James Connolly Memorial Lecture, 2017
13 May 2017
Greg Godels is an editor of Marxism-Leninism Today. He often writes under the pen name Zoltan Zigedy. He gave this talk as part of the James Connolly Festival held each year in Ireland.
I bring you greetings from comrades and friends in the United States.
It is a great honour to be invited to give the annual James Connolly Memorial lecture. Connolly’s dedication to Ireland’s independence and his commitment to the workers’ liberation have earned the admiration and affection of honest people everywhere. We—in the United States—pay special tribute to James Connolly’s memory for the many years he devoted to supporting our own working-class movement. He was truly a giant figure in the battles of his time, a leader imbued with the purest and deepest national and internationalist spirit.
I have been asked to speak on the Russian Revolution and its Continued Impact on our World.
This year, on the 100th anniversary of the 1917 revolution, it is altogether fitting that we reflect upon an event that rocked the world and upset the world of the smug, arrogant rulers and capitalists of the great powers. Every thoughtful person must recognise that the Bolshevik seizure of power proved to be the most significant and influential event of the twentieth century. Despite the demise of the Soviet Union in our time, the revolution and its legacy remain a beacon, a source of inspiration for all those who experience injustice, harsh rule, and cruelty brought by capitalism and its masters.
I am grateful for the opportunity to revisit that distant time, to try to distil the lessons that emerge from the first genuine and lasting capture of power by working people. In what follows, I want to remind you of the fear and the loathing that the October Revolution delivered to the oppressors and exploiters in every nation.
I want to highlight the meaning, the unique meaning of the revolution in the context of the long struggle of humanity to shed its unwanted masters.
I offer here a very human Vladimir Lenin, a Lenin who brought a stubborn, unbending devotion to principle above all else.
In this presentation, I hope to assuage our own doubts and disappointments with the understanding that these discomforts plagued the revolutionary movements of Lenin’s time as well.
I will highlight some of the accomplishments of the newly born workers’ state against daunting, unprecedented challenges.
I address those highly critical of the Soviet era, specifically those associated with the fashionable notion of “twenty-first century socialism.”
And, finally, I propose that, even after a hundred years, there is much, very much that we can draw from the Bolshevik revolution to guide our struggles today. Moreover, some of those ideas may well challenge some of our own entrenched conceptions of the road to socialism as we enter the twenty-first century.
It is easy to forget, after many years have passed, how our capitalist adversaries are determined to snuff out every memory of the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, the revolution that transformed what was then the world’s third largest country, Russia—or more precisely, the Russian Empire. Nearly one in twelve of the world’s population lived within the boundaries of the empire before the onset of World War I.
Recently I was reminded of that dogged determination to bury our collective memory by an interview given by the famous US film actor and director Warren Beatty. Beatty, you may remember, was the force behind the 1981 film Reds, a film that chronicled the Russian Revolution through the life of the US journalist John Reed.
Imagine Beatty, one of the most successful film actors, deciding to faithfully re-enact the intense drama of that earth-shaking event precisely at the time when one of the most scurrilous red-baiters, Ronald Reagan, was ascending to the US Presidency.
Beatty recounts his pitch to one of the moguls at Paramount Studios, then a part of a giant multinational conglomerate. Because of his prominence, the executive felt compelled to listen patiently to Beatty’s plan and his proposed budget. As Beatty retells the story, after a pause the mogul responded (and I’m paraphrasing here) as follows: “Why don’t we give you the thirty million dollars you say you need; you take a crew to Mexico to scout locations; and you spend a million dollars doing what you like. Then, after a month, you return and tell us the movie can’t be made. Keep the remaining twenty-nine million!”
Now that’s strangling the memory of the Bolshevik baby in the cradle, to use a similar metaphor to the one made famous by another prominent enemy of socialism, Winston Churchill.
Happily, Beatty took the thirty million and made the film, an honest portrayal that he can still be proud of producing. And we can happily enjoy.
To understand the revolution, we must understand centuries of labour exploitation that preceded it. I stress exploitation purposely, and not other often-invoked terms of dominance like repression, suppression, and oppression. They, unlike labour exploitation, do not fully capture the intimate, inseparable connection between society’s social and economic relations and those who are subordinated by those relations, those whose lives are most profoundly affected by them. Many earlier revolutions, the French and US revolutions, for example, reconfigured political arrangements to the benefit of one group or another. But the Russian revolution reconfigured the most fundamental social and economic arrangements as well. And it did so to the benefit of most of the people.
We must therefore also understand the divisions of societies into classes along the fault lines of ruler and ruled, exploiter and toiler. We must understand how those who have produced the wealth have resisted this exploitation from its very origin—and, in many cases, sought to remove the exploiter’s harness from the back of the labourer once and for all.
