Isaac Deutscher 1957
Source: Isaac Deutscher, Ironies of History: Essays on Contemporary Communism (Oxford University Press, London, 1966). Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.
The Soviet Union has marked the fortieth anniversary of the October Revolution by sending the first artificial satellite to circle round Earth. The ‘Soviet man’ has thus been the first to reach out into the interplanetary space; and now he is dreaming aloud of the time, which he believes to be very near, when he himself may be able to ascend high enough to overcome the earth’s gravitation, and soar in a cosmic vehicle towards the moon and the stars.
The Soviet people undoubtedly see a profound and real connexion between the latest triumphs of their technology and the revolution which took place in Petrograd forty years ago. Forty (and even twenty-five) years ago Russia was industrially one of Europe’s most backward nations. ‘Dubinushka’, the famous folk-song, which grimly contrasted the ‘clever Englishman who invented machine after machine’ and the Russian muzhik who, sighing and groaning, wielded only ‘the wooden club’, was something like Russia’s genuine national anthem. The October Revolution was, in one of its aspects, a protest against inherited poverty and an archaic way of life. Bolshevism instilled in the people the aspiration to ‘catch up with the advanced West and to surpass it’. Now the Muscovites, as they watch the passage of the man-made satellite, read in it the message of fulfilment.
The October Revolution, it might be said, defied in its own way history’s ‘law of gravitation’. Its enemies at first saw it as a grotesque and ephemeral episode. Even Marxists had long thought it impossible that Russia, barely emerged from feudalism, destitute and illiterate, should shake off capitalism before any other country had done so and act as pioneer of socialism. Generations of socialists, Western and Russian, had grown up in the belief that the industrialised and advanced nations of Europe would be the first to accomplish this, and that Russia could only follow in their footsteps. Lenin himself had shared this belief until shortly before the revolution, and had regarded it as one of the laws and axioms of Marxism. When he finally abandoned it and took power, he still looked forward to revolution in Western Europe to help to raise Russia from her poverty and backwardness. He used to say that ‘socialism is already a material reality in our days, but its two halves are torn asunder: one half, the political conditions for it, has been created in Russia, while the other, the industrial and cultural prerequisites, exists in Germany’.
To the end of his days Lenin expected that the victory of Communism in Germany would bring the ‘two halves’ together. When this hope was dashed, the Bolshevik Party set out, under Stalin, to create ‘the German half of socialism’ within Russia’s own boundaries and by Russia’s own efforts. This again seemed a hopeless undertaking, in the light of statistical comparisons and economic axioms. There followed the sombre, heroic and cruel drive of industrialisation, in the course of which the Soviet people, oppressed by Stalin’s despotism, found themselves politically and morally as far from socialism as ever. Indeed, much of the ‘Russian half’ of socialism, the rough plebeian democracy of the early Leninist years, had been destroyed or debased, even though social ownership of the means of production had been firmly consolidated. Yet around 1940 the Soviet Union was winning the race with Germany in heavy and armament industries. Then the Second World War inflicted the prodigious losses which threatened to throw it a long, long way back; and in the aftermath of the war came chaos and famine.
However, the Soviet Union resumed the industrial drive. The Western power against which it now had to match its strength was no longer Germany but the United States. The ‘two halves’ of socialism were still ‘torn asunder’ – the industrial half was in America. To build up that ‘half’ within the Soviet Union has ever since been the over-riding purpose of Soviet policy.
These forty years of Soviet history are made of the most dynamic interplay of backwardness and progress. In more than one field, extreme and desperate backwardness has driven the USSR to adopt the most desperate and extreme forms of progress. Capitalism could not achieve stability in the old Russia because of the nation’s obsolete and irrational social structure. The October Revolution smashed that structure and gave Russia a tremendous impulse which carried her beyond all the stages of bourgeois development that European society had to traverse towards publicly owned and planned economy.
Handicapped industrially and militarily by the illiteracy of its masses, the Soviet Union was then driven to develop what is today the world’s most extensive and modern educational system. Consequently, Soviet universities train at present more technicians and engineers than do all the universities of the West taken together, and the young Soviet factory worker or miner is, as a rule, a man with secondary education. It is arguable that the Russians are already the most educated of all nations. The paradox is that their educational system was built up together with the medieval Stalinist inquisition, with police rule and concentration camps. This paradox shows itself in the psychological formation of the Soviet people: in some ways they are the most inarticulate and the meekest of all peoples; yet in others they are the most ambitious, the most aspiring, and the most independent-minded. At times the modern Russian appears to be an unexampled combination of slave and Promethean hero.
