A review of Walter Rodney, The Russian Revolution: A View from the Third World (Verso, 2018), £16.99
Many on the radical left in Britain and the United States remained silent on the centenary of the Russian Revolution. Even among famous socialists, neither Jeremy Corbyn nor Bernie Sanders acknowledged the event. For many of their followers 1917 is unworthy of remembrance because of its association with the atrocities of Stalinism. However, American historian Robin DG Kelley and sociologist Jesse Benjamin have countered the left’s apathy by editing Walter Rodney’s posthumous defence of 1917. They spent decades working with the Rodney archives to edit this book and make it available to a large audience.
Rodney was a Guyanese Marxist revolutionary and intellectual. Born in 1942, his early years were influenced by anti-colonial and socialist agitation in British Guiana (now Guyana) and the Caribbean. In 1963, he began a PhD programme in African history at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. There, he attended a Marxist study group taught by the author of The Black Jacobins CLR James, where he developed his understanding of historical materialism and the Russian Revolution. By 1968, Rodney had become the most important figure of the Black Power Movement in Jamaica. When news spread that the government had banned Rodney from the island, thousands protested in solidarity.
Rodney then moved to Tanzania to teach at the University of Dar es Salaam, his graduate course “Historians and Revolutions” forming the basis for his book on the Russian Revolution. However, Rodney abandoned his manuscript to write his famous How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (1972), where he condemned Western capitalism for the plunder of wealth and the underdevelopment of the Global South. Conversely, Rodney admired the October Revolution for serving as the first break with capitalism, transforming the Soviet Union from a poor agrarian country into an industrial power. The Russian Revolution: A View from the Third World presents Rodney’s attempt to rethink the historiography of the Russian Revolution in order to draw lessons for anti-imperialist movements in the Third World. As the editors acknowledge, it must be regarded as the work of 28-year-old historian still learning.
The opening chapter begins with Rodney’s criticism of the prevalent bourgeois narratives on 1917. He showed how bourgeois historians exposed their class arrogance and resentment towards the working masses when discussing the events that led to the October Revolution. The worst of them, John Wilkins, wrote: “With the breakdown of the (Tsar’s) administrative machinery in March 1917 full sway was given to the anarchistic and irresponsible tendencies of the primitive Russian workers” (p13).
According to Rodney, the British and American ruling classes promoted such irrational views through the London School of Economics and the Hoover Institution among others. They discredited the Russian Revolution because it represented the triumph of organised, responsible and conscious workers over their class. Bourgeois historians, Rodney argued, ignored the circumstances that produced the revolution and denied the role of the working class in it. Rodney’s perspective considered Marxist interpretations of 1917 to be more serious than pro-capitalist ones.
Rodney dedicates a chapter to Leon Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution. In his opinion, Trotsky’s study exemplified how historical materialism understood the emergence of revolutionary movements from the contradictions of Russian society and the development of working class consciousness. The revolution did not simply happen because the “Tsar’s ruling class fell asleep”, as Rodney wrote, mocking Wilkins and his peers (p15). Rather, it occurred because workers were able to organise to overthrow the Tsarist state.
The numerous references to Tanzania under Julius Nyerere’s presidency in this work demonstrates Rodney’s interest in highlighting parallels between Tanzania and Tsarist Russia—both countries had a large peasantry and a small working class. That is why Rodney paid attention to Marxist debates surrounding the role of the peasantry, namely in chapters three and six. Agreeing with Lenin and Trotsky, he recognised the revolutionary leadership of the working class and the limitations of peasant revolt in 1917: “The peasants rose up against the status quo but they had no control over the central organs of power. The workers, however, were strategically situated in the cities and had control of the transportation and communications as well arms” (p76).
