A Retreat . . . and a Fresh Start

Against the Current, No. 28, September/October 1990

James Petras and Mike Fischer

David Finkel’s reply to our essay “From Panama to Malta” rightly argues that “What’s needed is a cold-blooded calculation of the impact of the new [global] situation, without illusions or sentimentality.” We couldn’t agree more, which is why, in our assessment of how Gorbachev’s “new thinking” affects the Third World, we explicitly state that “there is no sense in being nostalgic for the system being swept away in the East” (ATC 27, 45) and why, in our references to the cynicism that has frequently characterized Moscow’s foreign policy, we caution against an endorsement of Moscow’s “less than benign” intentions in giving the Third World material aid (ATC 21, 42).

But one can attack the Kremlin’s foreign policy while nonetheless seeing the importance of the Soviet Union’s commitments— however motivated—to the Third World. Moreover, as one of us cautioned recently in the Guardian, criticism of Moscow’s police state apparatus and bureaucratic command economy can and should be balanced by an appreciation for the full employment and range of social services that characterized many of the postcapitalist states.

As Tony Benn states elsewhere in this issue of ATC while comparing these states to his own country, whatever the political crimes and errors that may have been committed in the COMECON countries, the social provisions they offered were at a much higher level than those available in Great Britain. And, one might add, hence at a higher level than most of the world as well.

Finkel’s failure to recognize these advances complements his left-wing version of a Cold War view: one which sees the competition between the two superpowers solely in terms of their respective imperialist ambitions. There is, of course, much truth in such an analysis, but it underestimates the extent to which the demise of the postcapitalist system is also an ideological blow to the idea of socialism.

While we do not defend the deformed Soviet model of socialism, we recognize the importance of many of its socio-economic commitments, both at home and abroad. But this in no way obviates our overall criticism of the Soviet system itself—or our acknowledgement that we must struggle for a more democratic vision of socialism than the Soviet Union offered.

Contrary to what Finkel suggests, then, our essay espouses no illusions about the Soviet Union’s unwarranted claims to the banner of revolutionary socialism and internationalism. Our concern was, rather, to present “a cold-blooded calculation” of what will happen to the Third World now that Moscow has abandoned even the pretense of such internationalism – a concern Finkel obviously shares, given his own agreement with our argument that the Kremlin’s retreat will have negative consequences for Central America in particular.

It is within these theoretical parameters— concerned with the objective consec1uences of the Soviet retreat on the Third World rather than Moscow’s often dubious subjective intentions — that the debate about the impact of Gorbachev’s torturous route through Malta and beyond must be joined.

An Opening or a Setback?

Finkel addresses his response to our claims concerning the Middle East, Africa, and Central America. Citing E.P. Thompson’s landmark essay “Exterminism, the bust Stage of Civilization,” be argues that the end of the Cold War will open up new political space in all three regions and simultaneously free North American solidarity movements from the heavy burden of anti-Communist hysteria that has impeded much of our work.

We disagree. As we tried to point out in refuting claims to a new symmetry that would bring democracy to both East and West, the appearance of democracy in the East, which we explicitly welcome (p.45), has not been marked by a similar opening in the West. On the contrary: anti-Communist hysteria has been replaced by a crude pro-capitalist tnumphalism that makes arguing for a socialist vision as hard as ever, both here in the United States and throughout the Third World. The right’s ideologists have not, as Finkel suggests, lost their lines. They have simply developed new and more disgusting ways of singing the same tired song.

In this context, we are more impressed with Finkel’s acknowledgement that Moscow’s retreat places new pressures on the intifada, the African National Congress (ANC) and Central America’s liberation movements than we are with his insistence that those pressures be resisted. Let us be clean we too hope such pressures can be resisted. We share Finkel’s conviction that should the Palestinians, for example, resist such pressures or were the North American solidarity movement stronger than it is, the respective liberation movements to which they are connected would be much stronger as well.

But such a position begs the fundamental challenge which our essay addressed. We must face the consequences of how the political space for such movements is now constricting rather than engaging in wishful thinking about its possible expansion. With the exception of Eritrea – where we completely agree with Finkel’s analysis – his reply fails to supplement its claims for the existence of an expanded political space with concrete evidence that the Soviet retreat has actually led to such openings. The imaginary symmetry that promises such openings is just that: imaginary.

Yes, the Achilles heel of the Palestinian movement today is its capitulationist leadership. But the Palestine Liberation Organization’s (PLO) trajectory is reinforced by an absence of Soviet support. This, in turn, places unbearable pressures on the intifada‘s grass-roots activists — financially dependent as they are on the PLO leadership – to modify their positions.

Yes, the ANC’s accomodationism has a long history. But its forfeiture of some of what was best in its Freedom Charter, after thirty-five years during which it was fervently upheld, is partially a consequence of Moscow’s pressure. This, in turn, places unbearable pressures on formations such as the Congress of South African Trade Unions to modify their positions.

