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Response to Review no. 125

Victor Kiernan’s review of my book on revolutions is thoughtful and perceptive, echoing in many places the arguments that I myself seek to make and drawing out the two central themes – the historic centrality of revolutions, as formative of the modern world, on the one hand, their international dimensions on the other. I much appreciate having the book termed ‘unusual’, even if there were times, as I was writing it, when I felt this might be true in ways that I did not myself intend. I also very much appreciate the approach which he, an international historian of great repute, has taken to a book that is, to a considerable degree, written within the field of international relations and which shapes its case within the debates, and terminology, of that discipline.

My disagreements with his review are straightforward. I do not hold to the argument he makes about the historic importance of the USSR: it may be that in future times people will look back to it as inspiration, but if they do so they will be mistaken, and for two reasons above all. One is that the Soviet system – economically and politically – did not fail for contingent reasons: it fell because the system itself could not be sustained within the competition it had set itself, with the capitalist west, and because it had, in an inversion of Marx’s own view of capitalism, created social forces, notably an educated society, that were not prepared to sustain the political and economic privations associated with this model: this social change within the USSR was more significant as a precipitant of regime collapse than a revolt of nationalities, the Baltic states excluded. Kiernan chides me for ascribing the collapse of communism to corruption and ‘low morals’ – I am happy to correct this by saying that this phrase on p. 261 was a misprint for ‘low morale’. That morale was, inevitably, constituted by comparative and international forces. I would also, perhaps at the risk of widening the gap between us, say that it is my view that the overthrow of communism in 1989-1991 should be classified as a revolution: like all major upheavals it posed questions, of definition and premise, about the concept of revolution itself, in this case the connection of revolution with some meta-historical concept of ‘progress’. I would defend a concept of progress in recent centuries, but I would not link it to the incidence, or definition, of revolution.

Secondly, I sense the Victor Kiernan and I diverge on how to assess, historically and morally, the political costs of communism. That cost is measured in millions of dead, and in the frustration, shattering and distortion of the lives of many millions of others. The crimes of revolutionary regimes do not diminish by our making comparisons with the record of capitalism: they stand condemned by reference to other, universally proclaimed and recognised, standards. Here we come to what was, and remains, one of the greatest weaknesses of revolutionary thinking, the refusal, except in an opportunistic sense, to recognise the importance of rights: here bourgeois revolution at its strongest fared, and fares, better. A rights-based audit of communism, especially one that rejects underlying assumptions about historical advances, is devastating.

As for the comparison of the USSR and China in international affairs: Victor Kiernan might like to lead me even further into criticism of China than I go, but I am happy to leave the record of what I wrote as it stands. Both had a commitment to revolutionary internationalism, even if in both cases internationalism betrayed from the beginning interests of state and party leadership. I am certainly satisfied that the particular nuclear irresponsibility of Mao, which came out in his attempt in the early l960s to score points over Khrushchev, is clearly reflected, in Chapter 9, on war.

Victor Kiernan’s analysis does, however, raise other issues where my own analysis is still incomplete and where his criticisms may suggest further analysis. By placing the analysis of particular revolutions, notably those of Russia and China, in a broader context, of revolt against the conditions of modernity, of colonialism and capitalism, Kiernan does restate something that I believe is often too easily forgotten in a post-1989 world and which the retrospective denunciation of communism, by such writers as Furet, and an earlier ‘God that Failed’ literature, obscures: this is that, in the first instance, communism was not the tool of the Soviet state but a world-wide movement that was itself a response to the iniquities of the capitalist world. It is, perhaps, not so much as something controlled by a state, or as an ideology, but as a social movement that communism should be seen. It was a movement that was produced not so much by dissident intellectuals or cruel leaders so much as by the conditions in which millions of people lived.

Within that context, it may become possible to look again at something I emphasise in this book, the importance of ideology: one of my central claims is that revolutionaries do believe in the promotion of export beyond their frontiers, and that the conflicts into which they get with status quo powers cannot be reduced to either misperception or counter-revolutionary hostility. Modern structural accounts, and those who suspect material interest behind all ideological claims, have rather downplayed the role of ideology, not least in the Soviet case. But the material released from the Soviet archives, including that on Stalin’s own thinking, rather brings ideology back: if during the cold war it was regarded as indulgent of communism to stress this, since all was Realpolitik and cynical calculation, now it is rather taken as proof of the determination and hostility of communism. This emphasis on what the leaders believed and hoped for is, for example, the basis of much of the conservative re-evaluation of the Korean and Vietnamese wars, and indeed of the onset of the cold war: but this should not be so surprising if we begin from an analysis that set communism in the context of revolt against injustice, and belief in the construction of an alternative world.

Here we abut onto the debate to which other authors have recently returned, among them Arno Mayer in his The Furies: the force of circumstances need not exculpate or fully explain why revolutionary regimes did what they did but it can be a complement to, rather than a substitute for, explanations in terms of ideology. Victor Kiernan mentions Afghanistan: my own researches on Soviet memoirs and documents points clearly to an ideological motive, of solidarity with a fraternal party and belief in the construction of a socialist ate, behind the 1979 invasion. The aspiration was to defend a ‘fraternal’ party and create a ‘Second Mongolia’: that this did not occur does not mean party leaders did not believe it.

Victor Kiernan ends, as I do, with some reflections about the future and the dangers of a post-1989 and now millennial complacency. We agree that no history of the modern world, and no history of the international system, can ignore the role of revolutions in their formation. We share a view that a world of ever-greater inequality is not one that bodes well for stability or democracy. At a time when everyone else seems to feel free to make political judgements based on anthropological generalisations, we suggest that the aspiration to an alternative world is recurrent. I am not quite as sure as he is of where this leaves ‘progress’ and the issue of agency to which communism devoted so much attention, organisational and ideological remains ill-defined: I retain the old-fashioned idea that it has quite a lot to do with education and responsible political leaders. These questions may remain quite important, not only for making sense of the two centuries past, but for charting our way through the next one.