The growth and maturation of the progressive movement in recent years is a major feature of our time. A wide range of groups are involved in the struggle for a better society. And though there is much disagreement on strategy and different emphases on various aspects of the struggle, one can see a general understanding of the major problems and possible solutions. In our Internet-driven society it is not hard to find sophisticated, if not profound, analyses of the current world.
There is near-unanimity that the Bush administration and the far right must be defeated. It has been decades since large segments of society have distrusted to this extent what they see and hear coming from the government. Many dismiss the media as the mouthpiece of capitalism and cheerleaders for the Bush administration. People are reassessing their views on major issues in foreign and domestic policy. They are replacing long-held ideas in light of recent developments. We live in one of those rare times when a sea change in our perceptions and understandings is under way.
Part of this phenomenon is a reinterpretation of the past. It is hard to read through the analyses of the Iraq war and not see comparisons to Vietnam. Many commentators draw parallels between the Bush crackdown on civil liberties through the Patriot Act and the anticommunist crusade of the McCarthy era. Historians are reinterpreting many of the events and policies of the 20th century, especially the last 50 years.
But one area where many progressives remain shortsighted is on the Soviet Union. There is still a reflexive reaction whenever they discuss the USSR. Terms such as “Soviet-style” or “Soviet empire” still dot the commentary. Soviet society is dismissed as “totalitarian,” and one rarely sees an open and frank discussion of that country. The anti-Soviet propaganda that was repeated from 1917 to the collapse of Soviet power is still accepted as truth. Unlike other topics discussed by the left, the USSR is still seen in two dimensions. It is hard to change the ideas and beliefs that many of us learned during the height of the Cold War.
Why take the time and effort to even discuss the Soviet Union, one might ask, since it is gone and its system is discredited. The answer is simple. The USSR was the major force for peace during the Cold War. Its absence today has had a profound effect on international relations — one need only look at the war in Afghanistan and the invasion of Iraq. Soviet foreign policy was a manifestation of a different system — socialism — a completely different outlook on the world. If we are to reassess many of the “givens” we used to accept, then it is imperative that we extend the discussion to include the Soviet Union. Maybe not everything we have been told about it was true. Maybe it is time to re-examine our assumptions.
That is not to say that one should turn a blind eye to the mistakes and shortcomings of the USSR. Over three-quarters of a century, its leadership made many errors and we are still working to understand them. But anti-Sovietism among progressives is like a cement anchor that will hold back the movement from developing and carrying out a program of liberation for all.
David Cavendish is a New York City teacher.