Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Hailing and Heeding Red October

Karl Marx enjoyed historical ironies, but I doubt he'd have been cheered by this one. The greatest event in human history is simultaneously its most tragic event, a people who reached for the heavens laid low by the harsh, hellish realities of war, starvation, repression and dictatorship. The Russian Revolution, Red October, has met its centennial. An occasion to celebrate or commemorate depends very much on your political persuasion, but what it is, what the whole Soviet experience should be is something too many on the left have resisted: an occasion for learning.

If the 1871 Paris Commune was the first breach in the international order of capital, the October Revolution posed it an existential threat. Not only did it expropriate the aristocracy and emergent bourgeoisie, it lit the touch paper of a revolutionary blaze that fanned outwards into Europe, into the colonies, into India and China and won it a global army of adherents. After the collapse of Imperial Germany the continent came close, very close, to turning red. Alas the revolutionary wave ebbed and socialism's outrider became its sole bastion. Nevertheless the establishments of Europe knew what the revolution represented. It was a warning, an unwelcome intrusion of the masses into history bearing one simple message: that capitalism was on notice. The propaganda aimed against the Soviet Republic, the soldiers and material the colonial powers shipped to Russia to strangle the experiment in its cradle, this was done not to restore democracy or prevent dictatorship. Its simple aim was to drown the revolution in blood. The Russian civil war that raged from 1918-1921 consumed the lives of 10 million people, but even that couldn't break it. Nevertheless the utter devastation - think 1990s Afghanistan on a much larger canvas - saw to its pacification in terms of the international game. Socialism in one country, Stalin's original sin as far as the Trotskyists were concerned, was a break with received Marxist understandings of the global character of revolution, but also a doctrinal adaptation to material circumstances and the rebadging of the old Tsarist bureaucracy as so many people's commissariats.

And here lies the first problem with coming to grips with the revolution. Marxist understandings of the revolution performed in its name are too often bogged down by factional debates and their attendant mythologies. For the Social Democrats it was a case of instant dismissal. They preached against the violence of putschism, fetishised constitutionalism and attacked the Bolsheviks for not respecting the political gradualism they were wedded to. Yet this condemnation was strangely absent when it was a matter of turning guns on colonised peoples or the revolutionary masses of Europe, as was the case in Germany after the Great War. The anarchists were simultaneously hostile for the revolution not being revolutionary enough and located Soviet authoritarianism in a red thread stretching back to Marx's expulsion of Bakunin from the First International for ... wanting to place the organisation under the control of a secret conspiratorial outfit with him as the head. Hmmm. For the Trotskyists everything was fine and dandy until the 1921 party congress banned factions and it was the slippery slope after then, and for your Stalinists (depending on the flavour) things were a-okay until Khrushchev's secret speech in 1956, or right up until the Berlin Wall fell.

Of course, this account leaves out much detail, but the point remains. There is little consensus about what the lessons of the Russian Revolution are, and therefore conclusions, be they scholarly or political, are footballs to be kicked about in the ebb and flow of interests. For much of the Cold War period, despite the prevalence of us-vs-themism, there were contesting interpretations. After the end and the temporary triumph of neoliberal capitalism and governance, the USSR and the revolution that spawned it were an aberration, something to be reviled if it was ever to be talked about at all. As politics opens up again and socialism and communism are once more at large, ambiguity is more the order of the day - of which this post is one of many left wing examples.

The crucial problem, the issue returned to time and again is the erroneous suggestion the Bolsheviks started out as a dictatorial outfit. After all, it's there in Lenin's What is to be Done?, an otherwise obscure pamphlet of boring polemics old Lenners aimed at his rivals and fellow exiles in the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party. Indeed, Trotsky earned his spurs if not his notoriety in these self-same circles for attacking Lenin's "authoritarianism". He was more right than he could have ever supposed when he argued "... these methods lead, as we shall see below, to the Party organisation “substituting” itself for the Party, the Central Committee substituting itself for the Party organisation, and finally the dictator substituting himself for the Central Committee". And yet contrary to the standard interpretation of Lenin and the bureaucratic sects and cults who farcically claim to be repositories of the Bolshevik tradition, "these methods" were not Lenin's argument at all. As the sterling scholarship of Lars T Lih on the life and works of Lenin show, the model he favoured and worked to base the revolutionary party on was actually German Social Democracy, albeit adapted to conditions of Russian illegality. That was a tradition of relating democratically to workers and peasants, it meant a disciplined approach to political activity married to a noisy and dynamic culture of criticism and open debate. The RSDLP, which incubated the Bolshevik and Menshevik factions was never a monolith, and following the final split between the two and the transformation of both into parties, they inherited the characteristics of its defunct parent. The party that led the insurrection was also a party with a democratic culture and with open factions who published their own material. It was formally and substantively more democratic than the Labour Party. There was clearly a qualitative break between the Bolshevik Party of Lenin prior to the revolution and the mockery of workers' power it later became.

