THE GREATEST PROMISE, THE GREATEST LIE

The centennial of the October Revolution has been a rather subdued affair. There were no parades in Red Square or Tiananmen, no demonstrations or festivities.  Even leftists gave it sparse attention, with the exception of those who dream that October will repeat itself, this time with themselves in the role of the Bolsheviks. To the minimal extent that the mass media mentioned the anniversary, it was to comment that communism had mercifully collapsed. Some gave it a bit more space.  The New York Times Book Review, in its edition of October 22, devoted seven articles related to the subject. Remarkably, for what was meant as a critique of totalitarianism, they all said the same thing. Communism is a failed experiment, we live in the best of all possible worlds. No debate. One of the authors was Francis Fukuyama, famous for his claim that the end of the “communist” regime in Russia heralded “the end of history”: inevitably the whole world would become capitalist and democratic. The alternative is gone.

Such scant attention is remarkable since, from any point of view, the October Revolution was an earthquake which left deep imprints on the course of history.  IP has published several articles about it in the past [1] but we don’t want to let this centennial pass without a few remarks on its relevance today.

 

Does the October Revolution teach us something about a post-capitalist, communist society and the problems it will encounter?  

No, it doesn’t. The foundation of capitalist society, the accumulation of value based on stolen labor time, remained intact. There are no lessons to draw from how the CP organized the reproduction of society, except negative ones. We can learn nothing from how the Bolsheviks managed exploitation and submission to the state.  But the revolution’s failure to go on and its subsequent rapid degeneration wasn’t simply the fault of the Bolsheviks. The state reasserted itself, in circumstances of international isolation, civil war, exhaustion from wars, famine and struggle, and the Bolshevik party became its agent.

Circumstances today are radically different. While the stakes are essentially the same for a  revolutionary society in our times, both the potential at its disposal and the kind of problems it would encounter would bear little resemblance to those of revolutionary Russia a century ago.

 

Does the revolution teach us something about the revolutionary potential of the working class?

Yes, it does. It is essential to see the events in Russia not as an isolated occurrence but as part of a tidal wave that swept over the world. The ferment was rising all over Europe already in the early years of the century.   As England’s King George V allegedly said, “Thank God for the war! It saved us from the revolution.” The struggle went the furthest in Russia in 1905–07, during which workers invented new forms of organizing, in factory committees, workers’ councils and soviets, unforeseen by any theoretician.

The wave of working class struggles which forced world war I to an end and found echoes all over the globe, again went the furthest in Russia. Those who reduce the events there to a Bolshevik coup d’état deform what really happened. The overthrow, first of the Tsarist state, then of its bourgeois successor, was the result of massive class struggle and self-organization, of what Trotsky called “the violent irruption of the masses into the domain in which their own fate would be determined”.

 

Why did the revolutionary wave go further in Russia than elsewhere?

Certainly, the fact that people like Lenin and Trotsky were great strategists was a factor in the revolution’s success. But “if it went all the way in the seizure of power, that was because of exceptional historical circumstances which do not exist today, and on which we cannot count tomorrow […] The temporary victory of the proletarian revolution in Russia owed less to the greater clarity of the proletariat and of the Bolsheviks in that country, than to an intrinsically more favorable situation.”[2]  Capitalist development had been held back by atavistic Tsarism, the bourgeoisie was very weak. Russia was “the weak link” in capitalism’s rule, most easily broken.

Today, there are no weak links. Capitalism is more than ever a global system. If a revolution succeeds only in a ‘weak link’, it will be crushed, much more quickly than in Russia. More than ever, the rapport des forces between the classes and between the practices and perspectives to which their situations give rise, is global.

We’ll win together, or we’ll fail together.

 

Why did the revolutionary wave not go further in Russia?

Why did the revolutionary proletariat, after overthrowing the Tsarist state and the bourgeois state, accept the Bolshevik state?

There are the factors that we mentioned earlier: international isolation, war, famine, exhaustion… Especially the defeat of the revolutionary movement in Germany was a death blow. Those and other factors, including the violent repression of dissident revolutionaries by the Bolsheviks, combined to turn the tide.

