Power and Opposition in Post-revolutionary Societies (1977)

Untitled (Jannis Kounellis, 1968)

The following text is Rossanda’s opening address to the “Power and Opposition in Post-revolutionary Societies” conference held in Venice, from November 11-13, 1977. It appears in the collected proceedings of the conference, published as Power and Opposition in Post-revolutionary Societies, trans. Patrick Camiller and Jon Rothschild (London: Ink Links Ltd., 1979), 3-17. 

Comrades and friends, it is with a certain feeling of emotion that I open the deliberations of this gathering. For the first time, the entire Italian left, from the historical to the new, has agreed, despite its long-standing and recent divisions, to open a discussion on one of the most burning issues in its history, that concerning so-called existing socialism. 

And, another first, we are doing so not only with French, Spanish, and West German comrades, but also with those comrades of the East European countries, whether emigres or members of groups operating there, who consider themselves Marxists and socialists. The majority of East Europeans who are here today have been compelled to leave their countries, often after years of persecution and terms in prison or psychiatric hospitals. Very few of the comrades from Eastern Europe who have been able to participate in this meeting or to send written contributions to it (like Hegedus and Michnik) are still in a position to return to their countries. In Poland and Hungary there has been a relative easing of the barriers to dialogue with the European left. We had hoped that yet another barrier would tumble on this occasion, but some passports were confiscated and the term of validity of others was shortened. We therefore lack the physical presence of some participants, who are, however, with us politically. We send them our greetings and solidarity.

But we have not gathered here merely to express solidarity with the comrades of Eastern Europe. Partly for that, of course. Solidarity with these comrades is a moral duty on which the European left has defaulted all too often. This default has sometimes taken the form of silence and sometimes of purely verbal support. But most often it has been even more serious: refusal to clarify one’s real, as opposed to diplomatic or formal, position on the “existing socialisms” that have been established since 1917. This is why the European left’s approach to the thorny questions of conflict, power, and opposition in the existing revolutions has been marked by embarrassment, and even a certain intellectual and moral poverty. The left would prefer not to take notice of those socialists who have found it impossible to live and breathe politically, or have suffered brutal repression, in countries that call themselves socialist. The condition of these comrades who stand in opposition in the East European countries –whether as a class, like in Poland, or in groups, or as individuals – or who are forced to emigrate is perhaps the most tragic aspect of the political struggle of our century. Indeed, those who face the oppression of fascism or of authoritarian bourgeois regimes at least enjoy the warm solidarity of the left, despite the trials of the internal struggle and emigration. They feel themselves part of a great common front. This is not the case for those struggle in the so-called socialist countries. They are not part of any international front: the left offers them only uncertain or fleeting support. Only the enemy welcomes them willingly, content to view their misfortune as proof that socialism is impossible or unnatural. The masses of workers, the vanguard political formations in the West, perceive them as a source of torment, contradiction, and guilt. They relegate them to the status of secondary contradictions and try to forget them if possible. 

There is a historic reason for this, which it would be superficial to underestimate. We must begin with this history in order to explain, if only to ourselves, how it is that we are able to hold a conference like this today, for it would have been unthinkable only ten years ago. The western left, the workers’ and revolutionary organizations (or at least their leaderships) realized quite early on that the sort of socialism that had been established, above all in the Soviet Union, did not correspond to the main features of emancipation as delineated by Marx in the Communist Manifesto in 1848 or even to the most recent experiences of the October Revolution. The left has known that it is not true, to paraphrase the last line of The Battleship Potemkin, that the insurgent cruiser had irrevocably hoisted the “red flag of freedom.” It was realized rather rapidly that these societies were economically ossified and politically repressive. 

And yet, the left and the revolutionary organizations have continued to side with them. Why? Because they saw these societies as the main line of trenches in the war of position against the bourgeois bloc, the only secure front after the defeats of the twenties in Europe. As a result, the West, which had not made its revolution, came to console itself with the revolutions that had occurred elsewhere, while these revolutions bore, in their own lack of freedom and impasse, the consequences of the failure of revolution in the West. 

