Interviewer: K, WB

The interview started with the clear definition on Russian Revolution by Professor Le Blanc,

“The year 2022 is the 105th anniversary of the Russian Revolution of 1917 — which was a hopeful advance in the struggle for freedom and socialism, before it degenerated into an awful tyranny of disappointed hopes.”

As the true “Millennials”, the history of the Russian revolution is very ambiguous to us, we might know the history of the USSR is a story of hope, to the later despair, but we never know how and why it degraded. In order to understand why the “Utopian” revolution, which is for freedom and total liberation , will finally degrade to the symbol of “dystopia”, The Chinese University Student Press interviewed professor Paul Le Blanc from La Roche University. 

1.Thank you for accepting this interview, at present, it is generally believed that the Soviet Union was equal to a dictatorship, so a conclusion is reached: the dissolution of the Soviet Union is not a pity.  What is the importance of reflecting on the dissolution of the Soviet Union?

We must share ideas, and collectively try to learn and apply the lessons both from victories and defeats of previous struggles. I am glad to be able to share my thoughts and lessons from this experience. The Soviet Union must be understood historically.  It ended as a corrupted bureaucratic dictatorship that was no longer able to endure.  But it began as a vibrant and radical democracy of the laboring majority.  An alliance of the young Russian working class and the vast Russian peasants came into being throughout the Russian empire.  It challenged the tyranny and exploitation represented by the monarchy of the Tsar, who ruled with an iron fist, supported by the wealthy and oppressive elites of landowners and factory owners.  

Led by revolutionary Marxists such as Lenin and Trotsky, the working people’s uprising sought to place political power in the hands of the workers and peasants, with an extension of democratic power over the economic resources of the Russian Empire.  This was to be done through democratic councils of the so-called lower classes (the Russian word for these councils was soviets), and there were important gains made for a majority of the people because of this revolutionary victory.  

Most immediately, the revolution sought to end the horrific imperialist slaughter of World War I, revive the economy so that there would be bread for the hungry masses in the cities, and give land to the impoverished peasants.  But it wanted to go further, placing the economy under the control of the laboring majority, and through doing this to improve the lives of all people.  

When we look closely at the actual aims proclaimed by the Russian Revolution, we can find much to inspire us today. It aimed to provide decent jobs for all people, an eight-hour workday with good pay and with working conditions controlled by those who were doing the work.  The wealth produced by the workers should be used to provide good food, good health care, good housing, and good educational opportunities for all people.  The revolution aimed to put an end to all persecution of ethnic and religious minorities.  It aimed to end the subordination and oppression of women, providing equal rights and self-development for that half of the population.  It aimed to enhance artistic and cultural development freedom for the benefit of all.  It aimed to create rule of the people, by the people, and for the people over the political and economic life of society.  As Marx and Engels had urged, it aimed to make the free development of each person as the condition for the free development of all.

The capitalist elites of powerful countries outside of Russia feared and hated this revolution.  They sought to strangle it economically through boycotts and sabotage, and to smash it militarily by intervening with troops and by helping to foment and finance a brutalizing civil war that was designed to bring back the old ruling classes.  All of this devastated the country and threatened to destroy the new revolutionary regime.  The revolutionaries of the Russian Communist Party, under the leadership of Lenin and Trotsky, did the best they could to help the regime survive.  But they found it impossible — under these horrific conditions — to sustain the soviet democracy that they had struggled for.  Sometime in their desperate struggles to survive, they took dangerous shortcuts, and sometimes they made terrible mistakes. 

The forces of revolution finally defeated the forces of counter-revolution.  But in doing this, they had also suffered a serious defeat in the very heart of their victory. The violence of the counter-revolutionary assault, pounding Russia year after year, had caused the revolutionary democracy of the laboring masses in 1917 to turn into a revolutionary dictatorship of the Communist Party by the early 1920s.  Some of the revolutionaries continued to adhere to the original revolutionary-democratic ideals and goals, but others (including Stalin, who held a central position) had become brutalized and corrupted, and they gained power in the bureaucratic apparatus that dominated   the Communist Party and the Soviet state.  In this state the democratic soviets had given way to corrupted Communist Party bureaucrats, who looked to Stalin for leadership.  

