Tsarist Russia was the weak link in the imperial chain and the Russian Revolution against it began humanity’s long march towards socialism. Occurring outside the homelands of capitalism, it had to achieve social justice and develop the productive forces against unremitting imperialist hostility. Indeed, the Russian and the nascent Chinese revolutions were as two eyes of the storm of progressive forces assailing capitalism and imperialism worldwide, making the difference between victory and defeat against fascism in Europe and Asia at the cost of roughly 30 and 20 million lives respectively.
Recognised as one of the key anti-fascist allies, China ended nearly all Unequal Treaties in 1943, becoming independent and one of the five founding members of the United Nations in 1945. Four years later, Mao’s communists went on to achieve victory in the civil war that followed Japan’s defeat, though US obstruction would keep it out of the UN and the Security Council from then until 1971.
In the moment of imperialist crisis, colonial and semi-colonial countries also achieved independence, consistently supported only by the Soviet Union and later by China and other socialist countries. The US stance was, by contrast, duplicitous. Anxious to preserve Western domination, it dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to intimidate the Soviet Union. Eager for economic access to former European colonies, it gave some support to their independence but also went to war against Third World nations no less than 50 times after 1945. Its expensive armoury proved, however, no match for the political determination of heroic peoples fighting for their independence such as the Koreans aided by Chinese volunteers or the Vietnamese led by Ho Chi Minh. US military failures litter Iraq, Syria and, most dramatically, Afghanistan today.
Independent Third World nations embarked on autonomous and egalitarian national development and industrialisation to break imperialist shackles, both inspired and aided by the now numerous socialisms that also had to develop their productive systems from a low level. While the Newly Industrialising Countries of the 1970s and 1980s, and the BRICS and emerging economies of the 2000s, are among the better-known successes, other countries also made substantial gains.
The Soviet Union’s demise set socialism back, but it was not the end of socialism, only the end of socialism’s beginning. The road to socialism, and eventually communism, is long. Societies embarked on it are not magically freed of class and historical contradictions. Setbacks are possible. After all, socialist revolutions to date have occurred in poor countries. Developing their productive forces is not only far harder than living off the gains of imperialism; it had to be achieved against imperialist pressure. The political leaderships that undertake this can also become bureaucratic and lose touch with the people. Aspects of Stalin’s collectivisation or Mao’s Great Leap Forward involved combinations of these difficulties.
The story of socialism so far brings to mind Engels’ saying that socialism is not ‘something that remains crystallised for all time’ but is ‘in process of constant change and transformation’ and Marx’s remarks on proletarian revolutions:
… proletarian revolutions … constantly criticise themselves, constantly interrupt themselves, … return to the apparently accomplished in order to begin anew; they deride with cruel thoroughness the half-measures, weaknesses, and paltriness of their first attempts, seem to throw down their opponents only so the latter may draw new strength from the earth and rise before them again more gigantic than ever, recoil constantly from the indefinite colossalness of their own goals – until a situation is created which makes all turning back impossible.
The indefinite colossalness of our tasks requires that we secure the legacy of the Soviet Union and all attempts to build socialism hitherto with a historically just balance sheet of their achievements, limitations and failures. After all, these attempts ironically also rescued a capitalism in crisis.