Lessons from the Russian Revolution

Lessons from the Russian Revolution

An edited extract of a talk by Vivek Chibber

Vivek Chibber giving his talk at an Amandla! Forum

Strategic lessons that we can learn from older experiences such as the Russian Revolution are very, very important, because in my view, we are today witnessing two crises. The first is the most profound crisis of legitimacy that we have seen in decades. It is a  crisis of neo-liberalism. In the Atlantic world from Germany across Western Europe all the way into the United States and Canada, neo-liberalism now is dead. Ideologically, it has no legitimacy at all.

We see the discontent with this model now still only taking an electoral form. It has not yet taken an organisational form, in workplaces or neighborhoods. But that’s because of the second crisis. Perhaps the left is less aware of this. We are in the midst of the death throes of the political party and the political formations that the second international and the era of the second international threw up. This is less visible in South Africa, which still has one of the largest communist parties in the world. But outside of South Africa, even in countries like India with hundreds of thousands of members in the communist parties, you are seeing these parties now in their death throes.

When you put all this together, it seems to me there’s a third dimension – slowly, social movements are extricating themselves from the claws of social democratic parties. Figures like Sanders, like Jeremy Corbin like Mélanchon emerge. This is the end of the left that came out of the 1920s. Potentially also however, it heralds the emergence of a new cycle of left organisations. And hopefully, down the line, the building of new organisations which carry the spirit of revolutionary Marxism and revolutionary socialism whilst seeking to avoid both the organisational weaknesses and the institutional mistakes that were made in the wake of the Russian revolution.

Now if that’s true then of course revisiting the Russian revolution and the entire era of the Russian revolution becomes important.

Not just the Russian Revolution

What we have to look at more carefully goes beyond simply the Russian revolution to other very important examples which have not been given as much importance by the revolutionary left over the past twenty years. In Lenin’s time, every Marxist, every socialist took it for granted that you must know the key historical events of the past hundred years like the back of your hand. And anybody in the Russian Social Democratic Party (whether Menshevik or Bolshevik) anybody in the German Social Democratic party, anybody in the French Socialist party, was intimately familiar with the French revolution, with the revolutions of 1848, with the Paris commune. It was simply understood that this was part of your political literacy.

That is not so much the case today. There is some degree of education but it’s really become more an avenue for bickering and name-calling than rational discussion and debate.

The organisational legacy of the Russian Revolution has three dimensions to it:

  1. The issue of the internal structure of the political party that leads working class movements.
  2. The relationship of the party to its base.
  3. The issue of strategy –the strategic vision, the basic understanding of how you try to build toward socialism.

Meeting of workers at Putilov Plant (a major heavy engineering company), Petrograd, 1920

Internal structure and democracy

In the internal structure of the organisation, you see that the Bolsheviks went through a couple of different phases. One is from about 1907/1908 to the revolution; the Bolsheviks were probably the most open, the most democratic and the most dynamic party in the whole Russian scene.  But then you see from 1919 onwards, there is a progressive shutting down of democratic institutions and the democratic culture within the party to the point where of course by the late 1920s Stalin is able to shut down all avenues of debate.

Now in the debates on the political party, there are two attitudes that people take. One is that Leninism has been organisationally something of an albatross of the left. It has always and everywhere ended up in an authoritarian political structure.  The other side of the debate has been to say “Well that’s true, but you are confusing Stalinism with Leninism. Really it is with the advent of Stalin that you see the shutting down of debate. Up until 1918 the party was incredibly open and dynamic”.

It’s certainly true that the early history of the party suggests something important about the possibilities of democracy in a Leninist organisation. But the empirical fact is that since the 1930s the history of Leninist parties has veered much more towards the second half of the Leninist experience, where debates were shut down. In other words, whilst it is true that there is a lesson in the history of the party about how to be open and how to be democratic, parties claiming the legacy of Lenin have failed to do so.

Recruitment poster for Red Army by Dimitri Moor

Now that being the case, it is easy to come to the conclusion that the next Left must be a Left that rejects the Leninist party model. But the difficulty with that is that to my knowledge it is the only model that has ever succeeded in getting anything done. All the experiments in organisation that came out of the anarchist movement, the new Left, all the multi-tendency organisations, all the horizontalist organisations, the movement of movements, the refusal to have a party – they have never succeeded in any kind of significant social change.  So I do not see any way for the left in the near future to organise itself as an anti-capitalist form that does not in some way reproduce some variant of the Leninist political party. The point here is that there cannot be an instinctive rejection of this political model until we discover a new one.

For this reason, we have to now go back to those first years of the Bolshevik tendency within the party up until 1917 and look much harder at how it was that the party maintained its openness. Criticising the leadership was not taken as a privilege, as something that the leadership allows to happen. It was simply taken for granted as a basic part of what it means to be a Marxist or a socialist. This party was so open that on the eve of the revolution, Kamenev and Zinoviev went to the Russian press and told them that Lenin and the Central Committee were organising an uprising, and they were not thrown out of the party. I would have thrown them out of the party, but they were not thrown out. It is quite astonishing how open it was. That’s why it’s important to study the lesson and study the actual practice to see where that democracy came from.

