The May Day Statement, published by Socialist Worker-New Zealand, considers the Venezuelan process of change “the most advanced revolutionary upsurge in 90 years” and talks of “the global socialist regroupments it will inevitably set in motion.” In part 5 of “Venezuela: don’t overdo it, comrades”, I tried to show that there have been revolutionary upsurges at least as advanced as the one beginning to unfold in Venezuela. Now, I want to show that there have been revolutionary events with consequences for international revolutionary politics at least as big as those of the Venezuelan events.
Three years of revolutionary change immediately spring to mind. The first is 1956. In that year, the Stalinist bloc openly went into crisis. That crisis had been brewing sice the death of the tyrant after which the system was named, in 1953. In june of that year, East german workers revolted against the dictatorship; Russian tanks saved the regime. But the Russsian leadership began to realize that you cannot run a modern economy and en empire purely on repression. Fear is not the most efficient motivating principle if you need to raise productivity, especially the productivity of skilled wokers, technicians, scientists. And raising productivity is a necessity, for a state capitalist economy as the Stalinist one as much as for a more market-oriented economy. International competition, mainly through the arms race, was the priority for both sides in the Cold War.
So, reforms became neccessary. That was the background for Khrusthovs (not so )Secret Speech on the crimes of Stalin. Khrushov and other leaders wanted to open up the system a bit, to make it somewhat more flexible. For party leaders was a technique to cosolidate and modernise their power. But many intellectuals saw the reform process as an opening for real freedom. Agitation for democratic reforms and a further lessening of repression grew. This linked uo with the discontent of workers who had already been pushed beyond limits of endurence.
In Poland, workers revolted in Poznan in 1956; later that year, a reform movement under Gomulka, a party leader who had been purged, took over the governbment. But the new leadership used the hopes among workers and intellectuals – and channeled the movement in order to tame it. Unfortunately, this move succeeded, deeper revolt was contaned, and the Stalinist state stabilised itself in a somewhat liberalised version. In Hungary, the pressure for democracy combined with workers’ revolt in a much more radical fashion. Open revolution was the result – one of the classic proletarian revolutions of the twentieth century.
The whole chain of events had enormous consequences for the international left.From 1956 onwards, Stalinism was no longer the unchallenged power in the workers’movement that it was before. People began to re-discover elements of the Marxist tradition that had been beriedf under Stalinist distortion. A few found their way to revolutionary Marxism in its Trotskyist form. Others developed what tended to be called Marxist humanism, an open-ended collection of ideas. A UK magazine like New Left Review started from this kind of inspiration.
But, whatever the direction became that a whole number of radicals took – there now was a growing space to the Left of the Stalinist parties. When new upsurges of revolutionary struggles appeared, there were small, non-Stalinist left groupings. Many of them owed their ideas, their strength or even their existence to that eventful year, 1956. Paul Blackledge has a long and fascinating article on the events of 1956 and their consequences of the Left: “The New Left’s renewal of Marxism” , International Journal, no. 112, Autums 2006. The same issue of that review also has an overviuw of the Hungarian Revolution”: Mike Hayne’s “Hungary: workers’councils against Russian tanks”.
The next big wave of revolutionary struggle can be symbolized by the year 1968. That was the year of the big events in France, when student revolts was followed by a giant general strike and factory occupations on a big scale. It looked like revolution. And, even though the struggle subsided, its consequences for the Left were serious. The whole idea theat the working class in Western countries would never revolt, was thoroughly integrated within capitalist society, was much to comfortable to start anything truly rebellious – that idea took a beating. Revolutionary marxism – with its insistence on the centrality of the working class – suddenly sounded less exotic that it had done for decades.
In the same year, the crisis of Stalinism went into a new phase. In Chechoslovakia, the Communist leadership opened up a series of reforms. A process similar to that in 1956 in Poland and Hungary unfolded. Intellectuals and students built pressure for democratization. Workers began to fight for their class demands, pressure for the formaton of enterprise councils grew. The party leadership – led by Alexander Duncek – tried to ride the wave, probably hoping to do what Gomulka succeeded in doing. The Russian leaders, fearing the spread of the virus of radical change and the undermining of the bloc they led, lost patience. They sent an invasion force, and the waven of democratic struggle, with all its revolutionary potential, was strangled.
Again, the consequences were momentous. Stalinist parties in the West went into deep crisis. Many of them refused to support the Russian interventyion, and began to move in an openly social-democratic direction in what became known as ‘Eurocommunism’ . At the same time, the Trotskyist idea that revolutionary change was needed in the East as well as in the West, was again vindicated. In combination with the French May revolt, this gave revolutionary Marxist ideas a noticeable boost. The LCR, for instance, the Trotskyist organisation whose candidate Olivier Besancenot gained an appreciable result in the French presidential elections, can trace inportant roots to 1968. The International Socialists, forerunner of the Socialist Workers Party in Britain, also built itself into a sizable organisation in 1968 and after.
