Mnogostradalnaya: The Left and the Russian Revolution

November 07 2017 marks the centennial of the putsch of Lenin and Trotsky, sometimes called the “Russian Revolution” and at other times “The Great October Socialist Revolution,” which could only end in the imposition of terror as it in fact did. I am interested in making some, brief, remarks about the implications that the Russian Revolution has for the Left of today, which is what interests me most. These do not pretend to be comprehensive nor exhaustive, how could they possible be, but I would like to make them all the same.

My own view is that whatever emancipatory potential existed following the earlier February Revolution of 1917, and it did indeed exist, was decisively crushed by the November 1917 coup of Lenin and Trotsky, which was in its essence a counter revolution.

My understanding has the Left as the natural exponent of the radical enlightenment as applied to a capitalist society, in particular I refer to the enlightenment emphasis upon overcoming man’s self imposed ignorance, as Immanuel Kant had it, and emancipation as the critical via media toward self actualisation. That being the case the Left must always strive to create a more democratic, cooperative, and humane society.

The putsch of Lenin and Trotsky hardly had as a consequence the framing of a more humane society, the sordid history does not need the retelling here, and so one might say that the November 07 1917 events represent one of the most significant historical defeats for the Left. A claim such as that is hard to find in contemporary mainstream commentary, but it would also be hard to find in much Left commentary too. The revolution’s decimation of the Left is perhaps its most significant and lasting historical affect.

The Left is still suffering from this its most enduring legacy. The Left continues to suffer,the people’s of the former Soviet Union also continue to suffer from its legacy it must also be stressed, because the expressions “socialism” and “communism” remain deeply intertwined with Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin in the popular imagination. One of the reasons for this is Cold War era historiography and propaganda, both Soviet and Western articulated for different reasons in each case, that equated socialism with the Soviet Union. There is some irony to this for both the Soviet Union and the West opposed the emancipatory Left during the Cold War, again for different reasons.

The Cold War had an important cooperative element to it, not just competition. The competition that did exist was more on familiar North-South rather than East-West grounds. One of the effects of the Russian Revolution was to extract Russia from the system of global power given that Russia had become deeply dependent upon Western capital. When the Soviet Union reached greater levels of power and influence after World War Two its example and support threatened other zones that continued to be dependent, and so dominated, by Western power. Moscow needed to be contained. The Cold War was also a means by which both sides were able to maintain order and discipline in their spheres of influence through reference to a threat from the other, more really felt by Moscow than Washington.

Much of our understanding of the Russian Revolution comes through a Cold War prism, so we at least should be aware of its essential feature and the fact that prism is not constructed from a scholarly impulse. One of the key concerns of the West, to combat Leftist currents at home and within its own sphere of domination, was the equating of socialism with the Soviet Union. In this the West was spectacularly successful, but that success would not have been achieved without the splendid cooperation of Moscow.

Cold War histories sought to draw a direct link from Marx to Lenin and then finally on to Stalin. Some revisionist histories have since come to reject the drawing of a line from Lenin to Stalin. It is true that Lenin warned about the dangers of bureaucracy. It is true that Lenin instituted the NEP, less harsh than War Communism. It is true that Lenin in his last testimony sought the removal of Stalin as General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Bolshevik Party. It is true that Lenin’s practice whilst in power was less odious than that of Stalin’s. Yet the fact remains that the actions of Lenin, and Trotsky, were more than odious enough to exclude them from the emancipatory pantheon bequeathed to the Left by the radical enlightenment.

Furthermore, we do not know how Lenin would have conducted affairs should he have lived beyond the 1920s. But a clue, perhaps, can be found in Trotsky. Stalin, following his victory in the struggle for power following the death of Lenin, implemented Trotsky’s programme of extracting capital from the countryside, through terror if need be, to support industrial development and modernisation. We are familiar with the dynamic from our own politics. Often, we find a political leader or a political party that, following a struggle for power, shamelessly implements the programme of its opponent after the moment of triumph.

The line linking Lenin and Trotsky to Stalin is not as clear cut as Cold War historiography has it, but then again nor is the gap separating the former and the latter a chasm as much as Lenin and Trotsky’s latter day acolytes would have us believe.

What of Marx? Here the picture is so much fuzzier. It is true that Lenin and Trotsky extolled the concept of the “dictatorship of the proletariat,” a key political concept underpinning the terror state they instituted, but their vanguardist interpretation of this cannot be found in Marx’s original rendering. Furthermore, as I understand it, Marxism is the view that a social revolution occurs after a mode of production has exhausted its productive capacity. That view leads to the supposition of Marx that socialism, a transitory period between capitalism and communism, must follow upon the economic exhaustion of capitalism. Viewed thus Lenin was no Marxist, and he was so dismissed, for instance by Martov the Menshevik leader.

Lenin was an adventurer dancing on the stage of history, but whose waltz amounted to little more than a swim against history’s mighty tide. Russia for the most part remained a feudal agrarian state, and a small group of adventurers wielding state power, but going against the flow of history, needed to coercively extract capital from the society at large to set the ship of state aright. Furthermore, the fact of capitalist hostility and imperialism meant that terror would need to be instituted to arrest a revolt against the new masters from below and to safeguard the seizure of power from external intervention.

This quite Marxist analysis led the anti Bolshevik Marxists, who perhaps constituted a majority among the followers of Marx, to argue that Lenin and Trotsky’s coup could only end in terror certainly it could not result in communism. There’s a good element of truth to that.