The war between exploiter and exploited classes did not begin in twentieth-century Russia. We can date resistance to exploitation back to antiquity. The slave revolts in Rome made famous by the slave Spartacus and his supporters and their near defeat of the Empire’s legions come to mind. In the same era, we find an expression of that resistance again in the continuing risings of the Jewish and other peoples living on the fringes of the Roman Empire. Some would even locate the origins of Christianity in that resistance. That yearning for self-determination anticipates the modern era national liberation movements, including the Irish people’s many centuries of struggle for independence.
We see the clash of classes in the fourteenth-century peasant revolts that nearly brought victory to the Jacquerie in France and to John Ball, Jack Straw, Wat Tyler, and their cohorts in England.
And we see it again in Germany and Bohemia with the insurrections of the radical Hussites, the Taborites, and the followers of Thomas Müntzer. In a stretch of little more than 100 years, peasant risings reached a climax. Europe was aflame with peasant wars against exploiters and their clerical enablers. It is more than a little interesting that the peasant revolutionaries drew their ideological inspiration from a strict reading of the Christian Bible and a literal understanding of the teachings of Jesus. They were, in a sense, Christian “fundamentalists” as well as premature social revolutionaries. Of course mainstream history overshadows this fascinating period with the singularly unremarkable story of the moderate reformer Martin Luther.
The fight against exploitation takes centre stage again in the nineteenth century. The Paris Commune of 1871 especially served as a laboratory for future revolutionaries including the Russian Marxists who would vie for state power nearly half a century later. The France of 1871 bore striking similarities with the Russia of 1917. Both countries were facing humiliating military defeat that had already inflicted enormous casualties and burdens on their working people. Both countries were led by decadent, corrupt ruling classes unwilling to stop the agony of a bloody conflict that the rulers themselves instigated.
The fighters who earned the leadership of the Commune with their unwavering defence of Paris crafted a remarkably democratic and far-sighted programme, a programme worthy of the first steps of a socialist revolution.
The Commune lasted a little over two months before it was brutally repressed. But the failure of the commune brought many lessons to revolutionaries. First and foremost, the destruction of the Commune harshly confirmed the understanding first gleaned from the European revolutions of 1848. That understanding was that the capitalists would not, under any circumstances, concede power to the working class. Marx captured the resolve to defend the bourgeois social order at all costs with the expression “the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.”
When faced with a hastily organised government of the workers of Paris who were determined to stay the fight against the German military, the capitalist turned the French military against French workers in the siege of Paris while the German forces stood idly by. The French bourgeoisie were willing to surrender the nation’s sovereignty and its honour to preserve rule over the French masses, to preserve their ability to accumulate wealth without any obstacles.
Marx absorbed this lesson in his often misunderstood, nearly always demonised concept of the “dictatorship of the proletariat.” He recognised the need to defend the socialist revolution with the same uncompromising, unshakeable determination shown by the French bourgeoisie and other enemies of working people. For Marx, life taught that the two concepts of “dictatorship” were dialectically united in their opposition. Only the proletariat or the bourgeoisie could rule: there could be no persisting sharing of power. Later Russian revolutionaries like Vladimir Lenin grasped the lesson as well.
Popular mythology offers a portrait of the Bolshevik Revolution as the lucky convergence of war-weariness, inept Tsarist leadership, and Bolshevik audacity. Of course there is much truth to this picture. But much is left out as well. The conditions for revolution simmered for many years before. In fact, they boiled over earlier when revolution broke out in January 1905. The recent accelerated development of capitalism and the development of a substantial working class in Russia brought capitalist exploitation to the forefront. Four hundred and forty thousand workers struck Russian industry in the first month of the 1905 revolution, more workers than those engaged in actions over the previous decade!
Though eventually suppressed, the 1905 revolution was the trade school for Lenin and the other revolutionaries. He wrote:
. . . the revolutionary party of Russia consisted of a small group of people, and the reformists of those days (exactly like the reformists of today) derisively called us a “sect.” Several hundred revolutionary organisers, several thousand members of local organisations, half a dozen revolutionary papers appearing not more frequently than once a month, published mainly abroad and smuggled into Russia with incredible difficulty and at the cost of many sacrifices—such were the revolutionary parties in Russia, and the revolutionary Social-Democracy in particular, prior to January 22, 1905. This circumstance gave the narrow-minded and overbearing reformists formal justification for their claim that there was not yet a revolutionary people in Russia.
