If the world I knew till my youth was intact, the world would have been preparing for a grand and memorable celebration of the centenary of the Bolshevik Revolution on November 7. The Soviet Union, as the immediate post-War generation was only too aware, was the great superpower rival to the United States. Its’ reach and influence was significant and extended from Berlin to Vladivostok.
But more than a military power, it was a great ideological attraction to large numbers of people that lived outside the Soviet Union and its satellite states in Eastern Europe. For many decades the Soviet Union projected itself as the symbol of socialism—that ideal of equitable living which was the force against iniquitous capitalism. History, it was grandly proclaimed, was on the side of socialism and it was really only a matter of time before the proverbial ‘final crisis’ of capitalism happened. It was a messianic vision and like all such visions had large numbers of adherents from among the intellectuals and other thinking people. The word ‘progressive’ came to attached with admiration for the Soviet Union and it was juxtaposed with the ‘reactionaries’ who were ranged on the side of the West.
Today, that Soviet Union is just a distant memory. The embalmed mummy of Lenin is still a tourist attraction, as is Karl Marx’s grave in London. But the Revolution of 1917 that shook the world is now at best a nostalgic yearning among those who devoted themselves emotionally to the spread of the world revolution. Nominally the red flag still flutters all over China, the possible superpower of the future, but only the socialist façade remains. China turned its back on its socialist legacy and has consequently prospered beyond all belief. It has built its future on old fashioned nationalism. The only really socialist country is North Korea but most of the world see it as plain crazy.
This is not to suggest that socialism as an idea is dead and buried. There are socialist parties all over the world that are either governing or command positions of influence. But the Leninist model that emerged as a result of the split in the Second International in 1914 has died. Only a few hardened souls still swear by it and they command nominal influence.
However, the legacy of the Second International is intact and has the added advantage of being linked to democratic traditions, which Leninism, alas, was never. When CPI(M) leaders such as Sitaram Yechuri get up in Parliament to invoke India’s democratic traditions and demand their enlargement, they are consciously (but without admitting so) making a break from the legacy of Lenin, Stalin and Mao. The Communists still pay lip service to the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ but in reality they cover their undemocratic inheritance with a veneer of liberalism.
This is the big change that the collapse of the Soviet Union has brought to the world political change. What happened after the Berlin Wall was breached and Mikhail Gorbachev failed to keep the Soviet empire intact was a tectonic shift. Yet, it is important to remember that the Soviet collapse was not the outcome of a major military defeat—the routes to collapse—but was a consequence of popular upsurges in East Europe and complete economic mismanagement inside the Soviet Union. There were two pillars on which the Soviet system rested and on which it claimed moral superiority. The first was its insistence that its proletarian democracy was qualitatively superior to bourgeois democracy. The revolts in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland and East Germany punctured that myth, except to those who chose to be wilfully blind. The lack of personal freedoms under the Soviet system—not to mention the state-sponsored surveillance of individual citizens—led to people finally dismantling symbols of autocracy such as the Berlin Wall being dismantled brick by brick, and with bare hands. The Soviet system and tyranny were synonymous.
Secondly, the Soviet system made a great play of being ‘scientific’ in its management of the economy. Whether it was the nationalisation of industry and farm lands or the elaborate system of planning that left no scope for the ‘anarchy’ of the market place, the Marxist economists always felt that their grasp over economics was inherently superior. This was what the Soviet Union flaunted when they put Yuri Gagarin into space and this is what they decried when they pointed to the huge unemployment queues in the West.
Unfortunately, the alternative that was built in the Soviet Union was heartless and above all inefficient. In the end it was a system built on ineptitude and constant shortages. No wonder that patience finally snapped. Maybe we should commemorate the centenary of the 1917 revolution. Perhaps just to remind ourselves that there are follies that should never be repeated. Ever.
The author is a senior journalist and a member of Parliament, being a Presidential nomineee to the Rajya Sabha.