Thursday, December 2, 2021

RED SCARES IN HIGHER EDUCATION: REWRITING THE NARRATIVE OF ACADEMIC FREEDOM

Harry Targ

Purdue University has become the first public institution of higher education to adopt a free speech policy called the ‘Chicago principles,’ condemning the suppression of views no matter how ‘offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed’ they may be. (Tyler Kingkade, “Purdue Takes A Stand For Free Speech, No Matter How Offensive Or Unwise,” Huffington Post, May 15, 2015).

Colleges and universities often boast of their diversity in terms of race, sex, gender or sexual orientation, but too often they fail to encourage diversity of thought. (Kathleen Parker, “In Name of Free Speech at Purdue, Beyond,” Lafayette Journal and Courier, Thursday, May 21, 2015, 7A).

Cliches, however shopworn, can retain their usefulness provided they continue to describe their object with some accuracy. One cliche that has lost almost all value is “speaking truth to power.” These days, it almost invariably is attached not to an act of genuine courage but to its opposite, the spouting of some politically favored bromide. (Mitch Daniels, “This climate change contrarian gives us an important reminder about science in general, ”Washington Post, October 12, 2021).

To its credit, the Purdue University Board of Trustees in 2015 passed a resolution defending free speech on its college campus. The new policy was strongly endorsed by the Purdue President Mitch Daniels who, quoted by Parker, condemned universities that spawn “a bunch of little authoritarians with an inverted view of our basic freedoms.”

While the policy is correct, the implied narrative of the threat to academic freedom and diversity of thought as coming from the Left, progressives or liberals, constitutes an extraordinary rewriting of the experience of a hundred years of higher education. Any serious revisiting of the history of the modern university shows clearly that the ideas, disciplines, purposes of higher education have been shaped and transformed by money, power, the perceived needs of United States national security, and conservative ideology.

For example, Ellen Schrecker documented the enormous impact that the Red Scare of the 1940s and 1950s had on higher education in her book, No Ivory Tower: McCarthyism and the Universities (1988) She interviewed academic victims of McCarthyite attacks on faculty at prestigious universities.  They were subpoenaed to testify before state legislative or Congressional committees about their former political affiliations and associations.  As was the requirement of the times, those ordered to testify could not just admit to their own political activities but were obliged to give witness against others whom they may have known.


Some victims were former members of the Communist Party, others were signatories to petitions supporting the Spanish loyalists during their civil war, and still others had supported banning atomic weapons.  Perhaps the most troubling element of the Red Scare story was the fact that university administrations refused to defend those of their faculty who were attacked. Furthermore Schrecker reports that some university officials demanded that their faculty cooperate with these committees.  Her subjects reported that they received little or no support from administrators because officials wished to protect their universities from funding reductions.



Since the end of the Cold War, some scholars have begun to examine other aspects of the anti-communist hysteria as it related to the academy. Elizabeth Fones-Wolf, in Selling Free Enterprise: The Business Assault on Labor and Liberalism: 1945-60, addressed the multiplicity of ways in which funding priorities, rightwing assaults, official pronouncements from government officials, lobbying efforts by big business groups, and shifting electoral political currents affected and formed the content of academic programs since World War II

For example, disciplines then, and now, have been shaped by dominant "paradigms," or approaches which have included assumptions about the subjectaspects of the subject that deserved studytheories that were most appropriate for understanding the subject of the field, and the methods that should be used to study subjects in the field.  Most important, all the social sciences and humanities adopted views of their disciplines that did not challenge ongoing U.S. Cold War assumptions about the world. In each case, dominant paradigms of the 1950s and beyond constituted a rejection of 1930s and 1940s thinking, which were shaped by the labor and other struggles of the Depression era.

In the words of scholar Henry Giroux, the military-industrial-academic complex influenced personnel recruitment and retention and the substance of research and teaching.  Disciplines with more ready access to research dollars -- from engineering to psychology -- defined their research agendas to comport with the interests of the government and corporations.

However, students in the 1960s began to demand new scholarship and education.  Opposition to the Vietnam War particularly stimulated demands on professors to rethink the historical character and motivation of United States foreign policy.  William Appleman Williams and his students, the historical revisionists, articulated a view that the United States practiced imperialism ever since it became an industrial power.  Classrooms where international relations and foreign policy were taught became "contested terrain" for argumentation and debate between the older and more benign view of the U.S. role in the world and the view of the U.S. as an imperial power. 

The contestation spread.  Students demanded more diverse and complicated analyses of race and racism in America, patriarchy and sexism in gender relations, and working-class history. Every discipline and every dominant paradigm was subjected to challenge.  The challenges were also reflected in radical caucuses in professional associations and even in some of the more upright (and "uptight") signature professional journals. As a result, there was a diminution of Red Scares in higher education, for a time.

The spirit of ideological struggle in the academy diminished after the Vietnam War and especially after Ronald Reagan became president.  Reagan brought back militant Cold War policies, radically increased military expenditures, declared Vietnam a "noble cause," and developed a sustained campaign to crush dissent and reduce the strength of the labor movement.  The climate on campus to some degree returned to the 1950s.

However, a whole generation of 1960s-trained academics were now tenured faculty at universities around the country.  They institutionalized programs in African American Studies, Women's Studies, Peace Studies, and Middle East Studies.  Critical theorists populated education schools, American Studies programs, and other pockets of the university. Faculty continued the debate with keepers of dominant paradigms, created interdisciplinary programs, and developed programs shaped by key social issues such as racism, class exploitation, gender discrimination, the environmental crisis. and war.