And so, the greatest promise of the 20th century turned into its greatest lie. The lie that communism equals the kind of society created by the triumph of the counter-revolution in Russia. A lie that created immeasurable damage, that poisoned the collective imagination.

The Bolsheviks did more harm than in Russia alone.  They used the Communist International as an instrument of the imperialist foreign policy of the Russian state. They were “an active factor in the defeat of the revolution in other countries, by virtue of the “model” that they represented at the time”. [3] This false model obscured and continues to obscure the visibility of a real way out of capitalism.

No doubt that most Bolsheviks genuinely wanted to end capitalist exploitation. But they believed this could be accomplished by defeating the ruling class politically and then using the state to redirect the economy towards socialist aims. This was the strategy of the broad social democratic movement they were coming from; the differences among them was on whether the political victory could be achieved  through gradual democratic reform or only through revolution. But defeating capitalists is not the same as defeating capitalism.  Capitalism is a system that requires a working class that produces surplus value and a capitalist class that organizes the accumulation of that value. But that class is an agency, rather than a sociological category. That agency does not have to filled by the private bourgeois; that much the Bolsheviks have proven. They manipulated the law of value in many ways, but in the end, it was the necessity of value to expand which dictated their policies.

So no revolution was needed when Russia officially rejected ‘communism’  in 1992.  The ruling class metamorphosed, modernized its management, and the working sap remained the working sap.

                                                                       

‘Bolshevik’ may no longer be a popular brand but the left today basically adheres to the same strategy: achieve a political victory, then use the state to tweak the economy for just, humane, progressive, purposes.  The main lesson of the Russian revolution is that this strategy dooms the revolution to fail. So long as the underlying premises of the law of value — a working class exchanging its labor power for a wage and a class that appropriates the surplus value and directs the accumulation of value —  remain intact, all the rest follows. No democratic cloak can hide this. In Russia, the soviets, in theory all powerful, quickly became mere instruments of the capitalist state once the necessities of value accumulation imposed themselves.  The “irruption of the masses”, Trotsky talked about, had to end. He himself put a bloody stop to it in the same place where the revolution had started: Kronstadt.

 

There are many lessons to draw from what occurred a hundred years ago.

One surely is that a revolution that ends capitalism must be global or fail. Its defeats elsewhere imposed impossible conditions on the revolution in Russia. Today, it would be even less possible for a revolutionary island to survive in a capitalist ocean. No single country can ignore what value accumulation requires. Therefore, any nation-based strategy is, already for this reason alone, inherently capitalist. The differences between them are about how to manage the value accumulation of the national capital, but in the end, the need to feed the beast with profit dictates the policies.

Another lesson is that delegation of power is extremely dangerous.  The revolutionary movement is indeed “the violent irruption of the masses into the domain in which their own fate would be determined,” but that domain is much larger than what Trotsky had in mind. This “violent irruption of the masses” is what empowers the revolution. It does so, because the revolution transforms their lives, and empowers them over their own lives. A global revolution requires global communication and decision-making (and in that aspect, the infrastructural conditions are much better than back then), but remains driven by the revolution of daily life. When that power over daily life is delegated away, to a single party, or to democratically elected state-organs, what were originally expressions of self-organization of the exploited (soviets, etc.), die off or become empty shells, absorbed by the state.

A third lesson is not to focus exclusively on the moment. The revolution in Russia has clearly shown that the outlook can change on a dime. One day, there seems to be only confusion, fear and fatalistic acceptance. The next, a fever of resistance, of saying no, spreads like wildfire. And the awareness of the class power grows with the spread of the ferment and fires the imagination. What seemed impossible, becomes real.

Another lesson is that revolution requires at crucial moments decisive, rapid, bold action. One obstacle to that can be the fetishization of democratic forms, waiting too long while deliberation or voting goes on… another pitfall is leaving the decision making to a specialized minority, a substitutionist party like the Bolsheviks.

