What was Communism?

Fred Halliday in openDemocracy:

Few occasions are more propitious for forgetting the past than moments of historical commemoration. Amidst fond recollections of the fall of the Berlin wall, and in a time of, at least temporary, improvement in relations between Russia and the west, few may spare a thought for what it was that ended two decades ago. On two issues history has given its ultimate verdict: the cold war, the third and longest of the three chapters that made up the great global civil war of 1914-91, will not return; the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), as a multinational state and as a global ideological and strategic challenge to the west, is indeed dead. However, on a third component of this story – the worldwide communist movement – the verdict is, as yet, less clear.

Communism, embodying the ideology and the social aspirations underlying the Soviet challenge, and the worldwide echo that challenge evoked remains to be interred. But to bury communism can only be done on the basis of recognising what it represented, why millions of people struggled for, and believed in, this ideal and what it was they were struggling against. It can also only be done when the legacy of this ideology and movement is assessed and not simply forgotten, or conveniently, and in violation of all historical evidence, dismissed as an “illusion”.

Judging from the politics and intellectual debates of today, neither those who celebrate the end of communism, nor those who are now articulating a radical alternative, have carried out such an assessment: between (on one side) the still resilient complacency of market capitalism and an increasingly uncertain world of liberal democracy, and (on the other) the vacuous radicalisms that pose as a global alternative, the lessons of the communist past remain largely ignored. And so, as they say, they will be repeated.