Without question, the Bolsheviks and other socialists were a relatively tiny minority, easily overlooked in the grand sweep of masses in motion. As Lenin notes, it was easy to dismiss the forces arrayed for radical change. But that proved to be mistaken. Lenin continues:
Within a few months, however, the picture changed completely. The hundreds of revolutionary Social-Democrats “suddenly” grew into thousands; the thousands became the leaders of between two and three million proletarians. The proletarian struggle produced widespread ferment, often revolutionary movements among the peasant masses, fifty to a hundred million strong; the peasant movement had its reverberations in the army and led to soldiers’ revolts, to armed clashes between one section of the army and another. In this manner a colossal country, with a population of 130,000,000, went into the revolution; in this way, dormant Russia was transformed into a Russia of a revolutionary proletariat and a revolutionary people.
Lenin attests to the militancy of the Russian working class inspiring the rising of the peasantry and urging the rebellion of the soldiers and sailors, a pattern that would be repeated twelve years later. It was in the cauldron of the 1905 rising that Russian revolutionaries honed the ideas of a disciplined vanguard party and the tactic of dual or alternative power, the Soviet. The revolution taught that a highly organised, tightly knit organisation of ideologically advanced and supremely prepared revolutionaries could lead masses far greater than its own numbers.
While the 1905 revolution failed to wrest state power from the Tsar, his court, and the rising bourgeoisie, it provided lessons essential for Russian Communists to achieve success. In Lenin’s words: “Without the ‘dress rehearsal’ of 1905, the victory of the October Revolution in 1917 would have been impossible.”
With Lenin, it is easy to fall into the “Great Man” trap and elevate him to superhuman, uniquely exceptional status. In our time, one can often hear would-be revolutionaries bemoan the fact that our movements lack a Lenin. Certainly Lenin was a gifted man of special character and unique attributes: dogged determination, intellectual brilliance, unshakable honesty, and much more.
But what stands out most is a trait in reach of all of us: strict adherence to principle. Lenin never deviated from what he believed was right; he never traded temporary or immediate advantage for the ultimate goal of socialist revolution; he never settled for easy answers or popular compromises; nor did he fear being out of step with the herd.
When the hysteria leading to the First World War reached its greatest pitch, Lenin remained steadfast against the feverish calls for national pride and unthinking patriotism. Unlike the shameful socialist leaders of the mass European “socialist” parties who joined the militaristic chorus, he and a handful of staunch internationalists stood against all wars pitting worker against worker.
As the unending war slaughter continued, he became even more resolute, more insistent. When he gathered with other socialists opposed to the war at the Zimmerwald conference in September 1915, he proposed a radical step beyond mere war opposition, a step that proved too audacious for even the left socialists assembled there:
The imperialist war is ushering in the era of the social revolution. All the objective conditions of recent times have put the proletariat’s revolutionary mass struggle on the order of the day. It is the duty of socialists, while making use of every means of the working class’s legal struggle, to subordinate each and every of those means to this immediate and most important task, develop the workers’ revolutionary consciousness, rally them in the international revolutionary struggle, promote and encourage any revolutionary action, and do everything possible to turn the imperialist war between the peoples into a civil war of the oppressed classes against their oppressors, a war for the expropriation of the class of capitalists, for the conquest of political power by the proletariat, and the realisation of socialism.
More than his outstanding personal characteristics, it was this steadfastness of conviction and single-mindedness of purpose that made Lenin a great revolutionary leader, traits that can, I believe, be acquired by all of us.
Pessimism about the prospect of revolution is not a recent development, though it may seem so to many of us. Nor is it uncommon in the struggle against capitalism. Years later, after the revolution, Lenin reflected on the period following the suppression of the 1905 revolution, a time when popular forces were repressed or in retreat, a time when the future of the revolutionary movement appeared bleak. He remembered that:
All the revolutionary and opposition parties were smashed. Depression, demoralisation, splits, discord, defection, and pornography took the place of politics. There was an ever greater drift towards philosophical idealism; mysticism became the garb of counter-revolutionary sentiments. At the same time, however, it was this great defeat that taught the revolutionary parties and the revolutionary class a real and very useful lesson, a lesson in historical dialectics, a lesson in an understanding of the political struggle, and in the art and science of waging that struggle. It is at moments of need that one learns who one’s friends are. Defeated armies learn their lesson.
In our time, and without raising too many eyebrows, one could cut and paste this passage from Left-Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder and drop it into a modern-day account of our revolutionary movement after the demise of the Soviet Union. One can recall those dismal years after the betrayal of the Soviet Union and relive the “depression, demoralisation, splits, and discord” that followed. One can replace “philosophical idealism” in Lenin’s text with “post-modernism” or “capitalist triumphalism” or a host of other shallow “isms”. Erstwhile “comrades” exchanged tinkering with the market for the project of revolutionary change; they exchanged the security of a comforting personal identity for the struggle for human liberation—the liberation of all; and they eviscerated the working class’s greatest contribution to human progress—the ideal of socialism.
If we today embrace lessons from Lenin’s writings, it should emphatically include his admonition to “know our friends” and learn the lessons from setbacks, from obstacles that shed light on the way forward.
