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On the 100th Anniversary of the USSR

On the 100th Anniversary of the USSR By CLG Founder, Michael Rectenwald, Ph.D. | 15 Dec 2022 |

I was asked by a reporter from Sputnik News Agency, a Russian news outlet, to answer some questions for an article on the 100th anniversary of the Soviet Union. The reporter was particularly interested in my take on the significance of the Soviet Union to the Western Left. The questions and my answers follow:

Over the past 100 years, there have been many changes in leftist thought, from the debates between communists and social democrats in the first part of the twentieth century, followed by the rise of the Frankfurt School and New Left in Europe and the US after WWII, as well as the postmodernist and post-Marxist theories later on. In your opinion, have these changes transformed the meaning of being on the Left, and, if so, in what way? On the other hand, what aspects of leftist thinking have remained constant? How did the Soviet Union affect the intellectual development of the European and American Left over the decades? What were the main points of similarity and divergence?

(I answer these first questions in one extended answer):

The Western Left developed largely in response to the Soviet Union. At the outset, the Soviet Union provided a model for proletarian revolution and the overthrow of capitalism. But a number of developments changed the relationship of the Western Left with the Soviet system. Among them was the Sino-Soviet split and the turn of the Left toward a Maoist interpretation of Marxism. This came with a shift from the "economistic" Marxist Third International, which held to the orthodox Marxist view that socialism would emerge from the economic conditions of advanced industrial capitalism, to the Maoist "voluntarism," which emphasized not the "objective conditions" but rather the "class consciousness" of the masses. This shift, I believe, partly explains the New Left's adoption of identity politics; it was no longer "the working class" that was the effective agent of revolutionary potential but rather the marginalized identity groups who had the right "consciousness"--those on the periphery of “capitalism,” both socially and geographically. This also partly explains the Left's dual obsessions with "correct" thinking and identity. In this sense, the contemporary Left is the progeny of Maoism more than it is of Stalinism. The contemporary Left has nothing but contempt for whatever "the working class" may be.

Second among the factors were the revelations from the Soviet Union following de-Stalinization, including Khrushchev's "secret speech" and the Western Left's grudging acknowledgement of the gulag system, the Red Terror, the Great Terror, and the purges. Western Marxists grappled with these revelations differently but the overall trend was disaffection. Nevertheless, many refused to relinquish the hope for communism; they merely sought it through different means. The main one was the notion of cultural revolution. The ideas of cultural revolution came not only from Maoism but also from Western Marxists themselves, including the Italian Marxist, Antonio Gramsci, and the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory, which settled in the U.S. by 1933. From the latter, it was Herbert Marcuse's notion of a Left cobbled together from various movements--feminism, environmentalism, New Age philosophy, and others--that represented revolutionary potential. The working class had been "co-opted" by the capitalist system (thanks mostly to increasing wealth) and was no longer useful for the New Left.

The aspect of leftism that remains intact, and which runs all the way from orthodox Marxism through postmodernism, is a championing of the underdog, the subjugated, the "oppressed" the "subaltern," etc. Despite switching protagonists, Leftism retains this essential core. It remains critical to the Left's ethos, all the way from Marxism to transgenderism. I call it "underdog-ism." Without underdog-ism, the Left has nothing. I believe this is a false, ideological understanding on the part of leftists of all stripes, because the underdog is merely used by the leadership as a pretense for establishing their own domination over the masses. The underdogs are merely tools used to bludgeon the "bourgeoisie," or now the "privileged," over the head. In other words, leftists are "useful idiots" for the dictatorship of the subversive elites.

Does the Soviet Union remain a source of inspiration for the Left today? If Bolshevik revolutionaries and modern self-described leftists met, would they recognize each other as being on the same side of the political aisle?

Very few contemporary leftists have the foggiest notion about their own political ancestors. Some Marxist members of the Left still retain a nostalgia for the Soviet Union and believe that its failure was the fault of "capitalism." The Left still retains its underlying ethos of underdog-ism and considers any enemy of my enemy as a friend. But if contemporary leftists met Bolsheviks, without first being told who they were, most would likely think that the latter were "fascists." Conversely, the Bolsheviks would think that the contemporary Left consists of misdirected lunatics. However, given time, each would recognize themselves in the other. Particularly, they would recognize their shared utopianism and totalitarian ambitions. Utopians are just totalitarians-in-waiting. Most are useful idiots, however.