One hundred years ago this year the first socialist state became a reality. Born out of a radical promise of peace and bread, the Bolshevik’s toppled the despised tsar and promptly consolidated the new revolutionary government – in spite of massive external interference.
Throughout its nearly seventy-five-year history, the Soviet Union made many contributions to the struggle for peace, equality, national liberation, workers’ rights and socialism. It also tarnished the idea of socialism with human rights abuses and the abridgement of democratic norms.
In retrospect, however, most damaging to the movements for peace, equality, national liberation, workers’ rights and socialism was its demise in the latter part of the 20th Cenrury.
For, the Soviet Union – regardless of what took place within its geographical borders – projected a democratic, anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-war, pro-worker, egalitarian vision externally, a vision western democracies, namely the United States, were compelled to compare themselves to.
This external projection forced a reappraisal away from the ugliest, most vile aspects of U.S. domestic and foreign policy, and towards democratic concessions by the ruling class to the popular forces.
Arguably, even when disowned by former communists (in the 1950’s), and disavowed by ‘New Leftists’ (in the 60’s) and ‘human rights’ activists (in the 70’s and 80’s) – among others – the Soviet Union still articulated and reinforced broad “networks of hope,” as the historian Julia Mickenberg noted regarding “the fact of Soviet Russia’s existence.”
That these “networks of hope” inspired millions upon millions of people worldwide to struggle for a better world cannot be easily discounted, ignored or forgotten. Nor should they be!
As a former union organizer, an easy comparison should suffice to make the point: Similar to how the threat of unionism can often compel concessions from individual capitalists, the threat of Soviet socialism compelled concessions from world capitalism, concessions that largely benefited the struggles for peace, equality, national liberation, workers’ rights and socialism – even when Soviet socialism itself was being criticized and attacked.
It isn’t a coincidence, for example, that the decline in workers’ rights here roughly parallels the slow collapse of the Soviet Union and the long ascendency of the right-wing. Arguably, these two trends happened simultaneously and reinforced each other.
Similarly, it was the purging of domestic communists from the CIO in 1949 that partly accounts for the long decline of U.S. labor density into the single digits, and the concomitant crisis it is currently attempting to navigate; though, a temporary reprieve was struck during the 1950’s into the early 70’s, as the tacit shared goal – of eliminating communists from unions – made strange bed fellows of labor and capital, especially as the newly merged AFL-CIO and its then reactionary leadership was complicit in CIA intervention against radical, left and socialist movements abroad.
Additionally, while peace activists, civil rights leaders, Black Liberation movements, unions and domestic Communist Parties often employed strategies and tactics that best suited their national, regional and local situations and were at times at odds with Soviet communists, they still enjoyed the support of a worldwide vision projected by Soviet socialism.
The fact that Soviet socialism for most of the 20th century was ascending and that this ascension tipped the worldwide balance of power away from reaction exemplifies the point. Cuba and Vietnam, for example, sought and received Soviet support. African Americans sought and received an international platform and audience to challenge Jim Crow as the Soviet Union allied itself with equality. And anti-colonial movements – South Africa is but one example – sought and received Soviet aid, funds, military training and equipment.
In fact, democracy itself owes a debt of gratitude to the ascension of Soviet socialism, as the defeat of Nazi fascism may well not had happened without the sacrifices of the Soviet people.
Arguably, it was the Soviet Union’s ‘real politik,’ its pragmatic material and ideological support, that empowered and emboldened movements for peace, equality, national liberation, workers’ rights and socialism across the globe.
Soviet aid and funds subsidized peace conferences, world youth festivals, international trade union confederations, friendship tours and cultural exchanges, as well as countless Marxist journals and books in multiple translations, among many, many other examples. These exchanges collectively shaped the lives, beliefs and politics of millions upon millions of people, and reinforced “networks of hope,” networks that then articulated a vision for a democratic, socialist society.
It was the fact of Soviet existence, the broad organizational infrastructures, capacities and relationships that it aided in so many different and forgotten ways, that facilitated the rise of the global left for decades.
It was the fact of Soviet existence that acted as a counter balance to the most egregious aspects of world capitalism and forced concessions.
In this regard, it is easy to see the stagnation and slow collapse of the Soviet Union – as well as the withholding of Soviet support internationally – beginning in the mid-1970’s, as the precursor and genesis of the long ascendency of the right-wing.
And it isn’t unfair to say that the rise of Donald Trump, who is probably the most reactionary president in U.S. history, can be traced to this intersectional moment, a moment when our collective paths diverged away from ascending socialism, and towards reaction.
Now, one hundred years after the birth of the Soviet Union, the question of socialism rises once again to the front burner as millions even here in the U.S. see it as a viable alternative to a crisis-ridden capitalist system. Many of these see it as more necessary than ever.
We have the opportunity to turn the tide. Let us start by honestly assessing the many contributions the Soviet Union made to the struggle for peace, equality, national liberation, workers’ rights and socialism.