The dissolution of the USSR provoked within the bourgeoisie and its ideological apologists an eruption of euphoric triumphalism. The socialist nemesis had, for once and for all, been laid low! The bourgeois interpretation of the Soviet Union’s demise found its essential expression in Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History. Employing a potted version of Hegel’s idealist phenomenology, Fukuyama proclaimed that the weary march of history had arrived at its final station—a US-style liberal bourgeois democracy based on the unfettered capitalist market. This was the summit of human civilization! This theme was elaborated in countless variations by gullible and impressionistic petty-bourgeois academics, always anxious to be on what they take to be, at any given moment, the winning side of history. The conclusion that was to be drawn from the collapse of the Soviet Union was that socialism was an illusion. “In sum,” wrote historian Martin Malia, “socialism is a utopia, in the literal meaning of that term: a ‘non-place’ or a ‘no-where’ viewed as an ideal ‘other.’” The triumphalism of the bourgeoisie went largely unchallenged by those on the left who, up until almost the moment of the final collapse, had looked to the Stalinist bureaucracy as the guarantor of socialism. Indeed, they were no less convinced than Fukuyama and Malia that the demise of the USSR signified the failure of socialism. In many cases, the demoralized repudiation of socialism as a legitimate historical project stemmed from an unwillingness to examine their earlier premises and perspectives. Not a small number of those who were anxious to abandon and curse Marxism had no desire to confront the political issues behind the collapse of the USSR—least of all the Trotskyist critique of Stalinism. The question that they sought to avoid was whether there had existed an alternative to Stalinism—that is, whether the history of the Soviet Union, and of the twentieth century, might have developed along very different lines if the political program of Trotsky had prevailed in the crucial inner-party struggles of the 1920s.
The English historian Eric Hobsbawm, a long-time member of the Communist Party, explicitly declared that considerations of the possibility of a different development other than that which actually occurred were inappropriate for a historian. “The Russian Revolution was destined to build socialism in one backward and soon utterly ruined country.... The revolutionary project was itself based on an utterly unrealistic appraisal of political possibilities. Hobsbawm argued that it was pointless to even consider an alternative outcome of the Russian Revolution. “History must start from what happened,” he declared. “The rest is speculation.”
Replying to Hobsbawm’s contemptuous dismissal of any consideration of historical alternatives to Stalinism, North stated:
This is a rather simplistic conception, for “what happened”—if taken as nothing more than what was reported in the newspapers of the day—is certainly only a small part of the historical process. After all, history must concern itself not simply with “what happened,” but also—and this is far more important—why one or another thing happened or did not happen, and what might have happened. The moment one considers an event—i.e., “what happened”—one finds oneself compelled to consider process and context. Yes, in 1924 the Soviet Union adopted the policy of “socialism in one country.” That “happened.” But the opposition to “socialism in one country” also “happened.” The conflict between the Stalinist bureaucracy and the Left Opposition, about which Hobsbawm says not one word, “happened.” Inasmuch as he deliberately excludes, or dismisses as unimportant, the forces of opposition which sought to impart to the policies of the Soviet Union a different direction, his definition of “what happened” consists of nothing more than a one-sided, one-dimensional, pragmatic and vulgar simplification of a very complex historical reality. For Hobsbawm, starting from “what happened” simply means starting, and ending, with “who won.”
The fatalistic apologetics of Hobsbawm were a refined and sophisticated expression of a vast campaign of historical falsification that followed the collapse of the USSR. A major role in this campaign was played by ex-Stalinists from the former Soviet Union, who almost overnight transformed themselves into the most embittered anti-Communists. They endlessly proclaimed that the Russian Revolution was a criminal conspiracy against the Russian people. General Dmitri Volkogonov was only the best known of this type. In his biography of Lenin, Volkogonov—perhaps admitting more than he intended—acknowledged that the change in his own attitude toward Lenin developed “above all because the ‘cause’, which he launched and for which millions paid with their lives, has suffered a major historical defeat.” Among the “crimes” for which Volkogonov indicted Lenin was the January 1918 dissolution of the Constituent Assembly, an event in which not one person was injured. But this did not prevent Volkogonov, in his capacity as President Boris Yeltsin’s military adviser, from overseeing the tank bombardment in October 1993 of the Russian White House, the seat of Russia’s democratically-elected parliament. Estimates of the number of people killed were as high as 2,000.
At its plenum in March 1992, the International Committee discussed the relationship between the development of the crisis of capitalism and the class struggle as an objective process and the development of socialist consciousness:
The intensification of the class struggle provides the general foundation of the revolutionary movement. But it does not by itself directly and automatically create the political, intellectual and, one might add, cultural environment that its development requires, and which prepares the historic setting for a truly revolutionary situation. Only when we grasp this distinction between the general objective basis of the revolutionary movement and the complex political, social and cultural process through which it becomes a dominant historical force is it possible to understand the significance of our historical struggle against Stalinism and to see the tasks that are posed to us today.