A big factor in the growth of the revolutionary left was a third big event in 1968: the Tet Offensive, through which Vietnamese resistance forces proved without a saemblance of doubt that the US was losing the war in Vietnam. Strong antiwar movements already existed in both the UK and the US; the events of 1968 gave them a boost, and revolutionaries were in the middle of these movements and tried to strengthen anti-imperialist ideas within and through that movement. Both the Socialist Wokers Party (US), then still Trotskyist, and the International Socialists (UK), now the Socialist Workers Party, bult both that movement and, within and through that movement, their own organisation. France, Chechoslovakia and Vietnam together meant: anticapitalism, anti-Stalinism and anti-imperialism. Around those ideas, a serious revolutionary left began to be founded. By the way, the best book I know on the events of 1968 and after still is “The Fire Last Time” by Chris Harman.
Then there was the year 1989. This was the year of the ‘End of Communism’ – of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the overthrow of the one party dictatorships in most Eastern European coutries (Albania followed in 1990-1991, in Russia the process was somewhat more extended, between 1989 and 1991).
The events were enormously inspiring and, at the same time, enormously problematic in their consequences for the left. Inspiring: democratic workers’ movements first challenged, then overthrew a whole series of authoritarian police states that, only months earlier, looked quite powerful. Problematic: what does it mean for socialists, when states widely considered as socialist, or on the way to socialism, or at the very least post-capitalist – suddenly are overhtrown by the workers in whose name their rulers supposedly ruled?
The events happened fast. Strikes in Poland in 1988 pushed the leaders into negotiations; in the end, they agreed to elections, which they decisively and overwhelmingly lost. Mass demonstrations and mass refugee movements in East Germany first forced out the hated Honecker, then forced the new leadership to open the Berlin Wall. Then, workers simply started to dismantle the thing. In Romania, demonstrations turned into insurrection when Ceasescu’s soldiers and Securitate shot at demonstrators. Soldiers joined the people in revolt, and we had a revolution in Romania on our TV screens just before Christmas. A fes weeks before that, a student demonstration in Checkoslovakia was attackes by riot police; daily mass demonstrations, and a two-hour general strike, disposed of another Stalinist regime within two weeks.
All these regimes supposedly were socialist, goiverning in the interest of the workers. And in one country after another, workers were at the centre of the revolt against these regimes. This was the irony, both inspiring and cruel, of those events. It was inspiring for socialists who had been explaining for years that these regimes had nothing to do with socialism, except the symbols and the rhetoric; in reality, these regimes represented a form of capitsalism whre the state operated as capitalist, and a bureaucracy led that state. The character of those societies was bureaucratic state capitalist.
Socialists who held this analysis were not at all discouraged by the overthrow of Stalinist states. However, after a few months in which the situation could develop in all kinds of ways, all these states moved towards a much more openly market-based captalism. Privatisation and liberalisation (and unemployment and rising prices) became the order of the day. As such, this was a rather uninspiring outcome of inspiring events.
The fact that people turned away from Stalinism, not towards revolutionary socialism but to the free market and liberal democracy was not surprising. When you have bene oppressed and exploited by bosses who called themselves socialist or communist, it is not strange that you reject socialism and communism and the Marxism supposedly at the root of all this. “The problem is that genuine commuinism, planning and the red flag are all identified with an oppressive regime” (Tony Cliff, “Earthquake in the East” , Socialist Review, December 1989). So people who in other circumstances would have been attracted to socialist ideas, now turn to the idea that the market can solve most problems.
Left wing politics internationally suffered the consequences, because the largest part of the left held on to the idea that, yes, the Stalinist one party states were either soclialist, in between capitalism and socialism, workers’states albeit with degenerations or deformations or whatnot. Now these states had collapsed. “From the West it looks as if socialism has no future as the regimes are falling to pieces. This is a massive boost to the right” (again, Cliff, writing while the events were still unfolding). The currents, for instans the International Socialist Tendency, who held on to the idea that the regimes had beet state capitalist all along were very much on the margins, and could not insulate themselves totally from the general demoralisation much of the radical left suffered. Still, the theory othat analysed those one party states as a form of capitalism made it possible for socialist not to totally drown permanently in depression, to continue, preparing ourselves for new moves forward.
That brings us to the present day. We have seen three chains of events with tremendous repercussions, good and bad, for the international Left. Can it truly be said that the ramifications for the Left of the Bolivarian process in Venezuela are already on the same order of magnitude?