But by the 1990s, a new version of the Red Scare was surfacing.  Some conservative academics and their constituencies talked about declining standards they said were caused by the new programs.  Others criticized what they regarded as an insufficiently rosy view of United States history.  They claimed that the United States was being unfairly condemned for the killing of millions of Native Americans or because slavery and racism were presented as central to the history of the country.  They formed academic associations and interest groups to defend against critical scholarship.


David Horowitz came along.  Overseeing a multi-million-dollar foundation funded by rightwing groups, Horowitz launched a campaign to purify academia of those who had records of teaching, research, and publication that he saw as unduly critical of the United States, ruling political or economic elites, or the global political economy.  He opposed those scholar-activists who participated in political movements or in any way connected their professional and political lives.  And he opposed those academics who participated in academic programs that were interdisciplinary, problem-focused, and not tied to traditional fields of study.  

Horowitz published a book in 2006, The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America, in which he presented distorted profiles of illustrative faculty whom he believed violated academic standards.  Most of those identified either engaged in political activity and/or participated in interdisciplinary scholarly programs that he found offensive: Middle East Studies, Women's Studies, African-American Studies, American Studies, and Peace Studies.

In conjunction with the book and similar assaults on those he disagreed with on his electronic news magazine, Horowitz encouraged right-wing students to challenge the legitimacy of these professors on college campuses and encouraged conservative student groups to pressure state legislatures to endorse so-called "student bill-of-rights legislation."  Such legislation would have established oversight by state legislatures of colleges and universities, especially their hiring practices.

Campaigns led by Lynn Cheney, the former vice-president's wife, and former Senator Joe Lieberman from Connecticut, included the creation of an organization called the American Council of Trustees and Alumni.  As Giroux summarized it, ". . . ACTA actively supports policing classroom knowledge, monitoring curricula, and limiting the autonomy of teachers and students as part of its larger assault on academic freedom" (Giroux, The University in Chains, Paradigm, 2007, 162).

Horowitz, ACTA, and other conservatives who attacked the university targeted visible academics for scrutiny and persecution.  Ward Churchill, a provocative professor of Ethnic Studies at the University of Colorado, was fired after a university committee was created to review his scholarship because of controversial remarks he made off campus.  Norman Finkelstein, a DePaul University political scientist who had written several books critical of interpreters of Israeli history and foreign policy, was denied tenure after a coordinated attack from outside his university led by Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz.  Distinguished political scientists John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt became the subject of vitriol and false charges of anti-Semitism because they published a long essay and book analyzing the "Israeli lobby." More recently, the University of Illinois reversed its contractual relationship with Professor Steven Salaita who posted electronic messages strongly critical of the state of Israel.

In addition, the new Red Scare has reinforced and legitimized the dominant paradigms in various academic disciples and created an environment of intellectual caution in the academy. While the impacts are not easily measurable, untenured faculty cannot help but be intimidated by the public attacks on their senior colleagues.  The system of tenure and promotion in most institutions is vulnerable to public pressures, individual reviewer bias, and honest disagreements among faculty about whether published work and teaching is worthy of promotion and tenure.  Therefore, just as the administrators and faculty of the 1950s felt vulnerable to outside assault on their institutions, those passing judgment on today's faculty might see the necessity of caution in hiring and retaining faculty whose perspectives are new, different, radical, and engaged.

In short, the real threats to academic freedom and free speech on college campuses have almost always come from those who wish to defend the status quo in scholarship, teaching, advocacy, foreign and national security policy, and the way the economy is organized. 

Furthermore, in a recent book Ralph Wilson and Isaac Kamola, (“Free Speech and Koch Money: Manufacturing a Campus Culture War,” Pluto Press, 2021), argue that today the most fundamental question that supporters of real academic freedom should address is what politically motivated and economically powerful forces are raising the issue of academic freedom and individualism and what newer supporters mean by these terms. From the standpoint of these authors, vast resources of the Koch Foundation, the Bradley Foundation, their think tanks and support groups, advocate an higher education that celebrates individual freedom and the virtues of western civilization “while denying the existence of actual material and historical legacies of racial, gendered, and class-based exclusions, marginalizations, and violences.”

In short, Wilson and Kamola argue, these powerful economic interests in US society today seek to remake higher education to celebrate “individuals maximizing utility within the freedom of immaculately self-regulating markets.” And, for them, “manufacturing a campus free speech crisis” uses the traditional language of academic freedom to stifle scholarship and debate on issues and traditions of scholarship that have been growing to equip students with a more accurate understanding of the past and the present. And educational spokespersons like President Daniels, cleverly misuse the apt phrase “speaking truth to power” to defend those who wish to stifle real debate on issues of educational and public policy significance.



 One would hope that the new defenders of free speech and academic freedom, such as Kathleen Parker and the Purdue University Board of Trustees did in 2015, will defend faculty who are critics of various public policies and the prevailing distributions of wealth, income, power, and unequal privileges based on class, race, gender, and sexual orientation. This would be an historic change from the practice of silencing progressive voices in higher education.

An earlier version of this essay was posted on May 21, 2015.

 

Saturday, November 20, 2021

WAR, MILITARISM, AND RESISTANCE: REVISITING CONTEMPORARY HISTORY

 Harry Targ

The original essay was written in 2013. Senator Sanders and the Progressive Caucus today, 2021, are demanding a cut in military spending. The analysis below is still relevant.


