What does the Russian Revolution mean to you? (Part II)
This year we've been marking the centenary of the Russian Revolution with new books from Tariq Ali and China Miéville, plus Weekend Reads looking at women in Russia before and after the Revolution, the Black Bolsheviks, and lots more.
In this series of posts (Part I, Part II below, and Part III) we ask writers to respond to the Revolution and its importance today.
Shlomo Sand, author of Twilight of History, How I Stopped Being a Jew, and more:
Revolutions do not end. They become inlaid into the general course of history by etching their gains and their failures into this history; conversely, the myths that accompanied them always end up being interrupted. It is difficult to determine the precise moment when the myth of the Russian Revolution met its end. But the processes and the ideological atmosphere that accompanied this end teach us that the dynamic of the 1917 revolution, which inspired so many uprisings in the twentieth century, has totally lost its power. This myth did not disappear in 1991, but rather began to fade long before then. At the beginning of the third millennium, it has been wiped away, no longer counting as a constitutive element of the political imaginary arising to challenge the existing order.
Let’s not kid ourselves. The Bolshevik myth did not weaken solely because of the oppressive regime that came out of this revolution, and the crimes of which it was guilty. It was precisely in the period when it committed these horrors that it reached the height of its influence among critical and revolutionary minds the world over. Stalin’s cruelty dissuaded neither the Communists nor their fellow-travellers from identifying with this myth, as they waged their struggles against colonialism, fascism or Nazism. As with any historical process or event, the factors behind the extinction of this myth were multiple, and we can identify them only in part. It seems that the causes are linked to vast social, economic and cultural developments. From automation to the contraction of the industrial proletariat in the Western world, passing via the failures of the symbiosis between nationalism and socialism in the world outside the West, and up to and including the hegemonic mass audio-visual culture of the late 20th century: various phenomena contributed to the erosion and retreat of the revolutionary idea that was born of the First World War, hastening its end.
The question remains open as to whether the disappearance of the Russian Revolution myth thereby eliminates any future possibility of a rebirth of revolutionary hope, carrying forth a new imaginary. The contradictions in economic and social modernisation since the 17th century have engendered a long series of revolutions. No one knows what might be the nature of any revolution likely to occur in the twenty-first century. Would it be more violent than those that preceded it? Will the dreams accompanying it be more rational? Will its level of moral values be more egalitarian? Only future generations will be able to answer these questions.
Ronald Grigor Suny, author of Red Flag Unfurled (forthcoming):
When the word “revolution” first took on its political meaning, it retained its original sense of a turning. Revolutions might be judged successes or failures by subsequent generations according to the moral and political criteria of those future times, but the great revolutions of the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries remain turning points from which return to the past has been rendered impossible. The English, American, French, Russian, and Chinese revolutions, to mention only the most radical and momentously transformative, created new worlds and opened new possibilities for human activity: liberalism and constitutionalism that over time undermined absolutism and aristocratic privilege; the sovereignty of ordinary people rather than divinely-sanctioned dynasts; and the empowerment of millions of ordinary workers and peasants.
For the last quarter century, since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the dominant discourse has been a story of the failure of 1917, its descent from emancipatory promise to Stalinist totalitarianism. Lost in the cacophony of liberal triumphalism have been the stunning achievements (the Soviets liked to use the word dostizheniia) of the seventy years of Soviet power. An empire was built (or rebuilt) that ultimately gave birth to fifteen independent national republics, the progeny of nationality policies that promoted ethnic cultures, territorialized particular nations, and fostered national elites that once released from Moscow’s heavy hand took power, for better or worse, in their own sovereign states. A vast continent inhabited by 80 percent illiterate or semi-literate villagers was industrialized and urbanized into a country of 80 percent educated and socially mobile city and town dwellers. Even as millions suffered and died under the brutal regime headed by Stalin and his clique, social services, health care, and cultural institutions improved the lives of tens of millions. The costs were horrendous and the results ambiguous, and yet when the greatest threat to the Enlightenment and humanistic values nearly engulfed Europe, the determination of the Soviet people and the sacrifice of over twenty-five million lives defeated fascist imperialism and ended the Holocaust.