A fifth lesson: beware of productivism. It is the ideology that justifies the reassertion of capitalism. For the Bolsheviks the growth of the productive forces, increasing productivity, was the paramount priority for which all other concerns had to give way. This not only because of the specific conditions in Russia but also because the Bolsheviks faithfully adhered to the “orthodox” Marxist dogma that claimed that revolution results from capitalism’s incapacity to develop the productive forces further, that the latter push to revolution and are liberated by it.  But it’s quite clear now that capitalism has continued to be able to develop its productive forces, even with increasing speed: indeed, this development itself has become a grave danger for the human species. Not the growth of the productive forces, but the liberation of social relations from the value-form must be the priority. Human needs and pleasure must replace value as the foundation of work and all other activities.

So, the final lesson, implied by all the others, is that the revolution must destroy capitalism at its roots. It cannot be a process by which different managers of capital come to power and institute better policies, it must be a process in which production, consumption, social life and private life are transformed by the people themselves on a continuous base. This is what fuels the revolution. Without it, it will die. 

 

October shows us that when the proletariat rises up together, nothing can stop it. The state, with all its violent means, cannot stop it. Only itself can stop it. Only its acceptance of a return to normal -to the old relations of capitalist-worker, seller-buyer, leader-follower and so on – can put a halt to it.  Today, that normal is still strong. Disillusion and distrust in the various ideologies of the ruling class is growing but communism seems no alternative, in no small part thanks to the Bolcheviks and the many others who abused the name. There are class struggles, especially in East-Asia, but there is mostly a lot of confusion. It’s as if the world is waiting for something to happen to clear it up. No-one can predict what that would be, what could trigger it, or what the impact of the next recession (or depression) will be.  The potential to refuse normalcy is still there. The will to live, the capacity to think and act together feeds it. We think that in the struggles to which it will give rise, communism will be rediscovered, not as an ideology but as a real, material movement.

 

INTERNATIONALIST PERSPECTIVE

 

 

[1] Internationalist Perspective 8: The timeliness of the Russian Revolution

Internationalist Perspective 8:  On the nature of the Russian Revolution

Internationalist Perspective 13: Why the Russian Revolution is not a model for tomorrow

Internationalist Perspective 28: Debate: The economy in the Russian Revolution

Internationalist Perspective 41: The Bolsheviks, the Civil War, and “Red Fascism”. http://internationalist-perspective.org/IP/ip-archive/ip_41_bolsheviks-civil-war.html

 

[2] Internationalist Perspective 13: “Why the Russian Revolution is not a model for tomorrow”.p. 17

 

[3] Ibid.

1 comment on “THE GREATEST PROMISE, THE GREATEST LIE”

  1. To hold the October revolution is a failure with nothing to learn from is not even naive academic research in history. To limit the analysis to the role of the Bolshevik Party means to miss the whole point of the revolutionary situation by the huge movement and struggle of the working class masses in Russia and other countries at the time.

    http://libcom.org/library/the-bolsheviks-and-workers-control-solidarity-group

    The real revolutionary force in Russia 1917 up to October was not in the Bolshevik party but radical segments of the working class population trying to spread the struggle to the rest of the population with political and economic power from below through factory committees. These committees tried to transform themselves into soviets ruling the factories but were blocked by the Bolshevik Party through the government (Sovnarkom), the Bolshevik ruled soviets and the unions where some Mensheviks also gave support to the Bolshevik Party in this question.

    After October 1917 both Lenin and Trotsky fought hard before full victory in the beginning of 1918 that the employees of the former capitalist corporations were not to have a majority at the boards. All were to be controlled by the party state through one of the managers who had responsibility for so-called technical issues. Unfortunately the employees failed due to lack of class consciousness among the masses. When the Bolshevik party in autumn 1917 got a majority in the soviets in the main cities and urban areas the outcome tilted against the masses even if no-one knew the outcome of the future in November 1917.

