This is a transcript of a talk given by Helena Sheehan at the “Democracy Rising” international conference, Athens 16 July 2015
What echoes and shadows of left experiments of the past haunt us as we embark on a new era opened by the formation of a radical left government in Greece? What is the plot of the longer story in which this new episode is embedded? How has the weight of the wider world, the power of the global system, borne down upon attempts to move from capitalism to socialism, whether in rupturalist projects, stemming from the October Revolution, or more protracted programmes of transformation, such as those set out by the ANC in South Africa in 1994 and by Syriza in Greece in 2015? What are the dynamics of attempting to forge an alternative in the face of the hegemony of there-is-no-alternative? How to make history in conditions not of our making? How, with so much going for it, nationally and internationally, has the ANC failed to achieve, or even approximate, the society that those who fought and died for it set out to achieve? How could Syriza, in the face of far more formidable obstacles, advance both its immediate programme and a new path toward socialism?
There is now a long history of left alternatives, even of left governments. From the Paris in 1871 to Athens 2015, we have seen hopes rise and the prospect of a new order come into view.
Some left governments have come and gone with little attention from outside their borders, such as that of Akel in Cyprus so recently, whereas others have captured the imagination of the world, even to the point crossing borders to be a part in it, eg, to Spain in 1936, to Greece in 2015.
The storyline looming largest in our story is the October revolution of 1917. It went farthest and lasted longest. It is a foundational myth of our movement. We have varying versions of it, not only about what happened, but about what might have happened. I have imagined and written my way through its early decades and witnessed its later decades.
If you looked at a map of the world in 1989, countries defined as socialist covered vast territories of this planet. It is not so now.
Why? Volumes have been written by now answering this question. Through 1989 and 1990 I was often in Eastern Europe, exploring the meaning of this vast overturning in its world historical implications. I never accepted the postmodernist ban on grand narratives. There was a dominant grand narrative in play and I believed it needed to be met with a counter-narrative on the same scale. Their story was one of capitalist triumphalism, captured in the mocking joke that socialism was the longest, most painful, most inefficient path between capitalism and capitalism.
Much of the left retreated in dismay and disarray, unable to overcome confusion and to conceive of an alternative narrative or even to believe in the possibility of an alternative narrative. Others carried on, even though our philosophy of history had been dealt a massive blow. We had believed that history, in however complicated a way, was moving from capitalism to socialism, and then we beheld the opposite happening before our eyes. I saw lives turned upside down and nations disappearing from the map of the world.
So why our defeat? Many reasons have been given. There were monumental mistakes within our own movement. There was murder, treachery, suppression, fear. There were honest voices silenced. There were alternative paths not taken. There was an unfavourable balance of forces. There were conditions of underdevelopment. Socialism was meant to be built on other side of advanced capitalism. Not only its economic productivity, but its parliamentary democracy, mass media and complex civil society. It was meant to be a further development, not a suppression, of these advances in history.
Nevertheless, there had been expropriation of the expropriators, social ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, relative equality of opportunity and a radical shift in the balance of power in the world.
The existence of a socialist bloc made the hegemony of capitalism incomplete, but the intensifying hegemony of capitalism made the existence of a socialist bloc increasingly precarious. An advancing globalisation shaped by capitalism was all the time tightening its grip and extending its hegemony into territories and into psyches previously outside its dominion.
Socialism was all the time in a world dominated by capitalism. It was not only the internal failures of these regimes, which made their populations turn against them, but the lure of an imagined other of freedom and plenty that eluded them in reality when they moved towards it. Most fundamentally, It was the external pressure of an increasingly integrated global capitalism exerted upon an inadequately achieved socialism that brought its downfall.
So what then? We had to re-think and re-coup, to analyse our defeat and to seek a new path. Our glorious and tragic past had to yield to a new paradigm. One thing we had to face was that socialism could only be built on consent and in ever more complex conditions. The left would have to stop dreaming of storming winter palaces, of imagining ruling through decrees, purges, guns and gulags.