Dilemmas of The Left

socialism

Nowadays leading newspapers and channels are barring their doors to anything written from a prominently left point of view.This has been a trend since the early years of the second millennium.The supposed bankruptcy of the left and the triumph of neoliberal capitalism had allegedly turned the left ideology into ‘left luggage’ of no use to anyone who mattered.So conscious educated people are seldom exposed to the central ideas of the left

Until the unexpected shattering crisis of the global system that badly shook the confidence of the smug overlords and their camp-followers.That briefly generated a grudging respect for Marxism for its astute diagnosis of the ailments of capitalism,but did not extend to a firm commitment to its insights and practical prescriptions.

In stead,the apologists for neoliberal capitalism which is the obverse side of neo-colonialism, have gone into an overdrive to mine musty old anti-Marxist and anti-Communist propaganda or collect present-day equivalents.

They make haste to produce them before an alarmed audience as an unfailing and irrefutable answer to the searching Marxist critiques of liberal economics and politics.


The strongest rebuttal of Marxism as a doctrine and communism as political and economic practice has been that they have always advanced to a system of brutal totalitarian dictatorship where all basic human freedoms are crushed within the grinding wheels of historical necessity.

One need not always go in  for the customary retort that such freedoms in actual practice do not lead to establishing the very elementary conditions of those freedoms for the vast majority of society,the workers and farmers who create the enabling wealth and scope,including such factors as freedom from hunger and disease,health care and education.One has to concede bluntly that  such had indeed been the case.The scope of freedom that creates the ambience of spontaneous creativity and joyous fulfillment is to a great extent restricted under ‘actually existing socialism.’

 But the obvious limitation of the results of the first experiments in socialism need not be construed as a definite exposure of its inherent fallacy or weakness but of the conditions under which those experiments had to be conducted.As Marx had pithily put it,man makes history not in complete autonomy,but under conditions of a moment in the grand movement of history from the past into the present moving farther forward towards the future.Then even with our best efforts we might not be able to grasp all the significant elements that aggregate into the flow of history.But we try to grasp the main trends,the principal contradictions,and build upon them our pathway towards the future.The results have been the colossal uplift of hundreds of millions of men sunk in dire poverty,disease and squalor and degradation into a higher and richer state of existence.No mean achievement that.Not to speak of the inspiration to other millions of people enslaved by colonialism to break their chains and challenge their masters.

True that at that precise point the movement lost its momentum and the original fire dimmed to dying embers and ashes.But that certainly cannot be the end of the story.We are now in a position to put together how and why that happened.

Orthodox Marxism embodied in existing left parties does not,cannot provide the clues.For it is itself a mirror of the failures that had led to that loss of momentum.Unless of course these parties make a determined effort to take an objective view of their own dilemmas and decline.

One might as well look back to the suspenseful period just before the collapse of the Soviet Union.Gorbachev had set in motion the process of liberalization of government and the deregulation of media.He seemed unaware of the storm louring in the horizon.The official popular magazine SPUTNIK was publishing articles  highlighting and promoting extremely individualist ideas and practices like weird hobbies,deviant sex,modelling for ‘bold’ attire and experiments in the paranormal earlier regarded as superstitions.(More to follow)

Such things were so unusual that the German Democratic Republic banned this magazine sponsored by Soviet government of the time.The leader waiting on the wings to take over from Gorbachev, Yeltsin, turned out to be a besotted drunkard.During his Presidency the ‘shock therapy’ used to turn the socialist economy into a capitalist one under expert advice from a Wall Street experts killed half a million elderly people and children within three to four years.The sale of public sector enterprises was mired in corruption to the tune of billions of roubles. Still the ordinary Russians hooted for so-called ‘reform’.They were so disillusioned with the results of socialism that they had grown up with,that they wanted to go the whole hog despite those ominous symptoms.