The renewal of a socialist culture in the international working class required a systematic struggle against the falsifiers of history. It was necessary to educate the working class in the real history of the 20th century, to reconnect its struggles with the great traditions of revolutionary socialism, including the Russian Revolution. In the aftermath of the March 1992 plenum, the ICFI launched a campaign in defense of historical truth to refute the claims of the post-Soviet School of Historical Falsification.
Beginning in 1993, the IC initiated a close collaboration with Vadim Rogovin, a leading Soviet Marxist sociologist and historian. Under conditions in which vast sections of Soviet academia were moving sharply to the right and supporting capitalist restoration, Rogovin had begun working to rehabilitate Trotsky and the Left Opposition. In 1993, having just completed a book that examined the emergence of the Left Opposition, entitled Was There an Alternative?, Rogovin met for the first time with representatives of the International Committee. He had already been reading the ICFI’s Russian-language Bulletin of the Fourth International for several years. He welcomed enthusiastically the proposal to conduct an international campaign against the Post-Soviet School of Historical Falsification. With the assistance of the International Committee, Rogovin, though seriously ill with cancer, completed, before his death in September 1998, six more volumes of Was There an Alternative?
Based on its analysis at the March 1992 plenum, of the problems confronting the development of socialist consciousness in the working class, the International Committee expanded its work on cultural questions, seeking to revive the intellectual traditions of the Left Opposition, which had assigned to them immense importance. This outlook found its consummate expression in such works of Leon Trotsky as Problems of Everyday Life and Literature and Revolution and in Alexander Voronsky’s Art As the Cognition of Life. Working within and building upon this tradition, the International Committee recognized that the development of revolutionary consciousness did not occur in an intellectual vacuum, that it required cultural nourishment, and that the Marxist movement had a vital role to play in encouraging and contributing to the creation of a more advanced, intellectually critical and socially perceptive environment. In a lecture delivered in January 1998, David Walsh stated:
The Marxists face a considerable challenge in creating an audience that can grasp and respond to their political program and perspectives. To belittle the need for the enrichment of popular consciousness under the current conditions seems highly irresponsible.
How does a revolution come about? Is it simply the product of socialist agitation and propaganda brought to bear in favorable objective conditions? Is that how the October Revolution came about? We have spent a good deal of time as a party thinking about this in recent years. One of our conclusions has been that the revolution of 1917 was not simply the product of a national or even international political and social process, that it was as well the outcome of a decades-long effort to build up an international socialist culture, a culture which brought into its orbit and assimilated the most critical achievements of bourgeois political and social thought, art and science. The essential intellectual bases for the revolution of 1917 were established of course by those political theorists and revolutionists who had consciously made the end of capitalist rule their goal. But the streams and tributaries that feed into and make possible a revolutionary torrent are vast in number, a complex system of influences that interact, contradict and reinforce one another.
The creation of an environment in which it becomes suddenly possible for large numbers of people to rise up and consciously set about the dismantling of the old society, casting aside the prejudices, habits and learned behavior built up over decades, even centuries; prejudices, habits and behavior which inevitably take on a life of their own, with their own apparently independent powers of resistance—the overcoming of this historical inertia and the creation of an insurrectionary climate cannot possibly be conceived of as merely a political task.
We recognize that the all-rounded socialist human being is only a creature of the future—the not-too-distant future, we trust. But that is not the same thing as saying that there need to be no changes in the hearts and minds of masses of people before the social revolution can become a reality. We live in an age of cultural stagnation and decline, in which technical marvels are primarily used in an effort to numb and anaesthetize masses of people and render them vulnerable to the most backward conceptions and moods.
The sharpening of the critical faculties of the population—its collective ability to distinguish truth from lies, the essential from the inessential, its own elementary interests from the interests of its deadliest enemies—and the raising of its spiritual level to the point where large numbers of people will demonstrate nobility, make great sacrifices, think only of their fellow men and women—all of this arises out of an intellectual and moral heightening which must be the product of the advance of human culture as a whole.
Martin Malia, The Soviet Tragedy: A History of Socialism in Russia, 1917-1991 [New York: The Free Press, 1994], p. 23.
“Can We Write the History of the Russian Revolution,” in On History (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1997), p. 248.
Ibid., p. 249.
Leon Trotsky and the Fate of Socialism in the Twentieth Century, World Socialist Web Site [http://www.wsws.org/exhibits/trotsky/trlect.htm]
Dmitri Volkogonov, Lenin (New York: The Free Press, 1994), p. xxx.
“The Struggle for Marxism and the Tasks of the Fourth International,” Report by David North, March 11, 1992, Fourth International, Volume 19, Number 1, Fall Winter 1992, p. 74.
David Walsh, “The Aesthetic Component of Socialism” (Bankstown, NSW: Mehring Books, 1998), pp. 35-37.