Century of Endeavour

Notes in Assessment of Gorbachev

(c)Roy Johnston 2001

(comments to rjtechne@iol.ie)

I wrote these notes on 11/2/89 during the emerging USSR crisis, and I think they may be worth placing on record as an indication of my thinking about the USSR at the time. RJ January 2002.

1. The historic agenda for socialism was defined by Marx and Engels at a period when the European nations were becoming established and their boundaries defined in a framework of bourgeois democratic revolution: a centralist nation-state, equality before the law for all citizens, one man one vote. Marx regarded the bourgeois-democratic nation-state as a stepping-stone towards socialism, the latter being characterised by the extension of the democratic principle to the ownership of capital, and the management of industry. This was the 1848 aspiration, which however was defeated. The European states in the aftermath of this defeat became defined on the basis of hegemony and imperialism, and were usually multinational.

2. A political party with socialist aspirations did not achieve state power until 1917, in an imperialist state without a democratic tradition, in the middle of an imperialist war. The early Soviet democracy which emerged was fragile and lacking in precedent (their sole prior experience was the 1905 Petersburg Soviet, and before that the Paris Commune). The Soviet state took over much of the imperial bureaucracy, which was accustomed to ruling by administrative ukase.

3. In this situation it is not surprising that the political differences between the ultra-leftist Trotsky and the moderate Bukharin led to the emergence of Stalin, who 'resolved' the political problem simply by exterminating both, and any followers who wanted to explore the road to socialism by political methods. Stalin operated a top-down Russian imperial machine, with appointed officials operating simplistic doctrinaire policies. He has left a terrible legacy, which Gorbachev is now facing.

4. Gorbachev is the first of the post-Stalin generation to achieve influence. He has to take up Marx's task of completing the democratic revolution, as it were, retrospectively, in a state where the socialist revolution has been (after a fashion) completed without it. He faces formidable obstacles, not the least being those in the bureaucracy who owe their careers to the unquestioning implementation of Stalinist methods of work. These are the direct inheritors of the old imperial bureaucracy; they are anti-democratic and Russian chauvinist. They stand behind such manifestations as Pamyat, which is a Russian nationalist movement of the right, with virulent anti-semitic policies.

5. He also faces the task of modernising soviet industry, and ensuring that the fruits of the high-technology efforts (hitherto concentrated in the military and space sectors) are generalised, by free mobility of trained personnel. The obstacles to this are formidable and rooted in traditional imperial bureaucratic practice.

6. The non-Russian Soviet Republics are another problem-area. Imagine if the British Empire in 1918 had been held together under a London government seeking to build Socialism. Few if any of the ethnic groups of the old Empire would have accepted to see their social systems regulated by London-originating legislation, however well-intentioned.

7. The process of establishing democratic territorially-based national states, with equal rights for individual citizens irrespective of ethnic origins, has scarcely begun. The imperial system, whereby Russians have de facto priority rights throughout the USSR, has only now under Gorbachev begun to be challenged.

8. Gorbachev is addressing all these problems with energy and insight. He is likely to succeed, indeed he must succeed, as the consequence of failure is a reversion to something worse than Stalinism, characterised by paranoia and xenophobia, to which the response can only be reversion to the 'cold war' at best, and a shooting war at worst.

9. Success will be measured by the continued cohesion of the USSR, despite the increasing autonomy of its constituent states. Many different experiments are possible in structuring Marx's road to the democratic management of capital (ie socialism) within an economic system retaining some central planning of investment priorities. The results of these experiments will enable lessons to be learned at a rapid rate. A single unitary experiment which goes disastrously wrong is not a good school.

10. One of the most important forces in the new wave of Soviet politics is the green movement. In this there is a parallel with industrial western Europe, particularly Germany. There is on the horizon a common enemy, against which the human race can and must unite: our own ignorance and lack of foresight, which are now being recognised as the source of the threat of the 'greenhouse effect' and the 'ozone hole'. This 'common external enemy' (of our own making) must force some convergence in global thinking in economics and politics.

11. The socialist forces in the West are historically divided as a result a+ the legacy of Stalin. It is no longer relevant to defend the indefensible abroad against attacks by our oppressors at home. The problem of democratising the ownership of capital in the West (ie the aspirations of the Left) can be achieved through a convergence of the traditional sectors of the Left with the Greens. Reconstruction of the EC states under the influence of 'perestroika' is in sight on the political agenda, provided the left-Green converging consensus can accommodate the aspirations of the submerged nations which have not yet achieved statehood.

12. The Irish have a special status as the sole ex-colonial state in the EC, and as such have an important potential role-model for other emerging nations. We also have special status in the EC as the only non-member of NATO. These qualities give us status as a location for events of international significance, with UN standing, not only for east-west events (where neutrality is important) but also for events addressing the outstanding problem-areas of ethnic nationalism, and the elaboration of solutions within a democratic framework. (I am thinking not only of the Irish, but also the Scots, Welsh, Basques, Armenians, Kurds, Palestinians, Estonians ....)

13. A Gorbachev visit to Ireland could perhaps help to place the above problems on the global political agenda.

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Copyright Dr Roy Johnston 1999