We can draw upon Lenin’s thoughts expressed on the eve of the 1917 revolution as well. In January 1917, a time of massive war losses, numbing austerity, and dismal prospects, Lenin spoke with a group of young revolutionaries, dispensing a different assessment of the moment. He gave them a kind of revolutionary “pep talk”:
We must not be deceived by the present grave-like stillness in Europe. Europe is pregnant with revolution. The monstrous horrors of the imperialist war, the suffering caused by the high cost of living everywhere engender a revolutionary mood; and the ruling classes, the bourgeoisie, and its servitors, the governments, are more and more moving into a blind alley from which they can never extricate themselves without tremendous upheavals.
In Europe, the coming years, precisely because of this predatory war, will lead to popular uprisings under the leadership of the proletariat against the power of finance capital, against the big banks, against the capitalists; and these upheavals cannot end otherwise than with the expropriation of the bourgeoisie, with the victory of socialism.
Lenin’s words were strikingly prescient. In months, the Bolsheviks would have state power within reach. His words were not born from idle speculation. Instead, Lenin drew upon his careful study of developments in the imperialist states and his command of Marxism.
We can similarly benefit from closely examining, as Lenin did, the objective conditions in which we find ourselves. The world today is wracked with war—not global war, but hot and cold confrontations in every continent, every region. National rivalries, confrontations, and hostilities are as great today as at any time excepting World Wars. Those tensions are only growing in intensity, ominous in their prospect. The global economy, only recently heralded for its vigour, has undergone a shock surpassed only by the Great Depression. Ten years on, nothing like a recovery has emerged and further danger signs are increasingly appearing.
The ability of our rulers to rule in the conventional way is seriously challenged in both the US and Europe. The policies of unfettered international monopoly capital, of market fundamentalism, of cultural cosmopolitanism, clash dramatically with an emerging right-wing populism, its extreme nationalism, and its protectionism and scapegoating of immigrants. These two ruling-class approaches lead to a modern “blind alley” that promises no exit from crises.
Every major imperialist country is plagued by deepening economic problems, social upheaval, and the unprecedented collapse of confidence in institutions. Lenin would see great revolutionary potential in this moment. Could it be that “popular uprisings under the leadership of the proletariat” lie ahead for us as well?
While our Communist movement has not yet recovered from the betrayal of socialism and the loss of the European socialist community, we have every reason to see revolutionary potential 100 years after the Russian Revolution. We should remind ourselves that even Lenin—the oracle of revolution when his comrades were overcome with pessimism—underestimated the moments before the rising. Speaking literally weeks before the great awakening of the masses in 1917, he reflected: “We of the older generation may not live to see the decisive battles of this coming revolution. But I can, I believe, express the confident hope that the youth which is working so splendidly in the socialist movement . . . will be fortunate enough not only to fight, but also to win, in the coming proletarian revolution.”
So even the great Lenin had his very human moments of doubt, just like many of us.
But in this case, Lenin was wrong. In March 1917, the revolution had begun and the Tsar had abdicated.
With power assumed in March 1917 by a provisional government in Russia, the popular organisations—the Soviets—stood aside from governance. The provisional government was awarded time to meet the immediate demands of the people for peace, land, and bread.
But upon his return to Russia in April, Lenin recognised both the indecisive character of the provisional government, its distance from the people, and the hunger for change among the people.
It was not his way to bide time. It was not his way to watch passively as the revolutionary winds subsided.
Instead, he defended his theses at the Party Congress, arguing against any appeasement, any temporising with the provisional government. He pounded away at the demands for peace, for investing all power in the Soviets, for confiscation of the landed estates, to place control of the banks, production, and distribution in the hands of the Soviets . . . The Bolsheviks, Lenin insisted, were to press forward.
Yet even as late as June 1917, the Bolsheviks only accounted for 105 of the 822 delegates to the All-Russian Congress of Soviets.
The story of how the Bolsheviks subsequently won over the masses and led Russia’s workers and peasants to wrest state power from the provisional government in a few short months need not be told here in detail. It is best told through the medium of John Reed’s vivid and dramatic book Ten Days That Shook the World or Sergei Eisenstein’s masterful film October. I could neither tell it better nor as well. That account is a brief but unparalleled chapter in the long, glorious history of human liberation, a gripping story.
But perhaps we can use the eloquence of Rosa Luxemburg, sometimes a harsh critic of the Bolsheviks, to reveal the essence of those intense months:
All power exclusively in the hands of the worker and peasant masses, in the hands of the soviets—this was indeed the only way out of the difficulty into which the revolution had gotten . . .
The party of Lenin was thus the only one in Russia which grasped the true interest of the revolution in that first period. It was the element that drove the revolution forward, and, thus it was the only party which really carried on a socialist policy.