However imperfect and reprehensible the socialist countries appeared, against them stood imperialism, colonialism, and eventually, Nazism. That was how the world was divided in the minds of millions of people before 1945. The same sort of division persisted with the cold war, and even after, albeit less sharply, every time a link in the imperialist chain was broken: China, Cuba, Vietnam, Indochina – the wars of colonial liberation. In 1952 a man like Jean-Paul Sartre, to whom any party discipline or tendency-dictated reticence is alien, sided with the Soviet Union, even though he was not unaware of what was going on in the forced labor camps, and had even denounced it. In doing so he broke not only with his enemies, but even his friends, Camus and Merleau-Ponty. Deciding to stand with the Soviet Union did not necessarily mean swearing that the USSR was a proletarian state. It was sufficient to note that it stood in objective contradiction with the bourgeois system and that new movements of people or classes, struggles against and breaks with capitalism, were arising and growing out of it. We were all inclined to view existing socialism the way one of our theorists viewed Marxism itself in 1921: “What does it matter,” he wrote, “that there are theoretical limits to Marxism if it becomes an emancipating force, restores speech to enormous masses of the exploited and oppressed, and becomes identity, hope, and consciousness to masses who have been subjugated for centuries?”

In this grandiose and terrible history, born in the wrong place, as Marx would have said, against all predictions and rules (the revolution against Marx’s Capital, Gramsci was to write), the real relations of production, and therefore the real social classes, in the countries in which the revolution occurred ceased to be transparent or visible. Their political dialectic was first stunted and then repressed, isolated in dissent. The democratic world, or at least part of it, viewed the Soviet trials of the thirties with distress, but virtually failed to notice the repression against the peasants. The largest workers’ movement in the West, in Italy, has begun to view the workers of Gdansk as their class brothers only during the past few years. Dissent is hastily reduced to a creation and concern of intellectuals, and liberty to the mere right of self-expression, essential as it is. But it was not noticed that entire masses of people remained subject to a power exercised in their name and that they are not masters of their own fate – and this is indeed their lot, in different ways than is the case for us (although things are not all that different in the factories and fields). No one was able to see this, or no one wanted to see it, so long as socialist states remained “the other side” in the world conflict. Even if they did not represent our guideline and model, these states at least remained the backbone of a revolution which was made more possible by their existence, a revolution we could hope would be “different.”

But is that still how it is? I believe that if we have come together here to discuss, to examine these societies with less inhibited eyes, and to take positions on the nature of the conflicts unfolding within them, it is not so much because we have suddenly grasped the truth about their character as because the long-standing identification, accepted with a guilty conscience, between “real socialism” and the anti-imperialist, socialist, and anti-capitalist front in the West has collapsed. It had already deteriorated during the sixties, for several reasons: because of the increasingly explicit role as a great power played by the USSR in world affairs; because of the rifts among Communist parties and states (especially between the USSR and China), followed by the various shifts in China’s international orientation, from isolation to the decision to maintain relations only with third-world countries, to the most unscrupulous diplomatic state manoeuvres; and finally, because if the further change in the character of the Soviet state marked by the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. Since then, any support the Soviet Union has accorded this or that sector of the movement, especially in third-world countries, has been ever more ambiguously mixed with and conditioned by the interests of the Soviet state on the world chessboard. Anything the so-called socialist camp had to offer finally disappeared around Vietnam. Two different versions of international strategy arose, not only on the significance and timing of the Vietnamese struggle, but also on whether priority should be accorded [to] the extinguishing of this hotbed of war (peace in Vietnam) or the liberation of this people (freedom for Vietnam). The Vietnamese comrades triumphed because the USSR and China existed, but also despite them (although this applies to the two in very different measure).

In sum, the “existing socialist” countries are no longer models or guarantees (or buttresses) for our future revolutions, which will be different. It is not longer possible to separate their internal limitations from what their international orientations have finally become, and the latter must be related more to their need for internal stability than to the iron necessities of what used to be called the “class struggle on a world scale.” The lack of freedom, the inequality, the persistence of relations of exploitation, the exigencies of no-longer-private capital and of the development of the productive forces, the internal manoeuvring among classes, the extent of the militarization of the economy and the role of the armed forces – all these factors do not constitute defects marring a positive international role. Rather, they appear as the real roots from which all the internal options are derived, from the special relation between the USSR and the United States to the necessity for the discipline of the socialist bloc in Europe. 