("The spending on contractors continues today at the same rapid clip, accounting for more than half of average Pentagon spending each year. And with Congress poised to approve a $778 billion one-year spending package (that would be around $7.8 trillion over ten years, even without further increases) for the military, the contractors stand to gain again. Democrats are slashing the Build Back Better bill from $3.5 trillion to $1.75 trillion over ten years. Meanwhile, Pentagon contractors have received $3.4 trillion over the past decade." (Lindsay Koshgarian, "U.S. Military Contracts Totaled $3.4 Trillion Over 10 Years,”  Institute for Policy Studies, October 28, 2021)

Imperialism

 I still find compelling the main points about modern imperialism articulated by Lenin in his famous essay on the subject. Reflecting on the transformations of capitalism from its early manufacturing days until the twentieth century he argued that economic concentration had replaced a multiplicity of semi-independent economic actors, manufacturing capital had merged with financial institutions creating a system of monopoly finance capital, and as a consequence the export of capital--what we would call today foreign investment, financial speculation, and the debt system--would replace the export of commodities as the dominant form of economic exchange on a global basis. During some periods capitalist states would divide up the world each extracting wealth of all kinds from its own sphere of influence and during other periods they would engage in competition and even war to pursue profits. Lenin could not foresee a time, from the mid-20th century until now, when resistance would come not only from competing and militarized capitalist states but from masses of people in colonized, neocolonial, and dependent societies.

The Cold War and Post-Cold War International Systems 

The latest phase of the system Lenin described was constructed at the end of World War II. The United States emerged from the war as the most powerful nation and used military, economic, political, and cultural tools to enshrine its dominance. This meant building a system to crush the emerging Socialist Bloc, controlling the drive toward independence of former colonies, and shaping the politics of lesser but significant capitalist states. To achieve these difficult goals, the United States began to construct a “permanent war economy.”

By the 1960s, the United States capacity to control the economic and military destiny of the world was severely challenged. The Tet Offensive of January, 1968 represented a metaphoric great divide as U.S. presumptions of hegemony were sorely challenged by a poor but passionate Vietnamese people’s army. From the late 1960s onward the U.S. was challenged not only on the battlefield but in the global economy. Rates of profit of U.S. corporations declined. Industrialization had led to overproduction. Working classes in the United States and other capitalist countries had gained more rights and privileges. Socialist countries were experiencing significant growth spurts. Countries of the Global South began to demand a New International Economic Order that regulated the way global capitalism worked. In addition, inter-capitalist rivalry grew. On top of all this the price of oil increased markedly.

The response of the global capitalist powers (the G7 countries) to the crisis of capitalism was a dramatic shift in the pursuit of profit from the production of goods and services to what became known as financialization, or financial speculation. The banks Lenin talked about became instrumental. With rising oil prices, oil rich countries awash in new profits, and banks swelling with petrodollars, nations were enticed and forced to borrow to pay for the oil that cost many times more than it had in the recent past. The global debt system was launched. When the United States freed the dollar from the gold standard, currencies themselves became a source of speculation. 

The debt system gave international financial institutions and banks the power to impose demands on countries that required loans. Thus, the IMF, the World Bank, regional international banks, and private institutions demanded that the world’s countries open their doors to foreign investors, cut their government programs, privatize their economies, and shift to exporting commodities to earn the cash to pay back the bankers. The era of neoliberalism was advanced by globalization, the scientific, technological, and cultural capacity to traverse the globe. No geographic space could maintain autonomy from global capitalism. So a Cold War that was launched by creating a permanent war economy was transformed by financialization, neoliberalism, and globalization. With the shift of work from higher wage capitalist centers to low wage peripheries, deindustrialization became a common feature of the economic landscape.

By the 21st century the system of neoliberal globalization was facilitated by new techniques of empire. Wars which traditionally had been fought between states were now fought within states. The United States established a military presence virtually all across the globe with an estimated 700 to 1,000 military installations in at least 40 countries. Major functions of the globalization of military operations had become privatized so massive U.S. corporations gained even more profits from war-making than they had during the days of the Cold War. The military—public and private—began to engage in assassinations and covert “humanitarian interventions.” And, aided by new technologies, the United States and other capitalist countries, using unmanned aerial vehicles or drones, could make war on enemies without “boots on the ground.” As we have learned, intelligence gathering, spying on people, has immeasurably advanced as well.

To put it succinctly, while imperialism remains generically as it has been throughout history today:

 -Imperialism has become truly global.

 -The military continues to be big business, sucking up at least half of the federal budget.

 -The United States has developed the capacity to fight wars without soldiers on the ground.

 -Empires, particularly the United States empire, kill with impunity.

 -The connections between economic interest and militarism remain central.

 -Ideologies defending 21st century military interventions vary from those neoconservatives who argue that the United States must use its power to maximize our global position to the humanitarian interventionists who claim that the United States acts in the world for good.



Resistance

This narrative is not unfamiliar to us. What is less familiar is the idea that throughout history the forces of domination have been challenged by resistance, sometimes successfully, sometimes less so. It is important to note that the drive for U.S. hegemony, for example, has been affected by resistance. A recent articulation of this narrative appears in the writings of Vijay Prashad, who has described the efforts of the newly independent nations of the Global South to achieve political and economic sovereignty. Many of these efforts from the 1950s to the 1970s faltered at the steps of the debt system and neoliberal globalization. But the struggle has continued. In addition, there have been examples of people such as the Cubans and the Vietnamese who, with much pain and suffering, were able to achieve some measure of economic sovereignty and political independence.

21st century movements for change are varied and complicate the efforts of imperialism to achieve its goals. Resistance has included the following:

-Mercosur, a trade organization that once included Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Venezuela, Chile, and others waiting for admittance constituted the third largest trading bloc in the world. 

-The development of collaborative relationships among powerful Global South nations have occurred from time to time such as when representatives from the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) met to chart an independent agenda in global affairs.

-The Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA) has consisted of ten Latin American/Caribbean countries which launched a program of economic integration and political cooperation.

-The Community of Latin America and Caribbean States (CELAC) a new grouping of some 33 Western Hemisphere nations, minus the United States and Canada, seeks to expand regional collaboration.

