APOLOGISTS for Western capitalism have long sought to discredit the idea of socialism by pointing to the terror of Stalin's regime in Russia. It is now just over ten years since that system collapsed, but the message is the same-any attempt to build an alternative to capitalism is doomed to follow the path of the Soviet Union.
A new book by Mike Haynes answers these arguments by looking at Russia over the last 100 years. In the opening chapter Mike shows how the 1917 revolution was a genuine workers' revolution, with mass participation and democracy. He conveys the sense of exhilaration, liberation and hope as workers began to seize control of society. Here, for example, he describes the widespread hope that the revolution would spread across Europe:
'The word 'international' appeared everywhere in 1917. It is there in the photographs on the banners of the crowds, some of them crudely daubed, others elegantly and painstakingly embroidered. The ships of the Tsar's navy were given new names like Citizen, Republic and Dawn of Freedom.'
The revolution was a festival of the oppressed, but tragically it did not spread to other countries. Revolutionary Russia was invaded by 21 foreign armies, trade was blockaded and the people were reduced to utter destitution and starvation. Despite the appalling conditions in the Soviet Union, it still took a vicious counter-revolution to overthrow the workers' state. Stalin had to resort to extreme repression in order to consolidate his rule and to wipe out the memory of 1917.
As Mike argues, 'Terror was needed to kickstart Stalin's new regime precisely because it involved a usurping of power and a break with the past.' Stalin had to physically annihilate the generation which had made the revolution, through show trials and mass executions.
There were 790,000 executions for 'political reasons' between 1929 and Stalin's death in 1953, most of them taking place in just two years, 1937 and 1938. And as well as these executions there were 'hundreds and thousands of other victims, who were shot, imprisoned or forced into slave labour camps'. The new, despotic regime had absolutely nothing in common with the workers' state established by the revolution. Freedoms were crushed and workers were exploited as ruthlessly as they were in the West.
There are brilliant descriptions of the lives of those at the top and of the workers who, like workers in the West, suffered the sharp end of exploitation. Boris Yeltsin, the ex-president, described how the Soviet Politburo lived in a 'fantasia of property, pleasure and megalomania'. There are moving accounts of the lives of workers forced to live in what one novelist described as the 'fevered sprawls of featureless glass and concrete boxes'.
By the early 1980s the working class in the Soviet Union had become one of the biggest anywhere in the world. Mike explains why resistance was so difficult under the rigid, dictatorial regime which still called itself socialist. But he also describes the acts of resistance which did take place. Mike also examines the nature of the revolutions in Eastern Europe in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet regime in 1991.
These revolutions were a change from one form of capitalism to another. Communist party bosses and others in the old ruling class 'began speaking fluent English, wearing good suits and spouting the mantra of the market'. The ruling class grew rich and fat as they pushed through market 'reforms' and one of the most corrupt privatisation programmes in the world. Once again workers have paid the price. In the 1990s 'excess mortality' figures showed that some six million extra people had died.
Throughout the book there are boxes which explain different aspects of the arguments, with quotes, stories and figures to illustrate the points. That makes the book very accessible, although newer readers may want to supplement it with, for example, John Reed's eyewitness account of the Russian Revolution, Ten Days that Shook the World.
But every reader, whether they are familiar with the arguments or brand new to them, can only gain from reading this book. As Mike says, we still have a world to win, both East and West.
Russia: Class and Power 1917-2000 is available from Bookmarks for £12. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to www.bookmarks.uk.com