A World Without Bolsheviks?
by Gwydion M. Williams
Let’s suppose that in 1968, the Soviet Union had not invaded Czechoslovakia. That it had allowed the liberalising drift to continue. But that it had stopped short of a collapse of the system. That it had maybe not even accept as many Western values as Deng’s China did. How then would history have gone?
The Soviet Union in the 1960s was growing faster than the USA. It was also much poorer, but catching up. It had got into space first, though the USA had caught up by gigantic spending though a huge and often wasteful Federal agency, NASA. Still, it was a successful system. In the 1970s, the Soviet Union even seemed dominant. The USA grew unsure of itself after being kicked out of South Vietnam in 1975.
The New Right get away with claiming that Leninism was always a failure. Much of the left, outraged that the Soviet Union was less than perfect, fail to remind people that very real gains had been made.
Moderate Socialists nowadays see no connection between the existence of the Soviet Union as an alternative system and an entire range of reforms Moderate Socialists made. Reforms that the ruling class allowed when they feared to lose everything. At the time they might say that it was ‘us or the Communists’. They have since mostly lost the courage to say such things.
Common sense suggests that the ruling class chose to limit inequality when there was a global struggle. Were scared of the enormous Communist Parties in France, Italy etc., some of which threatened to win Western-style elections. Looked like becoming major coalition partners in Italy in the late 1970s, before the mysterious kidnapping and murder of leading Christian Democrat Aldo Moro. Whether this was a clever CIA stunt or authentic idiocy by some of the Far Left, it gives a flavour of the times.
Back then, Centre-Left parties demanded more socialism. Centre-Right parties like the Christian Democrats of Italy and West Germany, the Gaullists of France and the Liberal Democrats of Japan accepted semi-socialist economic controls as necessary for social peace.
(More accurately, they believed that the Lower Classes should be well looked after for as long as they stayed in what the rulers saw as their Proper Place. Many poor people accepted this and voted for a ruling class that seemed to share their own social values, which were often very conservative. They continue to vote for the New Right, who are not genuine conservatives and have let most of those values perish.)
It seemed obvious to me that the ruling class recovered its nerve when the Soviet Union faded. Grew bolder in its greed as the Western communist parties declined. Pushed for more and more privileges when both Centre-Left and Centre-Right lost faith in planning and control during the 1970s crisis. I’d see it as wholly political: business given more power and taking selfish advantage.
Oddly, most economists, even many on the left, prefer to believe that the fall and rise of inequality has nothing to do with any conscious choices by an increasingly confident elite. That it happened because of mysterious factors entirely beyond human choice or control. Coincidentally or not, this does allow them to cater to popular discontent without alienating the rich individuals and corporations who have made a habit of funding economists who agree with them.
The 1970s crisis was a crisis within a highly successful system. A system in which a major cause of the crisis was a prosperous and self-confident young generation: people who thought that they could have whatever they shouted for. Yet the crisis-ridden 1970s were in many ways better than later New Right ‘success’. Almost everyone had a job. It is bizarre that it has been branded a failure.
It mattered that so many young people got a dose of Trotskyism while growing up. The Trotskyist movement, having zero positive achievements since its emergence as a distinct creed in the 1920s, had to bad-mouth both ‘Stalinism’ and Social-Democracy. Had to deny that either had real socialist achievements. ‘A moan for all seasons’ – it helped make Trotskyism popular, given the general rejection of authority within 1960s radicalism. But only briefly popular, because Trotskyist were a collection of squabbling sects that each accused the others of shameless betrayals. And most people noticed that they couldn’t sensibly explain why the Soviet Union had not been what they said it should have been.
In parallel with this, Maoism also flourished, which must seem surprising today. But if 1960s radicals wanted personal freedom, they also wanted an end to greed and inequality. The Cultural Revolution also matched the widespread and excessive hostility to the West’s technocratic elite.
Unlike Trotskyism, Maoism produce some serious revolutionary movements. The Shining Path movement in Peru was for a time formidable. The Maoists of Nepal destroyed the old monarchical system and are now a major party in a Western-style government. In the Netherlands, a Socialist Party that began as a Maoist sect got 9% in the most recent elections, overtaking the once-dominant Labour Party. The short-lived radicalism of South Yemen might perhaps have turned the Arab World towards militant Marxism rather than Islamist terrorism. A functional and serious Arab Marxism might have bridged the religious and tribal differences that are currently tearing apart Yemen etc.
Pro-Moscow communists were the most numerous, widespread and powerful branch of Leninism. But even before their collapse, they never really adjusted to the broad rejection of authority by 1960s radicalism. Or at least not after the crushing of the Prague Spring in 1968. And they were reluctant to say that their system had been doing OK under Stalin and now was doing worse. Preferred also to play down the achievements of their rivals in the centre-left. They too cast fog and darkness on what should have been a clear case.
They were imperfect. But they were not the abject failures that people now claim.
If cornered on the matter of economic growth, the current generation of experts will change the subject and talk about political repression. Yet if it were true that markets were the only guide to success, non-market systems could not possibly have grown at all, regardless of how repressive the regime got. Yet this was clearly not the case.