China also projects its internal balances and upheavals internationally, primarily in its absence, rather than presence, on a world scale. The western workers’ movement no longer sees an identity, or even an alibi, in the “existing socialist” countries, as it sought to do for decades; these societies are not our models or our ideals; they are not our camp. 

This is why the silence of the left is now ending, why even the most tenacious links, those of the Communist Parties, are slackening, and why those who advance a non-apologetic of the USSR are no longer disregarded. The isolation of internal dissent has also ended. These societies are beginning to become more transparent; they can and must be examined. Suddenly the western workers’ movement again sees its fate as linked to the societies of Eastern Europe. But not the way it did during the twenties, under the impact of a great and perhaps naive revolutionary spirit, or with the optimism of 1945 or even 1956. What links them today is not hope, but acute awareness that a crisis is ripening both in the socialist countries and in the est of Europe, East and West. The Soviet camp is at an impasse, the Communist movement stands divided, China is entrenched in the turn that has halted the Maoist wave. The wave of the left in Europe, whether in its revolutionary anti-capitalist or reformist shadings, has been halted. Two years ago Eurocommunism appeared assured of an impetuous growth of its hegemony in Spain, of the initiation of a process of transition in Italy, of the secure victory of the left in France, and even of a certain shift in the big Social Democratic parties. Today the retreats, lulls, and pressure from the right are evident. The period has changed, and, in the heart of Europe, Germany is again cause for alarm. The crisis has suddenly given gradualist illusions their due; not only is power far off, but even the defense of democracy and of the unity of the social bloc of workers, both unemployed and unemployed, which has been challenged. Eurocommunism, that poor man’s version of the Gramscian approach to revolution in the West, stands exposed at all fronts. It is taking its distance from a Soviet Union that has become ideologically aggressive again, but it is also missing opportunities with regard to the whole great movement of southern Europe. 

This is the context in which our gathering is being held; it differs from the conference on dissent that will open at the Venice Biennale in several days. There has been too much speculation about the reasons for these two initiatives. Ours is explicitly political. We view the question of post-revolutionary society as a current political problem of the Italian left, not a past history. We view the problem of power and opposition in the post-revolutionary societies in its totality (or at least we try to do so), because we believe that the question of dissent and the dissidents goes beyond a mere problem of political rights. The conflicts inherent in these societies go well beyond their political expression by the groups of dissident intellectuals, and the repression is much more complex than mere violation of the principles of 1789, since, as is the case in any modern state, the most effective instruments against the oppressed are the mechanisms of integration and compensation. The show trials, prisons, and mental asylums constitute only the tip of the iceberg. We view this as our problem, an aspect of our own future revolutions. We believe that the answer to the question, “Why have all the revolutions thus far come to grief on the key problem of the state and freedom?” must be sought in the same theoretical and political obstacles that have impeded the revolution in the West. We do not believe in two societies, socialism for backward countries and Social Democracy for developed ones; we still hold to a unified theory of world processes. 

And we are convinced that it is only by reacquiring consciousness of this unity that the European left will be able to implement genuine solidarity with their class brothers in the so-called socialist societies. Indeed, there will be no change in those societies unless society changes here; Helsinki conferences, defense of human rights, and simple appeals are not enough. There will be no change unless Western Europe overturns its own capitalist structures, initiates the transformation of the capitalist mode of production, breathes life into the words of Lenin, “And now let us construct the socialist order,” and refashions a state in which the words socialism and freedom recover their true significance in the experience of the masses. In sum, these societies will not change until we hear the salvos of our own Aurora in Rome, Paris, or Madrid; it matters little how widely they reverberate, so long as they mark the maturation of a social, and not merely political, revolution, a revolution that is not less but more radical, not Jacobin and therefore non-authoritarian. 

