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COLUMN LEFT : A Sad Word for Radicalism Gone Rigid : Communism ossified under Brezhnev, but it did generate competition for capitalism.

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“Be as radical as reality itself,” Lenin once urged a young poet he met in a bar in Zurich in 1915. Those coup-makers who now await trial, or who have committed suicide (or had their suicides involuntarily administered; a lot of people committed “suicide” during Stalin’s purges, too) had ceased to be as “radical as reality.”

So, too, had Mikhail Gorbachev. Somewhere in these last six years there was perhaps a chance for a Third Way, leading neither back to the lost world of the coup-makers nor to the neo-liberal agenda now shaping up. But probably Gorbachev never had a chance because, after Nikita Khrushchev had gone, the long narcolepsy of the Leonid Brezhnev years irretrievably wrecked the Soviet Union’s chances of establishing any rendezvous with a flexible socialist economy. At the very moment in the 1970s and 1980s that capitalism was learning to be hyper-flexible--to the great cost of workers and peasants the world over--the Soviet Union became more rigid and inflexible.

And why did narcolepsy thus extinguish hope? Because the Communist Party had long since become corrupted, being mostly a spoils-allotment system. The party suffocated initiative.

“The heritage of the great Lenin is lost,” Stalin cried out when he was informed of the German invasion of 1941. Twenty million Soviet lives later that heritage, already mangled by the horrors of the 1930s, had been saved. After World War II Soviet industrial growth ran at an average of just under 10% a year through the 1950s. In 1956, Khrushchev was telling the West, “We will bury you,” and the words did not seem lunatic. A decade later the Soviet economy began to slow, and the grave-digger leaned more heavily on his spade.

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Now comes accelerating disintegration of what was formerly the union, most likely in the form of war between the republics, looting of resources by foreign powers, extension of German influence up to the Urals. A year or two from now, Boris Yeltsin will be able to stand atop the old Lenin mausoleum (now a trade mart or Pizza Hut) and watch the procession of new times: Soviet lumbermen under the command of Georgia Pacific and the Japanese; oil drillers bearing the standard of Conoco; long battalions of unemployed under the discipline of the Chicago School.

The weekend that Gorbachev resigned as party leader and plumes of smoke began rising from party archives across the country, I was at a conference in Los Angeles about anti-corporate environmental strategies. There were plenty of intelligent, radical people there, but I didn’t hear much talk about the Soviet Union and the collapse of the communist system. Everyone was more interested in crises closer at hand.

Like any other 50-year-old born into a communist family, I felt sad. The Soviet Union defeated Hitler and fascism. Without it, the Cuban revolution would never have survived, nor the Vietnamese. In the postwar years, the Soviets supported any country trying to follow an independent line. Without it, just such a relatively independent country as India could have taken instead the course of fascist Argentina. The Chinese revolution probably would not have survived, either.

It was communists who spearheaded the fight for civil rights in the United States in the 1930s, and if it had not been vying with the Soviet Union for influence in the Third World, the United States probably would not have even bothered to desegregate the Army. Without the Soviet threat there would have been no Marshall Plan. There would never have been the International Brigades, the workers my father used to describe to me when I was a boy. He met them in the trenches in Spain after they’d crossed the Atlantic or ridden the rails across Europe, mustered to defend the republic against Franco, fascism and the complicity of the Western powers.

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But I could see too why the younger people at the conference felt the way they did. As long as half a century ago, after Spain and after the heroism of the communist-led Resistance movements of World War II, the Soviet example already offered dwindling allotments of inspiration, however many barrels of oil they gave the Cubans, or guns to the Vietnamese. And besides, Soviet disintegration stands well back in the long sequence of disasters that have overtaken the Third World and poor people in the advanced world in the past two decades. The people in Los Angeles were discussing the new world disorder forged by hyper-flexible capitalism.

Outside a few enclaves of state-assisted capital, the trend lines are now all down. For the future of Lenin’s heritage we need only study what is happening in Yugoslavia and imagine those horrors on a far vaster and more savage scale.


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