The revolution of 1917 promised more than it could deliver. Made in the name of democratic emancipation and socialist equality and justice, those ambitions gave way before the pragmatic imperatives of economic development and military security, the aggrandizement of personal power, corruption, and a cruel calculation that terror and torture could eliminate the obstacles to the glorious future. In their last four decades the Soviets attempted to overcome the burdens of Stalinism, but ill-conceived reforms brought the system down. People with skills and ideas fostered in the Soviet years no longer required the tutelage of the superannuated Communist Party. The legacy of socialist humanism was never completely interred, however, and many in the former USSR retain not only nostalgia about the old days, its securities, predictabilities, and stabilities, but also the values of solidarity, cooperation, and connectivity between peoples that appeared to erode after 1991. Whither Russia – or Armenia or Ukraine or Uzbekistan – remains an open question, but the seventy years of Soviet Power continue to indelibly mark the possibilities presented by the future.
Joshua Clover, author of Riot. Strike. Riot:
The Russian Revolution was a precise measurement of what was possible in that moment. This is not to say that every historical outcome is merely truth in practical form. Perhaps this can be a working definition of a revolution: it goes to the limit. This can only occur in trying to traverse that limit. In this sense the old saw that “politics is the art of the possible” is precisely wrong. It refers to the art of being governed by ideological delusions about the possible. Only by setting out not for what is imagined to be possible but against generalized misery can the possible be realized. Now we can in reversing the old saw see that revolution is the art of the possible. One more reversal then: if politics is the art of the possible then revolution and revolution alone deserves the name of politics.
The Russian Revolution bequeaths us two major questions: method and the party. These two are one. Method does not designate particular organizational forms or strategic orientations. They too are a precise measurement of what was possible in that moment. There is no reason to believe it would be anything more than formalism to repeat them; even Shakespeare could not write a Shakespeare play now. The weight of all dead revolutions weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. We might think of method as the adequate relation of theory to politics. It is sometimes argued that Marxist theory is distinguished by its capacity to reflect on the conditions in which it is formed and becomes necessary. I might suggest instead that it offers the most complex and comprehensive theory of causality: the laws of motion for capitalist society. Method is following that motion toward grasping where to intervene. Intervention is not winning a theoretical debate or a war of ideas. A theory does not wish to defeat other theories. It suggests how a revolution might be won.
It makes such suggestions within “a ceaselessly moving, changing sea of phenomena” to quote Rosa Luxemburg. Method revises theory to keep up with these changes. There is a real situation which features some affordances and lacks others; theory is the clarification of this situation and how it might develop. Thus for example an adequate theory of class composition and its relation to possible political forms arises from real changes; the circumstances within which the mass party and command over national production were possible no longer obtain. Moreover we can trace the trajectory of this global recomposition; it leads away. There will be many kinds of struggle but “the law of motion of these phenomena is clear.” More Rosa. It is not the technical details nor given forms but “the political and social proportions of the forces of the revolution.” We need not assume these have changed in a century; we know already that they have. Communism proceeds now without mass parties just as literature proceeds without Elizabethan plays — not because they are right or wrong but because their political and social proportions do not exist. We will have to invent something no less inventive than 1917.
