We have just celebrated the centenary of the Russian Revolution, the key reference point for Marxists and their politics during these one hundred years.
In his recent book on the revolution[i], Stephen Smith notes correctly that –
“Through the twentieth century, capitalism displayed immense dynamism and innovation, permitting the raising of the standard of living of millions of people even as it concentrated immense wealth in a few hands and created new forms of alienation.”
He goes on to say that –
“Everything conspires to make us acquiesce in the world as it is, to discourage belief that it can be organised in a more just and rational fashion. Yet that is what the Bolsheviks tried to do.”
“Nor will we understand the year 1917 if we do not make an imaginative effort to recapture the hope, idealism, heroism, anger, fear, and despair that motivated it; the burning desire for peace, the deep resentment of a social order riven between the haves and the have-nots, anger at the injustices that ran through Russian society. That is why millions across the world, who could not anticipate the horrors to come, embraced the 1917 Revolution as a chance to create a new world of justice, equality, and freedom.”
The Russian Revolution has been the key reference point for Marxists over the last one hundred years because we want to repeat it – repeat its attempt “to create a new world of justice, equality, and freedom” – through revolution, which is the mass of ordinary working people becoming politically active to overthrow the existing exploiting system and create a new society, free of oppression and exploitation.
Of course, when we say repeat it, we don’t actually mean repeat all of it. We mean a revolution that seeks a society that gives every individual the freedom to develop themselves to their full potential, and, of course, does not repeat its mistakes, and the descent into Stalinist monstrosity that the society created by the Revolution became.
One very important additional reason for what appears to non-Marxists to be a fixation on Russia and its Revolution is the contribution to Marxist thought by the leaders of the revolution, particularly Lenin and Trotsky. Hence our continual reference to what ‘dead Russians’ have said about this, that, and the other.
But even the neophyte will want to know – what do you mean by the mistakes and what caused them? And if you celebrate the Revolution, are you sure you have learnt its lessons, which will prevent these mistakes re-occurring or equally awful new ones emerging?
The debates within Marxism are certainly labyrinthine to those new to its politics. That much debate still revolves around the lessons of the Revolution demonstrates that while success can teach us much, failure is much harder to learn from. But if failure was the Revolution’s ultimate result then this is perhaps the more important terrain from which lessons must be learnt. Except of course, that we cannot assume that what worked 100 years ago will work, mutatis mutandis, again today. Not only failures but previous successes may have to be revised, with all due respect to the heresy hunters for whom the word revise immediately conjures up the spectre of ‘revisionism.’
To talk about the Revolution and to attempt to analyse its lessons is an enormous undertaking and I’m not going to do it here in any even semi-comprehensive fashion. As the key attempt to overthrow capitalism and usher in a new socialist society everything written on this blog, and every other piece of socialist analysis, implies a view of the Revolution, whether explicitly stated or not. However, rather basic questions can be posed initially, some of which are rather obvious.
Why is the Revolution still, after 100 years, the key reference point for Marxists and their programme for socialist revolution? Why, if we are living in a period that is the ‘highest stage of capitalism’, or even more boldly, of the decline of the system, is there no other example of such momentous and significant revolution, which is the only way that capitalism can be overthrown? If we live in an era of ‘wars and revolutions’, why do we have such little experience that compares in importance to 1917? Is the experience of the Russian Revolution therefore so central to understanding the future of capitalism and socialism as the space it has so far occupied in our thought might seem to suggest?
Stephen Smith notes the massive changes wrought by capitalism in the last 100 years. What has this to say about the ability of the bourgeoisie to revolutionise “the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. . . Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation. . . All fixed, fast-frozen relations . . . are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air . . .” (Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto). And all this without having brought down its own system through this constant overturning of its own conditions for existence?
What have the changes wrought by capitalism to say about how different the conditions facing socialists are today and what this implies for our programme? If the Russian Revolution is in any sense the model to be copied or emulated, what does this imply for the conditions upon which it will be repeated? Must they too be similar?
I can’t answer all these questions satisfactorily and am not going attempt to do so. What I will attempt do is to approach the problem, considered broadly, from two aspects, and in doing so make my own contribution to reconsideration of the Revolution and its lessons.
These two aspects are consideration of the material conditions giving rise to the revolution and the particular approach taken by the victorious Bolshevik Party.
[i] Russia in Revolution, an Empire in Crisis 1890 – 1928, S A Smith Oxford University Press 2017.
Forward to part 2