It would not be fair for me to take this opportunity to outline the conception of socialist structure for Italy upheld by my political group, for we would certainly be divided on this. But I do want to say this: if the societies of Eastern Europe will not change without revolution in the West, there will be no revolution in the West without a thorough critical examination of the experience of the societies of the East. To ignore them, to draw back, not to get involved, would mean to refuse to understand what kind of society we want and will be able to construct here. It would even mean to renounce political theory itself. We must not forget that in the long and eventful evolution of the “real socialist” countries – sixty years since October, more than thirty since the birth of the people’s democracies, nearly thirty since the liberation of China, nearly twenty since Castro spoke of “socialist Cuba” – more than a mere hope has been shattered. The very idea of socialism, not as a generic aspiration but as a theory of society, a different mode of organization of human existence, is fading from view. And here we come to the most difficult point of this discussion in the left: we must ourselves not whether these societies re unfree, but whether they are unfree because they are socialist or because they are not socialist. And if they are not socialist, what are they? There are those who deny that the question itself is legitimate. The rigid models of the past (still maintained by the groups calling themselves Marxist-Leninist, who claim that the construction of socialism in the SSR has been achieved and was simply betrayed by the Khrushchev group) are now giving way to a thoroughly empiricist temptation: there is no such thing as “socialism”; what exist are “established socialist systems,” for good or ill. These, we are told, are the only reality, the only object of history. They cannot be measured against any particular yardstick, for to do so would be to fall into pure abstraction. Indeed, the very existence of Marxism today is threatened by two evils: the poverty of the “vulgate” of the Soviet press, and its counterpart, the refusal to reformulate any theory of society not merely as history, but also as science, which is the real implication of the views of many of the Communist and Socialist parties in the West. I say rejection deliberately, when this foundation is lost, an entire culture, the language of the movement that had directed these revolutions, the Third Internationalist ideal of the Communists, is lost. 

Neither the Socialist, nor Trotskyist, nor libertarian, nor Marxist-Leninist currents have succeeded in assuming this heritage positively. They cling to old paths, or move reluctantly into new ones, or simply give up. The crisis of ideals is reflected in the uncertainty evinced by European leftist parties when they stand on the threshold of governmental power. Unable to explain the history of revolutions elsewhere, they lose the thread of our own. One of the reasons why the Eurocommunist and democratic-socialist groups have been unable to constitute alternatives is that they themselves suffer the maladies of the “real” socialist systems as their own limits. Nor have the new left groups dared to deal with this question, for fear that demobilization would set in if they ceased to cultivate myths, and because of the temptation to believe that it was all the result of a “mistake” and that everything could be st right through a return to “correct” principles. This is not least of the reasons for their failure. The crisis, moreover, goes beyond the purely political domain and invests the realm of theory itself. It is a crisis of Marxism, of which the nouveaux philosophes are the caricature, but which is experienced by immense masses as an unacknowledged reality. Marxism – not as a body of theoretical or philosophical thought, but as the great idealistic force that was changing the world – is now groaning under the weight of this history. 

The “real” socialisms thus become the only truth, to be uncritically accepted as the fruit of history, impossible to interpret or evaluate. In short, everyone is socialist as he or she believes or desires; there is no way to decide to what extent anyone really is a socialist, since there are no non-abstract criteria of judgment. It is obviously desirable, say the cultists of “many socialisms,” that each person should be a socialist in the least distasteful manner; but all variants are accorded legitimacy. Both freedom and its opposite, repression, are then detached from their social roots; they have nothing to do with the fundamental mechanisms of these societies; they do not flow from inequality; they are not inherent in the persistent separate of the masses from politics. These, we are told authoritatively, are socialist societies with some unfree features. The question of democracy thus becomes purely formal and juridical, a matter of civil rights, a generic value entrusted to the good will of governments, something that everyone hopes will be restored.

I am afraid that many of our comrades from Eastern Europe also share the idea – which may well become one of the stumbling blocks to our discussion – that what they have experienced is indeed socialism and that socialism necessarily entails the disasters they have suffered. Disparagement of the very idea of Marxism, socialism, and revolution is quite common in the East European societies. It is a result of suffering, of the reduction of Marxism to the philosophy of a state power. In a few days an eminent Polish philosopher, Leszek Kolakowski, will tell the Biennale that there is no Marxism except that of the History of the Communist Party (Bolsheviks); the proof of the pudding is in the eating; the proof of a political theory is in its actual results. But this is a sophism, for it would imply that the proof of one political theory is in another political theory. With this sort of terrorist reasoning one could maintain that whoever upholds democracy as a universal value must also support the B-52s that bombed Vietnam. 