How did we arrive at the gulag from this? For Trotskyist accounts of the revolution, the young Soviet Republic was hampered by its narrow social base. Only small numbers clustered in the urban areas and attending the (then) limited transport network could be considered proletarian - the rest were the peasantry. In short, the revolution had to rely on winning over a much more numerous class whose immediate interests were in tension with socialist aims. Complicating this was the revolution coming under siege by internal reaction and the armies of the Allied Powers, who poured in once Germany and Austro-Hungary were put in their boxes. As the civil war persisted the Soviets, the constitutional bedrock of the new order, got sidelined and, to make matters worse, the most conscious and dedicated revolutionaries were killed in the slaughter or absorbed by the bureaucracy in directional roles. This, goes the story, provided the material base for the strangling of the revolution by the apparatus and the subsequent rise of Stalin as its champion and overlord. The Trotskyist account is right as far as it goes, but as anarchist criticisms make clear, the disruption and destruction of democratic functioning was a pronounced tendency from the very start. In her memoirs Alexandra Kollontai recalls weeping as she called in the heavies to disperse protesters at her commissariat, and this was before the civil war got properly underway.

Bolshevist authoritarianism came not from the party but the process of revolution itself. As Engels himself noted in a polemic with "anti-authoritarian" socialists,


... the anti-authoritarians demand that the political state be abolished at one stroke, even before the social conditions that gave birth to it have been destroyed. They demand that the first act of the social revolution shall be the abolition of authority. Have these gentlemen ever seen a revolution? A revolution is certainly the most authoritarian thing there is; it is the act whereby one part of the population imposes its will upon the other part by means of rifles, bayonets and cannon — authoritarian means, if such there be at all; and if the victorious party does not want to have fought in vain, it must maintain this rule by means of the terror which its arms inspire in the reactionists.

A revolution leaves very little room for democratic niceties, as every single one from the English Civil War to the 1979 overthrow of the Shah in Iran demonstrates. For all the fantasies of the cleansing violence of revolutionary action, revolutions have the tendency to consume everything, not least the people who made it, as the French and Russian examples attest. And that, ultimately, has to be the enduring lesson of what happened a century ago this evening. A peaceful putsch - more people were injured during the staged and filmed storming of the Winter Palace than the actual event - was a prelude to a war so bloody that only the Nazi invasion of Russia surpassed it. For Marx, socialism and communism was the immense majority moving in the interests of the immense majority, a position now opening up again by the confluence of rising culture, rising networks, and sharpening politics. Going beyond capitalism doesn't, at least in the advanced West, require an insurrection and civil war precisely because the character of class struggle is changing. There are no blueprints for what comes next, only pointers provided by the directions new struggles takes and what new constituent processes are tending towards. Therefore one should mark the October Revolution, even raise a toast to the comrades who made it, but never forget it's a warning as well.

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

"The anarchists were simultaneously hostile for the revolution not being revolutionary enough and located Soviet authoritarianism in a red thread stretching back to Marx's expulsion of Bakunin from the First International for ... wanting to place the organisation under the control of a secret conspiratorial outfit with him as the head. Hmmm."

Hmmm, indeed. What a lot of nonsense. Bakunin did not seek to place the organisation under his control -- that is an invention of Marx. He did want his ideas to spread and become the mainstream, as did Marx. And Bakunin was far more successful in this than Marx -- as shown by the massive growth in the International in Spain, Italy and elsewhere. Yes, Bakunin communicated with his colleagues and discussed ideas and tactics, as did Marx. Marx, however, could not believe that Bakunin's ideas were gaining influence and so got very paranoid, resulting in quite a lot of conspiratorial activity on his part aided by his position in the General Council (so allowing him to gerrymander congresses by inventing mandates, etc., etc., etc.):