The latest Soviet feats underline the pattern of contrasts even more sharply. The Russians are the first to revolt effectively against man’s earthboundedness and to spread out into outer space; yet in their mass they dwell in slums so overcrowded that the living-space of an individual is no more than seven or eight square yards. Constriction within the tiny cage of daily existence and the lure of infinite space and freedom seem to be the two equally real elements of Russian life. Further, the nation whose scientists and engineers have opened for mankind the way to the moon and are already thinking in terms of astronautics still suffers from the want of ordinary means of transport: Russian passenger trains are too few, too primitive and too slow, motor traffic is negligible; and country roads, muddy or ice-bound, are impassable throughout a great part of the year.
Here too, however, backwardness may provide the Soviet Union with the strongest motive and also with the widest opportunities for progress. The cities of the West are labouring under the conflict between their inherited architecture and their constantly expanding traffic, a conflict which seems insoluble and tends to reduce the traffic to an absurdity. The Russians may be able to avoid this predicament. They are driven by their very plight to adopt the most modern ideas of city planning and to develop ultra-modern forms of transport. They may yet replace the droshka by the helicopter rather than by the ordinary motor-car, and the train by the transport plane.
The Russians are, of course, not the first nation that has managed in its striving for progress to turn backwardness into a decisive advantage. The Germans did the same in the second half of the last century, when from being one of Europe’s economically underdeveloped nations they rose to the rank of its leading industrial power. As a late-comer to the industrial world, Germany had no need to go through all the phases of development which the British and the French had passed gradually, slowly, over the lifetime of many generations. Assimilating the latest, ready-made achievements of British technology and organisation, making their start from this high level, and being free from the ballast of obsolescent equipment and methods of work, the Germans presently excelled the British in efficiency and modernity of organisation. In Asia, Japan repeated the same experience even more rapidly but far less thoroughly and extensively. Finally, the United States found in its backwardness vis-à-vis Europe a blessing in disguise – its very backwardness enabled it to take over the best of the Old World, and to secure technological supremacy. It is striking that the remarkable progress of these nations from industrial backwardness to maturity was in every case preceded and prepared by political or social revolutions (the War of Independence and the Civil War in the US, Bismarck’s ‘revolution from above’ in Germany, and the Meiji Revolution in Japan). None of these, however, had the depth, the force, the blood-soaked momentum and the continuously widening scope of the Russian Revolution.
The USSR is now just beginning to benefit from the advantages of the late-comer, advantages which may enable it to gain eventually the same sort of industrial ascendancy over the United States that the United States has had over Europe. To be sure, this latecomer has still a long and uphill road to climb. In most sectors of its economy the USSR is at present far behind the US. In some it is even behind Western Europe. But in a few, strategically decisive sectors it is already outstripping the United States. The discrepancy between the backward and the advanced parts is still enormous. But it should not be imagined that it can be overcome only by slow degrees. With atomic energy being harnessed to production, with automation embracing ever wider areas of industry, with electronics opening up new vistas, and, last but not least, with the machinery of planning being overhauled so as to allow more scope for the producers’ social initiative, further Soviet progress, if it is not impeded by war or grave disturbances in domestic politics, may be much quicker than Western, or even Soviet, opinion anticipates.
Technologically the USSR has hitherto served an apprenticeship with the US, imitating and assimilating American achievements. It will still go on imitating and assimilating; but the appearance of the Russian sputnik over our planet heralds the approaching end of the apprenticeship. Soviet progress is now likely to proceed by leaps and bounds, and this new level of technology and industrial wealth is bound to affect both the political climate of the Soviet Union itself and the prospects of international Communism – both of which have in these forty years been decisively affected by Russian backwardness.
Classical Marxism had based its case for socialism on the argument that, compared with capitalism, socialism would represent superior economic efficiency and a higher form of social organisation. The Bolshevik leaders accepted this as an axiom. Yet, the regime they founded could not claim such merits. True enough, its economic efficiency was, in any case, superior to that of Tsarist Russia, and this enabled Bolshevism to survive against all odds; but survival was only part of the test to which the regime which issued from the October Revolution was subjected. The other and the more difficult part lay in the relations between the Soviet Union and the industrial West. The decisive question has been: how does Soviet efficiency compare with that of the West?
This question has been of crucial importance for the whole evolution of Communism both within the Soviet Union and without. The October Revolution had survived, but its claims and title-deeds were in doubt, to say the least. The Bolshevik Party responded to this predicament differently in different periods. Its history in these forty years falls into three chapters, each characterised by a different type of response: the Leninist period, with its active revolutionary internationalism; the early and middle parts of the Stalin era, with their ideological isolationism; and lastly, the close of the Stalin era and the post-Stalin years, with the sporadic breakdown of that isolationism.