We who would like to remain Marxists, however – which, despite everything, is easier in our societies – we maintain, on the contrary, that whatever the nature of the post-revolutionary societies, they can and must be interpreted and that Marxism offers a reliable instrument for doing this. Marxism tells us that in the last instance the nature of a society, its consciousness of itself, and its political expression are always determined by the social relations of production (although not one-sidedly and without mediation). We believe that the analysis of the relations of production in the USSR, Cuba, and the East European countries is the key that will enable us to penetrate the mechanisms of these societies; it will also enable us to see to what extent one of those societies, namely China, “differs,” or at least (so far as we know) consciously tries to differ, from the others, if for no other reason than that it recognizes this problem as the decisive criterion by which to measure the evolution or regression of its entire system.

It is our thesis – to put it bluntly – that the Gulag is the product neither of a philosophy nor of a pure idea of power and politics. Rather, it is the result, later theorized, of the incapacity of the new ruling class to express and mediate the interests of the classes that had constituted the revolutionary alliance in the USSR, which exploded after 1917 under the weight of the social division of labor bequeathed by capitalism, the rise of new needs, and the collapse of production. In other words, in coming to grips with what the Bolshevik regime became in the twenties, Lenin’s responses in the soviets to the question of “how to direct production” during the first few months of the revolution and the subsequent forced collectivization of the land are of greater importance than What Is To Be Done? Or the theory of the relations between the vanguard and the masses. Politics has no independence in the realm of ideas, just as economics has none in the realm of commodities. The new state and new apparatus of production are based on the manner in which the new emerging classes resolve the question of reproduction and the revolutionization of social relations. If we look at the events of war communism, we see how and why the rapid centralization and extirpation of the soviets resulted not from an ideological option but from the inability to dominate uncontrollable social and productive mechanisms. We may then understand why politics and the state were immediately separated from the soviets. 

To be sure, this is a hard lesson, particularly for those who have shared certain facile ideas of revolution. It shows that when a revolution is essentially political – the “taking of the winter palace by a vanguard – and the result of the maturation (before, during, and after the revolutionary breakthrough) of the masses from exploited to producers and from producers to “politicians” (in the sense of ability to grasp the political, economic, and social content of events), the exploited can express no more than an immediate demand, need, and intuition for equality; all elements not reflected in their direct experience elude them. A “new socialist order” is not the sum total of the self-managed individual units bequeathed by capitalism. It is the shattering of those units and their recomposition under a different logic, a different system of production, controlled by modified social subjects. Nor is it, except in the allusion made by Marx, the unified, totalizing social factory. Capitalism in its development destroys social figures and re-creates them anew; this is its very logic of reproduction. Socialism, in turn, must shatter this logic, along with the roots of the inequality capitalism has imposed and interiorized even to the extent of the needs of the oppressed. But who shall lead this process in such a way as to ensure that it is liberating and not simply pedagogic, that it frees and does not subjugate the social subjects who must carry it forward? What sort of state and institutions are capable of assuring the working class and the masses – which is a complex formation – that the revolutionary alliance will be maintained, that the structures inherited from the previous social division of labor will be modified, and that a new rationale of production will be fashioned, if not, surely, a state determined to eradicate the existing imbalances, not under the impulse of profit, but through the conscious clash of the oppressed cultures, which express themselves and search for a synthesis in the general revolutionary transformation of society? Relations of production, division of labor, and transitional state thus appear as facets of the same prism; each orients and sets the course of the others. 

It appears to us that this occurs in a revolutionary and liberation direction only if the new regime never forgets that relations among men are mediated by things, and that the commodity in turn is identifiable through labor, i.e. an inter-human relation. Here again, the decisive years in the USSR, from the revolution to the dramatic events of the twenties, offer significant lessons. 

In examining what became of the Soviet regime it is useful to reconsider the initial attempts to do away with the market and money and the subsequent recognition that it was impossible to do so. This was followed by the reintroduction of both, as mechanisms of mediation between the public and private sectors, and then, as a result of errors in pricing policy, by the forced appropriation by the public sector of the goods produced by the peasants. But this sequence of events not only ruptured the worker-peasant alliance and broke the bonds between the revolution and the peasants, driving them to the right again, it also altered the regime that had opted for its action against one of its own social bases, annihilating it as political subject. Analysis of the measures taken after the 1926-27 harvest sheds more light on the system of deportation than does any denunciation of Stalin’s despotism or any lucubration on the Asiatic mode of production. 

