosshairs right now, Venezuela and Nicaragua. That the former, after Chavez, has been an economic disaster is again not the issue because many right-wing regimes in Central and South America are no better. What is execrable is that the Nicolas Maduro dictatorship retains power by breaking up popular demonstrations, imprisoning opposition leaders and playing fast and loose with the judiciary and the Constitution. During the Chavez (died in March 2013) years when oil prices peaked (2011-12) big advances in housing, education and community building were made. True, this was accompanied by imprudent planning and waste, but notwithstanding, the social and political balance sheet was positive. Had Maduro faced an election, and lost, it would have been fine; no successor government could have rolled back the gains of ‘Chavismo’. But as things stand now the inevitable ejection of Maduro at some point will endanger the gains of Venezuelan socialism. Maduro’s greed for power is the grimmest threat to the socialist ‘project’ in Latin America and it is the sharpest anti-left propaganda assault in the continent. Leftist regimes that orchestrate a transition from democracy into dictatorship are a jinx on socialism.
Elections in Nicaragua have just ended and Daniel Ortega has won by a landslide of votes cast – but independent observers estimate the abstention rate as 80 percent! Ortega locked up seven opposition candidates and made it pointless for all except his jingbang to vote. His wife Rosario Murillo has been promoted from vice president to “co-president”. Ortega was elected for a fifth (fourth consecutive) term much to the delight of all who ridicule socialism as the antithesis of democracy. A statement by all 27 EU members accused Ortega of “systematic incarceration, harassment and intimidation” of opponents, journalists and activists. Murillo’s daughter from a previous marriage alleged in 1998 that Ortega “repeatedly raped her from age 11”. Ortega has never spoken publicly on the subject but Ms Murillo, the girl’s mother, as called her daughter a liar and a lunatic. Nevertheless damage has been done. The Nicaraguan economy in contrast to Venezuela is fortunately not in shambles. Thankfully most people describe Ortega as a “former Marxist”; pity nobody does history the favour of cataloguing Maduro as a “never Marxist”.
The story of Soviet Russia is blurred by the passage of time even for those who once knew it all. A recapitulation along the lines of this essay is needed. The real degeneration of the Soviet state into Ted Grant’s “social fascism”, though its origins date to the late 1920s, became stark only in the mid-1930s in the Great Terror, which included the notorious 1936-38 show trials and the murder of all Lenin’s Bolshevik co-leaders. Millions of citizens were sent off to Gulag labour camps or killed. The stage was set by the murder of Politburo member Sergi Kirov in December 1934 by the NKVD on Stalin’s orders as a pretext for the purges. By 1939 Stalin had brought the party into abject submission and terrorised and atomised society into social fascism. A one-man absolute dictatorship prevailed till Stalin died in 1953.
How then to explain the extraordinary economic success of Stalinist Russia after the revolution and its rise to superpower status side by side with America? The first driver of success was the enthusiasm that victories in the revolution and the civil war (1918-1922) engendered and the winning over of the peasantry by Lenin’s far sighted New Economic Policy. For a decade this drove the passion of the people and at that stage in history a state controlled, rigid centrally-planned economy was apposite to the needs of technically backward Russia where no modernisation had occurred for one to two centuries since Peter the Great (lived 1672-1725) and Catherine the Great (lived 1729-1796). [Deng Xiao Ping, in another world and era, adopted a very different method]. Imperialism sought to overthrow the USSR by every stratagem since the revolution (the Western Powers armed and financed the “White Russians” against the fledging Republic on 17 fronts). Hitler’s main objective in WW2 was to cleanse (‘lebensraum’ – living space) European Russia of Slaves to make space for Germanic Arians, both threats drove the Russian people into Stalin’s arms in the way that the latter day terrorist LTTE become Sinhala chauvinism’s greatest ally. Hence the USSR worked till perhaps 1975-1980. After that its collapse from economic failure, bureaucratisation and universal hatred of the ruthless Stalinist state came quickly in 1989-90. Russia is now, paradoxically, a toothless nuclear power, never heard and hardly seen except when Europe needs gas.
The case of Eastern Europe is different. The post-war world from East Germany to the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia excepted, was a creation of the Red Army. It was in the first instance a buffer to protect the Fatherland from NATO hell-bent on aggression, but secondly it had to be governed and a post-war economy constructed. In both instances the Stalinist model was transplanted; rigid central planning and social fascism. Both were disasters. The early Soviet Union had freshness and creativity, the transplanted and imposed Eastern European version lacked the bloom of vitality. The theme of this essay is democracy hence I emphasise the universally arid party apparatuses and the repertoire of false charges, forced confessions and uninhibited cruelty of torture.
Still there is a paradox that calls for explanation. The Eastern European communist venture includes relative ethnic peace and de facto territorial devolution, the liberation of women, stable state power, economic rationality via limitations in consumption, sensible work-productivity and notable income equity (all were equally poor the cynic will quip). There was political integration within the block, albeit under Soviet hegemony and the block enjoyed high standing among third-world peoples and governments. To explain this dichotomy would take me too far afield today, except to say that much of it came with the system. What is critical for the purposes of this essay is that when Stalinism crashed there was no retreat possible from Stalinism to social democracy let alone socialism. When Stalinism reached the end of the road and in general when power-crazed “left” leaders are overthrown it is not democratic socialism and a rational society that follows as fond Marxists and hopeful Trots wish. What come next – well you see it in Poland, Hungary and Belarus. Everywhere a right-extremist, neo-Nazi and ultra-religious backlash. The names are familiar; Victor Orban, Alexander Lukashenko, Andrzej Duda, Slovakia’s Robert Fico, Serbia’s Aleksandar Vucic and many elected dictators in Central Asia.
I have arrived at the punch line of this essay. The lesson that the National People’s Power movement in which I am involved, the JVP which supports it and five or six other credible left parties (the Dead-Left is awaiting cremation) must take away from this story is this. Not merely as a game-plan, but a real commitment to democratic socialism must exist. A genuine guarantee of democracy must accompany a popular but flexible economic agenda and choice in lifestyles. We need to make it clear that if, when in power, the left loses an election it will be so-long, adios, sayonara and bye-bye; we will head for the door.