Year XXXI, 1989, Number 2, Page 85
Perestroika and Communism
In the daily debates among politicians, political scientists and communists, the most serious mistake commonly made over the meaning of perestroika, the outcome of the experience of so-called “real socialism,” the historical significance of the October Revolution and the identity crisis of Western European Communist Parties, and in particular the crisis in the Italian Communist Party, is believing that the advent of Gorbachev marks not only the end, but also the failure, of the Communist experience. It is a fact that the advent of Gorbachev marks the end of the Communist experience. To be sure, the positive outcome of the Soviet leader’s titanic undertaking cannot be taken for granted. But, even if perestroika should be interrupted, the situation that would arise in the Soviet Union, in Eastern European countries and in the relations between them would be qualitatively different from the situation which existed before the beginning of the Gorbachev experience. Perestroika has by now gone down in history, affirming the values of freedom and democracy with a clarity that no reactionary violence can ever wipe out. The Communist phase of world history has thus irreversibly come to an end. This is also true for those communist countries which refuse the perestroika model. And it is also prospectively true for China, a country that is not yet mature enough to start off a Liberal-democratic experience, but which has now been irreparably infected by the values which define it.
But all this does not mean that the Communist experience can be considered a failure. On the contrary, as happens for all great political and social changes, the end of Communism is the result of its historical affirmation.
To industrialize its economy and modernize its society, the Soviet Union (things are somewhat different for non autonomous experiences like those of certain countries in Eastern Europe) has been forced by circumstances to follow a completely different historical course from that of Western European countries. Here the foundations of the ancien régime had been shaken by the rising industrial, financial and trading bourgeoisie with the great Liberal revolutions at the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th. In the last quarter of the 19th century, Liberalism on its own after completing also its democratic phase, was unable to provide the ideological orientation and the institutional framework that were necessary to give the problems posed by historical evolution, here taken in the concrete sense of the evolution of the mode of production, an answer that would allow the process of human emancipation started by the French Revolution to continue. Thus came the Socialist phase of Western European history (a phase that has shown itself incompletely in the United States). But Socialism in Europe has certainly not eliminated, but has in fact retained, the ideas and institutions of the Liberal-democratic phase, even if, in the exasperated polarization of class-struggle, Liberalism and Socialism were mostly perceived by those who were involved in that struggle as two contrasting views of the world and history. The rise of Socialism in Western Europe at the end of the 19th century was not a sign of the failure of Liberalism, but of the fact that it had achieved its basic objectives, and had therefore completed its function and created the conditions for going beyond it, retaining its achievements in a more advanced framework.
In the Soviet Union (and in a part of Eastern Europe), instead, the fact that the ancien régime was questioned more than a century later and that the problem of industrial development had started with the same delay imposed a faster pace for the necessary accumulation of capital, which the market mechanism and a numerically and culturally weak bourgeoisie would not have been able to guarantee. On the other hand, this same bourgeoisie would not have been able to present itself on the scene of Soviet history as a universal class, like the French bourgeoisie had done a hundred and thirty years before, because this role had already been questioned by the Western European proletariat. It was therefore a matter of starting from Socialism. Communism, in its historically predominant expression, that of the Soviet Union, was in fact the Socialist revolution without a previous Liberal-democratic phase.
In Russia and in some countries in Eastern Europe it overthrew the feudal regimes which had preceded it. It defeated illiteracy, it achieved the first stages of the industrialization process, it created human and modern living conditions for millions of men and women that the Tsarist regime had condemned to misery and servile work. Of course, it went far from keeping all its initial promises, and nowadays the countries of real Socialism are full of problems and contradictions, as were Western European countries at the end of the 19th century, when the historical inadequacies of Liberalism began to seem unbearable and the Socialist movements began to spread and grow stronger. It is also true that the victories of Communism had a terrifying cost in terms of freedom and human lives, again just as terrifying as the cost of the Liberal phase of the industrialization process in Western Europe (although the atrocities of Stalinism seem more horrible to us because they are closer to us in time). History has a tragic side, and has shown it cruelly in both cases. It is probably impossible to establish which of the two processes had the highest cost, and counting the dead can only serve the purposes of party propaganda. It is equally difficult to establish how much of the cost of the two processes might have been avoided. Certainly, the fundamental direction of the course of history is rational, and if it were not there would be no sense in trying to interpret its various stages and developments. But it is acted out by human beings, who often do not understand the ends they take part in achieving, or understand them in an uncertain and confused way, and are still violent and cruel. Therefore, one cannot expect every result of a process which advances through trial and error to be achieved at the lowest cost. Even a moral judgement on figures such as Stalin cannot be given lightly, taking advantage of our privileged position of men living in a prosperous, democratic and peaceful part of the world. In reality, a gigantic task like his could only have been accomplished by a tragically ruthless man.