Obviously, the Soviet Union and Mao’s China were much harsher with political opponents. But were they harsher than they needed to be, for their particular system to survive? Or for any government to last long in those countries. Most societies need time to accept the strange Western traditions of politics. Get used to rival political parties denouncing each other at elections, but then treating it as a game in which the opposition help the winners govern until the next election.
Leninist states were nothing like as harsh as European nations were in the 18th and 19th centuries, when they imposed their new system. Imposed it first their own peasantry, and then the rest of the world. Non-white colonies were ruled by foreigners imposed by foreign governments to look after foreign interests. Colonies with major settlements from the home country got limited self-government. Women in Europe only got the vote in the 20th century – 1918 in Britain, 1944 in France. Britain was not even loosely democratic until the 1880s, when about 60% of adult males got the vote, with the poor mostly excluded.
The rise of Capitalism saw modern industry imposed on a reluctant population that had no right to say no. In Britain, it happened before the Great Reform of 1832. A reform which ended a corrupt system in which a couple of hundred rich families controlled a majority of House of Commons seats. A reform that then gave votes to men in the prosperous middle class, about a seventh of the population.
The First World War is nowadays claimed as a war for democracy and a war for self-determination. But Imperial Germany had a wider franchise than Britain in its national elections. It allowed all of its regions to have a better sort of Home Rule than the schemes that the Irish had repeatedly been denied. And the number of sovereign states in the world was at an all-time low.
It was not an equal world. China, the biggest non-white country not officially conquered, was in 1914 just beginning its prolonged era of suffering under warlords who were mostly dependent on foreign power. Foreign warships sailed up the Yangtze, the great river in the middle of China. They continued to do so right up until 1949, never challenged by the ‘nationalists’ of Chiang Kai-shek. That era ended only when the Chinese Communists first warned them off, and then defeated Britain’s Royal Navy with land-based artillery in the famous Amethyst Incident.
The world Lenin rebelled against could technically be called ‘Capitalist Democracy’, just like the modern world. But they were utterly different things. Between then and now, the West had to take in many things that no government other than the Bolsheviks wanted in 1917. What’s normal now was radical then: I have detailed this elsewhere.
Europe in 1917 could be technically called ‘Capitalist Democracy’, and likewise in 2017. By analogy, Champaign and Guinness are both alcoholic drinks. But even the least experienced drinker would not think that they were the same thing.
If Alternate Worlds really exist, most of us would feel horribly out of place in a world in which the same technology had developed, but the social values of 1917 still held. Even most modern white and able-bodes males would feel uncomfortable. Much more definite for non-whites and all women. It would make a nice Alternate-World drama.
(I’ll leave out gays, because Leninist systems tried to suppress them. Whether they would have got equality or even been tolerated in a reformed Soviet system or a Soviet world state created by a Cold War victory is purely speculative.)
The West in the 1950s had no economic advantage over the Soviet system. So it sold itself as upholding Freedom. Also religion, but this has since been marginalised outside of the USA. But emphasising Freedom laid them open to 1960 protests against the actual limits on freedom in the West. Made them look especially bad with the USA conscripting unwilling young men for a Vietnam War that it could easily have avoided or limited. That it was able to lose without disaster, discrediting the whole Technocratic system that had demanded it be fought.
This was a wonderful opportunity for the left. Sadly, a lost opportunity. A measure of Workers Control was a serious possibility, and might have meant that Britain would have avoided the growth of inequality that happened under Thatcher. (Which has been much milder on Continental Europe.) But Trotskyists fantasised about Revolution. The pro-Moscow Communists wanted a global Soviet victory. The left as a whole were lukewarm or hostile. It did not happen.
In the 1970s, the most economically militant Trade Unionists demand ‘all or nothing’. Ended up with nothing. Less than nothing: ordinary people gradually lost the secure employment that the technocratic ‘Keynesian’ system had given them. They were tricked into thinking that more freedom for a business elite owning most of the means of production was similar to their own demand for more freedom in their personal lives.
They were also persuaded that more freedom for managers and markers would mean faster growth. This was simply untrue. The West never got back to anything as good at wealth-creation as the disorderly 1970s.
There were alternatives. Trade Union militants in Britain put enormous efforts into defeating Incomes Policy. Got their wish for Free Collective Bargaining, but had irritated the rest of the society, which disliked endless strife. Thatcher was able to create mass unemployment and break Trade Union power. She gave vast new wealth and power to a small elite, but could still win elections.
If you encourage greed and give spectacular rewards, you can hope that enough people will be hooked and elect the smooth servants of the rich. If you encourage corrupt media full of malicious gossip and soft-core pornography, you have much less need to ban your critics. Everyone has a voice, but most of the voices get drowned out. That has been the substance of Western Freedom.
It is an historic tragedy that the post-Stalin Soviet Union failed to soften as much as it should have. Khrushchev, like the Trotskyists, denounced Stalin’s rule as monstrous. And like Trotsky, he was just as authoritarian when faced with the risks and dangers of actual authority. Khrushchev invaded Hungary, overthrowing a genuine left-wing alternative, whereas Stalin had held back from invading Tito’s Yugoslavia. He let the East Germans put up the Berlin Wall in 1961. And it’s a curious and little-noticed fact that Khrushchev in his early days had been close to Trotskyism. Managed to put such thoughts aside when he found Stalin keen to promote him, but perhaps never entirely stopped believing.