Outstanding Communists such as Lenin and Trotsky began to push against this bureaucratic corruption.  But Lenin died and Trotsky was defeated, and Stalin’s dictatorship soon defined the way “Communism” was understood.  Some gains of the 1917 revolution remained — full employment, decent health care and education for all, the use of the economy’s wealth to modernize society and bring some improvements to the lives of those who labored.  But this was done under the abusive rule of a bureaucratic dictatorship that was intent on preserving its own power and material privileges, and a growing number of the bureaucrats became utterly corrupt, giving lip-service to the old revolutionary ideals, but no longer believing in them.

Over the years, this cynical commitment to bureaucratic privileges made it impossible for the Soviet Union’s economy to sustain itself, and the bogus “Communism” collapsed.  Many people hoped that a shift to capitalism might be accompanied by a shift to democracy and freedom and a better life for all.  But capitalism isn’t committed to such ideals.  Instead, corrupt ex-Communist bureaucrats and gangsters took control of the economy, making themselves into capitalists.  They stole the factories and economic resources that, at least officially, had belonged to the whole society.  Gains flowing from 1917 — jobs for all, health care for all, education for all, housing for all, and so on — were increasingly dismantled. Such things as the abuse of power, unfair privilege, corruption, and inequality did not disappear.  They grew.

2. The lack of democracy was the most serious problem of the Soviet socialist experiment. Would it have been different if the German revolution had succeeded in overthrowing capitalist society in Germany?

This is an excellent question, because it identifies essential insights that were central to the perceptions and commitments of the early Communist revolutionaries such as Lenin and Trotsky: the possibility of socialism depends on democracy and internationalism. 

Both Lenin and Trotsky saw the socialist revolution as growing organically out of the democratic revolution.  This was an element at the core of Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution, related to his insight that only the working class, in alliance with the peasantry, would be capable of leading the struggle to a genuinely democratic conclusion.  That would put Russia under the political control of its laboring majority, creating the framework for a transition to the economic democracy of socialism.  

A core element of Lenin’s strategic orientation was also this commitment to democratic revolution, which he saw as creating the precondition for socialist revolution.  Lenin argued that a worker-peasant alliance was essential to the triumph of the democratic revolution in Russia.  He believed that would result in a revolutionary regime of the workers and peasants that might even bring about an “uninterrupted revolutionary” flowing toward socialism.  During World War I, in the years leading up to 1917, Lenin intensified his insistence that only through struggles for genuine democracy in all aspects of society’s political and social life could the working class achieve the economic democracy of socialism.

This was consistent with what Marx had argued: “winning the battle for democracy” is the pathway for the socialist liberation of the working class.  In the years before his death in 1883 he had suggested that economically backward Russia might be capable of initiating a worldwide revolutionary process.  A socialist revolution in Russia, he believed, could help generate a revolutionary upsurge among workers in the industrially advanced nations of Europe and North America.  This could draw those countries onto the socialist path, and they in turn could give assistance Russia to create the industrialization necessary for its transition to socialism.  Marx believed that a transition to socialism would only be possible on the basis of an industrialized, modernized economy of abundance. Otherwise, the people in society would end up competing for scarce resources, with an oppressive minority rising to the top.  Under such circumstances, Marx warned, “the same old crap” of an oppressive elite exploiting the laboring majority would start all over again.  An economically backward Russia could only experience a genuinely socialist liberation if it was able to join with industrially advanced countries in bringing a transition from a world capitalist economy to a world socialist economy.

