The history of communism, or rather, of communisms. Communisms achieved, disappeared or still active communist parties, defeated revolutionary processes, or interrupted ones. Genetic changes to communism that contributed to the tormented events of the twentieth century. This history, and not only the idea of communism, must be addressed, in order to conquer a new opportunity for communism.
1. Socialism Achieved
The twentieth century was not an era of Real Socialism but of the many socialisms achieved, that lasted for various periods of time and lead to different outcomes (some of which successful, others more or less disastrous). Some of these socialist systems fought each other strenuously, and many communist movements, not only in the West, arose in protest against the deterioration of Marxist ideals. Current mainstream historiography tends to group all these experiences together, viewing them as one big failure; on the contrary, it is probably possible to identify some exemplary moments within the mare magnum of achieved socialism. Which forms of communism – originated during the twentieth century – provide inspiration still today?
2. Social Democracies
In 1989 many European social democrats celebrated the fall of the Berlin Wall as a victory: the event was taken to be a sign of the end of the long-lasting battle that had divided the left in the West, and of the victory by reformists. Thirty years on it is possible to say that this was not the case. Not only was European reformism also crushed by the crisis of twentieth century communism, but the fundamental parasitic nature of social democracy also became evident. In fact, the success of social democracy during “the glorious thirties” was based on the threats posed not only by the workers’ movements but also by the Red Army. Is the Western welfare state the most successful outcome of Soviet communism? Where does radical thought of the twenty-first century stand with regard to the experience of twentieth century social democracies?
3. Failing better
History is also made up of unpredictable turning points. Communists were often able, throughout the twentieth century, to grasp opportunities which arose unexpectedly – see Russia in 1917 and Cuba in 1959. On other occasions their action was not as swift, specifically in the most developed countries in Western Europe where, according to Marx, the revolutionary process should have begun, and where indeed, on many occasions, a revolutionary break was in reach (in Austria at the time of “Red Vienna”, in Paris in May 1968…). In which case would a different choice have been decisive? Which promising experiences, albeit defeated because of an objective power play, can be seen as points of reference for future struggles?
4. Communist Forms of Life
During the twentieth century communism was, among other things, a “form of life” impacting the existence of millions of women and men, even where it was unable to become majoritarian (something quite different from the vision of resistance in small and protected enclaves). What is left of this “microphysical” experience of socialism today?
5. Eschatological Tension
During the twentieth century the socialist movement was driven by a mass eschatological tension presenting some of the traits typical of the Messianic nature of the Judeo-Christian religions, in a secularized perspective. Western society is marked by a substantial process of de-Christianisation and by the progressive levelling of individual and social expectations, shaped by an increasingly shrinking temporality; what are the consequences for a movement of workers refusing to give up the fight and aiming to overturn the capitalistic system of exploitation?