John Roberts, author of Revolutionary Time and the Avant-Garde, The Necessity of Errors, and more:
The idea of the ‘lost’ Russian revolution is, of course, the idée fixe of generations of the non-Stalinist left since the early 1930s. Indeed, so ingrained is this presupposition that for many it has taken on metaphysical proportions: the Russian revolution is one long bitter, Grand Guignol of betrayal. But when precisely was the revolution ‘lost’? When Lenin died? During the years of the NEP? With the expansion of the camps? After the outmanoeuvring of the left opposition? With Trotsky’s unwillingness to organize the Red Army before he was arrested? During the purges? With the dismantling of the Comintern? Of course, all of the above, we might say. Or, then, again, none of the above, if like Boris Groys, one takes it as axiomatic that the Russian revolution was not lost at all, but was always the conspicuously ‘fallen’ outcome of a shattered historical process. Thus what would have a ‘successful’ revolution have meant, in the absence of world revolution: fewer camps, less factory speed-ups, Trotsky in power, no collectivization of agriculture, the continuation and flourishing of the avant-garde? All this seems, in way, irrelevant in comparison to what the revolution had to become, with or without Trotsky, in order to survive in any form: the national-popular defense of Soviet borders against incursion by the allies. So how does the Russian revolution live on, once we are no longer engaged in the interminable and fruitless reckoning with its ‘failure’? What kind of afterlife is worthy of its vast and conflictual landscape: a Docetic miracle, to marvel at from a distance? A cautionary tale for sensible leftists, drawn from the annals of misplaced and criminal idealism? A theodistic narrative of a redeemed communism to come in which we get to choose the nice bits and forget or downplay the nasty bits? My choice of religious concepts is not arbitrary: it is easy to think of the revolution in these terms, as the wellspring of homilies and moral catechisms. And this, for many on the left and right, is comforting, a way of accommodating its extraordinary transformations and challenges. Yet, it is very hard to completely domesticate or pathologise the memory of the revolution, even if armed with a large amount of ‘unillusionedness.’ For, the revolution even in most corrupted and state-driven forms produced an idealism that far exceeded its daily mortifications. Indeed, Stalinism drew on this. This is what we might call the residual revolutionary ‘perfectionism’ of the post-revolutionary period, a kind of Thomist and Hegelian commitment to the revolution as unremitting Idea. Jochen Hellbeck puts this very well in his Revolution on My Mind: Writing a Diary Under Stalin (2006), in his reflections on the way in which many workers would continually inscribe their feelings and lives into world history: there was “an astounding depth of individual involvement in the revolutionary age.” To say, then, that the Russian revolution now lives on as absolute ideal, is not to privatize the memory of the revolution against the brutal realities of its history, but in the end to lay claim to what world historical revolutions do in spite of their grinding failures and compromises: produce a sublime disordering of human finitude and its intellectual and material delimitations. In this, the magnificence of the Russian revolution, even in its immiserated dog days, is not diminished.
Geoff Mann, author of Climate Leviathan (forthcoming), In the Long Run We Are All Dead, and more:
Inspired by an excellent account of April 1917 in Jacobin—“From the Finland Station”—I picked up my copy of Edmund Wilson’s To the Finland Station for the first time in a long time. Just as I remembered, it remains compelling in narrative, but some of the details are so off-the-mark it is hard to forget them in the good parts. It is especially terrible on Marxist ideas, and Wilson mangles what little he gets out of them. But what it is good at is communicating some of the hope that energized many revolutionary thinkers, and Lenin and Trotsky receive special attention for what they “thought they were doing in the interests of ‘a better world’.” For many readers today, this is probably the best one might expect from a vaguely sympathetic book written in the late 1930s, now that the horrors of Stalinism and the bleak totalitarianism of much of the Eastern Bloc have forever stained the history of the Russian Revolution.
To my mind, living with these stains is the hardest task the Left faces when contemplating the Russian Revolution at the century’s distance. This is to state the glaringly obvious. Whatever good has been dug out of it, it stands in the rearview mirror as a colossal failure, or failures: a failure not only in that it did not live up to its promise; not only in that in fact it begat a cruel monstrosity; not only in that it permanently besmirched thought and categories that are so central to emancipatory politics that we have yet to replace them, and must constantly distance them from their own histories. Those failures loom over us, but more than the others is the failure that it often seems it was not worth it. As Francis Spufford puts it in Red Plenty, while a pensioner looks back on the Revolution and the work of building the Soviet Union in the decades that followed: “So much blood, and only one justification for it. . . . if it all had been prologue, all only the last spasms in the death of the old, cruel world, and the birth of the kind new one. But without the work it was so much harder to believe. Without the work the future had no heft to keep the past at bay.”
The necessity for today’s Left to look this failure straight in the eye is why the Russian Revolution still matters today, matters as much or more than it has at any point since World War II. Because we can only stay committed to a Left politics of freedom—and, more importantly, convince others to embrace it as well—if we take seriously the histories the Revolution has bequeathed us. And I don’t mean the lies of triumphant revisionists, I mean the histories of those whose sacrifice was the Revolution. Looking back at the centenary, we must not be tempted to keep that past at bay.
David McNally, author of Against the Market:
Through the wasteland of war and hunger emerged a simple flash of light. Victor Serge glimpsed it in a French prison camp and was transfixed. In his novel, Birth of our Power, he lets us eavesdrop on worker-revolutionaries discussing it in a Barcelona warehouse:
“Well, and the Czar?
“No more Czars.”
“. . . The army?’
“With the people.”
