Radical as reality

November 27, 1991

By Alexander Cockburn

They said that the line in front of Lenin's tomb was longer than it had ever been — country folk visiting Moscow hurrying to catch a glimpse of the old fellow's embalmed remnants before they clear the mausoleum, pending conversion to a trade mart, Pizza Hut or some kindred symbol of the new dawn.

When Lenin was in exile in Zurich, he used to visit a restaurant frequented by bohemian types, Dada painters and poets, and low-lifers of one sort or another. A young Romanian called Marcu later wrote an account of meeting Lenin there.

"When we left the restaurant, it was late afternoon. I walked home with Lenin.

"'You see', he said, 'why I take my meals here. You get to know what people are really talking about. Nadezhda Konstantinovna [Lenin's wife, Krupskaya] is sure that only the Zurich underworld frequents this place, but I think she is mistaken. To be sure, Maria is a prostitute. But she does not like her trade. She has a large family to support — and that is no easy matter. As to Frau Prellog, she is perfectly right. Did you hear what she said? Shoot all the officers!'

"Then Lenin said to me, 'Do you know the real meaning of this war?'

"'What is it?', I asked.

"'It is obvious', he replied. 'One slaveholder, Germany, who owns 100 slaves, is fighting another slaveholder, England, who owns 200 slaves, for a 'fairer' distribution of the slaves.'

"'How can you expect to foster hatred of this war', I asked at this point, 'if you are not in principle against all wars? I thought that as a Bolshevik you were really a radical thinker and refused to make any compromise with the idea of war. But by recognising the validity of some wars, you open the doors for every opportunity. Each group can find some justification of the particular war of which it approves. I see that we young people can only count on ourselves ...'

"Lenin listened attentively, his head bent toward me. He moved his chair closer to mine. He must have wondered whether to continue to talk to this boy or not. I, somewhat awkwardly, remained silent.

"'Your determination to rely on yourselves', Lenin finally replied, 'is very important. Every man must rely on himself. Yet he should also listen to what informed people have to say. I don't know how radical you are, or how radical I am. I am certainly not radical enough. One can never be radical enough; that is, one must always try to be as radical as reality itself."'

That last line has always been one of my favourites, and I hope to be using it long after the last bust of the man Reagan loved to call Nikolai has been ground down to talcum powder.

Those coup-makers who now await trial, or who have committed suicide involuntarily administered; a lot of people committed "suicide" during the purges too), had certainly ceased to be as radical as reality. So too had Gorbachev. Somewhere in these past six years there surely was chance for the Third Way, leading neither back to the lost world of the coup-makers nor to the neo-liberal agenda now shaping up.

But probably Gorbachev never had a chance because, after Khrushchev had gone, the long narcolepsy of the Brezhnev years irretrievably wrecked the Soviet Union's chances of establishing any successfully radical rendezvous with reality. At the very moment in the 1970s and 1980s that capitalism was learning to be hyperflexible — to the great cost of workers and peasants the wide world over — the Soviet Union became more reified and inflexible. Economically speaking, the Brezhnev years were a Golden Age for the Soviet working class, but they couldn't last and now those workers' sons and daughters will face diminishing expectations as neo-liberal market norms take them by the throat.

And why did narcolepsy thus extinguish hope? Because, long since, the Communist Party had become corrupted, the formal expression of a spoils allotment system. Just as the allocation system presided over by Gosnab had become hopelessly unwieldy and choked up, so too the party suffocated initiative and creativity.

"The heritage of the great Lenin is lost", Stalin cried out when he was informed of the German invasion of 1941. Twenty million Soviet lives later, that heritage, already mangled by the horrors of the 1930s, had been saved. After the second world war, Soviet industrial growth ran at an average of just under 10% a year through the 1950s. By 1956, Khrushchev was telling the west, "We will bury you", and the words did not seem lunatic. A decade later the Soviet economy began to slow, and the grave-digger leaned ever more heavily on his spade.