-Individual nations, based on their historic resistance to imperialism, such as Cuba, Vietnam, Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Bolivia, and Mexico continue to inspire activists.

-The United Nations system, considerably weakened from the days of the Cold War, still engages in global mobilizations through its conferences, support for some progressive NGOs, and projects involving education, development, and peacekeeping. Affiliated organized such as the International Labor Organization pursue goals that are sometimes independent of imperial agendas.

-Global anti-capitalist mobilizations, such as the World Social Forum, brought together thousands of activists largely from the Global South to discuss the problems faced by workers, women, indigenous people, environmental activists, and others.

-Perhaps most important at this time is the grassroots mobilizations of millions of people all across the globe demanding economic justice, worker rights, gender equality, environmental justice,  and peace. Such mobilizations, while stimulated by local issues, are defined as part of a global movement such as the 2011 “From Tahrir Square to Madison, Wisconsin.” People worldwide, particularly the young, workers, and women are seeing the common dimensions of struggle against imperialism.

 


Where Do Left and Progressive Forces Fit?

First, we on the left need to “bring imperialism back in;” that is socialist organizations can through education revisit and revise the theory of imperialism so that it is more serviceable for 21st century socialist movements.

Second, progressives should link war/peace issues to environmental issues, to gender issues, to class issues, and race issues. As Martin Luther King declared in 1967: “I speak of the poor of America who are paying the double price of smashed hopes at home, and death and corruption in Vietnam.”

Third, every socialist and progressive organization should challenge the permanent war economy. Andrew Bacevich pointed out that the framers of the permanent war economy in the 1940s believed that the role of the citizenry was to remain quiescent, pliant, and supportive of the decisions made by the foreign policy establishment. That assumption must be resisted.

Fourth, local and national work should link economic justice, environmental preservation, and peace. These issues are inextricably connected.

Finally, left and progressive groups should respond to specific imperial transgressions by:

 -working to cut military budgets

 -opposing drone warfare

 -saying no to US military aid to rebels fighting against governments the US opposes

 -supporting the just demands of the Palestinian people

 -challenging the construction of military bases in Asia and Africa

 -demanding an end to subversion in Latin America

 -calling for the end of hybrid wars in Latin America.

 -insisting on the end of the Cuban blockade.

 




 

 

Tuesday, November 16, 2021

Ideological Hegemony and Higher Education

 

Ideological Hegemony and Higher Education: Ideas as Material Forces

Sunday, November 7, 2021

TWENTIETH CENTURY REVOLUTIONS: PLANTING THE SEEDS FOR TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY SOCIALISM

Presented at the Working Class Studies Association annual conference, June 1, 2017, Indiana University,

(A revised version was printed in Duncan McFarland ed. The Russian Revolution and the Soviet Union: Seeds of 21st Century Socialism, Changemaker Publications. http://www.lulu.com/spotlight/chsngemaker)


Harry Targ, Professor Emeritus, Department of Political Science, Purdue University

Understanding Revolutions: Theoretical and Empirical Explorations

The phenomena of revolution has long been a subject of interest to scholars and activists. The original curiosity about revolution has its roots in histories and analyses of “the great revolutions,” the English Revolution, the French Revolution, the American Revolution, the Russian Revolution, and the Chinese Revolution. Subsequent to early studies of the great revolutions scholars and activists have conceptualized historical transformations in Cuba, Vietnam, Algeria, Iran and other cases as possible candidates for studies of revolution.

Perhaps undergirding the study of societal changes in the twentieth century, interest and concern about the Russian Revolution stands out as a motivation for such research and speculation. A substantial hidden motivation for this concern has been an implicit bias against the consequences of the Russian Revolution for other societies: for order and stability, for “civilization,” for the future of humankind. This bias includes various defenders of traditional regimes and cultures and sectors of left opposition to them who have been as vociferous opponents of the Russian Revolution and its consequences as the avowed enemies of revolution.

This essay briefly surveys the social science study of revolution, identifies key moments in the history of the former Soviet Union (which was officially constituted in 1922, five years after the revolution) from the vantage point of the anti-Soviet left, and proposes ways in which the Russian Revolution and its aftermath has contributed to social change in the twentieth century and continues to make contributions for the building of a twenty-first century socialism. This is a difficult and controversial subject, but one that needs to be confronted if a socialist agenda for the twenty-first century is to be meaningful.

The Social Scientific Study of Revolution

The subject of revolution has intrigued modern social science research and theory. Jack Goldstone (“Toward a Fourth Generation of Revolutionary Theory,” Annual Review of Political Science, 2001:4, 139-187) provides a wide-ranging survey of the twentieth century literature on the subject. He addresses the definitions of revolution; types of revolutions: the causes of revolution; the role of states, elites, ideology, mobilizations for and against revolution, foreign influences and factors such as leadership and gender shaping revolutions. Each of these sets of factors have generated research, discussion, and debate about this thing called revolution.

The literature surveyed has several interesting general features that characterize the way the phenomena has been studied.  First, the concept of revolution, which was first derived from interest in a handful of cases has expanded to include all kinds of transfers of power; including Nicaragua, Iran, Afghanistan, and as some data sets suggest hundreds of cases of the transfer of power. Second, as Goldstone suggests, scholars have identified many “types” of revolutions: elite led power shifts, grassroots mobilizations, worker-led versus peasant-led forms, and unplanned disintegrations of political institutions. Third, the literature, Goldstone indicates, addresses the causes of revolutions. Here too there are a myriad of explanations from foreign intervention, the declining legitimacy of elites, intra-elite factionalism, crises in the distribution of resources among the population, unsustainable population growth, and stagnating economies.