It is this which makes clear, too, why it was that the Bolsheviks, though they were at the beginning of the revolution a persecuted, slandered and hunted minority attacked on all sides, arrived within the shortest time to the head of the revolution and were able to bring under their banner all the genuine masses of the people . . .
The real situation, in which the Russian Revolution found itself, narrowed down in a few months to the alternative: victory of the counter-revolution or dictatorship of the proletariat . . . Such was the objective situation . . .
To stand still, to mark time on one spot, to be contented with the first goal it happens to reach, is never possible in revolution.
The years following the seizure of power were difficult ones. A revolution is not a mere event, but a process. That process involves creating new institutions and new pathways to a goal never before achieved. It must be remembered that there was no blueprint for socialism, little more than some keen observations of the obstacles that surfaced in the Paris Commune of 1871 as well as insights drawn from Marx’s polemics with rivals. The Bolsheviks were working with a veritable blank slate. This is the task that Lenin and his party set out to tackle.
At the same time, the Bolsheviks were faced with a civil war encouraged and materially supported by both the Entente and the Central Powers. It is said that as many as fourteen powers invaded Soviet Russia during this period.
When the civil war was over in 1921, Russia was a country in ruin with its economy in shambles, generating only one-seventh of the pre-war output. There had been 14½ million deaths in the prior six years. The victory demonstrated that, though the Russian people were exhausted, they were solidly in support of the people’s government and the project of building socialism. No less of a commitment would have delivered the victory to those most eager to restore capitalism.
And yet the people of the soon-to-be-founded Soviet Union were to face an even greater existential challenge to socialist construction in another twenty years from fascist aggression. With the experience of the Civil War behind them, Soviet leaders understood that imperialism would never concede the existence of a stable, independent workers’ state. The leaders understood that the effort to restore capitalism was an unrelenting priority of elites in Berlin, in London, in Paris, in Washington, and in other centres of power. Accordingly, the Soviets devoted every resource and worked feverishly over the following two decades to building the industrial and military might of the USSR.
This period was one of unprecedented growth. By unleashing the creativity, the discipline, and the enthusiasm of the Soviet peoples, industrial production in 1940 was 750 per cent of that in 1913! (Remember, industrial production in the wake of the Civil War was one-seventh that of 1913.) By 1937, power generation had increased eighteen-fold from 1913; oil production had nearly tripled; and coal and steel production had increased over four times. The Soviet Union had grown into an industrial power.
The enemies of socialism would have you believe that the gains between the wars were secured by tyranny and oppression, but that would ask you also to believe that the same people that cast off tyranny and fought a desperate war to secure a future for socialism submitted passively to a new tyranny.
The Russian revolution set in motion the socialist revolution. The immediate goal of the socialist revolution was twofold: to establish workers’ power and to end the exploitation of Russia’s workers and peasants. The empowerment of the working class was a complex question requiring rapid expansion of the working class, the ending of unemployment, the ending of illiteracy, expansion of the education system and the establishment of mandatory attendance, the guaranteeing of shelter for all, the increasing of the food supply, the creating of new institutions of self-governance, the repairing of crushed national identities . . . in short, the creation of the material conditions for proletarian self-rule. At the same time, the Communist Party had to protect workers’ power from domestic and foreign enemies. This proved to be a daunting task, accompanied by many successes, but failures as well.
The capitalist media have systematically ignored the successes while creating an industry of demonisation aiming to highlight those failures.
Suffice it to say that Soviet archives show that at its height, the infamous Gulag system had at least half a million fewer imprisoned than that of the US in any of the last few years. The US imprisons more per capita than any other country in the world, yet the US capitalist media have yet to discover their own Solzhenitsyn.
To abolish exploitation, Soviet Communists abolished capitalist relations of production. At the beginning of the first five-year plan in 1928, the private sector accounted for 25 per cent of retail trade and 17 per cent of industrial production. Four years and three months later the plan was completed and the last vestiges of private wage labour were gone from those sectors.
To complete the socialist transformation, exploitative relations in the countryside had to be eliminated. Though all the land belonged to the state, existing inequalities of assets, inefficiencies, and peasant backwardness reproduced the buying and selling of labour power in agriculture. The wealthier peasants—the kulaks—were able to accumulate, hire labour, and accumulate more.
In the second five-year plan, those exploitative relations were smashed as well. Agriculture was organised into collective farms and state farms, economic units that denied private accumulation. Collectivisation met many setbacks, including natural disaster, peasant backwardness and peasant resistance, disorganisation, and administrative blunders. While the new economic organisations saw an increase in yield over the entire five-year plan, the productivity of agriculture grew only a third from the pre-war era to 1937.
