“I can think of no Soviet intellectual”, remarked ESP Thompson, during the heyday of the Soviet Union, “who as a Marxist, commands any intellectual authority outside the Soviet Union”. This is in contrast both to the continuous flow of very critical and radical Marxist tradition within Western Europe and even the United States, as well as to the period immediately before and after the Russian Revolution when all the leaders, including Lenin, Trotsky, Bukharin and Stalin made significant contributions to Marxist theory and practice. In fact, ever since Stalin adopted the policy of “Socialism in One Country”, he insulated the Soviet system and made the Comintern an organ to propagate the correctness of Soviet foreign policy. As a result, the intellectual content of Soviet Marxism remained at a superficial and formal level. The critical dimension of Marxism only survived in the works of the Soviet dissidents.
This void reveals the weaknesses of the ideological superstructure which is of crucial significance in legitimising the system. Gramsci had once appropriately said that an advanced State was ruled more by perfecting its ideological apparatus than by the use of threat or coercion. But in the Soviet system, the ideological superstructure had continued to remain undefined and uninspiring. This impeded the consolidation within and restricted its appeal to a limited number of believers outside the Soviet Union.
The propagators of the Russian Revolution, who seized political power on 7 November 1917, wanted to create a new world of socialist utopia fulfilling Marx’s dreams of a classless and stateless society. The October Revolution, as per the Russian calendar, was preceded by the Kerensky-led February Revolution which tried to posit a post-Czarist Russia towards a peaceful evolutionary path of socialism. But the October Revolution wanted to change quickly by using revolutionary violence, under the total control of the Communist party in a country that was relatively backward, to usher in an industrial socialist state. Its results were disastrous with millions of lives lost and summary executions. The rise of Stalin’s totalitarianism brought about a brutal end of realising Marx’s dream. It was as Koestler said, The God that Failed. It became a journey to nowhere.
The Communist systems in Russia and East Europe led to centralised planning, collectivisation, bureaucratisation, one-party dominance, monolithic state and a command economy resulting in shortages, stagnation, ecological destruction, low productivity, non-competitiveness and a declining GNP. Not only was the rigid and bureaucratic planning slow and cumbersome; it also led to lack of motivation and self-esteem. In order to succeed it needed force and compulsion. When these were partially dismantled its inner contradictions surfaced. The problems faced by the former Soviet society and economy were enormous. The death rate which was 6.9 per thousand in 1964 rose to 10.3 in 1980. Life expectancy in case of men and women declined from 67 to 62 years and from 76 to 73 years respectively. The Soviet Union was the only industrialised country to experience such a decline. There was a steep rise in infant mortality rate. The GDP which was 4.9 per cent in 1966-70 decreased to 2.2 per cent in 1981-85. There was stagnation in coal and steel production. Agricultural production was below the plan’s target. Officially, statistics were not available since 1980 regarding grain production but it was estimated to be a mere 1.8 per cent during 1981-85. Rationing in important food items were introduced in some Soviet cities in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
The isolationist economic policies that these Communist states pursued with the aim of self-sufficiency and independence led to a GNP which was 25 per cent of the world economy, but their share of exports was merely 14 per cent. This meant that they were out of the prevailing trends towards internationalisation of the production process. It also meant that the three important components of modern business organisation ~ increased efficiency, product quality and consumer choice ~ did not become part of the socialist culture and remained an exclusive preserve of capitalism. The inconvertibility of their currencies aggravated their lack of competitiveness.
This, coupled with the success stories of the East Asian Tigers, made the Communist model unattractive. The spectacular success of the Asian NIC’s proved that economic liberalism allowed late modernisers to catch up with the others within a shorter span of less than two generations. Their hardships and privation seem less bearable to the large-scale social terror unleashed by the former Communist regimes. The promise of Khrushchev that the USSR would overtake the West remained hollow. In a comparative perspective the Communist regimes, as opposed to liberal democracies, lacked resilience, adaptability and the capacity to respond and absorb societal and technological changes thus becoming a dinosaur in the process. Moreover, with the emergence of a commercial world the military alliances and adventures appeared to be illegitimate and unprofitable. The former Soviet Union attained rough parity in terms of armaments with the United States, but was way behind in terms of economic power. Japan occupied the second position. It lagged behind in technology, a fact noted by Andrei Sakharov, who had remarked that all the important innovations and discoveries originated in the West since World War II.
The worldwide failure of the Marxist-Leninist Communism was also due to a fallacious and erroneous conception of the market. The mistakes were broadly two ~ anthropological and economic. The anthropological mistake was to presume, as Marx did, that the ‘law of history’ dictated a fundamental antagonism between capital and labour. “The dream of socialism with a human face,” according to Ross “will always be a dream: it is based on a mistaken view of man”. Democratic institutions and culture, extensive social security measures, trade union activities and labour welfare laws have been compounded by continuing to view capitalism as it existed in its early phase. This ignored the structural changes that had happened. Moreover, the idea of a free market solely governed by the principle of profit which the Marxists attacked was a myth for there was never one that really existed. Even Smith the guru of laissez faire and market granted to the state three duties namely (a) defence, (b) administration of justice and protection of every member of the society and (c) maintenance of public works and public institutions which meant universal public education, public health and labour laws.
The presence of a self-serving, corrupt and privileged elite which Djilas characterised as the ‘new class’ did more to alienate the masses from the system which prided itself in being equal and just. Morally the Communist systems did not respect the self-worth and esteem of the ordinary citizen. Havel condemned the Communist societies for undermining and humiliating the ordinary person’s moral character and dignity, and their belief in their own capacity to act as moral agents. It was no small credit that Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) could as early as 1930 see Bolshevism as transitory and that it was medical treatment for a sick society. He rightly commented, “indeed the day on which the doctor’s regime comes to an end must be hailed as a red-letter day for the patient”.
The Communist regimes lost sight of the fact that socialism did not merely mean scientific planning, efficient administration nor public welfare, but as Tawney emphasised a moral quest, a philosophy of individual fulfillment with emphasis on compassion, fellowship and participation are important components of socialist theorising and practice. “True Socialism” according to Laski “is libertarian and not authoritarian”. The biggest ideological inadequacy of Marxism-Leninism was in ignoring this libertarian aspect of socialism while projecting itself as an alternative to liberal democracy. In this attempt it overlooked the important historical fact that socialism arose, as pointed out by Watkins, because of the inadequacy of early liberalism to fulfill its own promise of economic well-being. It ignored the protection afforded by liberal constitutionalism against harm, observed Sartori, “by the coercive instruments of politics without due process and in violation of habeas corpus”. In fact, the common point between communism and fascism, in spite of their differences, stated Lichtheim, was their willingness to dispense with democracy and the labour movement.
In 1899, Eduard Bernstein emphasised that socialism and democracy were synonymous. He pointed out that socialism stood for a higher culture and did not symbolise merely the miseries of the working class. He categorically insisted that socialism had nothing to do with dictatorship which belonged to a “lower civilisation”. He stressed that political and economic activity was an ongoing process, which the socialist movement had to undertake within and on behalf of the democratic system. It was not merely an end, as Lenin insisted, but both a means and an end. Had Lenin and the Bolsheviks heeded to Bernstein’s observation, the history of communism would have been