An additional designation of revolution addresses various processes that generate the transformation that is being described. Some research on revolution concentrates on the formation of oppositional groups from unions to political parties, networking among opponents of regimes, leadership skills,  the building of identities, and ideologies. In addition, some perspectives include a discussion of culture, from value systems to popular manifestations of protest. Also attention is paid to leadership skills and style. In recent years, studies have addressed the role of gender in revolutionary processes. Further, “rational choice” models assess  the individual and group costs and benefits of participating in some effort at systemic transformation of the political and/or economic system.

As to the consequences of revolution, Goldstone suggests the research is sparser. “The outcomes of revolutions have generated far less scholarly inquiry than the causes, with the possible exception of outcomes regarding gender. This may be because the outcomes of revolutions are assumed to follow straightforwardly if the revolutionaries succeed. However, such research as we have on outcomes contradicts this assumption: revolutionary outcomes take unexpected twists and turns” (Goldstone, 167). The research that has been done, he said, shows little long-term economic development or democratization after revolutionary occurrences. While China and the Soviet Union experienced short-term industrialization neither “has succeeded in generating the broad-based economic innovation and entrepreneurship required to generate sustained rapid economic advance.”  He refers to an edited collection by D.Chirot, (The Crisis of Leninism and the Decline of the Left: the Revolutions of 1989, 1991, University of Washington Press) on this point.

After summarizing the myriad of studies of revolution, Goldstone does say that despite their failures to achieve sustained economic development and democratization revolutions have been “remarkably successful in mobilizing populations and utilizing the mobilization for political and military power.” And these results, he claims, are attributable to strong leadership. In terms of international relations, revolutions have had consequences: stimulating others to revolt, causing threatened states to engage in conflict with the new regimes, and stimulating new states to engage in aggressiveness (for example the warlike behavior resulting from the Nazi “revolution”).

This survey of the social scientific study of revolution suggests many weaknesses. First, what is called “revolution” is defined in so many ways that all different transfers of power from Russia, China, Germany, Iran, Afghanistan, Nicaragua, to Cuba are all contenders irrespective of their radically different aims and bases of support.

Second, the lack of definition affords social scientists the opportunity to disaggregate every conceivable variable that might be part of the phenomena such that the historical and dialectical character of the revolutionary process is totally excluded from the analysis. Mindless empiricism replaces subtle historically-grounded judgement.

Third, and as a result of the second, leadership, organization, ideology, class, economic and political context, the cultural backdrop, and the international dimensions are all disassembled in such a way as to mask the reality behind the process.

Fourth, the analyses tend to be “presentist,” that is the history that led up to the transfer of power and the long-term domestic and international impacts of the revolution are eliminated from the analysis. And to the contrary, commentators and activists who have been part of revolutionary struggles provide a lens on the process that is usually deeply embedded in the country’s history, the long-term prospects for organizing aggrieved groups, and a vision of a “better future” that takes account of various setbacks, patterns of resistance, and regime errors. Social scientists have little or no sensitivity to revolution as an historic project.

And it is for these reasons that assessments of the Russian Revolution, 100 years later, requires an historical and dialectical assessment that goes beyond conventional scholarship.

Historical Materialists Analyses of the Post-1917 Post Soviet Experience:

Left critics of the former Soviet Union (and by implication often the Russian Revolution) have historicized the revolutionary process as they have assessed its impacts. If there is an historical narrative it is “declension,” or a step-by-step set of decisions that led to a betrayal of the vision of the revolution. The categorization of experiences of decline include the bureaucratization of the state, the centralization of power, Stalinism, and the transition from socialism to Soviet Social Imperialism. Each of these critiques is the result of political disputes between key political actors and/or nation-states as they engage with or confront the former Soviet Union. For some, the emerging conflicts have their roots in the Russian Revolution itself, particularly after the death of Lenin.

Looking at critical historical junctures, left critics of the Russian Revolution identify at least six moments in the declension. First, the Soviet leadership debated the direction of economic planning in the post-Civil War period shifting from “war communism” to the New Economic Policy. The latter reflected the need to slow down the process of moving from a capitalist to a socialist economy, recognizing the ongoing role of markets, and protecting private property, central to the outlook of the peasantry. For some, the NEP adopted by Lenin, constituted a shift away from the socialist project. Pragmatism replaced principle.

Second, with the death of Lenin, Stalin emerged as the new leader of the Soviet Union. He moved to collectivize agriculture, shifted more in the direction of a command economy, isolated his enemies, and escalated repression of dissent. What became known as Stalinism was a metaphor for totalitarianism. Totalitarian societies, critics suggested, were those in which the minds and behaviors of its members were controlled by a top-down administrative apparatus.

Third, the Soviet/Nazi Pact of 1938 is presented as proof that the similarities between fascism and Soviet-style communism outweighed any differences that were claimed by each. It showed, the critics said, that Stalin was willing to make a pact with any regime to maintain himself in power. At the state level the construction of socialism was replaced by traditional conceptions of national interest.

Fourth, the consequences of Stalinism were proclaimed in Nikita Khrushchev’s famous Twentieth Party Congress speech in 1956. It condemned the loss of life during the collectivization of agriculture, the trial and execution of Stalin’s enemies in the late 1930s, and  criticized Stalin’s efforts to control the political life of allies in Eastern Europe. 

Fifth, the Soviet Union practiced “great power chauvinism,” intervening in other countries when the latter seemed to be pursuing an independent path of economic and political development. This was most visible as Soviet troops crushed rebellions in Budapest in 1956 and Prague Spring in 1968. In both cases, workers and students sought more political autonomy within the Socialist camp.