Viewed from this angle, the societies of Eastern Europe become transparent, as societies in which the old conflict between wage earners and the owners of the means of production (which has become the state, or the commune) continues, although under the formal, juridical guise of the new regime. In addition, however, new conflicts, generated by the deep upheaval of society, arise among the new social subjects.

This transparency emerges, however, only on two conditions. First, these underlying conflicts must remain visible; and they are visible only if their nature is grasped essentially through an analysis of the social relations of production, i.e. what happens between wage labor and capital, and later in the technical and social division of labor. When, for example, in his old polemic with Bettelheim, Sweezy defines what he calls capital not so much by the relations of production as by the free play of individual units of capitalist property striving to expand in a war whose logic has supposedly been halted in the East by state planning, then these societies become opaque again. They are then made to appear as new formations in which the old relations of exploitation persist but in which the real field of conflict – the engine that can drive these societies forward or in reverse – is the relationship linking the productive unity, the enterprise, and the plan. It is here that the contest takes place, between capital striving to free itself and the plan hemming it in. The social relations of production fade under this view; they are involved only as a moment in the formation of the cost of labor. Society appears divided by a war, on the basis of which the forces of capital fight to arise again from every direction in the mixed economy, the legal economy, the semi-legal, and the clandestine. Is this capitalism? No, says Sweezy. Is it socialism? Out of the question. They are “new” and indecipherable societies. 

Finally, we may note here the application of one of the theses bequeathed us by the Bolsheviks, one which Communists have come to know as the theory of two phases: first, the material bases for socialism are constructed (through the functioning of the old apparatus of the production regulated by the state, which oversees classical accumulation: extraction of surplus-value from the workers and of excess production, or even non-excess production, from the peasants). Then, in a later stage, “socialist relations” are inaugurated. Here again, the decisive word is pronounced in the domain of property, and the revolution appears as the transition from private to state property, from the free play of the market to the plan.

But this implies acceptance of a frozen society, because the political form that acts as the fundamental motor force of the new “socialist order” according to this idea, namely the state, is indeed the hierarchy of the “global factory,” a centralized and univocal state power. It is monolithic not only because it is directed by a single center, but also because in this attempt to achieve a general harmony of forces (doomed to failure in any event, any manifestation of conflict among the social subjects is considered first as an annoyance, or perhaps a deviation, and later a conspiracy or betrayal. The idea here is of a society wholly devoted to labor, well regulated and operating by consensus; contradiction is seen as a malady to be treated with repression. Here lie the roots of the lack of liberty.

These roots run deep. Indeed, we maintain that they lie in the non-socialist nature of these formations, which rest on perfected forms of state capitalism, on the refusal of the revolutionary ruling group to enact immediate economic measures – or economic-political measures, fully conscious of the political and social consequences they entail – that would orient all the producers towards a gradual reduction of the unequal relations determined by the social division of labor, towards a reduction of parcellization and alienation, a reduction of the division of labor itself as well as the division between labor and knowledge and that between city and countryside. 

When the will to take such measures is stunted, the process of transition is frozen; and that is why the state that has been erected by the various revolutions that have occurred so far become so authoritarian. In sum, these are societies in which the capitalist mode of production has made its historical appearance via a class which is no longer homogeneous; this mode of production has compelled this class to carry out the bourgeois revolution which the old, backward classes had not accomplished and has thereby stamped it as progressive. It is the working class, Preobrazhensky said, that makes itself both the subject and object of exploitation. And very quickly, we believe, only the object. And of course, the entire system is self-reproducing, so much so that no democratization can occur. The events following the twentieth congress, when the East European societies were supposed to see the flowering of liberty, the material bases of socialism having finally been established, are significant here. Twenty years have passed and the mechanism remains the same; the same forces still hold power, and any attempt to streamline economic relations somewhat is still subject to ruinous failure. The rigidity is so great as to brook no real change. There is no longer any talk of advancing to communism, even formally. 

Does this mean that the conflict between capital and labor is the same as it is in our societies? To what extent does the state power restore to the producers what it takes from them in surplus-value? The comrades of the Budapest school sat, “a lot”; indeed, they hold that a peculiar relationship of mutual production has arisen between the working class and the class that holds power, at the expense of other layers. 