Khrushchev also wanted to distance himself from Stalinist state planning, in favour of a peculiar system of ‘Virtual Markets’ that had been floated as an alternative. This system seems never to have actually worked: but it is hard to discover much because all of the ‘experts’ hang on like limpets to the notion that the Soviet system was always a failure despite somehow being a success under Stalin. Convinced that Deng introduced ‘capitalism’, rather than seeing it as a copy of Japan and Singapore’s state-dominated systems.
Mainstream economic theory deals only with selfishness, leaving out the messy mix of duty and sympathy that real humans experience. It calls itself ‘rational’, but rationality is not the same as selfishness. People can and do make a rational decision that greed does not make them happy.
What is claimed to be ‘Rational Economics’ should be called Transcendental-Selfishness Economics. Usefully for the Right, it proves that Soviet success could not have happened. It allows them to sweep aside the awkward off-message fact that it actually did happen.
Transcendental-Selfishness Economics as a theory was extracted from the work of Adam Smith, who back in the 1770s was at least making a serious start to looking at what existed. But Adam Smith twisted the facts on many matters, including the actual social organisation of his famous example of pin-making. I wrote a book back in the year 2000 showing how he was wrong, but no one took much notice of the remarkable facts I found. One instance: pin-making actually had some sort of guild-like social organisation: but after much searching I failed to find what it was. Popular books will tell you all about Darwin’s Finches, and other examples that mattered more. But the actual history of pin-making has not so far been written up by anyone.
Keynes, very sensibly, rejected Adam Smith’s claim that markets were self-regulating. He insisted that state intervention could do a great deal of good. Since these methods broadly worked in the 1950s and 1960s, they became the new orthodoxy. And unwisely claimed to have solved everything.
Underground opposition to this consensus was found in characters like Hayek and Milton Friedman. Popularised in the USA by Ayn Rand, a lady who was always dishonest about her Russian-Jewish origins. (Whereas Isaac Asimov and others could be best-sellers without concealment.) The nonsense was given a fog of mathematical respectability by calculating how the economy would look if people existed just as economic agents with no motivations other than money. That the result looked nothing like any real economy did not prevent its virtuosos getting the so-called Nobel Prize in Economics. This prize is actually the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences, created by a Swedish bank that persuaded the relevant Swedish academics to allow it. Interestingly, they also decided that no more new prizes should be allowed, perhaps to avoid additional temptation.
I’ll deal with all this in detail in a future article. For now, I’d remind everyone that Deng in China refused to go very far in criticising Mao. When I visited China in 1997, one thing I noticed was Mao placed first of four men on the top-value currency note: this diminished him to just the most senior of the ‘First Generation’ of leaders. When I went back in 2007, there was a new issue, and Mao stood alone. He was the only identifiable person on each currency note.
I had also changed my understanding of China in the interim. I’d actually been sympathetic to the rebels back in 1989. By 1997, I was much less certain: but I was ready to believe the widespread view that Jiang Zemin would not last long. In fact he had a successful period in office, and then handed over power. As of 2017, he remains a respected elder: an elder strong enough to openly look at his watch during President Xi’s rather long speech at the 19th Party Congress.
By 2007, I was much clearer than post-Mao China was committed to Moderate Socialism. Definite that the pro-Western dissidents were a bad joke. My thinking had been clarified a lot by doing a critical review of Jung Chang and Jon Halliday’s biography of Mao. I quickly concluded that these were a pair of rats foolish enough to jump on board the sinking New Right ship. Had been provoked to go looking for hard facts, and confirmed my memories that Mao’s China had been a vast success. Had worked both in growing the economy with genuine independence and in vastly extending Chinese life expectancy.
Leninism in China transformed successfully into Moderate Socialism. Became a more left-wing and more authoritarian version of the West’s Mixed Economy: the system that won the Cold War. The system that the New Right dismissed as a disaster, while falling far below its actual achievements. The New Right lost Russia and failed to make much impact on China, whereas the Mixed-Economy or Keynesian system successfully won over former enemies in West Germany, Italy and Japan, and in time subverted Franco’s Spain.
I had been slow to notice how useless the Yeltsin regime was: I needed to be pointed in the right direction by Brendan Clifford. But by 2007, I was entirely clear. China in 1989 had a narrow escape. There had been immense suffering in Russia thanks to their swallowing New Right nonsense. Even worse for the unfortunate inhabitants of Ukraine, where a semi-fascist blend of Ukrainian nationalism has hybridised with New Right values.
By then, I was also onto the New Right’s trick of creating a false world-view by excluding most or all ‘off-message facts’. This process of dishonestly leaving out major facts is something I call ‘Bliaring’, in honour of former Prime Minister Tony Blair and his utterly misleading claim that Saddam in Iraq could deploy ‘weapons of mass destruction’ in 15 minutes. It turned out this was battlefield poison gas, which Saddam had been freely using against the Kurds for many years when the West pretended not to know about it. Blair was one of those guilty of inaction, and George Galloway at that time was trying to get the world to take notice. But ‘Bliaring’ happens all over. You find people going on at length about the disasters of the Khmer Rouge rule, for instance, without mentioning that this previously marginal group would never have amounted to anything without the USA organising a coup that destroyed the country’s fragile politics by overthrowing its ancient and revered monarchy.