And finally, many Communists around the world embraced the Chinese evaluation of the Soviet Union as a case of Soviet Social Imperialism, that is socialist in name but capitalist and imperialist in reality. And the Chinese embraced Mao’s “theory of three worlds.” One of the world’s poles, consisted of the United States and the Soviet Union. This pole represented the pursuit of global hegemony at the expense of most countries in the international system. The vast majority of countries were from the “Third World.” European countries, east and west, constituted a Second World. Consequently, with China in the lead, the countries and peoples of the Third World needed to band together to challenge the domination of the two imperial powers and their client states.

The theorists who articulated one or many of these six moments came from the Communist or Socialist left. Contrary to the social scientists, these analysts derived their positions from historical analyses. Several of the theoretical positions on the Russian Revolution in decline came from the prioritizing of these historical moments; whether embracing the NEP, the rise of Stalinism, the Soviet-Nazi Pact, the revelations of Khrushchev, the invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia, or the Sino/Soviet split. But while these analyses use history to make their case against the historic project of the Russian Revolution they do so in a one-sided and ultimately ahistorical way. Whereas the social scientists atomize their subject, the left critical theorists derive simplistic historical lessons from their analyses.

Contextualizing the Russian Revolutionary Project

In 1916, Lenin, the leader of the Bolshevik party that would seize power in 1917 and establish a state commonly referred to as Communist, wrote an essay: “Imperialism, The Highest Stage of Capitalism.” In it he described the latest stage of capitalist development as consisting of an economic system in each developed country of industrial and financial monopolies increasingly pursuing investment and trade opportunities in other countries. Sometimes powerful capitalist countries cooperated with each other, accepting spheres of influence where each would dominate. Other times powerful capitalist states would compete with each other for access to land, labor, resources, and investment opportunities. These last circumstances could lead to war. And, for Lenin, World War One was a direct result of capitalist competition and conflict.

One year after Lenin published his essay Lenin’s political party seized state power in Russia and created the new Soviet Union, the first state generally defined as Communist. President Wilson of the United States and his Secretary of State began to speak of the new danger of Communism to the prospects for creating democracies and market-oriented economies across the globe. The animosity to the new regime in Russia was manifested in several ways. Armies from at least fifteen countries sent troops to support a counter-revolutionary campaign against the new Soviet government. The counter-revolution supported by the United States continued until 1933 as it refused to diplomatically recognize the Soviet regime.  When President Franklin Roosevelt assumed office in 1933, the Soviet Union was finally recognized.

During the 1930s, fascist movements gained power in Germany, Italy, Japan, and across central Europe. The Soviet Union, now led by Joseph Stalin, engaged in programs of rapid industrialization in part out of fear of the rise of German fascism. With the emergence of a fascist assault on democracy in Spain, relative isolationist policies in the United States, and acquiescence to fascism among European powers, the Soviet Union signed a controversial peace pact with Nazi Germany. The Germans also signed an agreement at Munich with Great Britain, France, and Italy promising non-aggression. This promise was short lived as their army invaded Poland in 1939. In 1941 they rescinded the Soviet/German agreement by invading the Soviet Union. The United States began to supply western nations fighting Germany with war material and after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States declared war on Japan and Germany. World War Two ensued.

During the war an “unnatural” but necessary alliance was formed between the United States and Great Britain, the new capitalist giant and the declining capitalist colonial power, and the Soviet Union, the center of the Communist political and ideological universe. After four years of devastating war in which 27 million Soviet citizens died and the Red army confronted 90 percent of Germany’s armies, the Nazi war machine was defeated in Europe. United States and British forces defeated Japanese militarism in Asia. The leaders of the wartime anti-fascist alliance, President Roosevelt, Winston Churchill of Great Britain, and Joseph Stalin of the Soviet Union met at Yalta on the Crimean Sea in February, 1945 and reached agreements on the establishment of a post-war world order. Just before the war ended in Europe, April, 1945, the new United Nations held its first meeting in San Francisco.

The “spirit of Yalta” was short-lived as escalating tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union developed over a variety of issues as when to hold Polish elections, Soviet support of a separatist movement in Iran, and the Greek Civil War, where an anti-communist government was trying to repress the former Greek resistance dominated by Greek Communists. The struggle was over what kind of post-war government should be created. The British, who had supported a repressive Greek government, urged the United States to step in, help the faltering Greek government, and save Greece from Communism. In a meeting held in February, 1947 to develop a recommendation for President Harry Truman, key diplomats and politicians endorsed the idea of United States financial and military support for the beleaguered Greek government. The Republican chairperson of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Arthur Vandenberg, advised President Truman that he better “scare hell out of the American people” if the President would want to build support for a global policy of opposition to the Soviet Union.


Taking Vandenberg’s advice, President Truman spoke to the Congress and the nation on March 13, 1947 announcing his famous Truman Doctrine. He declared that the United States was going to be involved in a long war against a diabolical enemy, the Soviet Union. He said it must be the role of the United States to defend free peoples everywhere against the spread of International Communism. With that speech, warning of the Communist threat and need of the U.S. to resist it,  the general features of United States foreign policy for the next forty years were proclaimed.

"The Free World” Battles “International Communism”

 


 Over the 45 years between the end of World War Two and the beginnings of the collapse of Soviet bloc Communist states, tensions, threats of war, proxy wars between the United States and the Soviet Union ensued. The wars in Korea, Vietnam, Central America, and Southern Africa involved super power troops and/or military assistance to support their side in the Cold War. Historians have debated the root causes of United States foreign policy toward the Soviet Union. Some claim, as President Truman articulated, that the spread of International Communism, primarily through Soviet expansion, required a bold aggressive U.S. foreign policy. Others argued that the U.S./Soviet conflict was not too dissimilar from most big power conflicts in world history. Finally, the historical revisionists  developed the most compelling case claiming that U.S. foreign policy was about the interests of global capital. The spread of Communism ever since the initiation of the Russian Revolution was seen as a threat to the pursuit of investment, trade, cheap labor, access to natural resources and, in total, corporate profits.