This internationalist orientation was at the heart of the Russian Revolution of 1917.  It was expected that this socialist revolution would help generate a global revolutionary wave, bringing a global transition to socialism.  Efforts to create socialism in a single backward country such as Russia could at best, Trotsky asserted, result only in “a skinflint reactionary utopia,” having little in common with the abundant socialist democracy that the Russian workers had been fighting for.  Lenin also insisted that the socialist revolution in backward Russia could not amount to the creation of a socialist island in a capitalist world.  As he put it, “we are a besieged fortress” awaiting reinforcements and relief from the spread of socialist revolution to other countries.

It was assumed that a socialist revolution would be made in industrially advanced Germany.  In Germany a large working class had built a massive working-class movement, powerfully influenced by Marxist and socialist ideas.  While dominant leaders of the German Social Democratic Party were not revolutionary, many of its members — influenced by such outstanding Marxists as Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht — were determined to take the revolutionary path.  More than once, from 1918 to 1923, a powerful ferment seemed on the verge of culminating in socialist revolution.  Even though such efforts were thwarted, the largest Communist Party in the world, outside of Soviet Russia, came into being in Germany.  If the German Communist Party had been able to form a united front with the even larger German Social Democratic Party in the early 1930s against the rise of Hitler, the outcome might have resulted in socialist revolution in Germany.

Whether it happened in the early 1920s or early 1930s, the overthrow of capitalism through socialist revolution in Germany would have prevented Hitler’s Nazi regime from coming to power and launching World War II.  It would have helped inspire and generate the further spread of socialist revolution in other countries.  It would have tilted struggles inside Soviet Russia between revolutionaries and bureaucrats in a direction preventing the disastrous swerve toward Stalinism.  It could have revitalized and strengthened Soviet democracy.

3. The Communist Party of Japan once proposed the East Asian Socialist Federation. If this idea had been successful, what would the relationship with the Soviet Union have been like?

I am sorry to say that I don’t know much about the history of Japanese Communism or the notion of the East Asian Socialist Federation.  But it is possible to imagine, in an alternative history, an expansive wave of socialist revolution in the 1920s through East Asia.  It is intriguing to imagine such triumphs embracing such countries as China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Indonesia and more.  In such circumstances an East Asian Socialist Federation would have made sense.

This didn’t happen, of course, but it is a sort of “thought-experiment” that helps us think through what revolutionary socialist ideas and principles add up to.  And this provides fruitful conceptualizations that might help shape what revolutionaries do in the future.

The coming together of the various Asian countries moving forward along the socialist path would provide obvious advantages to all of the participants: sharing resources; cooperating in the production and distribution of goods and services; sharing lessons from their diverse experiences; and more.  The forging of such an alliance and the creation of close working relations with the Soviet Union would also help to overcome vulnerabilities that each might otherwise face.  The early Soviet Republic of the 1920s would have considered a relationship with such an East Asian Socialist Federation to be a wondrous gift.

Of course, the experiences of past centuries, and the deeply ingrained economic, political, and cultural patterns associated with those experiences, must raise for any thoughtful person a concern over possibilities of coercion, arrogance, and oppression.  It seems to me that guidelines laid out by Lenin in his writings about national self-determination can be helpful for activists working toward non-oppressive, non-exploitative, mutually respectful and mutually beneficial relationships.

Such qualities are as essential to the actuality of socialism as are the democratic and internationalist commitments we have been discussing in this interview.

4. Looking ahead to 2022, the world doesn’t seem to be getting any better.  With various protests on the rise, how do we make sense of this situation? What are people looking for? How can we learn from the history of the Soviet Union?

I agree that the world doesn’t seem to be getting better.  Inequality has been growing, the quality of life for many has been declining, violence and authoritarianism are spreading, and the capacity of the natural environment to sustain human life is being eroded dramatically year after year. 

After a decades’ long power struggle between a dynamic and voracious capitalism and a Communism corrupted by Stalinist tyranny, capitalism has won.  The once-powerful Communist regime in the Soviet Union has collapsed, preceded by the collapse of similar regimes in the Eastern European countries it dominated.  Even the few countries where Communist parties still rule, they have accommodated capitalism.  In fact, the largest and most powerful Communist country, the People’s Republic of China, has itself become a dynamic centerpiece of the global capitalist system. 