Finkel dismisses our argument concerning the relative position of strength from which South Africa’s government enters negotiations by claiming that we “simply … misread what forces have been strengthened and weakened” there in the last few years. But his claims of such a misreading are bolstered by no evidence that would cause us to swerve from our original position: while the combination of sanctions and a vibrant mass movement assured that the South African state would have to negotiate eventually, they do not explain why negotiations have begun now.

Finkel’s assertion that the township rebellions “removed whatever credibility the regime retained in the eyes of international investors” ignores the contortions those investors remain willing to go through to repeatedly reschedule South Africa’s crippling international debt — let alone the gaping loopholes in sanction legislation itself, particularly in the United States and Great Britain.

Concerning Finkel’s argument that the world situation guaranteed Nelson Mandela a more hospitable reception in the United States – thereby strengthening the position from which the ANC will conduct negotiations — we would, on the contrary, point to the hero status that has been accorded Mandela by millions of people for many years, and which would, consequently, have assured him a hem’s welcome here regardless of the new world situation and its right-wing media pundits.

Turning to Central America, we at no point argue, as Finkel implies, that the U.S. invasion of Panama implies a fundamental “change” in Washington’s foreign policy. Instead, we more modestly suggest that the new world situation leaves Washington freer to pursue its imperialist goals than it might be otherwise. The intervention in Panama represents the largest U.S. invasion in the hemisphere since the invasion of the Dominican Republic in 1%5, and hence underscores a decided intensification of both Reagan’s low- intensity strategies in Central America and his invasion of Grenada.

The rapidly growing U.S. presence in Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, and, most recently, Argentina, represents a decided acceleration of Washington’s long and shameful involvement in many of these countries. The saber -rattling toward Cuba has reached heights not attained for almost three decades. And while, as Finkel points out, Washington’s aid to UNITA “has remained constant for most of the period from 1975,” Bush’s recent decision to increase this aid by $1015 million and hence break with “aid as usual’ there underscores the greater freedom Washington now has, in Angola and elsewhere.

Though all of these developments are, as Finkel dams, consistent with Washington’s longstanding imperial objectives, the new world situation certainly makes such objectives easier to achieve
Finkel worries that this gloomy picture and the changing world it reflects could demoralize solidarity movements here in the United States. We fully agree, but that risk hardly frees us from a responsibility to see things as they are. Unless solidarity activists face the grim realities against which they must now struggle, there is little chance that those realities might be overcome Furthermore, the danger is less that the movements here will return to what Finkel designates the “morally paralyzing illusion(s]” about the Soviet Union that they are “just now escaping” than that they will embrace the social democratic chimera which appears to many to be the only alternative.

Given the current conjuncture and the bankruptcy of the Stalinist model, it is this chimera rather than a return to the heyday of the Brezhnev doctrine that represents the real danger. Our focus as theorists and activists, then, should be spent less on an uncritical rejection of every point in the Soviet system than on an effort to salvage those parts of it that might be usable while honestly confronting what its complete demise will mean for liberalization movements in the short and intermediate term.

New Building Blocs for Socialism

In the long term, the demise of the Soviet system offers the possibility for indigenous social movements throughout the Third World to articulate their anti-imperialist struggles as part of much more democratic, mass-based formations. Presumably such formations would be more sensitive to and integrally connected with their respective countries’ peoples, cultures, and traditions than a rigid adherence to Moscow’s line allowed. In this context, the vibrant popular movements in countries such as Brazil, South Africa, and South Korea could prefigure the emergence of a truly democratic socialism that would be infinitely superior to anything the Soviet system has been able to offer.

So by all means, let’s never accept the Soviet system as our model for socialism. By all means, let us acknowledge the crippling distortions that model imposed on the revolutionary socialist project for decades. By all means, let’s welcome the arrival of glasnost in the East, however contradictory its character.

But let’s not, in the process, underestimate the growing appeal of social democracy. Let’s not ignore our consequent obligation to rescue what is recuperable from the Soviet model as we continue to struggle – in solidarity with Finkel and many others — for a revolutionary socialism that is neither Stalinist nor revisionist.

The socialist bloc may indeed, as Finkel argues, have never existed. But the need to learn from that bloc’s more progressive features and subsume their often unrealized promise within a more genuinely socialist project has never been greater. The time is now to say so, dearly.

September-October 1990, ATC 28

Leave a comment

ATC welcomes online comments on stories that are posted on its website. Comments are intended to be a forum for open and respectful discussion.
Comments may be denied publication for the use of threatening, discriminatory, libelous or harassing language, ad hominem attacks, off-topic comments, or disclosure of information that is confidential by law or regulation.
Anonymous comments are not permitted. Your email address will not be published.
Required fields are marked *