Hundred years on is it time for another Revolution?
Perhaps the principles that led the architects of the October Revolution have reasserted themselves with fresh relevance today
No event can be judged in its full historic significance until it is disowned by all existing structures of political authority.
History’s orphan, the Russian Revolution, has turned 100. Even if confined within very narrow enclaves in the intellectual wasteland of global neoliberalism, left-wing politics includes a wide diversity. How many from within this wide spectrum would be stepping up to celebrate the anniversary of the Great October Socialist Revolution remains to be seen.
No single part of this complex legacy, it seems, can be embraced without risk of implication in all that the Russian Revolution means. And there is no escape from the brutal fact that the most enduring public memory of the Russian Revolution is the inglorious collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The ensuing quarter-century of turmoil and privation has been very poor testimony for the preceding years of “socialist construction”. To the extent that economic order and global prestige were restored within successor states – Russia, most notably – the attendant embrace of authoritarian politics has marked a further flight from every notion of freedom that socialism promised, but never delivered.
A further deterrent to any serious commemoration is the bad odour that revolutions have acquired in recent times. Systemic change is frowned upon unless it is to ensure greater conformity with neoliberal fundamentals. Tinkering around at the edges is a good idea and the spasms of outrage that have driven recent colour-coded revolts of the privileged, have earned the honorific of revolutions today.
Triviality of this sort is a fate the Russian Revolution does not deserve. Fortunately, a quite different circumstance has propelled the October Revolution to a place in public attention. The masters of the global neoliberal order derive at least a part of their legitimacy from strutting their stuff as defenders of liberty as a precious virtue. Liberty’s first major challenge in the 20th century – what was called the Great War and subsequently the First World War – was the larger context within which the Russian Revolution was enclosed.
The dynamics of the publishing industry ensured that a flood of books reached the market in 2014, the centenary year of the first shots fired in the First World War. For the most part, these books are notable for an appalling shallowness of perspective, for their elision of the larger picture of growing competition for global spaces into which capital could expand, of sharpening rivalries reaching a point at which resolution through conventional means became infeasible.
Tinkering around at the edges is a good idea and the spasms of outrage that have driven recent colour-coded revolts of the privileged, have earned the honorific of revolutions today
In 1890, the US Census Bureau recorded the closing of the “American frontier” which allowed for an expansion of human settlement with only minor irritants such as the recalcitrance of native populations. It was in 1890 again that Alfred Thayer Mahan, an officer in the US Navy, published an extended treatise titled The Influence of Sea Power in History, 1660-1783. For a country that had been expanding into limitless frontiers of land, Mahan’s theoretical propositions were an urgent call to a different kind of imperialist exertion. The world power league had a new member, but its two main arbiters felt little immediate threat. Britain and France had advantages that would take many more years to neutralise, particularly in their control over the switchboards – the money and commodity bourses – that directed global flows of trade and capital.
The years that followed saw a scaling up and qualitative transformation of the armaments programme of all major powers. Britain pushed aggressively for mastery over the land mass of the European and Asian continents. “World history,” British geographer and imperial administrator Halford John Mackinder pronounced in 1904, is “a story of constant conflict between land and sea powers.” With the world already divided among European powers, pre-eminence in future years, argued Mackinder, would be reserved for whoever prevailed in “the competition over the old territories”.
These were the jealousies that drove Britain, France and Russia on one side into a brutal war with the multinational empires of Germany, Austria-Hungary and Turkey. While it raged, the First World War was imagined as the war to end all wars, to ensure enduring peace through a transformation in power balances. Of course, it earned its appellation as the “first” global war only in retrospect, after a much larger global conflagration to finesse the many issues left unresolved.
In the period after the February events of 1917, with the Russian tsar deposed and an uneasy coalition of liberals and social democrats in power, the Bolshevik leader, V.I. Lenin, saw what was at stake. “War is a continuation of policy by other means,” he wrote. “All wars are inseparable from the political systems that engender them.” The peace that putatively reigned in Europe with brief interruptions since the Napoleonic wars was illusory, sustained only “through constant, incessant, interminable wars” over hundreds of millions in the colonies, which were in reality “brutal massacres, the wholesale slaughter of unarmed peoples”.
The First World War was about the confrontation between two blocs of capitalist powers structured differently. On one side stood Britain, “which owns the greater part of the globe, a country which ranks first in wealth” and had consolidated this wealth within vast banks, which had “caught the whole world in the net of its billions”. This was the model followed by France, Britain’s one-time rival yoked to a common set of interests by the entente cordiale of 1905.
