It took longer than I intended (it was a relatively short book), but I have finally finished Christopher Hill’s brief book on the Russian Revolution, which spoke of it through the lens of Lenin’s ideas and actions. I’ll most definitely have to read some other books about the time period to have a more in depth understanding and context surrounding the Revolution as it was rather limited. Despite this, it did offer a fair amount of introductory insight to the years (approximately) 1903-1924, and there are ideas worth exploring.
The disintegration of corporate and state power is the ultimate goal of anyone who believes in the absolute autonomy and freedom of the individual. Any authority would need to be wholly justified and democratic – meaning voted for by the people involved and with the right to revoke that power – and institutions that do not adhere to this, to quote Chomsky, “ought to be dismantled and replaced with something more fair and just.”
When one thinks of revolution, it generally takes the form of a mass, sometimes violent, uprising against the current systems of oppression. In Russia, it was an uprising against the Tsarist state and the landlords. Lenin’s plan was to maintain this revolutionary spirit and, as the Bolsheviks had the support of the army and peasants, steamroll through to the socialist revolution as well, in an attempt to overthrow the bourgeois. He ridiculed those who advocated for a ‘reformist’ constitution, a path that mirrored that of the Western European nations to slowly implement reforms that moved towards a socialist end goal. Lenin believed in Marx’s idea of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’, where the workers and peasants (the people) held absolute power to dismantle the formerly oppressive institutions which, once completed, led to the dissolution of the state and government.
Quite a number of factors prevented this from being realised in Lenin’s lifetime, and indeed Stalin’s brutal dictatorship and the current Russian state since the collapse of the USSR shows just how tragically the revolution fell apart and was commandeered. Most of it was the result of the World War and the fact that Russia was a ‘culturally backwards’ nation. Famine, disease, and intervention by other countries (Britain, France, Japan, and the US are some countries that backed the Whites against the Reds (Bolsheviks)). This culminated in a number of deaths, causing Lenin and others to revert to what they called ‘war communism’, which some described as the sharing of the misery. They relied heavily on the potential for Western Europe to also join them in a series of revolutions, but no other country had either the circumstances or the drive to achieve it. But despite this, the Bolsheviks prevailed because they still had the support of the majority of peasants and the army – Hill even quotes one of the leaders of the intervening armies when he says the Whites killed many more than the Bolsheviks did, and sympathies (even in the army) usually leaned towards them. Revolution may not have taken place globally, but the effect of the Russian Revolution certainly resonated beyond Russian borders.
Lenin, who previously reprimanded the reformists, ended up resorting to reforms. He was adept at justifying this shift, however, as he never lost sight of the original objectives. One may not agree with what he did, but whether the reasons he did it were justifiable is something up for debate. Regardless, Lenin died relatively young (at 53) in 1924, and the dissolution of the state never took place. The analogy Lenin used was that of the steam train as the socialist state. Russia had invented and created the first one. It was by no means perfect, and he acknowledged its high potential for failure saying it may not work. But he saw this optimistically, also saying that the world has been introduced to the socialist state and knew it was possible to strive for – the world now had steam trains, and the world could learn from Russia and have socialism. Sadly, just as the Russian Revolution ultimately failed as a result of external interference followed by internal corruption, so too have many other attempts to build a socialist system. Venezuela is currently wrapped in a dangerous web of economic sanctions, economic mismanagement, corruption, propaganda on both sides, and now the very possible threat of invasion. All of what Chavez tried to do since he became President in 1998 has either fallen or will likely fall soon.
This brings us to a question we must ask ourselves: can a socialist revolution take place and succeed in the 21st century? I’m going to be cynical and pessimistic by saying no, I don’t believe the world is capable of it at this stage. There are two main reasons for this. The first is taking a realistic look at the world and acknowledging the immensity of the task. The capitalist system is such a powerful entity that simply initiating a revolution would be bound to fail. The second is the global mentality of ideology and polarisation. As a result of propaganda, self-interest, etc. the discussions about such ideas are either non-existent or so distorted as to pass them off as negligible.
It certainly seems odd for a website with Anarchist in the title to concede that the overthrow of the government and capitalist system is realistically improbable at this time. That is not to say such an outcome is impossible or that we should not reject the notion of authority. To the contrary, it should inspire people to try and create the circumstances that would be more susceptible to revolutionary change.
There are two ways achieve this: force or peaceful popular uprising. I wish to state clearly now that I am entirely opposed to violent methods, and believe that force should only be used for the purpose of self-defence. This is for two reasons: my own moral convictions that violence is mere barbarism (I have written previously that “a people at war cannot be called civilised”). The second is that, while violent uprisings have caused revolutions to take place, such as the French Revolution against the monarchy or a number of Latin American movements, these cannot really be compared to the current era. With the current technology, clashes between the people and governments with armies or militias, etc. would be devastating on a scale that could not have been imagined back then. Peaceful transitions must be attempted first.
