1990s >> 1991 >> no-1048-december-1991

The end of utopia?

NO MORE UTOPIAS—this was the bold headline above an article in the European section of the Guardian on 27 September written by Norberto Bobbio and which had originally appeared in the Italian newspaper La Stampa.

Bobbio thinks that the collapse of what he calls “the communist regimes” in eastern Europe and, particularly Russia, means the end of communism as an idea which has persisted in one form or another for 2000 years.

And he seems to know what communism (we also call it socialism—the two words mean the same) means:

“The communist ideal is about forming a society which is radically different from any that has gone before, a society based on the elimination of private property. The latter is condemned as being the cause of all the ills afflicting mankind, from minor disputes over boundaries to the great wars that have turned the whole world upside down. It is also about setting up a regime based on common ownership, if not of all goods, at least of those that form the major source of wealth and of man’s dominion over man. Right or wrong this is communism”.

That is sound enough but he then spoils it by claiming that the Bolshevik seizure of power in Russia in 1917 was “the first major attempt to achieve a communist society in the genuine sense of the term, a society in which private property would be abolished and replaced by the almost total collectivisation of a country with a population of millions”.

This is nonsense because even Lenin recognised that socialism was impossible in such a backward country as Russia. All the Bolsheviks could do was to hope that revolutions in the developed European countries would come to their aid and, in the meantime, they would begin to modernise Russia by introducing state capitalism. They certainly didn’t think that socialism could be established in one country. That idea came later.

So there was no attempt by the Bolsheviks to abolish private property. Even their promise of equal wages, which has nothing to do with socialism anyway, was quickly dropped and large differentials in income were encouraged instead, while the Bolsheviks (who became the Communist Party) made sure that all property came under their direct control and, in effect, ownership.

Bobbio’s unhistorical approach is clearly shown when he compares Thomas More’s Utopia with state capitalist Russia. He recounts how in Utopia the traveller who has discovered “the happy island where common ownership is rigorously observed” defends it from sceptics who argue that it cannot work because of human nature—greed, laziness, etc—by telling them “you talk like that because you haven’t seen what I have seen”. It is impossible now, says Bobbio, to give such a reply any more because “no one who has visited a communist country can now say come and see, then you can talk”. What connection can there possibly be between Thomas More’s 16th century ideal society and 20th century Russian state capitalism?

To those who insist that there has never been communism in Russia Bobbio replies that it is not enough to say this:

    “You have to say why it is so, and suggest which other paths you can follow in order to avoid past mistakes. I don’t know of there is anyone around today who can provide answers to these uncertainties”.

Yes, signor Bobbio, there are and we will! The Socialist Party and its companion parties overseas have always insisted that communism/socialism can only be established when the essential conditions for it are present. For one thing, the productive forces of society must be developed to the point where they can provide plenty for all. Capitalism itself has long ago solved that problem for us. For another, the majority of the world’s workers—all the people who have to work for a wage or salary and in whose interests socialism will be—must agree that it is both possible and desirable. Socialism could not possibly have come about in such an economically undeveloped country as Russia where the vast majority of the population neither understood nor desired it.

The Socialist Party welcomes the collapse of Russian-style “communism” as a significant step in clearing the way for genuine communism to which it has been a serious obstacle for over 70 years. And the idea of a classless, moneyless, worldwide society of production for use will not go away because something entirely different has failed. The proof of this is—and will be—the existence of its advocates in many parts of the world.

Vic Vanni