Shoving aside New Right nonsense, it is obvious that post-Stalin Russia could have had a successful transition of the sort that Deng arranged for China. Or other and perhaps better things might have happened. But Khrushchev definitely messed up, and set history on worse paths than it might otherwise have followed.
If the Soviet Union had softened, there would have been much less hostility to the left radicalism that peaked in Paris 1968. Most of the social demands of the young were conceded in the 1980s and 1990s, but it was done mostly through commercial sleaze. Former radicals pretended that nothing much had needed to be protested about: a nonsense I have exposed elsewhere.
The false vision of the New Right was accepted as unwelcome truth. Even modern critics of inequality like Thomas Piketty won’t see the Mixed Economy as a highly successful copy of the better features of the Soviet system. Won’t oppose the current consensus that sees the Bolshevik Revolution as just a tragedy.
The Liberal-Left prefer to think of things they’d have liked to have happened, rather than deal with the messy and brutal things that actually happened.
They treat improbable alternate histories as if they were almost certain, except that nasty men keep spoiling things for no better reason than greed and malice.
Trotskyism, for its Leninist pretentions, is part of this Liberal-Left. It gains glamour by claiming it can carry through revolution without anything too nasty. But that was the illusion of those who rejected the harshness needed to make the Bolshevik take-over a success.
Using standard political language, Trotsky during his years of grand achievement was being Stalinist. But ‘Stalinism’ ws real Leninism. Lenin and Trotsky took the lead in deciding that their rule would be a dictatorship. Hopefully a Democratic Dictatorship: a dictatorship that is harsh with majority approval. But they never risked being voted out after they had grabbed power with a majority just in the big cities. Trotsky put this wonderfully clearly in his Terrorism and Communism: A Reply to Karl Kautsky, which I quote from later.
After discovering that he was not going to be Lenin’s main heir, Trotsky refused to respect the limited democracy that the Soviet Union still had. He ignored the right of Party Congresses to make policy and even replace leaders at its five-yearly gatherings, but to have its decisions respected between times. This was the substance of Democratic Centralism, which he had denounced when Lenin invented it for an underground party. Which he endorsed when Lenin expanded the same system to swallow the entire society.
Democratic Centralism is system of crude democracy that can survive and get things done in harsh conditions. A goat that thrives where more delicate creatures would perish.
Western democracy did not thrive in the years between the two World Wars. Mussolini and Hitler both received their dictatorial power quite legally from parliament. So did the authoritarian governments of Imperial Japan. Poland, the country that Britain and France started the World War to defend, had been a popular dictatorship since 1926, when Pilsudski made himself boss of the Republic he had helped to create. May well have saved Poland from immediate collapse, but he also ran a right-wing regime with little of his original socialism implemented.
Poland’ dictatorship was part of a trend. The same year saw the fall of the First Portuguese Republic, after nine presidents and 44 ministries in its 16-year history.
When Hitler came to power in 1933, parliamentary democracy had perished everywhere east of Berlin, excluding only Czechoslovakia, which was a Czech hegemony over many minorities. And as I mentioned in the last Problems, he was initially the 13th Chancellor of the short-lived Weimar Republic.
Russia meantime did initially have a Collective Leadership after Lenin: first Zinoviev, Kamenev & Stalin and then Bukharin & Stalin. Trotsky helped push politics to extremes, refusing to be any sort of ‘loyal opposition’. That was the crucial difference between him and Mao; Mao kept quiet when the Central Committee moved in on the Liberated Area that he and Zhu De had created. Kept a low profile while the Central Committee lost everything due to bad military tactics. Made his challenge when the main body of the Red Army were on the verge of being wiped out in the early stages of the famous Long March. Got himself put back in charge of military matters, and from there gradually rose to unchallenged power. Did this by being right most of the time, but also by keeping the necessary consensus within a Leninist party whose structures and discipline were needed to transform China.
Mao succeeded where Trotsky failed – his Cultural Revolution could be seen as the nearest real attempt at Trotsky’s notion of Permanent Revolution. And unlike the earlier Great Leap Forward, Mao managed it without much damage to the existing system, which soon returned to normal levels of economic growth. But Mao could do this because he had risen within Leninist norms, even if his reputation eventually became so large that he could ignore the rules when he felt like it. By contrast, Trotsky in opposition was always implicitly in favour of secret conspiracy. Implicitly seeking a coup, though only Marshal Tukhachevsky could have made it real. That was the context in which Stalin chose to wipe out all overt opposition, and others who quite plausibly might have been conspiring.
I see perfect continuity between Marx, Lenin and Stalin. All assumed that violence and a ruthless conspiratorial elite were needed to move history on to its necessary next socialist stage. Each was also willing to consider the chance of something else happening, but did not take it very seriously. By selecting your quotes carefully, you could make any of the three men sound different. But that is not the reality.
But was it all a mistake? Should the Centre-Left distance itself from Leninism, just as the Centre-Right distances itself from Fascism and White Power?
