A new path for socialism? Revolutionary renewal in the Soviet Union and Cuba from
FRFI 81, September 1988

The dramatic events unfolding in the Soviet Union offer a unique opportunity to reassess what is, in fact, the very short history of socialism. It is an opportunity to learn crucial lessons and, yes, to voice criticism, but only as a means to strengthen the communist movement. This is a comment on Patrick Newman's series on Gorbachev's 70th Anniversary speech. The imperialists will use the process of self-criticism going on in the Soviet Union to discredit it and all it has accomplished. There are others, so-called socialists, who will only be concerned to use it as a means to promote their own narrow opportunist political dogma. The Eurocommunist wing of the CPGB sees Gorbachev's programme as the ideological counterpart and historical justification for their own 'new realism'. The Socialist Workers' Party, and other trotskyist organisations, use it as a means to justify their continuing support for every kind of reactionary opposition in the socialist countries themselves. The communist movement has nothing to gain from any of these currents.

A Communist Approach

Fidel Castro has shown us the communist approach. Cuba itself began carrying out a process of 'rectification' to overcome its difficulties, mistakes and 'negative tendencies' about the same time as the Soviet Union began perestroika. The measures it has taken are not the same as the Soviet Union and Cuba has specifically rejected 'mechanically copying' the same solutions as the Soviet Union or other socialist countries. But this does not alter the fact, as Castro says, that 'we not only wish but need the socialist countries to succeed in their efforts to overcome their difficulties'.

Castro goes on: 'I believe that socialism has accomplished extraordinary things what the Soviet Union did has no precedent, what the Soviet people did has no precedent, starting with the Great October Revolution; their resistance against generalised invasion by all the capitalist countries following World War I; their industrialisation; their resistance against fascism; the 20 million lives lost in saving socialism and saving humanity from fascism; a country that had hardly been constructed when it was destroyed and they rebuilt it again; a country that has achieved nuclear parity with imperialism, an incredible feat; a country whose space ships are right now headed for the satellites of Mars. We're familiar with their successes. That more can be achieved? Yes, that's true. That we must try to do better? Of course. But we do not deny nor will we ever permit others to deny the colossal successes achieved by socialism.' (Granma 7 August 1988.)

This is the spirit in which Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! has opened its pages to an analysis and discussion and, indeed, criticism, of the unfolding events taking place in the Soviet Union. This is also the context in which I feel it necessary to raise a number of criticisms of Patrick Newman's three articles on Mikhail Gorbachev's Report on the 70th Anniversary of the October Revolution (November 1987) which appeared in FRFI 74-76.

While I would agree with the broad positions reached by comrade Newman in the first two articles 'Class war and collectivisation' and 'The Soviet Union in the twenties and thirties was there an alternative?', I take issue with his overall approach. The political weaknesses in his approach are really exposed in the last article 'The Soviet Union versus imperialism'.

It has been clear for a period of time that major political struggles are taking place within the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) around perestroika and the accompanying process of glasnost. Gorbachev's speeches have reflected not just his own political views but also the political strength of different currents within the party as the struggle to implement perestroika has taken place. While the conflicting standpoints became much clearer and sharper during the 19th All-Union Party Conference in June/July 1988, they were certainly discernible much earlier. It is comrade Newman's failure to examine Gorbachev's 70th Anniversary speech from the standpoint of present day political struggles that freezes the political debate in a context long superceded: Stalin vs Trotsky.

It is precisely his one-sided (undialectical) approach to historical questions that prevents comrade Newman understanding the significance of Gorbachev calling the achievements of the party and Soviet people under Stalin ‘... a labour exploit of epoch-making significance', while arguing that the wholesale repressive measures, the acts of lawlessness, were unforgivable, 'real crimes stemming from an abuse of power' (FRFI 74, Gorbachev pp22, 26). And, in particular, Gorbachev argues that any attempts to justify the lawlessness by political needs or international tension are wrong (Perestroika pp106-7).

Gorbachev is concerned to resolve the dangerous economic and social crisis facing the Soviet Union today and argues that the difficulties facing the party and the country are rooted in the system created by Stalin and carried on through the Brezhnev years. A truthful analysis of the historical past is part of the political struggle today. It 'must help us solve today's problems of democratisation, legality, openness, overcoming bureaucracy, in short, the vital problems of perestroika . . . ' (Gorbachev p27). Wherever we stand in relation to present day political conflicts, as communists we cannot 'idealise' or 'freeze' the past but must use it to draw lessons, to show its relevance for the political struggle today.

A New Concept of Foreign Policy

Comrade Newman's third article on Soviet foreign policy has an immediacy absent from his other articles. That is why it so clearly highlights the political weakness in his overall approach. In justifying each and every turn of Soviet foreign policy, comrade Newman is forced to overstate the strength of the renewed imperialist offensive, while underestimating the fighting capacity of the national liberation movements. Cuba's exemplary internationalist role in Angola (yes, with Soviet financial support) has demonstrated in the last few months how the imperialist offensive can not only be contained, but also be pushed back.