The Leninist attitude towards Russia’s inferiority vis-à-vis the West was wholly dictated by the Marxist tradition. Lenin himself never wavered in the view that the congenial ground for socialism was in the ‘highly advanced and civilised’ West; and in international revolution he saw Russia’s escape from her own backwardness. True, Lenin and Trotsky had even before Stalin called upon Russia to ‘catch up with the West’. But they did not expect an isolated Russia to be able to raise herself by her own efforts to the height of Western technology and industrial organisation. They based their policies in the main on the anticipation of a ‘German October’, a ‘French October’ and even an ‘English October’. They brought to life the Communist International to direct and coordinate the struggle in various countries; but they imagined the process of international revolution as a series of national revolutions, each developing of its own accord and by its own momentum, as the Russian Revolution had developed. They were convinced that, with the spread of Communism, Russia’s weight in the whole movement would be greatly reduced and that, even if China or India, of whose revolutionary potentialities they were fully aware, were to join Russia, the movement of all these nations towards socialism would still require the industrial and cultural leadership of a Communist West.
This scheme of things foundered on the failure of Communism in Europe which had become manifest in the early 1920s. ‘The Comintern will not carry out a single revolution even in ninety years’ was the conclusion Stalin drew at a session of the Politburo. The Soviet Union was isolated and thrown back on its own resources. The new, Stalinist response to the predicament consisted in the determination to overcome Soviet inferiority at any cost and by the Soviet Union’s own efforts – with all that this implied in coercion and myth-making, in low standards of living and human misery. The Stalinist isolationism was, in fact, a desperate striving to avoid and postpone that decisive test of efficiency to which contact with the outside world would have subjected the Soviet Union – a test at which the Soviet Union would have inevitably failed. The Iron Curtain succeeded for a time in concealing Soviet inferiority from the Soviet masses. It did not, however, conceal it from the outside world – and this contributed to the further paralysis of Communism in the West. German and British, not to speak of American, workers, could not be attracted by a ‘socialism’ which represented lower productivity, far lower standards of living and far less political freedom, than they had attained under capitalism.
The Second World War drew the USSR out of its shell and brought it back to the arena of world politics as both a great power staking out national claims, and as the head of the international Communist interest. Stalin’s armies carried revolution on the point of their bayonets into Eastern and Central Europe. Moreover, the international impetus of revolution, which had seemed extinct during a quarter of a century, came back into its own in Asia; the Chinese Revolution was no mere by-product of the victory of Russian arms, but a gigantic social upheaval in its own right. Thus Russia’s isolation was broken at a time when she was rapidly shortening her industrial lag behind the West.
Clearly, the political evolution within the Soviet Union, and the prospects of international Communism, depend now on the pace at which the Soviet Union continues to shorten the lag. So far the USSR has achieved its industrial progress at the consumers’ expense. Yet, superior efficiency necessarily translates itself, albeit with a delay, into higher standards of living. These should lead to the softening of social tensions, the weakening of antagonisms between bureaucracy and workers, and workers and peasants, to the further lessening of terror, and to the further growth of civil liberties. This trend may be complicated, blurred or periodically halted by the inertia of Stalinism, by war panics, and, more basically, by the circumstance that the Soviet Union still remains in a position of overall economic inferiority vis-à-vis its American antipode.
The impact of the new situation upon world Communism will make itself increasingly felt in coming years. Already it is obvious that a satellite over Earth is worth much more for the Soviet Union than many a satellite on Earth. The USSR’s dramatic demonstration of its new technological power tends to re-establish its leadership in the Communist camp, just after the leadership had been morally shaken. The message of the satellite to all Communist parties is that things may be very different for them in the second half of the century from what they were in the first; that the epoch during which their cause has been discredited or at least handicapped by the poverty, backwardness and oppressiveness of the first workers’ state is drawing to a close; and that they may look forward to a time when the appeal of Communism may be as much enhanced by Soviet wealth and technological progress as the attraction of bourgeois democracy has in our days been enhanced by the fact that it has behind it the vast resources of the United States. More than ever is the world-wide ‘contest of the two systems’ bound to centre on the technological and industrial duel of the two giants, a duel for which the Earth is becoming too small.
The historian of the future will perhaps say that, forty years after the October Revolution, man set out to conquer the moon and the planets before he had set his own planet in some sort of order; and so he projected his earthly follies into interplanetary space. But will the historian ponder this merely as one of the paradoxical curiosities of an age of transition, or will he see in it the tragedy of our time?