The Anglo Centre-Right, whose short-term and practical judgements were excellent, did not distance themselves from Fascism before Fascism declared war on them. Nor from White Power until they needed Black Africa more than they needed home-grown White Racists. The USA saw Communism spreading among non-whites frustrated in a demand for equality within the system: Paul Robeson was just the most famous sympathiser.
The Left has nothing to apologise for. Or at least not for supporting the Soviet Union up until 1968, when Moscow rejected a path to salvation by crushing the Reformist Communism of the Prague Spring. Beyond Moscow’s control, a similar post-Mao reform in China worked very nicely, and China remains a success. Remains a socialist state that upholds atheism and rational thought, even as India and the Islamic World move in the opposite direction. And contrary to what most Western experts suggest, China permits capitalism only for as long as it behaves itself.
But it was all violent, surely? Certainly. So is all power-politics. So is all radicalism that changes the basics of economic and social power. We may have to wait a long time for a utopia in which ruthless power-politics is no longer needed. We can hope to win by mild methods, only because so much of the ‘heavy lifting’ has already been done.
A preference for avoiding the messy and the brutal is entirely right, of course. It’s not just moral: it is also practical. The messy and the brutal, even for good ends, spoil those ends more often than they win. Socialism in Europe no longer needs violence. But it needed it once.
Suppose some freak of nature transported you back in time to before World War One. Knowing the future, you become rich and moderately influential. But not influential enough to stop World War One, or even change the way it unfolds.
What you could do is prevent the October Revolution. Lenin and his close followers got special treatment by being given a Sealed Train through Germany from neutral Switzerland to neutral Denmark. Then crossed neutral Sweden and Finland, not yet independent, to reach the city then known as Petrograd. The Swiss, Danes or Swedes would cause no great fuss in the middle of a World War if they had interned Lenin for the duration. It would have been bending existing law to treat them as belligerents, who mostly get detained if they enter neutral territory. But they were Revolutionary Socialists, and Lenin was already planning to overthrow the new Russia Republic. It could have happened. And without Lenin a successful Bolshevik Revolution would be very unlikely.
If you had that choice, would you take it? Change history, but without knowing what the outcome would be? Perhaps producing a future in which the European Empires carry on ruling, as in Michael Moorcock’s alternate history novel The Warlord of the Air? (Though this is based on supposing no World War One, and shows a poor grasp of history.) Or alternatively, do the Nazis still appear and do they triumph without a strong Soviet Union to defeat them? Two-thirds of the German Army fought on the Eastern front to the very last, and it is unlikely that the USA would have accepted the sacrifices necessary to defeat them without Soviet help. Or alternatively, the USA might still have got the atom bomb first and used multiple strikes to defeat the Nazis. Killed tens of millions through fallout, a danger not properly understood until later. Perhaps trigger a Nuclear Winter, a notion that had not then been thought of.
This is a thought-experiment: not something that need really be possible. Such things are useful. Einstein developed Relativity by trying to imagine that he could ride alongside a beam of light, and ended up proving that this was not even possible in principle. But he got insight.
I don’t believe time travel is possible. But imagining it to be possible is a neat thought-experiment. A way to make people think about what they would do, if they had definite but limited power to change events.
[I have since written up this ideas as a short story, imagining a man from our time sent back and having the chance to get Lenin arrested when he passed through Sweden after his famous ‘sealed train’ from Switzerland to Germany. See Third Time Lucky.]
If there is no October Revolution, things will probably go much the same in the short term, except that the Russian Republic remains one of the Allies. It probably ends up with more territory than the Soviet Union had between the two World Wars. Quite possibly this includes Finland and the Baltic Republics. Ukraine almost certainly remains ruled from Moscow. Maybe they get Constantinople, and the strong Turkish Republic never happenes.
Fascism is likely to still develop. Benito Mussolini came from pre-Leninist Marxism, which in some cases had made allowances for nationalism that Marx and Engels never made. (Unless you count them as actually German Nationalists.) Mussolini took power by striking a balance between the demands of a rebellious population and the old elite. He did do quite a lot to raise living standards for ordinary people, as Hitler did later on. And the rebelliousness of left-wing Italians would almost certainly have been similar if Lenin had failed or had never become prominent.
Without Lenin winning power in Russia, Communism probably never develops in China. But those who think the Kuomintang could have done a better job should not also wish that Lenin had failed. The Kuomintang had a run of failures, until agents of Moscow showed it how to organise. They gave it a Leninist political structure, and set up an academy to train its military. The Whampoa Military Academy produced some of the best generals, both Kuomintang and Communist. It also gave Kuomintang forces a coherence that the Chinese warlords lacked.
Without Moscow, even the limited achievements of the Kuomintang from 1927 onwards might not have happened. The Japanese conquest of China, facing only corrupt and divided warlords would almost certainly have been completed. Not stalled until the USA defeated Japan – and had the USA not supposed that China under the leadership of nominally-Christian Chiang Kai-shek was on course to become a nice yellow copy of the USA, they might never have imposed the trade embargos that caused the USA to attack them. And Japan would probably not have undermined European imperialism by overrunning South-East Asia. In short, it would definitely have been a worse world even if Chinese Communism were a mistake.