http://anarchism.pageabode.com/afaq/secJ3.html#secj37

As for the Russian Revolution, yes anarchists argued that the Bolsheviks were not going far enough. Lenin was arguing for State-capitalism with some worker supervision while the anarchists were arguing for workers self-management of production. Lenin was creating an executive above the soviets (a Bolshevik government) while the anarchists were arguing for genuine soviet management of society. Lenin was creating a police and army separate from the people (and using both against the workers) while anarchists were arguing for the arming of the people. For more details see:

http://anarchism.pageabode.com/afaq/secH6.html

I could go on, but the basic point was that the anarchists were arguing for genuine socialism while Lenin was building State-capitalism -- along the lines indicated in, for example, the Communist Manifesto. So there ARE ideological links -- Lenin was, after all, a Marxist and so his views were shaped by the prejudices that result from that.

"Bolshevist authoritarianism came not from the party but the process of revolution itself."

The "process" of revolution should be a process of self-liberation for the working class. Regardless of what Engels suggested, it is NOT authoritarian to destroy authoritarian social-relationships. Marxism confuses the need to defend freedom with the building of a new State, a State which like all States is centralised, hierarchical and top-down (otherwise it would not be a State). In other words, the disempowering of the many and the empowerment of the few at the top -- plus the inevitable bureaucracy such a structure will spawn:

http://anarchism.pageabode.com/afaq/secH4.html#sech47

The authoritarianism of the Bolsheviks was the inevitable result of the social position they held post-October -- aided by a flawed ideology which, following Engels, confused defence of the revolution with defence of the power of their party (including against the working class itself). This can be seen from the awkward fact Bolshevik authoritarianism -- such as the packing and disbanding of soviets -- began BEFORE the start of the civil war in May 1918.

So even during the period of relative calm, when the soviets were working on a consitituonal basis, the so-called workers' State quickly started to become bureaucractic and authoritarian against the working class itself. As anarchists, like Bakunin, had prediced. He had also correctly predicted that following Marx's notion of electioneering would simply produce reformism, which it did.

Yes, the class struggle will take many different forms -- but history shows that only a path of anarchism, of direct action and solidarity outside of the State, keeps the flames of genuine socialism alive. The sooner other socialists recognise these lessons of history, the better.

Iain
An Anarchist FAQ

Boffy said...

"Nevertheless the establishments of Europe knew what the revolution represented. It was a warning, an unwelcome intrusion of the masses into history bearing one simple message: that capitalism was on notice."

I think it's necessary to guard against the interpretation that has arisen from Stalinism, and that is shared by Trotskyists, and some left reformists that things such as the Welfare State, and post-war reforms were a consequence of capital taking fright and being forced into such "concessions". It wasn't.

Things such as social insurance had been introduced in Prussia as early as the first half of the 19th century. Bismark formalised it in his own NI proposals for Germany, and Engels warned against proposing such measures, as again workers organising their own social insurance. By the latter part of the 19th century, corporate welfare was a well established model in the US, and was used by Henry Ford as the basis of his model of how to retain workers and boost productivity. In Germany, even from the middle of the 19th century, co-determination in large companies had been established.

Things like free public education had been established by the middle of the 19th Century in the US. Just as with the introduction of the 10 hour day, and Factory Acts these things reflected the need for capital to nurture its most important resource - labour-power.

As Engels wrote in his later Prefaces to "The Condition of the Working Class", the "middle class", i.e. the functional capitalists that represented industrial capital, knew that they could not hold on to political power against the landed and financial oligarchies without the support of workers, and that is essentially the basis of the development of social-democracy.

The welfare State etc. were not concessions wrung out of the capitalists by workers in fear of a repeat of 1917, but were the logical means of capital reproducing itself efficiently in the era of large-scale socialised capital, and of socialising and incorporating the working-class in the sustaining of its political system.

The point is, as I have set out in my blog post, the material conditions required to establish such a social democracy did not exist in Russia in 1917, just as they did not exist in the Middle East during the Arab Spring etc.

But, I think this is also wrong.

"Going beyond capitalism doesn't, at least in the advanced West, require an insurrection and civil war precisely because the character of class struggle is changing."

The power of the capitalist class today resides in its ownership of loanable money-capital, and financial assets rather than its ownership of productive-capital. So long, however, as the control of productive-capital itself is exercised by shareholders rather than the owners of the companies themselves, i.e. the associated producers, it is possible for private capitalists to extract the wealth produced via the charging of interest and rents in excess of what is economically justified.

