Skeptical thoughts on the Russian Revolution

Lenin practicing being a statue

[From an email.]

…Of course it's true that every event in history depends on contingencies. [I had said the Russian Revolution depended on a series of accidents, and my correspondent had replied that’s true of everything in history.] The point is that the transition from capitalism to socialism is supposed to happen virtually by necessity (as Marx argued in the Manifesto and other writings, and as the logic of his system entails), as developing productive forces burst the shackles (through the agency of the working class) of fettering production relations. This is why the transition was supposed to happen in an advanced capitalist state, not a backward semi-feudal one.

One can call the Russian Revolution a genuine revolution if one wants, but that's largely a terminological dispute. The point is that it wasn't and couldn't have been a revolution in any properly Marxist sense of the term, for a number of reasons. A Marxist "revolution"--which can take place over decades or generations, since it really just means a transition between different modes of production--would involve a transcending of the exploitative, authoritarian structures of capitalism and an unleashing of the productive potential shackled by capitalist property relations. Since most of Russia wasn't even capitalist or industrial in 1917, it's hard to see how the revolution could have been of this post-capitalist type. The Bolsheviks themselves puzzled over this, of course, concluding that the only way it could succeed would be if revolutions happened in more advanced states, so that the building of socialism in Russia could be coordinated with and assisted by the revolutions elsewhere. This hope faded after a few years.

More fundamentally, though, a transition to socialism--a necessarily international transition--could never have happened at that time. Conditions just weren't ripe. (They aren't even ripe yet, though some decades from now, in the era of capitalism's total decrepitude, they might be.) I've argued this point at length in the book. I have to say that in a sense I think I'm practically the only real Marxist around, since I share Marx's belief--which is very unpopular today--that there is a kind of logic and 'necessity' to historical evolution. A lot of leftists think "oh, if only things had gone a little differently, if we had had stronger leaders and so on, we could all be living in socialism or communism now!" That's not how history works. Events on the scale of a global transition between different modes of production don't depend on the will or abilities of a few leaders. They depend largely (though not exclusively) on the ‘internal logic’ of economic and political institutional change (given particular levels of technology, etc.). This is what "dialectics" is. This is why Marx thought it would be fruitful to investigate the logic of capitalist development, since he thought it would show why a transition to socialism would have to happen and wouldn't depend only on personalities, luck, etc. Of course the way it actually happened would; but that it must happen wouldn't. So the fact that a transition to socialism didn't happen a century ago itself shows it couldn't have; because if a transition ever does happen, it will be a result of something like historical necessity. The "necessity" of development through "dialectical contradictions" and so on. The only thing leaders can do is to speed up the process, make it more conscious and wholly constructive, reduce the amount of suffering during the long transition, etc.

This is why I critiqued Leninist "voluntarism" in my book Worker Cooperatives and Revolution. Voluntarism isn't Marxian. The principle of individual will (the will of a few leaders) and the principle of development through the systemic resolution of contradictions are opposed. The first is conscious and extra-systemic, the latter primarily unconscious and intra-systemic. I don't think Leninists really understand Marxism. In a sense even Marx didn't fully understand his theories, as I've argued in the book, since he had faith that a "proletarian dictatorship" would be able to consciously direct the long transition--despite his acute insight that historical actors never really understand the true significance of their acts! I think he suspends his whole dialectical method when it comes to his belief in a consciously willed, top-down, straightforward reconstruction of the economy from capitalist to socialist. Not only is such a belief unrealistic; it isn't even Marxian.

As I said in the excerpt, if a transition ever does occur, it won't involve only a few political parties that take over various states and direct everything from the commanding heights. It'll take place over many generations and will involve everything from national parties to local grassroots groups, from the proliferation of cooperatives to nationalization of major industries, from the laborious interstitial expansion of the solidarity economy to "consciously willed"--carefully thought-out and directed--plans akin to those of Jeremy Corbyn's Labor Party in its manifestos. It'll have very little in common with the Bolshevik seizure of power in a late-feudal country. As I said, I think the main lessons of that experience are in how not to do things.

It's time we all stopped being dazzled and seduced by 1917. It was a historical accident that led to decades of horror. It wasn't and never could have been a truly socialist revolution. We should let the dead bury the dead and focus on the tasks at hand, in conditions radically different from those that confronted Lenin.

Recent Posts

See All

Thanks for submitting!