Others, like the Bettelheim school, say “little”; on the whole, the working class remains the source of absolute surplus-value, which is what accounts for events like the revolt of the Polish workers. Granted, when the state took classical anti-inflation measures in Poland in 1970, workers’ resistance broke out just as in the West; once the mask of unanimity fell, it turned out that society was not merely divided, but polarized to the point of bloodshed. Indeed, this as the only moment of truth, when the real roles were suddenly revealed. The transcripts of the tempestuous assemblies held in Szczecin shipyards in 1970-71 [between the striking workers and Gierek, the newly elected party leader, there to flatter, cajole, and pressure them back to work, Ed.] reveal where the power lies and to what extent the condition of the workers is substantially identical to that which prevails in the capitalist countries. 

There remains the great question of whether these societies, although they are societies of exploitation, are really capitalist. This is not an academic question. It is not only that the response affects the way in which we are Marxists, the way we define capital and the state – whether essentially through the relations of production (deriving the infinite social mediations from this) or essentially through other characteristics of classical capitalism. But most important, it affects our political options. 

If these societies are new social formations in which the persistence of capitalist relations is secondary, and the conflicts, repression, and social atomization originate essentially in the realm of politics and management, then what is at stake is a struggle among “power centers” and their systems of compensation. In that case, what is needed is a democratic system. The targets of our exhortation for “more liberty” are those who govern. If, however, we are dealing with capitalist formations of a new type (capitalism without capitalists, said Lenin: state monopoly capital, says Bettelheim, with, we would add, intense ideological overtones which make the system more repressive, since it is capable of annulling real class conflict, of preventing its expression), then it is no longer a matter of demanding democracy and civil rights. Instead the class struggle must again be taken up in these countries. Our interlocutors then become not those who rule, but those social subjects who can act as the bearers of this revolutionary upheaval. 

This is the political hurdle that must be cleared, and it is certainly not an easy task for the left. This is partly for political reasons, because of the traditional, as yet unbroken links with the rulers of these societies. But there are also deeper reasons: we must consider the subject of this conflict, which is probably not the same working class as in 1917 or 1948, because of the position it occupies in society, its ideological formation, and the extent to which it is politically involved. And alongside the working class there are new layers which are not easily definable. On the right, there are deep pockets of reaction among the peasantry still under the hegemony of the church. Here the dissidents do not always take advanced positions, as the example of Solzhenitsyn amply demonstrates. There is a rising social atomization in which the new social figures – youth, women, marginalized elements – seem to disappear, the very elements which were thrust to the forefront – with their independent, bitter, and often even destructive potential – by the Chinese cultural revolution. What is the new social bloc having socialist interests in these post-revolutionary societies? And what are the conditions for its self-expression? What are the possibilities of uniting it and of bringing pressure to bear? Of turning it into a political, and not merely social, subject?

This whole question, which marks the leap from dissent to opposition and from opposition to political struggle, has yet to be broached by the Italian left. 

Today along with the comrades of Eastern Europe, we must decide whether we want to broach it. 

For my part, I have no doubt that this is the way forward. But this also means that the road before us, and before the post-revolutionary societies, is a long one. History, of course, is not linear; crises can erupt more rapidly and problems arise more frequently than expected, and not always from the right direction. This is why I spoke of the moment of crisis in which we are beginning again this discussion and posing common questions.

During these three days il manifesto hopes merely to subject these questions to a test: to initiate some elaborative effort which, for the moment, consists mainly in finding out if we are talking about the same things. I hope that we are, and that those who are present here today – all of us, of the Italian, Spanish, French, and German left, along with the comrades of Eastern Europe – will take this research and political commitment from the frail hands of il manifesto in order to carry it forward together.

This article is part of a dossier entitled “The Crisis of Marxism.”

Author of the article

is an Italian journalist and one of the founding editors of the left-wing daily newspaper, Il Manifesto. A member of the Italian Communist Party from the time Resistance until her expulsion long with other members of the Il Manifesto group in 1969, she has remained an influential figure and analyst. on the Italian left. In English, she is the author of The Comrade from Milan (Verso, 2008), her political memoirs.