Editorial from the January 2017 issue of the Socialist Standard
This year marks the centenary of the Russian Revolution where the focus will be on the Bolshevik seizure of power in November 1917. The historic rivalry between the Western Powers and the world's first so-called "Communist" state has been presented as a struggle between Western ‘liberal democracy’ versus Soviet ‘totalitarian Communism’. Many believed that the fall of ‘Communism’ would usher in an era of global peace. However, despite the arrival of Western-style representative democracy in Russia, relations between Russia and the West appear to be descending into a new ‘Cold War’.
In spite of what its leaders claimed, the Soviet Union was never a ‘Communist’ state, as real communism (or socialism) involves the abolition of the state and the establishment of a global classless, moneyless society where the means of production are held in common. This was clearly not the case here, where the state owned the means of living and employed a class of wage workers. At the time of the revolution, social and economic conditions in Russia were not ripe for socialism, as it was predominantly an agrarian economy based on peasant labour. Also the working class in Russia and elsewhere did not have the political consciousness required for establishing socialism. So, in these conditions, only a form of capitalism could emerge.
Like other capitalist countries, the Soviet Union needed to compete in global markets, secure trade routes and sources of raw materials. This inevitably led to rivalry with major capitalist powers, like France and Britain. Many in the Western ruling classes were horrified by Bolshevism and feared that their ideas would spread among their workers, especially in the context of the social and political unrest that erupted in the aftermath of the First World War. They also feared that Bolshevism could inspire the growing independence movements in their overseas colonies. Nonetheless, nation states do not go to war to uphold a belief system, they do so to advance their material interests. British and French support for the White Army during the Russian Civil War was as much about preventing the Bolsheviks from defaulting on Russia's foreign loans.
After the Second World War, the United States and the Soviet Union emerged as the main powers, competing to control resources and trade routes. This led them into a military rivalry, which became known as the Cold War, and resulted in standoffs like the Cuban Missile Crisis. When the Soviet Union collapsed in the early nineties, many believed that the Cold War had ended. In the new Russia, former state bureaucrats enriched themselves by coveting former state enterprises. However, Russia has since grown stronger and is attempting to reassert itself globally and reclaim its influence in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. This has led it to fight a war against Georgia and more recently to annex the Crimea and support the government forces in the Syrian Civil War. By expanding its influence, Russia is challenging the dominance of the Western Powers, and the latter have responded by enlarging the Nato alliance and surrounding Russia with military bases. This time, however, the pretence that the struggle is ideological has been dropped. It can now be seen for what it always was: economic and geopolitical.