By Kemal Okuyan, TKP General Secretary

February 21, 2024

 

This article has recently been published in issue 162 of Gelenek, the theoretical periodical of TKP [Communist Party of Turkey).

 

You cannot be a revolutionary without feeling disgust at backwardness. In fact, anger at ignorance, stupidity, sloth, laziness, inaction, immobility is the fuel of the revolutionaries…

Too top-down? Too elitist?

Not at all! It is quite human, quite pro-people.

The early Russian revolutionaries were mostly from well-off families. Young army officers, law and medical students… They came out of mansions, and those who were not so wealthy came at least out of manors or estates. When they reached their posts, leaving behind servants and caretakers, they realized the true Russia.

They were surprised, saddened, and rebelled.

The majority of the children of the rich, with a savage intuition of the difference between the world of the nobility and the Russia of the peasants in the dust and dirt, developed enmity against the people; they clung to their posts, their lives and their privileges in order to keep the true Russia away from them.

A small minority, on the other hand, managed to hate not the poor but poverty, risked losing their privileges, abandoned the world of the nobility and adopted a “noble” attitude.

They blamed Tsarist rule for backwardness and illiteracy.

Interestingly, victorious governments in wars are not usually questioned. But the Russian army, personally commanded by Tsar Alexander II, was in deep trouble in 1812 when it repelled Napoleon’s armies on the doorstep of Moscow and eventually entered Paris with other allies. In France, the Republic had collapsed, but the impact of the 1789 Revolution was everywhere. The quest for equality and fraternity was renewing itself on the streets of Paris, at dinner tables set in secluded places, in universities, literary circles and workplaces.

Tsar Alexander had traveled across the European continent to suppress the revolution and crush progressive movements; he paid the price with the rise of a section of young Russian officers who became enthusiastic about the revolution and the republic. He abandoned his relative “libertarianism” of the first years of his reign, became known for his cruelty and turned into an object of hatred.

His success against France did him no good. Unable to accept the darkness that engulfed most of Russia, military officers and intellectuals were gathering in secret organizations and swearing to save the country. When Alexander died and Constantine took his place, they rose up. It was December, so they became known in history as the Decembrists.

They had no coherent program. But because of their morality, conscience, dedication, courage and organization, they are considered the starting point of modern Russian revolutionaries.

The starting point was the question “Why is Russia like this?”. Why was Russia backward? Why did ignorance reign in Russia? Why was power concentrated in the hands of one person in Russia? Why were there millions of landless peasants in Russia? Why did a significant part of the population in Russia live in primitive conditions?

Inevitably they compared Russia with other countries… And it offended their honor.

We have reached a sensitive point! Isn’t national pride unnecessary, isn’t it an emotion that needs to be overcome and that in the final analysis can evolve into nationalism or even racism?

It depends on how you manage it, to where you attach it…

One of the main sources of motivation for all great revolutionary moves, for people of thought and action, is the question “Why is my country like this?”. Revolutionary programs emerge with an answer to this question.

There is nothing against internationalism in this.

Almost a hundred years after the Decembrists, on another December day in 1914, Lenin published an article entitled “The National Pride of Great Russians”. The First World War had broken out and the Russian Empire had entered the war with the forces led by France and Britain against Germany and its allies.

Lenin was attacking the German and French Social Democratic parties for supporting their governments in the imperialist war, accusing them of treason. In his own country, he advocated an officially defeatist strategy and called for the defeat of Tsarism. Tsarism had outlived its life, it was counter-revolutionary, it was oppressing many nations, the war should be turned into an opportunity and Tsarism should be overthrown.

It was precisely at this time that the article I mentioned was written, and Lenin emphasized that “we act in this way because of our love and devotion to Russia and our national pride”. Moreover, after the revolution, during the pessimism caused by the Brest-Litovsk agreement, the same Lenin said that “Mother Russia will surely rise from this humiliation”.

Was Lenin talking about patriotic pride in an article in which he raised the flag for chauvinism in order to protect himself from nationalist salvos?

No, Lenin, like the revolutionaries before him, became a revolutionary by asking the question “Why is Russia like this?” and took up the struggle because he could not accept the situation of his country and people.

The same was with Marx himself. There are countless early articles in which Marx laments the backwardness of Germany, which he compares to France and England. He stated that communism would save Germany from this humiliation and shared his views on the path Germany should take against the domination of England. It was Marx who emphasized in 1848 that the German proletariat would save German pride through a radical revolution.

The same was with Fidel Castro’s relationship with his homeland Cuba. The guerrillas who acted with him were trying to defend Cubanism with a revolutionary program that US imperialism tried to trample underfoot.

National pride or working class patriotism is not enough for a revolutionary struggle, but it is never without it. A strong starting point is the bond with the country and the will to change and liberate it…

For communists, working class patriotism is not flirting with nationalism, it is not copying at all. Working class patriotism is one of the grounds of our struggle and one of the realities that fuels us. Communists move from the tragedy of the world, of humanity and of their own country and reach the universal from their own homeland.