Triumphant capitalism has been functioning as capitalism has always functioned.  It is consuming the resources of the planet to make more and more commodities that people must buy, and this is being driven not by the goal of meeting people’s needs, but to allow the wealthy owners of the economy to maximize their profits.  A majority of the world’s peoples have been undergoing a process of proletarianization.  The workers of the world are more numerous than ever.  But the organizations of the working class have dramatically weakened, and many have been destroyed.  To a very large extent, previous socialist commitments of many such organizations have been diluted or corrupted or abandoned.  This is one of the reasons why inequality has been growing, and why the quality of life of the world’s peoples has, in many ways, been experiencing a terrible decline.

What are people looking for?  They are looking for ways to be true to themselves as human beings — the need for dignity and control over their own lives, the need for creative labor, the need for a genuine and healthy community in which families and friends of all ages and all backgrounds can flourish and find meaning.  In a more basic way, they are looking for ways to survive — free from fear and want, free from hunger and violence and oppression.  And this is becoming increasingly difficult as the crises of our times expand and deepen in this age of “triumphant” capitalist globalization.

The biggest threat facing humanity today is the impending destruction of a livable environment.  Several hundred years of capitalism, culminating in two centuries of accelerating and profit-driven industrialization, has resulted in the climate being tilted into a warming process that threatens all life.  Scientists indicate that we have not more than half a century to reverse this process.  So far, the needs of the powerful elites to preserve their power and accumulate ever-greater wealth are blocking humanity’s ability to do what must be done.  As we slide downward toward disaster, many millions of people are already losing their lives, and millions more a suffering in multiple ways from the impacts of climate change and environmental destruction: droughts and famine, flooding and fires, violence and dislocation, poisoning of air and water, proliferating pandemics, and more.

There is no hope for the future unless masses of people organize effectively, throughout the world, for that better future.  Protests are important, but we also need genuine solutions — and for this we need power-shifts and system change.  Such things are easily said, but to make them real will require intensive organizing efforts, difficult struggles, and the winning of smaller victories from which we can launch struggles for larger victories.

As we struggle for a decent life for all, for a society of the free and the equal, and simply for a world in which people can survive, there is much that we can learn from the history of the Soviet Union.  Among the many things we can learn, I there are three lessons related to what we have already been discussing.

  1. The hope for the future is with the laboring majorities who — if guided by clear thinking and proposals that make sense — have the power to create a better world.  As 1917 showed us, they have the capacity to open up hopeful possibilities. 
  1. The struggle for a better world lies through the struggle to expand and deepen democracy on all levels: political, social, cultural, economic.  If the centrality of democracy is undermined or abandoned, the struggle for a better world will be weakened or derailed.  And as Marx said, the free development of each must be the condition for the free development of all.
  1. The struggle for liberation — for genuine freedom, for genuine community, and certainly for the preservation of an environment capable of sustaining human life — must be global, and the only durable victory will embrace our entire planet.

Editor note

When I received the answer from professor Le Blanc, two sentences come into my mind, they are,

“The Communists disdain to conceal their views and aims. They openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions. Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communistic revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win.” — Karl Marx

“The time is out of joint. O cursed spite, that ever I was born to set it right” — Hamlet

The history of Hong Kong is entangled with a century of colonial capital, just like the hundred years of solitude history of Macondo, it repeated and repeated. Colonialism and Capitalism are always by our side. We also should remember the history, and learn from history. In the future, we might only have two choices, either start seeking a way out, or accept the arrangement of the powerful under the turning of the great wheel of the times. A wave is coming to us, it is a wave of liberation, and what is this wave looking for? As professor Le Blanc mentioned in the interview,

“They are looking for ways to be true to themselves as human beings — the need for dignity and control over their own lives.”


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