(I also disbelieve that Chiang could have transformed China, regardless. He succeeded in Taiwan, because Japan had already modernised it. Though with the benefit of hindsight, it might also have been wiser had Moscow ordered the then-tiny Communist Party to dissolve and become a Marxist faction within the Kuomintang. Or it might have been worse, with the Kuomintang still supressing its own left-wing. The results of making Leninism global, I will discuss in a future article.)
It is easy to complain about the human suffering consequent of Lenin deciding to take power. But would things have been even worse if this hadn’t happened? In the real world, you can evade the problem. That’s why I began by imagining an unreal and perhaps impossible world, in which the responsibility actually was yours.
Imaginary worlds can be used to explore real and significant issues. Noted physicist George Gamow showed the truths of Einstein’s Relativity in the first of his highly readable Mr Tompkins stories, imagining a world in which the speed of light is a mere 10 miles per hour. Incidents in Star Trek have been used for management training in the USA. And I myself thought of one based on Lord of the Rings. It ends with a fluke – Frodo cannot destroy the One Ring, and will also be unable to stop Sauron taking it from him and becoming all-powerful. But Gollum bites off his finger, gets the ring and then very conveniently loses his footing to fall into the molten lava and get the ring destroyed. All very neat – but supposing you were there and Gollum was not? Do you shove poor Frodo over the edge, to save the world? Or would that be too evil an act, regardless of the good consequences?
The Russian Revolution was imperfect, obviously. Some of its best hopes failed. But I notice that defenders of the current world order carefully avoid thinking about whether the values they currently cherish would ever have become dominant if the British Empire and the United States had not been constantly challenged by the alternative system of the Soviet Union.
Note also, Lenin was not overthrowing a democratically elected government. The Provisional Government was an inheritance from Tsarism and had been elected on a limited franchise – even more limited that the United Kingdom, which gave votes to only 60% of adult men and no women till 1918. That used property qualifications, meaning it was probably less than 50% of adult males in much-poorer Ireland: Ireland went overwhelmingly Sinn Fein in the more democratic elections of 1918. In Tsarist Russia in November 1917, there had been a much bigger radicalisation. The unrepresentative government of the Russian Republic still dreamt of Constantinople, long since transformed into mutli-faith and majority-Muslim Istanbul. To them it had vast importance as ‘Tsargrad’, the source of their Christian Orthodox culture.
The Provisional Government that took over in February 1917 might have survived had they done bold things like declaring that the government would buy out the landlords and give the land to the peasants, as Lord Balfour and a highly realistic Tory government had done in Ireland several years earlier. They might have made a separate peace with Imperial Germany, perhaps just surrendering the ethnic-Polish parts of Polish territory that the Tsars had taken when Poland was pulled apart in the late 18th century. But it didn’t. The pointless slaughter of the World War could not be ended without ignoring the political norms that had survived from Tsarism. Without disobeying a parliament that had been elected under a restricted franchise, and anyway no longer represented popular opinion.
The supposedly democratic governments that lasted from February to November was slow to call a Constituent Assembly – it actually met in January 1918. Nearly 80% of the votes were for some sort of socialism, but only 24% for the Bolsheviks. To be exact, figures were:
|Constitutional Democrats (“Kadets”)||2,088||4.7|
|Other Russian Liberal Parties||1,261||2.8|
|Georgian Menshevik Party||662||1.5|
|Alash Orda (Kazakstan)||407||0.9|
|Other National Minority Parties||407||0.9|
|Total (counted votes)||40,034||90.0|
Removing the 10% shown as ‘unaccounted’, it was 86.7% socialist to 8.4% liberal. Some of the national minority parties included socialists.
Experience of past revolutions suggest that the middle ground would have faded fast, regardless. The White Guard element as they developed were Far Right rather than ‘Militarist-Liberal’, though I assume they voted liberal at the time. What counted was the views of most of the officers from the Tsar’s armies. When the Civil War against the Bolsheviks began, they soon booted out liberal, moderate and constitutional elements.
Lenin and the Bolsheviks ruled on the basis of a clear majority from multi-party elections to the All-Russian Congress of Soviets. They got 60% of the delegates at the Second Congress, elected in November. Their allies, the Left Socialist Revolutionaries, had another 15.4% as against 9.2% for other Socialist Revolutionaries. Very different from the Constituent Assembly, and the justification for letting the Congress of Soviets become the basis of the new order.
It is a great pity that the experiment of a multi-party Congress of Soviets did not last. But this was not really the fault of the Bolsheviks. Quite possibly it would have lasted and become something excellent if the Germans had won the war.
A German victory in World War One might have been better overall. The ‘unfair’ Brest-Litovsk treaty actually split the Tsarist Empire into sovereign states very similar to those that emerged after the Soviet break-up in 1991. It included a smaller Poland that was solidly ethnic-Polish. It included an independent Ukraine. A German victory might have avoided much suffering and tens of millions of deaths. Hitler might have become an unimportant graphics designer – the swastika flag would look very nice if you could forget what it stood for. History might have been better overall. But it did not happen.
The victorious Allies claimed it had been a war for the rights of small nations and for democracy. But Tsarist Russia had not been a democracy. And when the anti-German alliance was reconfigured to include the United States, President Wilson’s supposed commitment to self-determination was phony. His famous Fourteen Points include a pledge that both Poland and Serbia should get access to the sea, even though this meant taking territory that would not have been theirs based on self-determination. Likewise, France was to get back ‘Alsace-Lorraine’, which had been created from 93% of traditional Alsace and 26% of traditional Lorraine. The Germans had split the territories, based mostly on language. A free vote would have probably been a defeat for France.
