Karl Marx in the offices of The Neue Rheinische Zeitung: Organ der Demokratie (“New Rhenish Newspaper: Organ of Democracy“), a German daily newspaper he published between June 1, 1848 and May 19 1849.
Four days ago I received a query from a Latin American journalist:
I am an editor at a leading newspaper in Quito, Ecuador, and I will like to make a you one question (if you agree of course) for an article I am trying to write, after the international leftist meeting that was held this week here in this city.
My piece is about, how is it that the new and modern left is so tolerant with authoritarian regimes. Castro, Chávez and even Correa have been very sympathetic with leaders such as Lukashenko, Mugabe and Kaddafi.
So my question is if you think that this is part of a stalinist legacy that has not been thrown away by the left, despise all the horrors that the stalinist regime was responsible for?
All the best
Since others might have the same sorts of questions, I am posting a public response as follows.
This is a very complex question. To start with, Hugo Chavez is something of a paradox on the question of democracy. Keep in mind that the entire premise of “21st Century Socialism” rested on the assumption that Stalinism tainted the 20th century version. In a speech to the World Social Forum in 2005, Chavez stated that “We have to re-invent socialism. It can’t be the kind of socialism that we saw in the Soviet Union, but it will emerge as we develop new systems that are built on cooperation, not competition.” On the other hand, in the very same speech he said, “Today’s Russia is not Yeltsin’s… there is new Russian nationalism, and I have seen it in the streets of Moscow… there is a good president, Mr. Putin, at the wheel.”
That, in a nutshell, is the contradiction we see on the left. There is acknowledgement, at least verbally, that Stalinism was unviable. If you keep people repressed there is always a tendency for them to do as little as possible to keep the system going and to look for ways to game it. Stalinist societies rot from within. Even if there is pressure from imperialism, the bigger threat is always the spiritual and psychological disaffection of workers and farmers.
But what good does it do for Chavez to make this observation while at the same time nodding in approval of Vladimir Putin? It is obvious that there would be an affinity with Putin since he superficially had the same agenda as Chavez, namely to use the revenue from petro-exports to improve the conditions of life for the average citizen. Keep in mind that toward the end of his life, Chavez had moved away from the notion of building socialism entirely. His model was less and less based on what are commonly referred to as “communist” states but Western European social democracies, which are simply welfare states resting on capitalist property relations. So naturally he would tend to see all petroleum exporting states with a populist but repressive regime and enemies of his own enemy—the USA—as partners. This meant that Russia, Iran, Libya and Syria were hailed in the Venezuelan press as forward-looking societies even though their jails were filled with political prisoners.
You are absolutely right to understand this as rooted in Stalinism. The belief that socialism could be built in a single country was in contradiction to the core Marxist belief that socialism had to be built on a global scale, just as was the case with the social system that preceded it: capitalism. Despite the fact that the USSR was an enormous country with all of the resources advanced industry would require, Leon Trotsky warned that the system would collapse unless revolutions triumphed in Western Europe: “But how far can the socialist policy of the working class be applied in the economic conditions of Russia? We can say one thing with certainty–that it will come up against obstacles much sooner than it will stumble over the technical backwardness of the country. Without the direct State support of the European proletariat the working class of Russia cannot remain in power and convert its temporary domination into a lasting socialistic dictatorship.” (I should add that Trotsky used the term “dictatorship” in the technical Marxist sense of a particular class dominating the state rather than what exists in Zimbabwe et al.)
With Trotsky’s defeat, the USSR tended to see other countries less as candidates for social transformation and more as potential allies for “socialist development”. If there was a clash between the workers in a capitalist country and their rulers who were seen as favoring Soviet interests, the workers got short shrift. When Greek workers took up arms against a fascist dictatorship, Stalin decided to sell the workers out rather than jeopardize the friendly relations he had with FDR, who was amenable to allowing Eastern Europe to become a “buffer” against invasion. This was not a socialist foreign policy but a global chess game in which a struggling people were sacrificed as a pawn.
This is the same thing that is happening today even though capitalism has returned to Russia. It would probably make more sense to speak of neo-Stalinism since Vladimir Putin would be the last person on earth to favor a socialist Russia. If Stalin saw Ukraine as a kind of outpost dedicated to the defense of the USSR, not much has changed under Putin, except that the social relations being defended are based on private property rather than state ownership. Hitler invaded Russia in order to smash collective ownership while the West never had any such intentions. Why would it if Exxon is invited in as a partner in some of the biggest oil exploration deals in history, including drilling in the most ecologically sensitive areas?