The idea of a republic is part of this. Marx’s emphasis on “the ability of the working class to speak for the whole nation” did not come out of the blue. The quest for a republic is one of the most critical elements of the arduous struggles to extend the right to govern and politics, which had been concentrated in the hands of privileged property-owning classes, to the whole society.

Is it possible for this quest, which reached its peak in the French Revolution, to be underestimated as “a social change in which power shifted from feudal exploiters to capitalist exploiters”? Yes, this is precisely what happened, the bourgeois revolutions took humanity from an anachronistic darkness to a modern darkness, paving the way for capitalist barbarity.

On the other hand, neither the French Revolution nor the struggle for the republic can be reduced down to this.

The egalitarian anger that erupted against absolutist rule aimed for universal suffrage, right to politics for the whole society and a parliamentary government, while questioning social inequalities, albeit in a primitive form.

Egalitarianism was one of the most important sources of the French Revolution and the republican wind of that period. In this sense, the relationship between communism and republicanism is very direct. We are not some upstart republicans, you see!

Communism in its modern sense took its place on the stage of history decades after the French Revolution, with the publication of the Communist Manifesto. However, among the radical republicans during and after the French Revolution, those with communist tendencies were always at the forefront.

In the Great French Revolution, we cannot speak of a proletariat in the modern sense. The country was already based on an overwhelming peasant population. In addition to them, the artisans, the urban petty bourgeoisie and the workers, whose numbers were growing but still limited, were all dissatisfied with the existing system as masses of poor people. If the owners of the Old Regime had come to terms with the rising bourgeoisie, there would have been little need to exploit the discontent of the poor masses. But the bourgeoisie needed the anger of the poor to finish its job.

This anger lacked class consciousness, not to mention historical consciousness. However, it would be a grave injustice to underestimate the growing quest for equality among the masses. Millions of oppressed people, who did not know what they wanted or how to do it, looked at the privileged classes with hatred and wanted to live like them. And they were learning lessons at every moment.

The regulations that followed the revolution, one after the other, to control inequalities and appease the anger of the people, were the result of taking the people’s quest for equality seriously.

After the defeat of the Republic, which was the product of the 1789 Revolution, powerful revolutionary blows were struck against the French Empire. They were all republicans, and from 1830 to 1848, among the republican sections, the most determined, consistent ones were the revolutionaries who leaned on the working class; the cowardly, inconsistent, renegade ones were the bourgeois liberals.

Of course, the working class learned through struggles. In 1830 they were in the streets, they were dying on the barricades, but they were defending liberal politicians rather than their own liberation. They carried the main burden with their fists and their bodies, trying to encourage the bourgeois revolutionaries, so to speak.

This is how it went for a whole history. The working class would rise up, carry the bourgeois liberals on its back, and the more it experienced betrayal, the more radicalized it became. As a rule, they always ended up getting betrayed. Marx’s writings on what happened in France between 1848 and 1852 are incomparable, one always learns new things by reading them.

But the period before 1848 was also very exciting and instructive…

The revolutionaries, the vanguard of the working class and “the communists”, formed organizations in constant struggle, assassinated emperors, and never gave up the quest for an egalitarian order. What is always written on the flag they carried, often red, “Long live the Republic”.

As I said, they learned by getting cheated. The result of the uprisings of 1830 was the transfer of power from the House of Bourbon to the House of Orleans. The new King, Louis Philippe, was very clever, and he would start ripping off the people by going out on the balcony and singing the Marseillaise, the product of the French Revolution, with huge crowds.

They were afraid of the sans-culottes, of  The Mountain [the most radical Jacobins].

The poor masses had revolted, but they did not achieve what they wanted. Elections were held, but only 250 thousand people could vote in a country of 35 million! The monarchy and the bourgeoisie were once again reconciled, not because of the idea of a republic, but because of the disorganization of the working masses.

In 1832 they revolted again. They died and killed. Again the working class was continuing the fight for the Republic.

In 1834, once again… They died and killed.

Each time they began to grasp the truth a little more fundamentally, deeply. By the 1840s, republicanism was associated with socialist and communist thought and action. Secret organizations were emerging at every corner. One very influential one was called the “Egalitarian Workers”. I underline, the fight for the Republic always made sense of itself in terms of the quest for equality.

Marx had not yet come to the rescue of the oppressed, had not yet put the logic of capitalism and the laws of class struggle before humanity. But a feverish activity was going on before 1848 to abolish classes, to get rid of the curse called money, to end the relationship between religion and the state.

In 1848, the working class again made more than one push for the Republic. In July, when King Louis Philippe had to abdicate and flee, the working people ruled Paris. But there was no compass, no organization in the modern sense, no program.