The question is why.It is clear that There was a yawning gulf between the party cum government and the working people at large.And that the people came to hold views opposite those of the party/government over the decades.And however hard the party/government tried to make life easier and more comfortable in the postwar decades,doubts had started growing in the minds of the people of Soviet Union that they had become victims of a fraud.Otherwise they would have rallied to the support of the orthodox Stalinist leaders who had tried to stage a counter-coup against the ‘reformists’.Even the army refused to fire on unarmed protesters surrounding the Kremlin with orthodox leaders who were inside who thought at least the army would obey their commands.

Thus it will be a simplistic fallacy to argue that ‘revisionist’ infiltrators had taken over the state as advance guards of capitalist restoration.That opportunity had first been provided by the ideological stagnation of the party/government blind to the growing rift between real developments and the old,inadequate and ossified doctrine held and dished out by the party/government.And anything so immobile can hardly claim to be Marxist!

But now is the time to take stock,reckon at what point decay had set in,and what had caused the degeneration.

One must recall at this point that even the inveterate enemy of Stalinism,Leon Trotsky had held steadfast the notion that although subject to ‘bureaucratic degeneration’,the Soviet Union was after all ‘a worker’s state.’ That would imply a serious ailment but not a life-threatening disease.

There were other reasons cited by different critics.But a popular concept among critics of the Soviet Union has been that it had become out and out  a despotism that robbed the subjects of their freedom and power and the rulers of their judgment.The latter rushed from error to error, it argued,by having acquired  enormous power to decide the fate of millions without being accountable in any sense and turning into a grossly complacent and blundering machine.And ultimately it led to most horrendous inhuman cruelties on a stupefying scale.This is the argument running through most of the popular anti-Communist literature including the celebrated  ANIMAL FARM.Forget the exaggeration and the blind spots.But it is certainly a compelling argument.

The point is what had led to such a state of affairs.Marx’s erstwhile colleague turned bitter enemy,Bakunin the founder of modern anarchism,held throughout his life that the Marxian idea of a workers’ party was the surest road to total power for the party that would snuff out all the freedom of the people for whom it supposedly held power.He had been expelled from the First International for such a stubborn advocacy of unlimited individual freedom and spontaneity.Marx’s followers held that though spontaneous individual opinion and decision deserved consideration,once a collective decision was held after discussion there should be iron discipline while executing it.And the party must be there to enforce discipline essential for success in the task before it.

While expelled from the first International Bakunin continued to wield much influence over wide swathes of population in Spain and some other parts of Europe and America too.The Anti-Communist Orwell in his HOMAGE TO CATALONIA pays homage to the unshackled freedom of Spanish anarchists and their dedication to the defense of republican Spain against the hordes of Fascist Franco.But there in one place he pays a  grudging but fleeting tribute to the comparative success of the Communists with their iron discipline.The anarchists appeared more spontaneous and humane,but their success rate was low.

I have not come across any responsible office-bearer of the Anarchist party.But during the heyday of the Left and the anti-Vietnam War movement in the late sixties of the last century in Britain I had bumped into two or three American students who had oddly dissented from the overwhelming general  trend on the ground as in their opinion Vietnam would  become a rotten  tyranny if Communists gained power.I suspect that while through the first two decades of the twentieth the Anarchists had  been  ruthlessly persecuted in America,during the period of the cold war Anarchists had been tolerated by US authorities as a counterweight to Communists.

I wonder if that degree for tolerance still exists for Anarchists there.But the most prominent and iconic advocate of Anarchism in America known today is the scholar and public intellectual Noam Chomsky.His integrity is beyond all doubt.He has also been a consistent searing critic of American imperialism in all its ugly manifestations,and  that held valuable lessons for  all opponents of capitalism,its greed
and cruelty and rank hypocrisy.

Now Chomsky has denounced the Soviet Union and its brand of socialism in no uncertain terms.His remarks against Lenin as the fountainhead of Soviet tyranny cannot be dismissed as mere propaganda.