Party and class

The second issue to take up then in the problem of organisation is the relationship between the party and its base. Here I think the Russian revolution provides an unambiguously positive lesson. The main reason the Bolsheviks succeeded was because, out of all the political formations in Russia in 1917, they had the deepest, strongest and firmest links to the working class in the major industrial centres of the country. It was the Bolsheviks who were the most keenly aware of the shifts in the political mood of the working class. This was particularly the case in Petrograd but also in Moscow, in the months leading up to the capture of power.  And it was the Bolsheviks who had the legitimacy at the workplace to generate the Soviets, to be at the head of the Soviets, to capture what the programmatic and tactical conclusion should be, with every shift in mood. And they were therefore able to ride the crest of the movement as it went from February to October in Petrograd.

Without this deep connection to the base, the commitment to party democracy becomes very, very hard to sustain. And this we have seen in the decades since the 1960s in the decline of the left.  For a socialist and a Marxist party, the essential pre-condition is to bring people who you are training to follow class interests and build around those class interests.

This is important today because the challenge we face is that the working class today doesn’t look like the working class of 1918. It isn’t in gigantic factories. It isn’t brought together in huge numbers. It often doesn’t know who its employer is because it is usually sub-contracted out. So there’s a temptation to say that the old model of building in the working class is now outmoded. The difficulty is I do not see a substitute for building within the working class itself when your goal is socialism. All these far left formations we see in England, in France in the United States have essentially become student study groups. That has led to much of the ideological and political degeneration that we have seen over the past forty years.

So here it seems to me that an absolutely central lesson of the Bolshevik revolution is the inescapable necessity of basing yourself within the working class.

Russia 1917: When the working class took power into its own hands

Strategic lessons less relevant

That leads us to the issue of strategy. Now on this matter I think the Russian revolution is of limited significance. We know that the strategic success of the Bolsheviks was in leading an insurrectionary capture of power – the revolutionary road to power. Today we are in an era in which the state not only has much greater legitimacy with the populations across capitalism than it did in the 1910s, but its coercive power, its power of surveillance etc. make its internal coherence and solidity infinitely greater than it was back then.

So while we can allow for and perhaps hope for the emergence of what we would call genuinely revolutionary conditions, where state break-down is really on the agenda, we cannot build a strategy around anticipating that.

That is important because for much of the post-thirties left, the Russian revolution’s importance was seen in the very fact that it had a successful revolution. But if revolutionary openings cannot any longer be taken for granted as being in our near future, it means that our strategic perspective has to downplay the centrality of a revolutionary rupture. We have to take much more seriously the importance of participating in what the revolutionary left used to call the institutions of the state.

That applies particularly to elections. In my view there is no way the 21st century Left can avoid some degree of participation in the electoral arena. Like it or not, the lifeblood of politics comes around elections and to avoid that I think isolates you in a way that is politically disruptive.

So any viable strategy for the Left has to combine parliamentary and extra-parliamentary forms of organisation and political participation. But if that’s the case, you can see where the Russian experience would be of limited value now. In fact it becomes much more important to look at the German example both before 1918 and after. The German Social Democratic Party was the one that had the deepest roots within the working class. It also had to participate in the electoral arena no doubt in a way that ended up in the party’s degeneration. But it is precisely in order to avoid those mistakes that we have to study how that degeneration took place.

Similarly, we have to look at the history of social democracies in the post-war era, in particular the more left wing social democracies. We have to look at the Nordic examples. We have to see first why they succeeded in securing the longest tenure for left wing parties that we know of. In the Swedish case, we also have to see how they managed to maintain a radical thrust all the way up to the Meidner Plan in 1978, which was without a doubt the most authentically radical plan that social democracy ever came up with for socialising the means of production.

We have to study the Chilean example. In many ways I think Allende was very powerfully constrained because he came to power with only around one-third of the popular vote. Nevertheless, we have to study the opposition that he faced, the way that he had to navigate it, the way in which the question of parliamentary and extra-parliamentary forces was raised, the way in which armed struggle was brought up and the problems and the dilemmas of armed struggle. They have to be studied as seriously as the Russian revolution, because our road to socialism, if it comes about, will probably be closer to Allende’s experience than to the Bolshevik’s experience.

In other words then, for our strategic perspective, we have to downplay what happened in Russia in 1917. And we also have to take much more seriously experiences which the far left in the past forty years have refused to take seriously because it dismissed them as reformist or as non-revolutionary or something of that kind. But those are the experiences that are going to be closer to our strategic dilemmas in the near future than what the Russians faced in 1917.

Vivek Chibber is a professor of sociology at New York University and co-editor of Catalyst: A Journal of Theory and Strategy. 

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