While Soviet agriculture stabilised in the post-First World War period, it never showed the level of intensive growth that Soviet leaders envisaged. In fact, socialist agriculture was far more successful in other post-World War II European socialist countries that expropriated and reorganised capitalist agriculture.
While the Russian revolution began with insurrection in 1917, we can say that it was completed with the socialisation of the productive forces and the elimination of systemic exploitation by the late 1930s. As a consequence, it was able to become a mighty industrial power with the means to ward off imperialist predation. As we know, it was soon called upon to do so against the greatest force ever assembled to invade another country.
At the same time as this industrial and military might was achieved, the Soviet people made unprecedented advances in living standards with health care, education, housing, nutrition, and safety improving and generally made available at no or nominal costs.
As Mikhail Kalinin, Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union, said on May Day 1938: “We are not a land flowing with milk and honey. We are a workers’ state. Our state started from a beggarly existence. Perhaps we are making many mistakes. This is possible. Perhaps, sometimes, we are not doing what we ought to do; this is also possible. But I would like to tell you one thing: we are building a proletarian world.”
Today, there are many who want to diminish the achievements of the Soviet Union. They count on time eroding the truth about the era ushered in by the Bolshevik revolution. They do all they can to distort or hide that history.
They do not want working people to imagine that a world without capitalist exploitation is possible.
They do not want working people to believe that they can govern without relying upon elites or their courtiers.
They do not want to give credence to the idea that public ownership can be rational, efficient, and release the creativity and motivation of working people.
They do not want to raise the possibility that a planned economy can eliminate the irrationalities, the waste, the inequities, and imbalances of capitalist anarchy.
They demean the fraternal aid that the Soviets gave to workers’ organisations and parties worldwide.
They refuse to regard the Soviet doctrine of non-interference in the affairs of others or to respect the rights of self-determination as developed by Lenin.
They fear the Soviet example of internationalism—a consistent commitment to those in struggle, from Republican Spain to anti-Apartheid South Africa.
They want to minimise the decisive role of the Soviet Union in the defeat of fascism.
They demean the liberation of Eastern and Central Europe from the grip of fascism and the purging of fascism from the political life of these countries.
They adamantly refuse to acknowledge the critical part the first socialist country played in the erasure of colonialism from the world and the principled fight against its modern incarnation, neo-colonialism.
They deny the peace initiative begun by the Soviet Union at the onset of the Cold War.
They deny the selfless aid extended by the Soviet Union to developing countries.
In short, they discount both the great achievements of Soviet power and the enormous sacrifices made by the Soviet peoples, achievements and sacrifices that shaped the twentieth century.
Those of us on the left, especially those of us who proudly declare ourselves Marxists, must staunchly defend the legacy of the Bolshevik revolution and Soviet power. We must resist the easy opportunism of those who believe they can buy respectability, legitimacy, or a place at the table by diminishing the achievements of the revolution or by joining the anti-Communist chorus. Socialism is not won by compromising the truth or conceding to intellectual fashion.
Moreover, the road forward to socialism must go through a frank and forthright encounter with the Soviet experience as well as the lessons of the Bolshevik revolution. Such an encounter requires sorting through the lies and distortions with which the capitalists and their intellectual minions have surrounded Stalin and the repression of the 1930s. It requires acknowledging the necessary harsh measures and the unnecessary mistakes that inevitably accompany any revolutionary process.
That is why the recent projection of “twenty-first century socialism” is so disappointing. It is billed as a fresh approach to replacing capitalism, a new road to socialism said to be untarnished by the errors of the Soviet experience. The theory of twenty-first century socialism came into being in the decade of disillusionment after the fall of the Soviet Union. Central to the thinking of the ideologues of twenty-first century socialism is the idea that Soviet socialism was an abject failure, a wrong turn that not only did not achieve socialism but actually led away from it.
For those who adhere to this view, a sharp break with the experience of the twentieth-century project of building socialism is the first step towards genuine socialism. To some extent, this doctrine of twenty-first century socialism has found some traction among our friends, particularly in Latin America. No doubt the betrayal of Soviet socialism opened a door to this and many other projects “re-thinking” Marxism.
And, no doubt, there are some contributions to the socialist project that have emerged or will emerge from the practical effort to construct a new road to socialism. But it is the height of foolishness to refuse to draw on the successes achieved by Soviet Communists or to build upon the vast reservoir of experience earned by the labour and sacrifices of the first people to successfully achieve liberation from capitalism.
By discounting the collective experience of the working-class movement that birthed the Soviet Union, the twenty-first century socialists fall back upon vague, utopian notions of “participatory democracy” based upon ideal types of abstract citizenship. They imagine empowerment not coming from the crushing of exploitative social relations and the wresting of political power, but from the establishment of outposts of co-operative economic relations and the simultaneous construction of harmonious collectives. Their project is one—to borrow Marx’s words—of “fantastic pictures of future society,” of “small experiments,” of “castles in the air.” Instead of revolution, they offer liberal social engineering, town hall “democracy,” and primitive self-help. Marx, in the Communist Manifesto, described this circle of “socialists” as emerging from “their fanatical and superstitious belief in the miraculous effects of their social science.”
