Seongcheol Kim

Reflections: Ninety Years Thereafter

It was autumn 2007 – ninety years after “Red October” – and the clocks were striking thirteen. Capitalism had forever vanquished socialism; the human experience of the past ninety years had rendered socialism an unviable system; Marx had been proven wrong; and “the bulletins of the guardians of order” now declared victory, “from one center of the world-historic struggle to the next.”

It has been ninety years since the flame of revolution was first lit in Petrograd, when revolutionaries stormed the Tsarist citadel, Marx’s haunting prophecies now happening before the eyes of the world. Ninety years later, order prevails in every capital, with the bourgeoisie celebrating over the corpse of socialism. What have these ninety years of revolution brought? Did these ninety years mark in the end the vaunted demise of socialism? Or do these ninety years represent something more – such as a “trial-and-error” period for a fledgling ideology?

The answer, like the very foundation of Marxist theory itself, lies in the past. Over the last half-millennium, prevailing socio-economic systems have become more and more progressive. The rigidly stratified, coercive systems of the Middle Ages have given way to more benign ones, ranging from enlightened despotism to liberalism. Another noticeable pattern is that every one of these novel, increasingly liberal ideologies goes through an initial period of failure. The first century or two of the movement’s history is ridden with thunderous defeats, marked by failures of the system in mismanaged attempts to implement it, as well as severe repression at the hands of the old order. Such new systems tend to be poorly implemented in countries lacking solid democratic foundations, mainly due to a lack of an existing democratic spirit and precedent. The example of France and the initial failure of republicanism following the French Revolution clearly illustrates how progress often simply runs out of breath in trying to catch up to such radical new systems. However, after centuries of popular struggle, liberal democracy as conceived by the French republicans, “standing on the foundation of its past defeats,” has triumphantly emerged as the cornerstone ideology of governments everywhere.

These striking patterns account for the misadventures of socialism in the twentieth century, and lend hope for future successes. The first century of socialism has been characterized by resounding failures in attempts to implement it, especially in countries lacking democratic traditions, like Russia. However, socialism is the next step in social progress after liberalism. As with liberalism, a gradual transition phase, driven by an ability to learn from past failures, will pave the way for the triumph of socialism. These changes must arise naturally, as products of the natural progression of history, and not through the unilateral endeavors of a vanguardist apparatus as envisaged by Lenin. Rosa Luxemburg summarized it powerfully when she said, “The modern workers' struggle is a part of history, a part of social progress, and in the middle of history, in the middle of progress, in the middle of the fight, we learn how we must fight.” That is why victory will ultimately spring from past defeats.


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