It was taken for granted that self-determination was only for those seen as part of the White Race. Strict racial rules applied for the military in the First World War: segregated units and senior ranks reserved for those counted as White. Non-white soldiers were not treated well – an interesting book called For King and Another Country details how it was for Indian Soldiers from Britain’s empire.
The USA maintained White Racism for World War Two. The New Deal would not have been possible without Southern Democrats who liked welfare and state spending but were not going to allow attacks on strict segregation. And Woodrow Wilson in his private beliefs was close to the Southern Democrats, praising the glorification of the Klu Kluk Klan in the film Birth of a Nation.
The popular notion of an idealistic US President overwhelmed at Versailles by wicked Europeans is false. He could have used the US fleet to escort vitally needed food to the new German Republic. The rulers of the British Empire were keen to go on starving Germany, so that it could be forced to accept a grossly unfair peace terms. (Terms that Britain later let Hitler overturn at a time when the German armed forces were tiny, and he could have easily been stopped.) But it is deeply unlikely that Britain’s rulers would have ordered the Royal Navy to attack the US Navy in order to go on starving Germany. They had fooled British public opinion up to a point, but that would have been absurd.
Wilson allowed Versailles, because it wasn’t that different from what he’d been hoping for. (Different from what he let the US electorate think he wanted.) He also snubbed the Japanese demand for a formal declaration of racial equality. He might have sought a compromise and got it agreed that East Asians were equal to but different from Europeans: a position that many White Racists have accepted. He could also have got it agreed that racist exclusion of East Asians from the USA, Australia etc. could continue on an assumption of racial incompatibility. The Japanese themselves were racist, viewing other East Asians as much inferior. But the Japanese wanted assurance that Japan’s status as a Great Power was accepted as valid, rather than seen as an anomaly that might one day be swept away as the Ottoman Empire was being swept away. They didn’t get it, which encouraged aggressive imperialists and discouraged Japanese liberals.
Nor was the line even strictly White Racists. Rather, the core belief was a more complex hierarchy in which Irish were Inferior Whites and Jews were viewed with suspicion. Jews got a formally privileged position, with a guarantee of protection in the newly formed states in Eastern Europe. But it was perfectly predictable that Jewish minorities would not get along easily with peoples formerly ruled by Germans or Russians and seeking to establish a new identity. That it would not be acceptable for Jews to have so many middle-class jobs.
The viciously anti-Jewish beliefs of most of the anti-Bolshevik forces were largely ignored by the Allies who supported them, including the USA. Likewise numerous actual massacres of Jews.
Regarding Ireland, the 1918 election was a clear victory for Sinn Fein. It won 73 out of 107 seats on the island of Ireland, and went on to proclaim an Irish Republic. They were ignored and excluded. The USA did very little to discourage attempts by the British Empire to reconquer the majority-Republican parts of Ireland.
(Some Irish historians, keen to abase themselves before a partisan pro-Imperialist British view of history, have noted that Sinn Fein did not get a majority of the votes cast. But that was only because they won unopposed in 25 seats that were Sinn Fein strongholds.)
The Irish uprising was part of a general protest against colonialism and imperialism. There were mass protests in India also, but these were curbed in the short term by the Amritsar massacre:
“The Jallianwalla Bagh [in Amritsar] is a public garden of 6 to 7 acres…, walled on all sides with five entrances. To enter, troops first blocked the entry by a tank and locked the exit. On Dyer’s orders, his troops fired on the crowd for ten minutes, directing their bullets largely towards the few open gates through which people were trying to flee. The British government released figures stating 379 dead and 1,200 wounded. Other sources place the number of dead at well over 1,000. This ‘brutality stunned the entire nation’, resulting in a ‘wrenching loss of faith’ of the general public in the intentions of the UK. The ineffective inquiry and the initial accolades for Dyer by the House of Lords fuelled widespread anger, leading to the Non-cooperation Movement of 1920–22.”
That was the world the Bolsheviks faced. They started out moderately, allowing most opposition and carrying through a proposed abolition of the death penalty.
I don’t usually quote Trotsky. Both before and after his time working under Lenin’s orders, he wasted his talents finding nice-sounding and unrealistic solutions to the problems of the day. But in a 1920 pamphlet called Terrorism and Communism, he rejects the unrealistic criticisms of noted pre-Leninist Marxist Karl Kautsky.
Kautsky had been the world’s leading Marxist theorist before 1914. He had been lukewarm about the war. Became increasingly ineffective after the war, when conventional mutli-party and tolerant politics increasingly fell apart. He had to flee Hitler, first to Austria and then the Netherland. Kautsky was maybe lucky to die in 1938: both his wife and his son ended up in in concentration camps. His wife died in Auschwitz.