In the third article comrade Newman's overall political weakness is compounded by his failure even to tell us in any detail what is Gorbachev's 'new concept of foreign policy'. Gorbachev argues that his new policy is a development of Lenin's 'policy of learning and mastering the art of long term "existence, side by side" with [the capitalist states]'. Comrade Newman is clearly aware that Gorbachev has given a partial, one-sided and therefore incorrect statement of Lenin's position but refuses to discuss this fact directly. He prefers to tell us much later in his article that 'one of the cornerstones of Soviet foreign policy as formulated by Lenin (the utilisation of disagreements between foreign powers CW31, p476) cannot bear much weight in the current period'.

Lenin and Peaceful Co-Existence

Let us briefly examine Lenin's argument. First, as comrade Newman points out, during the Civil War (1917-21) the USSR was able to hold out against the capitalist states' offensive 'because there was no unity amongst these powers'. In fact Lenin argued that there was 'a most deep-seated arid ineradicable conflict of economic interests among the imperialist countries which, based on private property in land and capital, cannot but pursue a predatory policy which has stultified their efforts to unite their forces against the Soviets' (CW31, p466). But there was also another equally important factor, not mentioned by comrade Newman, in the survival of the Soviet state. 'Domestic conditions have not allowed a single powerful capitalist state to hurl its army against Russia; this has been due to the revolution having matured within such countries, preventing them from overcoming us as quickly as they might have done' (CW31, p412). And later in the same speech, 'we have always said that our revolution would be victorious when it is supported by the workers in all lands. In fact, they went halfway in their support, for they weakened the hand raised against us, yet in doing so they were helping us' (CW31, p414). It was these conditions which created the 'breathing space' in which the Soviet Union won 'the right to [its] fundamental international existence in the network of capitalist states' (CW31, p412). There was a crucial connection between the Soviet state surviving and the degree of revolutionary ferment among the working class in the capitalist states.

Gorbachev and Peaceful Co-Existence

Gorbachev's view differs fundamentally from Lenin's. In a nuclear age, he argues, peaceful co-existence of states with different social systems cannot be viewed as a 'specific form of class struggle'. Clausewitz's dictum that war is the continuation of policy only by different means is hopelessly out of date (Perestroika, pp147, 141). Gorbachev is clearly pre-empting any arguments along the lines that Lenin had said, for example, that the policy of economic concessions to foreign capitalists was a 'continuation of war in another form' (CW31, p464). According to Gorbachev there is now an objective limit to class confrontation in the international arena (Perestroika p146).

Gorbachev in the course of his 70th Anniversary Report asks three questions: 1. Is it possible to influence the nature of imperialism and block its more dangerous manifestations? 2. Can capitalism get rid of militarism and function and develop in the economic sphere without it? 3. Can the capitalist system do without neo-colonialism which is currently one of the factors essential to its survival? His answer to all these questions is a qualified 'yes' (Gorbachev pp62- 71). The decisive factor in determining this is the ‘interrelated, interdependent and integral' nature of the contemporary world forced to come to terms with human survival in a nuclear age. Far from sharing Lenin's view of imperialism, of peaceful co-existence, of the basis for Soviet foreign policy, Gorbachev's standpoint starts from the possibility of non-militaristic, non-predatory imperialism coming into existence, and forced to compete peacefully with the socialist countries. The backbone of the new way of thinking is the recognition of the priority of human values, or to be more precise, of human kind's survival' (Perestroika, p146).

Comrade Newman tells us nothing of this. 'It would be pointless to "criticise" Gorbachev's speech "ideologically",' he says. But how else can you begin to argue against Gorbachev's position that the 'time of the Communist International, the information bureau, even the time of binding international conferences is over'? Or his view that 'the impulse for national liberation is waning . . . '? And his argument that 'international relations, without losing their class character, are increasingly coming to be precisely relations between nations' (Gorbachev, pp73, 69, 75)?

There is a pressure to adapt Soviet foreign policy in order to allow resources to be switched from military expenditure to peaceful construction for perestroika. Gorbachev's arguments are part of the debate, of the political struggle taking place today in the CPSU about the relationship between perestroika and Soviet foreign policy.

Clearly there are differences of view within the CPSU. For example, Ligachev, in a recent speech, placed a quite different emphasis to Gorbachev on class relations and foreign policy. 'Class plays a particularly significant role in international relations. This is of fundamental importance. Any other way of putting this matter introduces confusion into the consciousness of our people and friends abroad. Active involvement in the solution of general human problems and primarily in the struggle against the nuclear threat, by no means signifies any artificial braking of the social and national struggle.' (The Guardian 15 Aug 1988.)

These are vital questions for communists to assess and discuss. Unfortunately in his rush to justify Soviet foreign policy comrade Newman fails to bring these issues to our attention.


Gorbachev refers to his 70th anniversary speech Novosti Press Agency Moscow 1987.

Perestroika refers to his book of the same title published by Collins 1987.