We have discussed the essence of revolutionary Leninism in practice. We have studied Lenin’s revolutionary theory in the historical context of the Russian revolution.
But what of its relevance today?
Of course the meaning of Leninism has been contested often and by many. And it is contested today.
During most of my lifetime—and I am not a youngster—the road to socialism has been envisaged by many in Europe and North America as a peaceful, parliamentary process, often accomplished through coalitions and in discrete stages. Communist and Workers’ parties of course recognised that ruling classes would likely resist ruthlessly, but many saw a broad anti-monopoly coalition or people’s front as a bulwark against violent reaction. They saw its breadth as some insurance against failure.
Unfortunately, history has cast a long shadow over that prospect. No gradualist, parliamentary process has transitioned to socialism. Instead, wars, political and economic crises have so far served as the fertile soil for a revolutionary party to lead the masses towards the grasping of political power.
They appear to be the necessary conditions for qualitative transformation. Though they have differed in many respects, anti-capitalist revolutions have importantly resembled the pattern of the 1905 “dress rehearsal” and the 1917 Bolshevik revolution. That is the reality, simply stated.
So why have many Marxists and their friends turned away from the Bolshevik example? Have our times changed so dramatically that it is irrelevant today?
I believe that the answer lies, in part, with the peculiar character of the period between the first and second world wars, especially in Europe. If anything characterises that period, it is the rise of fascism and the threat of fascism in the midst of a severe, global economic crisis. In many cases, the crisis stimulated the growth in mass influence of revolutionary socialist and workers’ parties as well. Fascism, as a historical phenomenon, arises precisely as an answer to seemingly intractable threats facing bourgeois rule. When those threats reach a critical point, ruling classes cast off the façade of and the carefully fostered illusions of democracy and choose the route of naked, dictatorial rule.
In response, the Marxist-Leninist movement chose a counter-tactic, the approach of a Popular Front or People’s Front against fascism. Communist and Workers’ parties sought to unite all healthy forces, all popular sectors of society not infected with the fascist ideology into a bloc against fascism for the express purpose of warding off fascism or defeating it.
The tactic was meant as a temporary answer to a historically contingent, unique moment when violently anti-Communist reaction threatened to dominate many countries and undermine the first and only workers’ state. If anyone needed proof of the fascist agenda, it came with the Anti-Comintern Pact first introduced in November 1936 and signed by all the fascist nations.
At the core of the People’s Front and offering it leadership, revolutionaries formed alliances—United Fronts against Fascism—with other workers’ organisations and parties.
While the tactic failed to decisively turn back fascism or stave off a world war, it drew many to the anti-fascist cause and to Communist Parties or the Parties’ orbits. Continuing the united front tactics into the World War II resistance and its supporting efforts, the Marxist-Leninist left duly impressed millions with its selflessness, sacrifice, and devotion to defeating fascism. The Communist and Workers’ Parties were rewarded with substantial increases in members and followers during and after the war.
But unlike the decisions taken by the Bolsheviks and other left-wing socialists in the closing days or aftermath of World War I, most Communist Parties chose not to “turn the world war into a civil war of the oppressed classes against their oppressors”; they chose not to seriously test the revolutionary waters as Lenin urged in 1915. They chose not to risk their growing mass support with a direct challenge to capitalism. Instead, most chose a path of continuing the united-front tactic in a parliamentary form. They proposed paths to socialism that sought parliamentary, multi-party, sometimes multi-class coalitions or alliances that would lead to socialism in discrete steps of advance and consolidate, advance and consolidate.
Though the tactic saw impressive electoral gains in the early decades after the war, stagnation unfolded in the 1970s. Parties became less an organ of the working class and more an advocate of immediate reforms. Compromise and collaboration became the watchwords. Consolidation continued, but with no advances. Today, many of the formerly mass Communist Parties are dramatically weaker, even irrelevant. Moreover, there is a growing gap between many parties and the emerging, unfocused anger of the working classes.
Some would say that conditions were not ripe after the war for a replication of the Bolshevik revolution. Others may say that the workers were divided. Or that the workers were exhausted from war. Perhaps these objections have some merit. But the plain fact is that the continuation of the popular front or united front against fascism as a strategic road to socialism failed.
Certainly where Communists won local or regional office—in Italy’s Red Belt, many French cities, and other European centres—they served as exemplary public servants, free of corruption, responsible to the citizens, and dedicated to civic improvements. They stood apart from bourgeois politicians in these respects. Communist Parties energised the labour movements and rallied millions against imperialism. But socialism was neither achieved nor brought closer in Europe or North America through the popular-front strategy.
