When the reformist government of Alexander Dubček in Czechoslovakia was stamped out by a Soviet intervention, in August of 1968, it was the death knell for hopes of a democratic socialist alternative to the grey reality of the Eastern Bloc. It was a definitive moment for some, and only a reaffirmation of old divisions for others. The Stalinists would label it (without irony) the liberation of Czechoslovakia, while Trotskyists damned it as further evidence of the degenerated condition of the legacy of October 1917. It had only reaffirmed for many what had been so obvious years before. Heaven was no longer the only fortified structure from whence the military strikes against socialism would be launched. Fifteen years since the death of Stalin and the achievements of de-Stalinization were there for all to see. Across the border from the events in Prague in tranquil Austria WH Auden sat and watched, he decided to put pen to paper:
The Ogre does what ogres can,Deeds quite impossible for Man,
But one prize is beyond his reach:
The Ogre cannot master speech.
About a subjugated plain,Among it's desperate and slain,
The Ogre stalks with hands on hips,
While drivel gushes from his lips.
In these few words the English poet had succeeded in capturing the state of the Soviet experiment, at the time, and its ultimate trajectory in 1989. The years of Brezhnev's real socialism had just begun and the withering of the state apparatus had yet to come. In the institutionalisation of Lenin's works Stalin had codified Leninism into a party-state doctrine. It amounted to nothing less than the ossification of the pragmatism which had given Lenin his edge. Of course, the same went for Karl Marx. No alternative interpretations of the prophet and his disciples could be tolerated, or even acknowledged. Not only was dissent from the party-line not to be accepted, the line had to be immune to autocritique from within and critique from without. The materialist dialectics of Marx and Engels became doctrines preserved in formaldehyde for the people to behold in awe. In the end there was only hot-air to fill the balloon and it was easily deflated.
The consolidation of the regime through the New Economic Policy - which Lenin described as state-capitalism - was a material necessity. It was also an opportunity for Stalin to pack the bureaucracy with his cronies and then to eliminate all potential rivals. He did so by first appropriating the allies of the NEP such as Bukharin to marginalise its opponents. Stalin then moved to overturn the NEP and institute the agricultural collectivization and rapid industrialisation of the economy. His former allies would soon find themselves on the shelf. It was all of this that the project of socialism in one country was justificatory. The claim that the class conflict becomes more acute after the Revolution became the pretext for political repression. This was a strategic measures to offset any pushes for liberalisation given the transitional nature of socialism and the necessity for the state to wither away in the end. The end of the transition would mean the end of the party-state apparatus.
When Stalin died Khrushchev moved to gradually open up Soviet society, going as far as to release political prisoners and permit some degree of artistic freedom. He denounced Stalin, famously, in a speech to Soviet delegates, provoking riots in Georgia as well as an uprising in Poland and a full-blown revolution in Hungary. The Russians were quick to stamp out the currents of independence. Khrushchev would later claim that the Soviet Union had established itself as a model socialist society, the aim was then to build communism by the early 1980s. Of course, the irony is that by that time the Soviet political economy had entered a process of terminal decline and its military ensnared in a hopeless war in Afghanistan. Brezhnev had seized power from Khrushchev in 1964 and the brief opening was closed and by the early 1970s the Party was claiming that Soviet society had entered a developed stage of socialism, but the conservatives were capable to stress stability and not undermine their power by talking about an imminent transition to communism.
Notice how alien all of this sounds to us nowadays. Communism is meant to signify the endless procession of soldiers marching in sync and the red flags fluttering over head. Communism was meant to be an Orwellian super-state, the essence of Big Brother realised. You know the scenario: the state tells you what time to get up in the morning, what to wear and just how many abortions to carry out. It comes across as counterintuitive to point out that the Communist Party was called as such to denote the ultimate egalitarian aim of policy. It was never achieved, and we can dispute the extent to which socialism was actually established as well. No one in the so-called people's democracies of Eastern Europe would have described their conditions as communist. This is the context of Prague '68 and the dream of socialism with a human face.
The truth of Auden's words came into full view a decade or more after his death. The passing of the swollen Brezhnev era left open the floor for Gorbachev, glastnost and perestroika. The delivery was ultimately far shorter on substance than in the rhetoric of reform and the worst possible transition. The countries formerly encased by the Iron Curtain were left to the mercy of market forces (in other words, anarchy by another name). Dislocation was inevitable as Gorbachev did not act on his reformist rhetoric in the Eastern bloc, but actually abandoned the countries to the chaos coming their way. After the collapse came the full brunt of capitalism. This was matched by a retreat from the orthodox of historical materialism as Gorbachev embraced a humanistic and ethical conception of socialism. The teleological element of Marxism-Leninism fell away and in the end proletarian internationalism was succeeded by a commitment to 'all-human values'.
The end of history was on its way. Where the ogre had once stuttered and stammered he now lost all coherence in his babbling. There was nothing left to be heard or said, not even drivel. One by one the Communist states of Eastern Europe fell, and then came the dissolution of the Soviet Union. With it Gorbachev was ousted and Russia was left in the fat fingers of a drunkard surrounded by a gang of radical free-marketeers. No one should be surprised by the sort of people who took over Russia after the collapse of the Soviet system. Both Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin, and most of the oligarchs, came out of the party-state apparatus. Consequently, Gorbachev is not a hero to ordinary people in his own country. And for good reason, the new Russia is not his brainchild but its afterbirth.