What is important when finding one’s bearings in today’s reality is to realize that in the Soviet Union and in Eastern Europe, as happened for Liberalism in 18th century Western Europe, it was the very progress made possible by the affirmation of Communism that posed with undelayable urgency those problems which had been neglected during the phase of forced industrialization and which can be tackled successfully only with a Liberal-democratic swing.
The truth is that the human emancipation process must perforce go through both the Liberal-democratic and Socialist phase, in whatever order of succession. For this reason today the Liberal swing in the East does not have the meaning of a simple negation of Communism, of a sheer confession of the bankruptcy of a political and social model, but it is the only way to safeguard its conquests. As it is true that a failure of perestroika would not bring the return of Breznev-style Communism, it is also true that its success would not involve obliterating seventy years of history. Only a blind man could be convinced that perestroika will cancel the conquests of the social state in the Soviet Union and lead to the establishment of a capitalism like that of 18th century Europe, or even simply like that of the America of today, which is more human but still brutal. Instead, both Eastern and Western Europe are moving towards a common idea of society, inspired by the values of freedom and solidarity, in which the market idea tends to be identified with that of democratic planning.
Certainly, this ideal is still very far away, and in achieving it the USSR and Eastern Europe are still a few decades behind with respect to Western Europe. But the direction is the same.
Today, the worst mistake would be to consider Gorbachev as the grave digger of Communism and the October Revolution as a still-born. The opposite is true. Gorbachev is the saviour of Communism. His work shows that Communism has been able to create within its bosom forces that can understand its historical limits and start a process to go beyond. And the October Revolution must now be accepted by political culture (not by a partisan political sub-culture) as one of the great milestones in the process of human emancipation. Beyond all the differences in historical itineraries and the different evolution pace, all the industrialized states in the world are practically becoming Republics in the Kantian sense of the word, in other words civil constitutions in which human society is based on the assertion of the values of freedom, equality and justice. And if they do not neglect their responsibilities, the process will inevitably end up by involving all the regions of the Earth.
This is the necessary condition to promote the federal unification process of mankind. Moreover, the conditioning relationship between the process of asserting the values of freedom, equality and justice and the process of world unification is mutual. The perestroika initiative could not have been conceived or have taken shape if the Soviet Union had not already been integrated into the world market and compared to the models of Western life, thanks to growing interdependence and an increasingly intense circulation of men, images and news. Nor will it be successful unless the industrialized West — and in particular Western Europe, where conditions are ripe for a federal union that can serve as example for the rest of the world — helps Gorbachev with a policy of collaboration and integration that is also institutional in the framework of the UN and of the projected “Common House”.
The Western world — and Western Europe in particular — has to face a distinct choice: either to continue, albeit in a milder form, along the road of the traditional power politics, disguised as the ideology of the conflict between Communism and Democracy, risking as a result the interruption of the democratization process in the East, a freeze in the development process of the Third World once more caught in the grip of a re-established bipolar equilibrium, and the reappearance of the nuclear threat; or to acknowledge that now the fundamental problem, on which human survival depends, is that of achieving world unification through the parallel paths of reinforcing the UN and regional unification. In this perspective the contrast between Communism and Democracy appears historically outdated and that between federalism and nationalism looms as strategic. The latter remains everywhere the enemy to be defeated because it is the reactionary response to the great transformation processes taking place in the Soviet Union, in Europe and all over the world.