Irrespective of the root causes of U.S. and allied foreign policies, they were explained in terms of the Communist threat. Pundits referred in a simplistic way to writings of Marx or Lenin or Mao Zedong to prove that Communist regimes sought to expand their power and control. This theme exacerbated political conflicts within the United States as the Communist issue was used to promote conservative politicians and public policies. The decade of the 1950s is often identified with the Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy who claimed that the successes of Communist regimes such as the Soviet Union and China occurred because of subversive Communist individuals and groups in or close to the United States government who were committed to weakening American institutions including government, popular culture, the education system, and even the military. While anti-communism had been deeply embedded in the American political culture ever since the rise of the labor movement in the 19th century, it grew in 1917, and flourished after World War Two. Being a Communist became associated with liberal domestic policies and supporting peaceful relations with Communist states.

Soviet fear of the west had its roots in the interventions of western and Japanese armies on the side of counter-revolutionaries during the Russian civil war. Statements from U.S. presidents from Woodrow Wilson to Ronald Reagan about the threat the Soviet Union represented exacerbated Soviet fears. And paralleling Truman’s warning of the danger of International Communism to Ronald Reagan’s conceptualization of the Soviet Union as the “evil empire,” the Soviet Union consolidated its control of Eastern Europe, sought to keep up with the west in the arms race, and supported allies in the Global South who were challenging the rule of pro-western governments.  The concept of Communism in the west and capitalist imperialism in the east fueled an escalating arms race, the profusion of nuclear weapons, and periodic crises that brought the two big powers into direct conflict. From the Berlin Blockade to the Korean and Vietnamese Wars to the Cuban Missile Crisis, to the building of the Berlin War, the Cold War always had within it the danger of escalating to hot war, maybe even nuclear war. The impacts of this ideological contestation led to wasted military expenditures on both sides, wars in the name of fighting Communism in Asia, Africa, and Latin America; domestic repression in both the Western and Soviet orbit, and always the fear of nuclear war lurking in the background.  



Conflicts Within the Communist World

Key foreign policy decision-makers in the United States and many spokespersons for Communist countries and movements portrayed the Communist world as one based on solidarity and harmony. For the West, ironically, this perceived unity was the basis of the threat Communism meant for the so-called free world. However, while many states, and parties outside the Communist orbit, shared in a general Marxist/Leninist outlook, geopolitical conflicts diminished the harmony that simplistic outsiders believed existed among Communists.

The most significant and long-standing geopolitical and violent conflict among Communist nations involved the two largest, most powerful, and most engaged Communist countries; the Soviet Union and China. The so-called Sino-Soviet split which became visible to the world in the late 1960s had its roots in troubled relations between Joseph Stalin of the Soviet Union and Mao Zedong of the Chinese Communist Party going back as far as the 1920s. Soviet/Chinese diplomatic tensions intensified in the late 1950s when Soviet and Chinese policy-makers disagreed about the appropriate development model the latter should adopt, whether the Soviets should provide the Chinese with nuclear weapons, and whether the Soviet Union should be negotiating with the capitalist enemy, the United States.

By the 1960s, Mao Zedong was declaring that the Peoples Republic of China, not the Soviet Union, represented the hub of an International Communist movement of poor countries. Mao declared that the Soviet Union was a state capitalist, and therefore imperialist, power and as much a threat to most of the world as the United States. The Nixon Administration, for the first time recognizing the Sino/Soviet split, began to play one Communist giant off against another. The president reopened relations with and visited China and signed trade and arms agreements with the Soviet Union. This increased the fears the Soviets and the Chinese had of each other, making them more cooperative with the traditional enemy, the United States.

The growing conflict between the Soviet Union and China reverberated around the world. On the Indochinese peninsula, the Soviet Union supported the newly unified Vietnamese government in its disputes with a new regime in Cambodia. The Chinese supported the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia and invaded Vietnam in 1978. The Soviets and the Chinese supported different political groups in the long civil war in Angola. And in general, Communist regimes and parties felt compelled to side with one Communist giant against another.

These internecine conflicts weakened the Communist world and the Communist movement as a force in world history. The Sino/Soviet split was vital to understanding the collapse of the Soviet bloc between 1989 and 1991 and the shift of the post-Cold War international system to one based on globalization. What is clear is that the role of the vision, the ideology, and the practice of Communism was made more complicated and ultimately was contradicted by geopolitics in international relations.

Assessing the Russian Revolutionary Project in the Twentieth Century

Social scientists have contributed to the discussion of revolutionary processes by studying political organizations, leadership, ideology, mass-based support, regime types, and external interventions. Left critics of the Russian Revolution and the former Soviet Union, provide useful analyses of weaknesses in efforts to build socialism in the former Soviet Union. At the same time there is a danger in these intellectual traditions in that they underestimate the extraordinary contributions the Russian Revolution and the Soviet Union made to the advance of socialism as a world historic project. And by marginalizing this history, millennial activists lack the tools to learn from the twentieth century about theory and practice, finding themselves groping for an understanding of where modern exploitation and oppression have come from and thinking about ways to challenge them.

First, the Russian Revolution was the singular event in modern history where a radical overthrow of a reactionary regime occurred, in which the new leadership represented the interests and perspectives of the working class. Its leaders embraced an anti-capitalist agenda and articulated a vision of building socialism, in both Russia and the entire international system.

