What the legacy of the Russian Revolution means for socialism today
Marx and Engels provided the theory and the utopian vision. Lenin and Stalin, for better or, usually, for worse, provided the test case.
For the past century, socialist and communist political leaders and revolutionaries around the world have followed Lenin's example as they implemented their versions of a worker's paradise, in which the predatory ruling class is overthrown and the louche bourgeoisie is elbowed aside.
Even during the Stalinist years, the Soviet Union had many admirers among Western intellectuals, politicians, artists, labour and civil rights activists — and dreamers who just wanted a better world or alternative to capitalism.
The disasters of communism that followed are familiar enough. The millions of people who died or were persecuted under Mao Zedong. Cambodia, where millions died or were slaughtered by Khmer Rouge in the infamous killing fields. The Kim dynasty of North Korea that has managed to make its country a nuclear threat to the world while keeping its population impoverished, malnourished and living in an alternate reality.
Many of the post-colonial movements in Africa were inspired by Marxist-Leninism. Robert Mugabe and Nelson Mandela were both one-time Marxists who sought liberation for their countries from racist white rule. Mandela died a secular saint and a beloved icon of resilience, equality and freedom — while Mugabe is a despotic international pariah and a millstone around the neck of Zimbabwe.
In Latin America, a communist government might take power in a revolution and rule for generations, as in Cuba. Or a socialist government might be democratically elected and overthrown in a US-supported military coup after just three years, as in Chile.
Even the success stories of socialism don't necessarily have much in common. On one hand are the Scandinavian social democracies that are models of good governance, democracy and prosperity. On the other hand, the turbo-capitalist autocracy that is today's communist China.
Kristen Ghodsee is a Professor of Russian and East European Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, who studies the lived experience of communism and post-communism in Eastern Europe. She's an award-winning author whose latest book is Red Hangover: Legacies of 20th Century Communism.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. To hear the full conversation, click 'listen' above.
If the Russian Revolution was the test case, how does the history of the Soviet Union colour the way we think about communism and socialism today?
Lucan Way: A great deal. It certainly provided the first example of a full fledged Communist state, and I think that as Lenin envisioned it, communism was fundamentally antithetical to democracy. In that sense, it destroyed any hopes of democracy in Russia in 1917.
Kristen, you've written that for many people, "socialism equals Stalinism." Is that fair?
Is there any way of coming to grips with a working definition today, in light of the legacy of the Soviet Union, of what we mean by socialist and communist?
Kristen Ghodsee: I think that would be tricky, because there are so many permutations of the ideology, going back again to its foundations in the 19th century. You have democratic socialists, you have social democrats, you've got communists, you've got anarchists, you've got anarcho-syndicalists. Some people believe that socialism means progressive taxation and redistribution. Other people believe that requires state ownership of the means of production. So it's very different depending on who you talk to.
Are there any countries that have become communist or socialist that took Marxism in a path utterly independent of the influence of Trotsky, Lenin, and Stalin?
Lucan Way: Certainly the social democracies in Northwest Europe. I think there are certainly many countries in that part of the world that call themselves socialist that are very democratic. But I think typically those countries that have called themselves communist are really defined pretty much by complete state control over the economy.
Kristen Ghodsee: Although, the one really interesting exception would be Finland, where you have a very large communist party — you always have since the Finnish civil war in 1918. The Communist Party there has been democratically participating in politics for the better part of the last century, and that has sort of had a very strong impact on the shape of social democracy in Finland. But Finland is very much still a democratic country and has always been a democratic country.
Lucan Way: I would actually add that communist parties when they're not in power — in opposition in Latin America, [for example] — have performed a very important role in terms of promoting pluralism. But I think for the most part, when communist parties have come to power, it's very hard to find an example of a democratic outcome.
Kristen, you said that one of the reasons for the success of communism in various parts of the world is its flexibility. What did you mean by that?
Lucan Way: I would certainly agree that communism in China, communism and in Russia and in Cuba, and if you'd call it communism in Angola — I'm not sure they would — those are all very different. But they also did involve many very similar ingredients. They all had single party rule, the complete destruction of any kind of pluralism, and for the most part total state control over the economy.
Let's look at China for a moment. The Chinese leader Xi Jinping is consolidating power around himself. He's disdainful of democratic rights and freedoms. But he's also a big booster of high powered capitalism in a country with lots of billionaires. How is that communist?
