What does the Russian Revolution mean to you? (Part III)
A fresh and compelling new account of the Russian revolution to mark its centenary concludes by paying tribute to the Bolsheviks for acting as history’s switchmen, a term derived from the small booths that dotted the railway tracks across the Russian empire, where local revolutionaries had long gathered for clandestine meetings. Against those so-called ‘legal Marxists’ who in 1917 used the term as an epithet to scorn those who would try to divert the locomotive of history on its route from the feudal to the capitalist political station it was scheduled to arrive at before it could depart for its final socialist destination, China Miéville asks: ‘What could be more inimical to any trace of teleology than those who take account of the sidings of history?’ What makes October 1917 not only ‘ultimately tragic’ but still ‘ultimately inspiring’ is that it showed it was possible to act decisively so as to engage ‘the switches onto hidden tracks through wilder history.’
There were, of course, no hidden tracks. If the metaphor were to continue to be deployed, it would require recognizing that the tracks had yet to be forged and laid which would form a branch line away from the siding of the October 1917 insurrection. The Bolsheviks who led the insurrection, above all Lenin and Trotsky, certainly weren’t intending to construct a parallel branch line. Rather they believed that those trains already far ahead of Russia’s on history’s track were scheduled to imminently reach capitalism’s final station (the “highest”, as Lenin had designated it in his 1916 pamphlet on imperialism). And they expected that those trains would hasten to leave that station, once inspired by the determination of the Russian switchmen, who would then reengage the switches to merge onto history’s track to the socialist station. But, as was quickly signaled by the failure of the German communist revolution of 1919, the trains on the main track failed to leave the capitalist station.
The branch line that was actually constructed - tortuously winding from the Civil War through the marketized NEP of Lenin’s last years to Stalin’s centrally planned industrialization and forced agricultural collectivization – made two-track time a reality for most of the twentieth century. The revolutionaries who broke most sharply with the practice of ‘socialism in one country’, and suffered grievously from its particular methods, still believed that, as Trotsky put it in exile in 1932, ‘capitalism has outlived itself as a world system.’ And even amidst the American-led capitalist dynamism of the post-1945 era, it was the Soviet track to industrialization that most impressed revolutionaries – and a good many reformists – in developing countries. Yet it turned out that it was the parallel branch line that was constructed from the siding of the October revolution which culminated in an historical dead-end. Before the century was out, eying the high-speed trains now running on the capitalist track, new switchmen appeared all too eager to engage the switches once more and merge with the track on which capitalism sped into the 21st century to who knows where.
It is time to dispense with the metaphor. And what should also be dispensed with is the proclivity to proclaim the imminent ‘end of capitalism’. However useful historical materialism still proves in revealing how capitalism displaced previous modes of production – and thereby in revealing the possibility of a post-capitalist future - there are no hidden tracks through history. There are still only people making history under conditions not of their choosing. And however essential Marxist analyses of capitalism’s old and new contradictions may be for understanding those conditions, neither constraints on the development of productive forces, nor economic crises, or even ecological ones, will themselves end capitalism. Only people capable of making history can do that, and if that new history is to be a socialist one, they will have to become capable of doing that too
One fine summer evening in the mid-1990s, my comrades and I were hanging out in the local headquarters of Vänsterpartiet, the former Swedish communist party, which had, just a few years earlier, deleted the word ‘communist’ from its name. We were in a buoyant mood, not to say intoxicated by our power. For the second summer in a row, we were squatting the old brewery, the most imposing structure of the town, a giant building overlooking all others and dominating municipal politics for decades: the business association and its political allies wanted it razed and replaced with a parking lot; we demanded it be renovated into a cultural centre. I was a zealous anarchist. I had converted about half of the local chapter of the party youth, and this particular evening, I got the idea of making our point clear. Bring out the Lenin bust!