Trotsky, mostly better at reading the direction of changes than finding ways to control those changes, had warned how things might go:
“In Germany, the civil war has been adopting an ever fiercer character. The external strength in organization of the old party and trade union democracy of the working class has not only not created conditions for a more peaceful and “humane” transition to Socialism – as follows from the present theory of Kautsky – but, on the contrary, has served as one of the principal reasons for the long-drawn-out character of the struggle, and its constantly growing ferocity. The more German Social-Democracy became a conservative, retarding force, the more energy, lives, and blood have had to be spent by the German proletariat, devoted to it, in a series of systematic attacks on the foundation of bourgeois society, in order, in the process of the struggle itself, to create an actually revolutionary organization, capable of guiding the proletariat to final victory. The conspiracy of the German generals, their fleeting seizure of power, and the bloody events which followed, have again shown what a worthless and wretched masquerade is so-called democracy, during the collapse of imperialism and a civil war. This democracy that has outlived itself has not decided one question, has not reconciled one contradiction, has not healed one wound, has not warded off risings either of the Right or of the Left; it is helpless, worthless, fraudulent, and serves only to confuse the backward sections of the people, especially the lower middle classes.
“The hope expressed by Kautsky, in the conclusion of his book, that the Western countries, the “old democracies” of France and England – crowned as they are with victory – will afford us a picture of a healthy, normal, peaceful, truly Kautskian development of Socialism, is one of the most puerile illusions possible. The so-called Republican democracy of victorious France, at the present moment, is nothing but the most reactionary, grasping government that has ever existed in the world. Its internal policy is built upon fear, greed, and violence, in just as great a measure as its external policy. On the other hand, the French proletariat, misled more than any other class has ever been misled, is more and more entering on the path of direct action. The repressions which the government of the Republic has hurled upon the General Confederation of Labor show that even syndicalist Kautskianism – i.e., hypocritical compromise – has no legal place within the framework of bourgeois democracy. The revolutionizing of the masses, the growing ferocity of the propertied classes, and the disintegration of intermediate groups – three parallel processes which determine the character and herald the coming of a cruel civil war – have been going on before our eyes in full blast during the last few months in France.
“In Great Britain, events, different in form, are moving along the self-same fundamental road. In that country, the ruling class of which is oppressing and plundering the whole world more than ever before, the formulae of democracy have lost their meaning even as weapons of parliamentary swindling. The specialist best qualified in this sphere, Lloyd George, appeals now not to democracy, but to a union of Conservative and Liberal property holders against the working class. In his arguments there remains not a trace of the vague democracy of the “Marxist” Kautsky. Lloyd George stands on the ground of class realities, and for this very reason speaks in the language of civil war. The British working class, with that ponderous learning by experience which is its distinguishing feature, is approaching that stage of its struggle before which the most heroic pages of Chartism will fade, just as the Paris Commune will grow pale before the coming victorious revolt of the French proletariat.
“Precisely because historical events have, with stern energy, been developing in these last months their revolutionary logic, the author of this present work asks himself: Does it still require to be published? Is it still necessary to confute Kautsky theoretically? Is there still theoretical necessity to justify revolutionary terrorism?
“Unfortunately, yes. Ideology, by its very essence, plays in the Socialist movement an enormous part. Even for practical England the period has arrived when the working class must exhibit an ever-increasing demand for a theoretical statement of its experiences and its problems. On the other hand, even the proletarian psychology includes in itself a terrible inertia of conservatism – the more that, in the present case, there is a question of nothing less than the traditional ideology of the parties of the Second International which first roused the proletariat, and recently were so powerful.”
Britain did get as far as electing a Labour government. Sadly, it showed an excessive respect for ‘Sound Finances’. It could have made a vast difference by trying its own version of the bold experiment of Roosevelt’s New Deal. Some liberals were sympathetic to the idea. Sadly, Labour then was too conventional to risk the methods later known as Keynesianism. It applied them only when the world had been transformed by the powerful rivalry of both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.
With Blair and New Labour in the 1990s, the party easily went back to showing an excessive respect for ‘Sound Finances’. With the challenge of the Soviet Union gone and China perceived as Capitalist, most of Europe’s Social Democrats have made the same error. Most are in decline. Communist scorn for Moderate Socialism always had some justification.
But obviously things were tough in the new Soviet Union. Lenin died in 1924, after never fully recovering from an assassination attempt. Trotsky was by stages displaced from the leadership, which passed gradually to Stalin. This I will examine in a future article.
 See also Problems 31: Feed-the-Rich Economics.
Unless the chart indicates otherwise, the data comes from ‘The World Economy: Historical Statistics’ by Angus Maddison.
I myself selected which details to show, and then turned the data into graphs using Excel. Better versions of some can be found at https://www.flickr.com/photos/45909111@N00/albums/72157688624702025, free to use for anyone.
 https://gwydionwilliams.com/48-economics/2434-2/, and more extensively in my book, Adam Smith: Wealth Without Nations. This book is shown as ‘unavailable’ by Amazon Books, but is actually available from http://www.atholbooks.org/
 See https://labouraffairsmagazine.com/past-issues/2015-magazine/2015-07-magazine/2015-07-ukraine-illegally-removed-its-elected-president/ and https://gwydionwilliams.com/46-globalisation/ukraine-kievs-five-day-war-machine/
 For King and Another Country: Indian Soldiers on the Western Front, 1914-18 by Shrabani Basu
 Originally published in German as Terrorismus und Kommunismus: Anti-Kautsky.