Lucan Way: I don't think that's really communist. I think it's rule by the Communist Party. I think since the end of the Cold War, the only true communist states that you have are North Korea and to a much lesser extent Cuba, in the old Marxist-Leninist model. This is very much a dying breed.
Kristen Ghodsee: Absolutely. I think China would be really better characterized as a state capitalist country, in the sense that I think a lot of times people in the West conflate democracy and capitalism, and one is a political system and one is an economic system. You can have a capitalist economy that is not democratic, and certainly you could have a democratic socialist economy where the government owns a lot of the industry. So I think that China has evolved since the end of the Cold War in a much more capitalistic direction.
Lucan Way: But certainly not democratic.
Kristen Ghodsee: I think that the Cold War dichotomy between East and West, particularly as it was experienced by people living on both sides of the Iron Curtain, tended to conflate democracy and capitalism and free markets with freedom. And I think that if you look at the experience of many of the East European countries, what you find is that they got capitalism but they didn't really get democracy. There's a lot of corruption. These are fairly unstable systems as we can see in places like Hungary and Poland turning towards illiberal forms of democracy. Obviously Russia is another example. So I think we have to be very careful when we use those two words [capitalism and democracy], when we conjoin those two words, and make an automatic association. As in the case of China, you can have a capitalist economy that is not democratic at all.
Kristen, you've written that if communism failed it was because its ideals were betrayed by the leaders who were supposedly speaking on its behalf, right?
Kristen Ghodsee: Absolutely, yeah. The people who came into power in many of these East European countries — and certainly this is true in many of the developing countries of the Global South — these were not the ideal communist leaders by any stretch of the imagination.
Lucan Way: On the other hand, you look at all communist states that have emerged, and I think that they exhibit many of the similar problems — of shortage economies and the like — so I wouldn't go too far in attributing the failures to a particular leadership style.
Kristen Ghodsee: Although, we see differences with people like Tito in Yugoslavia. Yugoslavia had a much more robust economy. They were much more open to the West. They were able to trade. So it was a functioning economy for a while, until the war, and the whole country fell apart. But that had to do in some ways with leadership styles and the difference between what was called self-managing socialism or Titoism versus a much more hardcore Stalinist model.
Lucan Way: I think that communism was primarily good in terms of critique of capitalism. I think as an economic system, I wouldn't say it totally fell apart — I think it's important to recognize that it did allow Russia to rapidly industrialize and it was also in the '60s and '70s very much considered a model for many developing countries who also wanted to rapidly industrialize. At same time, it really created, at its core … the fundamental design flaws that led to a shortage economy, led to sort of enormous amounts of repression, and destruction of pluralism — those I think are really essential even to the idea, not that it was incorrectly implemented.
Was it doomed to be authoritarian?
Lucan Way: Absolutely.
Kristen Ghodsee: But then how do you account for Norway and Sweden and Denmark and Iceland and Finland, the countries that are very socialistic in their policies? They don't have central planning to the same extent.
But in terms of thinking about the way that capitalism accumulates profits and then concentrates those profits into a small group of people, and over time that group of people becomes smaller and smaller and richer and richer, I agree that the critique of Marx of the capitalist system and the way that it exploits the working classes is still quite salient today.
I agree that the way that communism was implemented in Eastern Europe was pretty much overwhelmingly a failure. These countries really did devolve very quickly into authoritarianism and it was very difficult to imagine how they could have reversed, although I think it is important to remind ourselves that Gorbachev's policies of perestroika and glasnost in the '80s were aimed at trying to address some of these problems, as were the policies of the Czech communists in the lead up to the Prague Spring in 1968. These were themselves communists trying to reform their countries to be less authoritarian and more flexible to the market. Now, they failed. They did fail. But I think it's important to remember that Gorbachev himself saw the flaws in the Soviet Union and tried to correct them before the whole thing came tumbling down around him.
After the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the breakup of the Soviet Union, that was supposed to be the end of history. The Cold War was over, capitalism won, and democracy would flourish. What is your opinion of this mood of triumphalism around the end of communist Europe?
Lucan Way: There definitely was a mood of triumphalism. I think it was double edged. The positive end of this triumphalism was that it discredited old arguments that democracy could only take place or survive in a certain set of limited countries in the West. I think I probably agree with Kristen, on the other hand, that there are some more negative sides of triumphalism. It led to a convergence of the centre left with the right, in terms of neoliberal economic policies around free trade and deregulation that I think really limits the choice of those who lost out through free trade and through deregulation, didn't give them a kind of political alternative. That, I think, indirectly has contributed to the rise of populism today.