It had long collected dust on some shelf in the back of the office. Now we got it out and scribbled ‘smash the state’ on Lenin’s head. Then we found a bit of rope, tied a noose around his neck and hanged him from the window. For a day or two, the inhabitants of this western Swedish town could see Lenin dangling in the rope, until some party member found out and took him down. I will never forget the humiliation, the sheer heartbreak in the eyes of the old activists, who had been steadfast Communists for all their lives, as they sat down to talk to us and tried to come to grips with the fact that their very own youth had done this to them. I consider it one of the most shameful episodes in my political life. A long time has passed since I recovered from the infantile disorder known as anarchism; today I have a picture of Lenin on my wall, and if I owned a nice Lenin banner, I would be happy to hang it out from my balcony on the ninth floor, overlooking Möllevången in central Malmö, to celebrate the anniversary.
The Russian Revolution is a parallel universe one has to visit regularly to retain one’s footing in this one. The political pathologies of our moment can best be withstood with shots from another time and place that, if only momentarily, dispel the daze and restore the focus. Precisely because the seizure of power is such an infinitely receding horizon, one must renew the commitment to it every now and then, so as to keep in mind what all the accumulated decades of degeneration have removed from sight. Yes, there is an element of nostalgia to this exercise, but as Enzo Traverso makes clear in his luminous Left-Wing Melancholia: Marxism, History, and Memory, it is essential to hold on to the moment of October and the tradition it inaugurated if we want to stay awake in the post-1989 stupor.
If it were not for the catastrophes that seem either imminent or already unfolding in this early twenty-first century, I would be tempted to lock myself up, like a teenager who cannot get enough of science fiction, and read nothing but books about the Russian Revolution. But then again the Revolution was all about averting or minimising catastrophes: famine, war, collapse of the social order, reactionary forces turning all the violence they could muster against racialised others. Lenin’s key text from 1917 is ‘The Impending Catastrophe and How to Combat it’, a desperate cry to act before it is too late. What would be the alternative? In his new Russia in Revolution: An Empire in Crisis, 1890 to 1928, as dispassionate and measured an account of the events as one can find, S. A. Smith reminds the reader that during the civil war, the enemies of the Bolsheviks conducted ‘a massacre of Jews on a ghastly, historically unprecedented scale, with the loss of between 50,000 and 200,000 lives’, coming to an end only when the Red Army secured the territories in question. I write these words from the old Jewish quarter of Kraków. Naïve as it might be, I cannot but wonder if the catastrophe that happened here would have been foiled had the revolution also spread to these lands. That would have required some sort of seizure of power.
We did not, of course, save the brewery from demolition. A desolate parking house now fills up the site, to the great joy of the merchants of the town, who always wanted more space for the cars in which shoppers arrive. As high as we were on our ability to occupy the centre stage for months at a time, we had no strategy for translating that clout into actual decisions: our power on the streets was matched by an almost complete powerlessness in the local state apparatus. I have experienced that paradox again and again, most intensely in Tahrir Square, where the intoxication of popular power reached unprecedented heights, and corresponded to zero exercise of concrete power over the fate of the Egyptian people. Now every remnant of the revolution has been razed and the square been refurbished as a circle for an endless swirl of cars. In my little hometown as well as in teeming Egypt, a generation of activists dazed by the legacy of Stalinism could not imagine, let alone plan for, themselves or their allies as wielders of state power. Hence that field was left for the enemy to hold.
As we head deeper into a century filled with impending catastrophes, we need to bring out the Lenin bust and dust it off for other purposes. ‘The key question of every revolution’, he wrote, ‘is undoubtedly the question of state power’, the seizure of which is evidently no guarantee for success. It is merely the first necessary condition.
John Reed describes how, a few days after the October Revolution, he returned from Tsarskoye Selo to Petrograd, 'riding on the front seat of an auto truck, driven by a workman and filled with Red Guards'. His brief account of the journey is superbly evocative, deeply moving:
'We had no kerosene, so our lights were not burning. The road was crowded with the proletarian army going home, and new reserves pouring out to take their places. Immense trucks like ours, columns of artillery, wagons, loomed up in the night, without lights, as we were. We hurtled furiously on, wrenched right and left to avoid collisions that seemed inevitable, scraping wheels, followed by the epithets of pedestrians.'