“No more police.”
Many profound things will be written for the centenary of the 1917 revolution in Russia. But few will better capture its electricity. In a world drowning in blood and misery, a revolution had conquered power in the name of Bread, Peace and Land. Czars and generals, factory owners and wealthy landowners had been stripped of their offices, power and privileges. In their places stood the soviets, the councils of elected delegates of workers, soldiers, sailors and peasants.
This was, of course, an “impossible” revolution. Not only for the forces of the Right, but equally for most leaders of the Left, for whom Lenin and his comrades were recklessly leaping over necessary “stages” of history. But, ensconced in a Swiss library three years earlier, Lenin had immersed himself in the study of dialectics. Rejecting static schemas, he wrote that dialectics attends to “the inner pulsation of self-movement and vitality.” Returning to Russia in April 1917, his thunderous writings and speeches cast away lifeless formulas in favor of the living pulse of revolutionary experience. Amid popular revolt, this could only mean accelerating the self-propulsion of the insurgent masses toward a rupture with world imperialism itself.
That the magnificent gesture of a total rupture ultimately failed can hardly be the point for us today. After all, defeat—crystallized in the rise of Stalinist dictatorship—merely repeats the cycle of failures that will be our history . . . until it is not. It is the gesture of total rupture—embodied in control of production by factory committees, land to the peasants, decriminalization of same-sex relations, gender equality, the right of oppressed nationalities to self-determination, and the pursuit of world revolution—that flashes its simple yet powerful light at the moment of danger we inhabit today.
“Adventure it was,” wrote American radical John Reed about what he had witnessed in Russia in 1917, “and one of the most marvellous mankind ever embarked upon.” Civil war, famine, Stalin’s police state, and decades of anti-revolutionary propaganda by the bourgeoisie cannot extinguish the marvellously subversive light of that grand adventure. Its dialectical truth lives on, rekindling revolutionary hope and imagination and, in the words of Walter Benjamin, calling into question “every victory, past and present, of the rulers.”
Achin Vanaik, author of The Rise of Hindu Authoritarianism and The Painful Transition:
The horizon of the possible shapes our understanding and pursuit of the desirable. If one believes that capitalism cannot ever be transcended then all progressive change in the name of freedom, equality, justice and solidarity will be less achievable. Here, the Russian Revolution constitutes a political beacon whose light will not be extinguished over time and space, marking as it did the first break in the ‘order of capital’ and in the ‘order of nations’, thereby creating a completely new vista of what could be universally achievable. For all the ups and downs of the socialist project since, that vista endures precisely because capitalism remains on trial for its accumulating injustices – obscene levels of poverty; huge inequalities of wealth and power; proliferating cultural exclusivisms; while ecological despoliation and nuclearism threaten the human species itself.
Globally, the progressive youth increasingly recognizes this reality. But they differ from their radical forerunners of the 1960s and 70s in a key respect. Even when that earlier generation fought separately on the terrains of anti-colonialism, anti-capitalism, feminism, anti-racism, huge numbers linked themselves to the revolutionary traditions of Bolshevism, Maoism, Castroism/Guevarism, Spanish anarchism, Council Communism. But most of today’s generation has voluntarily severed any link with that past – a serious weakness. For the lessons of the upheavals since 1917 still need absorption and transmission to the warriors of today. The institutionalized forms of direct democracy that then emerged and flourished, however briefly, continue to highlight the restricted character of today’s liberal democracies, degraded by neoliberal globalization.
The practical lesson of what socialist democracy can be like, as revealed in the best instances of revolutionary Marxism, is of particular importance for generating a new and re-invigorated Left in India, where Stalinism and Maoism has diminished Marxism’s appeal and allowed young progressives to be more easily seduced by postcolonial and postmodernist thinking. But a more more important reason we must become more contemporary with the Russian Revolution is that the radical Right is currently in governmental power, backed by an activist force of mass proportions implanted in Indian civil society – one that is deeply motivated by its adherence to a holistic transformative vision for India. The hegemonising influence of this Radical Right will not be decisively weakened in the long term by a politics of liberal reformism which too seeks to preserve a neoliberal capitalist order. The task then falls upon a Left that must arm itself with its own holistic transformative vision in order to develop its own mass of loyal and committed cadres to take the fight to the enemy.
See also: Part I and Part III