This is the revised version of my contribution to the international conference of the European Left „100th Anniversary of the Great October Socialist Revolution: Lessons and the Future of the Left“ in Chişinău, Moldova, on October 27, 2017, held under the title „The revolutions of 1917/1918 and the development of socialism in the 20th century – lessons for leftists in the 21st century“.
The title of my contribution may sound very ambitious – in fact, it is – and I would never dare to touch such a big issue if could not fall back on important analysis and thoughts of thoughtful comrades from my party, DIE LINKE, made over the last 28 years.
The October Revolution of 1917 was the first, and very courageous, attempt to realise the ideas of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels under very concrete circumstances, carried out by the Bolsheviki under the leadership of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. We must not forget that the circumstances were not those foreseen by the theory of Marx and Engels: the proletariat of the most developed capitalist countries did not start the proletarian revolution, but rather the workers, peasants and soldiers of the underdeveloped, in large parts agrarian Russian Empire. Nevertheless, the proletarian continuation of the February Revolution, driven by the failure of the Provisional Government and the misery of the people and their desire for peace, was logical and probably necessary. The first decisions of the Soviet after the revolution – the Decree on Peace, the Decree on Land, the Decree on the Rights of the Peoples of Russia and later on the nationalisation of banks and industries – met the most urgent needs and wishes of the peoples of Russia. These laid a foundation for the development of a socialist society. This was a legitimate and courageous attempt to overcome not only the ongoing misery from a losing war but also to abolish the deeper causes of such turmoil and to radically change the social system, aiming to end human’s exploitation of one another and to begin a new era in the history of humankind.
This attempt, however, began under outstandingly difficult circumstances. It was not just that the proposed revolutions in other capitalist countries did not appear; moreover, the revolution in Russia became the immediate target of military attacks by reactionary forces within the county and by almost all capitalist powers of the time. The need to defend the revolution, and the power which the Bolsheviki had just achieved in the name of the workers and peasants, led to the extraordinary measures of War Communism. Those measures were hard and sometimes cruel, and partly destroyed the trust of ordinary people in the revolution. This is why the New Economic Policy was an important step of the revolutionary process. This revolutionary process came to a new phase with the foundation of the Union of Socialist Soviet Republics in 1922. Here, the foundations of a socialist economy were laid and the chance of a flourishing unity of the nations was given.
Having acknowledged the unique historical importance of the October Revolution, we as leftists in the 21st century, nevertheless, cannot think of this first attempt at building a socialist society without remembering the lessons of its final failure. We have to ask ourselves which subjective and objective reasons lead to the historical defeat of state socialism not only in its birthplace, the Soviet Union but in almost all countries which followed its model.
I have already spoken about the objectively difficult circumstances under which the first attempt to build a socialist society started. But I would like to raise the question if there were deeper reasons, reasons related to the theoretical approach, which also contributed to the failure of this attempt. In doing this, I would like to refer to a lecture that the late President of the Party of the European Left Lothar Bisky gave in 2008 entitled “Experiences and lessons of socialism in Europe in the 20th century and perspectives for the 21st century”. The reason why we have to talk about the mistakes made by communists, socialists and leftists in the past is to avoid them in future, in order to build a world of greater peace, justice and welfare.
Lothar Bisky pointed out in his lecture that the preservation of power became a leitmotif, a guiding theme, of the socialist and communist parties in socialist countries. As I stated earlier, the preservation of power was out of pure necessity due to the attack of the internal reaction and imperialist powers, but it was more than that: it was theoretically based in the theory of the dictatorship of the proletariat by Marx and Engels and later underlined in the works of Lenin. And it stayed the dominant motif for these parties’ actions even after the imminent danger of military attacks had passed.
After the consolidation of the socialist society, the Soviet Union and later the other socialist countries succeeded in remarkable economic growth. This laid the foundation for exceptional successes in science, technology and culture, and it was accompanied by a noticeable improvement in people’s living standards. This is why many people in Eastern Europe remember socialism as a time of comparably high material welfare and, in some sense, cultural flourishing. A certain economic homogeneity – despite the different lifestyles in towns and in the countryside, amongst workers or intellectuals – was seen as an expression of social justice.
However, Lothar Bisky continues, we must acknowledge that striving for the preservation of power and the entailed violence, on the one hand, allowed for the social system’s continued existence at its, but on the other hand, later became an obstacle to its development. As long as its successes, meaning the economic, scientific-technical and cultural development, proved the ruling parties right, the majority of people supported the new system, even if they had not personally opted for it. But when political paternalism and dirigisme by the state started to hamper the development of society, when living standards stagnated and intellectual and cultural life was paralyzed, it became obvious that the facade of the system could only be preserved by overexploitation of the nation’s economic base and of natural resources. People turned their back on the state and the parties that ruled it and turned towards the allegedly more successful social system.
Lothar Bisky has pointed out that a social system, based on the idea that a whole people or at least a large majority are working together for its success, can compensate for such alienation by repression only for a while. When the leadership of state parties realised this, it was too late. The careful opening of some valves could not resolve the pressure which demanded radical change, but instead, it led to the dam bursting. Even the “cold warriors” in the West did not foresee this coming.
Lothar Bisky then quoted a part of a speech by Michael Schumann at the extraordinary congress of the SED-PDS (Socialist Unity Party-Party of Democratic Socialism), when he analysed the deformation of socialism in the German Democratic Republic: concentration of power in the hands of a small leading group, mismanagement of the economy caused by the alienation of the leadership from the realities of the country, overregulation of science, culture and education, political incapacitation of the population, criminalization of oppositional thinking, oppression of a free press and exclusion of party members from decision making, followed by corruption, arrogance and alienation of the leadership from the people.
At the end, the idea of socialism in people’s minds became deeply compromised. SED-PDS, in 1989, accepting the consequences, declared an irrevocable break with Stalinism as a system.
Lothar Bisky summarised the lessons learned by the leftists in our party: “Civil and social freedom rights cannot be divided. Freedom and justice are two sides of the same coin. The one without the other leads to a deformed society.”
Remembering this lesson is exceptionally important in times when a rising right wing is questioning basic civil rights like freedom of the press, freedom of religion and others in the name of “tradition” and a postulated “will of the majority”. Leftists must be the first to defend those civil rights.