Rodney, however, disagreed with Trotsky’s accusation that Stalin deliberately broke with the internationalism of Lenin and Karl Marx in order to build socialism in Russia alone. He contended that “socialism in one country” was Stalin’s only option because the defeat of revolutions in the 1920s had left the Soviet Union isolated. Hence, Stalin was forced to focus exclusively on Russia’s rapid industrialisation in order to rival the armed forces of capitalist nations. However, Rodney ignored the disastrous implications of Stalin’s anti-internationalism on the Chinese Revolution (1925-7) against foreign rule. Stalin aimed to keep the revolution within the confines of a struggle for national liberation in order to build a stable alliance with the bourgeois nationalist Kuomintang led by Chiang Kai-shek and end Russia’s isolation. He ordered the subordination of the Chinese Communist Party to the nationalist forces. In opposition, Trotsky argued that the Chinese bourgeoisie would compromise with imperialism and unleash the counter-revolution. Only the proletariat could lead the peasantry and the revolution beyond the limits of national liberation towards international socialism. But his arguments against subordination were ignored. As a result, the Kuomintang massacred 200,000 workers in Shanghai, decapitating the Chinese Communist Party (see Duncan Hallas, 1979, Trotsky’s Marxism). Rodney was wrong to dismiss Trotsky’s criticism as hollow.
Rodney also absolved Stalin and the Communist International of any responsibility for the defeat of revolutions in the early 20th century. He wrote: “The failure of revolutions to take place in Western Europe was a function of imperialism, which strengthened the bourgeoisie and disarmed the workers” (p174). Here, Rodney was arguing that the bourgeoisie could bribe European workers with the profits of imperialism in order to deter them from initiating revolutions. His argument took inspiration from Lenin’s theory of the labour aristocracy, which located reformism in the economic interest of a small section of well-off workers. In Rodney’s formulation, the theory meant that all Western workers received higher living standards from the extraction of wealth from the Global South.
However, both theories were mistaken. Rodney omitted that imperialism, and the impoverishment and instability it caused, was a factor in provoking the First World War and fuelling the biggest wave of workers’ revolutions in the West in its aftermath. Lenin’s theory disregarded the fact that skilled metal workers—so-called “labour aristocrats”—formed the vanguard that led these upheavals from Petrograd to Glasgow. The cause of reformism was not the higher living standards of a section of workers but was found within the contradictory consciousness of the working class, wavering between acceptance of capitalist ideology and collective action against exploitation. In the 1930s, the Communist International under Stalin failed to advise European communist parties to adopt a strategy for winning over reformist workers to international revolutionary aims.
Rodney’s erroneous position led him to view the Third World as a more plausible candidate for socialist revolution than the West, for imperialism there produced underdevelopment. However, in practice the Tanzanian proletariat and its Third World counterparts often proved unable to organise their self-emancipation after colonialism. Tanzanian underdevelopment meant that most workers remained tied to their land in the countryside; they lacked organisational experience and faced the burden of illiteracy. The leading role in the struggle against imperialism hence fell to the educated local elite. They did not implement socialism but consolidated state power, encouraging the masses to work harder in order to compete with more powerful nations. The rise of the bureaucracy in the Global South mirrored what happened in the Soviet Union after the working class had been gravely weakened while resisting the Tsarist counter-revolution.
In the three final chapters of the book, Rodney nonetheless criticises the Soviet bureaucracy for its lack of democracy and its veneration of Stalin. He furthermore argues that because the Soviet Union competed with Western capitalist powers it had to strengthen its state and move in an imperialist direction: “It is behaving so much like a capitalist state that it is demanding from China land areas once held by the former Tsarist state and it is invading other countries” (p185). For these reasons, Rodney warned his African audience against the assertions of Soviet scholars that Stalin had accomplished socialism.
Rodney’s unfinished book presents a remarkable interpretation of the Russian Revolution, different from those produced in the West. It highlights the significance that 1917 had for revolutionary thinkers and movements in the Global South opposing colonialism and imperialism. Despite its flaws, Rodney’s Russian Revolution stands out today as a celebration of the Russian working class’ struggle against capitalism.
Chin Chukwudinma is a member of the SWP and holds a Masters in African Studies from SOAS.