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.

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