David Priestland, Professor of History at Oxford University, an outstanding specialist in the history of communism, and expert at the Gaidar Forum in Moscow, recently housed by the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration, met with Invest Foresight, the event’s strategic media partner, to discuss some aspects of that influential global ideology.
Was communism inevitable? “Historians are aware of the multiple historical forces that operate in the world and it is very difficult to predict what the combination of such forces is going to be. There is also a contingency, a chance which historians have to take account of. I would never say communism was inevitable, or it was inevitable that communist power arose in Russia. However, there were many forces that were leading to a crisis of global capitalism, and there also were the anti-colonial movements of the 1950s and 1960s, so though it was not inevitable, there were broader historical forces that contributed to the rise of communism,” Professor Priestland said.
“I would not say communism is returning or is likely to return,” he noted. “What we are seeing now is the emergence of various forms of reaction against globalized capitalism that emerged in the 1970s. These forces come more from the right than from the left, they are forms of nationalist populism. History never repeats itself in exactly the same way, so we do not see recurrences of communism, but we are now seeing a crisis of the globalized capitalism that became dominant since the 1970s, 1980s and particularly 1990s, and reaction against it is that type of right-wing nationalist populism.”
In the present-day world, numerous problems grow and multiply. “My view is, we need global solutions to our problems. I would say particularly that is the case for climate change and ecological issues – that is something we need to do internationally. I would say, broader issues of climate change and global economic development are linked to global justice and feelings of certain countries that they have not been treated properly in the past – these are things that can only really be solved globally and at the international level,” Mr Priestland stressed. “Global inequality has diminished between some nations – as we have seen, for instance, the rise of China and India, but inequality within countries remains. And improvement in global inequality does not apply to all countries and regions. There are certain regions that feel they are not benefitting as much as they should from the global processes.”
“I am not optimistic about new technologies,” he further noted. “They are often promised to lead to greater equality, but I am not sure about it, as it is certainly not the feeling one gets living in the West, where the rise of these technologies, industry and profits has coincided with an increase of inequality within the West. Internationally, that presumably has actually led to inequalities between certain regions and certain countries.”
Was communism in the first turn about economy and material problems, as may sometimes appear? “The power of communism at a time and the reason why it was appealing to so many people was because it was about development, but it was also about a sense of overcoming certain global inequalities. It was anti-imperialist and that was a big appeal of communism. Inequalities will always remain, but in the period of imperialism there were high inequalities between countries – inequalities of power, inequalities of economics, so there were huge reactions against that. As for the Russian 1917 revolution, it was driven in a large part by the feeling of social inequality,” David Priestland believes. “Communist regimes then claimed they were not only going to solve social local and global inequalities, but were going to promote equal economic development. So that was appeal of the communists as they could appeal to ideas of justice and ideas of economic development. That is the case of all ideologies: they succeed if they can appeal on different levels – economics, ideas of justice and other issues. So communism was not just about economics, it was also about an appeal to social justice. That is why communism is not likely to come back, certainly not in the form in which we saw it in the 20th century.”
A question much discussed is, are communism and democracy compatible? In view of Professor Priestland, “There are, in fact, many communisms like there are many liberalisms. If one looks into history of communism, there were many forms of it. Lenin’s communism was highly dictatorial, but there was also council communism in Germany very much founded on ideas of workers’ democracy, and so on. There was always a problem within the communist idea of democracy which was how do you reconcile democracy with differences. Many communists did not have a pluralistic view of democracy. Yet some communists wanted to move in that direction and have mechanisms and institutes for different views to be expressed – instead of having just one coherent popular view. That is a problem with a communist idea of democracy which can lead to an overly homogenous view of the people and the interests of the people. But some communist theoreticians and practitioners were committed to expressions of diverse views.”
Along with and after communism, various other ideologies have been emerging, all offering their own means for addressing the fundamental problems including that of justice. According to Mr Priestland, “Though all ideologies proclaim justice, they promote it in different ways and they mean different things by it. Market liberalism just as communism claims it is going to promote justice – according to work performed. At times it appeared in many countries that it is working and that it is the right way to go forward. But after the financial crisis in the West many people thought it was not happening and they started to look for alternatives, same as was the case with other ideologies that ran into trouble in the past.”
As far as Russia’s current economic development is concerned, “Challenges of diversification are to be mentioned,” David Priestland said. “That was a problem for many economies in the past and is at present. If you rely to a large extent on a particular type of a source of wealth and economy is running in a particular way, it’s very difficult to divert political economy of a country from one set of arrangements to another set, as that is hugely problematic. Yet that is one of the big challenges facing Russia today.”