The sobering reality of little progress towards the goal of socialism should cause Marxists and their friends to ponder the road ahead.
A few years ago, the work of Thomas Piketty on inequality produced a moment of clarity and a renewed debate on economic justice. Certainly, his highly publicised findings provoked wide and intense discussion. But the most important feature of his study was missed by many: the historic trend of capitalist inequality contained a detour.
Like Marx, Piketty took a long view, an exceedingly long view, which showed that the inter-war period, World War II, and the period roughly thirty years after represented a deviant period in the march of inequality. The period after the war, in particular, represented a time of a relative equality, a time when capitalism showed a warmer, fuzzier side. Other social scientists have suggested this as well, but none have demonstrated it so convincingly as Piketty. Europeans have characterised this period as les trente glorieuses—the thirty glorious years.
My own view is that this period of a softer capitalism represented a kind of Cold War insurance premium on the part of ruling classes frightened by the rise of Communism—a kind of bargain to exchange class peace for Cold War collaboration. But that discussion takes us further afield.
The important point is that this historically aberrant period, this detour, coincides with the adoption of the popular-front strategy as a road to socialism. With class struggle dampened by the welfare state and a measure of capitalist moderation, the incremental, multi-party, multi-class approach might—plausibly—appear appealing to many during that era, including European and North American Communists.
In any event that era is over.
Since the 1970s, capitalism has resumed its rapacious course, squeezing every drop of surplus value from the global working class. The rate of exploitation has increased and continues to increase dramatically with capitalism shifting swiftly to new, cheaper labour markets. Capitalism leaves lower living standards, poverty, and desperation in the wake of these shifts.
Some perceived the re-emergence of unfettered, predatory capitalism as the birth of a new era—the period of “neo-liberalism.” But that is somewhat misleading. Piketty’s profound study shows that unfettered, predatory capitalism is, in fact, the normal trajectory of capitalism, the regular course of capitalist accumulation.
Today, capitalism is back on course. It is immiserating workers on every continent, creating an enormous gulf between the lives of the bourgeoisie and working people, and suffocating any hope for a better future for the masses. Competition has driven living standards down and slashed and burned whole towns and cities as entire enterprises have moved from place to place in pursuit of lower costs and public incentives. Public works crumble or are privatised. And culture is debased. “Austerity” is the cry that justifies the rending of all government safety nets.
Wars continue endlessly and erupt like dry kindling. Shifting alliances further destabilise international relations. The fight for markets intensifies and its intensity promises even further conflicts. Fear-inducing demons are conjured to escalate the arms race.
The institutions of capitalism are in deep crisis, with opinion polls showing that few trust or have confidence in them. Participation in political institutions is declining and the dominant parties are discredited. Voters vote for the “new” in a desperate hope that change will emerge.
The security agencies are more and more repressive and racist. And the courts are corrupt and arbitrary.
The instruments of consent—the capitalist media, the educational institutions, the entertainment industry, etc.—are in disrepute. Fewer and fewer people trust the news or the pundits. More and more people are turning towards alternative media.
And the global economy is in the worst crisis since the Great Depression. Periods of stagnation are followed by further seismic jolts that trap capitalism on the road to nowhere.
In the context of this multi-faceted, deepening global crisis, the tactics of the post-war period appear to be more and more ineffective. The continuing dysfunction of capitalism places the goal of socialism much closer.
The anger and despair that are increasingly visible with the masses are surely symptoms of a deep-seated dissatisfaction with the current system. While the pitchforks are not yet coming out, there are good reasons to suspect that many people are beginning to look for them. They are more in need of a revolutionary party for socialism.
I conclude by emphatically restating that with Leninism, we have a proven road to socialism: the advance of the angry, dissatisfied masses towards social revolution. With Leninism, we have the persistent, yet patient educating and agitating of the working class to equip them for such a struggle. We have the preparation for the moment when conditions ripen and need only a stroke from a revolutionary party to burst open the prospect of socialist revolution.
While Lenin endorsed the parliamentary fight, he endorsed it as a forum for the fomenting of revolutionary ideas and the discrediting of capitalism. He consistently employed every tool made available by the bourgeoisie, but only to advance towards smashing the capitalist state and constructing socialism.
To quote Rosa Luxemburg’s apt words: “. . . he who tries to apply the home-made wisdom derived from parliamentary battles between frogs and mice to the field of revolutionary tactics only shows thereby that the very psychology and laws of existence of revolution are alien to him and that all historical experience is to him a book sealed with seven seals.”
A hundred years after the Bolshevik revolution, I believe it is the lessons of Lenin to which we must return.