1 December, 2021

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Socialism’s Blight: Power-Crazed ‘Leftist’ Rulers

By Kumar David

Prof. 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.

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Latest comments

  • 3
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    Hooray! The Capitalist / Democratic system has prevailed. It strives to make everyone in the world as rich as the 10 % of Democratic Billionaires who now control everything. COP26 gives us an indication of where we are heading.

    • 0
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      Oh joy…….90% are Republican billionaires. World-fail yet again.
      _
      But the good news is that the 10% Democratic billionaires will strive to share the wealth with the Masses, like releasing Panama wealth (actually bringing their value down to net-zero), and creating clean industry that is useful for the Masses and the overall global-health.

      All the while, Motherland’s great game-plan is to create another Panama on Motherland soil. LOL.

    • 0
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      For Communism to succeed, it takes time. Therefore the first thing a Communist regime that comes to power by election must do is to make sure it can’t get voted out. So, change the rules. Control information. Control education. That’s difficult to do nowadays. As for re-distribution of income, that’s against basic human nature, as many regimes have found. Also, if you’re a small country, you come up against trade barriers. Even Ceylon came under US sanctions for nationalising oil companies. Considering the state of Ceypetco nowadays, that might not have been a wise move.
      Well, nobody so far has “built socialism” successfully. Let’s watch China have a second go at it.

      • 2
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        Prof Kumar and many others are besotted with the word “Socialism” ……. the mere word means more to them than the reality ……..

        The best socialist countries are the countries where people work half the year for the government …….. to pay 50% in taxes for the welfare of others …….. Socialism doesn’t come any better!

        But, then the professors won’t see it as Socialism ……… because the word is missing!

        Such is the power of a simple word! :))

        • 2
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          Nimal you are absolutely right. Socialism and Communism are like humongous onions. We have heard enough and more about it’s intricacies and start peeling , left with nothing but watery itchy eyes. Eating too much of it ,can cause “Heart Burn”, and worsen “Irritable Bowel Syndrome”

      • 0
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        old codger,
        ‘Let’s watch China have a second go at it’.
        .
        China was not pursuing Socialism as a goal, only as a tool of deception. It succeeded.
        .
        I thought that it is our good friend US that blinked; you too?

        • 1
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          Nathan,
          As Deng is supposed to have said: ” If the cat catches mice, it doesn’t matter whether it’s black or white”

          • 1
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            old codger,
            To me it looks like a rat race after Capitalism

          • 1
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            old codger

            “As Deng is supposed to have said: ” If the cat catches mice, it doesn’t matter whether it’s black or white””

            Does SJ aware of this brilliant quote by Deng?
            Most of the Hardcore Maoist would deny Deng ever saying that, or denounce him being counter revolutionary, …. SJ might say it was an American Propaganda perhaps, ..

            SJ and other Maoists still remain nostalgic about the good old days (I doubt there were ever good old days in China).

  • 1
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    Marx and Engels were the fathers of Marxism. They built up Hegelian dialectic into historic materialism and historical materialism postulates that the society moves from primitive communism, slavery, feudalism, capitalism, socialism and finally global, stateless communism.
    Let us look at the article of Professor Kumar David in the context of this historical materialism..
    Prof Kumar David starts his article from 1960s and moves up to 2021 with a pessimistic outlook with a faith in individuals confusing anti-imperialist national liberation movement with socialism and blaming the west for individual assassination of charismatic leaders to continue with their imperialistic agenda.
    Can you blame the west for such a policy?
    . Let us look a little further back to 1917 when the October revolution took place in Russia. At that time Russia was not a capitalist society, only a feudal society along with most Europe with the exception of few like Germany and England. We could see dead left not only in Sri Lanka, but throughout the entire world.

  • 0
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    We could observe a vacuum in opposition circles with SJB unable to produce any coherent polices and NPP is clueless and trained to be a permanent opposition with loose common front, but without any concrete common programme with realistic economic policies, only .shouting some discredited closed economy slogans.

    NPP should accept reality and instead of acting as reincarnation of the dead left, formulate realistic polices to form a third alternative to UNP/SJB and SLFP/SLPP.otherwise the country is facing a bleak future.

  • 0
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    Very good piece. But I wonder whether the JVP listens to Prof. David. Even if they listen, do they understand? I think the JVP is taking well-meaning, good-hearted people like Prof. David for a good ride. What has Prof. David got to say about the JVP’s recent statement that they are not opposed to the abolition of Provincial Councils? JVP uses the likes of Prof. David as karapincha (curry leaves) and throws them away. What policy changes have Prof. David and his ilk contributed to in the JVP/NPP?

    • 3
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      JS
      VB Karunaratne once thought that he could civilize the JVP (who planted a bullet in his abdomen not much earlier) and get something in return for it.
      He was taken for a thundering ride by the JVP, which got what it wanted, namely the werecking of the New Left Front with six member organizations and some promise as a left alternative to the JVP early this century.
      *
      Do not ask embarrassing questions from people who live in dreamland.

  • 0
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    Yeah….JVP has to get a new look. Get rid of the JVP name ( people are terrified of it) ; get rid of the hammer and sickle (people are terrified of it); stop the torture of university freshmen. Modernity is the key. Must look like modern capitalists and not like Russian anti-imperialists of 1915. Key is to take over modern capitalism to a higher humanistic social-democratic level level, not to crush it with jack-boots.

  • 3
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    The bitter sermon was about about giving the JVP and its “five or six other credible left parties” (he is not sure of the number) taking us for a ride.
    Has the JVP ever answered serious charges against it on various counts.
    *
    The violent JVP had a sense of purpose that the opportunist JVP lacks.The JVP celebrated by the author helped MR to come to power in 2005, had its election manifesto blessed by the Mahanayakes in 2002 and joined hands with the JHU in 2005 to de-merge the N & E and deny relief to Tamil victims of the tsunami, among other meritorious deeds.
    *f
    The tragedy of Sri Lanka was that it had the only left movement dominated by Trotskyists.
    I will not waste time analysing the pathetic ending of each offshoot of the LSSP.

    • 2
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      SJ

      “I will not waste time analysing the pathetic ending of each offshoot of the LSSP.”

      How about some sane words about ‘Ceylon Communist Party (Maoist)’?

  • 0
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    While on the subject of political systems, I am reminded of what a wag once said was the difference between capitalism and socialism – in capitalism, man exploits man, in socialism, it is the other way round!

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