Chomsky traces the malady to the principal theoretical and practical leader of the Russian revolution.In an article in a magazine OUR GENERATION(Spring/Summer,1986) his disparaging remarks on the Soviet Leadership of the Bolshevik Revolution go on to conclude that  “The Soviet leadership thus portrays itself as socialist to protect its right to wield the club and Western ideologies adopt the same pretense in order to forestall the threat of a more free and just society.This joint attack on socialism has been highly effective in undermining  it in the modern period.”

And why have supporters of two opposite ideologies joined forces to crush the emergence of a “more free and just society”?

It was sheer lust for naked power.At the root of the problem there is the character of the state.
The Bolshevik leaders headed by Lenin had no illusion  about immediately dispensing with the state.As an instrument of elementary discipline without which it was doomed peter out it served a basic function of the revolution and was expected to ‘wither away’ only when the development of the society  has made it redundant.It will become so only when through constant struggle or resolution of contradictions the working class became more educated, empowered, mentally enriched and responsible.The crux of the matter was how to keep the state answerable to the masses.But Chomsky was convinced it was an impossible goal as the party/ government was bound to dominate the masses in the name of better discipline,higher and deeper knowledge and unchallenged moral authority by virtue of its success in guiding  the revolutionary forces to success.

Chomsky has clearly and boldly rejected the socialist  credentials of Lenin and other Bolshevik leaders.According to him Trotsky who had seen through their game had himself become a turn-coat and joined them to his disgrace.

 Interestingly he paints these Bolsheviks as a power-hungry band using socialism as a mask for their real aims.In his own words “The Leninist antagonism to the most essential feature of socialism was evident from the very start.In revolutionary Russia Soviets and Factory Committees developed as instruments of struggle and liberation,with many flaws,but with a rich potential.”    

Lenin and Trotsky,upon assuming power,immediately devoted themselves to developing the liberatory potential of these instruments, establishing the rule of the Party,in practice the Central Committee and its  Maximal leaders.——-as Trotsky had predicted years ago and Rosa Luxemburg  other Left Marxists warned at the time,and as the Anarchists had always understood.

Not only the masses,but even the party must be subject to “vigilant control from above”,so Trotsky held as he made the transition from revolutionary intellectual to State priest.Before seizing State power,the Bolshevik leadership adopted much of the rhetoric of people who were engaged in revolutionary struggle from below for socialism.

It is too much to believe  that the Bolsheviks indulged in such liberatory rhetoric as mere charade to gain influence on the masses.Lenin’s own political writings such as THE STATE AND REVOLUTION before the actual revolution had sincerely entertained such ideas and aims. But real circumstances and compulsions arising out of them instilled other lessons in them.

Lenin himself had given a clarion call to the revolutionary people:”ALL POWER TO THE SOVIETS”.He knew that members of the  Bolshevik group had been active among the people who had spontaneously formed the Soviets as the organ for expressing the collective will of the revolutionary people in word and deed.At the early stage of the Socialist government he had even used the formula: ‘Electricity + Soviets = Socialism’.But with the passage of time the Soviets got mired in increasing divisions and factional quarrels until leaders feared that would provide the enemy waiting in the wings with the opportunity to strike and wreck the infant socialist order.Soon enough the Civil War threatened to engulf it.

Hence the Bolshevik leaders were compelled to centralize decisions andmaintain discipline through a central authority.It may be recalled at this point that unlike the Anarchists Marx had envisaged NO immediate and total abolition of the State,but only gradual “withering away of the State.