The crowded, darkened journey, a reckless, irrepressibly exciting homecoming, implicitly becomes a little cameo of the Revolution itself, hurtling furiously forwards into the future, pulled to left and right by competing historical forces, risking collision and causing uproar from those it passes on the road. In the distance towards which the truck hurtles lies a scintillating utopian prospect: 'Across the horizon spread the glittering lights of the capital, immeasurably more splendid by night than by day, like a dike of jewels heaped on the barren plain.'
But the real point of the anecdote, or its emotional core at least, is the quotation with which it concludes. In the final paragraph of this chapter of Ten Days that Shook the World, which is entitled simply 'Victory', Reed recordsthat the 'old workman' driving the truck, one hand resting on the steering wheel, used the other to sweep 'the far-gleaming capital with an exultant gesture'...: '"Mine," he cried, his face all alight. "All mine now! My Petrograd."'
An old, tired but undefeated worker feels for the first time, with an uncontainable pride that is not individual but collective, that he can take ownership of a metropolis and a society from which, economically, socially, psychologically, he has always been alienated. It's that feeling -
embodied in the Revolution, and momentarily, partially, experienced in every demonstration, every occupation in which we participate - it's that feeling for which we need to continue fighting.
Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval, authors of The New Way of the World:
What should we be commemorating upon the centenary of the October Revolution? A first victory in the world communist revolution, or rather the first in a long series of defeats for socialism, such as the previous century had imagined it? What lesson, ultimately, should we take from the October Revolution? Today it has become clear that its failure sounded the death-knell – for a century at least – of genuine socialism, which is to say democracy in its fullest extension. There is no point beating around the bush: despite whole generations of revolutionaries’ efforts to rediscover the real thrust of 1917, its twentieth-century history turned into disaster, for the societies of the East as for the workers’ movement as a whole. The bottom line is that the criminal bureaucratic dictatorship of Stalinist and post-Stalinist Russia compromised the very idea of socialism, to the point of killing off hope in the socialist future. Capitalism was everywhere re-established, often in its most hideous authoritarian and predatory forms. The very thing that cloaked itself in the name ‘communism’ after 1917, and in a certain sense succeeded in monopolising this name, contributed to a historic catastrophe that continues to have the gloomiest effects for humanity. For it has deprived humanity of any alternative.
‘All power to the soviets!’ That was the slogan with which the Bolsheviks took power. Some have considered these ‘soviets’ or ‘councils’ the quintessentially communist institution, guaranteeing the greatest number of workers and peasants effective power, in both legislative and executive terms. Yet as we know – or as we ought to know – that is what did not happen: it was the Social-Democratic Party (Bolshevik), becoming the Communist Party in 1918, that effectively exercised dictatorial powers from the Civil War up till the end of the Soviet Union. Far from emanating from the Congress of Soviets, the 25 October insurrection was decided by the party and imposed on the soviets,. The power that emerged from this was not only non-soviet but utterly anti-soviet, if we restore the word ‘soviet’ its authentic meaning. The use of this term is without doubt the very heart of the lie that was bureaucratic state communism, from the October Revolution to the end of the twentieth century. If indeed there was a revolution, this was the feat not of the Bolshevik Party but of the spontaneous movement of the soviets. To be more precise – and this is an established historical fact – as a form of democratic self-government the soviet system is fundamentally alien to the Bolshevik exercise of power. In Russia the masses proved their imagination and audacity; they were well ahead of the Bolsheviks in February as they created their own organs of emancipation. Yet it was the Party and not the soviets that became the base of the ‘Soviet’ edifice. A Party-communism was instead established of a soviet-communism. Yet this Party-communism, or Bolshevism, has today reached the end of its historical journey. And that is for the best. That is the lesson of October: that there is an irreducible contradiction between Party-communism and the revolution.