Sept. 2, 1999
"Beyond the Soviet Union"
By Howard Zinn
In the spirit of killing two obligations with one effort, I offer as my Commentary a response I just made to a letter by a retired professor in California, who wrote: "As a great admirer of Howard Zinn [should he have said "as a former great admirer..."?] I was profoundly disappointed by some of his comments made during his interview with David Barsamian [I blame Barsamian for losing me an admirer) in the March issue of Z Magazine". [You can see how long it takes me to respond to critical letters -- I simply don't want to believe that any rational person can disagree with me]. Without reproducing my correspondent's letter I think the gist of his comments are clear from my responses. Fundamentally, he did not like my saying I was "very glad" the rule of the Soviet government ended. He took issue with my skepticism about violent revolutions. He made interesting, provocative, thoughtful arguments. My response:
Dear Dr. -------:
I apologize for taking so long to reply to the letter you sent about my article in Z Magazine. It was not the kind of letter I could quickly respond to. It required some thought!
I agree that the recent shifts of power, whether in the Soviet bloc nor in South Africa, did not result in the transfer of wealth from one class to another. I disagree with you that it was the "humanity" of the Soviet bloc states that led them to give up power, but rather the mass demonstrations and popular demand. I cannot see that much humanity in any national leadership anywhere.
You raise an important question: will a propertied class ever give up its wealth and power without fighting to the death? You say, history does not show us such examples. I grant, it is hard to find such examples. But are there are not cases where a propertied class, wanting to fight to the death, simply finds it impossible to rule? The Czarist machine did not fight to the death. It was weakened by the war, had a feeble hold on the population, and was overthrown. The victory of Castro in Cuba did not involve a prolonged bloody Civil War, but there too a regime weakened by its own corruption and facing growing popular resistance, collapsed. The fact that in both cases there were then attempts to defeat the revolution -- in Russia with the Civil War in the Ukraine and the Allied troops in Siberia, in Cuba with the Bay of Pigs, both attempts unsuccessful -- does not eliminate the possibility of ruling classes forced to give up their power without a protracted war. Beyond the historical evidence, I don't accept the idea that future possibilities are limited by past experience. We have seen too many unprecedented events in the 20th century to be intimidated by the weight of history.
Granted history did not allow the Soviet Union to develop along the lines of the Paris Commune. But that does not mean it was inevitable that a police state be created, that the gulags be erected, that the crimes detailed by Khrushchev at the 20th Party Congress take place. You suggest I might have preferred that the captalist world destroy the Soviet revolution. Not at all. But the ruthlessness of the Soviet state ended up by destroying whatever was good, and whatever might have been even better, in the Soviet experiment.
Yes, I was "very glad" the Soviet government was overthrown, and at the point where Gorbachev was in power, and "glasnost" and "perestroika" appeared to have a certain future, I saw the possibility of a socialist but democratic Soviet Union that would retain the social programs without the cruelties of the police state. Exactly why that possibility was crushed I confess I don't know. Did the Soviet Union as you say contribute something "progressive to the march of humanity?" I'm not sure. You attribute to the existence of the Soviet Union "the progress of unionization and social reform all over the world" and "the liberation struggles of oppressed peoples" who took "courage and inspiration and critical material support from the Soviet Union." I don't credit the Soviet Union with that. Before the Soviet Union existed we had in the United States a powerful Socialist movement, militant labor struggles, the I.W.W., the Populist Movement. Colonial peoples did not need the Soviet Union to inspire them to try to throw off the rule of imperialist powers. As for material support -- the record is mixed. The Soviet Union seems to have given material support when it was in its national interest and other times withheld it (the aid to Spain, for instance, is not clear-cut; the aid to the Greece rebels after World War II was not there -- it seems Yugoslavia gave them real aid). Yes, whatever the motives, material aid helped the Vietnamese, and helped the Cubans. But that still does not exonerate the Soviet Union for its crimes against its own people, or its own military assaults on Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Afghanistan.
No, I don't think the liberation movements "were a waste and that former imperial colonies would have been better-off negotiating their way to independence." But those are not the only alternatives -- bloody rebellion which ends in a Pyrrhic victory, as in Vietnam, and Algeria; and "negotiation". I believe in struggle and resistance for colonial liberation and for social revolution, but am skeptical of elite revolutionary leaders leading their people into bloodbaths, the ends of which are dubious. I think we need to find new forms of struggle, perhaps unprecedented in history except for rare moments like the Paris Commune and the anarchism of Catalonia and the early Soviets in Russia and Hungary.
No, I don't simply "exult" in the destruction of the Soviet State. Clearly the situation is disastrous there.But I did want an alternative to the Stalinist and post-Stalinist repression there, which was beginning to happen and then was aborted. I do think that the Soviet Union, with its ugly record of near-Fascist policies, hurt the cause of socialism with which it became more and more identified. I think its disintegration, while not yet leading to anything better, does clear the way for the idea of socialism, a democratic socialism, to become the basis for new movements for change, worldwide.