Next now comes, most likely, accelerating Balkanisation of what was formerly the Union, most likely war between the republics, looting of resources by foreign powers, extension of German influence up the Urals. A year or two from now, Boris Yeltsin will be able to stand atop the old mausoleum, now trade mart or Pizza Hut, and view the new October march go past: Soviet lumbermen under the command of Georgia Pacific and the Japanese; oil drillers bearing the standard Conoco; long battalions of unemployed under the discipline of the Chicago school.

The weekend that Gorbachev resigned as party leader, and plumes of smoke began rising from party archives across the country, I was at a conference about anti-corporate environmental strategies in Los Angeles. There were plenty of intelligent, radical people there. There was much talk and analysis of the victory of Salinas de Gortari and the PRI in Mexico, about the need for internationalism and building of ties. I didn't hear the Soviet Union or the collapse of the communist system mentioned once, until I brought the matter up myself in the course of some remarks on the last day. Someone who'd gone the same weekend to a conference of the Union of Radical Political Economists in upstate New York said the same thing happened there.

The Soviet Union's disintegration, the end to what electrified the ital three quarters of a century ago, didn't seize the imagination of those conference goers and, suffocated by the ecstasies in the corporate press, they wanted to talk about anything else. Like any other 50 year old born into a communist family I felt sad. The Soviet Union defeated Hitler and fascism. Without it the Cuban revolution would never have survived, nor the Vietnamese. In the postwar years, it supported any country trying to follow an independent line. Without it, such a relatively independent country as India could have taken, instead, the course of fascist Argentina. Despite Stalin's suggestion to Mao that he and his comrades should settle for only half a country, the Chinese revolution probably would not have survived either.

It was communists who spearheaded the fight for civil rights in the United States in the 1930s, and, without the threat of the Soviet model for the Third World, the US would probably not even have bothered to desegregate the army after the war. Without the Soviet threat there would have been no Marshall Plan ... write your own list. There would never have been the International Brigades, the workers my father used to describe to me when I was a boy, whom he met there in the trenches after they'd crossed the Atlantic or ridden the rails across Europe, all mustered to defend the young republic against Franco, fascism and the complicity of the western powers.

There never would have been ... but I could see, too, why the younger people at the conference felt the way they did. As long as half a century ago, after Spain and after the heroism of the communist-led resistance movements of the second world war, the Soviet example already offered dwindling allotments of inspiration, however many barrels of oil they gave the Cubans, or guns to the Vietnamese. And besides, Soviet disintegration stands well back in the long sequence of disasters that have overtaken the Third World in the past two decades.

The people in Los Angeles were discussing the new world disorder forged by hyperflexible capitalism: runaway plants on the Mexican border standing amid pools of poisonous waste; cholera in Peru and disease and malnutrition rates across the southern tier; environmental regulations at the local, state and federal level in the USswept away, annulled by the provisions of the US-Mexican free-trade agreement. The Soviet Union's future will be a familiar chapter.

Just as those Russians knew a Golden Age in the Brezhnev years, so did those in the advanced industrial world know one in the postwar phase, whose great boom expired somewhere in the late 1960s. Outside a few enclaves of state-assisted capital, the trend-lines are now all down, as the tensions and desperation rise. For the future of Lenin's heritage we need only study now what is happening in Yugoslavia and imagine those horrors on a far vaster and more savage scale. Here, the decade is only starting to cook and the opportunities are there, just so long we remember that simple instruction Lenin gave that young Romanian poet in that dive in Zurich all those years ago.
[From New Statesman & Society.]

You need Green Left, and we need you!

Green Left is funded by contributions from readers and supporters. Help us reach our funding target.

Make a One-off Donation or choose from one of our Monthly Donation options.

Become a supporter to get the digital edition for $5 per month or the print edition for $10 per month. One-time payment options are available.

You can also call 1800 634 206 to make a donation or to become a supporter. Thank you.