Thus the crux of the matter was NOT whether to install a Socialist state,but how to keep it accountable and answerable to the working people,how to keep it away from turning into a self-acting ingrown machine above and beyond the reach of the people.There is serious evidence that Lenin had remained deeply worried by the prospect of such an eventuality.His term for it had been ‘bureaucratic degeneration or deformation’ He warned his comrades of this danger pretty often after winning the Civil War
and took corrective steps whenever it struck him at any point of time.But the trend was already growing with comrades like Stalin impatient with endless debates and avid for construction of a socialist order.He was worried by the idea gaining ground that Russia should have priority over all other states in the union,especially the Asian republics;and that with scarce resources mobilized for speedy development of Russia for the present later devopment of other states in the union could be taken up at subsequent stages.A class of managers were beginning to emerge in answer to the demand for early and speedy development of productive forces.And a bureaucratic model of management was rising despite unwearying efforts to monitor and control them.Political power was getting concentrated in the hands of a few who were overseeing the process.However Lenin tried to keep a sharp eye on all such trends and apply the brakes whenever needed. Unfortunately a serious attack on his life injured and partly disabled him from this essential function.

Even so he tried to keep  his comrades aware of the grave dangers of bureaucratic distortions of the State still forming.Most significantly,he had insisted on granting the workers in the socialist regime the right to strike against the management.It reveals clearly that unlike some other leaders he was certainly opposed to turning in the workers into mindless cogs of the state-machine.As mentioned earlier Lenin had been prescient of the degeneration of the Socialist state but was prevented from taking it up energetically.

During the early years the Soviet state had been a useful instrument to ensure elementary discipline as well as educate, empower and enable the masses to take hold of their own lives through collective struggle and effort.But as vigilance and introspection waned with the passing of Lenin,it grew into an automatic machine heedless of the concerns of the masses.

Later on Mao Tse-tung became alarmed by similar tendencies in party/state in revolutionary China and tried desperately to fight them with such steps as frequent rectifications and purges and eventually such fateful stratagems as the ‘Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution’.

But evidently the characterization of such struggles as class wars against capitalist restoration was
premature and misdirected.He picked up and ditched several teams one after another in rapid succession to bring back order to chaos formented by such adventures.The disorder unleashed by wild crowds of teenagers to defeat alleged ‘capitalist roaders’ had been too  costly until Mao was no longer able to control things despite his charisma.Any level-headed observer can see these trends if not blinded by dogma.

Today we have got to realize that the pitfalls of absolute power are too serious a matter to be shrugged off.Such mechanisms as separation of powers and rule of law and fundamental rights to liberty of movement and thought and expression developed by modern democracies through centuries of struggle against overweening power and despotic suppression of the people’s voice may not be junked as mere bourgeois claptrap but have to be worked into the socialist constitution.As well as the necessity to ensure accountability and transfer of power between successive governments all catering to socialism.We propose to dwell on the these questions sometime in future.

ADDENDUM

Returning to the question of preserving and sustaining the people’s power to influence decisions and expressing criticism and upholding their spontaneous initiatives in politics we have to underscore certain indispensable conditions.

On the factory floor and the farm production relations and the social relations have got to be radically re-organised so that with necessary expert advice the production and distribution of goods will be decided by factory Committees.

As for their leisure time workers ought to have more autonomy as their tastes and accomplishments tend to vary.Some might just relax and enjoy the time while others would paint,act or read.The only restraint would be to ensure these recreations did not harm society.

Again it is necessary that certain civil liberties are guaranteed.An ugly feature of the Soviet society had been severe restrictions on right to free movement within the country.The individual is to be a creative free personality in a stimulating social environment and not a cog in the
machine.

It has been asserted above officials of the state must be kept responsible and accountable throughout to ensure freedom and equality among the people.

Tribal societies have a lesson or two for later,more developed societies.Certain individuals with the required skills,aptitudes and experience are elected to lead the community in certain specialized functions,e.g.war,agriculture,festivities and religious practices, but only for that special and temporary function.Once it is discharged the temporary leader gets promptly relieved of leadership and relegated to his previous position and role.

These speculations just attempt to offer for guidance a general road-map for considerations.It is understood that such experiments are subject to tinkering,pruning and revising in the light of experience during the process of building the new society.

Hiren Gohain is a political commentator

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