Kristen Ghodsee: I've written extensively about the suffering of ordinary people right after the fall of communism in 1989. There was a spate in 2013 of people self-immolating in Bulgaria to protest the poverty and corruption that has followed in the wake of the collapse of communism.
Lucan Way: I'm a little reluctant to blame the economic downturn in Eastern Europe solely on neoliberalism. Look at countries like Ukraine, which never implemented any kind of neoliberal policy, which had massive economic collapse. I can also tell you, because I worked in the World Bank the 1990s, a lot of these countries simply didn't follow these policies and I think it kind of overestimates the power of the global thinkers like Jeffrey Sachs and the like. I think there are a lot of domestic reasons — that have relatively little to do with neoliberalism — that led to this sort of economic collapse in the 1990s, which I agree was awful.
Does that explain what seems to be a rise of nostalgia for the old ways? In Russia, people are bringing back Uncle Joe [Stalin].
Kristen Ghodsee: Yeah. It's rather astounding. I started writing about post-communist nostalgia in 2004 — nostalgia in the Eastern Bloc countries, quite literally for communism, for the old system. Which seems so contradictory, given that it was such an oppressive system in so many of these places. Why would people be nostalgic for it?
I do think that it's partially because of the devastation of the '90s. When I use the term neoliberalism, it's as a shorthand for things like privatization policies, the dismantling of child care centres, the shortening of maternity leaves that once helped women combine work and family balance… The net effect was that there was far less of a social safety net for ordinary people. Crime and corruption increased. People lost their jobs, especially women. The economic data out of many of these countries is pretty abysmal. A lot of people are are still living below the standard of living that they had in 1989 or 1991. So of course people are going to be nostalgic.
I think I read in your book that in the old days, people had money, but there was nothing to buy. Now there's lots to buy, but no money.
Kristen Ghodsee: Exactly. I don't want to romanticize poverty by any stretch of the imagination, but if you're living in a society where everybody has their basic needs met — really basic: heating, basic clothes, ugly clothes, and a small apartment — everybody is equally deprived. But then suddenly, you go to these East European countries now and you see these luxury malls. You can see a $200,000 car on the street in Sofia, where the average wage is something like $400 a month. The inequality is astounding.
Socialism still has a tremendous appeal — especially among academics. But you have the appeal of Corbyn in the U.K. and Bernie Sanders in the United States. Why is it still so popular?
Lucan Way: I think because the current system of capitalism, with its incredible inequalities and very uneven distribution of resources, creates a lot of losers and people want some kind of alternative. I actually don't really agree with a lot of the policies of Jeremy Corbyn and the like, but I do think it's a positive development that we're breaking out of this kind of neoliberal consensus and the left is starting to be left again.
Can either of you imagine a form of communism that would not be authoritarian and would be democratically elected — or as you said earlier, Lucan, is it that Marxism is great as a critique of capitalism, but it's pretty lousy as a political system?
Lucan Way: I want to clarify that when I said that, I was referring to Marxist-Leninism as being fundamental antithetical to democracy. As Kristen said, it's pretty unfair to tar Jeremy Corbyn with Stalinism.
The answer does not lie with Marxism-Leninism. I think that's fundamentally autocratic. But I think there are other forms of left that emerge out of the Mensheviks in Russia in 1917 that are quite compatible with democracy.
This is not Marxist-Leninism, as Lucan points out, which is a very specific form of that idea which is obviously going to be prone to a kind of dictatorship of the proletariat. But you can do this democratically. And we've seen very good examples of this in countries in Scandinavia where people have voted their economic interests to increase taxation to redistribute. The Norwegian government owns the largest financial institutions in that country, and that's not antithetical to democracy.
Isn't it in your constitution that the state has to provide for the common welfare?
Kristen Ghodsee: Right! And we have libraries and roads and public education. It's not such a radical idea. When you break it down and say that ordinary people vote, they elect governments that represent their interests, that's not a crazy idea. That's a pretty basic fundamental point of democracy it seems — but it somehow gets tarred with the legacies of 20th century communism. I think that that's partially intentional on the part of elites who stand to lose if we increase tax rates or limit their opportunities for profit making.