The council communists argued that the natural expression of working class organisation when it comes to pose “the question of power,” I much prefer “the question of emancipation,” is the workers’ council. When workers through dint of their own inspiration and effort form workers’ councils, to overcome both their own leaders and their capitalist overseers, it is then that capitalist society begins to enter a prerevolutionary, or preemancipatory, situation. The revolutionary years and days in Russia prior to November 1917 did, of course, lead to the formation of such councils what we know to be the Soviets. Furthermore, their formation had much to do with working class emancipation and self actualisation as the header image, above, attests.

It did not take long for Lenin and Trotsky, following their putsch, to destroy the Soviets which amply demonstrates to us their level of commitment to genuine working class emancipation. Some perceptive non Marxist observers in the West noted this very early, with Bertrand Russell being a notable example.

I find much in the council communist position to be correct, however Marxist philosophy and a good deal of Marxian economics does not interest me. So far as I can see, council communism is a type of anarchism or libertarian socialism that finds it difficult, for whatever reason, to shed much of Marx’s ideological dogma. The council communists themselves did make the point that their emphasis upon the workers’ council flowed on from an analysis of history, rather than high, Marxist, theory.

I do believe that the Left, either witting or unwittingly, remains too wedded to Marxian analyses and so the spectre of Marx continues to haunt the Left. Alas, that is a story for another day.

The point here is that there isn’t a clear line linking Marx to Lenin, but, again, nor is there an unbridgeable chasm. The founder of modern anarchism, Mikhail Bakunin, pointed out and dissected authoritarian tendencies in the thought and practice of Marx in Marx’s own lifetime. The divide between Bakunin and Marx on this score has been well captured in Wolfgang Eckhardt’s magisterial The First Socialist Schism.

The title, for reasons that will soon become apparent, I believe to be misplaced.

The critique of Marx and Marxism by Bakunin and the anarchists shows that the authoritarian tendencies in the political thought and practice of Lenin did not arise as if from a vacuum. It does have Marxian antecedents.

There are two issues regarding the contemporary Left that I wish to speak about. The first, is that emancipation must have an international dimension. The working class is not liberated until such moment as the working class no longer obtains anywhere. I do not say this upon the basis of Marxist theories of imperialism. It is a brute logical, or analytical, fact. The Left of today, including some of its more interesting instantiations, remains weeded to the nation state. In the era of globalisation that is a dead end, one of the reasons behind the failure of the pink tide in South America and Syriza in Greece. Socialism, because of the brute logical fact alone, must be a global process but the state cannot be the means to facilitate this process. The history of the Soviet Union demonstrates this, but so does the history of the Social Democratic parties. The Soviet Union was an imperial power that enslaved peoples precisely because it was a powerful state.

Secondly, the political party is not the means to achieve working class emancipation. It might be a means to civilise capitalism, the prospects for this diminish as capitalist globalisation deepens, but notice that is not emancipation. As noted before the natural organisational form of the working class when it poses the question of emancipation is not the political party, nor even the trade union, but rather the workers’ council.

GDH Cole in his monumental multi volume History of Socialist Thought convincingly argues that there have been two strands of socialist thought one, authoritarian, deriving from Saint Simon (one of the earliest devotees of Comte and positivism, no accident in my opinion) which sought to bring about socialism through the conquest of state power by a hierarchically organised political party and the other, libertarian, deriving from Fourier that sough to bring about socialism through non hierarchical and non authoritarian class struggle at the point of production with the view to constructing a society based on a free federation of worker owned and managed industries organised on democratic lines. Lenin and Trotsky, but also ultimately Marx himself I would contend, lie in the former camp. That is the first and most significant socialist schism, to the extent that the former, the camp of Saint Simon, can be construed as socialist.

Anarchism lies within the latter, and I regard it as the natural torch bearer of the radical enlightenment as applied to a modern industrial society. Anarchist political analysis, nowhere to be found in the annals of contemporary political science or theory, which is mostly devoted to narrow petty concerns that are albeit publishable in journals nobody reads, represents the most advanced and the intellectually richest form of political thinking, analysis, and practice today.

I would contend it is the line from Fourier onward from which the Left should draw inspiration. Socialism is about equality, but then it isn’t. Socialism is about cooperation, but then it isn’t. Socialism is about freedom, but then it isn’t. All these traditional verities of socialist thought are really means to an end, namely self actualisation where humans collectively exist in a society that enables the self to flower through creative labour. A capitalist society that hierarchically divides workers on the basis of a relation to the means of production owned by an elite is not such a society, but nor was the society that was instituted following the putsch of Lenin and Trotsky on November 07 1917.

My post has been rather negative. I do understand that it was the Soviet Union that defeated the Nazis. I have an uncle, who could not have been more than 17, who died as a Yugoslav Partisan alongside a Red Army captain and who shares the same grave as that very Red Army captain both of whom fought fascism with the Red Star firmly fixed upon their caps. I understand that modernity came to Russia via the revolution. I understand that the revolution ushered in social and cultural achievements. I understand that the revolution ushered in technical and scientific advance.

But they all came at the cost of millions dead, imprisoned or repressed. Socialism cannot come with so high a price, which is not to say that it did come with Lenin and Trotsky. That for me sums up the Russian Revolution.

[the header image was taken from Orlando Figes, A Peoples’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891-1924, The Bodley Head, London, 2014, image55].