Second, for oppressed people around the world (Lenin estimated that 1/7 of the world’s population lived under colonialism) the Russian Revolution stood for the overthrow of rule by the small number of capitalist powers. Within a decade of the solidification of the Revolution, anti-colonial activists from every continent began to dialogue about developing a common struggle against the great colonial empires of the first half of the twentieth century. And Third World revolutionary and anti-colonial activists, such as Mao Zedong and Ho Chi Minh, looked to the Russian experience as a guide and source of support for their struggles.

Third, the experience of the Russian workers, paralleled by workers movements in the United States and other countries, gave impetus and inspiration to class struggles. Leaders of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) for example and many Debsian Socialists saw the Russian Revolution as a stepping-stone for the overthrow of capitalist exploitation of the working class in the United States.

Fourth, the Bolshevik Revolution stimulated new currents in struggles of people of color, particularly in the United States. Black Nationalist leaders of the African Blood Brotherhood and intellectuals of the Harlem Renaissance began to see a connection between racism and capitalist exploitation. Cyril Briggs, Harry Haywood, and others of the ABB were early founders of the Communist Party USA. Many saw in the evolving Soviet experience a commitment to oppose all forms of national oppression, including anti-Semitism, and over the decades prominent artists, intellectuals, and activists such as Paul Robeson and W. E. B. DuBois spoke to the connections between capitalist exploitation, national oppression and colonialism, racism, and war. In each of these cases the image of the Russian Revolution, if not the reality, contributed mightily to global struggles against capitalism, imperialism, and racism.

Fifth, International Women’s Day was first celebrated by the newly created Russian government on March 8, 1917, and it became a national holiday in the Soviet Union after the Bolsheviks seized power in November 1917. As in reference to marginalized people, workers, people of color, ethnic minorities, the Russian Revolution sent a message that human liberation for all was possible. In the case of women, the new regime declared its commitment to women at a time when struggles for women’s suffrage were occurring in Great Britain  and the United States.

Sixth,  the first decade of the Russian Revolution was a time of experimentation in the arts and culture. Poster art, literature, music, alternative theories of pedagogy were stimulated by the revolutionary atmosphere. The support for cultural experimentation was stifled in the 1930s with the rise of the fascist threat and Stalinism at home but the linking of political revolution and cultural liberation became etched in the consciousness of revolutionaries everywhere. The literacy campaigns in Cuba and Nicaragua many years later may have been inspired by cultural dimensions of revolution inspired by the Russian Revolution.

Seventh, the rise of fascism in Europe and Asia created the necessity of anti-fascist states mobilizing for war. The Soviet Union assumed a major burden and thus became a leader in the anti-fascist struggles that engulfed the world by the late 1930s. Sensing impending German aggression, the creativity of the revolution was transformed into a mass mobilization of workers to rapid industrialization in preparation for German aggression. Germany invaded Poland in 1938 and the former Soviet Union in 1941. From the onset of World War II until its end, vast stretches of the Soviet homeland were laid waste and over 27 million Russians died in war. Without the Soviet sacrifice, fascism would have engulfed Europe.

Eighth, in the Cold War period, the Soviet Union and its allies were confronted with an anti-Soviet, anti-communist coalition of nations committed to the “rollback” of International Communism. What began as the first step down the path to socialism became a great power battle between the east and the west. And despite the enormity of resources the Soviets committed to their side of the arms race, they still supported virtually every anti-colonial, anti-imperial campaign around the world; from Asia, to Africa, to the Middle East, and Latin America. They gave Vietnam and Cuba a lifeline; they supported the African National Congress and South African Communist Party; the MPLA in Angola; and they supported nationalists leaders such as Gamal Abdul Nasser in Egypt.

Ninth, until the Sino/Soviet split rent asunder the socialist camp, the Soviet Union provided a check on the unbridled advances of western capitalism. After the split in international communism in the 1960s, Soviet influence in the world began to decline. This split had much to do with the dramatic weakening of socialism as a world force in the 1990s.  One can only speculate what the twenty-first century would have looked like if the Soviet Union had survived? Would the wars on Afghanistan and Iraq have occurred? Would the Libyan regime have been overthrown? Would the countries of the Global South have had larger political space in world politics inside and outside the United Nations?

Lessons Learned

It is important, one hundred years after the Russian Revolution, to think about its contribution to human history, (and for many of us to twenty-first century socialism). First, it is important to conceptualize revolution as a multi-dimensional historical process, a process which sets off numerous collateral responses, positive and negative. This means that all the variables articulated by social scientists are part of an explanation of what revolution means. Also the history of shortcomings and the historical contexts are part of this process.

Second, when we revisit the Russian Revolution (and the Soviet Union which has to be seen as an extension of the revolutionary project) several features, often ignored, need to be stressed. The Russian Revolution planted the seeds for workers struggles everywhere. The Russian Revolution inspired anti-racist campaigns, particularly developing the links between class and race. The Russian Revolution provided a modest dimension to the historic process of women’s liberation. And putting all this together the Russian Revolution, and the material support of the former Soviet Union, gave impetus to the anti-colonial movements of the last half of the twentieth century. And we must remember that virtually all these dimensions were actively opposed by western imperialism, particularly the United States.

Having recognized all this, and other contributions as well, twenty-first century advocates of socialism need to revisit the history of socialism, of revolution, to find the roots of today’s struggles. The intellectual formulations of today, as well as debates about them, go back at least one hundred years. The intellectual connections revolutionaries today make with their past can be liberating in that they suggest continuity with common historic struggles. And they provide an opportunity to relive, study, critique, embrace or reject, ideas, strategies, tactics, and organizational forms of the past.

As a former leader of the Chinese Communist movement, Zhou Enlai is alleged to have said in response to a journalist’s request for an evaluation of the French Revolution, Zhou said, “it’s too early to say.”