Although the 1917 Russian Revolution was arguably the defining event of the twentieth century, what makes it remarkable 100 years on is its legacy of failure.
At least the French Revolution of 1789 transferred land to the peasants. They became enthusiastic champions of property rights. The October Revolution, by contrast, led to the deaths of millions of peasants and the dead hand (or blood-soaked fist) of collective land ownership.
Across the globe, socialism of the Leninist-Stalinist variety has resulted in mass murder and human catastrophe. Communist regimes killed close on 100 million people in the aftermath of 1917. In the Soviet Union alone, historian Robert Conquest put the death toll for the Stalin’s reign of terror at 20 million.
In Latin America, the populist socialism of demagogues like Hugo Chávez has been an economic disaster. Indeed, as journalist Toby Young wryly observes, almost every socialist experiment begins with the “dream of a more equal society” and ends with “people eating their pets”.
In his masterful essay, “What is Left of Socialism”, the Polish philosopher Leszek Kołakowski regards the socialist alternative to capitalism as a kind of “totalitarian serfdom”. For the eradication of the market and sweeping nationalisation cannot produce any other result.
Granted, the socialist tradition is rich and varied, and socialists can espouse liberal values. During the Second International, from 1889 to 1916, many did. The Russian Revolution changed all that. As Kołakowski writes, Leninist tyranny “succeeded in stealing the word ‘socialism’” and non-totalitarian socialists were “complicit in the theft”.
Where socialism has metamorphosed into social democracy – especially in the Nordic countries – human progress has followed. But that is because European social democrats understand the importance of fiscal discipline, recognise that competition and incentives drive human behaviour, and use institutional frameworks to shape those incentives.
However, the ideal of human brotherhood or solidarity – on which socialism as a moral philosophy is based – cannot be institutionalised through social engineering. That is the route to totalitarianism.
This is a lesson lost on many Marxists in the SACP. Every year that deluded band of ideological relics celebrates “Red October” in a risible ritual of irrelevance.
As the centenary approaches, they are in overdrive.
But the ideology that inspired Lenin in 1917, and his band of (conspicuously white) fellow travellers in the Communist Party of South Africa after 1921, has been rendered redundant by the march of history. Then, too, the SACP is a spent force politically. Having facilitated the rise to power of a gangster-peasant who has as much fealty to communism as his kleptocratic soulmate Vladimir Putin, the SACP has all but been exiled to political Siberia.
Blade Nzimande is the latest high-ranking communist to feel the icy chill of the gulag.
At any rate, the SACP barely accepts the legitimacy of the constitutional settlement. Instead, it bangs on at every turn in outdated Marxist verbiage about the National Democratic Revolution.
The party introduced the toxic dogma of “white monopoly capital” into our political bloodstream. It is rarely held accountable for that. In fact, it is hard to think of any grouping (outside of campus identitarians and those who wave the old South African flag in public) more out of sync with the philosophical foundations on which our post-1994 civic order rest.
That is not surprising. Even in the early 1990s, the SACP looked to East European communism as a model for post-apartheid South Africa.
The KZN warlord and Stalin-admirer Harry Gwala celebrated the August Coup in 1991, when hardline members of the Soviet Communist Party attempted to wrest power from reformer Mikhail Gorbachev. His local SACP branch believed Gorbachev’s government might “become obstructive to the socialist objective”.
Admittedly, Joe Slovo helped to moderate some of his comrades’ views during the transition to democracy, but the SACP has always been ideologically hidebound and politically intransigent.
Now that they have been played for patsies and treated like useful idiots by Jacob Zuma, only one dignified course of action remains open to them. They must strike out on their own, test their support at the polls, and submit graciously to the inevitable electoral purge that will ensue. Now that would be a fitting way to commemorate October 1917.
Michael Cardo is a DA MP and the party’s spokesman on economic development.
This article first appeared in the Sunday Times.