It is understandable why some on the left would be anxious to smear every protest movement in the Russia/China orbit as an imperialist plot. There is ample evidence that Washington will exploit every movement to see its own agenda advanced. When I was involved with Nicaragua solidarity in the 1980s, I was incensed about reports that the NED was funding parties opposed to the FSLN. That explains why some are so anxious to write off the Hong Kong protesters as tools of the USA. But revolutionary politics is not based on algebraic formulas. You have to be able to understand that sometimes X can be equal to Y and not equal at the same time. In other words, Hegel is a better guide to social reality than Aristotle, the father of formal logic.
In places like Syria, Ukraine, Libya, Zimbabwe, Iran and Russia, the protest movements have both progressive and reactionary tendencies. To some extent, this is a function of the socialist left having lost its moral authority. In Ukraine, with the CP being an unabashed supporter of Russian domination, is it any wonder that ordinary people topple Lenin statues? Those statues, I should add, never had much to do with defending socialism. They were like George Washington statues in American parks, empty symbols of national sovereignty.
Very often when people begin fighting for freedom, they bring certain prejudices along with them. Although it would be best if a social movement had a crystal-clear agenda based on a combination of Enlightenment and socialist values, there is often a mixture of past, present and future that can be confusing to the onlooker. For example, there are many Syrians who have fought against the Baathist dictatorship who are for Sharia courts, a symbol to many on the left of a feudal past. But when you keep in mind that the judicial system in Syria was rigged to favor the Baathists, the temptations of Sharia law become more understandable. When the Irish rose up against British colonialism during WWI, the same kind of confusion cropped up on the Marxist left. Why support a movement that seemed to be tainted by Catholic dogma? Lenin tried to answer this question in an article titled “The Irish Rebellion of 1916”:
To imagine that social revolution is conceivable without revolts by small nations in the colonies and in Europe, without revolutionary outbursts by a section of the petty bourgeoisie without all its prejudices, without a movement of the politically non-conscious proletarian and semi-proletarian masses against oppression by the landowners, the church, and the monarchy, against national oppression, etc.–to imagine all this is to repudiate social revolution. So one army lines up in one place and says, “We are for socialism”, and another, somewhere else and says, “We are for imperialism”, and that will be a social revolution! Only those who hold such a ridiculously pedantic view would vilify the Irish rebellion by calling it a “putsch”.
It is regrettable that so few on the left can understand many grass roots movement today in the same light.
In order for the left to regain its moral authority, it has to once and for all stop functioning like the CP did in the 1930s, least of all when Russia and its allies lack even the economic justification that once existed for that type of “border guard” stance. Unless socialism and socialist politics are once again synonymous with democracy, the left will have nothing to say to young people fighting for social change.
When you stop and think about, Marx and Engels entered politics in the same spirit as the Syrians who marched in the streets of Homs and Aleppo in early 2011 for an end to a system that used torture and murder to enforce neoliberal rule. They were deeply involved with the movements for democracy in 1848 that challenged the old feudal order, the counterpart to Baathist rule in those days.
August Nimtz, an American scholar, wrote a book titled “Marx and Engels: Their Contribution to the Democratic Breakthrough” that reaffirmed their commitment to democracy that has unfortunately been forgotten by much of the left. In an interview with Socialist Project this year, Nimtz explained what his goals were in writing such a book:
As you probably know from my writings, I prefer to let Marx and Engels speak for themselves. And for this question there’s no better place to begin with than their Manifesto of the Communist Party, a document that sharply distinguished itself from the programmatic stances of other socialist tendencies in its position that the prerequisite for the socialist revolution was the democratic revolution—the necessity “to win the battle for democracy.” In related pronouncements clarifying their views they wrote that, like the Chartists in England, the German proletariat “can and must accept the bourgeois revolution as a precondition for the workers’ revolution. However, they cannot for a moment accept it as their ultimate goal.” And in no uncertain terms the Manifesto, in four successive locations, made clear that it would take “force” to “overthrow the bourgeoisie” in order to reach the “ultimate goal”. Nevertheless, they maintained to the end that the means to that goal was the conquest of the “bourgeois revolution.” When a critic charged in 1892 that they ignored forms of democratic governance, Engels demurred: “Marx and I, for forty years, repeated ad nauseam that for us the democratic republic is the only political form in which the struggle between the working class and the capitalist class can first be universalized and then culminate in the decisive victory of the proletariat.”
Ultimately, this statement might serve as a litmus test for the left. Although I am too old to get involved with organizing a movement, this pro-democracy orientation would be at its core. I have not only seen the USSR collapse because of dictatorship, I have also seen the socialist organization I belonged to for more than a decade collapse as well. The right to speak freely and act freely is as natural as breathing. When it is taken away, we suffocate, as does society. Ultimately, as Nimtz points out, democracy is a means to an end: the creation of a new world based on a just and rational economic order. Anything that stands in the way has to be rejected. It is not even a problem if this is a minority viewpoint today because in the long run it is the only one that can succeed.