They will seek to hold on to that right as currently codified in law, as a result of their continued political power. They will not cede it gracefully, and to the extent that history proceeds on the basis of combined and uneven development, they will always be able to muster military and other force from one part of the globe to us in another to hold back even peaceful transformation.

Lidl_Janus said...

"Hailing and Heeding Red October"

(reads article)

...so this isn't about the Tom Clancy novel? What a con.

Anonymous said...

What revolution? Simply a communist coup. Nothing else.

Daniel said...

The lesson here seems to be nothing good come out of revolution, well not in the short term anyway. Doesn't this place a big flaw in classic Marxist theory? In order to get to communism we need to go through a revolution. that are by their nature, very dangerous and liable to have tragic consequence.

"the anti-authoritarians demand that the political state be abolished at one stroke, even before the social conditions that gave birth to it have been destroyed. They demand that the first act of the social revolution shall be the abolition of authority. Have these gentlemen ever seen a revolution? A revolution is certainly the most authoritarian thing there is; it is the act whereby one part of the population imposes its will upon the other part by means of rifles, bayonets and cannon — authoritarian means, if such there be at all; and if the victorious party does not want to have fought in vain, it must maintain this rule by means of the terror which its arms inspire in the reactionists."

Doesn't the largely bloodless put down of the Kornilov led counter revolution against the provisional government disprove this? A large chunk of the counter-revolution forces stopped in their tracks literally by debate.They were convinced they didn't want to fight for Kornliov and destroy the gains of revolution. Maybe if there is enough mass support and "masses entering into history" it is possible have a bloodless revolution?

Anonymous said...

The key lesson to be drawn from the October revolution is that socialism cannot be established in the absence of a large, democratic socialist movement that has the establishment of socialism as its conscious aim.

All the debates about what Lenin said and meant on 12 April 1912, or at 3:30pm on 18 August 1917 etc, are trivial footnotes to this essential point.

However, much of the contemporary Marxist, isolated from the working class, likes to take comfort from facts such as that Bolshevik membership was 8,000 in February - before leaping to 800,000 in October 1917. Such fables promise that tiny Trot groups can leap from political obscurity to become the makers of world history. As a mode of thinking (if that is what it is) this is cultish, childish and deeply apolitical.

Mike

Anonymous said...

Firstly, there must have been something very fundamentally wrong with bolshevism if a man like Stalin was able to take over the whole machine so easily, and turn the whole USSR into self-destruction right up until 1941 when he had to suddenly reverse many of his policies because the Nazis had overrun half of the heavily populated part of Soviet territory- and been welcomed by the population in large areas.

Secondly, anyone who's been to Russia can see that the Bolsheviks were on a different planet to the vast majority of the population- even today, let alone 100 years ago. Try visiting a Russian cathedral and you'd see what I mean. They just made Nicholas II a saint, by the way.

Phil said...

If you know anything about the tortured inner party struggles after Lenin's illness, incapacity and death, Stalin's rise to the top could hardly described as easy.

Ed said...

"Anyone who's been to Russia can see that the Bolsheviks were on a different planet to the vast majority of the population- even today, let alone 100 years ago. Try visiting a Russian cathedral and you'd see what I mean. They just made Nicholas II a saint, by the way."

An uncharitable person could take that as an allusion to the fact that Trotsky, Zinoviev, Sverdlov, Radek and others belonged to a certain ethnicity, as their enemies were never tired of pointing out (Russian nationalists today denounce Bolshevism as a Jewish plot against true Russia but make an exception for Stalin).

Anyway the most revealing thing you'll find in a Russian cathedral, or church, is that the vast majority of people who identify as Orthodox stay well away; most of them don't believe in life after death either, and a bare majority of adults say they believe in God.

http://www.pewforum.org/2014/02/10/russians-return-to-religion-but-not-to-church/

Speeedy said...

Late to the party but I'll add my tuppence. The one thing implied here is historical inevitability. After the death of Andropov, there was no need for Gorbachev to come to power - had another leader, the USSR might still be with us now, just as the Chinese Communist Party is. I read somewhere that the Western Roman Empire didn't collapse for any of the usual reasons cited - Christianity, demographics etc - simply because it made a tactical military mistake. Faced with the same challenge around the same time, the Eastern Empire triumphed and went on to survive another thousand years. The same could be said for the USSR.