    V.I.Lenin supported party dictatorship:
    “The irrefutable experience of history has shown that… the dictatorship of individual persons was very often the vehicle, the channel of the dictatorship of the revolutionary classes”. “Large-scale machine industry – which is the material productive source and foundation of socialism – calls for absolute and strict unity of will…

    How can strict unity of will be ensured? By thousands subordinating their will to the will of one.” “Unquestioning submission to a single will is absolutely necessary for the success of labour processes that are based on large-scale machine industry . . . Today the Revolution demands, in the interests of socialism, that the masses unquestioningly obey the single will of the leaders of the labour process.”
    (V.I.Lenin, Selected Works, Vol. VII, pages 332-333, 340-342)

    “To our program will we add the following: we must fight the ideological confusion of the elements of the opposition who are not aware and do not mind to reject all ‘militarization of the economy’ and not only reject ‘the method of appointment’, which has been the dominating up to now, but all appointments. This means in fact a rejection of the leading role of the party in relation to the masses who have no party.” (V.I.Lenin, januari 21, 1921, Selected Works, Vol IX, page 57)

    L.D.Trotsky supported party dictatorship:
    “They have come out with dangerous slogans. They have made a fetish of democratic principles. They have placed the workers right to elect representatives above the party. As if the party was not entitled to assert its dictatorship even if that dictatorship temporarily clashed with the passing moods of the workers’ democracy!” (Party Congress, 8-16 March 1921.)

    “Is it true that compulsory labour is always unproductive? . . . This is the most wretched and miserable liberal prejudice: chattel slavery too was productive” . . . “Compulsory slave labour . . . was in its time a progressive phenomenon”. “Labour . . . obligatory for the whole country, compulsory for every worker, is the basis of socialism.” “Wages . . . must not be viewed from the angle of securing the personal existence of the individual worker”… “measure the conscientiousness, and efficiency of the work of every labourer.” (Third All-Russian Congress of Trade Unions, stenographic report, Moscow 1920, pages 87-97.)

    “A competent, hierarchic organized civil administration had its advantages. Russia did not suffer from too big, but too small and ineffective bureaucracy.” “The militarization of the unions and the transport system was in need of an inner ideological militarization.” (Sochineniya, XV, s. 422-423)

    This paved the way for the elitist Bolshevik Party with its strive first to control and limit direct influence by the masses, then abandon elections to workers and popular councils, the soviets. The Bolshevik Party did not hesitate to use police or Cheka troops and military units to destroy political opposition. The point of no return came in March 1921 as the soviet at the Kronstadt naval base outside Petrograd was crushed by military units. Thousands of workers and sailors were killed in the attack and executed after the fall of Kronstadt soviet in its struggle to establish free elections to the workers and popular councils – the soviets. The counter-revolution established a totalitarian state which fully live up to be state-fascism. This state ruled with the same kind of oppression as under Stalin with one exception: party members under Lenin and Trotsky were not sentenced to death due to political disagreement with the party leadership as under Stalin. Outside the party the masses had no rights than to obey a party state understanding the task of the masses to produce.

    In April 1922 the Bolsehvik party had secured an agreement with the military of Germany for mutual cooperation. The same German state which murdered Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht received help to rearm by hidden training and military development in Soviet Union. In return Soviet Union was paid with access to machinery and industrial technology. The real payback came 22 June 1941.

    The lessons to learn from Russia autumn of 1917 to the first weeks of 1918 in the Socialist Federation are huge and important: the struggle of the masses is their own not to be delegated to an elite. There was a political revolution destroying the old tsarist and bourgeois political rule but it was not any fundamental change of the relations in the economy as the old capitalist was replaced with a new class. When the party and state elite got power of the main economy and the economic surplus they actually became a ruling state-capitalist class which only answered to itself and no-one else. This rule from the top established a foundation of a privileged elite looking upon the masses as a force to control and if it could not be controlled with political means the option was brute force.

    A socialist revolution can only succeed by direct political democracy and that the capitalist corporations are collectively owned and planned by the masses themselves with an international perspective of spreading the revolution. Not only is “socialism in one country” a myth, so is “socialism as a party state in one country”. There will be no state apparatus to rule after capitalism has been destroyed as a world system because the state is counter-revolutionary to the struggle of a state-less and class-less world society.

    The working class, the working class population and the working middle class have no fatherland but a world to conquer.

    Bjorn-Olav Kvidal,
    Stockholm

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