They were deceived again, saying “this time we won’t be fooled”. The Second Republic, which owed its existence to the revolt of the working class in 1848, came to an end in 1852 with the complete exclusion of the working class. As I said, you should read the story of these four years in Marx.

But Marx also wrote very well about the France of 1871… The imperial rule, which had been revived in 1852, collapsed in 1870 after the defeat in the war with Prussia, and the Republic was established “out of necessity” while most of the country was under occupation. In the hands of the bourgeoisie, the republic was meaningless, and so was the “homeland”! When it was about to cede both to the Germans, the Paris proletariat took matters into its own hands to establish the first workers’ power ever witnessed by humanity. Republic, homeland and equality are defended at the same time.

The Paris Commune lasted two months and ten days. When the French bourgeoisie, in collaboration with the occupying Germans, defeated and massacred the working class, the Third Republic of France was nothing more than a meaningless, content-less label. So much so that, after crushing the Commune, they tried and tried to restore the monarchy. If they failed, it was partly because they were scared to death that the working class would re-establish the street barricades that marked the entire 19th century. Let us also note that the royalists could not overcome the will of the people who stubbornly defended the red, white and blue “Republican” flag they hated so much.

From 1789 to 1871, the locomotive of the fight for the Republic in France was the people, and eventually the working class, in quest of equality. And the Republic is the reflection of the idea of equality in the politics and the state.

So why do we call the French Revolution a bourgeois revolution? Had the young bourgeoisie no revolutionary role in 1789 and similar episodes?

Of course they did have. There were material reasons why the radical sections of the bourgeoisie hated the monarchy. They knew in detail what the church was all about, they clung to the Enlightenment. They needed rationality not only for capitalist development, but in the struggle against the old social-political system.

But what they also needed was the anger of the poor. This anger was good as long as it filled their sails, but dangerous when it tried to sweep them away. In the 1789 French Revolution, the anger of the poor, of the exploited classes was not lacking, but they had neither ideological and political weight, nor a project that would prevail over other classes. In this sense, the French Revolution was marked by the bourgeoisie, which later on parted ways with the Republic and egalitarianism.

It was seen that without equality, the Republic collapses, and even if it does not collapse, it is crippled.

This is what we learn from French history. We also learned this from the history of Turkey.

And also from Germany…

Russia became a republic in 1917. In the turbulent days of the February Revolution, Tsarism had fallen and was replaced by uncertainty. Although Kerensky, the head of the Provisional Government, declared a republic in September, it was the Soviet government that brought Russia to a republic. With the October Revolution, egalitarianism met republicanism and a few years later the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was established.

Not long after the October Revolution of 1917, one year later, Germany became unstable. In Russia, the uprising that led to the socialist republic was led by workers as well as the marines. The same thing happened in Germany. The masses of naval soldiers and workers kicked the crumbling German Empire in the teeth and suddenly everyone, from the generals to the big capitalists, became republicans. The masses of workers and soldiers wanted an egalitarian republic, just like in Russia, even if they did not quite know their way around it. The capitalists, on the other hand, decided to take away the idea of equality and the banner of socialism from the workers who hit the streets, and gave them the Republic, while cooperating with the top cadres of the state and the traitorous social democrats.

The proletariat, which had been betrayed for decades in France, suffered the same misfortune in Germany. Once again it was seen that without equality the Republic would fail. After shedding a lot of revolutionary blood, after subjecting the workers to an unprecedented cost of living, the German Republic blew its final breath at the hands of Hitler.

Isn’t it amazing that the two great myths imposed on us are refuted at almost every juncture of history. One myth is that humanity first sought, or rather had to seek, freedom and then equality… No, this is not true. The quest for equality and the struggle for equality fueled the fire of freedom, and when the idea of equality was damaged, the space for freedom was restricted. It is clear that the republic is related to freedom…

The second myth, on this very subject, is the invention of our “local” liberals. They have attempted to break the ties between the republic and freedom. So much so that in Turkey, for an average leftist of the last 40 years, the republic would be synonymous with repression and oppression. This is not only a view of Turkey’s history. It can also be seen as a distance, even an implicit hatred, towards the French Revolution.

Yes, the republic is not a precondition for the struggle for an egalitarian system, but a part of that struggle. In almost every case, the bourgeoisie has tried to subtract equality from the republic, and in return (and in spite of this) it has either embraced or had to accept many advances in political and social life.

Nowhere in the world has there ever been a republic that the bourgeoisie invented on its own, designed from A  to Z and shaped as it wished. States, of course, take on the character of the ruling class. However, in the case of major upheavals and at points of historical progress, one cannot speak of a model that the bourgeoisie takes as a given from the beginning and wants to reach. In this sense, no matter which class it is in the hands of, every republic has the efforts and blood of the poor and eventually the working class in its fabric.

In other words, we are not interacting with the republican heritage, we are strengthening the interaction within the republican heritage. This is the truth. The truth is that communists were/are always republicans.