Opposed to the Anglo-French entente stood “another group of capitalists, an even more rapacious, even more predatory one, a group who came to the capitalist banqueting table when all the seats were occupied, but introduced into the struggle new methods for developing capitalist production”. Despite its late arrival, Germany was quick to surpass older capitalist powers, by introducing “state-controlled capitalist production combining the colossal power of capitalism with the power of the state into a single mechanism”.
Lenin saw peace as an impossibility within this sharpening contest of predatory capitalisms. Prior to the first shots fired in anger, he had been the principal agent of a split from the German Social Democratic Party and its leader, Karl Kautsky, who he accused of leading the working class astray. Kautsky’s “theory”, he wrote, “is a most reactionary method of consoling the masses with hopes of permanent peace being possible under capitalism, by distracting their attention … and directing it towards illusory prospects of an imaginary ‘ultra-imperialism’ of the future.”
"War is a continuation of policy by other means,” he wrote. “All wars are inseparable from the political systems that engender them.” The peace that putatively reigned in Europe with brief interruptions since the Napoleonic wars was illusory, sustained only “through constant, incessant, interminable wars” over hundreds of millions in the colonies, which were in reality “brutal massacres, the wholesale slaughter of unarmed peoples”
Eric Hobsbawm has observed in his 20th century history, The Age of Extremes, that in tsarist Russia, the quest for peace converged with the revolutionary impulse. The Bolsheviks seized power in the confident expectation that theirs was the first stage in a world revolution. When those initial calculations proved awry, Germany imposed a punitive peace as Russia quit the war and Britain and France mobilised an armed intervention and a long civil war. Yet, within a year of the October Revolution, the tide seemed to turn. The armies of the central powers – Germany and parts of Austria-Hungary – stood down or erupted in insurrection, compelling the older regimes to vacate and their successors to sue for peace.
The uprisings in Germany, Austria, Bulgaria and elsewhere were suppressed with expected brutality as the victorious powers, now led by the US, offered nationalist autonomy as an alternative to social revolution. Yet the military victory settled nothing for the entente powers. In their enervated economic state, Britain and France proved incapable of knitting together a new hegemony. That had to await another world war, and the shift of the bourses of global capital to the other bank of the Atlantic. Hobsbawm, among other historians, has read the two world wars not as distinct events but as one long 31-year conflict to reconstitute capitalism as a new hegemony administered by the US.
The Soviet Union survived the 31-year war, bruised and bloodied but with its global prestige enhanced. It became the alternative pole of power that newly emerging nations across the globe could look towards, when threatened with the reimposition of a colonial regime. But the Soviet Union had regressed through the years of painful internal turmoil, of purges and terror, into a state with a nationalist rather than socialist identity.
Lenin had warned of the pitfalls along that pathway in the years preceding the First World War, intervening repeatedly to warn against slogans of national cultural autonomy, then gaining an appeal among working class movements. Lenin’s socialist programme made the case for the supersession, or transcendence, of national identities in a revolutionary sense. While upholding the right to maintain a separate identity and political status, the socialist programme involved opposition to the separatist tendency. Lenin opposed the agenda of “national-cultural autonomy” that was the best that liberalism could come up with, for reasons that had much to do with the dynamic and evolving nature, rather than the static form, of national cultures.
At no point did Lenin seek to define what he meant by a “nation”. He accepted the voluntarist definition: any grouping that believed so deserved to be treated as a nation. Again in opposition to the principle of nationality, which saw the cultural (or linguistic unit) as necessarily congruent with the political unit (or state), he rejected the possibility of a “state” language. Given freedom to choose modes of education and given a “free state”, linguistic compatibility would be an achievable goal. Lenin did not assign to the state – or any manner of expert body – the task of evolving a common language that would undergird the “international culture”. He insisted, rather, on the institutions of the State being free and open, to allow the people to arrive at these determinations.
Lenin warned in his last years that the Bolshevik revolution was regressing into a cocoon of “great Russian chauvinism”, as the State apparatus itself ossified into bureaucratic rigidity. The new doctrines of patriotism and loyalty to the fatherland cast their shadow over the Soviet attitude towards internationalism, once regarded as an integral element of socialist commitment.
These were elements that pushed the Soviet Union towards the cataclysmic collapse of 1991, in ways too complex to recount here. What is germane is that the “new world order” that was proclaimed over the Soviet ruins by the US is now in an advanced state of collapse. The “ultra-imperialism” that Kautsky dreamed of as a regime that would sustain global peace was briefly a reality, perhaps for a quarter-century, but now is in headlong flight as eruptions of disorder multiply and once loyal satraps go their own way. Perhaps, in its centenary year, the principles that led the architects of the October Revolution along their course have reasserted themselves with fresh relevance. War is the extension of policy by other means, and the epidemic of conflict that the world sees today is how capitalism reveals yet again, its most basic qualities.