With peaceful transitions of power the focus, the challenge is facing the monstrous machinery of the current system. Immense power has been consolidated in the form of corporate conglomerates and monopolies, with governments playing a key role in their rise. With this in mind, a revolutionary shift of power would be an unwinnable battle. What needs to change first is the system itself from the inside and from the bottom up – grassroots campaigns like Bernie Sanders in the US. Australia has a much greater chance of achieving this through parties such as the Greens and Labor with increased pressure from activist groups like GetUp, Greenpeace, etc. The US (and Australia to a slightly lesser extent under parties like the Coalition) face more immediate issues in the form of ideology and polarisation, which I’ll get to later.
The more people who take an active role in their politics – through unions, through activism, etc. – the more the prospect of a peaceful transition will gain traction. Unions in the workplace and activism in politics has transformed our nations before in countless invaluable ways, and we cannot let the momentum slide as it appears to have done in the last five years. Again, in the US this will be much more difficult to handle than in most other western nations.
That leads into the second reason why I don’t believe a revolution could take place, forced or peaceful, and cannot succeed in the current global political climate, that of ideology and polarisation. So much unnecessary rhetoric is attached to words like socialism, communism, capitalism, fascism, all the other –isms, that it becomes a nightmare to hold any form of proper discourse surrounding them. One obvious example is the phrase ‘cultural Marxist’ – there is absolutely no definition to it other than a way to attach the term Marxist in a negative light to social causes like same sex marriage. The majority of people I have seen using that phrase have likely never even read anything substantial by or about Marx.
But where this has taken countries like America or the UK, with the advent of Trump and Brexit, is legitimately scary. You have people in blind support of nationalist and imperialist ideals (which I’ll talk about more in another piece) that rally behind the greatest oppressive organisations in history, like the Republican Party. Terms like socialist and communist in the West have been demonised with endless propaganda for decades, to the point that Hillary Clinton was considered a ‘far left’ candidate by certain parts of the US.
When you look at Latin America, there are a number of countries there that have tried to implement socialism, or at least push for similar policies. Allende’s Chile, Chavez’s Venezuela, and Lula’s Brazil were all violently opposed by the capitalist and imperialist nations, or, more accurately, their governments. The people are either drawn on by propaganda and lies, such as socialist mismanagement causing Venezuela’s economy to tank and not the heavy sanctions imposed by the US, which they will realise too late, like the WMD pretence for the invasion of Iraq, or through utter ignorance of what is happening elsewhere in the world, like the violent overthrow of Allende’s democratically elected government in Chile on 11th September 1973, backed by the US, referred to as the South American 9/11.
One description of why socialist experiments have always seemed to fail I saw was quite apt: “Islands of socialism will never work when surrounded by oceans of imperialist capitalism.” Attempts to move towards a more equitable society on a class basis here in Australia are drowned out by intentional propaganda and corporate control over our government and media. The vitriol cast at the Greens, for example, is based on a number of trivial issues – the actual details of their economic policies are never discussed because that might actually inform people. Instead, hatred is spurred on over accusations of ‘cultural Marxism’ and the like due to the oversaturation of coverage on their policies regarding refugees, the Indigenous, the LGBT community, etc.
In places like Latin America, where Western media is not prevalent, this type of propaganda is difficult to spread, but there are always pockets of resistance that can be trained and armed (El Salvador, for example). No matter how much popular support a particular government might have, the pure force of US backed troops has time and time again proved its dominance – Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras, have I named enough countries to get the point across?
In both cases, Western propaganda and imperialist intervention, the general population is entirely removed from the equation and power is thrown to the military or corporate elites. The class struggle is either exponentially magnified through unbridled capitalist growth or torn back to dictatorships more reminiscent of the feudal landlord systems of the Middle Ages, or Russia prior to their Revolution.
So how then, when realistically and ideologically we are so far from realising any form of actual progress towards the socialist revolution, do we get there? I won’t pretend to know the answer, but my suggestion of a peaceful transition, along with a strong opposition to imperialist powers like the US, seems, to me, the most practical and preferable method. Another way, that would probably devolve more into chaos and violence at first, would be a global financial crisis of the kind that we cannot recover from, when the corporate power collapses and leaves a vacuum. That, or the possibility of another country’s revolution (should one actually occur) having international impact, could lead to an uprising of the workers to take control, or (equally likely in the former case) a military takeover.
I wanted to write more here about nationalism and imperialism, but this piece became so long I’ve decided to put it aside here; I will visit it in a later piece. Global conflicts and tensions have been steadily rising for some time now, many of which relate to the questions of socialism or capitalism, imperialism or nationalism, fascism or democracy. Personally, so many conflicts have such simple solutions that one can’t help but call out the insanity of their existence, but vested interests will always take precedent over the requirements of the masses. As we reach this breaking point, one can only hope clarity and common sense prevails, and that whatever the outcome it leads to furthering the liberties of the individual, rather than oppressing them.
For anyone who wants a simple rundown of the Russian Revolution, Hill’s book is worth reading, but having some prior knowledge about Marx, WW1, and other historical figures and events may be useful just to have some context. If anyone could suggest any books about the Russian Revolution (I know E. H. Carr, author of What Is History? wrote a number of books on it) that would be appreciated.
A reflection on this piece from 23/11/2019 can be found HERE
Liked this? Read the What Is History? reflection series starting HERE
Previous piece: Culture of Greed: Banking Royal Commission Report Released